I fondly remember using it (back when I had hair) every time I went out anywhere, including the youth club or disco. And it’s those discos that lead me to begin here, because, as I look back, I think that’s where it all started.
Without digging too deep, my childhood was not a normal one: young single mother, foster care, juvenile criminal record. That’s all you need to know. I’ve chosen to embrace my past because I believe those difficulties have shaped the determination I have in adult life. Independence, focus, problem solving and resourcefulness, I believe, are traits that can be learnt and developed at any point in life. In fact, with enough motivation you could learn them today. If a stranger held a gun to your loved one’s head and said you have 24 hours to learn to recite the alphabet backwards, you’d nail it by midday. That’s the type of internal motivation and determination that gets you results; you just need to apply that intensity to your everyday thinking.
Going back to my childhood, I feel fortunate that it took place in the 1980s, and that my adulthood started in the early ‘90s. These were great decades for music and all the culture that accompanied it. Perhaps my first love of music started with the TV premiere of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller’ video. I remember waiting for it to show live on TV, and, like everyone else, was talking about it for days at school. Watching that video sent all sorts of emotions running through me. Around that time breakdance was a big thing, and watching videos of kids performing their amazing dance moves blew my mind. I wanted to do what they were doing, so I learnt.
Cut to the next scene: there I am with my hair firmly gelled in place and I’m body popping to Paul Hardcastle’s ‘19’, performing the running man every time I hear ‘Pump Up The Jam’ by Technotronic, before eventually immersing myself in the rave scene by “making shapes”. Rave music and the EDM branch of music that grew afterwards (and is still going strong) were my defining years. The rave uprising began because a whole generation of people were sick of the status quo, and the music and culture reflected that feeling. It was fast, daring and unafraid of convention or, for that matter, copyright.
Even now and then, I enjoy hearing new young producers create tracks that have that element of rave. It seems to have gone full circle; a bit like the 1980s, when dance music started sampling songs from the ‘60s, current dance tracks are now sampling from the 1990s. It’s brilliant to hear the new interpretations, but admittedly I do sometimes yell, “Why didn’t you just leave it alone?”
Oddly, in my youth I never had ambitions to be a DJ. I just enjoyed dancing, and I think that’s part of the reason my businesses are successful today. When I play tracks and I’m lining up the next one, my focus isn’t on beat matching or keeping in key, it’s about reading the crowd and keeping the energy flowing. If I was out there, what song would keep me dancing?
I always think of myself as a DJ storyteller. I try to work out what the audience responds to and then engage them. Once engaged, I take them on a journey for the whole night. I’m the leader and they, the crowd, follow me wherever I go.
On the nights I’m allowed to do this seamlessly, it’s unforgettable. I go home buzzing. But it’s also part of my job to take requests. As DJs yourselves, you’ll know it’s possible to fit requests into your sets, but today’s world brings guests who expect immediate pacification. The “play my song right now” crowd. And we all know what type of DJ you are if you don’t, right? It’s a very fine balancing act.
Even if I had wanted to be a DJ in my early years, equipment was still very expensive and breaking into the scene was hard. Nowadays, whilst there are other challenges, it’s arguably easier to get up and running. After all, you could just DJ from a laptop if needed. I regard this as progress because it opens opportunities for so many young people.
I would also argue that the DJ and music production industry is bigger than ever, providing more choice for the listener and giving DJs more scope to specialise in different genres. This can only be a good thing and the top 40 these days seems much more accessible for young producers. Currently, my favourite producer is Block & Crown, and I would never have heard any of their music if the status hadn’t changed. (Yes, I’m aware there’s a downside too; I haven’t forgotten 'Baby Shark'. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth, I guess.)
I can’t remember my exact reasoning for moving into mobile DJing. Possibly it was a combination of me being interested in it and having the finances available to try it out. I was very late to the game; my first decks were Numark CDN22 and I bought an entire rig as a package from a DJ shop in the early 2000s.
My very first gig with my shiny new rig was at a local pub on a Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t very busy, maybe 15 customers or so, but I gave it my all. They were mainly mature clients so I played a fair bit of ‘60s and 70s. Despite the numbers, I had most of them singing and dancing, and the landlord complimented me on my music choices.
Looking back, for my first gig it was probably the perfect setting for a maiden attempt. My confidence wasn’t destroyed, the numbers were easily manageable, and the visual and audio feedback was positive.
I’m not ashamed to say I can’t DJ on turntables (am I even a DJ?) and if you put a pair in front of me it would be a long-disjointed night. I make no apologies. I’m not out to prove my self-worth to other DJs.
Seriously, that trap of doing things just to prove yourself to others is a big one these days. With so many social media pages it’s hard not to be hard on yourself, and so my advice to any young DJ out there is to do your own thing. Be yourself and be whatever you want to be. You absolutely have to stay true to yourself. If they’re trying to drag you down, don’t let them. Keep your resolve and you’ll discover your own style. Only you can be you, so start from the inside and do what you feel is right.
