10 August 2010

"How you Diddling? ...Bloody Sod Ya Then"

 Playing the warm-up game or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The greatest secret on the DJ circuit is never spoken about openly. It is a means to express individuality without ever compromising the needs of the party, the crowd or the promoter. It is a means to true freedom of expression; a means to broker creative conduits never before attempted. It is the way to be long lived. To encourage us to submit ourselves to all the restraints and injunctions of the divine law (of DJing), we are assured that it is the certain way to long life and prosperity. It is the way to be long-lived. (Proverbs 3:5) You must never compromise; never show abhorrence, a place to never underestimate yourself or your abilities; indeed a space to let them fly.

It is sometimes perceived in negative connotations by other DJ’s and somewhat sneered at as somehow beneath them; somehow lower for them; something they did “on the way up”; something they had to do to get in with a club or a promoter or a sound system; something they did to show their commitment, their mixing dexterity; a means to an end; something to do to get somewhere else; something to get through quick. They did not like it, now they have moved on.

It is, of course, “the warm-up slot”.

What those scoffers don’t or didn’t realise is that this is the most magnificent stage of self expression any DJ can have outside of the super star DJ status. Warm-up, warm-down; so many possibilities so such potential. So many slots to fill. A certain freedom is obtained by choosing the warm up or warm down. Gone are the normal strictures of one or two hour sets. Running a club in Canterbury we'd be there a 9pm setting up backdrops, lights, the rig and from the second we walked in I'd have the decks sparked up and music playing. That's the moment the warm up DJ set begins. By the time the other tVC DJ's arrived I could have played for 3 or 4 hours. At the after party I could be playing, depending on how many other DJ's showed, from 3am till till late afternoon or beyond. At the free parties, where music went on 24 hours a day for up to 3 days sometimes, 15 hour sets were not unusual. Here is a chance to explore your record box, or hard drive now, properly. Digging out those nuggets and lost gems is indeed a joy to behold. To play in this fashion is to experience being "played out" in it's most intense meaning.

Bobby Chariot, warm up man extraordinaire had the bad warm-up (DJ’s) philosophy in a nut shell with his catchphrase "How you Diddling? ...Bloody Sod Ya Then". Getting no response from your audience can sometimes generate hostility from the old warm up man. Chariot would regale his audience with anecdotes about his wife having left him, his drink problem and about having to sleep in his Jag. “Often he was pictured sitting in the audience rather than standing up in front of them, pouring his heart out to some poor uninterested, bored soul.” (1) I know how he feels. Although interacting with the crowd, or people in the DJ booth or listening politely to requests that you probably will never play is all part of the fun.

Mistakes are simple and plentiful. The art of the warm-up is hard learnt. You, through your music, are the first person the clubbers encounter when they enter the club once they get past the door supervisors, the search people, the ticket office people, and the cloak room people. Clubbers don’t come to the club for that anyway; they hopefully come for the music, the ambiance, the other people the music and ambiance.

By the time they’ve done all that (un)necessary but exhausting process they’re probably gagging for a drink and thinking about finding somewhere to sit down that is both roomy enough to get all their party around but sufficiently close to the dance floor so that they can have access if a tune they like is playing. Of course being near the rig but not too near is important too, as is proximity to the toilets but not too near and near the bar but not too near and they want to be away from any major traffic routes through the club.

These early birds are indeed the pinnacle of clubbing wild life and to observe them as the warm-up DJ is a pleasure to behold. They are the discerners, the ones in the know. They know exactly where the best spots are and if they are arriving for the first time take much pleasure and enjoyment exploring the new space whilst no one is around. They may want to chat to one another, build up the atmosphere of the group and share a joke or a drink. The last thing they want to hear through the rig is some spotty Herbert so called warm-up DJ playing psy-trance which is banging at 145bpm and is turned up full blast sounding like a hyperactive teenager shoveling sherbet and Red Bull into his mouth. If I heard that I’d spin on my heels and be out the fucking door quicker than you could say “what a shit club”.

So, DJ’s here’s rule number one; don’t dive straight into your favourite bombs as soon as the doors open; avoid cranking the rig and the BPM’s up as far as they will go and then stand there wondering why people aren’t responding at 10pm filling the floor with their hands in the air whistling for more. You will most certainly receive a certain level of hostility, albeit, polite from the promoter and the crowd.

On the other hand if you are a DJ and the promoter doesn’t understand this basic concept and is banging on at you “C’mon, people are showing up now, MAKE THEM DANCE!!!” you have to politely explain that you have to get people tapping their toes first and go from there gradually. Once the room hits a critical mass where that first person starts dancing, THEN you pick it up some more. You don’t just dump the hits before people are ready, but you do have to nudge them in that direction, too.

