DJing is a deeply personal expression free from rigid rules. Apart from the technicalities around beatmatching and performing within a prescribed timeframe, a DJ set can spiral like a kaleidoscope in an array of directions. The path it takes is the decision of the DJ at the helm.
There are some unspoken dos and dont's, but ultimately it’s an art form that does not revolve around a universally set criteria, and this can cause tension if people with opposing ideas of how to DJ interact: audience members make requests, backseat DJs fuck with the mixer, zooted members of the booth entourage reload a track. Sometimes these things are welcomed, sometimes they aren’t. The best route to avoiding clashes is to be respectful and allow the DJ the space to do their thing.
This isn’t always easy and it can be hard to remember when you’re caught up in the moment. You’re waved, the biggest banger plays and gets you gassed. You’re sucked into the hype and the sheer power of the track compels you to release your energy quickly. What do you do? While it’s not quite taps aff time, a cheeky rewind would certainly show your appreciation for the moment and allow you to relive it all over again, revving up the whole room in the process. But you’re not playing and you didn’t drop the tune so it’s best to leave it up to the DJ. You rate them, so trust their judgement.
Everyone has their preferred way of mixing. Some DJs will side-eye you for the rest of your life if you touch the turntable while they’re playing, because after all it’s their craft you’re interfering with. When DJs are in the zone, they transmit their love of music to their audience. Track selection, beatmatching, reading the crowd and then delivering banger after banger isn’t easy. It takes years of dedication and technical ability to keep the momentum going for hours on end. So if you’re inserting yourself during someone’s set, take a step back and think if it’s going to down well with them.
Of course, context is relevant. It’s different if you’re going back-to-back with someone. You’re not random strangers, you’ve agreed to do a set together. You’re both wavey DJs and you know it. The set is escalating, you’re both in sync and you pull out a secret weapon. You’ve mixed out the previous track and the banger is just rolling, doing its thing. Again it’s a madness, you’re standing right next to your DJ partner for the night and they reload your track. Clearly impressed with your selection and artistry, the reload is a compliment but you don’t mind. You weren’t overshadowed and they remained respectful. They know you don’t mind and it wasn’t someone you hadn’t met before intrusively leaning in. Same goes if you’re playing a shoobs where you’re best mates with everyone on the line-up or a club night that attracts the same tight-knit crew on the regular – mates hype mates and knowing rewinds, impromptu toasting and quick EQ tricks happen.
You might think a misjudged reload is just someone carried away in the moment. Simply an enthusiastic expression of how deeply you can be sucked into the hype, a compliment even. But it can be more than that, especially if the DJ is a woman. We all know that women – and other marginalised people – are often pushed to the back of the electronic music scene and the wider music industry rarely pays us our dues. We are underrepresented on event line-ups and behind the scenes in the industry and subject to sexual harassment and abuse in the dance, on social media and as professionals in the DJ booth and green room. So when our moment finally comes, we want to enjoy it uninterrupted. We deserve to be celebrated for our hard work and talent. White men are taken more seriously – they’re expected to be good. Their skill is rarely questioned and they often dominate supposedly inclusive spaces. Imposing yourself and pushing to the forefront of a space that was not reserved for you sends out the message that we should not be occupying it without the noticeable presence of a man. When you have far more privilege than the person performing, it draws attention to the obvious power imbalance and the audience clocks. If we’re up there DJing, it’s because we know how to and we don’t need your interference. You might see it as a compliment but it can also be seen as intrusive and condescending.
This happened during Sherelle’s recent set at Boiler Room, which I was watching at home, feeling the energy of such an amazing performance, which excited, engaged and represented me. It was banger after banger, some of the maddest transitions, each track mixed excellently. Sherelle was representing hard and being her unapologetic self during a very important moment in her career. Live streams have become a rite of passage for every DJ on the rise. It’s their chance to quite literally show the world what they’re about and how good they are. And it’s very personal.
All eyes were on her until an incredibly awkward rewind interrupted the vibe. And while she is acquainted with the white man who decided to insert himself into her set and has since accepted his apology, it’s still worth discussing because it just shouldn’t have happened (and no he’s not cancelled, but disrespect, even if it’s unintended, needs to be called out). Because it was Sherelle’s time to shine. She was fully in control and was interrupted intrusively by someone who should have known better. Her reaction as it happened matched mine. I was less than impressed and feeling secondhand embarrassment. Her squad, packed round her during the whole set, also froze, WTF?! written across their faces. In Jossy Mitsu’s set another man interferes with her mixing and tries to style it out and laugh – again the DJ is unimpressed. In case you didn’t know lads, women can DJ and they don’t need your help. We’ve been here from the start.
And when it comes to matters of personal identity, the experience of DJing as a Black Woman differs from the majority. We’re expected to accept the possibility of being harassed and assaulted if we want to survive in the music industry. Our contributions to wider club culture and music is generally overlooked, dismissed and appropriated. The wider societal issue of loving Blackness but not Black people still rings true even within the creative industries. So when I see a Black Woman having her moment in a space dominated by white men, I feel proud and inspired. It makes me feel that one day I could be up there. Representation has that power.
Dance music spaces can feel toxic and alienating. The pressure placed on Black Women to not only be at the top of their game, but to simultaneously represent their race, gender, and even sexuality and ability, in order to survive in an industry that disrespects them daily is tiring.
I love DJing, it brings me so much joy to connect to the crowd through music I love. It creates a link between myself and those who do not share my experiences. But I’ve often been racialised in situations where the majority of DJs are not. Constant egotistical intrusions from men fiddling with the mixer and the turntables, while having no idea what I’m mixing in or I’m about to do, is condescending behaviour even if it is well meant.
If we want dance music culture to progress, we need to work on our etiquette in the booth and in the dance and listen to those who are outside of the inner dance music circle. There is still the overarching idea that women are just not as a technical as men and People of Colour are merely just good selectors. Because staring at a woman who is DJing and wondering if she is mixing live, or if she really produced her own music, or why she is up there in the first place and why you aren’t, is the antithesis of club culture.