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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.

As you are probably well aware, DJing with Ableton Live is a bit different than DJing with Serato or Traktor.  There is a little bit more pre-production that goes into creating a Live set than with ‘deck’ style DJing.  With so many options available, where do you start?

We’re going to talk about one way that you can set up your Live project to create an easy to use hip hop DJ set.  There are many other ways that you can do this, but take this as a foundation to build upon and modify to suit your personal style.

Audio and MIDI Tracks
We start out with two audio and one MIDI tracks.  These audio tracks will be for the full songs and the MIDI track will be for a drum kit.  You can arrange these in whatever order you like, but I personally prefer to set it up and rename as; “Track A”, “Drums” “Track B”.

Clip Setup
A lot of hip hop (at least what has been in my current rotation) does not have the ebb and flow of large builds and breakdowns as a lot of EDM does.  This will affect where you can logically start playing clips and, consequently, will affect your mixing style.  The first thing you have to when importing your songs is warp them.  By default, I have auto warping set to the ‘Complex’ mode, but I have found that vocal hip hop sounds a lot better when using the ‘Tones’ or ‘Texture’ warp modes.  Higher quality audio files will go a long way when playing with warp settings, so try to use 320 kbps or higher and play with the settings until they sound right.

Once the clips are warped properly I like to make three versions of each song.  These versions will all be in the same track and will be staggered with the proceeding clips in the next track.  In the first clip I like to find the spot in the song where the first verse (or at least my favorite verse) begins.  Depending on the song I will usually let it play our for at least one verse and the chorus, so I try to pick a start spot that I can jump to immediately.  In the next clip I like to find an drum break and set a four or eight bar loop.   Drum loops like this can usually be found in intro and/or outro sections of the song.  I put this clip second because I don’t always want to start each new song with its default intro.  Personally, I like to mix out of tracks with these drum breaks because you can control the length and flow of your transitions.  In the third clip I will usually find a snare, clap, etc. hit from the previous drum loop and set it as a one-shot.  You can do this by disabling the loop bracket and moving the end marker to the end of the sound in question.

Why do this?  Well, I like using the drum loops to control transitions, but they can sometimes get stale very fast.  By having the snare hit from the loop in a separate clip you can play these two clips as you would play the kick and snare in a drum kit.  Voila, instant remix.

Occasionally, instead of a drum loop I will use an instrumental loop.  It is good to have a few of these available for the times when you just need to kill the beat and have a moment with the melody.  Some songs just have an instrumental break that is too good to pass up, while sometimes others just have drum breaks that don’t fit with what you’re doing.  It’s all a matter of personal taste.

Drum Kit
I always like to have a playable drum kit in my DJ sets.  There’s something about playing an instrument (if only a MIDI instrument) that makes it feel like I’m REALLY performing.  There are hundreds of drum kits that come packaged with Ableton Live, which gives you the ability to pick a kit that will blend with the sound of your set.  I usually end up using a good ol’ 808 style kit to keep things booming, but you should pick something that suits your taste.  You can use this kit in intros, breaks, or just to give a song a little more thump.

Since you are creating an entire MIDI track for this drum kit you can create a bunch of MIDI clips to go along.  I like to have a series of ‘elements’ MIDI clips in this track to boost the beats of the currently playing song.  What are these ‘elements’, you ask?  Basically, they are MIDI clips that only have one or two sounds in four or eight bar loops that can be played with a fully mixed song.  For example, a clip with claps on the ‘2’ and ‘4’ or a stream of eighth-note hi-hats.  These can be used to add energy, even out mix production between tracks, or to give a remix vibe to your songs.


To give a ‘Trap’ feel to any track you can create a series of clips with streams of hi-hats at different rhythmic values (i.e. from quarter notes to thirty-second notes).  You can trigger these clips at different intervals while a song is playing to change the vibe

Between the drum loops, one-shots, verse starts, and drum kit you should be able to come up with an interesting way to play your hip hop set.  However, this is only one way to set up and play so you should experiment with various setups and see what works best for you and your style of music.

If you want to learn more about DJing and gear we highly recommend you check out our online DJ School here at Spin-Academy.

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