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The DJ’s delicate art

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
HL DJ 01 TS 04-24-08
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One man has the power to make sure the dance floor stays packed and your booty has plenty of reasons to shake. It’s not your best friend, the designated driver or the bartender. Nope, it’s the DJ. Whether you’re stepping into a club or going to a house party, that guy with the crate-full of records and the huge headphones standing behind the turntables can make it one of the most memorable nights of your life or make you wish you never left the house.

Ask any DJ and they’ll tell you their job is more than just playing music, although there are some who do only that. Even though the title “disc jockey” implies simply spinning records, that’s just not so today.

“There’s crowd pleaser DJs that can’t mix, they just stand back there and press play … it’s almost like being at a wedding. And for a lot of people that don’t know the difference, that’s what a good DJ is,” said Peter Blick, resident DJ for Samana Lounge in Vail.

Blick, who has been DJing for 10 years, explained that while most people watching a DJ at work would never be able to tell what is really going on, a good DJ should be able to mix songs, match beats and choose music that will keep the crowd dancing without sounding repetitive.

But whoever is behind the turntable determines what kind of music will be played.

Blick said that it’s almost impossible to name all of the genres and sub-genres of DJing, but he did name a few that most DJs and listeners tend to gravitate towards.

Hip-hop (playing mostly hip-hop based tunes), house (a beat-heavy form of electronic music), techno (electronic dance music) and break (focusing heavily on percussion) are common forms of DJing and the kind you’ll most likely hear pouring out of dance clubs across the country.

Right now Blick said he’s into a minimal techno sound, basically a stripped down, less flashy version of techno music. But every DJ must decide what direction they want to pursue as they get better, and that direction may often change.

David McHugh, aka DJ D-Riot, considers himself a hip-hop DJ but he will often mix hip hop sound in with bands like Led Zeppelin or Blondie to spice things up. He became frustrated with playing in bands that were constantly breaking up so he took up DJing to stay in touch with the music scene. On Wednesday night’s McHugh can be seen mixing it up at the Sandbar in Vail, trying to keep the dance floor the most crowded spot in the place.

“In this day and age people’s attention spans are pretty short,” McHugh said, so he plays bits and pieces of rock, rap, punk, pop and hip-hop so as not to lose his audience.

“It’s almost a shame to pigeon hole yourself into one straight up genre and say ‘this is what I do,'” HcHugh said.

And he’s right. With the glut of available music today and the ever-expanding formats it can be found on, we have become used to hearing the song we want on demand. Unless you’re a world-famous DJ like Mix Master Mike from the Beastie Boys, a DJ must be versatile to avoid getting stale.

It takes more than just good taste in music to be a good DJ, though. Personality and the ability to read the crowd are of equal importance. McHugh said that he tries not to talk on the mic too often unless it’s to make an announcement or pump the crowd up. He prefers to let the music do the talking for him, and playing the right song at the right time can make all the difference in musical communication.

The equipment a DJ chooses to use when spinning can also dictate the speed and versatility of a show. With all the technology available today, DJs aren’t stuck playing vinyl records anymore. Computers, i-Pods, mixers with digital beat counters, turntables and CDJs ” a CD player that operates like a turntable ” can all be used to enhance the DJ experience. Many DJs still prefer good old-fashioned vinyl though.

“Right now I’m playing 80 percent CDs and 20 percent records,” said Blick, who chooses his selection based on cost efficiency and availability. He said he can buy lots of mp3s for the same cost of one record.

And what’s with those gigantic headphones? One of the most important weapons in a DJ’s arsenal ” the headphones ” allow them to seamlessly mix tracks and hear the need for sound level changes. All the behind-the-scenes stuff we’re not supposed to hear goes on in the headphones.

In a scene cluttered with thousands of DJs, how does one separate themselves from the pack? Making a name as a DJ can be tricky business, and earning a following takes more than just knowing a lot about music.

“It’s not easy, flat out, because there are a lot of DJs,” McHugh said. “What separates someone is the ability to read what’s going on in the room and not be pigeonholed into doing things that you’ve learned along the way,” McHugh said.

The odds are not in favor of the average DJ ever hitting it big with record deals and national tours. That’s not why most get into it, though.

“I probably will always DJ in some way, shape or form. It’s something that I think I’ll always crave, you know,” McHugh said.

A good DJ knows that he’s got a job to do. In the end, it’s all about keeping the crowd satisfied.

DJ Blick said the important thing is “Keeping people in the club, keeping people entertained, it’s good to keep them guessing. The ultimate is just ensuring everyone there is having a good time.”

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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