I recently celebrated my 47th birthday and at the end of the day, armed with a glass of red wine, I sat down to relax and reflect on my life so far, it's what you do when you get to my age! It's fair to say that I've done some things and most of them in the music industry! I've been a professional DJ for over 25 years and a music producer for more than 15. I've produced 100s of mixes and compilations, and as a DJ I've done just about every job there is to do. So you'd think I would know it all by now... far from it!
I'm coming to the end of my career as a DJ. Nothing too dramatic, I just know that it will soon be time to hang up my headphones. But before I do call it a day I have recently enjoyed performing at some amazing venues on the French Riviera. At the time of writing this article I am currently living and working in the South of France and whilst here I was offered the chance to DJ up and down the Cote D'Azur, an offer I would have been silly to turn down!
Throughout the summer I selected a few events to DJ at and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Yes I get to perform at some stunning venues for some amazing people but it has been the music that has rekindled my passion as a DJ. My audiences have been truly international, ranging from European to Russian, African to American and pretty much everything in between. The European audiences tend to like the same music, which is mainstream current pop/dance plus the big international hits, but the Russians... well who knows what they want! The African clients, meanwhile, bring a fusion of sound and sight that is truly unrivalled. But it has been the American audiences who have interested me the most as a DJ. They have all requested a selection of tracks from a genre that I hadn't really taken a great deal of interest in up until now... Hip-Hop! To be exact it is Hip-Hop / Rap. A genre of music that isn't at the top of my music speciality list... by a long way! I know some of the classic tracks, of course, but I never really cared much for that style of music. There were a few songs that I liked, but not enough to class myself as a fan and certainly not enough to play many at an event. This year all that has changed and I have found myself having to research and collate tracks to play as part of the Hip-Hop / Rap sets that my clients are requesting... and I've absolutely loved it!
I've always advocated the importance of music programming over anything else. For me it is always what is coming out of the speakers that matters more than what speakers I'm using! Fortunately, the clients I work for understand the importance of a good DJ and the impact music will have on their event. I always have a meeting with each client and ask them for a guide on the music they require me to play. This instantly tells me if I'm the right DJ for their event and, if I am, helps build a solid relationship with the client as they love the fact that they have input into the music for their event and can help create a unique playlist for themselves and their guests. I've written in Pro Mobile before expressing the importance of this service to my clients. It's a powerful tool and one I never tire of using.
The charts have changed recently, and I'm sure as DJs you have noticed songs getting slower as the urban influence takes over. Artists like Drake and DJ Khaled have been dominant and have inspired others to follow the current urban music trend and release lower BPM tracks. As a mobile DJ it is our job to play the songs that will get the dancefloor busy and that often means playing a selection of current songs, which can be tricky – especially if the big hits at the time are songs with really slow BPM ranges. When I agreed to DJ for the American clients I met with each of them first to go through their music requirements and Drake, DJ Khaled, Jay-Z and Kanye West were amongst the first artists they mentioned quickly followed by Babyface, Jagged Edge and Blackstreet. At first I thought I was going to be the wrong DJ for them and was preparing myself to turn the events down but further artists were mentioned including Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and Dr. Dre... ‘Let's give this a few more minutes before I make a decision’, I thought to myself. More artists were added like Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Public Enemy. In my head I started thinking of the artists, selecting their biggest hits and creating set lists... this was starting to become fun!
I went away from the first meeting and started collating the music for all parts of the event – Cocktails, Photos, Dinner and the other sections of the Main Party... now for some Hip Hop / Rap! I'll be honest, at first I was a bit out of my comfort zone. It's one thing having a list of songs but it's another to be able to put them in some sort of order, both on a spreadsheet for the client to approve and then on the night when you have to decide what to play next to maintain the energy on the dancefloor. This isn't a huge problem when you are playing familiar songs but when you move into more specialist music styles it can be quite daunting... or is it? The way I work when creating set lists is to take the artists that the clients have suggested and list their biggest hits first. Some clients request specific tracks that may be an album track or a lesser known song but I don't let that phase me and either convince the client to stick with the bigger hits or play their requests making sure that I have a couple of big tunes in reserve should the dancefloor begin to thin out. The client is always king but as a DJ it is our job to guide them on the music suggestions both before and on the night. We've all worked with clients who have specified exactly what songs they would like playing but have forgotten one important thing... their guests! It doesn't matter how great the songs are, how great your spreadsheet is or how great your DJ skills are in mixing them... if the guests aren't getting the vibe then you have a problem! That happened to me recently and I'll touch on it later in this article but for now back to the Hip Hop / Rap adventure.
