I’ve spent the past few months relearning how to DJ. On a technical level, it’s not that hard. Once you know how to match beats, you don’t forget. The hard part is relearning how to read the crowd.
Just to back up a bit, I started DJing in college and I spent the bulk of the early ’00s playing anywhere from three to seven nights a week. Then I went to grad school and dropped down to one gig a month. After that, I got a full-time job at an alternative weekly and quit DJing altogether. Two years later, I left said job and figured I might as well start playing with records again. I played my own birthday bash at Underground in December and my friends, Larry and Diana, asked me to join the crew. Now I join them at the Grand Star every other Friday night. I spin vinyl, even though my back hates me for it, because I despise CDs and am still saving up for Serato.
I’ve spent the past six months back on the turntables and it’s been a blast. It’s helped me with my writing, if for no other reason than the fact that it clears my mind. It’s helped me emotionally because, after feeling like a failure for a lot of reasons, I remembered that there is something I can do pretty well. But, throughout this whole process of reaquainting myself with a world that I thought was lost forever, I learned something important. A lot changes in two years.
There’s a huge generational difference in the club scene. I’m not giving away my age, but will say that I took my first club gig in the latter half of the 1990s and I was 19 at the time. That said, I grew up waiting for albums to come out, for bands to come to town. I lived by the motto “trust the DJ” because, back before anything you wanted was a torrent site away, they had the best stuff first. This all started to change before my retirement, but the difference in the crowd wasn’t as pronounced then as it is now. Before, picking out the hits was easy. If I could dance to it and my friends could dance to it, it would work very well. We all had the same points of reference. Now I’m trying to get used to playing for people who were born the year Nevermind was released. By the time they were teenagers, dial up modems were antiquated. Culturally, it’s a completely different thing. I might as well be from Old Republic Tatooine.
But, for as much of a relic as I know I am, sometimes I feel like a n00b. When I was playing nearly every night, there were certain things that I knew as fact. If I had to run to the bathroom, I would play “Blue Monday,” because it’s long and it was always one of the biggest hits of the night. The song is still just as long as ever, but it’s not an automatic floor-packer anymore. Similarly, there were always some bands who did well no matter which track I played and their songs were typically played when you want to a rush towards the dance floor. Daft Punk was always one of those groups, but last night, it was the M83 track I dropped before Daft Punk and the Shit Robot number that followed it that kept the early crowd dancing.
When you have no idea what you’re doing, there are some pleasant surprises along the way. There’s this Thin White Duke remix of Royksopp’s song “What Else Is There?” that’s gorgeous. It’s one of my all-time favorite remixes. I played it a lot when the song was actually new and it was hit or miss. People would either swoon over it or scream at me for playing shit. I think the song may have resulted in me getting kicked out of a DJ booth once too. It’s a weirdly polarizing track. Last night, I dropped the remix just to see what would happen and it ended up being the biggest hit of the set.
I used to think I knew everything, now I’m certain that I know nothing and that’s exciting.