Storytelling In A DJ Mix

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Stories are a staple of the human experience – from Homer to Dr. Seuss, the greatest storytellers have inspired us, taught us, and even pushed us into action. DJs often want to become something more than just a request-based party-rocker, but as musicians and artists in their own right. Today we dig deeper into the art of DJing and explore how being a better storyteller can dramatically enhance your sets.

WHY TELL STORIES?  

It’s important to first understand the difference between what a story is and what a story does. The most gripping stories aren’t just written or told, they are throughly designed with the audience at its forefront.

 “Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life…Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.”

– Pamela Rutledge, Psychology Today

The key word here is meaning. A good story is designed in such a way to make us empathize with certain point of views and thus change the way we perceive the world around us. Stories, as a result, are merely mechanisms of delivery, crafted in such a way to develop an intrinsic sense of meaning through emotion and metaphors.

We can look to the world of advertising as an industry perfecting the power of the story. Advertisers and marketers use stories to inspire emotions and ultimately bring wallets out:

This tearjerker of an ad not only displays Google’s search feature set (e.g. instant search, query auto-correction, integration with other Google services), but it also works to establish an emotional connection with the viewer through a carefully constructed narrative on love.

WHAT’S IN A STORY? 

Now that we understand the power and weight of stories, how exactly can we, as DJ’s, harness it? Mechanically, a story can be described as a byproduct of the following narrative elements.

    • Plot
    • Characterization
    • Dialogue
    • Time / Pace
    • Setting / Context

These building blocks are used by storytellers to add depth and meaning to their stories. They don’t stand alone – these elements influence and feed off of each other. The characters in your story, for instance, are influenced by their setting in the same way that your story’s overall pace is determined by it’s underlying plot.

PLOT

Let’s start with the plot. The plot is the overall collection of events that happen within the confines of a story. A strong plot serves as the foundation for allowing your audience to understand where you, as the storyteller DJ, are coming from and what themes or motifs you wish to explore.

Ean’s above recent mix is a strong example of this. Read the description he wrote prefacing the mix:

Over a year ago, one of my closest friends in the world and an amazing DJ, Solomon, was killed in an accident on tour in Thailand. This past new year, I traveled with his family to Mexico where we sailed out into the Pacific Ocean and spread ashes. On the way there and back, I was deeply inspired and DJ’d from the roof of a large caterman to 30 close friends […] If you can, while listening, try to imagine yourself gently flying across the ocean at sunset with a strong breeze at your back and only ocean ahead. Good recordings capture moments – and this was certainly a special one.

Even before listening to the mix, the backstory creates a sense of personality to the experience, helping to establish a personal connection to not only the track listing, but also the friendship between Ean and Solomon.

A Plot Is Only As Good As Its Opening: Your story needs something that allows the audience to immediately connect to what you are trying to say. Open your mix with a hook to get people curious, something that draws attention to what you’re about to do.

In the video above is Flying Lotus at a packed 12am show at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC. He opened up his set by inviting the crowd to listen to his story with ambient synths and faded percussive elements. This introduction worked to serve as a precursor for the spaced out style of hip hop he’s best known for.

SETTING / CONTEXT

Every plot is surrounded by context.

From the DJ’s perspective, one of the most important things to be conscious of is the environment in which you’re playing. Before going on stage, take a minute to soak in the details. Look around you, take note of the clothes people are wearing, the drinks people are drinking, the smoke in the air, and the venue where you will be preforming. Take a look at the clock, strike up some conversations. These specific characteristics will help you in pinpointing the overall vibe of the show.

If you’re about to tell an entire audience of people a fantastic, meaningful story, you better be prepared to figure out how exactly you’re going to explain it to them. You might have a list of tracks ready to go, and while you appreciate those tracks you dug up, it doesn’t necessarily mean others will.

PRO-TIP: To avoid this, instead of thinking “Why don’t these people like my tracks?”, think of it more like “How might I introduce these tracks to people? How do I make them ‘get it’?”

TIME + PACE

Your surrounding environment will ultimately drive the intensity of your set.

