The Secret DJ on what makes a good DJ great - Features - Mixmag

The Secret DJ on what makes a good DJ great

5 tips for becoming a great spinner from The Secret DJ

  • Words: The Secret DJ | Illustration: Tiago Majuelos
  • 11 February 2020

I am not a superior being. I’ve just been DJing an absurdly long time. That is all. And when you’ve been doing it a long time there are some things you spot in other DJs that perhaps others do not. Good things. Things that shout ‘professional’. They’re often subtle. Small, even. But short of sniffing each others’ arses, here are some of them:


It’s not merely ‘professionalism’ – often merely code for someone who toes the line. It’s a strong positivity. I don’t mean in the slightly deranged Californian sense. I mean a clear ‘can-do’ approach to everything. Great DJs are frequently easy-going. They’re problem-solvers, not problem makers. Being a ‘diva’ is just being a knobhead in French. A good indication is speaking another language or two. This and other small skills indicate a head that’s still learning. Respectful. Look at the droves of ambitious hopefuls decamping to Berlin and not learning a word of German; coming back a few years later wondering why they didn’t make it. ‘Attitude’ is the opposite of entitlement.


A proper DJ can use any set-up. Anything. They can make people dance banging two rocks together if it comes to it. Sure, they have their preferences, demands even, but if push comes to shove it’s about them and not the tech rider. Their technique starts in their heads, not their hands. If you took that DJ and dropped them in any situation with nothing but the shirt on their back, they don’t just manage, they shine. A great DJ can even play with other people’s tunes and sound better than their owner. I once saw Derrick Carter play Ralph Lawson’s box after his got lost by the airline and afterwards Ralph was blown away. Like, ‘I didn’t even know that B side existed’. Once I was in the booth with Danny Tenaglia and we were chatting and I saw the CDJ playing was running down with 20 seconds to spare. He caught my look and almost too fast to see whipped the next CD in, cued it and mixed it in flawlessly, mid-sentence. That kind of calm only comes from decades in the glare. Live pressure is no pressure at all. This assurance creates a great foundation for taking musical risks. A dull, timid selector is petrified of standing out. A great DJ stands out as policy.

Read this next: The Secret DJ: How to avoid burnout

A willingness to go with the flow

A great DJ is able to fit in. They understand the whole picture. The thing isn’t there for them, they are there for it. They don’t play pre-arranged sets or parrot by rote. They are able to improvise. They arrive with everything they need to do whatever is required. Sometimes things at a gig can be in great disarray. I once arrived at a huge superclub and the manager had decided to shut down half the venue because January. She panicked and started giving mad orders. Kids who’d never played outside their bedroom were suddenly in the main room. Legends who cost more than all the other DJs put together were in the side room. Warm-up DJs played last. Carefully set-up tech was taken down. Everything was on its head. Thing is, stuff like this happens all the time. A pro arrives to all kinds of weird situations. If all you have is your tired schtick that cannot change, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be unable to deliver in a situation you are being paid for. Most of all, being loose and fluid is about paying attention. A great DJ walks in a room and knows pretty much immediately what is going on and what needs to happen. And paying attention leads to…


The most brutal techno can be delivered with restraint and intelligence. Great DJs understand nuance. They work with the sound crew, not against them. They understand everyone’s job in the place. They know not to interfere with security, not to bosh gear in front of cameras and punters. They get how harassed the bar staff can be.

Levels are manageable in the booth. There are no red lines. Or white lines. They clean up after themselves as they go. They use their ears instead of eyes. They are in step with the arc of the night. They build a set. They don’t hammer bangers out if they’re playing early. They feel the crowd’s energy and respond to it. They show consideration for others, too: like knowing that there are other staff working who might want to go home on time at the end of the night.

Read this next: The Secret DJ's tips on becoming a DJ


I’m not talking about thin legs, a long neck and nice trousers. ‘Grace’ is how you deal with being a DJ. Understanding that it’s not a crime for someone to want to talk to you. Being kind. Being able to talk about other DJs with respect. Not getting in a tizzy when advice is given. Holding down the ego. I did a gig years ago with a major radio and TV star – at the time she was on magazine covers, the lot. After the gig the booth was utterly mobbed, and a bit unpleasant with it. She just stood there for hours not letting any of it get out of hand, said a few words to everyone who wanted them and most amazingly of all, the next day at stupid o’clock in the morning, without making any notes, remembered every single shout-out and demand from the night before. It’s all about being an oasis of calm instead of a mad, flappy crisis.

Not all the greats have all of the above. But these are all signs that someone has something special. And they’re things that most people might not consciously observe at all, but perhaps feel. They are things I see that crop up again and again in the DJs we all tend to admire. I wish I had all these qualities. But having some kind of code to aspire to is something, rather than nothing. Aiming to be a little bit better is always a good way to start the year.

Follow The Secret DJ on Twitter

Tiago Majuelos is an illustrator and animator, follow him on Instagram

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