Today, we’re going to answer one of life’s biggest questions. No, not “what is the meaning of life,” but “What does DJ stand for?”
In short, a DJ is a “disc jockey.” But what is a disc? A disc is a 1930s word to describe a phonograph album or vinyl record. So the better answer to “what does DJ stand for” is that a DJ is someone who plays albums.
Nowadays, a DJ can wear many hats; for example, they can be a radio personality, someone spinning playlists at a club, or a host at a fundraising event.
This article will dive into the fascinating history and world of disc jockeys, identify what a DJ actually does, and explain the different types of DJs.
Let’s get started!
What Does DJ Stand For?
The term “disc jockey” was created in 1935 by radio commentator Walter Winchell to describe Martin Block playing albums during his radio show.
At the time, the top news story was the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son. While Martin Block waited for updates, he played jazz albums to give listeners the impression he was broadcasting live from a ballroom. Winchell’s phrase “disc jockey” stuck, which means Block is the first DJ.
The first documented DJ dance party was in 1947. Jimmy Saville used twin turntables to play continuous dance music for a UK-based society organization.
We have the French to thank for creating the word “disco” and what we today call raves. During WWII, the Nazis prohibited jazz music.
Rebellious Frenchmen created discotheques (later shortened to “disco”) to play jazz records. The underground movement used secret passwords and rotated locations to avoid being caught by Nazis. Sound familiar?
After the war, “discos” continued to be popular. In 1947, the Whiskey a Go-Go in Paris was credited as the first disco to play discs and not have live music.
During the 50s and 60s, DJ was synonymous with radio personalities who played music they preferred. These larger-than-life celebrities also hosted dances, sometimes using live drummers to “keep the beat” between songs.
Adding a drummer was a precursor to today’s DJs using beats and
One of the pioneers and icons of the 60s was Wolfman Jack. Millions recognized his signature raspy voice, and he starred in films like American Graffiti.
The 70s is when the disco scene exploded thanks to disco music and films like Staying Alive. This is also the era when being a club DJ became more of an art form. As a result, DJs were in high demand and used turntables to extend and create music.
When drum machines became more popular in the 70s and 80s, they further impacted the disco scene. DJs could program beats and rhythms to correlate with the albums and tempos they were using in the clubs.
Nowadays, DJs represent many musical expressions and outlets. We will investigate each of these in more detail and share insights into how to succeed as a DJ.
What Does A DJ Actually Do?
DJs today do more than play dance music. Successful DJs know how to entertain a crowd and discern the mood of the dancers. Such insight enables a DJ to move from song to song and genre to genre to keep the audience engaged.
A DJ is also responsible for the pacing of the evening or event. They understand how and when to create energy and when to taper the groove to a slower tempo.
DJs are entrepreneurs whose reputation is only as good as their last gig. This includes knowing how to create and work a contract, showing up on time, communicating with the venue or client in advance of the gig.
This leads to the big takeaway: delivering energetic music that amazes the client or club owner.
DJs are tech-savvy ninjas, and they must keep up to date with the latest technology to give them a cutting-edge advantage. If an engineering or technical issue arises, they should know how to remedy the solution pronto.
DJs must be personable enough to engage a club, an event, or a wedding. As the MC, the DJ is responsible for the evening’s pacing, announcements, and fielding requests.
At the same time, DJs must have a “sixth sense,” knowing when to “become invisible” and let the music be the star. After all, the focus of the evening is the music, not a DJs monologue.
For more DJ tips, check out our article on The 30 Best DJ Tips for Beginners.
Types Of DJs
The nitty-gritty of what a DJ does is determined by the music market they work in. So, to help you understand the different music markets a DJ can work in, here’s a breakdown of the five most popular types of DJs.
1. Club DJ
The main attraction at clubs is the DJ, some of which have star statuses like rock and pop stars. Dancers flock to a club with a star DJ knowing they can expect tantalizing hits and dance grooves all night.
The prestige of club DJs comes from hard work, and the competition is fierce. Top-tier DJs started at the bottom, often performing in clubs for free. By continually honing their craft, they worked their way up to better gigs.
It takes a lot of work for DJs to become a headliner in a club. And once at the top, it takes the same amount of energy and effort to remain. They know there are eager, less experienced DJs waiting to take their place, many willing to start as they did: for free.
Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned pro, club DJs are constantly honing their craft. There are playlists to tweak, new technology to study, and networking with industry “gatekeepers” to stay in the game.
Aside from these aspects, club DJs need to have outgoing personalities and be able to read a crowd.
If you’re a shy introvert who dislikes meeting new people or being in large crowds, then a career as a DJ may not be a good fit.
But if you’re a naturally energetic individual who loves igniting conversation or energizing a crowd with music, then being a DJ may be in your wheelhouse.
Having the skills to read a room is paramount to being a successful DJ. You may be hitting the other DJ parameters, but your career could spin out of control if you miss this.
