Should DJs stay off the mic?

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In How to DJ (Properly): The Art and Science of Playing Records, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton offer some practical advice for DJs hoping to master the microphone. “For certain gigs, including mobile DJing and playing in commercial clubs, talking on the mic is important,” they write. “Some places won’t hire you unless you can do it. Just be yourself and be as relaxed as you can. Try to avoid putting on some kind of fake style.” While beginners would do well to take note of that counsel, what about the biggest DJs in the game? Should the microphone stay switched off, except in the case of dancefloor emergency?

Bill Brewster is in Australia for a couple of DJ dates this weekend, and yesterday I picked his brains about the past, present and future of dance music. With an encyclopaedic knowledge to go along with his expansive record collection, Brewster also wrote Last Night A DJ Saved My Life and more recently The Record Players – DJ Revolutionaries alongside Broughton. If there’s something you want to know about DJ culture, he’s a good man to quiz (apparently he occasionally goes by the nickname ‘The Oracle’).

“It is a real art,” he told me of the microphone question. “I think usually you just come across as an egotistical tosser when you use it. All of the early DJs I saw really made me anti anyone using the microphone. Growing up as a kid, I just had wall-to-wall shit DJs talking banalities on the mic.”

There are, however, exceptions according to Brewster. “The first person I heard who really played a great mix of music and really knew how to get on the mic and use it well is Norman Jay. I don’t think there’s anybody better than Norman at that; he’s just a real master at it. I never get bored of listening to Norman on the mic, he’s really good at doing it without sounding too cheesy.”

As music lore would have it, the first proponent of ‘two turntables and a microphone’ in a live setting was the late Jimmy Savile. A larger-than-life English eccentric – his meeting with Louis Theroux for BBC is recommended viewing – Savile’s version of events goes like this: in 1946, he paid a metal worker in Leeds to weld two domestic record decks together for him to use as a rudimentary travelling ‘sound system’.

“His other innovation – not so enduring – was to talk between records,” Brewster and Broughton write in Last Night…. “Back then, he said, ‘It was the latest gimmick’.” As Savile put it in another BBC interview towards the end of his life: “History has it that I was the very first in the whole world to run a dance to records. There was no such thing as electric turntables then; it was just wind-up gramophones.” And that, he seems to say, is the final word on the topic. But now that DJs are talking over the mix, rather than between records, is it an art or an annoyance?

Fast forward to Ultra Music Festival in March 2012. The gargantuan paean to ‘EDM’ stretches across Bayfront Park in downtown Miami, with 200,000 punters rolling through over three days. Ultra is a staunchly made-in-the-USA festival: bombastic and oversized in every way. In 2012, the Main Stage is decked out with a vast LED roof designed by live show gurus V Squared Labs, but the festival’s favourite toy is somewhat smaller in scale: a microphone resting innocently beside the CDJs. Over the three nights, a procession of dance music’s most bankable names – David Guetta, Skrillex, Steve Aoki and Afrojack to name a select few – can’t resist reaching for it. A lot.

With DJs thrust onto ever-larger stages, and crowds primed for a festival ‘show’ rather than a heads-down journey, it seems the microphone’s become the appendage of the moment. Never mind that, on the whole, the all-too-regular shout-outs are garbled, generic and grating. (That being said, the moment you hand the mic to Lil Jon is the darkest moment imaginable.)

Arguably dance music’s biggest fan of getting on the mic is Carl Cox. The DJ’s “oh yes, oh yes” catch-cry is bandied about amongst fans, and even scrawled onto signs at festivals. For every person who loves to hear him booming out over the mix, however, there’s another who argues it breaks the spell. Cox, at least, has personality on his side. As the man told Resident Advisor back in 2005, it’s just what he does. “People have always seen me move and jump around and interact with the crowd. I’m on the mic, I’m talking to people, doing gestures, hands in the air.” The Cox method, though, might not be transferrable to DJs whose skills don’t extend to the spoken (or mangled) word – i.e. lots of them.