This is one of the hardest aspects of being a great DJ. It’s common for inexperienced DJs to overlook social cues, selecting tracks without taking context into consideration. More often than not, this leaves DJs to fear silence, gravitating towards harder, more abrasive tracks that might make show-goers feel uncomfortable. Being in control of the time that you have makes you appear confident and makes people take notice.

To avoid rushing your sets, relax! 40 or 50 minutes is much longer than you think it is. Make it a point to glance at the crowd every now and then to get a read on how they’re reacting. Additionally, it might also help to think of your entire set before actually even finishing it. A story chart like the one below might help you in designing your set:

You have a defined opening, a catchy track, or sound clip that gets people’s attention, a few more tracks that build the overall intensity of your set, and a track that you feel is the pinnacle of intensity before you begin to wind down. While this certainly isn’t how all sets are going to look, this graph serves as a good starting point for understanding the dynamics and mechanics of a well thought out set.

Bonobo’s Boiler Room set from last year is a great example of a DJ being patient and setting the pace for the night. He’s not afraid to start slow, but at the same time, he makes it a point to slowly raise the intensity of his tracks throughout his set. The audience is responsive, comfortable, and having a great time.

CHARACTERIZATION

Stories are driven by the characters within them.

From the DJ’s perspective, think of each one of your tracks as being individual characters having distinct personalities. Some may be outspoken and loud, demanding all of the attention, while others are more subtle in their approach. It’s your job as the DJ to position them accordingly.

Four Tet does a great job in his sets in understanding the personality of his tracks and playing to their strengths. In this sense, when looking for tracks, avoid looking at only their genre or sub genre. Two “deep house” or “dubstep” tracks, even if they share the same BPM, won’t necessarily go together. Listen to the small details within the tracks, types of percussion used, vocals, various effects and you might find yourself exploring other genre’s or even revisiting older tracks with a similar vibe (if you haven’t already).

AUDITORY DIALOGUE 

The development of a narrative thrives through the interaction between characters.

In addition to embracing diversity within your tracks, be keen to taking into consideration how they might sound when played together. Understand that your tracks are saying certain things, laying a foundation of emotions and ideas throughout your story. However, when two tracks are laid on top of each other, their juxtaposition might carry on an entirely new meaning.

What kind of [tracks] give the [set] its appropriate rhythm?
– McCauly & Landing, Technique in Fiction

A while back I played a set featuring Amazing and Wonderful by Peaking Lights overtop of Artwork’s Rank. These two tracks combined created a sound that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It spotlighted Artwork’s use of deep bass and heavy percussion while letting Peaking Light’s washed out vocals and dub delays seep through. The juxtaposition changed the personality of the original songs, yet it allowed room for the next song to play out.

PRO-TIP: When you’re selecting the tracks for your next set, think not only about how they sound alone, but also how they might interact with each other.

VISUAL DIALOGUE

For those that rely on visuals during their set, they too are an important part of your story’s dialogue. Images and colors deliver meaning, especially when coupled with sound. That in mind, visuals should serve as a metaphor for the sounds that you are playing and the story that you are telling.

Take a look at this set by Alva Noto. His visuals match up with a chaotic barrage of blips and bloops that make up his tracks. The visuals create a different context through which to experience his music. All of a sudden, his tracks aren’t so chaotic any more, in fact they have been organized by his visuals, providing an alternative, yet relevant communication of his story.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I created this guide for you all to further understand the art of a narrative DJ set (because it truly is an art). My hope is that you’ll take my advice and come up with your own unique system of storytelling for your next set!

Think you told a good story through your DJ set (or a favorite one you like to listen to)? Post it in the comments below!

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  • SHEISJEI

    We need more sets like this. Not to say that DJ-ing itself is not art (’cause it is!) but incorporating stories and visuals is a refreshing experience. I tend to carry out this style for my mixes.

    My by far favourite mix is one called Float and is supposed to take you to a melodic, dreamy-like, other-worldly state (https://soundcloud.com/sheisjeisha/float-mix)

    A more recent mix I did is supposed to be a long love letter written by a man to his number one lady. Sort of like creating a mixtape and burning a CD of things you want to say to the girl of your dreams – (https://soundcloud.com/sheisjeisha/loverhymes).

    I one day want to create visuals and films to go along with my sets and create unforgettable experiences for music loverssss!!!

