We all have our favorite DJs—artists we’ll drop cash we don’t have and drive hours to see. But what makes one DJ better than the other? The job, on the surface, is simple enough; anyone can learn how to surgically mix one song into another. That isn’t what makes someone stand out in a sea of mediocrity, though. Is it displaying a breadth and depth of knowledge when it comes to song selection, coupled with the ability to program an entertaining set? An innate talent for reading the dancefloor and adjust accordingly? A big stage presence? Passion? All of the above? This is not an easily answered question—talent does not beget success, and the variables are galore—so we decided to ask a few clever minds that do it for a living.
What defines a great DJ?
“The biggest telltale sign of a great DJ is their ability to read a crowd. Knowing what to play and when to play it is everything. A great DJ is also a great storyteller. A great DJ takes the crowd on a journey, to a place they have no idea where they went, but know they went there. Getting into a crowd’s head, knowing where to go and how to get there with music as the vehicle. It cannot be summed into a one- or two-hour set but many, many hours. A great DJ never knows what they will play before a set but rather relies on the crowd to shape the path musically. First and foremost, experience is one of the biggest assets to defining a truly great DJ. One that has played in front of just as many empty rooms as packed dancefloors. Some of the best DJs have held club residencies, playing week in and week out to a room, gaining their trust over time. Also, a great DJ has a vast knowledge of music both new and old. Much like a fine wine, a great DJ only gets better over time.”
“A great DJ passes on joy to the crowd. A great DJ can make you forget about everything. A great DJ can make you become present.”
“Timing, knowing what to play at the right moment, and crowd reading skills are essential. Play the wrong track and you’ll lose the crowd. Play the right track and watch the magic happen. The ability to catch people by surprise and send a crowd home saying, ‘I can’t believe he/she played that.’ Finding the right balance between satisfying what the DJ wants to play and what the crowd wants to hear. Creating an atmosphere without shouting down a microphone telling them to ‘put your fucking hands up.’ A great DJ makes the show and performance about the music. For many acts the music is a merely a sideshow to their onstage antics.”
“I believe it is someone who can read the crowd, as well as interacting and taking the audience on a journey.”
“A great DJ is someone who truly loves every single record they play, someone who aims to relay their passion to the audience, whether they are 10 people or 10,000 people. Someone who has dedicated their life to exploring music and someone who is prepared to play new music to an audience they have never seen. A great DJ feels the energy in the room and then decides what to play, or which style of music they feel is going to excite and entertain the audience. A great DJ will practice technique and will take pride in the way the room sounds, and a great DJ will always play every gig like it’s their last-ever chance to perform.”