Is peppering your set with “how’s it feeling out there?” and “Wow, you look amazing” one of those ‘cheap tricks’ London veteran Mr C was raging about last month, when he complained, “Why not let the music and the delivery of it speak for itself?” Let us know where you stand on the question in the comments below. Oh yes, oh yes, let’s ‘ave it.


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katiecunningham said on the 18th May, 2012

I say if you're not Carl Cox, just STFU.


Zuzia said on the 18th May, 2012

only get on the mic to say something you mean, and dont do it just cos you feel you should. you can tell when they are forcing another "you guys are amazing!"- and you can tell when they dont mean it. and chatting in the middle of the set can be a fine line between looking like a douche and actually contributing to your set, I'd say Gaslamp Killer is one of few who can pull it off. Though its always nice to hear a sincere "thank you" after an awesome set- shows respect for your fans :)


ankursinha said on the 18th May, 2012

i think above and beyond does it the best... with the text msgs on the screen


nrjize said on the 18th May, 2012

Love coxxy on the mic. Hate most others. Not the DJ perse but that's a fantastic set from James Zabiela at Diabolika where the MC is continually jumping on and talking shit. Thankfully James does a good job of sampling, filtering and building it into his set.


Bombalia said on the 18th May, 2012

Carl Cox can do anything. Living. Legend.


BillyHoyle said on the 18th May, 2012

Can't stand it when artists do the "make some noise" followed by the typical "I can't hear you" routine. Above & beyond do do it very well. Unless its something funny or interesting- don't wanna hear you.


slinky87 said on the 18th May, 2012

You serious about lil' Jon? He made the song "yeah" with his endless BS. Saw him before Wu-Tang two years ago.....sad to say his endless bs was a country mile better than the Wu (it really hurts me to say that, honestly)


Warn-A-Brotha said on the 18th May, 2012

MC's are ok if there is a genuine lull in the track being played or to introduce the artist and hype them up etc - but during a melody / big build up - seriously shut the fuck up.


sunyalm said on the 18th May, 2012

yep anotherr vote for above & beyond!


muli_ said on the 18th May, 2012

Carl cox is pro at it

deep audio

deep audio said on the 18th May, 2012

Unless it's Carl Cox, every dj shouldn't bother!


m_xt said on the 18th May, 2012

Should DJ's STFU? Should journalists not use text speak? These are the hard hitting questions.


GoodLove said on the 18th May, 2012

all d'n'b MCs can suck a fat dick, ive never heard one set where ive genuinely thought that overspeed babble has contributed to the set in any way.


Kennyk said on the 18th May, 2012

maybe Pete Tong and Carl are the only 2 allowed!


deck said on the 19th May, 2012

And Patrick Lindsay


RunningWithScissors said on the 19th May, 2012

death to all MCs who aren't in hardcore acts like Ultra-Sonic, Dyewitness etc

and death to all DJs who talk and aren't Carl Cox


pEAkeR_hAT said on the 20th May, 2012

shout out to hot girls you want to root only IMO


fclough said on the 20th May, 2012

As a general rule don't do it. Love the way A&B do it, with writing on the screens rather than talking over the music. Apart from that I don't mind Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike doing it. They are hilarious.


HarveyS said on the 20th May, 2012

MC's ruin (electronic) music. Classic examples is that piece of shit MC Gee at Sensation. Get the fuck off the stage, and the MC that performed with Diplo at the Parklife after party last year, ruined his would-be-incredible set.


da-dj-booth said on the 20th May, 2012

Steve Angello does it quite abit. Gotta say I'm a fan of it. Same with Tong, Cox and many others. It's their connection with the fans.


tribalmixes said on the 20th May, 2012

italian mcs are known to yell louder than music, half of the night... those are really nasty.. but 2-3 sentences to start the set, and a couple to end it - why not?


Gruso said on the 21st May, 2012

Can we get a few of them off the decks while we're at it?


justo87 said on the 21st May, 2012

if you're actually a good MC it's okay, but stop telling us where we are and what your name is... we either already know if don't care...


