Beginner DJ Series # 4: Mixtapes and Why I Hate Making Them.

I know I said Vocab was next but that’s taking forever and I wanted to get something out to you guys. This is kind of early in the Beginner series to be talking about mixtapes, but I’m working on several right now and I figured I’d go ahead and get this topic out of the way. This isn’t a how to. The website Digital DJ Tips already did an excellent series on how to make a mixtape that covers the basics that aren’t specific to any genre (there’s plenty of other great articles there too, so go check the whole site out). In this post, I’m just going to talk about what they are (generally), why you need one, and when you should record one. Also, why they’re they bane of my existence.

In my mind there’s two types of mixtapes; one intended for promoters to say, “this is what I do when I play out” and the other that is intended purely for an audience. The former should be an accurate representation of what you can do in a live situation…minimal editing, no computer tricks, no multitracking (explanation coming soon), it’s only what you are actually capable when you’re behind whatever gear you use. The latter is more like an artist’s album. You’re allowed to “cheat” a little. You can edit as much as you need to get it perfect. You can take a few risks you wouldn’t take live because you can just fix it right then and there. Or you can use multiple tracks (explanation coming now) and use it to add extra layers to your mix; a complicated intro, extra scratching, layering multiple songs, etc. Ideally you want to close the gap between these two mixes as much as possible because if a promoter happens to hear your “audience mixtape” and hires you based on that, you’re in trouble if you can’t even come close to what you did in your bedroom.

Now why do you need one? Two reasons. The first is financial, without a mixtape you will not get hired by promoters. They need to see some proof that you have the skills that are worth the money to hire you. You can’t just say “Hey, I’m an awesome DJ, I should spin your jam/club/event.” You need to have something that proves you’ve put some work into the artform and have a sense of how to mix and how to build a set. Once that mix is done you just need to get it in the right hands. Sometimes, you won’t know whose those hands will be. Shoot for getting it to promoters who throw good events but also give it out to as many people as you can. I got my first b-boy jam because I recorded a mix of some breaks and hip-hop I had in my collection (at the time I was a non-working drum & bass DJ, not a breaks DJ). I gave the mix to a lot of the b-boys in the b-boy club at Georgia State University and some other friends I practiced with. It wasn’t really intended to get me work as a breaks DJ but that’s exactly what happened. The b-boy club at GSU started throwing jams and I was asked to DJ because of that mix. From that one mix, I now have a career as a breaks DJ. Ok, so “career” might be an exaggeration but I do get paid two or three weekends out of the month now.

The second reason to have a mixtape, is to get a name and gain an audience. I can’t stress how important it is to get a name out there. I’ve gotten gigs from promoters who have never heard me live or heard my mixes but heard good word of mouth from other people who liked my stuff. Once you have an audience that follows what you do, it forces you to get better. You now have expectations outside of your own little bubble of a bedroom DJ setup. Believe me, if I didn’t have people constantly demanding mixtapes from me, I probably wouldn’t be making them and I probably would make much less of an effort to get better. Not that I don’t love the art but this shit is hard.

So when should you record your first mixtape? When you’re ready. Thing is, you won’t know you’re ready till you record a mix. When you’re in the act of spinning you can get it in your head you’re doing great but if you don’t step back and listen to what you’re doing you can’t hear all the tiny mistakes like the fact that you’re screwing up your levels, your vocals are clashing on a couple of blends and you were off beat for 2 bars when you mixed two songs. Record your practices. Once you have a recording, don’t edit it and don’t listen to it right after you’re done. Burn it to a disc or put it on your iPod, wait an hour or two, a day, whatever, then go back and listen to it once you have a fresh perspective. Once you do that you’ll be much more critical than you were when you had the headphones on and were standing behind the decks. Once you start getting rid of your mistakes, then you can build a set to use for a mix. Then practice that set till your utterly sick of it, then record your mix.

