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Here's what DJs actually do

DJ, Producer, and founder of Fool’s Gold Records, A-Trak has been DJing for over 20 years. In 1997, he was the world champion of DJing at age 15 before going on to become Kanye West’s touring DJ and founding his own record label. He also founded the Goldie Awards, a DJ competition and beat battle for DJs and producers to demonstrate their skills. In this interview, A-Trak explains that the role of the DJ isn’t just to press a play button, instead controlling the crowd’s energy by selecting the perfect tracks to play at the right time. Following is a transcript of the video.

A-Trak: My name is A-Trak, I’m a DJ, producer, record label owner. The science of DJing, if you try to boil it down too much to a simple description of beatmatching, for example, definitely like an intangible to it. On a very simple level, beatmatching is what you call matching the tempo of one song to the next song that’s playing so that you have a continuous beat. And just going back to the basic idea that DJs keep people dancing. You’re able to keep the tempo steady as you go from song to song.

It’s actually a pretty easy technique, but DJing itself is not that easy and I think the real role of the DJ is selection, it’s picking songs and having a sense of what to play and when. And that’s the part that’s harder to break down or explain. What really differentiates a good DJ from a not so good DJ is selection and taste and sense of timing and also knowing how to adapt to different crowds. That’s probably the biggest thing that DJs have to learn is to understand not only what to play and when but in which setting. You can’t play the same set everywhere.

Electronic music’s been around since the late ’70s, early ’80s. So electronic music isn’t new but EDM is this newer, bigger, more polished manifestation of it. And when it really broke in America, at the beginning of this decade, it’s also when certain songs were really bona fide pop songs, and were playing on the radio. New audiences embraced these big records that had a universal appeal, and by the same token embraced the producers and DJs who were behind those records. More and more of these festivals started popping up. I think that confused a lot of people. Just seeing a DJ essentially play songs that were already made, on the stage where they’d be used to seeing the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or something.

People were questioning whether DJs were really just pressing play and that became a bit of a buzzword, “pressing play” or “button pusher.” The range of different styles that started existing got almost too big to just categorise as one thing. So, do some DJs just go up and press play and phone in the same set at a lot of events? Yeah. Does that mean that all DJs do that, no. A lot of DJs have true craftsmanship and art to what they do.

Usually the argument that most people will give and that I was just giving also is that DJs don’t really play the same set everywhere and we’re mixing live and all this stuff. But in some cases when the show is so big, that you get into a place where there actually is literally pyro and effects that need to be timed and this and that, then you’ll have a DJ who plans their set. But even that to me, can be compared to theatre. When you go watch theatre, it’s pre-planned but it’s great entertainment. In the case of a DJ, the DJ is doing a sort of mise-en-scène, of songs that they know the crowd will enjoy hearing. And songs that they are sometimes connected to or that they made. And translating that into a show that will work in front of 60,000 people. There’s an art to that too. The control of energy is kind of magical and undeniable. And that’s a big part of the art too. So between that and the sort of sonic wizardry that happens with the knobs on here, it definitely isn’t something to be diminished.

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