Greatest Hits Pt. 2: The Hits Strike Back

This is why I don’t post off the cuff that often, because I forgot a whole section of thoughts I wanted to include in my last post.  I talked about why DJ’s can and have to play lots of unfamiliar stuff.*  Simply because if they don’t then everyone stagnates.  The dancing, the music, your breath, your mom’s breath etc.

However, I’ve come to realize that it’s easy to forget that most people that come to a dance very rarely listen to this music outside of the dance floor.  Many don’t listen to it at all.  The few that do probably just have those well worn hits that they really like, and they get excited to dance to those same tunes when good dance partners are around.

I was DJ’ing at The Jam Cellar not long after it opened in 2003.  It was one of the first places where DJ’s had the green light to play some really rare, but hot jams.  One night, I made up a whole list of stuff that I had been waiting to play but as the night wore on, I could tell my set wasn’t going over very well.  The songs weren’t bad, in fact, I’ve played many of them individually over the years to a good or at least decentreception.  However, my friend Kristin who generally enjoys dancing to that type of stuff pointed out that all of it was stuff no one had heard before, so it was hard for people to dig into and jet their jam on.

Familiarity is good in the sense that they have one less thing to worry about while they try new things dancewise.  Dancing all night to unfamiliar recorded music leaves them wondering what’s going to happen next.

Ever since then, I’ve been playing with a sense of continuity between my sets.  Typically, the vast majority of stuff I play in any given night are songs I’ve played before or I know other DJ’s have played.  I only introduce a handful of new songs, usually chasing them or sandwiching with more familiar ones.  That way I create some sort of positive association in people’s minds.

I think I can get away with this because the DJ rotations I work around here let me spin only once or twice a month.  So from gig to gig, the average dancer will be somewhat familiar with over 90% of the songs played I play, but over the course of a year, most of the playlist will mostly turnover.

That being said, I won’t say this is definitive way to go.  Sometimes the crowd will go for completely new stuff.  I remember Mike Marcotte telling me that he had ten songs he was going to unveil one night a few years ago at Jam Cellar during another New Blood night, and it was a huge hit.  But he also has great taste in music which is why he’s been head DJ at ILHC since it started.

You just don’t know sometimes.  That’s where I think an ability to read a crowd is crucial.  I thought about writing a separate post about this, but the more I think about it the more I think that a lot of DJ’s like to make too much of a big deal about it.

Honestly, I think the easiest way to figure out if people are enjoying your music is to just frickin’ ask them.  I know on average that most DJ’s are more socially awkward than the general dance population and would rather tap into some sort of secret system, but really, all you have to do is get your ass out from behind the DJ booth and talk to some people.  You’d be surprised how much feedback you get if you actually look for it.  Besides, it’s a pretty good excuse to hit on chat with the ladies.  Or lads depending on where you’re coming from.  Besides, isn’t that the reason you became a DJ in the first place?  Or got into dancing in general for that matter?

*Oddly enough, sometimes I can be too sensitive to overplaying something.  There have been plenty of times when I’ll find a song, listen to it a bunch, get tired of it and put it away forgetting that I’ve only played it once or twice at a dance.


  1. Breanna said,

    October 18, 2010 at 2:47 am

    You forgot to mention the part where YOU are also a kick-ass DJ. When are you going to take your talents to the outside-DC world again?

    • Jerry said,

      October 18, 2010 at 9:18 am

      One day. I was thinking about this recently. I have enough contacts around the Lindy scene that I could probably DJ every other weekend if I wanted to. But living in DC, I’ve never had the overwhelming desire to do that much traveling for dance; or the money for that matter. Plus I’ve worked and DJ’d enough events over the years that I kinda like the idea of going to an event just to hang out.

  2. dogpossum said,

    October 19, 2010 at 1:28 am

    I think you’re making a good point. I’ve had similar experiences, the only exception being playing at exchanges. I find an exchange crowd is happy to dance to 100% unfamiliar songs. Local gigs, however, have a different social function, and the crowd can be quite different.

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