RunningWithScissors said on the 21st May, 2012

also I dunno about A&B's stuff, sending messages to the audience through visuals sounds cool

but if 90% of the visuals are just the DJ's or venue's name spinning or scrolling past on repeat that sucks


Zuzia said on the 21st May, 2012

Good Love I kinda dissagree with you, I admit 90% of them distract from the music, you cant even understand might as well (and probably are) just going bab bada bad bada bab let me here u say a drum and *bass* etc. but there are some really incredible dnb MCs out there too- DubFX and Flower Faerie tunes would be empty without MCing, and Tali is just f*king incredible- best dnb "female" MC, but I'd say best dnb MC full stop.


achidley said on the 21st May, 2012

During Sub-Focus's dying set on stage at Coachella this year (if you missed it, he had to reboot his whole show) it was made worse by the dude on the mic trying his best to keep the crowd going... What's with DJ's having that guy on the mic, but not on their recordings? Even Pendulum have someone to "rev up" the crowd.. Lame in my opinion..


RunningWithScissors said on the 21st May, 2012

MCs are like Soundcloud timed comments but in real life

fuck that shit off


lawlietskyy said on the 21st May, 2012

Above and Beyond have this nailed - no talk .. just words in time with melody.

skinny white bo

skinny white bo said on the 22nd May, 2012

"aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw YEAH! how many of y'all know this waaan????"


Kat_in_Japan said on the 23rd May, 2012

Oh yes, oh yes! ... only Carl Cox can get away with it :-)


nick007 said on the 23rd May, 2012

I can't stand Armin's radio voice/style


alexanderphiliptreloar said on the 23rd May, 2012

thank god this topic was brought up. Guetta looked like a flop at creamfields. Apart from his Nova 96.9 set his talk over was that bad that people started boo'ing him. I have seen Above & Beyong 3 times now and everytime i feel emotionaly connected with the music as you have time to read the font, tak e a second to think and then embrace their beautiful melodies.

skrillex tells everyone that "this is a brand new track" But i must say Rusko is hallarious. Even though dubstep is rubbish, he made me laugh, good connection with the crowd.


Weinertron said on the 23rd May, 2012

1 Patrick Lindsay love.


Fewsion said on the 23rd May, 2012

Whoever wrote Shureshock FTW must be joking!


markeee said on the 23rd May, 2012

CC should stay off the mic IMO. Especially talking about him in the third person, introducing the biggest legend in techno etc. Respect... lost.


dariusbassiray said on the 25th May, 2012

"Get me a smoke, I'm redlining" is acceptable in my book.


WLVRN said on the 25th May, 2012

so many stick-in-the-muds, WTF???, like carl cox was playing in nightclubs like a vegas fkn retirement home cabaret nostalgia when I was in MY 30'z,&doing my"2nd childhood" in the 90'z catchn'tha "next wave" (ie,"attendances/sales dropping in country of origin,send them to tour Oz) thang,nightclubs that catered for older yuppies THEN,lols,re actual article? i've been into electronica &Scratchn etc since kraftwerk/tangerine fkn dream, GMF&TF5,SHG WuTang,RSC,PE,RDMC,Doom,Fantastic,Atmosphere, etc,but (mostly)Femme DJs in perth in 90's kicked the arses of coxie&chums, without ejaculating a grunt except the occasional Sincerely Joyous or Orgasmic oneas they cut sick Dancing as they spun tha deckz, like it'z a DANCE thang dudes,ya there for PantyDropn DickHarden'n MIXEZ,not for a fkn 3rd party SPORTS COMMENTATOR in your crib,so,unless She SINGS those "to-tha-mix"words (like for eg.) whilst PLAYING thoze Sampled Beats like Strings&Drums&Elephant Stomps&Ozone/Van-Allen-Belt-Cosmic-Ray-Static PianoGuitar MGF, then save it for tha footy or tha fkn trotting track&GRIND,fwaaaarrrrk, :)