  • Doug Fairbanks

    This mix which is a blend of deep future and tropical house was one I recorded after getting dumped a few hours before I was supposed to take my then girlfriend to see Above & Beyond for her first big dance music show. I overcame a serious opiate addiction with the help of dance music and dance culture I wanted to share this experience and this world with her and after what happened I was devastated. I went to the show alone and met some awesome people and had an fun but it was tinged with sadness because what I’d envisioned for that night didn’t come to pass. My spark of inspiration came when A&B dropped “Thing Called Love” and that little voice in the back of my head said “You’ve made it through worse by using music why won’t that work this time.” And when I got home I put together the track list and this is what came of it. I hope that what I’ve just told y’all is comes through when you listen to this.

    https://soundcloud.com/raveheart_music/love-in-this-houae-vol-3-the-end

  • dsorce
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  • Young Fab 5 Freddy

    I would love if anyone could take a listen to my latest mix, my story telling is a bit eclectic but i want to see how you guys feel about it https://soundcloud.com/mrmegamission/hoodspace-express-megalive-end

  • EXORCISM

    Check out this great storytelling Techno mix with 4 levels:

    https://soundcloud.com/spacid/the-rise-of-the-cyborgs-spacid

  • Dan White

    That Four Tet Just Jam video is the greatest ever.

  • Zeus
  • Jeffrey Andersen

    Good article, especially since it seems storytelling is a lost art amongst DJ’s these days. The great thing about being a DJ is that you often get peoples attention for an hour or two which provides you with a fantastic opportunity to tell people a story and take them on a journey. I have often contended that my sets take people on a journey as exciting and emotion filled as any Hollywood blockbuster.

    Here’s an example of a storytelling set:

    My Story (Spring 2011 Mix) – Mr. Andersen

    http://soundcloud.com/mr-andersen/my-story-mr-andersen-spring

    ENJOY!

  • McBeard

    I just recently read this post. I know it’s a bit older but if someone is interested in another little Dj story… Here are my two cents.
    By the way… Sorry for my English.

    A few weeks ago I made up a deep techno / tech house mix.
    There is a little story behind this mix. besides others I have a favorite club here in berlin called “Sisyphos” 3 floors / inside and outside – the party starts on Friday and ends Monday morning… Non stop! The 3 three floors are dedicated to deep house / tech house and techno. All the stuff I love. They have an incredible lineup and the crowd is alway in a good mood an supports the dj’s and the off-location that is placed a bit outside the city in an old industrial environment. No posh people around there, just normal, very responsive, kind and open minded people are around. Often you see them wearing glitter & feathers or other kind of crazy outfits. It’s a bit of a Woodstock feeling if you wander around. But when you enter the big techno floor it hits you like a hammer… A big, dark industrial floor, strobe light and a bursting function one sound system let you think “how the hell did I end up here”.
    Ok… That’s the setting… A few weeks ago an old friend asked me to join him behind the Dj booth – just to have a bit company while he is playing his set. Shame on me… I could not make it to this date… But we talked a while if he could imagine to play with me back2back in such a location. He was interested but pointed out that my sets need to be way deeper and darker for such a floor he was not even sure if I own such deep techno songs… He was right… I never did a pure techno set.
    That was my motivation. I put this together to show how deep I could go without loosing a kind of warm feeling or melody. It should be dark and moody but still pumping, pushing and danceable. According to some feedback so far it seems that I accomplished this mission 😉
    While I was preparing and mixing this set I always had a picture in my head of myself dancing on this huge techno floor and falling deeper and deeper into sound and movement.
    This story isn’t exactly about one or two persons doing special things… But more like a journey inwards to your own feelings while dancing and experience such a club as described above. Not every transition in this mix is perfect… but i work on it.

    The sample in the very beginning is a little teaser for the journey: “…we will take control of your body and your mind… To blow away your feelings… You have no choice but to come with us… Let me penetrate your soul…”
    This sets the tone for the set.

