Practice and Prepare
Practice makes for much better DJ sets than a free-form approach to the craft. Having only a vague idea of what you are going to play usually makes for a halfhearted DJ set. You’ll find that accomplished turntablists and groove-riders alike have all spent countless hours perfecting their sets. We don’t necessarily recommend pre-planning the entire set, either, but you should get to know your options before you show up to perform. Spend time to find tracks that mix well and make playlists of those tunes for future use. Make different kinds of playlists for different kinds of gigs. Finding tracks that work well together takes time, and it rarely happens spontaneously at the gig.
As a professional DJ, you don’t necessarily have to take requests. You can stand by your own style and selection. However, playing more than one specific style of music is a great way to gain more opportunities for performance. There are many types of clubs and events, and different types of crowds. Try to find selections from your music collection that will work with these different groups.
Plan in Threes
This method of organizing music for DJ performance that I’ve found to work extremely well in my own experience. When planning a set, I like to find three records that mix well together at a time. Optimally these three records can all be played together at once, or they can transition into one another. Next I find another set of three. Then another. Eventually, I have a stack of records that are organized by how they mix together, and I start to organize those sets of three into a flow of slow to fast/mellow to banging. I like to have 60 tracks selected for an hour of performance. I won’t play all 60 (I usually play around 20 tracks per hour), and I won’t always play those exact mixes (spontaneity is still important in a DJ set). I have options that go in every direction, and I know that I can find my way from one type of sound to another while staying deep in the mix the whole way. Knowing this allows me to be much more experimental on-the-fly, and it always works better than if I don’t plan.
Identify Your Audience
Identify your audience before you perform. That statement doesn’t just mean to find out what they like and play it — you need to know the size of the room you’ll be playing in, the number of people who may be there, and the general musical vibe for the evening. Know your time slot and what frame of mind people will be in when you are playing. Part of being a DJ is sonic empathy: take the time to know your audience and identify what sort of sounds they might connect with to keep them engaged.