I often see questions asking, what makes a great DJ? Whenever people need an answer, I’ll say the same thing: the ability to read and lead a crowd. At the hundreds of gigs I’ve done no-one has ever said, “I had a rubbish time because your lights were crap,” or “your speakers weren’t a premium brand.” Admittedly, if you have a good balance of rig setup and ability to read and lead a crowd, then this is the best blend of everything. But in my mind, it’s the latter that makes a good DJ.
Ultimately, what makes a great night is the music you play and how clients respond; that’s the common thread amongst every DJ in the world. You nail that, and it becomes the perfect framework in which to add all that the other good stuff.
I do subscribe to the “be kind”, pass-it-forward mentality. Our industry – and the world in general – would be a better place if we gave more support to each other instead of tearing each other down. “Imagine what seven billion people could achieve if we all worked together?” I love that quote.
I have three businesses in my portfolio. My original DJ80 Disco business (which is for all events), Just School Discos (schools only) and then, of course, The Party Outside. TPO featured in last issue’s Gear Junkies [Pro Mobile 108] and you can read more about the inspiration and the build of my Party Pod in this issue.
Just School Discos was a genuinely niche idea that I managed to see to fruition. It started when another DJ asked if I would cover a school disco event. They had done a couple previously and had trouble maintaining order, plus they’d picked up a better-paying adult event for the same date. Would I be interested? I said yes, having not done one before. You should know I’m a parent myself – an incredibly 21st century, hands-on one at that – so kids don’t scare me.
I spent the entire week leading up to that first event doing preparation. This wasn’t just finding songs. It included visiting the school beforehand to check practical things like parking, loading and setting-up space. Researching popular dances and testing whether I could do them as a leading host.
Creating crates of all the music I could possibly be asked for, and ensuring they were all clean versions (this took tens of hours). PTA phone calls to confirm the running order of the event, fire drills and any other relevant items. Changing my lighting rig for height differences and health and safety. Preparing an opening speech that would lay down ground rules, and then thinking of ways to deal with children who may break these rules.
There were lots of other things as well, but I spent 30 to 40 hours preparing as much as I could in that week between being asked and doing the gig.
The preparation paid off and the gig went amazingly well. So well that the school continues to book me three times a year. I had the idea to launch a disco business specifically for schools for two main reasons. Firstly, I enjoy doing these gigs; I still like to dance and kids love to dance as well. Secondly, it’s a great way to help schools raise funds for themselves. I’m passionate about helping young people and believe no child should be suffering because of austerity measures, so this fits my ideals perfectly.
If I recall correctly, that first disco was in October. By December I’d bought the domain name JustSchoolDiscos.com and I had the website up by February. I launched it all with competitions to win a free school disco, and maintained these competitions throughout. Even now, four years down the line, that branch of my empire still hasn’t broken even because of the free discos and the low prices I charge. But I don’t care – they’re not about the money.
I would say my DJ80 business has grown because of hard work, but the JSD business has grown through passion. You can’t fake either of those driving forces. In two years I went from one school to having over 30 schools booking me, and the Google business page sits proudly at the top of page one in a Google search for “school discos”. (I had to change the business information on the page as I was getting requests from all over the country.)
My final piece of advice is that you need to surround yourself with people who want you to do well. I try to keep my Facebook friend list to no more than 120, and on my list is only one other DJ. I’ve never met him, either. He is a young lad who I offered advice to on DJ page. He’s an aspiring music producer who works hard and I like his attitude. He often likes my social media posts and I return the sentiment. It’s about supporting that positivity; a positive mindset will breed success. If you’ve got lots of DJ friends but none offer anything positive when you showcase a new rig or fixture, ask for feedback on your website, or even just come to you when a gig needs covering, then chances are they’re not friends to support you.
It's easy to get into the “helping each other out” mindset, but you need to be more ruthless. If you’re giving your competition a free ride, you’re doing yourself an injustice and probably holding back potential business. Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed. Additionally, I don’t mind admitting, I don’t play well with others; I like being a lone wolf. Although I am a member of plenty of DJ groups.
So, here we are at the end of my story. My long-term plans are to actually downsize my DJ work. The Party Outside is up for sale. JSD will either grow, with me taking a more managerial role, or it will be sold on to someone who’s happy to keep learning TikTok dances, I haven’t decided yet. I’ll keep the DJ80 brand because I’m always changing direction and this is my home base, but my long-term goal now is to finish writing a book I started during lockdown. I will finish it because I’ve decided I’m going to finish it. That’s how my brain works.
I’m wishing all the best to my fellow DJs out there. We’ve had a rough couple of years and taken quite a beating, but just remember: a knight in shining armour is a knight who has never been tested. Dust yourself off. Load your rig up. You got this.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 109, Pages 14-19.