For example, if you’re dead set on playing EDM but miss the fact that your crowd is more into classic rock or R&B, you’ll clear the dance floor in a flash.
Like many skills, reading a room takes practice, and even those with basic skills can learn a trick or two from seasoned pros.
2. Radio DJs
The 60s-70s were the Golden Era for being a radio DJ. Disc jockeys could make or break new artists. They played music they enjoyed, and most used the airwaves to voice their outlooks of life.
Nowadays, most radio stations use music playlists based on market research. Stations like Jack FM no longer use DJs.
But all is not lost! There is a resurgence at some radio stations to use DJs, and some colleges offer courses on the subject. The role of the radio DJ has shifted from being a music curator to being a storyteller, music discussion, current events, to name a few.
In some markets, independent stations rely heavily on their DJ’s music choice and personality. Although market research is essential, the DJ does have some say on what music to play. Independent stations range from alternative rock to gospel to jazz and hip-hop.
Radio DJs begin their day by prepping for their show, checking social media for what’s trending, and recording commercials and promotions. On-air shifts vary, but most DJs work 3-5 hours.
Satellite and internet radio DJs have a similar schedule. The only key difference is that because their audience is national or worldwide, they focus on music and monologue and not trends or news items.
Another spinoff opportunity for radio DJs is hosting a podcast. Although most podcasts are not paying positions, they are an excellent opportunity to get experience hosting a show.
Unlike the other DJ careers, radio DJs need a voice that is appealing and pleasing to the ears. It’s also a career that introverts can excel at since there isn’t a crowd to entertain, at least visibly, and interviews are often one-on-one.
3. Mobile DJs
As the name implies, a mobile DJ drives to a location with their gear to play music. But there’s much more to the job than our answer suggests.
The largest market for mobile DJs is weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. Unlike a club DJ who brings their noted playlists, mobile DJs follow strict instructions.
The client will give DJs playlists to follow and critical points when they’re to act as MC in the case of weddings. Examples would be when to announce dinner protocol, the father-daughter dance, and toasting the new couple.
Mobile DJs must know in advance if their PA and music gear is sufficient for the venue. Does your PA have the wattage necessary for a large room? Are your speakers able to project, so everyone can hear, or will those closest be impacted?
Since mobile DJs also serve as MCs, they must know in advance what the client expects. Is humorous monologue needed, or is this a serious function?
Mobile DJs should have on hand one or two wireless microphones. Inevitably, whether it’s a wedding or a business launch, someone will make a toast. It’s your job to make sure everyone in the room hears their words.
4. Turntablist DJ
Turntablist DJs work in all the events we have listed.
As we have established, DJs have been using turntables to entertain crowds since WWII.
Scratching, the sound made when manually moving the turntable back and forth, was created by Grand Wizard Theodore in the late 80s. The first hit to feature scratching is on the 1983 Herbie Hancock song, “Rockit.”
The phrase “turntablist” came into existence in the 90s when hip-hop became popular. DJs would spin hits on one turntable while creating exciting rhythms and sounds on a second turntable.
Turntablist DJs are artists who use turntables to create fascinating sounds and music.
5. Event DJs
Although the job is very similar to that of a mobile DJ, event DJs must be top-notch music aficionados and sharp businesspeople.
Functions that hire event DJs include corporate functions, private parties, charity events, and concerts.
Corporate functions range from Christmas parties to launching new products and businesses. The key to success is preplanning with the corporate point person well in advance of the event.
This type of job will appeal to DJs who are good at planning, communicating clearly with the event leader, and executing the plan.
Event DJs for corporate functions need to know what role they’re to play as the MC. Is this the type of company where an off-color joke would work? Or do you keep your banter to a minimum and steer clear of controversial topics and jokes?
Although the DJ is an independent contractor, they must “blend in” with the corporate environment to succeed. Find out in advance if your clients will wear suits or be dressed business casual, or it’s an Ugly Christmas Sweater theme.
Private parties range from birthdays to anniversaries to block parties. The key to success is knowing in advance if there’s a theme to follow or music genres to incorporate.
For anniversaries, playing the couple’s “song” is a given. Playing the person’s favorite groups or genres at a birthday party will go a long way in getting you future gigs.
Charity events are another job opportunity. While the guidelines are similar to corporate events, charity events have a more relaxed atmosphere.
Examples are providing pump-up music before a bike race for cancer or providing background music for a formal auction raising money for medical research.
Concerts are opportunities for DJs with a large following. These are outdoor events that feature DJs who have created or produced their beats and music. The setting can be a festival with many DJs or a headliner showcasing one DJ.
As we’ve discovered, being a DJ involves more than just spinning discs. DJ careers vary from those requiring extroverted superpowers like a club DJ to radio DJs with more of a laid-back persona.
Opportunities abound for DJs that range from playing music at a charity run to pumping up thousands of fans at an outdoor concert.