“The music they love, stupid”

Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster have done some of the best writing on the craft of DJing that you’re ever likely to read. Their 1999 book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is an indispensable history of DJing, but for those who want to learn the craft, their 2003 follow-up How to DJ Right is required reading.

How do you DJ right? The book provides all sorts of practical advice on all aspects of the art and business of playing records. But its central message, which happens to be a hundred percent true, is that the only thing you can’t do without if you want to be a proper DJ is a passion – nay, a nerdy obsession – for sharing great music.

“You want to get paid for putting on tunes?” Broughton and Brewster ask in the introduction. “Well, here’s the entrance exam. Do you love music or do you just dream of being Sasha? We won’t hammer it home too hard, but if you really want to DJ right, if you want to be great at it, you have to be doing it for the right reasons: not for private jets and power over a dance floor, but because of a simple and unavoidable need to share music with people. Without the gene for musical evangelism, you’ll just be a jukebox.”

Back in the days before DJing was a decent career, let alone a claim to fame, this rule was obvious. With the rise of the superstar DJ, however, came a flood of kids who assumed they could follow in their footsteps with nothing but technical skills and access to the hottest tracks.

“The saddest things we found while researching,” Broughton and Brewster continue, “were kids’ questions on bulletin boards saying, ‘I want to be a DJ. What kind of music should I play?’ If that’s you and you really don’t know, then put this book back immediately. Give this book to someone who actually cares about music, who lives and dies for their record collection, who knows without question what music they should play – the music they love, stupid.”

It sounds harsh, but it’s true. You can be a working DJ without a love of music. You might even become a successful DJ. But you’ll never be a great DJ, because your heart will never be in it the way it should be – and your audience will know it.

Now, this isn’t about drawing some snobby line in the sand. If you don’t like music, that’s fine. A lot of people don’t like skiing, for example. None of those people are ever going to be great skiers.

The good news is, if you’ve got that love of music, the rest has a way of falling into place. I’ve had the pleasuring of working with literally hundreds of DJs, and every single one of the good ones has had that foundation in common. Many of them only ever played a handful of shows in front of tiny crowds, but they did a solid job, and they had fun doing it.

What about you? Are you a DJ, or thinking about becoming one? There are all kinds of great reasons to go for it, and as far as I’m concerned, more people should. But if your main reason isn’t a love of music, then maybe it’s just not for you.

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