Sounds kinda hard right? It is. I hate making mixtapes. That’s why I’ve been DJ’ing for 11 years and only have like 5 mixes out. Why I hate it is mainly a combination of two things. First, I’m a perfectionist when something has my name on it. This leads to practicing, reorganizing, recording, listening, re-recording, listening, and re-re-recording the same mix for hours, days, weeks, or months till it’s perfect, which it never is. And when you’re doing one of the “this is what I do live” mixes, you’ll get 45 minutes into the mix when you bump your needle or trainwreck. I’ve broken headphones over this type of thing from throwing them across the room. And there’s something about recording a mixtape that causes me to make mistakes I’d never make live, maybe it’s the pressure or maybe it’s the lack of a crowd (a crowd can make a huge difference to how comfortable you are when DJ’ing).

Which leads to the second problem, I get bored easily. I’m a DJ because I got bored of playing drums and then guitar. If I hadn’t moved from drum & bass to breaks I’d probably be playing the trombone right now and you’d be reading a blog about that.

On second thought, no you wouldn’t, that’s a terrible idea even for hypothetical me.

Try listening to the same 20 or 30 songs for a few days or weeks in the same sequence and see how long it takes for you to hate all of them. Songs get taken out of my setlist cause I’m sick of them only to get put back in a week later because I realize that nothing else fills the gap between two other songs.

I’ll take you through the process off the mixtape I’m working on right now…the Bashville All Styles mix. My goal was to make a mixtape highlighting a lot of the tracks at Bashville 7. This was what the original concept behind my S-U-M-M-A-T-I-M-E ’09 mix (it’s gone from the Internet now thanks to new soundcloud policies), it was all the tracks that I played at Bashvill that year. Building a setlist wasn’t too hard, I already had all the songs I used in one crate in Serato and the prelims to the All Styles battle was just me spinning a 20 minute set. That prelim 20 minute set provided the skeleton of the mix. It showed how I would go from Dubstep to Chicago Juke/Detroit Jit to House Baltimore Club to Hip-hop to New Orleans Bounce to New Jack to Electro House.

However, what works live doesn’t always work on a mix. A crowd is less critical an observant than a focused listener with headphones. I had to rearrange and replace tracks to make a mix that’s coherent and has a flow from beginning to end. This took a few weeks at least. What I do is get a setlist, practice it a few times to see how it feels, go away for a while and then come back and do it again. This is when I find what isn’t working. The first setlist I had contained sections that broke up the flow, the switch between genres was too drastic and it was jarring. In other sections I didn’t play enough with a genre and in others there were songs that were just clearly filler. They bridged two songs but didn’t bring anything to the mix, in those cases I sometimes had to lose three songs I really liked for the sake of the whole mix. This is another couple weeks.

Then I just said fuck it and traveled for like a month.

So I’m back from Philly and I start working on it again, I totally reorganize yet again and I have my current setlist. It’s a monster…there’s like 30 or 40 songs right now and the rough draft I recorded last night was almost an hour and a half long. Not to mention I listened to it and hated everything but the first 5 minutes. I liked the track selection but my mixing wasn’t perfect. So tonight, I’m going to get off work practice once or twice (which takes an hour and a half each time) and re-record the whole thing, maybe twice so I can pick the best blends between the two mixes if necessary. This isn’t a “promoter mix” so I don’t feel too bad cheating a little. This is intended for the fans and competitors of the All Styles battles at Bashville and nothing I’m doing is nothing I can’t do live. In fact I can guarantee I could do it better live because I have. Whenever I’m working on a mixtape, I’ll play chunks of it at battles and events to test it on live crowds. This is what I’ve done at a few All Styles battles between Bashville 7 and now and what I’ve done there has been far better than what I recorded last night.

So that’s the mixtape process for me. And to give an idea of the timeline, I started working on it a couple weeks before Bashville 7 back in March. Other DJ’s go through a similar amount of work, so if you see them selling one, buy it, “like” it, share it. They put a lot of work into it and deserve your support.

Right after this one is done, I’m moving on to the sequel to my hip-hop mixtape T.W.A. and a straight breaks mix, which I haven’t done in years. So if I have a new pair of headphones at the next event, you know why.

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