    As you See, it’s more about feelings and a special location & atmosphere. Feel free to listen to the set and dream your own dream about your favorite club and a fantastic night on the dancefloor… Or join mine 😉 enjoy the ride.
    Cheers, McBeard.

    https://soundcloud.com/mcbeard/beard-tape-006-techjunetune

  • bangs nicely

    Some great ideas in this article. Instead of telling a story, in this mix I tried to create a sonic space where the listener gets to create their own. https://soundcloud.com/bangsnicely/here

  • Robbie Lackey

    Doing an actual DJ SET, not just working the crowd at the local, I really do incorporate a storyline into my night. I like to think of the set as the original star wars trilogy. Where the intro is hopeful, uplifting and creates elation. The middle is where it gets darker, a feeling of not knowing where the music is gonna go for a while. The ending a feeling of “getting out of the mud” or in Empire Strikes back, the snow, and into a summery, breezy freedom set that is high energy, resonating and ends with a strong conclusion.

    At the local bar, well…It’s like trying to read A Tale of Two Cities to a 5 year old who only wants to hear Dr. Seuss.

  • Noxa

    I think there is no greater example of a story teller then “Laurent Garnier”. He can lift u up in his 4 or 6 hour liveset to ecstatic heights.

  • G.R.Z.A.N.A.

    Great article. Check out my story http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjQWtj0llE4

  • Screendoor

    Sad story about love: My Mixtape for Imaginary Lovers ambient-breakup mix.
    http://djscreendoor.tumblr.com/post/55086508189/djscreendoor-mixtape-for-imaginary-lovers

  • bee

    great article. what you’re talking about is basically building a soundtrack to a story you have in mind…watch movies like “the beach”, “cosmopolis (ost by howard shore and metric), “dark city” or “garden state” (all have wonderful ost) then listen to their soundtrack and see how it corresponds with your advices here.

  • Ben Schoenemann
  • Matej Ar?on

    this is exactly the type of articles I like about DJT. Pure gold. Thanks for writing this Luis.

  • CRINGE

    This is cringe to the power of 100000000000000000000. DJing’s not an ‘art’, you pseuds.

  • thebasementwonder

    would it be wise to use mixed in key and pic fav trax as a dj that would hit a audience and with a few timless favs

  • Apologies for triple posting! I didnt think first one this had posted as it didnt show when i refreshed the page. Thought it was because it was way too long (which when viewing inline it blatantly is!) but seems it may have been because there was more than 1 link in there, the third attempt posted straight away. Cant see how to delete so just wanted to reply for clarity as was unintended. 🙂

  • Apologies for the triple post! This one didnt seem to post either when i refreshed the page. Again thought id put too many links in. Doh!

  • TMD

    I love it when djs/artists/performers do this kind of thing. Its more meaningful and special in my opinion.

    A bit of self promotion here I guess, but these are a couple of sets Ive done that have a story or a theme behind it. They are something special to me, perhaps you can enjoy

    https://soundcloud.com/that-mexican-dj/buen-viaje

    https://soundcloud.com/that-mexican-dj/rainy-afternoon

    The first one is pretty much a love letter in music form and the second is pretty much what the title says

  • Mem Rx

    I just did this a few nights ago! Toronto experienced its heaviest rainfall in fifty years, and I played along for an hour and 40 minutes to the thunder and lightning wind, watching the flood waters rise up through the storm drain in my basement floor and slowly subside again. it was equal parts scary and oddly gleeful, and that a feeling I hope others can pick up on in this set. it’s techno with a little tech house and garage for flavour, played on four track decks and eight fx engines with an s4, midifighter 3d, and mpk mini. first time posting anything to the comments, so I’d be honored if some of you would take the time to listen <3
    http://www.mixcloud.com/memrx/memrx-gets-flooded/

  • hardtopronounce

    i recorded this mix a day before i read this article. weird.
    https://soundcloud.com/hardtopronounce/a-teenager-in-love-mixtape

    • hardtopronounce

      whoops. sorry for the double post.

  • hardtopronounce

    I made this mini mix the day before I read this article. weird.

    https://soundcloud.com/hardtopronounce/a-teenager-in-love-mixtape

  • Jon Craig

    I just play bangers! Banger after blady banger!

  • ThisMeansWAR!

