Like Father, Like Son: DJing as a Performing Art Form
My father wanted me to follow in his footsteps.
He said zig. I did zag.
My dad is a performing artist. He conducts classical orchestras and has played the largest concert halls in the world.
His wish for me was to become a classical musician.
At the age of 5 I had my first violin lesson. 2 years later I got accepted into the Vienna Conservatory of Music.
I started practicing 4 hours a day. Every day.
Years of classical training had the opposite effect. I started disliking the arts altogether.
My parents got divorced. My dad moved away. I quit music.
We went our separate ways until we met decades later.
“What does a DJ actually do?”
People frequently ask me this question when they hear that I co-host a club residency in Berlin and that I had a paid DJ gig in Istanbul.
The answer is straightforward: A DJ selects records, matches beats, and makes sure the transitions are smooth. This sequence is called a DJ set.
Do comedians get asked what they do?
The answer would be: She thinks of bits, works out the transitions, and makes sure that the narrative flows from start to finish. The sequence is called a comedy set.
These are the technical aspects.
A question I wish more people would ask is “why?”
Mastering the why is where artistry comes into play.
If a DJ nails the what, you don’t notice the DJ.
If a DJ nails the why, you will have lasting memories.
It took me years to understand that performing arts share three ingredients:
- Story Telling
Here is what I learned spinning the decks 👇
Curation: Surprising the Audience
“A record is a concert without halls and a museum whose curator is the owner.” - Glenn Gould
Curators introduce audiences to something new. They are guides.
Curation is as much about adding as it is about subtracting. The less you show, the easier it is to paint a clear picture of your idea.
Think of colors in a painting:
As a DJ, you have access to the entire catalog of music.
To curate, you need exposure to art, access to the art, and your own personal taste for the art. You develop your artistic idea, which serves as a filter for selecting and rejecting records.
What do you want the audience to experience?
Comedians violate expectations to pleasantly surprise the audience. As a DJ you can do the same by introducing unexpected sounds (electronic and jazz; house music with hip hop).
I’ll misquote Arthur C. Clarke by saying that ‘any sufficiently pleasant experience is indistinguishable from magic’.
As a DJ you have the power to choose your music. Do it with intent.
Story Telling: Taking the Audience on a Emotional Journey
The strongest stories take us from a world that is to a world that could be.
Nancy Duarte uncovered this theme by analyzing the most iconic speeches such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
When people read stories they imagine what the characters look like, what they sound like, and how they behave. This is called inference.
The author does not spell it out so the readers have to do the work themselves. The audience switches from passive to active.
To me, music is a better canvas than the written word. There are general semantic “rules” (e.g. major key = happy; minor key = sad) but since music is not literal it leaves more room for the listener to project their own story.
"Truth is found more frequently in music than in words or images." - Didier Levy in “Shantaram”
As a DJ I think about my audience through a similar lense. Pick them up where they are and take them to a better place.
- Hook: Grab their attention immediately
- Progression: Build up your story
- Contrast: Play with conflict and resolution
- Close: Reward the audience with a payoff
Good stories resonate with the audience.
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” - Steve Jobs
As a DJ you are telling this story with music.
Delivery: Creating Shared Experiences
“Compared to making music and releasing it on a record, DJing a party is inherently ephemeral. The medium requires the context of the space and time to be relevant as an artform.” - Avalon Emerson
Art does not exist in a vacuum.
Each piece of art has a context. The artist, the audience, the setting.
I always think of Keith Haring’s dog.
Sell it in Ikea or Uniqlo and I think that’s a “quirky dog”. Show me the same piece in a museum and I’ll experience the rough New York of the 80s.
As a DJ you want your audience to connect with the art on a deeper level.
Delivery creates setting. Setting creates context.
“Some people still say, "You're just playing other people's music." They have a hard time understanding why I get paid for just playing other people's music. Most people just don't pay for music anymore, but they still want to have that participatory communal experience of going somewhere to hear music with others, just like they did hundreds of years ago. I pay the door charge to participate in music; I want to listen to it with my friends and party.” - Avalon Emerson
Do it well and a DJ set becomes a shared experience. The artist, the audience, the setting.
This magic formula applies to all performing arts.
DJing as a Performing Art Form: Dad’s Son After All
After writing this piece I think I understand where my dad was coming from.
He wanted me to enjoy the enchantment of performing arts.
How does he do it?
- Curation: He selects a repertoire to surprise his audience
- Story Telling: He arranges the repertoire to take his audience on a journey
- Delivery: He performs with his orchestra to make magic happen
Maybe I ended up following his footsteps after all.
Thank you for reading 🙏
I would love to hear from you. You can reach me best via twitter.
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Thanks to my friends at Compound Writing: Kevin, Dylan, Howard, Steven, and Amber for pointing me in the right direction during the ideation phase.
Special thanks to Nanya, Soma, and Ergest for their valuable input on the draft.
Thanks to Sara, Finn, Kilian, Freddy, and the entire Disko No Disko and Humboldhain Club crews for being partners in crime. This journey would have been impossible without y'all.
[Example] DJing as a Performing Art From: Miles Medina (2017)
In 2017, Miles won the Goldie Awards with this performance.
- Curation: Mixing rap, live-samples, and the Simpsons intro music. This is used to surprise the judges and the audience. You can tell by their reactions.
- Story: The progression picks up in tempo throughout the set. He uses samples and cuts to tell the story that none of the judges are as good as him and that he's coming for the Goldie.
- Delivery: Progressive rise in energy level to get the crowd fired up. Ending with a bang.
It's one thing to watch the recording on Youtube. It might be hard to follow.
But I promise you, if you were in that room, you'd be talking about this show today.
- Duarte Agency (Duarte)
- The Art of DJing: Jeff Mills (Resident Advisor)
- The Art of DJing: Avalon Emerson (Resident Advisor)
- Innervisions: Über das Auflegen (Groove)