DJ’ing with an Agenda

Dj'ing Swing and Blues

As I get more and more DJ’ing gigs slash opportunities, one of the things that I am working on this year is trying not to DJ with an agenda. I have embarrassingly caught myself sometimes in the mindset that I am some sort of music missionary trying to lead the heathens on a path to Harlem heaven. From the top of my head, some prior agendas that I have come to gigs with included playing faster than expected songs, songs from the savoy ballroom era, jazz blooz, new orleans, and my personal favourite, playing really bad songs and seeing if anyone notices (JK… or am I?). Bad news brown I know.

Having an agenda for my DJ set has usually ended up being disastrous. It was through those very awkward sets, that I have decided to abandon the idea that I should “educate” the dancers by forcing my music sets regardless of whether people are actually dancing or not.

“Well if they don’t dance to it then they don’t like real lindy/blues/mambo/jazz music”, I would say to myself and any poor soul unfortunate enough to be within a ten metre radius.

Reflecting back on those sets, I can see how my tunnel vision for a particular sound made me overlook the fundamentals of a good DJ such as gauging the mood of the room, the sound ambiance/level, ebb/flow, and picking good songs that would make the people in the back would want to walk across the floor and ask someone to dance. I was focusing too intently on the songs “I’m about to play”, instead of focusing on the song that was actually playing and making decisions accordingly.

One of the things that I have realized about DJ’ing dances is at the end of the day, its just getting people up and dancing to have a great time. You can get into endless debates of what constitutes a swing/blues song, but what I have found is that as long as you continually play fresh tunes that are appropriate for the event (blues music for a blues dance/swing music for a swing dance), your audience is going to be happy. Or they just plain wouldn’t be dancing. Of course what you don’t let on is the fact that you have poured hundreds of hours meticulously hunting for new tunes, weeding out old ones, and familiarizing yourself with what you are calling as your “music collection”. Every now and then as a DJ, you know you just nailed the right song at the right time and for that three to five minutes, the room is dancing to music that you like dancing to as well. This in itself is almost the reason to not DJ with a pre-made list. 🙂

Where I’m DJ’ing Next

I’m still earning my chops DJ’ing dances and it’s good to be a scene where the local DJs are actively pursuing new music (Arthur Lulu and Krister comes to mind) and there are opportunities to spin at the regular dances. The only way to get better is to continually practice (trial by fire) so you can catch my sets at the following events

– Sunday Swing and Blues (Imperial Pub; already happened!)
– Toronto University Exchange (this late night friday)
– Hammer Hoppers Monthly Dance @ The London Tap House (Jan. 26)
– Yonge & Bloor Blues (Jan. 29)
– Ottawa Blues Blast (April 23-25)


  1. Thanks for that post. It’s great to get words of wisdom from one of my favorite DJs… especially now that I’m getting into the DJ thing myself.

  2. You’re DJing at Blues Blast? Exciting! Save me a dance when you get here! 🙂

  3. True words Randy, true words. In the end what matters most is what it looks like out on the dance floor. A respectable DJ knows not to let the crowd bully him/her and can push their comfort zone, but you have to be on their comfort-zone wavelength in order to do this without clearing the dance floor.

  4. @Jasper You’re already a musician, you’ll pick it up super fast. 🙂 I wouldn’t really call it “wisdom”, more like learning through failed experiments.
    @Alain Sure thing!
    @Gabrielle Of course!

  5. You’re becoming more and more wise. Stick with me and you’ll soon be a sage :p

  6. This post has got me thinking. I agree with what you say. It is never a good idea to force an agenda on the room. The DJ serves at the pleasure of the dancers. Not the other way around. It is always good to be flexible and open minded.

    However, I think it is a bad idea to go into a DJ set as a complete blank slate. Often I will try to play a harmonious counter point to the band. If they are slow, I’ll pick the tempo up. If they are fast, I’ll slow it down a bit. If they are in a charleston groove, I’ll try to swing hard. Sometimes I’ll be inspired out of my mind by a song or artist (Sidney Bechet I am looking at you). I’ll come into a set with a distinct feeling and adapt it to the mood of the room. Experiment with what works and what doesn’t and try to find consistent expression of the feeling. Every musician, artists, DJ and dancer has their own form of self-expression. Each of these crafts involves sharing. Partners in a dance share their styles, ideas, and creativity with one another within the framework of the music. Musicians share and play off of one another. A DJ shares with the dancers and the dancers in turn inspire and share with the DJ. In all of these cases, a good partnership keeps the energy flowing.

  7. DJing with an agenda is an interesting concept. On a macro-level (like your entire set) I agree, it’s rarely successful. (And if it is, it took scads of time, effort, great crowd gauging and extreme knowledge of the music collection) On a more minute level, it can be downright inspired. The link between a few songs in succession, (same/simliar subject theme, same song vastly different versions, etc.) can be a neat way of infusing an agenda, provided the transitions flow in some comprehensible fashion.
    That being said, this was a great read! Keep ’em coming!

  8. @Gab You can still string songs together without having it pre-built in your head (or worse your play list) before the dance actually starts… 🙂

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