by Laura La Gassa
Here is how I got started. My advice worked for me, your mileage may vary.
First off, don't run out and buy gear if you can at all avoid it. Find a friend with tables you can start practicing on. Join a college or community radio station with gear that you can use during off-hours. I drive 45 minutes two or three times a week to go to my friend's house to practice, but it's saved me from having to spend $350 each on 1200's, and $1300 on a mixer (my friend has a really nice one), and more money on amps and big speakers. The thing to focus on at first is buying records and getting comfortable with handling them and the gear. Then, when you are sure you really want to go through with it, you can buy tables and mixers and DJ samplers to your heart's content. Think of DJing as a VERY expensive hobby at first . . . it takes a *lot* of work to make it a career.
If you have multiple choices on where to buy records, investigate them all and find the place with the best service and selection. I know this sounds like stupid advice, but being able to go into a store and hear this weeks wax hot off the presses *before* you commit money to it is a million times more fun than watching play lists and reviews and then trying to find things. Techno vinyl has such a short shelf life that if you snooze, you lose. My absolute favorite track is only three months old, and is now nearly impossible to get, for example. Many times by the time something ends up on a play list or reviewed in a magazine, it's gone forever and you'll have to do some real scrounging to find a copy.
If you are someplace where there are no decent record shops within driving distance, the next best bet is to try mail order. Some places are VERY helpful and pleasant, and will talk to you for a while and even ask you to send in a (non-mixed) tape with snippets of what you like so they can get an idea of what to ship you.
Okay, now that you have some records, you have to play them. The first few times I put down tracks I was afraid to touch the vinyl. All those years of my dad telling me to handle the records carefully by the edges had sunk in. Well, your precious vinyl is going to get finger prints all over it, not to mention dust, fog juice, tree sap, and god knows what else, so buy a discwasher and hope for the best. Go ahead, touch the record. Get used to it, they will survive, and if the weighting and anti-skate on the tables is set right, they won't skip (ask the friend who's gear you are using for advice on this . . . extra weight wears out the grooves faster but will plow over dust particles, cat hair, and bubbles in a bad pressing . . . anti-skate keeps the needle from slipping sideways when you spin the record backward by hand, or scratch).
Don't worry about beat matching at first. Instead get a feel for what happens when you move the cross fader, adjust the line levels on the mixer, and adjust the pitch control on the tables. Learn the gear first is what I'm saying. When you feel comfortable handling everything (which could take five minutes or five days), then the fun begins.
Beat matching is a simple concept, but hard to do. Especially when the sound system is pumped up excruciatingly loud and you can't tell where the echoes are coming from AND there are six guys hanging around the tables watching your every move AND there are 100 people dancing and you don't want to wreck their vibe AND AND AND. But I digress. It's easier in the privacy of your own basement, and the friend who got me started said that he felt that about twenty hours of private practice was a good guideline before you'd be ready to go out and not embarass yourself.
But how do you do it? Ask anyone and they will tell you something different. Here is my system:
Make sure the table you will be cueing off of (i.e. the one with the record you are mixing into, not out of) is zeroed. What I mean by zeroed is that the pitch control is set at zero, and that little green light is on. This keeps you out of the situation where your pitch keeps creeping up and up and you go through your records and finally there is no room to adjust up or down. I'm sure some of you experienced DJs are laughing at me for this, but I'm writing this for absolute beginners, so . . . :-)
DO NOT believe the rpm (or upm if it's a German import, ha ha ha) speed printed on the label. I have SO MANY records where it's just plain WRONG. Put the needle in the middle of the track where the beat will be plain, and listen through your headphones and make sure you have the right speed.
Back up to the part of the record where the beat comes in clearly for the first time. Listen to it, and to the record that is currently running. You'll get an idea whether to speed up or slow down the record you want to queue. Make a rough guestimate and adjust the pitch control slider appropriately.
Back up again to the part where the beat comes in, and with your hand on the record, scratch over the down beat a few times, in such a way that you push over the down beat on the record you are queueing at the same time the down beat on the running record hits. When you've found the down beat and feel comfortable, rather than backing up again and scratching, just release the record with a very slight push so that they will both be playing at the same time. You'll get a better idea from what you hear next whether you need to pitch the record you are queueing up or down some more. Make any adjustments, and repeat this step until you are happy with the way things sound after they've run for a few measures.
Now you're hopefully ready to go. Once again, line up the beats, and release them when you are comfortable. In a beat or two you'll know if you are fine, and so can start moving the crossfader over toward the center. Draw out the mix as long as you can (I'll talk about real-time corrections in a second). Eventually you will have faded into the other track and you can start all over again with a new record.
Real-time corrections are tricky to learn, and everyone has their own methods. Some people "push" a record that's lagged a bit with their fingers, and "drag" a slightly too fast record by holding a finger over the label and creating drag as the record spins under it. Other people mess with the pitch control on the fly. Still others grab the spindle and twist it forward or "brake" it to correct. Experiment to find out what works for you. One thing to get a feel for is to learn "when to hold them and when to fold them." Basically, the faster you can correct the better, and the sooner you cut out of a bad mix that you can't correct the better. I've seen Jimmy Crash correct with both hands, braking one record while simultaneously pushing the other. He's been DJing for 12 years, so don't expect to be able to do this at home right away, kidz. :-)
Buy records for their musicality, not for their mixabilty. That said, a lot of times there are some good sounding but easy mixes you can make. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS. It will sound good, and build your self-confidence, and give you a breather if you've just blown a mix and need to calm your nerves a bit. The easiest mix at all to make is to have one record that has no-beat breaks in it, and mix a record with a beat-only intro over it. Just get the speed right on the beat-only record, wait for a break, count 8 or 16, which ever sounds appropriate, and then have the beat-only part come and act as the beat under the running no-beat section, and ease the cross fader over as slowly as possible so that you take full advantage of the no-beat section but don't get in the situation where the beat on the first record comes back and crashes with what you are mixing into.
Other cool tricks will become apparant in time. The best way to learn is to watch other DJs and then try it at home until you figure it out and like how it feels and sounds. The next easiest thing to learn after you've got the beat-matched segue down is to drop in snippets of one record while the other is playing, and from there there's scratching, backspinning, and god knows what else.
Some DJs do things like clock the bpms of each of their tracks and write it down on the labels, along with the key of the track and other information. If this works for you, then go for it. It doesn't work for me . . . all I do is when I buy a record, I listen to every track and then paint mark with a little pink dot on the label the tracks I like the best so I can find them quickly when I'm cueing; for me it's easier than memorizing the name of every track I own.
HAVE FUN. If you are doing this for ego, stop. Do it because you love the music and want to relate to it in a deeper way than just listening, and because you want to share the music you love with people. There's some hip hop or techno or house track that goes "everybody wants to be a DJ." Well, I think that's just FINE!