The Art of Breaking Records

One of the most notorious complaints that traditional DJ culture has about new DJs is their lack of breaking records. Breaking records is all about playing new music at the club and opening ears to a new song that they wouldn't of heard on the radio or anywhere else.

A Brief History

The disc-jockey (DJ) started on the radio which is monitored by the FCC, driven by advertising and owned by massive corporations. Originally, DJs weren't expected to have personalities and the job was like factory work. The DJ earned the freedom to break records in the dance club scene and every DJ should flex their rights.  When the jukebox in the corner of the bar evolved into the professional DJ in 1943, the transformation was based on the premise that the DJ was playing rare and unique music found by "digging" at record stores. "Digging" is a term used by DJ insiders for searching and curating music by sifting through piles of vinyl records; I would also include scouring the vastness of the internet. DJ's would dig for obscure one-hit-wonders, b-sides, and underrated singles.
The responsibility of breaking records become lucrative for the DJ in the 70's when it became a main promotional tool for disco. Soon "The Record Pool" was created so that record labels could directly send promo only singles to DJs so that they could break the record in their resident club.
One of the defining attributes of a professional DJ is the ability to lead a party and the music a DJ plays defines their style and the taste for their audience. Playing new music can be the differentiating factor between two DJs. Also, breaking records is one of the most exhilarating parts of my job and I try to do it as often as I can and play well-known music sparingly. Keeping the dance floor fresh is a powerful tool if used wisely. Here are the best tips I can give when breaking records:

How-to Break Records

1. Find New Music
The music industry is oversaturated. Anyone can create a Soundcloud or post their recordings on Bandcamp. How a DJ finds music is also a factor in what is played. I find music in a variety of ways:

  • First, I always pay attention to what is going on in the mainstream. Check your local radio station's playlists and check the national and international Billboard charts. Just knowing what the hot new song is can win over a young crowd and knowing an album cut of the current top artist with a fan base can really set you apart with those fans.
  • Second, check out liner notes, DJ mixes and other playlists. Draw on the music you already know and love by reading the liner notes. That's where you will find the producer, the mix engineer and a whole bunch of other valuable information. If you like a record, chances are you'll probably like a similar record by the same producer. Also, there is a wealth of knowledge in your favorite DJ's mixes and your friend's Spotify playlist.
  • Third, listen to the random music you come across everyday. You may find something new and interesting by listening to the music linked in a random tweet or your friend's new album. Specifically for DJs, there are digital record pools where you can find all kinds of underground music.

2. Know your audience (Read the Crowd)
This is seen as a lost art, but it's very important if you're going to play new music that people aren't familiar with. Do they want to dance to soul music or EDM? Do they like rock ballads or hip-hop breaks? How do you find out? Part of it is intuition, but I prefer science. I use my time warming up the crowd by testing the waters. Try a little of one genre, then tastefully try another until you can definably tell what they enjoy and more importantly the music to avoid. Reading a crowd doesn't mean judging them on looks, a DJ has to feel the energy of the room and understand where the party wants to go.

3. Take Hints from the Venue
Certain music is only going to go with certain environments. Don't play the underground rap record at a school dance or the new rock record at the club. Push the boundaries and lead the party, but also have a good understanding of what's expected of you.

4. The Sandwich Technique
So, you've got a new tune that you're dying to play, your audience is prime for it and you're sure it fits the venue. Now you've got to have the confidence to actually play it. The sandwich technique of breaking records is actually quite simple: mix it in-between two similar records that people love. The reaction will vary, but if you do it right, you will know whether you have a record worth breaking or not. Watch the party. Did they cringe? Did they sit down? Did they put their hands up? Did anyone come over and ask you the name of the artist or track? Any of these could be indicators of the quality of the new song you chose or the way that you mixed it, so know the difference. Just because you may have gotten a bad reaction one time doesn't mean throw out the record and same goes for the opposite. Try it again, even later on at the same party.

5. Don't Get Stuck in the Pocket
In my opinion, the worst thing a DJ can do is stay in what I call the pocket. The pocket is that safe neutral zone of bland and basic music that people hear all day long everywhere else. I've ended up in the pocket a few times and it's the worst feeling. It feels like you have no where left to take the party. When you look for the next track to play, out of the thousands of songs on your laptop, nothing fits except for music you've already played. Being stuck in the pocket means there's no headroom for flavor, style, or creativity. Free yourself from the pocket by not playing only Top 40 and well-known classics; Break records.

Play It Cool,

CoolHand