Welcome to the first post of DJ Tips & Tactics. These posts will explore and help define the virtues of a DJ. It will also clear the air on a few debatable trends that have tarnished the artform, so I hope to set the record straight.
Part 1: KNOW YOUR VINYL ROOTS
Every DJ should learn to spin on vinyl. When I first started playing, we had to buy 2 copies of the same record, called doubles, in order to facilitate MCs at the mic, and there’s no better way to get to know your mixer and turntables better than manually making a loop on the ones and twos. If you have the luxury of raiding your uncle’s record collection, pick some obscure selections, and start experimenting with different formats of music. You’d be surprised with what you hear. Learning to mix on vinyl will mainly help you understand the tedious task of beat-matching and will make you adept with the pitch control slider. There are no SYNC buttons here to save your ass!
The best training ground or format for learning DJ skills is Hip-Hop and here are a few reasons why: (1) It is slow (90-100 BPM), so it will give you a better chance to catch the beats on the cue. House and techno will be too fast to get accurate cuts, and you’ll start pulling your hair! (2) Because it has a slower tempo, you can hear it go offbeat more noticeably. As a DJ, you must learn to fix a problem without shrugging your shoulders at the crowd. Fixing a train wreck (two records going offbeat) will be a valuable asset when playing in front of a crowd. (3) Hip-Hop will force you to learn to scratch. You are probably saying, “Hey, I’m a techno DJ! Why do I need to scratch?” Scratching improves your vinyl handling skills, which is important for every DJ, and it helps you control the record or control-vinyl more accurately. When you start to play with vinyl, your arms will feel like 200 pound weights. Scratching teaches you to have a professional touch when controlling records, and you’ll be surprised when you start to have more fluidity in motion when mixing. Scratching is my wax-on wax-off technique in getting to know the turntable better.
Do NOT learn to DJ on jog wheels! A lot of house and techno jocks have been confined to electronic jog wheels over the years, and I can guarantee that any DJ with vinyl training will have a better understanding and better control on manning the wheels. I am not trying to dis jog wheels, but I firmly believe that it should be a secondary learning process after mastering vinyl. Jog wheels will not help you with accuracy when beat matching two records up to speed.
Now, I will define the key role of learning to DJ with vinyl: THE CLASSICS. Anybody can play the latest songs, but what really defines DJs amongst other DJs are the selection of classics made popular back in the day. Sooner or later, depending on how much you know, you will tap into somebody’s soul when you play that one jam that brings back loads of memories, and you may earn a hug or two along the way by some drunken bastards, but you’ll appreciate the praise. Now, here’s the catch: many classics are naturally off-beat, so the only way to mix them in, would be manually without syncing, so I can’t think of a better way to cope with this issue other than having been self-taught on mixing with vinyl.
So get out there and find a classic turntable setup and get to work. Leave the digital behind for a few moments and grasp the skills that started the whole phenomenon with vinyl. If you can’t get originals, then I guess those digitally controlled control disks on Serato or Traktor Scratch will have to do, but if you learn the old-skool ways, you will be much better at this craft.