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DJs: Not Just Press and Play

What it takes to be the master of turntables

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Published: 26 Oct 2022


Time taken : ~10mins

Rytasha is a Baybeats Budding Writer who was mentored by Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times and Daniel Peters, a freelance journalist and contributor at NME Asia and radio DJ at Mediacorp’s Indiego.


While scrolling through TikTok one lazy afternoon, I stumbled upon a video of Dutch DJ Hardwell playing a hardbass mashup by fellow DJs Bass Modulators during 2022’s edition of the Tomorrowland music festival. I decided to visit the comments section, and noticed a comment that read: “So [let me] get this straight … he gets paid millions to play other [people’s] music, just like the shuffler on my phone?” 

In reply to this comment, another user wrote: “Wait until he finds out that most of the sets are [pre-recorded] and the equipment isn’t plugged in”.

@raveology that drop at the end though 🥵 #raveology #edmtiktok #hardwell #tomorrowland ♬ origineel geluid - RAVEOLOGY

These comments upset me, because I felt that the worth and hard work put in by DJs like Hardwell were being downplayed. 

As an occasional patron of local bars and clubs, and a guest of several boisterous Indian weddings, I know the importance of having a good DJ present to keep the party going.

One of the bars I visited had a DJ playing the top Y2K pop songs, which everyone knew by heart and bobbed to all night long, while expertly weaving in sporadic song requests. In another bar, however, there was no DJ at all; the owner simply left a list of mediocre songs playing from his laptop, songs which my friends and I agreed were too slow and inappropriate for partying. This resulted in such a dull ambience.

Another reason why I feel so appreciative of what DJs do: my uncle is one of them. Growing up, I’ve seen his passion for music first-hand—from the records all around his home, and his constant drive to explore new forms of music that “heal the soul”.

I could even sense his devotion to the art from the way he described the tranquil caves in Sarawak where he spent three days recording the sounds of nature for his latest project.

Then again, there are the handful of well-known DJs, including marquee acts like Zedd and Afrojack, who often play pre-recorded sets during big performances. I realised that DJs could play the same pre-recorded mix of pop songs that party-goers know and love, and get away with it.

I then began to ponder:

“

Are these plug-and-play DJs overshadowing the skill of the craft? How has deejaying changed over the years? And most of all, what does it truly mean to be a DJ today, especially with the advent of pre-recorded sets?

”

To satisfy my curiosity, I turned to none other than 46-year-old DJ and music producer Ramesh Krishnan, my uncle.

Expressing himself through music

Ramesh noted that not all DJs pre-record their sets. “For me, it’s purely on the spot,” he said. “Before I go on, I will usually know what the crowd is like, and I’ll find out who the DJs before me [were] or who the DJ after me [are], or the closing DJ.”

“My challenge is always to push something a little bit more off. [The other DJs] could be playing a lot of house, techno stuff, but I’ll drop something Brazilian, because it has that rhythm and that same texture or bpm (beats per minute). I mean, if the groove is right and there’s a good hook, you can never go wrong.” 

“

I think it gets interesting when you start grooving to something that you totally don’t know, but it reminds you of [a genre you’re accustomed to]. To me, when it gets you to that feeling, or when you get that hook, it means the DJ did a really good job.

”

Ramesh Krishnan

He then took me back to the 1990s when he first caught the deejaying bug from his brother Balan. Back then, everyone deejayed with belt-drive turntables and vinyls, instead of the compact disk jockeys (or CDJs) which DJs use today. 

Ramesh shared: “I would take Balan’s records and try to mix them with a tape deck. It was crazy man, the stuff that I was tryna’ do.” But he managed to pull it off, and continued practicing every chance he got.

He would scour record shops for obscure tunes to mix. He would watch video tutorials on deejaying and dig up footage of DJs performing live to learn from them, even imitate them. 

He practiced matching beats and applying different styles of mixing like chopping up soundtracks, scratching them in and out and performing backspins. “Slowly, I just developed this niche for different sounds,” he said.

Ramesh Krishnan has been a DJ for close to 30 years. He has played for several notable local and international clubs and festivals, and has even produced music for events like Sollum Swaramum and Batik Kita. Photo credit: Balakrishnan VK

“I have music that a lot of people still don’t have till today. I get them from other producers and some of them I produce myself, or [I make my] own edits, and these are like [my] tools.” He continued: “There are DJs like myself who are serious about the music; we will spend hours or years even.”

“The easy way out is to play all the tracks that you know on Spotify; you could easily play that for four hours and make everyone happy. But ultimately, it’s about finding all the interesting tunes that make you go: ‘Wow, I wanna’ know this track’ or go up to the DJ and say: “Hey man, what is this that you’re playing? I really like it.” So, I guess the excitement always goes both ways—for the DJ and for the listener.”

But with the rise of social media and pop culture, deejaying isn’t really about sharing exciting new music with the crowd anymore. Ramesh explained that when it comes to “big-name DJs like the ones at Tomorrowland”, “it’s about them entertaining the crowd with their actions. It’s not so much about the technical skills.”

