When you really start to dig into the more specialized secrets of modern DJing, a whole new dimension of creativity reveals itself. We can’t say it enough, because it bears repeating: DJing isn’t just about playing records anymore; it’s a musical art form that requires hard work, dedication and a keen ear for new “chops” to add to your repertoire. You can’t be a true musician if you don’t have chops.
David Guetta brought this point home to us by describing a technique that he had been using himself for a long time; we couldn’t believe that we’d never thought of it. Remember back in Chapter 2 when we discussed dissonance (clashing keys in a harmonic mix) as something to avoid? Well, that’s not always the case.
Without getting into the details of music theory (which you can research on your own), it’s true that any musical key you choose on the Camelot Wheel shares a special harmonic relationship with certain other keys. There are other key combinations that work outside the harmonically compatible group (i.e., 5A > 4A / 5B / 6A) we described in Chapter 2.
Guetta mentioned a technique that translates into the following: You can add four to your current Camelot code and get some unusual and compelling results. So if you mix from 10B into 2B, it sounds dissonant at first, but sometimes it works.
It’s not always compatible, so you have to experiment with individual songs before you bring it into a set, but some songs will sound insanely cool when you mix them like this. Tracks with simple melodies usually yield the best results; if they’re too complex, your mix can go off the rails.
Another interesting trick is to mix diagonally on the Camelot Wheel from 8B into 9A or from 9A into 8B. This sounds great because the individual notes of the two keys are harmonically related. You can extrapolate this technique to any key, adding one to the Camelot key if going from B to A (5B > 6A), or subtracting one if going from A to B (8A > 7B).
So if we can go from 8B to 9A, why can’t we go from 8B to 7A? The scales of 8B and 7A contain dissonant intervals, so the mix wouldn’t work harmonically.
Again, it’s important to keep in mind that mixing harmonically takes a bit of preparation before your gig. As we discussed in Chapter 2, once you’ve labeled your tracks using the Camelot code, you can move quickly from one song to the next by simply glancing at the key code. But moving around the Camelot Wheel to do harmonically related mixes, like the ones we’re suggesting here, takes practice.
If you want to give your dance floor a quick burst of excitement at any point in your set, an energy-boosting mix is the way to do it. This happens when you mix into a key that is one or two semitones higher than your current key. For example, if you are in C minor, your next key should be D-flat major (one semitone), or D minor (two semitones, or one whole tone). Going from C to D (two semitones) is the best mix.
This is more commonly referred to among musicians as modulating keys, and has been in use for decades in a lot of pop music. (It chills our hearts to say it, but Barry Manilow and Celine Dion are probably the biggest proponents of key modulation; you usually hear it toward the end of one of their songs, when the key keeps changing and the melody seems to be “climbing.”)
To go up one semitone using the Camelot Wheel, just add seven to the number of your current track. For example, if you’re playing a song in E-flat minor (2A), you’ll need to mix it into a song in E minor (9A). To go up two semitones, just add two to your current Camelot number, so if you’re in C minor (5A), add two and you’ll get D minor (7A). When you play your next tune in 7A, you’ll experience an energy-boost mix.
Obviously, the effect increases when you double the boost. For example, start with a song in 2A and listen closely to the melody and overall feel of the song. Then mix into a song in 4A (a two-semitone jump), and note how it sounds. The figure below visualizes the effect. When you use an energy boost, you’re always moving to the right on a piano keyboard.
The rule is always the same and will work with any key, and the effect on the dance floor is immediate. Your audience will subconsciously note the lift and will generally respond positively to the boost. But again, as with mixing in related keys, the technique may not work with every song, so practicing beforehand is essential. Jumping two semitones tends to be a bit safer than a one-semitone mix, but both will work well if you manage your mix with your ears open.
Of course, like anything that feels good, it’s always best to use energy boost mixing in moderation, or you risk lessening the desired effect on your audience. As we’ve said before, the main thing is to stay tuned in to what’s happening on the dance floor. If it’s already packed and moving, just keep going strong without changing your plan.
Intuitively, you might think that mixing in the opposite direction of an energy boost will slow down the dance floor, and you’re right. If you’re getting toward the end of the night, a move counter-clockwise on the Camelot Wheel to a song that’s two key codes lower than what you’re playing can send the signal that your set is winding to a close. Your audience will get the idea.
As a rule, we don’t recommend trying an energy drop like this in the middle of your set until you’re well-acquainted with the possible results. Even so, there are times when this effect can give your mix some great contrast and turn the focus of your audience right back on you. It’s an attention-grabber, and if it gets people talking about your set in a positive way, it’ll get you more gigs.
One last tip: it’s also better to mix a boost quickly because the melodies will clash. You’re going for a specific effect and not a long blend. If you do it just once in a while, the technique adds a quirky degree of complexity and contrast to your set because it violates the rules of harmonic mixing. But again, be careful not to overdo it.
If you’ve never tried scratching, give it a shot just to see what it feels like. It’s not a skill that most DJs can just pick up; it takes practice and refinement to reach a point where you can feel comfortable doing it. Scratching is all about approaching the turntable as an instrument–in fact, this is how the term “turntablism” originated.
Any turntable, CDJ, or digital controller with a turntable-like interface allows DJs to scratch. There are more than 60 different scratch techniques–chirp, crab, flare, transforming and beat-juggling are just a few–so if you want to explore the technique in depth, there’s plenty of room for you to stretch out creatively.