    I can really relate to a lot of this when it comes to mixes as well. I put a lot of pride into making my mixes reach these levels of storytelling. Every mix I made has had a theme that is repeated in the artwork, the tune selection, custom intros, samples and topics within the tunes themselves (“Themematching” – coined it!). Since I’m an art director by day I also spend a LOT of time getting the visual storytelling right. It’s crucial that all of the communication is consequent and on the same level in all aspects. So – this isn’t some shameless promothing – if you want to see how I do it, perhaps for some inspiration – have a look at my “Neurology Trilogy”, a three-part 180 min drum & bass mix that all have themes that tie together. I guess my point to all this is: don’t forget the visual communication in all your promotional material / artwork etc.

    1/3 – The Battlesuit Mix: http://snd.sc/17ilL0R
    2/3 – The Ballistic Mix: http://snd.sc/19ACP2Z
    3/3 – The Gunslinger Mix: http://snd.sc/12eW4db

    Cheers,
    Karl

  • boot-cheese-3000

    Well this is something that should be common knowledge to ANY DJ/musician out there and seeing that people have submitted their examples lemme drop mines:

    https://soundcloud.com/dwayne-middleton/songs-to-bust-the-carlton-to

  • Dexter Ford

    I’ve tried a similar approach with my latest mix. I wanted to start off with a strong, but deep and moody track (Audiofly’s “No More Philosophy”) so I tried to ease people in with some spacey pads, and then built tension in the middle of the mix, holding back the drop from one track with vocals from another. I also used some samples from the final track in my intro, so listeners knew the mix would be coming to a close when they got to hear them again. I’d love to hear what you think: https://soundcloud.com/optiononemusic/optionone-podcast-004-dexter

  • Great to read this post. Been on a mission to fuse narrative with djing since my first inspiration in 2005. Here’s my most recent Dj Narrative mix called The DJ & The Tao – http://www.marcreck.com/dj-narrative-coming-home-vol-5-youre-original-in-your-own-way/

  • Luis Hernández

    I’ve done many mixes (some good, some bad and some odd) and the ones in which I found more gratification are the few ones inspired in some random stories I thread on the go. If you as a DJ and as a listener know how understand the music and how to feel it, you have a granted boarding pass. Last one I made was a conservative 140 trance mix about love, pain, death, acceptance and hope. Great article, pal 🙂

  • BeeFlex

    My personal best achievment in story telling : http://www.mixcloud.com/bbeeflex/leaving-with-the-undead/

    • Really feelin the breaks and the subs in this mate. Nice work

  • ProfessorLex

    I like to mix my sets to take my listeners on a journey building a mood in my sets and I also incorporate mixing in key.

    https://soundcloud.com/djprofessorlex

  • Antithexist

    Here’s a set I put together with a conscious story structure. It includes a few purpose-made remixes just for the set and a lot of on-the-fly remixing as well. https://soundcloud.com/antithexist/dystopian-present-halloween-2012

  • Anonymous

    Listen to the lyrics of the various songs for Sasha’s Involv3r mix.

  • zykill

    How come Z-Trip gets no mention? Check out his Anti-War-Mix. It contains more than just vocal loops and paints a real story (not like the one mentionned in the article) with Z-Trips dope choice of tune and well cutted together scrachtes who tell the story. But I guess it’s not enough EDM and not enough CunTROLLers in it

    • Wow. Just wow.
      There are hundreds of thousands of mixes and DJ’s out there. The author may not have heard of every single one. I was going to take a listen to it, but based upon your rough comment alone I just don’t care enough to. And if you had taken a few seconds to even listen to the mixes the author posts, they are not all based on one genre.

  • Jimmy
  • Nicholas Ruston

  • David Williams

    James Zabiela’s Essential Mix, great example of a mix with a narrative. Using samples taken from the film ‘Moon’ , one of my all time favourites.

    • mac

      Agreed, if any of you haven’t listened to this mix, get on it! It is THAT good.

    • Thanks for the heads up mate – enjoyed that mix.

    • W

      Agreed love this mix too. Check out his EM from 2004 also – he seems to have had this storytelling thing down to an art even back then

  • Anonymous

    Saweeet article. I write screenplays and your graph is very much like a screenplay paradigm. Very interesting.

