DJ Tips Part Two | Collect and Select

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou


Octoblues festival in Germany holds a special place in my heart as a warm and inclusive blues event, and I love that I’m a regular part of it.

This year Katrin and Jered’s vision for the event was to create a journey through the history of blues dance and music. As part of that I was given a chance to teach a class on DJing. It’s one of my favourite topics but I don’t get to talk about it too often. I wasn’t sure how much of an audience there would be, but I was excited to find out!

About twenty people gathered in the café bar with me on Sunday afternoon. I had a cup of tea and shared my thoughts on how to collect, organise and play a personal and authentic collection of music.

I wasn’t sure how it was coming across, but was happy to have lots of questions, so I thought it went well.

Later that evening someone told me they really enjoyed my talk, because I was clearly serious about music, DJing and teaching! That made me laugh!

When a complete stranger takes some time to say something like that, it means a lot, and I’m still smiling in recollection.

Here are my notes from the session. I hope you find them interesting.

How to collect and select music so you build an authentic collection (and you be a better DJ)

1 Collect

As a DJ you need to have a wide range of music that you know really well, and then to be able to find the right song for the right time.

This starts with building an honest and authentic collection.

What do I mean by ‘honest and authentic’?

It needs to be music you connect to. It needs to resonate with you. Ideally your dancers, too, but it all starts with you.

vintage-cassette_1012-260Your collection doesn’t have to be huge to start with. You can grow it steadily over time. Initially, think of your music collection as your mix-tape. It might be small but it’s your starting point.

What songs do you want to listen to over and over?

Spotify is a great tool to try out new music as it allows you to explore and discover using your existing music as a starting point, which is interesting.

Something I love less is that because it’s ‘free’ it can be tempting to ‘over collect’ and not be selective enough. There is always more to discover which makes it harder to ‘commit’. Your taste and style will evolve and change over time, for sure, but you should still have a core collection of awesome music.

Spotify is where I go to listen to songs I gather from a wide range of places – friends, other DJs, music I’ve picked up from films and bars or coffee shops. I put them all into a list of new music.

2 Connect

If I hear something and it ‘hits’ me straight away, I want to buy it, but I wait until I’ve heard it a few times to really make sure.


Kids dancing on the streets of New York – Helen Levitt

I only buy music that makes me want to dance!

I want the songs I play to have a tangible, physical effect on my body. I would also consider what movement does this bring out in me? Short, quick steps? Longer gliding ones?

Dance teachers build great collections of music to help their students to learn different styles of dance and ways of moving. My primary goal in building my music collection is different.

The most important thing for me is how the music makes me feel. Blues can make me feel happy as well as sorrowful, sensual or wishful and many different nuances in between.

So if I can’t connect with a song on an emotional level, in some way, I’m unlikely to want to play it.

3 Organise

My music is organised inside of iTunes in lots of different playlists, which I use as folders. (iTunes calls them playlists, but I don’t use them in that way.)

Some broad sub-headings are based on genre:

Classic Chicago, Vaudeville, New Orleans jazz, Funk, Gospel, Latin…

Other sub-headings are based on mood:

Power, gentle, happy, beautiful, sexy, hip, cool…

I also have sub-headings by instrument:

Smooth piano, relaxed sax, strings, banjo, clarinet…

c4d9aae5a952324af33b98fef6b0107a--nina-simone-black-artI also have sub-headings for favourite artists, including:

Etta James

John Lee Hooker

Nina Simone

Otis Redding

Al Green


4 Listen

Keep all your music in one master playlist and listen to it on ‘shuffle’ as much as you can.  This will help you become really familiar with it.

Listen for what happens when you listen to a song follow the previous one.

Is it a smooth transition?

Or not?

Is it too similar?

Or too different?

Most importantly, does it work?

5 Practice

Find a song you love. Find a song that follows it well. Find another.

Practice keeping one element of the music the same while you change something else.

Here’s an example of a ‘band-break’ set that I played at Berlin Blues Explosion last year. The band playing was the Rag-time Millionaires. You can watch them playing at the start of this music highlights video:

For the band-break I decided that all the songs I played would include piano, and mainly female vocal. I wanted to keep something the same as the band (piano and maybe guitar and bass) and introduce something different (female vocal).

You can listen along here. (Spotify)

Small transitions in style help to keep the dancers on the floor and help to create atmosphere. 

6 Reflect


Some notes from my DJ journal that I wrote a couple of years ago

Any time spent on self-reflection is incredibly worthwhile. It gives us a chance to acknowledge what went well as well as note something that could be adjusted or improved for another time.

I save all my sets in a folder grouped by year and by the event name. I listen back to every set after I play. I find it useful to think back through the decisions I made. I listen especially to the transitions I made and consider whether I feel they worked well or could have been better.

At weekend events, I also take my DJ journal and make notes after each set. If I’m organising the DJ schedule at the weekend I make notes on that too.

Final thoughts

Reading back through these notes I realise how much I’ve learned from conversations with other DJs I respect and admire.

Annette Kuhnle spent so much time with me when I first started out, and helped me understand the importance of transitions between songs.

Jered Morin generously shared the system and structure of his music files when he barely knew me. He’s always there to listen and offer encouragement when I needed to debrief.

Dan Repsch’s DJ workshop at Livin’ the Blues 2014 helped me think about the moods and feelings of songs. That completely changed the way I play.

