Kat Smith, Dj DatKat. Photo by Craig LaCourt.
Learn your techniques, but remember you want your mixes to have passion too. Trust yourself.
This week MD talks to Kat Smith aka Dj DatKat about how to get started Djing yourself. Dj DatKat has graced the decks at Moscow’s legendary Club Propaganda for the popular Voices: party, hosted by Nina Kraviz, the Academy Club in Montreal, as well as Xlib Club and Sky Art Cafe in Kiev, Ukraine, the self described audiophile has been doing just that for ten years and counting. An inaugural member of East Village Radio, one of the world’s most progressive and independent online music forums, she has always been a tastemaker, with a musical personality that can be best described as exploratory, innovative, and unconventional. DatKat is now expanding on her foundation and transitioning into her new role as a Music Producer. She currently splits her time between New York City and the rest of the globe, mining for sound gems.
1. Buy turntables, headphones, mixers, cartridges and speakers.
Dj kits are great and they include all the basics: 2 turntables, headphones, mixer, and cartridges (what holds the needle) for about $500 or less. Stanton offers a decent kit. Visit a local or online record store that sells equipment. The people there are usually knowledgeable and will tell you the best brands to buy on a budget. If you know that djing is going to be your career, buy quality equipment from the start. It’ll keep you from having to replace or repair things constantly which can add up. Technics 1200s turntables is the industry standard. Sadly they’ve been discontinued, due to the digital market now, but you can still find them on eBay.
2. Buy music. Spend time in record stores digging, especially for vinyl.
Be open-minded and listen to all kinds of music. I specialize in playing house and techno, but I play everything. A great dj in my opinion is someone that’s not pigeonholed and can play across the board. There is so much amazing music in the world. Why limit yourself? So buy any music that you like. Emphasis on BUY! The new digital age of downloading has killed the vinyl and cd industry. Vinyl is important, because it’s one of the fundamentals of the art of djing and in my opinion the best way to master beat matching. Not only does it sound better, but because it’s more tactile than using a laptop, it allows you to connect more to the music.
3. Listen, practice, play records and develop your technique.
A fundamental skill of djing is beat matching. It’s the process of matching the tempos of 2 songs so that they will play simultaneously and smoothly. For beginners, you might start by marking down the bpm (beats per minute) on all your records so that mixing tracks is easier. To calculate the beats per minute, start anywhere on the track and count every beat or kick drum you hear for 30 seconds. For example, you might count 60. Multiply that number by 2 equalling 120, and you have an idea of the bpm. When I started I practiced relentlessly everyday. While the bpm count method is useful, I’d recommend just getting to know your music. Sit with your headphones and just listen intently and feel the music. Listen to every element of a track and try to isolate the beat. Overtime, your instinct will tell you what tracks to play. Learn your techniques, but remember you want your mixes to have passion too. Trust yourself.
Finding the pitch control
More on how to beat match:
Let’s say turntable 1 is playing a song at 120 bpm. Cover one ear with your headphones and leave the other ear free. This allows you to hear the next track coming in. On your mixer, turntable 1’s level will be up, while turntable 2’s level is down. Now play track 2 on turntable 2, with a bpm of 118. It’s time to cue the next song. While track 1 is playing out of your speaker, using your headphones, try to isolate the beat of track 2. You will hear the songs simultaneously. Since track 2 is slightly slower at 118, you’ll use the pitch control (what controls the speed of the song) on the turntable to match the tempo. In this case you move the pitch up (toward you) slightly. When both the kick in your speakers (track 1) and your headphones (track 2) match, bring level 2 up on your mixer. Some people prefer to use the crossfader to go from track to track. This is another technique, but you will determine over time what works better for you. The biggest thing I can stress is to practice, practice, practice.
4. Talk to djs that inspire you and ask for advice.
My dj role model is Mark Farina. He’s a San Francisco based Deep House/ downtempo dj. He gained popularity from a series called Mushroom Jazz, which was a compilation released in ’96. The sound is a blend of jazz infused hip hop and downtempo. He also did a deep house series called Seasons and was a featured artists on the United Djs of America mixes. His sets were the foundation for my love of house. It was and still is a spiritual experience for me when I listen to his mixes. He has the best selection and he blends tracks in a way that creates a new song with every mix. He has this ability to take you on a journey and tell a story. Not a lot of djs can pull that off. My style is definitely influenced by him.
5. Go out! Go to parties and mingle at the places you’d like to play.
When I went out I would find out who the promoters were and send them mixes. It also helped that my twin sister was already fairly established in the scene. She ran a record shop called Dance Tracks in the East Village, so I made a lot of connections through her. It definitely helps if you know people. My first real gig was at Sin Sin (NYC) for a weekly party called Soulgasm. It was a two floor Deep House party. They would have rotating djs upstairs (which is where I played) and the resident Dj downstairs. The party catered to house dancers, many of whom were professionals. It was intimidating at times, but a good way to learn how to really rock a crowd.
6. Know your audience. Read your audience. Play good music of all genres.
Whether you’re playing a wedding or a club, be informed about what kind of music to play. Now that you know who you’re playing for, its important to know when to play each song. To keep people engaged you might play slower paced songs early in the night and build up to higher energy tunes toward the end. Also, look for the crowd’s response. If people aren’t moving it may mean it’s time to change the song or vibe. While some gigs will require a specific sound, a great dj plays everything and has something for everybody.
7. Be unique. There are a lot of djs, so standout.
I dj with my identical twin sister Jacky Sommer under the moniker Analog Soul. We also have a weekly radio show every thursday on motionfm.com of the same name. In an industry that’s dominated by men, it’s rare to be women, especially Black women.
8. Build a following.
Play regularly so people know who you are and establish an online presence, via facebook, twitter, or myspace.
9. Be professional.
Show up on time and be prepared. Have equipment and contracts sorted prior to your performance so the night can run smoothly. Also, be considerate of the time slots of other djs and performers.
10. Have a good time and be engaging.
Crowds want and need to connect to the dj. Pay attention. There’s nothing worse than a dj who never looks at the audience. And above all, have fun!