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What does a DJ do?

Updated on October 15, 2013

Disc Jock . Ey


1. a person who introduces and plays recorded popular music, esp. on radio or at a disco.

The History of DJ-ing

The art and craft of DJing has been around for quite a long time now. It started off as a vinyl-based medium, when vinyl records took off and began selling as a mass produced product. People started to want to hear their favorite records in clubs and demand for playing these songs grew huge.

Originally, records were actually played one after another and weren't even "mixed" in the way that we would understand it today. However, as DJing grew more and more popular, attention was turned to how the music could be blended and mixed together to create a constant stream of sound that was uninterrupted and better suited for a club audience.

When this first began, it was at a very amateur point. Music was often mixed together at completely different tempos and in completely different keys. This was because the music that was mixed at the time had very nonrhythmic elements and was not necessarily designed purely for play in clubs, or even for dancing for that matter!

DJing in the 70s

As DJ-ing developed and people began to recognize it as a definitive skill, the importance of beat-matching became much more pronounced. Something that is now considered an absolute basic was at the time considered a cutting-edge technique.

Many credit American DJ Francis Grasso as the first DJ to realize the importance of beat-matching. He began utilizing the technique of slip-cueing to release a record right on time and on the beat of the song. This way the rhythm of the track was maintained and the sound played on continuously.

As a result, people began to realize the importance of knowing the BPM (Beats Per Minute) of a track, in order to know which ones would blend into each other without any work. Modern DJing in its current form began to take shape.

Technic 1200
Technic 1200 | Source

Examples of DJs

One great example of a DJ is the guy below, DJ Ravine. He is an example of using modern mixing techniques (software and laptop), combined with 'old-fashioned' hardware like vinyl turntables to create something unique and modern. Vinyl turntables are still the best way of performing turntablism - the act of using turntables as a musical instrument rather than merely a mixing tool.

DJ Ravine

What is your favorite genre of dance music?

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Into the 90s

The 90s were arguably the time when commercial music first begin to rise as a significant genre. DJs and songs began concentrating around the 140BPM mark, and songs made heavy use of drum machines and hardware synths.

DJing as an art and as a skill really took off. Artists such as Paul van Dyk really became popular, and the rise of dance music as it is today really took shape.

Avicii - one of the biggest and most commercially successful DJs


Growth in Unbelievable Amounts of Wealth

Today, top DJs get paid extremely high amounts per show. It is not unheard of for DJs to be earning six figure sums per show. Below is a table showing the amounts that DJs have earn in the previous 12 months.

Top 10 Earning DJs (Electronic Cash Kings 2013 by Forbes)

DJ Name
1. Calvin Harris
$46 million
2. Tiesto
$32 million
3. David Guetta
$30 million
4. Swedish House Mafia
$25 million
5. deadmau5
$21 million
6. Avicii
$20 million
7. Afrojack
$18 million
8. Armin van Buuren
$17 million
9=. Skrillex
$16 million
9=. Kaskade
$16 million

Into the 2010s

Today, DJs have been named the "rockstars of the future", as Electronic Dance Music has really taken off worldwide. The growth in the United States has been particularly phenomenal. Indeed, it is this country which arguably gave birth to the term "EDM", as fans began to express crossing interest in multiple genres, rather than swearing allegiance to one or the other (trance, house etc)

Growing Diversity in Equipment, Hardware and Software

Today, DJs use all kinds of equipment (hardware and software) in order to mix music live. Many DJs use a combination of digital CD players (commonly produced by Pioneer and called CDJs), with their laptop, to mix live.

Oftentimes they will have a piece of specialist DJ mixing software installed on their laptop. The most common variants are VirtualDJ, Traktor Pro 2.5 and Serato DJ. These also have variants of themselves too. For instance, Native Instruments have created a version of Traktor called Traktor Scratch, which is specifically designed to make working with vinyl turntables and CDJs much easier, when trying to integrate them into your setup.

Personally, I use Traktor Pro 2.5, by Native Instruments, in combination with the Numark Mixtrack Pro. Numark have actually released a sequel to this which will definitely be worth checking out. In the meantime, this is an excellent choice - its not too expensive so it meets budget requirements, and works perfectly with Traktor.

How Does It Work?

To understand what exactly it is that a DJ does, we have to understand what their purpose is and what they are there for. The aim of the DJ in any setting, be it a club, party or any other environment, is first and foremost to keep the music playing. This is why mixing in-between songs is so vitally important. Smooth transitions keep the rhythm going and mean the crowd are far less likely to leave the dancefloor.

As a result, the tools that a DJ uses to mix and transition between songs is of huge importance. Today there are essentially three main options:

1. Vinyl

2. CDJ

3. Digital

Vinyl is on the decline, but people are finding ways to bring it back by combining their vinyl turntables with their digital setups. CDJs remain the most common method, as it makes easy to DJs to "plug-and-play" when they arrive at a club for example.

Digital DJing however is definitely on the up. This is confirmed by producers and DJs such as Porter Robinson using exclusively digital setups. It is likely that the future of DJing will be entirely digital. Digital DJing enables DJs to spend more time on the creativity of their set and building it up. Unfortunately, many digital DJs have not truly harnessed the power of their setup yet and as a result we don't see too many imaginative performances.

The Music Producer Versus The DJ

Today, the lines are continually blurring more and more between the definition of producer and performer. Many of the top "DJs" today actually started off as music producers, and simply became DJs as a way of showcasing their music.

Despite the blurring of the lines, however, the technical difference still remains, even if today most superstars in the EDM world definitively straddle the divide.

Music producers remain to be people who simply produce music. The term is also non-limiting - as a result it is often heard outside EDM and dance music circles to mean someone who works on the instrumental backing of a popular singer/songwriter.

DJs are people who mix and play tracks together, one after another, without delay or hesitation, and smooth out the transitions to ensure that there is a continuous stream of music always being played, in whatever situation they happen to be in.

Annoyingly the confusion is aided further by many of these superstar acts appearing in the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs List. Indeed, artists such as deadmau5 have vocally expressed their disagreement with the absurdity of the whole situation.


Hopefully by now you have a basic grasp of the development and history of DJing, as well as its fundamental concepts. It is a very simple idea, but very difficult to put into practice, and even many of the superstar acts are still learning and improving. Getting a crowd going is actually the most difficult DJ skill of them all, and extends much deeper than the simply technical aspects of the job.


What is your favorite DJing software?

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