Earlier this year, we were thinking about running a feature called DJ Survival Guide. I interviewed several Seattle disc jockeys for the piece and accumulated thousands of words of wisdom re: the selecting, mixing, and playing of music for other people’s pleasure, but the thing never achieved publication. So I’m going to post those interviews on Line Out, because there’s enough solid advice to help a lot of aspiring jocks… and because the replies are interesting in and of themselves. This week’s installment is with Kristina Childs, a versatile veteran DJ who won the 2009 Battle of the Megamixes competition in 2009. She’s also co-founder of the hard-techno event KRAKT, which is re-launching Fri. Oct. 5 at Electric Tea Garden.
The Stranger: How many hours a week do you practice/prepare?
Kristina Childs: When I started out I would play for hours every single day. Eventually it tapered down to whenever I bought new records, but for years now I don't "practice" at all and the only sort of preparation I do is pull a bunch of tracks I think I'll want to play and put them in a crate. I used to coordinate sets before the gig, but ultimately you never know what direction party is going to go, so I found it counter-productive. I program fully planned sets for Nastina, but that's a whole live performance with cues and blocking, so it's not your traditional DJ set and warrants set lists and rehearsals.
Sometimes I think I should play more at home and occasionally I do, but I've been doing this so long that playing 5 minutes or 5 hours a day isn't likely to make me any better. Haha... If for some reason I lose my edge, I'll go back to practicing. I do however listen to the music. In the car, on the iPod, whatever. For some reason, though, it always seems like the best mix is the very first time I play a record. I used to go shopping and bring the records to a gig without ever having played them at home. Still do, only with digital downloads now. I guess it forces you to pay closer attention to what’s going on and what's coming up.
What’s your DJing format of choice and why?
Serato. I held off for a long time being a vinyl purist, but at some point in '05 or '06 I had a weekly Friday residency schedule: 4 hours of happy-hour downtempo at ToST Lounge followed by 4 hours of top 40 at Talarico's. I was about a year into it when I got really sick of carting around 4 crates of records every Friday. I figured, "Hey, it's not like these tunes are collectibles or anything... I may as well make my life easier and get Serato for Fridays." I still kept playing vinyl for techno and house gigs... until one day I found myself RUNNING from one airport terminal to the other so I didn't miss my connection. As I kept shifting my flight case from my right shoulder, to the front, to the left shoulder, to the side and back again, I finally broke down and said, "Never again."
There's still a small part of me that really misses playing vinyl—reading the grooves in the record, the ritual of shuffling through them and placing them on the turntable, the way it feels in your hands—but the benefit of having my whole record collection with me at all times far outweighs all that. I can't tell you how many parties I've been able to save by being able to make drastic switches in the music immediately. For instance, there was a techno party I was booked to play, but the crowd ended up being 95% Puerto Rican and all they wanted to hear was reggaeton. It just so happened I have a decent reggaeton collection, so the party kept poppin'. Had we all brought nothing but the 100-record flight case full of techno that party would have bombed something fierce.
What are your recommendations for headphones, needles, turntables, CDJs, DJ-oriented software programs?
Oooh, headphones. That really all depends on how you DJ and what your ears are like. I started out with the Pioneer 1000s and hated them. They were way too loud and hurt my ears since the padding is so flat. I switched to the Sony 7506s and never looked back. They last forever and when they finally do break it's really easy to order the replacement part and fix it yourself. The pads are soft, keeping ear fatigue to a minimum and have just the right amount of sound bleed. I tend to play with the phone only half on my ear, or even sitting on my shoulder. I almost ALWAYS end up turning the headphone volume down by half from the DJ before me. This works best for me, but I know very talented DJs who have their headphones on both ears at all times. So hey, whatever works.
I hate CDJs. With those digital pitch controls you can never really lock them in completely like you can an analog turntable. Plus turntables are way sexier! I may have gone to the dark side by being a laptop DJ, but you'll have to pull my [Technics] 1200s from my cold, dead, angst-ridden hands.
My software of choice is Serato, but I have Traktor, too. Traktor's looping feature is way easier to do on the fly, but I hate the Traktor interface and for some reason it's always been buggy for me. I arrange my crates in iTunes and it's never been able to fully read my iTunes library. But really, when it comes down to it, I'm not trying to layer tons of special effects in my DJ sets. I think good music should stand on its own. I play songs, not tools.
Where are the best places to obtain music, both in brick-and-mortar shops and online?
I use Beatport, Juno, and What People Play. Mostly Beatport. Their categorization BLOWS (to the point that I wonder if they even listen to electronic) and it takes a lot of digging but the way their flash interface makes it easy to shop really fast. And that's important when you have to go through virtually everything to find the gems.