“They play the most commercial stuff, and also produce and remake all these big pop artists’ [songs]. They are the trendsetters as far as the pop and EDM scene goes.”

“I guess that’s part of the evolution,” he continued,

“

I’m not saying that it’s wrong, but I think social media has changed the game totally for DJs. It’s helped them propel to a different level.

”

I then recalled some of my favourite DJs like Jovynn and Ian Asher who have created popular TikTok soundtracks on top of playing in clubs, and tapped on various social media platforms to spread their tunes.  

To learn more about how social media has impacted deejaying, I reached out to local DJ, and one of the three founders of Culture, 28-year-old Vira Suria.

 

Give the people what they want

Culture is a platform that Vira created to celebrate different genres, as well as find different communities that enjoy each of these genres and engage with them. Vira, along with his team that has grown from three to six members, actively manages Culture on Instagram, TikTok and even Telegram to connect with his audience on a personal level and better understand what kind of music they enjoy.

@virasuria 100 tickets left! 600 already bought 😮‍💨 ticket link in my bio, see you guys there ❤️#justinbieber #singapore #tiktoksg ♬ original sound - Vira Suria CULTURE

He said that as a DJ today, it is essential to know your audience well. “The most important thing about deejaying is reading the room,” he said. “You can be [the most skillful] DJ, but the most important thing is knowing what the crowd wants, like [if] the crowd is dying, knowing to drop the tempo a bit [and] build it up again. Not many DJs know how to do that, and that’s what defines a good DJ.”

Since there is a greater need to cater to the audience, there is more pressure on DJs to dazzle the crowd with their showmanship. According to Vira, “deejaying is a skill. [...] And sometimes it requires a lot of concentration, so most of these huge artists can’t afford to [make] a mistake in front of millions”. This might explain why some DJs prefer pre-recorded sets.

Vira has pre-recorded his sets before, but only for competitions which allow such sets since he “cannot afford to make a mistake”. 

 

Vira deejaying at a gig. Photo credit: Zack Dilaroca

“I don’t pre-record [such that] I don’t need to do anything. I pre-record in a way that assists me [to do] more. [...] It can be interacting with the crowd, or it can be preparing my next trick, that kind of thing.”

“But I do know some people who don’t pre-record at all, and they’re good. It’s actually really based on you, how talented you are or how good you are. To each their own, I guess.” 

Another factor Vira has to consider is playing what the crowd enjoys, while expressing himself as a DJ through his preferred music genres. “I like instrumentals, [...] like orchestras … so it’s a bit weird, like I wouldn’t dare to play what I like 100% [of the time],” he said. 

“When I’m performing in a competition, it allows me to be more creative in a sense. I can play whatever I want. But when it comes to spinning in a club, I try to do a few sounds that I like, but I don’t overdo it, because I know that I’m playing [for] a very general crowd.”

What he finds challenging about the scene in Singapore is that

“

it’s hard to play your [preferred] songs because the music here, in clubs especially, is not very diversified. People actually come just to hear your radio hits [...] And then DJs, they’re not really daring to be outspoken in their sense of music. It’s scary you know, like you play one wrong track then the crowd stops dancing and looks at you. So, when you go to most clubs in Singapore, they always play the same sounds that you can find at different clubs.

”

However, Vira has tried to bend the rules every now and then, playing Anison (Japanese anime music) and orchestral music in between sets. 

When he drops something unorthodox, he plucks up the courage to observe the audience’s reactions. “Some people's faces [are] like ‘What the hell…’ and some people are like ‘Oh play that song!’ So, it’s usually either 100% or 0%, never in between. Nobody comes to a club to appreciate new music anymore. They just want to have a good time.”

Finding that bridge

Both Vira and Ramesh agree that deejaying today is about finding a bridge between self-expression through music and giving the people what they want.

Said Ramesh: “Personally, every single track that I play, I have to feel good about it. That’s the most important thing. I think as a DJ, whatever you play, whether it’s gonna’ be a big-time track with a lot of energy, or [...] something downtempo, you need to feel good about it. You need to like the track [and know it] inside-out in order to transmit that to the people, right?” 

While Vira does enjoy the pop songs he plays for the crowd, he aims to push beyond the norm and ease his audience into appreciating unique tunes as he does. For now, he takes to competitions and TikTok to better express himself.

It takes years of road-testing and practice to be known as a ‘good DJ’. It involves curating the right songs for your crowd from start to finish, expertly mixing one song with another by ear, and displaying showmanship. 

Sure, you can press and play. But, what next? Hurry. The crowd is waiting on you.

Contributed by:

Rytasha Passion Raj

Rytasha loves to explore different music genres and tell stories through articles, poems and illustrations. She despises monotony, and often tries to pick up new languages by listening to non-English songs so that she can sing along (badly). She hopes to give society a voice through her work and make a positive impact while growing as an aspiring editorial content producer.


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