Every time I hear another DJ I am inspired by something they play or the way they play it.

I hope this short piece has given you some ideas, wherever you are on your DJ journey, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Blues heroes | Junior Wells

“As a boy I was listening to Sonny Williamson records and I would close my eyes and visualize myself playing the harp.”

– Junior Wells

jr wells002

Photo by Brett Littlehales

One of the best-loved harp players in Chicago blues was Junior Wells. He took inspiration from the top living harmonica players and brought a passion and fire that was all his own.

Born and raised in West Memphis Arkansas, Wells learned from local blues hero Junior Parker. He was a skillful harmonica player by the time he was seven.

Continue reading

Early Piedmont Blues | Blind Blake

Guest post by Stefano Ronchi

cordiallyyoursOne man and his guitar

Arthur “Blind” Blake, born in Jacksonville in 1896, is known as one of the best artists in Piedmont blues history, if not the greatest.

Also known as the man with the ‘piano-sounding guitar’ Blake is also regarded as the unrivalled master of ragtime blues finger picking guitar.

His complex and intricate finger picking style has influenced countless others.

Continue reading

Fine and Mellow | Lady Day

12 Days of Blues-Mas | Episode #6

Written by Nicole Trissell

Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915), nicknamed “Lady Day”, sang incredible jazz tunes primarily during the 30s and 40s in the United States, at the height of American swing and jazz. She based herself in New York City, where she started singing in Harlem night clubs as a young teen, and eventually to sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Billie Holiday is celebrated as one of the most talented jazz singers who ever lived. Her timing, her sense of improvisation, her charm and style captivated audiences and earned her huge respect from other musicians.

But the life of a traveling star was hard, especially when compounded by the trials of pre-civil rights America. Billie Holiday, as one of the highest paid Black singers of the time, was still often asked to enter and leave gigs via the service elevator. This, plus a constant string of unhappy romantic relationships lead to heavy drug use throughout the 40s. This eventually landed her in jail and caused a slow decline in her voice and reputation, and by 1959 cirrhosis of the liver had claimed her life.


CLICK TO Listen along WITH the playlist

Listen and join me in a journey through two decades of Billie Holiday recordings, as I show you some of her music that has touched me the most, as a dancer and a human.


Your Mother’s Son in Law – 1933 recording

billieposeWhile this song is a little on the swing side for those of us of the blues dance persuasion, it is Billie’s first ever recorded song, set down in 1933 and bears listening to.

An interesting thing to note here, it takes more than a full minute for Billie’s singing to join the band already in full swing. It feels like it’s the band that’s the star here, especially the horns. She only sings twice, like an accent, or an additional instrument, but her singing does not feel like a focus.

Let’s Call a Heart a Heart – 1936 recording

Let’s Call a Heart a Heart is one of my favorite Billie songs.

Sentimental and Melancholy – 1937 recording

In both this and the previous song, I love the artistry with which she frolics and tumbles and holds the words.

You Go to My Head – 1938 recording
Yesterdays – 1939 recording
Fine and Mellow – 1939 recording

Fine and Mellow was actually written by Billie Holiday herself, in spite of the fact that she never learned to read music.

God Bless the Child – 1941 recording
Long Gone Blues – 1941 recording

These two are lovely, exquisitely emotive songs, and indicative of the thing that captivated so many audiences. Her voice soars over the rest of the small combo or quiet instrumentation, as the highlighted, soloing instrument, full of expression. In Long Gone Blues especially, compare what her voice does to what the horns do in their solos.

Georgia on My Mind – 1941 recording

This has quickly become my favorite version of this song. Again, there is no comparing to the way she sings, carries the words, bends the notes…

Gloomy Sunday – 1941 recording
Don’t Explain – 1946 recording

Exquisite, soaring torch songs. But as you listen to these two songs, side by side, compare the quality of her voice. All her artistry is still present in both songs, but the five years that passed between these two songs has been hard on Billie’s voice. It gets thinner, more gravely.

Baby I Don’t Cry Over You – 1946 recording

This song. Just everything about it. It’s carefree, it’s a great, empowered message. “I could have told you, right from the start, no man is man enough to break my heart.” You tell him girl!

Do Your Duty – 1951 recording

This song is one of the last songs Billie ever recorded. It had extra significance to her, as this was a standard of Bessie Smith, who was one of Billie’s early influences and idols. Personally, I like Bessie’s version better, but it’s kind of fun having these lyrics paired with a big, polished swing band.


Nearing the End

Between these last two songs, Billie dealt with several arrests for narcotics possession, more abusive relationships, and continued drug use. She also was able to play packed houses at huge venues, but lost her ability to play in the intimate New York bars and clubs that she loved, due to losing her New York Cabaret Card as part of her legal troubles. After several more years of declining health and career, during which she published her autobiography, she finally passed away from side effects of her chronic drug use.

Her rise was meteoric: fast, bright, and over far too soon.



The last piece I want to leave you with was her most controversial, and also biggest-selling song. The song Strange Fruit was originally written as a poem by teacher Abel Meeropol and speaks through intense imagery of racism and hate crimes. Billie Holiday would sing it at live performances often, on the condition that servers stopped serving, the space was made dark, and there was no encore after the weighty performance.

I leave you with a video of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit.

12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Nicole Trissell.

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