Discover the challenges, rewards, and art of working as a duo
DJ duos are, and will always be, an exciting and dynamic experience, both for the audience and indeed the DJs involved. Their value to the underground scene as a whole is, however, under appreciated and many view back to back or group acts as novelty and unserious. But nothing could be further from the truth. Through the annuals of dance music’s past, the DJ duo has always been a mark of artistic excellence. One only has to look at such luminaries as Masters at Work, Deep Dish or Kemistry & Storm to see how working as a team can enhance the audiences auditory experience. Look deeper still at Sasha and John Digweed’s alliance over the last 25 years and their ground breaking Delta Heavy tour across the US and you’ll find two gifted DJs with an almost telepathic ability to select music. Sasha and John Digweed represent something of an anomaly in the DJ duo world, in that they were always two solo DJs that worked as a team. Their residencies at Renaissance in Nottingham and Twilo, New York saw them take the back to back dynamic to its absolute limits in the 90s. Hailed by many as a supergroup, their set up at the time was light years away from what other artists were using at the time and that allowed them to push boundaries in sound and DJing. Notably, their return in 2016 playing a surprise show at Ministry of Sound and then later at The Social Festival was one of the highlights of underground year and instantly propelled their mythical status into the hearts and minds of a new generation of clubbers.
“From a performance point of view it works for us because it allows you to really read the crowd for that moment your not actually playing. I have no idea what Orde is going to play and he has no idea what I’m going to play, so it keeps you on your toes and I love the spontaneity that gives you.” – Stuart MacMillan (SLAM)
I spoke recently with Stuart McMillan from Scottish techno giants Slam about working as a duo and asked him if he remembers why they decided to team up, “We gravitated to each other because we had similar tastes in music.” He said, “In the beginning, we were sort of doing our own thing DJ wise. I’d do an hour and Orde would do the same, but in the last few years we decided it was stronger if we went back to back.” And like many DJ teams, ‘back to back’ takes on a life of its own as many find they can express themselves creatively by augmenting each other. What I mean by that is rather than simply taking turns to play music, each compliments the other by adding percussion or melody to the current track playing: something a single DJ would struggle with. “We both DJed separately in the past but then we started producing music together as a duo,” Son Of 8 told me, “When you make tracks together, it makes sense to play them out together and watch the crowd’s reaction.”
Working as a team has a host of benefits. Not least traveling with a pal over long distances; sharing the experience of endless, boring airport transfers and hours on the road, “[You] can imagine it’s pretty lonely doing it on your own,” Ben (OC & Verde) says, “We always have each other to take the piss out of the other one which keeps you sane. Also if one of us is ill or can’t make the gig the other one can fill in so the show will still happen.” Creativity, as I’ve mentioned, is also a big plus for the DJ team: “You can come up with something in the studio that you’re really feeling” continues Jon (OC & Verde), “But sometimes you need someone to come in and say “That’s pretty shit actually” which happens from time to time haha!”
Of course, there are downsides too. Many of these problems will go unnoticed by the majority of people as they tend to involve booking the artists to play. Two plane tickets, two hotel rooms or at least a double, two meals (as some contracts stipulate) and more, meaning only really serious promoters can afford them, or so it would seem. Ben O’Conner from OC & Verde argues it’s all perception and the facts are very different, “Our fee is only the same as other solo artists at our level,” He says, “We don’t cost more because there are two of us which is what some people think, that’s not the case, the only extra cost is the travel tickets”. One way this has been overcome by agents is to book the DJs to play separate venues on the same night. It’s something all of the artists I spoke to didn’t agree with, but yet, it happens and as someone who’s attended gigs excited to see a double act, it’s absolutely ruined my evening to find only one of them turned up. “If you DJ as a duo or group, people pay to see the duo or group. If we DJ on our own, we will always play under different names.” Son Of 8 told me. There are however, times when one of the DJs might be sick and in those cases, it’s totally understandable to see a solo act, but splitting a pair up for financial profit isn’t fair to the fans, the promoters or the DJs themselves.
DJ Duos’ strength comes from a shared love of music.
They go beyond the back to back performance by being so in tune with each others sound and so merely playing a few records takes on a creative life of it’s own. “When we DJ together we don’t play back 2 back,” Ben (OC & Verde) explains, “Jon (Verde) has 2 decks on Traktor with an iPad controlling effects, I have 2 CDJ’s with USB’s playing acapella’s and samples and doing tricks, scratches etc. This is controlled and mapped out on a DJM 900 nexus,. We also both use the Pioneer RMX 1000 for extra effects and build ups. That way, we are both working at the same time and it looks like more of a performance than two guys going back to back.” Slam’s Stuart MacMillan tells me they have a more traditional approach “We tend to play 2 or three tunes each but that can change it’s really fluid though, sometimes we’ll do one each it depends on the vibe on the night.”
So the next time you see a DJ duo on the bill, don’t dismiss them as novelty but come to realise they are no different to any indie band or pop group enjoying the music and looking to make the audience smile and escape the pressures of modern life. And promoters, don’t be put off that they might be expensive, make a connection, have a conversation. As you’ve read above, they aren’t all divas and actually want to help you out. Ultimately, because of DJ teams like Futuristic Polar Bears, Son Of 8, OC & Verde and Slam leading the way, dance music is in one of it’s most creative and expansive periods ever.
FRISKY Residents Wild Dark exemplify the unique sound and strength that comes from working as a team. Listen to their widely loved show now!: