As a DJ, there’s great fun to be had in getting everyone dancing and screaming at the top of their lungs all night to some heavy beats. As will everything in life, however, there’s beauty in the contrast. For some DJs, playing to a room of chilled out people or spinning in Ibiza as the sun rises is an even bigger rush than playing an EDM set at a Las Vegas club. Many DJs have built successful careers on the softer side of the EDM spectrum, and if you want to learn how to DJ downtempo sets, the first step is to understand the history of the genre and the basic philosophy behind it.
What Is a Downtempo DJ?
These days, we hear about downtempo DJs playing all sorts of styles – ambient, chillwave, chillstep, trip-hop, etc… All of these styles really came out of one movement: It began in the ‘90s club scene when people were looking for a place to relax after a night of partying without leaving the club. This gave rise to the chill-out room, where much of the downtempo music we hear today originated from. Electronic music festivals in places like Ibiza started to embrace the chill-out concept as well, but instead of dedicating certain rooms as chill-out zones, they started booking downtempo DJs to play the early morning slots so they could play downtempo tracks just as the sun began to rise.
The downtempo movement has now expanded beyond sunrises and chill-out rooms, and major DJs and artists like Bonobo, Thievery Corporation, Zero 7, and Boards of Canada carry the flag of the downtempo movement.
Basic Mindset: Atmosphere Over Rhythm
While there are similarities between downtempo music and other types of electronic music like house music, learning how to DJ downtempo sets involves a major shift in mindset. That’s because downtempo is the only major electronic genre that’s not primarily based on beat mixing. Yes, downtempo music has a beat, but the beat is not always the most important part of the music, nor is there a consistency within the average BPM and the types of beats used by downtempo artists; while some ambient artists rely on simple beats to drive their music, others use complex beats, and, while the BPM of downtempo music is generally slower than most other electronic music, there are no real rules around what BPM you should use for a downtempo song.
Instead, what’s most important in learning how to DJ downtempo sets is learning to develop an ear for atmosphere. Because people don’t always dance to downtempo music, you want to give them something interesting to listen to besides the beat, and you want to use songs and sounds that create a certain type of atmosphere that people want to inhabit. Even though downtempo music isn’t limited to chill-out spaces anymore, the concept of creating a space and an atmosphere still applies. As you develop your stills as a downtempo DJ, you’ll start to learn which songs will be best for certain situations and which samples will fit in well with downtempo songs.
Want to learn more about how to DJ downtempo music? Start with our video lesson series on using effects – these lessons will teach you everything you need to know about how to manipulate tracks and create new and interesting sounds to add to your downtempo sets. This lesson series is fully accessible anytime you want when you join Spin Academy for only $19.95 per month.