What Makes a DJ Good?

By Brian Alvarez


Let me start by saying this is a loaded question. What makes a good DJ to one may not be what makes a good DJ to another. My definition of what makes a DJ good is someone who is technically sound at their craft. But before we get into that let’s examine the artist. We have been around since the seventies taking the place of bands with the option of spinning music from numerous eras and different genres. This art form has grown and today a DJ is technically your iPod, don’t hate and read on. For our purposes,a DJ is any person or computer that selects music by going from one song to the other essentially creating a vibe. I have seen parties that were amazing by simply utilizing a mixtape. I’ve seen kids rock parties with their computer and iTunes. When you have a target market and you know your audience finding the right song can be easy. However,when you step into the professional arena with the demand to connect with hundreds and possibly thousands of people, mix tapes and iPods simply will not do. Why? They cannot connect with the room like a human can.  Here are 5 qualities to what makes an awesome DJ.


The first and most important quality of the Mixmaster is empathy, this took me many years to understand. When I first started out throwing songs at an audience I thought it was all about me and my taste of music.  To an extent there is some truth to this statement.. When I needed to expand my business and do more professional events such as weddings, I needed to realize that my opinion didn’t matter. Some performers have the misconception that they are the star of the show but in fact a good DJ is a slave to the dance floor. Only the quality of empathy and putting yourself in the shoes of the audience can help you to better understand this. I myself started off as a breakdancer when I was young and I relied on the DJ to keep the beat and energy up. Now, I’m on the other side and I hold that responsibility to its highest degree. As artists we need to know where the journey begins and where it’s going to end.  Then we need to build the journey along the way.


The second quality is mastery of the gear and serenity. From a technical standpoint DJing has become more complex than ever. As a performer you need to be able to multitask and deal with the stress of an event gracefully. Having a contingency plan and a network of professionals with good relationships to help you in case of emergencies is absolutely essential.  When you are 100% comfortable on your gear, you are able to focus on those important details of the event.  When you are 100% comfortable that you can handle any curve ball thrown at you, you are able to perform at a high relaxed level.  This confident attitude is essential when dealing with the most important day of people’s lives.


The third quality is what I like to call unity of spirit. I have the rare opportunity to blend genres from multiple generations to diverse audiences and take them on a musical journey. When I play rock and roll and mash it up with hip-hop I am bring together two communities in spirit. This power is not to be taken lightly. Imagine speaking a universal language like music and only using one genre. It is just like asking an artist to paint only in only one color.  It can be done, and some do it well but use all of the tools to paint the picture. A diverse background and passion for music discovery is what helps push me to explore the wonderful world of music. I challenge myself to listen to genres of music, even if I don’t like them.  Eventually I will find something that fits perfectly with what a client would like.  Songs are like people, some are liked and some are hated but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.


The fourth quality is skill. The fact that this is ranked fourth may offend some DJs, and to be honest I’m a little offended by it.  Wait, how does that work?  I have been a club DJ for over 20 years, and one thing that I have noticed is that today’s generation does not care about skill. It doesn’t matter if you can do transformer scratches or if you are amazing with your effects.  It is lost on the dance floor from my perspective. However, this does not mean that these are not useful and very valuable tactics. In fact,I think the exact opposite. I believe that innovation and knowledge of when to use these tricks is what sets you apart from the average DJ.  I have seen many DJs overuse their effects and rely too heavily on remixes.  You will lose your audience. A good crowd rocker understands that sometimes less is more. Basic mixing is often overlooked.  Did you know that by mixing a song you are able to test your audience to see if they’re ready for the next track?  A great tactician will can sense the change in energy of the room when a new bassline kicks in. If the energy isn’t right I’m looking for another track that is.  Had you asked me this question 10 years ago, skill probably would have been at the top of the list, but with modern advances in technology the playing field has been leveled a bit.


The final quality is the ability to have fun within the constructs of the evening. In many ways I am a conductor to the symphony of your night.. I am in charge of making sure that everything goes well.  I need to make sure that everyone is having the time of their lives and that nobody is acting like a complete jerk. I’ve seen a lot of things that could be detrimental to an event like an altercation, broken glass on the floor, or other situations that could alter the outcome of the night. This means that the DJ has to be extremely professional engaging with not only the guest, but other vendors and staff members at the venue.  As the captains of the ship, it is my duty to manage and address potential distractions that can take away from the overall feel of the evening.


In summary, a DJ you must be professional, empathetic, confident,  calm, skillful, and fun.  So whether you want to be a DJ or you’re hiring one just know that an iPod might rock your party, but if you care about results there is no substitute for a true artist.


Brian Alvarez is the founder and CEO of Technically Sound DJ Academy in Ann Arbor,called technically The Academy is intended to preserve the traits of the DJ for the next generation. Regardless of political or religious divisions, music is a unifying force and the universal language. It has no race, no color, no gender, and is meant for the masses.  The DJ is the conduit.