DJ Set: Structuring nightclub atmosphere

by: Booth Rider

It is not to undermine anyone’s own way of structuring their musical sets because a one-way approach shouldn’t be imposed on to everyone as a “one size fits all” concept.

A dj set is a performance and should be structured as such. There is claim that djs don’t take the audience on journeys but then many of the ‘old school heads’ tell the young djs to stop over thinking or forget the high-concept stuff. On the contrary, the high-concept and analysis plays a big part in a dj’s performance. Many traveling big time djs prepare on the plane sometimes for up to 10 hours in advance of their performances. 9c832d19995f4aec247eca84189dbc8fMany bring their own dj booth technicians aka sound guy to ensure the music is tight. Remember, not every sound guy and engineer pair well so this is preparation in itself to find the right pairing.

We all have different influences, views, as well as motivations. Some creative minds may travel further than others based on life experiences such as cultural exposures, careers, various club performances, schooling, etc.  In fact, many djs disagree with the notion that a dj has to “know their music well” or “not over think it” when creating a “planned mix”. The dj studio/edited or planned mix, be it live or not, is a direct representation of creativity in combining fully composed music given the leisure, time, preparation, and audio equipment. This is similar to how a producer composes but using smaller composed pieces.

A label dj gets handed 30-40 tracks to sift through and make a best of the season cd. You don’t have time to play all those tracks at various venues under different atmospheres to “get to know each track”. So where does it come from? Where does the ability to create that sort after “journey” everyone talks about come from? It comes from #1- experience and #2- visualization. And in a live setting, it comes from a third concept called anticipation, which is the combination of #1 & #2. These are followed by 3 more old school sub-concepts called “The Box”, “The Philly”, and “The Jab”.



Back in the early to mid 90s, old school djs in Northern New Jersey often used various terms to describe how they structured their night. They were basic terms to help the dj maintain positive control throughout the performance, especially during long extended sets. One of these terms was called the “Box”. The Box was used when playing multiple genres and more specific to open format. Compared to today, and as some old heads still do, open format is played in a virtually rectangular-shaped format.  In playing in the Box format, there is always a main genre played the longest (length) then followed periodically by other genres (width) to break-up the routine.

g7-1So for example, if Hip-Hop is the main genre, the Box is executed by playing hip hop for an amount of time on the longer straightaways (length) followed any other sub-genre such as rock, Latin, house, or reggae on the shorter ways (width). The main straightaway (length) is of course dependent on the type of club. If it’s predominantly Latin or house, then obviously hip hop or rock would go on the shorter ways as breaks.

So essentially, you are taking the crowd on a journey and not staying on one genre the entire night. You are also allowing each genre to develop rather than jumping from one genre to the next between song after song.


Another term used was  the “Philly”. The Philly is actually short for filibuster which is a term in government that refers to any delay tactics used to prevent a legislative measure from being brought to a vote through prolonged speech. Well, in dj terms, the Philly, while it is certainly used today, but isn’t necessarily known as the Philly, is the 2548888900_93fcc48b52process of delaying the main set or groove during a dj set. This can be done by either the opening act keeping the crowd “on ice”, so to speak, by playing filler tracks because the headliner isn’t ready. Or, the room hasn’t yet filled in and ready to go for the headliner. This is mostly a courtesy act used by the resident dj who is familiar with venue and crowd.  The Philly can also be used by the headliner in the event that he or she needs to “re-open” the crowd to a particular sound. This can be due to a variety of reasons such as the opening act not properly conditioning the audience for the headliner’s sound.


And finally we have the “Jab”. The Jab is more of an an advanced technique that requires patience, knowledge of music, and of course lots of practice in an actual nightclub setting. The Jab is an art-form in itself by which the dj has to mentally program certain songs in advance  in order to deliver a final “right hook” of a track.  Similar to the Philly in the sense of delay, the Jab deals mainly with stacking of music and can be executed at various times of the night.  Nikolai Valuev, John RuizIt may require the dj to tease the audience with sometimes up to 3-5 songs ahead of time before delivering that power play track. This all however comes from experience, anticipation, and VISUALIZATION.

In the next part of structuring atmosphere, I will go further into detail on how to pair music with the venue depending on the texture, time, and demographic.

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