For our purposes though, we want to take a look at how you might incorporate scratching into your club set. Most dance music DJs tend to veer away from scratching because it involves a dexterity and skill set that differs radically from mixing–but also because there’s a perception that extended scratching routines will sound out-of-place in a club environment.
According to DJ A-Trak, nothing could be further from the truth. If it’s done with taste and attention to detail, a well-timed scratch routine can energize a dance floor. In remembering his friend Adam Goldstein (aka DJ AM), who always supported innovation in DJing, A-Trak wrote a moving blog post that summed up his thoughts about what was appropriate for a club.
“When I played more commercial clubs I used to hold back on the turntablism,” A-Trak wrote. “But whenever [Adam] was there, he relentlessly urged me to do a routine. I mean, he pushed me until I had to do it! He would grab the mic and tell the crowd ‘A-Trak didn’t want to do a routine but I’m forcing him, you guys need to see this,’ and really got them psyched. Then he’d do air scratches during my juggles.”
From the standpoint of harmonic mixing, if you cue up a small sample and hit the play button on the beat, it sounds cool as long as it’s in the same key as the song you’re playing. It could be a conga loop, a horn melody, a drumbeat, spoken word, or a line from another song; the main thing, as we stress throughout this book, is to be musical. Scratching may not always sound like it has a harmonic element, but veteran hip-hop DJs like Grand Mixer DXT understand that the technique can evoke notes and pitches, just like you can with a keyboard.
If you listen to DXT’s scratches on the Herbie Hancock classic “Rockit,” for example, you get the idea. “That was completely from a musical foundation,” DXT says. “I was thinking of sax solos, or scatting like Ella Fitzgerald. I wasn’t sure if I could actually make that happen on a turntable, but just in trying, the mechanics came to help me physically move my hands and the mixer and the turntable in a way where what I was hearing in my head came out on the decks. Musicians work that way too.”14
When we asked A-Trak about how much time you should take for a scratch routine in a club, he recommended keeping it short–two minutes at the most. “Shorter routines may not showcase your talent,” he said, “but longer routines may lose people who just came out to go clubbing.”
As with every technique you absorb into your repertoire, the key is to experiment and find what routine length works for you.
DJ Enferno has made a name for himself as Madonna’s DJ, but he’s also an accomplished producer and the 2003 U.S. champion of the DMC World DJ Championships. He definitely knows a thing or two about scratching, and has made a career out of tastefully merging elements of turntablism into his sets.
How did winning the U.S. championship in 2003 affect your career?
Enferno: Winning the DMC title was a dream come true for me as a turntablist and as a DJ. After that, I started getting my first bookings to perform outside of my own city, Washington, D.C. That was a big step for me. But to be honest, most people in the club world aren’t familiar with the DMC. I’ve had to keep pushing the envelope creatively with my music and my Live Remix Project, which is the primary reason for my success today.
What role should scratching play as part of a live set? How often do you do it?
Enferno: Scratching isn’t necessary to be a good DJ. Remember, DJing and turntablism aren’t the same thing. Scratching goes along with turntablism, which is performing with turntables as instruments. DJing is the art of entertaining a crowd through song selection. During my DJ sets, I only scratch a little bit, depending on what type of venue I’m performing in. If the crowd is watching and wants to be entertained, then I’ll scratch more. It’s really important not to overdo it. When people want to dance, they usually don’t want to hear someone scratching all night.
Now, if I’m performing my Live Remix sets, then that’s a different story. Those are completely performance-based, where I play and sample keyboards and turntables to create music. Scratching during a Live Remix set is a must. After I get a feel for the crowd–and if they’re into it–I definitely show off a little.
Scratching was one of the pillars of the hip-hop movement. Some of the young guys coming up today have a sense that it’s an old-school technique. Does it work well with digital DJing?
Enferno: I think it works great in the digital DJ world, if the DJ is good at it and has the discipline and the experience to do it at the right time. Just about all the big scratch DJs that I used to look up to (and still do actually), like Craze and A-Trak, all use digital DJ systems.
What’s the best way to learn scratching? What do you recommend?
Enferno: The best way is to make friends with someone who knows how to scratch and have that person teach you. Most people don’t have this option. I recommend going on YouTube and searching for tutorials. There are tons of them there that I wish I had access to when I was learning. If you really want in-depth training, you can even sign up for DJ Q-Bert’s Skratch University.
You never know who’s in the audience, right? We heard that Madonna’s music director discovered you by going to your gig.
Enferno: Yeah, Kevin Antunes saw me at a gig in his hometown, Orlando. I was performing an all-Live Remix set, and he tracked me down and called me the next day to talk about the tour and see whether I was interested in being considered. You can imagine my answer to that question.
What’s it like to work as a DJ on stage with a live band?
Enferno: It’s definitely a different experience than working the usual nightclub circuit. I play a part in a show to support the artist, as opposed to being the featured performer. The audiences were huge, and the shows were frequent. Traveling to so many different cities in a short period of time sometimes left me wondering what city I was in when I woke up in the morning. I loved being around so many talented people, and I think I grew as an artist and performer by being in such a group. I’ll never forget the first big show and being in front of 50,000 people.Next: Build The Perfect DJ Laptop