The Art of Disc Jockeying

A guest post on the 6 ways to create an unforgettable dance floor by Stacey K—a writer, blogger, traveler, hairstylist, and DJ based in Edmonton, Alberta.

I never — and I mean never — would have guessed that at some point in my life, I would make a living playing music. I kind of play clarinet, I can lead a rag-tag campfire singalong on guitar, and I can plunk out a few chords on the keyboard.

That’s it.

But two years ago I was desperate for work, and, in a sea of job postings, one seemed to jump off the screen: ‘Wanted: Part-time DJ’s for Busy DJ Company.’

When I started out, I knew nothing about sound equipment, had never tried to mix one track into another, and I certainly had no intention of building a reputation as a DJ. I was surprised to learn that creating a killer dance floor has a lot less to do with technical skills than I had originally thought, and a lot more to do with connecting with people.

Want to know how to become a DJ?

Firstly, I’d recommend reading this interview with dj questlove, founding member of The Roots, as it holds some of the most influential advice on DJing that I have ever read. Failing that, here are the five most important things I’ve learned while falling in love with my job.

Use emotional connection and familiarity to get people dancing

Generally, people don’t dance to songs they don’t know. Occasionally, if you’ve already won them over, you can sneak in some unfamiliar stuff towards the end of your show, but by and large, familiarity is the key to engaging a crowd.

No, I don’t want to play the chicken dance.


But the truth is, for some people, old ‘cliche’ songs are part of the fabric of their memory, and a night isn’t complete until they’ve made little chicken-mouth hand motions beside their Auntie Kathy on the dance floor.

That said, the best kind of familiarity to play on is the nostalgia of when people first started listening to music – what was popular when your crowd was 16-25? I love playing for a crowd that is mostly my age, because I know exactly what late-nineties pop music is going to play on those nostalgia cords.

There’s a certain age of women who run to the dance floor when ABBA comes on, and a certain age of men that will almost always get out of their seats for the Rolling Stones. Use that to your advantage.

It’s not about you

It may seem counter-intuitive to building your reputation as a DJ, or your personal ‘brand’, if you will, but your performance is not about you. It is about your crowd.

You may cringe when you drop it, but if a song you hate elicits a cheer from the dance floor, guess what? It’s making you appear to be The Best DJ Ever in their eyes.

If you want your crowd to remember you after they leave the dance floor, you’re going to have to check your ego at the door, and play whatever it takes to keep the dance floor moving.

Pay attention

A good DJ is always listening and always watching.

Dinner music is a crucial time to collect information on your crowd that you can use to build your dance floor later. I am always watching the room, looking for what gets heads bobbing. Sometimes a song comes on during cocktails, and you see a person’s head go back and a smile come across their face as they say, ‘Oh! Great song!’ Pay attention to those moments, and make note of the reaction certain songs get from the crowd.

Sometimes people will surprise you. For example, one time a mother of the groom, easily in her sixties, insisted that I play only Macklemore as the night carried on – but often clues gathered from ages and cultures are a good hint.

Tailor your set list to your crowd

NEVER use pre-made playlists – not even for dinner or cocktail hour. It’s stagnant, cliché, and boring.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I have had guests come up to me to tell me that their expectations for me as a wedding DJ were very low – and do you know where that comes from? The fact that every wedding they’ve been to in the past decade has had the same music, played with the same games, spliced with the same old slow songs, preceded by the same dinner music.

I love the classics just as much as anyone else, but people are sick and tired of hearing the same old music.

Continually expand your music knowledge

I am always, always listening for inspiration.

If I’m watching a movie, and I hear something new I think will work well during an event, I write down some lyrics and find it later. Some people use Shazam, which is good too. I never have. I think I like the thrill of the chase, trying to track down that mysterious new melody.

Sometimes I hear an old song, that I forgot even existed, and I think, yes! This will be perfect for that wedding I’ve got coming up – the one that wanted lots of jazz.

