A lot of the current discussion around DJing focuses on EDM and producer-as-a-DJ styles. In these scenarios the DJ is quite often solo on stage and is the primary focus (other than dancing of course). While the equipment, venues, and style of DJs has changed over the years (usually falling into similar groups based on musical genre), one key premise has remained the same; keeping the party going. From the earliest iterations of the DJ, his or her primary task was to play music as a means of controlling the party. Perhaps one of the biggest differences between DJs today and their contemporaries from 40 years ago is the divergence of the hip hop DJ and the dance/disco/EDM/etc. DJ. When I say ‘hip hop DJ’ I’m not referring to a club DJ that plays mostly hip hop and rap, I’m referring to a DJ that plays with live MCs.
So you’ve been invited to DJ at a hip hop show, but you haven’t done it before, what do you do?
There are a couple different scenarios that you might encounter:
- You know the MCs and have rehearsed ahead of time with samples and full tracks
- You have heard the MCs and they have given you their tracks ahead of time to listen to
- You meet the MCs at the show and they give you complete tracks and the play order
- You meet the MCs at the show and they give you a pre-made single track mix of their set
For our purposes here, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail regarding rehearsing with DJs. At this point you are performing as a live group akin to a ‘band’ in many ways. We are going to talk about what you can and should do if you get a gig as a DJ for a live hip hop show. One of the most important things to remember as a DJ in these scenarios is that most MCs need the music to be played almost exactly as they rehearsed it. Unless you are dealing with veteran performers or highly skilled freestylers, any deviation from the original track will completely throw off the MC.
So how do you prepare for the set? Quite often you will get invited to play a show with one MC or group and will end up playing for at least one other MC on the bill. They might have a USB stick with their instrumentals that they will give you before the show. You should always transfer the files onto your hard-drive and sort them the same way you would any other track that you would play in a DJ set. If you use Serato or Traktor it is best to create a new folder for the show and each MC that you are spinning for. If you are using Ableton you should import the songs into the Live set you have built for that show. Unless you have sufficient time to warp the tracks properly and prepare for the tempo changes in their set, it is usually best to leave the tracks unwarped. If they have provided you with a single-track mix of their set you should try to put in cuepoints (in Serato/Traktor) where the songs change or create duplicates of the track and change the start position for each new song (in Ableton).
Once you have the tracks ready to go and you are on stage you will basically just hitting the play button. The MCs will often control the pace of the set and they’ll give you the cue to start playing and will often want to stop in between tracks for a little stage banter. Be prepared to stop the tracks and/or do a ‘rewind’ for the MC if they call it out on stage. Remember, unless you’ve discussed it with the MC before hand, don’t modify the tracks in any way. Beat repeats, delays, cross mixes, etc. will all throw off their flow if they’re not expecting it. If you’re feeling adventurous and think the MC will be OK with it you might be able to pull of some EQ cuts, filter sweeps, or something similar at the end of verses, but be cautious. There is one exception to the ‘don’t change the songs’ rule; scratching over top. If you have a free turntable and some source material to scratch with, most MCs like it if there is a bit of (tasteful) scratching over their tracks. However, only attempt if you are a proficient enough to pull it off!
If it is a smaller show, you might also be called on to play music between the MC sets. This is where you can take over as the performer. It’s always a good idea to figure out the style of the show before hand and prepare a small playlist or set. Just be aware that you’ll have to transition in and out from your performance to becoming background support from the MCs.
Overall, DJing for hip hop shows is a fairly easy gig from a technical standpoint, but you’ll often have to deal with disorganization and difficult personalities. If you can easily navigate the backstage chaos of one of these shows you should be fine out on stage. If you are easy to get along with and can pull of the sets without incident you will often get invited back by the MCs for more of their shows.
If you want to learn more about DJing and gear we highly recommend you check out our online DJ School here at Spin-Academy.