Modern technology allows DJs to load tracks into digital folders and have all information there at the touch of a button including running time and BPM. With this information you can easily structure your sets. Even a dinosaur like me is able to create a number of digital folders that include modern and classic Hip-Hop & Rap tracks. To make things easier for me I created a number of folders each housing a large selection of tracks that I could choose from on the night – ‘70s & ‘80s Rap / Classic Hip-Hop / Modern Hip-Hop etc.
By taking time to prepare these folders before an event it allows me more time on the night to work with the client and guests and not have to worry about finding tracks or forgetting to play that one song that would have taken the roof off. I’m sure we've all done it, got back home after a gig and reflected on the music played only to remember that one song that we didn't play! A little preparation makes all the difference. Not for one minute am I suggesting that a DJ set should be regimented and pre-determined. We all know it doesn't work like that. But I've learnt that it is always worth investing a little time in preparation, as I've been caught out on too many occasions in my career!
So, having done my homework, the night of the event arrived. The groom was English and the bride was American. He was a well-spoken gent who had benefited from a public school education and she was a delightful lady who came from what we would call ‘good stock’! Two of the nicest people I've had the pleasure of playing music for. However I clearly remember the words of the bride to be when we met for the planning meeting, “Richard, I may be a lady but when you play the Hip-Hop & Rap I want it to be totally bad-ass so I can kick back with my girls!”
I liked them both from the moment I met them, but they requested a lot of songs that I was sceptical about. There were plenty of recognisable tracks but also a lot of rare tunes that purists would love but I wasn't so sure would be appreciated by Uncle Geoff, Auntie Barbara or both sets of parents... with the possible exception of the groom’s dad who was sporting a large selection of gold chains around his neck that almost hid his pink cravat (joke). I politely mentioned this to the clients who assured me that the ‘older generation’ would go to bed at 11:00pm and to stick to their requests as all would be fine.
The plan was to play the usual First Dance followed by additional dances for Bride & Father / Groom & Mother and then launch into a short party set to keep the ‘older guests’ happy before they went to bed and then move on to the Hip-Hop / Rap. That was fine except no-one informed the ‘older guests’ of the plan and they were in no mood to retire any time soon. Once the dancing started the inevitable happened and guests started requesting songs which included 'You're My First, My Last, My Everything' by Barry White and ABBA’s 'Dancing Queen' for the bride’s mum! The dancefloor was full and everyone was having a great time but whilst I was enjoying the current situation I had one eye on the folder marked ‘Hip-Hop / Rap’. How would the guests react? It's fair to say that's there's a bit of a gulf between the winners of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest and Snoop Dogg!
Well this is where music programming comes in to play. I started to take the tempo down and change the tone a little by playing tracks like 'Uptown Funk' by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake’s 'Can't Stop The Feeling'. I then followed up with 'Rapper's Delight' and 'Apache' from the Sugarhill Gang but taking care to mix in and out of each fairly quickly to keep the interest on the dancefloor. Those tracks had set the scene and not alienated anyone. They cross-over perfectly to all ages and allowed me, as the DJ, to bond with my audience. They were going along with the ride and starting to trust me. Now it was time to bring out the hard stuff! In fairness, everyone went for it as I played tracks including 'Insane In The Brain' – Cypress Hill, 'Don't Believe The Hype' – Public Enemy, 'Hip Hop Hooray' – Naughty By Nature, 'California Love' – 2Pac, 'Intergalactic' – Beastie Boys plus a healthy dose of Snoop Dogg.
It was a great vibe and took the party in a new direction but it wasn't long before I could see a few people starting to twitch and even leave the dancefloor. The last thing I wanted was for the party to fizzle out to nothing so decided to take a little artistic license and mix in a few bankers to help things along. So as well as the client requests I mixed in tracks like Justin Timberlake’s 'Sexyback' and 'Low' by Flo Rida before returning to the clients’ request list which featured 'Baby Got Back' – Sir Mix-A-Lot, 'It's Tricky – Run DMC and 'Funky Cold Medina' – Tone Loc before changing things slightly with tracks including Sean Paul’s 'Temperature', 'Signs' and 'One Dance' by Drake, and 'Sorry' from Justin Bieber... the Americans love him!
By carefully mixing Urban / R'n'B pop with classic Hip-Hop / Rap I was able to keep everyone happy. I was enjoying it too. I was having so much fun! I was mixing tracks that I hadn't mixed for years or had never played before. I used simple mixing techniques as well as a few tricks like spinning the platter back before dropping 'Jump Around' by House Of Pain! It was proper going off and I was having an absolute blast. I even played the 'Theme From The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air', which turned out to be the tune of the night, and if all else failed I had Michael Jackson’s 'Billie Jean' lined up... it mixes with almost anything, fit with the vibe, always fills a floor and once it's playing it allows you to go in a number of directions musically... great tune.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 91, Pages 42-49.