If the promoter fails to understand this then you can either walk away and leave him and his night to the inevitable fate that will inevitably befall it or, if you are desperate for the work, shelf all your professional standards and roll over and nod and do what he says. The foot tappers will be out the door well before you anyway.

What is better? To create a dancing mood out of thin air or to smash a dance floor into pieces?

People need to put their superstar DJ egos aside and remember: you play FOR the crowd and take them on hours of a musical journey.

Here’s one DJ, Phil Morse, from the excellent http://www.digitaldjtips.com/ explaining how he does it for the “foot tappers” (2)

“Playing warm-up, say 10-1 on a club night that’s open 10-4. There’s no pressure to play the big tunes, YOU (kind of) decide when things “kick off”, and there is more skill in building than just ‘holding it there’.

I used to have a ‘100-people-in-the-club’ rule when I had such a residency, when I’d play the same tune every week for many weeks once 100 were in, that signalled things were moving up just a little, then a different “building” tune at 200, 300, 400 people – you can hand over to a peak-time DJ with a full, happy dance floor with lots of energy left to give.

Also, if you’re resident every week in a half-decent club, you can build up a “warm-up” following. You notice the same people coming earlier and earlier to hear YOU. “Foot tappers” I call them; music fans who just want to listen as much as go crazy. It’s a real compliment that a sub-set of the crowd comes just for your sets. You miss the musical freedom when you have to play a peak set, because of all the expectations that come with it.”

Track tempo is a very useful tool. Of course there’s a difference between perceived energy and tempo, but generally we humans key into tempo at a deeper level. Ever seen a baby dance? We’re born with a natural desire to dance. Whether that keys into things like prenatal heart rate is unknown for sure, but we do perceive tempo and beat on a subconscious level.

And it’s not just about the tempo, it’s about the STRUCTURE. Breaking up your set into “mini sets” of approximately half an hour each, that ebb and flow allow you to manipulate the crowd without burning them out or boring them. There’s a constant but subtle change throughout the night that creates tension as the tempo rises, and dropping the energy down allows everyone to regroup, enjoy, and prepare for the next build. This not only refreshes the crowd, but also sends them to the bar and rotates the dance floor.

Also, never forget the role of the lighting. When the dance floor is sparse, turn off lights that attract attention and keep it minimal. Hit the fog, and keep colours in the darker ranges (blues, reds, greens). No one wants to feel like they’re being watched by the whole club.

“Energy” is very subjective on the dance floor and there is no easy formula. Increasing BPM’s does not guarantee increased energy. You can decrease BPM’s and increase energy with the right track. And you can slip imperceptibly into a lower (or higher) BPM without changing the energy level when necessary. It’s a lot more about track selection. But other things being equal, BPM is a rough guide to the overall flow of your set — it’s sort of a basic stable parameter for the whole set rather than a direct correlation with energy level.

A lot of this depends on what kind of club you’re playing and what the crowd is like. A crowd expecting rock n roll isn’t going to be paying attention to tempo in the same way as a house music crowd. And though we may not like it, there are times when fulfilling those requests is more important than the way your set holds together overall.

Another thing to factor in is the smoking ban! Things can be going really well but you can still lose people for no apparent reason. They will be going outside for a cigarette.

The peak point of the philosophical warm up DJ should work towards is called individuation. Those processes through which differentiated components become integrated into stable wholes. It is at this point where the innate elements of personality; the different experiences of a person's life and the different aspects and components of the immature (DJ) psyche become integrated over time into a well-functioning whole. Individuation is the stabilizing of the personality. Or, from nothing, gradually weave the subtle components of the music together into a unifying whole until the dance floor is bubbling nicely, maintain that state of ecstasy in a gently rising and falling arc or curve of gentle highs and lows, slowly building tension then just as you are about to let them go hand the reins over to the next DJ so that he can take it to the next level.
Do all this in reverse if you are the warm down DJ (for me the best slot you could ever be given...). pressure is off, the peak time junkies drift away, the people who are left are the "after glow" crowd ;-)

It is this crowd, probably down to no more than 20 or 30 now, who will dance to those lovely chilled out tracks, those obscurities, those tracks that would never work in a warm up slot. They are the people who will, eventually, help you break down the rig, if you're lucky, and tidy up the club or the field; it is this crowd you invite back to yours for the chill down; for a little more after club activity; for the best bit of the weekend. If you know what I mean?

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_All_New_Alexei_Sayle_Show
(2) http://www.digitaldjtips.com/