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DJ Advice Corner: The Opening DJ (The Lost Art)

DJ Advice: Know Your Role

As the role of the “DJ” becomes more prominent in the world of entertainment, more people are flocking to websites, equipment stores, and purchasing computers to try their hands (literally) at the craft. Although all it takes to become a DJ these days is a laptop and Serato, Traktor or CD-J’s, and a mixer, I’m oldskool. I believe that DJ’ing is an art form. It’s a way to express yourself… your mood… your emotions. Think about it, when you’re happy, you put something that makes you nod your head to a beat and smile. When you’re sad, you’re probably stuck in your room or car listening to some EMO music. When you’re getting ready for a big game, chances are Bring Em Out, Eye of the Tiger, Stronger, Hells Bells or Enter Sandman are in your playlist somewhere. Music hits you on several levels. It stimulates your brain with the lyrics. Your body feels the rhythm and your ears hear the beat. With that said, there’s more to just being a DJ than owning a program and a laptop.

During my past 17 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to play the role as an entertainer on different scales:
Filler DJ: Someone who’s there just to add promotional value to the venue
Closing DJ: The headlining act just finished… we just need music to help get people out
Headlining DJ: You’re paid to KILL IT and entice people to come back to the venue or support the promoters
Opening DJ: Open the room for the headliner.

Today we will look at the LOST Art of the opening DJ… and yes folks, this is a lost art.

During my years as a DJ, I had to work my way around as a filler closer and opener in order to become a headliner. There are still some nights/days where I serve as one of the above. Understanding how to set the vibe for the night is a key ingredient to your longevity and overall success. As a great opener you’ll set the standard and believe it or not… someone’s always listening. If you know how to: drive people to the bar, invite people to get on the floor and keep bodies entertained while liquor sales increase, I’ll guarantee that you’ll have a job as a DJ. Back before the digital era, headliners had the music. We were fortunate enough to be “serviced” by labels so that we had music first. We knew what was current and had the advantage over others because we had music before it was available in stores. Fast forward to the present time… EVERYONE pretty much has the same 10,000 songs to choose from to play at any given time, and then their set of tracks that they love for themselves. We’ll break down the how to open a room in segments.

Remember as the opening DJ it is your job to set the vibe for the night. I walked into a club 1 night when there was 500 people there at 12:00am, and the opening DJ was going nuts: slamming tracks, heaters and prime time music… at 12:00am? You’re really gonna drop We Found Love at 12:00AM? 1/2 the room is still coming in the door! It got so bad that even 1 of the managers and promoters went up to the DJ and asked: “WTF are you doing?”
I’m not saying don’t slam music, but by playing heaters that early… for an average DJ or night, why are people gonna stay? Why are you so anxious to get your shining moment on that you’ll alienate yourself? It’s just not smart. Let’s focus on the 1st portion of opening for a top 40/open format room.

1. 10:00pm – 11:00pm
Start with a 30-60 minute set that has tracks that people love to hear. I usually start with R&B (80’s & 90’s). You know, songs that people can bob their heads and sing along with. Feel free to drop a Biggie or Snoop song here and there… but keep it light. Playing fan friendly tracks like All Night Long lets the crowd know that they’re in for a treat. You know what they like and the bar staff and promoters can rely on you to help build the evening up.

2. 11:00pm – 12:00am
Now that there’s a few hundred people inside the venue, you can pick it up a little more. At this time, I like to ease off of the <92 bpm music and pick up the overall feel of the night. Start to get the crowd excited. Talk on the mic. Announce who you are... who the headliner is.. you're just warming it up... hit the bar.. tip your bartenders and staff... give the crowd something to start getting excited about.. something to wait for.. build the suspense for the evening. At this time I move towards the 92 - 100bpm uptempo music... but still aren't in your face we're slamming you material: Candy Rain, Get It On Tonight, Juicy, Real Love... maybe even a starting classic reggae set??? but not the crazy bangers. 3. 12:00am – 1:00am
By now you should have 1/2 of the room filled up, and it’s time to pick it up a little bit. Don’t be scared to play an 80’s set, maybe switch to a new jack set? I like taking the time to maybe drop something like In My Head, maybe a little Lionel Richie, A funk or a disco set? Sure why not! How bout some Ladies Night, or a little Aretha… Motownphilly to some Lisa Lisa… you’re picking up the vibe with music that the crowd still relates to, can definitely sing along with and drink to. They’re getting happier and remembering how dope you’ve been. I still let the crowd know that we’re warming it up until the prime time of 1:00am. I’ll tease them with some classic house (India, Bucketheads, La Rhumba, Brighter Days)… keep them guessing what you’ll play next. Think of it like you’re trying to keep them on the edge of their seats…. tease them with something that might be played later in the night… but a remix/blend or mashup.
By now you’ll have them ready for the headlining DJ.

When I open I like to ask the headliner what songs he’s gonna touch, what turntable or deck he/she would like to start off on. We’re DJ’s so at the end of the day, we play what/how we want. But know that the responsibility of opening up a room shouldn’t be taken lightly. Treat it as the prologue. Think of it as: cocktail hour before the main course. Think of music that you’d like to listen to while having drinks and conversations with friends… that is in fact the first 90 minutes of a club night… people talking about the venue, catching up…. provide entertainment that doesn’t overshadow the theme of the night.

And with that, good luck this weekend. Whether you’re opening, closing, filling or headlining… I wish you success in all you do!


  1. Great advice man, I’ve notice that issue too

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