I don’t listen to the radio much, but I try to make a point to when I am about to DJ for a young crowd. A few hours of listening to a Top 40 station, and you’ll definitely know what the current number one songs are.

Lastly, if there is one thing you take away, let it be this:

Connect with your audience on a personal level

This isn’t just crucial when it comes to music selection, it is also what will win your clients over. If people trust you and like you and feel that you are there to serve them, it’s rare that they will give poor feedback, even if your dance floor falls flat.

When it comes to gear and technology, fake it until you make it. Learn as you go. A basic understanding of gear will go a long way, but truly, every venue is different, and it will take a while before you are prepared to walk into a situation/venue and anticipate potential challenges, and that is only learned through trial and error.

No one wants to make an error when all eyes are on them, but truly, people forget about these things if you connect with them on a personal level, or through playing music that tickles their nostalgia bone.

Here’s one parting gift: Sam Cooke. Go buy his Portrait of a Legend album. Every song on that album can be part of creating an epic dance floor. I’ll let you figure out how.

Cover photo by Adam Gaumont.


Linotype: The Film—My Brief Experience With Documentary Filmmaking

February 24th, 2011 — The Boston Printing Plant Auction

Doug is walking in front of me with a stocky digital camera mounted on this frame kind of thing that sits on his shoulder when he’s shooting. He says the frame is so a little digital SLR that shoots beautiful high definition video can feel like the big, heavy, old-school video cameras it now replaces. He enjoys the irony. Continue reading “Linotype: The Film—My Brief Experience With Documentary Filmmaking”

Cross process digital photos for a cool retro look

Here’s how you give your photos that vibrant but grungy retro style like the ‘Bad Luck and Good Times on the Appalachian Trail’ photos in OCSPLORA Volume 03.
Image edits in Google Picasa

Picasa is possibly the best free app ever developed for Mac and PC. It is Google’s take on photo management software, and it’s a pretty good take.

I’m a Photoshop user, but for polishing up digital photos I don’t even bother with Photoshop. I just open up Picasa and click ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ in the ‘Commonly needed fixes’ tab which does an automatic light and color correction that usually gets good results without any other tweaking. Then I crop if necessary. Boom. Done.

There are a bunch of cool, simple tweaks you can do with Picasa, but my current favorite is ‘Cross Process’ (under the green tab on the Edit Controls sidebar).

In pre-digital photography, cross processing referred to the practice of developing film in different chemicals than what would normally be used for that film, resulting in high contrast, over saturated colors. Now it is common to find apps like Instagram and Picasa replicating the effects of cross processing on digital photos.

Not every photo looks good with Picasa’s ‘Cross Process’ applied, but I’ve had pretty good luck, especially on outdoor photos. You will notice the greens and yellows get intensified and the whole photo gets a bold, 70s kind of look. Or at least what I imagine a 70s kind of look to look like.

Here is the raw photo which became the cover for the ‘Bad Luck and Good Times on the Appalachian Trail’ story:

Raw photo for 'Bad Luck and Good Times' cover

And now with ‘Cross Process’ applied:

'Bad Luck and Good Times' cover, cross-processed with Picasa

And finally, I used ‘Vignette’ (under the blue tab on the Edit Controls sidebar) to finish it, which darkens the edges of the image:

'Bad Luck and Good Times' cover, cross-processed with vignetting

Pretty cool, right?

The changes you make in Picasa won’t be applied permanently to the image file until you save them. Picasa does keep a backup of your original image when you save your tweaked version, which takes up a lot of extra disk space, but at least you know the original is still around if you need it. You can also export the image to a new file on your computer and then undo the changes you’ve made to the original image in Picasa.

Post your digitally cross processed images online somewhere and mention the link in a comment below. I’d love to see your results.

