A Good DJ Understands EQ – No, not that EQ
I recently participated in DJ discussion where part of the conversation was about “what makes a good DJ.” The comment one hears most often is that DJs must “know the music.” It would seem to be an obvious observation, but what does it really mean to “know” the music.
Is it about?
- knowing the different orchestras and identifying them
- Knowing the eras of the orchestras
- Understanding which orchestras are more rhythmic and which more lyrical
- Knowing what leaders need from the music to initiate conversations
Of course, it’s about all of that but also much more.
Basic DJ Requirements:
- A comprehensive library of music
- A laptop and an understanding of the technology
- Complete tagging information for every song with recording dates and whether a song is an instrumental or vocal (with the singer identified)
EQ = Emotional Quotient
Beyond the basics, the DJ needs to know “EQ,” and here I’m not talking about the equalizer (EQ) in the sound system or laptop. I’m talking about understanding the Emotional Quotient (EQ) of the music and everything that is happening in the room during a milonga. EQ is also referred to as Emotional Intelligence which can be defined as:
The ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can recognize their own emotions and those of others, and use this emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, adjusting emotions to adapt to environments.
At a Milonga there are a number of energies and emotions that the DJ must recognize and manage. Obviously, the energy and emotional content of the music itself, but also the energy that the dancers bring to and generate in the space. A sparsely attended milonga will have less energy, at least with regard to the energy that the dancers bring to the space. We’ve all been at events where the room is packed and the energy is very high. And we’ve also probably experienced the opposite. The DJ’s job is to recognize all of that and play music that produces a synergistic flow.
Creating that “flow” is the challenge for the DJ: what to play to match the energy in the space and also to encourage and move the energy in one direction or another.
The Emotional Content of Every Song
This means the DJ must have an understanding of the emotional content and energy of every song. S/he/they must know when to play rhythmic tandas vs. more lyrical ones. They need to know when and how to give the dancers a bit of break. One cannot play head-banging, high emotional music all night long as that will simply wear the dancers out.
On the other hand, multiple tandas of low-energy music can rob emotional energy and make everyone sleepy.
The DJ is a vital and essential element to keep the party going. Creating a playlist at home and just hitting the play button when one gets to the Milonga is not responding to the EQ in the room. One could simply find a playlist on Spotify that would do the same thing. And playing it safe by simply spinning tunes all with a middling energy doesn’t shape or create any ebb and flow to the Milonga either.
Building Coherent Tandas with Good EQ
Basic DJ training involves understanding the order tandas are played in – most often: Tango, Tango, Vals, Tango, Tango, Milonga – and also that we generally don’t mix orchestras or create tandas with widely varying recording dates. I once heard a DJ play a Carlos Di Sarli tanda (nice!), but played songs from the ’30’s, 40’s and 50’s all in the same tanda (not nice).
Di Sarli’s orchestra was so very different throughout all of those periods. And while many (most?) dancers might not perceive such a tanda as being incoherent, such a tanda means the DJ has no control over the EQ of the Milonga.
While it is essential that DJs thoroughly tag all of their music with dates, singers, etc., that doesn’t mean that playing a cohesive tanda means simply picking songs all by one orchestra and from one or a few similar years.
Here are examples of two songs by Carlos Di Sarli, both from 1945, but with very different emotional content. “Tu intimo secreto” is a very laid back and lyrical song.
While “El pollo Ricardo” is quite rhythmic with much higher energy.
Would they work in the same tanda? Perhaps, but the DJ would have to have a clear plan with regard to what s/he/they was trying to do with that tanda. The tanda could start with the lower energy of “Tu intimo secreto” (to perhaps give the dancers a bit of a break from the previous tanda?) and then gradually throughout the tanda increase the energy, leading to whatever was planned for the following tanda. Or some other plan, but there really needs to be a plan.
If you’re a DJ, make sure all of your music is properly tagged and then strive to understand the character and energy of each song. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, Osvaldo Fresedo’s music is sweet and lyrical with a laid-back energy,” because there are also many tracks that have upbeat, rhythmic qualities. The same is true for many of the other orchestras.
If you’re a dancer, take time at the next milonga to notice the music in a new way. Listen for how the DJ shapes the evening and the individual tandas.