Adapt or die: Playing the DJ game

Ahead of Stereosonic, Major Lazer’s lead players Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire write for inthemix about their evolution as selectors, the “DJs playing the same sets every night” debate, and how DJing culture has changed. After reading, you can get on-board with the Major Lazer sound in this ITM-FM exclusive mix.


First off, in this day and age, the Major Lazer crew would be considered veterans. Not that we have been doing Major Lazer forever, but because we all started long ago playing vinyl on belt-driven turntables. We bought records when one song cost as much as 10 dollars and when you played it too much or dropped it, you would have to go and find it again.

But we are also in the game now. Somehow we are still relevant and constantly inspired by what’s happening now just as we were when we started. We see all these other acts around us, ones who helped to break through in this EDM scene and ones who just jump in because it’s an easy game. We see a majority of kids with no history of DJ culture and also no background in hip hop – this is much different from where all three of us have come from.

As a DJ learning, coming up, it was all about selection. Let me tell you this: there was never a pot of gold when you decided to become the DJ. The DJs had always been the under-appreciated aspect of the music. We were the distributors who worked to promote the artist and the labels. If we were lucky we could carve a small party locally. Yes, we did probably grab the best girl at the end of the night, but that was sort of the only reward besides loving the music.

Whenever I discuss being a DJ or get into the politics I also seem like an asshole or worse, an ‘over the hill disgruntled DJ’. That’s not how I want to come off, because I’m only doing this now because I’m still inspired and excited by what the young producers and older ones are doing right now.

I just want to give some background where the Major Lazer crew – Chris, Walshy, and myself – have all come from. Some things just stick out these days that just wouldn’t fly five to 10 to 15 years ago. For instance, if you played the same set twice that was just ridiculous. I mean from one side, it was just a bit cheesy and lazy. But on a professional side, as a DJ I loved to be the trailblazer. I loved to play new music, to make people go, “Wow! Damn! WTF was that?”

I was proud to break the new sounds. I had pride in having records other people didn’t. That doesn’t exist now. You can find everything everywhere. At the time I started, I was fascinated with the original hip hop/house/ techno DJs who created their style and fan-base through originality, not through being homogenous.

I remember I used to spend almost all my budget on records – sometimes like 60 or 70 records a month. That could be over $2000 I spent on vinyl just to fill the annoying giant crates and practice mixing these records for hours. Sometimes it was just The Killah Kuts, the white label vinyl that was getting pressed up somewhere in Nashville or NYC. The mixtape tracks printed to vinyl, the acapellas – the pre MP3 mailout shit! That and the B-more singles, ‘cause that’s the shit other people wouldn’t have. Back then the DJ scene was very cut-throat; no one was gonna look out for another DJ. If you had a good paying job, you held onto it, tooth and nail.

Anyway, back to DJs playing the same sets every night. That’s not so rare any more – and it’s a good and bad thing. Mostly DJs like Major Lazer are playing majority of their own original records. Nowadays, DJs are travelling and playing in every market: the U.S. Europe, Australia, and so on. When we grew up, you pretty much just bounced between two or three neighbourhoods almost all the time.

It’s not unusual to play the same set every night nowadays, because it’s a set that’s working and you’re reaching a new audience every night. It’s different from seven years ago in Philly, when I played three or four nights a week, to lots of the same clientele. It might’ve been a bottle service crowd, or a hip hop night, or a rock club, so I had to learn to be versatile right off the bat just to make money to pay my bills.

Next page