Here are a few photos of old farm equipment my wife took last year with some cross processing ninjutsu applied:

Old farm equipment outside Ruggles Mine in NH, cross processed

Better clothes, better world, better story

Even the most demure exploration of the fashion industry unearths some ugly truths. With media more accessible than ever, messages scream from all directions about what is beautiful, what to buy, and who to be. Looking deeper, we are confronted by the disturbing realities of mass-production: catastrophic environmental impacts, slave- and child-labor and a massive discrepancy between production cost and retail price, to name a few.
As Nate expounded in his last post, Henry David Thoreau had some pointed things to say about fashion. As an enduring voice for simplicity, many of his remarks about resisting the rapid, but not necessarily positive advances in this world sound just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in 1854.

What would Thoreau say about the state of the fashion industry today, with it’s even further-reaching effects? How can we follow the advice of a man who wrote, ‘On the whole, I think that it cannot be maintained that dressing has in this or any country risen to the dignity of an art?’

Graphic designer and fashion enthusiast Joe Mitchell found inspiration in the words of Thoreau and created a line of t-shirts that were a fusion of fashion and simplicity for Moselle Clothing, a company that exists to create clothing in a way that diverges from the normally dark world of clothing manufacturing.

In a recent interview, Mitchell said he ‘originally started out wanting to put together a collection that was both natural and a bit manly. One that wouldn’t feel like more fashion clutter, but a bit of an escape from it.’ What emerged from those beginnings was a collection aptly named ‘The Wild, with outdoorsy graphics and a distinct woodsman theme. Continue reading “Better clothes, better world, better story”

Feeding your soul or stuffing it?

Exotic food. Food for the soul? A creative’s daily bread? Exotic foods might be hard to find in this global food market. Is anything rare, unusual, fresh? What are the things that are hard to find for creatives that they need and would seem exotic or strange to others? A lot of Americans don’t like exotic foods. They find comfort in the predictable. My father still eats the same crappy white bread he did when I was a kid, as stale as it is.

My wife keeps a stash of ‘exotic/special’ Japanese foods in the closet for when she gets the craving. My daughter’s favorite snack is dried salted small fish which makes most people gag just thinking about it. Is it an exotic food? Not in Japan. It’s a matter of perspective. To the people near us they may not be exotic but to those far off whether in geographical distance or world view they may be. What are the cravings of creatives? What ‘exotic foods’ could we or do we keep on hand or go and buy when we need a design fix? For me it is thrift store finds and lately tobacco barn viewings. Continue reading “Feeding your soul or stuffing it?”

Gun barrels into ploughshares

The guys over at Terra Furna Public Art posted on their site back in May of last year about a very cool sculpture project they were working on.

The concept comes from the ancient text “They shall forge their swords into ploughshares”. Our thought is that Canada has been a nation of peacekeepers for decades, and our influence has had a significant part in many nations’ histories. From Korea to Bosnia to the more recent Afghanistan, our soldiers can be found doing their best to encourage the world to put down their arms.

Our idea was to get our hands on a Howitzer gun barrel, or tank barrel, and forge that into a plough as a modern interpretation of the text. Our idea has developed into a larger, more ambitious idea with the inclusion of other elements that reinforce the message of peacekeeping.

The Harvest Nation Sculpture Project on Lots more photos.

Grain & Gram: The New Gentleman’s Journal

Hipster men may be hipsters, but they are still men.
Feel free to quote that.

Or put it on a t-shirt.

First off, Grain & Gram is beautiful. The site design, the layout, the photography. Even if you’re not interested in the articles, check it out and just appreciate the talent and discipline that went into the finished look and feel of the site.

Second, I think the creators of Grain & Gram have tapped into a really powerful current of thought, feeling, and desire that runs under the surface of twentysomething (and older… and younger) men. Despite the almost universal move away from manual labor and away from hands-on craftsmanship, men, or at least the guys I know, love an excuse to work with their hands, and to learn the skills and tools used in making real things in the real world.

We were interested in showcasing and writing about guys who were doing great old world things with purpose and quality, in an age where things are growing increasingly digital and standardized. (Furfur Rusland)

Grain & Gram: The New Gentleman’s Journal