The room had a low red glow to it. Lights flickered across the dance floor, fluid visuals floated on a screen above, and the music blared over the speakers.
My eyes were fixated on the laptop in front of me, heart racing as I searched for the next song to play. I had already stopped the music with a clumsy press of a wrong button and was determined to not make any more mistakes.
“Can I grab you a drink?” one of the party organizers asked me. Usually I’d oblige, but I figured I’d need to stay as sharp as I could and avoid any more screw ups.
I sheepishly replied, “Err.. I’m good, thanks.”
I started DJing 15 years ago, but it had been over 10 years ago since I played in a club. It was also 4 years since I “retired” from DJing, selling all of my equipment and moving on to other interests.
But here I was, in a nightclub in Oakland, California, behind a set of glowing DJ equipment. Its colorful array of lights and buttons looking like a control panel out of a Fisher Price rocket ship, if there was ever such a thing.
As I frantically tried to select and mix the next song, I half hoped people wouldn’t walk in and hear my anxiety ridden performance.
How did I get here?
My friend Anish, who I had ‘grown up’ DJing with in college, has continued to DJ and produce music long after I faded away. Anish, along with some friends of his, had started a monthly party at a small club in Oakland, where they each DJ throughout the night. As we chatted one day, I inquired about when the next party would be,
“When’s your next gig? I’d love to see you jam, I’ll come down from Seattle”
“Don’t come to just watch. Come down and DJ. I’ll talk to the others about getting you on the schedule”
I laughed and brushed it off, thinking it was just an offer out of politeness. I also knew I was in no form suitable to DJ at a club. A year before, I had bought a simple DJ controller to toy around on, but there’s a big difference between the occasional iPad DJing at home versus playing in a club.
A few weeks later I got a message from Anish,
“hey so I confirmed you to open in September if you want to come down for it..”
I was pretty surprised and wasn’t sure what to do. I knew there was going to be a lot of prep on my end if I actually went through with it.
DJing technology evolved massively since I was DJing in college (I wrote about my thoughts on the effect of tech and DJing in a separate post). I’d have to not only learn how to use the equipment and software used today, but also build a new music collection. And of course I’d have to practice my core DJ skills too.
This would be a commitment to make it happen. I already have a pretty tight schedule of priorities, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to push out other things.*
I thought to myself, “Would I regret not doing this?”
I jumped on the opportunity. And threw myself into preparing over the next month before the gig.
A month later, I met Anish and his friends at the club. After everything was setup and sound checks done, I kicked things off.
I DJ’d for just over an hour. And it was one of my worst sets I’ve played, ever. Mistakes abounded and songs clashed. The set didn’t flow, with songs sounding repetitive and transitions abrupt.
But I had so much fun.
Afterwards, I thought about how a terrible DJ performance could possibly still be fun. I also thought about why I threw myself completely into preparing, especially when DJing wasn’t on my list of priorities for the year, or any year for that matter.
I came up with a few great takeaways. In this post, I wanted to capture some of these thoughts.
How can a terrible DJ performance possibly still be fun?
Be a beginner. Humble pie is good for you.
I had been DJing long enough that I considered myself capable and comfortable playing in any environment. Like riding a bicycle, I figured I would never forget the core DJ skills of beatmatching and mixing songs together.
But what happens when you don’t even recognize the bicycle anymore?
All throughout my time DJing, and for decades before, the Technics 1200 turntable was the benchmark standard for DJs anywhere. Somewhere from perhaps 2010 to 2019, everything changed and vinyl turntables were completely phased out. Plasticky DJ modules, connected to software running on a laptop became commonplace.
I bought a new DJ controller, one that mimicked the layout of the professional models found in clubs nowadays, and I set up the software that was so commonplace now.
While the basic layout of the controller was familiar to me, the additional button pads, knobs, and software features were all foreign to me.
Pretty quickly, I found myself on Youtube watching beginner DJ videos on how to use the software and controller. I winced every time I played a video with a teen aged looking DJ teaching beginner concepts to me. A constant stream of ads for DJ lessons appeared.
“Screw you, I know what I’m doing!!” I thought to myself.
But ultimately, I didn’t know what I was doing.
I had to accept a big slice of humble pie and realize that I really was a beginner again.
The new features enabled by software – instant loops, hot cues, key adjust, software effects, and more are all commonplace now, but were all new to me. As I watched livestream videos of DJs in action, I couldn’t believe what was capable now with the new technology.
I felt anxiety and excitement at the same time. I felt anxious because DJing had evolved into a completely different level, one that I was not prepared for. Yet at the same time, I felt excited for all the possibilities.