What are the most effective methods for procuring gigs? In a hyper-competitive field, how do you set yourself apart from other DJs?
Ask the promoter. Give them a CD and let them know you'd be interested in playing. Don't expect to have the prime slot right away, though. We all had to pay our dues with opening slots and nearly empty rooms, but that's where you start. Another really effective way of getting your name out there is to start your own crew. Get a club night going and after a while people will start to know who you are. It also helps to go out and support the music you're into. This city is really small and people tend to not want to book someone who doesn't support the scene.
But DON'T keep harping on promoters about how they should book you. Don't be a dick or get your ego up in the air talking about how you're the shit and it would make their night better, yadda yadda. Also don't publicly bitch about how you're not getting booked. That's a sure-fire way to make sure you never get booked for anything. Ever.
And the #1 thing to do if you want to get booked? BE NICE! Promoters are people, too, and no one wants to spend time with a jerk, a douche or a kiss-ass.
What have you found to be the most efficient ways to fill the dance floor (with dancers, to be specific ;)?
THIS is what separates the good DJs from the great DJs. You can be the most technically proficient DJ, but if you can't keep a dance floor moving, your skill is worthless. Pay attention to the crowd. Watch their faces, pay attention to the mood and energy of the track that gets them dancing, then play more of that. If they aren't responding, try something else until you find something that works. If you're following someone who has drawn (or killed) a dance floor, take note of that. If the party is poppin' and you feel like taking it in another direction, don't drastically slam in something different. Gradually work up to it and test the waters a bit. If it seems like they're into it then keep going, but if they're not, go back to what was working before... and always think 3 records ahead.
But it isn't just dancers that will tell you if the room is into it, especially if it's an event that isn't necessarily meant for dancing. When people like the music, they tend to move to the beat, even if unconsciously. Their faces will be generally happier, they will make movements in time with the rhythm like drinking from a glass, tapping their fingers on the table or bobbing their head ever so slightly.
Is beat-matching absolutely essential for a DJ?
YES!!!! Don't get me wrong, I'll forgive a slightly sloppy set for excellent track selection and programming, but if someone is consistently wrecking it makes me wonder how the hell they ended up getting booked. Everyone has bad nights, though. I've had my fair share and I'm sure there's more in my future.
How do you deal with requests?
Depends on the environment. If it's a top 40 or hiphop club, then I'll play it if I have it. If I don't like the song I'll tell them straight up, "Sorry, man, I can't stand that song!" I've gotten quite a few requests that I knew would empty the floor if I played them, so I'll be honest about that, too. I actually had this happen once on a fairly slow night and, as usual, they didn't believe me. Since the party was just starting to get going, I made him a bet and played the song. I ended up $20 richer :)
If it's an electronic music event, you generally don't get requests. I've gotten a few from people who wandered into a techno party then asked if I could play R&B or hiphop, but you just gotta tell them it isn't that type of party. Then (nicely) tell them go down to the Ballroom or Trinity or wherever.
The first time I got a request during a techno set was for Metallica. I was a pretty young DJ and just sort of stared at him flabbergasted. I'm pretty sure my answer was sorta condescending... I still feel a little bad about that. You gotta learn to smile and say no, sorry, this is the music I was hired to play.
How effective do you think flyering is?
I'm actually still asking myself the same question. There's no real way to quantify it so who the fuck knows? I wish there WAS a way to quantify it, 'cause then I could justify spending all that time and money on printing and postering.
What have you found to be the most beneficial ways to promote your gigs?
Tell people. It's not rocket science, it's a numbers game. Send emails out to your crew. Make a mailing list. Get on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure the party is posted to EDM forums (like nwtekno.org) and keep the thread bumped. Get out there with a stack of flyers. But it definitely helps if people know who you are so get some mixes posted online so anyone who hasn't heard of you can get a taste of what you're about.
If you have an overarching philosophy about DJing, please discuss it.
I'm a DJ. Not a techno DJ. Not a house or breaks or dubstep or hiphop DJ. I love all sorts of music, so why limit myself? I also love making people happy with music. Music makes or breaks a party, so as a DJ it's your job to make sure it stays on point. I've watched a lot of selfish DJs destroy parties by playing what they wanted, not what the crowd wanted. Obviously I won't play any music that sucks; however, if the party wants to go in one direction and I want to go the other, the party always comes first, and ultimately the energy from the dance floor feeds you will feed back through you back to the dance floor. That's when you know you've got something good. That, my friend, is why I DJ.
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