  • Guido

    I have always felt putting on a great show was a lot like great sex. Lots of foreplay lots of passion and then the great climax.

  • LoopCat

    James Zabiela’s Essential Mix is the ultimate story telling mix

  • DJ_ForcedHand

    I really like to do this but I’ve learned that in order to make this really work well, I have to use core elements and fill in the details with music people are responding to that evening. Music is supposed to evoke emotion… so to is a compelling story. I have always considered every piece of every thing, everywhere, something modular, just like language. The trick is to know where the natural breaks are and how to “play with emotions.”

  • captainsmackdown

    a better analogy is sex….while pounding one way all night might be fun…its not the way it happens in real life…you do a little of this, a little of that…switch things around…do some of that…try this….and go somewhere else…

    another is its journey…i take you places you never thought you would have gone…you just have to trust me..rather than have your expectations met…because even your FAV song was unknown to you at some point

  • Hsing Yu Hsiang

    I enjoyed doing this jazzy/rnb hip hop mix that tells a love story.

  • Freddy Hung

    Excelente article! this is JUST what i always do with my podcasts ! check it out! http://dj-chino.podomatic.com/entry/2012-07-12T05_00_00-07_00

  • skizz72
  • skizz72
  • Vince T

    Nice Article ! thanks.

    i tried story telling, tell me what you think here.

    https://soundcloud.com/vincent-terrier/la-nuit-volume-1-le-mans

  • skizz72

    this is another example of my story telling “skratchdubmuzik” its called wut iz,,,,about a dj who cant skratch!,,hahahahaaaa,dont hate,,,go practice, on a controller if thats wut u have,,, its all good if u cutt it up Freesssshhhhhhhhh! !!! =D https://soundcloud.com/skizz72/wut-iz

  • skizz72

    This skratch track i made is kinda wut your sayin check it out ,wut goes on,,,,in my area,crime people,bad elements ect. https://soundcloud.com/skizz72/wut-goes-on

  • Michael Wright

    I’m usually a on the fly remixer, but in my preplanned mixes i’ve gone as for as using the song title to tell a story and it has worked in the mix. Even as much if i’m having a good or bad day , it is reflected in the style of my mixes, it’s always a story / journey for me.

  • Charles Mykid

    DE9: Transitions is my favorite story, if you haven’t listened to it yet, you should

  • Anonymous

    I really enjoy the timeless story of girl drop it down to the flo.

  • Chris Alker

    An excellent article indeed.

  • chris

    youtu.be/AiFjKlRYgDw

  • Rich Resey

    Love the article! Awhile back I made a deep(ish) House mix that is mean to be a love story of two people meeting on the dance floor of a party, and falling in love. Sounds cheesy when I put it like that, but check it out. Starts with male vocals, barely audible, almost mumbling along (dancing, intoxicated probably). Then he see’s a girl across the dancefloor, and with the following tracks, I alternate male and female vocals, almost having a conversation with eachother, or an inner conversation of their thoughts. Starts at 122 BPM, and rises up to about 127 bpm in the middle, and then tapers off just a bit at the end. This is by far my favorite mix that I have put together, I loved telling a story through the mix. I would LOVE to play this style of house ALL the time, in afterhours lounges. So if you have a minute (or an hour, really) put it on, lay back, and imagine that night you fell in love (er…lust?) on the dance floor. Here it is: https://soundcloud.com/richresey/rich-reseys-a-deep-love

    • monogammee

      You got me intrigued by your story, definitely checking out when I get to work 🙂

    • Bas Curtiz

      This!

      • Rich Resey

        You like it? Thank you for taking a bit to check it out, I really appreciate it! I hope to have some original productions up soon, have a couple almost ready, but I also am just starting Grad School… But keep an eye out if you enjoyed it. Going to be working in deep house and Moombahton in my future endeavors.

  • Dan White

    Two mixes that immediately jump to mind that both tell incredible stories to me:
    • U.N.K.L.E.’s “Psyence Fiction”: http://http://bit.ly/15dCnEN
    • Gold Panda’s DJ Kicks mix

  • Johnny Zana

    This is how I usually do my mixes. I love taking my listeners on an exciting journey with peaks and valleys. I feel it makes the mixes more memorable in doing so.