As someone who's been DJing for over 21 years in bars, clubs, radio stations, galleries, museums, house parties, etc., I've experienced a lot of good times... and a handful of not-so-good times. The odd thing is, the negative experiences tend to become more vivid in the memory than the positive ones. Anyway, an encounter at a bar where I was spinning records last month—more about that later—has spurred me to outline some dos and don'ts for people who happen to find themselves in a space where a DJ is working. (To you wiseacres who don't think DJing is work, may Billy Joel's "Big Shot" lodge itself permanently in your damn head.) Because a lot of folks—especially those under 30—seem to not be aware of what a DJ actually is.
Can I kick it? Yes, I can. Let's begin with the dos (this looks wrong, but do's is not right, either, so we're fucked from the start). I'm not guaranteeing these rules of conduct will work with every DJ, but I'm confident they'll go over well with most of them.
Do make eye contact with the DJ, especially if you're enjoying the music. Acknowledge their* presence; it's literally the least you can do. This small gesture goes a long way, especially if you're hot... er, I mean, if you want to have a request honored. But as I outline later, you should be very careful with what you request, lest you come off as an annoying ignoramus.
Do feel free to ask the DJ what track is playing—provided they're not in the middle of a transition. I absolutely adore passing on knowledge to the curious. I often trainspot other DJs' sets, and most are very cool and generous with information. Let's all learn as much about music as we can during our brief time on this roiling orb, shall we? I'm pretty sure Jesus would want it to be that way.
Do dance, if the spirit and sounds move you. After receiving your digits or your money, shaking what your mama and/or your papa gave ya is the biggest tip you can bestow upon a DJ. Even a head-nod or a thumbs-up adds to a DJ's well-being. And a happy, ego-boosted DJ can only benefit you.
Do communicate to a DJ if their set is soundtracking a successful seduction. This can be done through non-verbal means—a smile and a couple of quick eyebrow twitches or a meaningful glance and a sky punch as you exit the building will suffice. I can't speak for all DJs, but if I can help at least one couple, or triad, or moresome get lucky (no Daft Punk) on a given night, then I feel like I'm fulfilling my most important function behind the decks. And if you ever need someone to play your orgy (do they still have those?), I'm your dude. Seriously.
Now for the really fun part of the post: the don'ts.
Don't ask the DJ for a drink; that's the bartender's job. You'd think this would be obvious, but it's happened to me more than once. By the same token, don't ask the bartender to play you a song. That rarely ends well.
Speaking of drinks, don't put yours anywhere near DJs or the tools of their trade. The last thing we need is your inebriated ass spilling liquids on our equipment or rare records.
Don't touch the gear. Another that may seem obvious, but one time last year this middle-aged drunk guy took it upon himself to turn the bass way up on my mixer. And this after I honored his request to play some '80s synth music... The sheer gall of some people.
Don't hold your phone's flashlight over the spinning record to discern what's playing. Simply ask and you shall receive—unless the DJ's a total asshole. To my eternal shame, I committed this sin while Emerald City Soul Club legend and Stranger receptionist Mike Nipper was spinning 45s at Speckled & Drake a few years ago. Get this: My phone fell out of its case and landed on the record... and I was stone-cold sober at the time. Nipper, being a diamond geezer, laughed it off (there was no damage to the vinyl), but it still stands as my most ignoble action in a DJ's presence (fully clothed, anyway). I'm still apologizing to Nipper; I will never stop apologizing to him.
Don't request songs that are totally at odds with the night's vibe. At an ambient event? Don't beg for a techno banger. Frequenting a post-punk night? Don't request hiphop. At a reggae show? Leave your heavy-metal hankerings at the door. Finally, I can't stress this enough: Don't ever request any Billy Joel. I, for one, will call 911 on you.
Here's an idea: Maybe do some research before you go out, and once you get to a venue, suss out the atmosphere before barreling to the booth with demands. In short, don't be an entitled shit. Going to see a DJ should be an adventure, a prime opportunity to be exposed to tracks you normally don't hear. If you only want to listen to songs with which you're familiar, you're a narrow-minded bore. Just stay home with your Tidalzon or Pandorify or whatever y'all are piping through your earbuds these days.
Don't ask the DJ if they have Spotify access... unless you want all the evil eyes upon you, or a drink in your face. Last month at a gig, a white bro in his early 20s asked me this very question. But first he asked if I took requests; I told him not typically, because as a vinyl DJ my options are fairly limited, but I prodded him to let me know what he wanted to hear. I will try to satisfy requests, if at all feasible. That's when he popped one of the shittiest questions I've ever heard with headphones around my neck.
I guess this is an increasingly common condition that afflicts people who've never owned music or who've never seen a selector handle physical formats. These individuals have only ever consumed music via free or cheap streaming services, and they now expect DJs to comply to their every demand, right now. They don't understand that a business hires DJs because they know their shit. They don't realize competent jocks have prepared for that night with certain parameters in mind. That doesn't mean DJs can't be flexible, but there are definitely limits. You see, the harsh reality is, 97 percent of all requests are garbage or simply inappropriate—often ludicrously so. These novices expect DJs to be celestial jukeboxes with every song ever at their fingertips. While that may be nice in theory, it's unrealistic, and it's insulting to ask DJs to tap into the motherfucking Cloud to satisfy your fleeting desire to hear that new Drake joint... which is ubiquitous anyway.
Back to my scenario. Homeboy with the Spotify jones semi-redeemed himself by asking what I was playing. I held up the cover of Public Enemy's "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" 12-inch. "I fuck with stuff like that," he said, and then walked back to his table. About an hour later, as he was leaving, junior approached me for a fist bump. I reflexively brought my knuckles to his. Christ, what an emotional roller coaster...
*I'm using their as an all-purpose pronoun, because using she/he/them will get too cumbersome for this kind of post.