Once I put my ego aside and embraced the excitement of learning, I became intensely addicted to re-learning what DJing has become.
I realized that being an expert is dangerous. Because as an expert, we often have egos to protect. Anything that threatens our expert status is frightening. It’s also comfortable to do what we’ve always been doing. It’s easier to lament how DJing “isn’t what it used to be,” snub anything new, and relish in the memories of days gone by.
It’s only with the curiosity and openness of a beginner mindset can we enable ourselves to continue growing.
Humble pie is good for you.
As an expert, we have egos to protect. Anything that threatens our expert status is frightening.
Encouragement x Opportunity = Powerful Combo
I worked hard because I innately love DJing and enjoy the process of learning and building my skills.
However, I noticed there was another surprising factor that motivated me to do my best.
I didn’t want to let my friends down.
A DJ is a performer, and like any performer, has to be qualified to perform professionally. There are countless aspiring DJs all dreaming to play at parties, clubs, events, just about anywhere. A DJ needs to hustle, build credibility, and market themselves to get gigs.
My friend and his friends had done all the hard work and arranged a monthly event at a club. After all of their hard work, my friend used his own goodwill and vouched for me to play. Not only did he proactively offer me the opportunity, but he believed I could do it.
I knew I was incredibly fortunate to be handed an opportunity where all I literally had to was show up.
When discussing with some friends whether I should do it, they looked at me in a ridiculous way as if to imply “why wouldn’t you do it?” They were excited for me and believed I would do well.
The support from friends was uplifting, and I didn’t want to disappoint.
It’s common to doubt ourselves all the time. Sometimes all it takes is an encouraging outside perspective to magnify motivation and inspire action.
I tried my best. And that feels great.
The set I played was so terrible that of all the recordings I’ve made, it’s one of the few that I refuse to listen to again. It’s disheartening to have such a poor outcome, especially since I had worked hard to get to that point.
But my disappointment has been overshadowed by satisfaction and a desire to do better.
I realized that I gave it my all – to learn how to use the new technology, to research and build a new collection of music, to practice, practice, and practice more.
I was as prepared as I could have been given the timing, and the outcome is what it is. There was no regret for not preparing more, because I couldn’t have prepared more. Everything was done to the best of my capabilities at the time.
And that’s where the satisfaction lies. It’s rewarding to know that I did everything I could.
But I also saw progress. In the process of preparation, I learned new techniques and saw improvements in areas I had just learned. To know that I could improve, given additional focus and practice, has been inspiring.
The poor performance of the night has caused me to reflect about what I could do better and has motivated me to raise the bar on my abilities.
The common theme I felt from the moment I was offered the opportunity, to the flight home afterwards, to even now, is the gratitude I feel.
Outside of my friend, none of the DJs knew who I was. They had never met me and had no idea what I’d do. It was their night and they had done all the hard work to get everything going. As far as they knew, I was just another wannabe DJ. Yet all were extremely gracious and treated me as a guest.
When I mentioned I’d be in SF, friends quickly offered a couch to crash on. Even as they were rushing around with their hectic schedules. On the night of the event, my friend Jeson took a 45min+ Uber to come support and hang out. I’m grateful for all the little things that made my trip smooth and the experience great.
Gratitude for the opportunity motivated me to do my best.
Gratitude for the experience led me to enjoy it so much more.
Gratitude for the support inspires me to pay it forward.
I have no plans to DJ at clubs further, and that’s OK. I’m having lots of fun in the low stakes environment of DJing at home.
The night was extraordinarily fun, and I’m also equally excited for the lessons learned. The lessons don’t just apply to DJing, but to many things in life. When I’m presented with opportunities, or when I can provide opportunities for others, it’ll be great to remember:
- Have the humility to be a beginner again.
- Believe in others and facilitate opportunities.
- If you gave it your all, the outcome doesn’t matter.
- Gratitude is a powerful motivator.
I’m proud to say I’ve got the “battle scars” of a modern DJ. A decade ago I probably would’ve beat myself up over such mistakes during a gig. But it’s funny now how I look back at a train wreck of a night not fraught with shame, but rather with a smile, fondness, and inspiration to get better.
*I kept my Japanese lessons, but DJ prep was on my mind so much I repeatedly used it as fodder for my conversation practice. 皆さん、DJの話を聞いてくれてありがとう！
**If you’re curious, here’s the mix I recorded while on the flight back the next day. (Definitely a bit awkward while squished into the seat, but I’m still in awe of what DJ tech has enabled nowadays..)
Comments or thoughts? Let me know!