I was blessed with the pure joy of attending a surprise 50th birthday party over the weekend.
It was the usual affair: groups of people who didn’t know one another singularly not mingling – for that is the British way! – in a church hall decorated with balloons and amusing photographs from across the decades of the to-be-surprised victim interspersed among the various drawings of nightmares by children from the local school who use the church hall on a more regular basis. Posters on the walls depicted kids jumping next to the word ‘Jump’, hopping next to the word ‘Hop’, sitting next to the word ‘Sit’, and setting fire to the substitute teacher next to the word ‘Arson’. Education has come on a way since I was at school. There was a smell in the air that was at once both endearing – since it was so distinctly the very smell of school from childhood – and revolting – since my imagination concluded the chair I was sitting on may have been used my some six year-old who’d peed himself just the week before. Food was buffet-style and consisted mostly of crisps and nuts. There may have been quiche too but I was loathe to lift the foil on the plate next to the plastic cups and discover if this was so. Being a church hall and therefore an establishment lacking a bar this was also a "bring your own bottle" event; carrier bags that had ported inside them bottles of Jack Daniels or generic gin, or boxes of wine, or packs of cans of bitter were dotted under every table just out of the way of the small clearing space in the room centre allocated for the spectacle of "dancing".
In essence it was an occasion done on the cheap, which is no terrible thing in this modern climate of terrorists on every corner and mass redundancies by text message and squirrels with murderous intent in their eyes in the corner of the bedroom. But, the organisers had splashed out for a DJ!
Being raised a strict non-mingler Catholic and knowing approximately 1% of the people in attendance I was granted the time to sit back and observe what it is to be a DJ. All your Fatboy Slims and your Paul Oakenfolds and your Jazzy Jeffs had to start somewhere before they earned any respect and that place was DJing a mobile disco at a party, or a wedding, or a funeral, or a Christmas function, or a bar or bat mitzvah. With my dream of being ridiculously rich and not having to work for a living remaining unfulfilled I pondered whether I could learn in one evening the essence of DJ life. I think I did.
A good lighting setup with banks of coloured bulbs that flash and pulse to the beat of the song playing … is so 1990s. These days the core components at the heart of any DJ’s box of illumination magic should be a couple of projectors that can throw up rotating colour stars and flower shapes on the wall. Add a few strobes for when people finally get drunk enough to ignore the tripe you’re playing and dance anyway. Finally, turn a nicotine-stained 14 inch monitor to face the floor and start up Winamp’s Visualisations and you’re set!
DJ Gold Dust Tip! Strobe lighting levels the dancing playing field. Crap dancers look like they’re having an epileptic seizure. Great dancers look like they’re having an epileptic seizure. Epileptics can hide their shame.
Everybody knows that bigger doesn’t always equal best and this is very true when applied to speakers for a typical party catering for a largely elderly audience. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that a DJ has something to hide behind so if you’re a budding DJ you need to purchase the most oversized speaker system you can lay your hands on. As a general rule of thumb: if you don’t need to hire a flatbed truck to transport your speakers then they’re simply not adequate.
DJ Gold Dust Tip! Before the guests arrive you’ll want to set the output level of the speakers appropriately. Fill a glass with water and place it on a table approximately halfway back in the venue. You’re aiming to knock the glass over so just keep ramping the volume up until you achieve that goal. People who leave a party expect to have tinnitus. People who sit nearest to the speakers want their chest cavity compressed to the beat of Status Quo.
When you’re a fully-fledged DJ wowing the sweaty throng at Ibiza people will assume you can play one record and mix, scratch, or overlay it into another with ease and on command. But, if you’re starting out and attending Auntie Gloria and Uncle Herman’s Golden Wedding Celebration then your audience will be considerably less discerning. You could hone your skills anyway but, then again, £30 for a five hour set and all the Tizer you can drink might make you think: why bother? In this case the megamix is your best friend.
There are plenty of megamixes already available – ABBA and the Bee Gees are two of the most popular ones – but you can always prepare some of your own. Thirty seconds of every song by an artist overdubbed with a beat that closely approximates that on one of the tracks and you’ve got yourself a paid eight minute sit-down and flick through Ideal Homes magazine.
DJ Gold Dust Tip! Some megamixes are better than others and it can help to talk to the organisers beforehand to get an idea for what’s appropriate. Uncle Herman may well appreciate your Einsturzende Neubauten Megamix but it might have been a source of arguments in his and Auntie Gloria’s household over the half-century together.
Songs To Talk Over
The main reason people don’t just plug their computer in and set their MP3 player on random is because of the hallowed DJ Banter. DJ Banter isn’t an actual DJ – well, it might be – but is, instead, the art of conversing with the partygoers in a manner relevant to the song playing, the venue, and the occasion, and so as to involve the attendees somehow. Find songs you can talk over and make Auntie Gloria feel special and you’ll never be short of gigs and recommendations.
Here’s an example using Jive Talking by the Bee Gees:
It’s just your jive talkin’ – WHAT SORT OF TALKING IS IT? – You’re telling me lies, yeah – PORKY PIES, PORKY PIES – Jive talkin’ – WHAT’S THE JIVE DOING? – You wear a disguise – CRAZY! – Jive talkin’ – IT’S STILL TALKING! – So misunderstood, yeah – WE KNOW THAT FEELING GUYS, HUH? – Jive talkin’ – STILL TALKING! THAT JIVE IS STILL TALKING – You really no good – WHO’S GOOD ON THE DANCEFLOOR? GET ON DOWN AUNTIE GLORIA!
DJ Gold Dust Tip! If you’re not very confident about speaking then make sure your microphone volume is around 75% higher than the music and speak with your mouth as close to it as possible. The unintelligble, explosive bass rumbling shattering pacemakers around the room will fool the guests into thinking you know what you’re doing.