I began this post with the intention of putting together a few quick factors that I take into account when choosing music. Inevitably, it began to turn into something of a monster, and take a lot more time than I’d intended. In hindsight, it’s an extremely tricky subject to tackle, with a lot of grey areas, and one that I could probably write about for a good deal longer than I have. Regardless – I hope that what I’ve put down is of use to people.
There’s an incredible amount of music out there. There’s an incredible amount of swing music out there, for that matter, especially in these days of digital downloads, and I keep saying that there’s never been a better or easier time to collect music… but only a minority of available tracks are great Lindy tracks – so how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? The Lindyhoppers’ Delights from the Bananaphones? (and if by any time chance, you’ve been lucky enough not to hear Bananaphone, take it from me… you’re one of the lucky ones. Don’t. It will scar your soul)
Given that my last post was more of a negative one along the lines of “what not to play”, I decided to try and make up for that with a positive, and explore a few of the things that make a track stand out to me. Of course – one of the things that I often say is that if a track makes me want to jump out of my seat and dance around the room like a crazy thing I, I add it to my DJ collection, but I realise that a statement like that is a touch lacking in detail, and as a definition of great Lindy music, is utterly useless. Besides – given that this happens quite a bit while I’m sitting at a computer with headphones on, there’s certain dangers involving expensive equipment, headphone cables, coffee cups and so on which I don’t really want to account for…
I am, it has to be said, very picky when it come to choosing what to put in my DJ collection. At a DJ workshop that I gave earlier in the year, I commented that my collection had around 2500 tracks in it, 1500 of which are for Lindy and Balboa. This might seem like a lot, but as a result of six years of avid collecting, it really isn’t, and in fact, the remark caused some astonishment – one of the participants, for example, had well over ten times that number of tracks on his DJing laptop. Personally, I don’t see a need. If I take into consideration the care with which I chose most of those tracks, and the proportion (still not enough) with which I’m pretty familiar, it becomes a huge number.
Anyway – I digress, so back to choosing tracks. Time to start a list.
Although I covered this in my last post – it has to swing. Really swing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be strictly swing – I have plenty of jump blues, boogie, trad, some ragtime and so on. I need it to swing. I’m not going to labour the explanations here, but consider these two versions of Tuxedo Junction:
The first is from Harry James and his Orchestra
And the second is an example I use a lot, from Jools Holland
The two examples are both around the same speed, and they’re the same piece of music, but apart from that, they couldn’t be more different. The first is a good swing track, while the second… doesn’t quite know what it is. It’s high energy, Jools Holland’s trademark boogie piano is all present, most of the other musicians are great, but the drummer … is sucking all life out of the piece. Chick Webb was known to say that you should feel the drummer before you can hear him (or her) – but this guy clearly doesn’t believe in that. Or in swing. Or in anything (it seems) but doing his best loud drum machine impression. Anyway – as a Lindy track, it’s horrible. Moving on…
- Chug (not exactly a technical term)
This is one of the biggies. A lot, although not all, great swing tracks have it – it’s that wonderful sound produced by the rhythm section (typically drummer, base player and guitar and / or piano) that drives a track. Great to have in Lindy tracks, and even more so for Balboa. Have a listen to the following clip from Lionel Hampton’s Whoa Babe:
Whoa Babe Chug
Or this one from Artie Shaw’s Everthing is Jumpin’
Everything Is Jumpin – Chug
The ‘CHUG’ sound is a lot more complex than initially meets the ear too – there’s a lot going on there, with a whole bunch of beautiful little syncopations and subtleties that really make a track flow. I’ve probably spent a lot more time than is healthy listening to just that sound, trying to piece together what goes into making it in all its variations.
I favour tracks that have strong, interesting or compelling rhythms – and I’m not just talking about drum rhythms. Far from it, in fact. Chick Webb – one of the greatest swing drummers that ever lived – was known to say that you should be able to feel the drummer before hearing the drummer – so cue a clip from his Harlem Congo:
Harlem Congo – Rhythm
There’s so much going on here, with a lot of amazing rhythms coming from the interactions between brass and woodwind. And it’s exciting stuff – real adrenaline – raising music. For a slightly calmer example, here’s a snippet from Edgar Hayes’ Meet the Band
Meet The Band
Lots of interesting rhythms going on, lots to play with in the music, a whole lot of fun to be had.
Every track I use for DJing has the speed marked, and it’s a major criterion for choosing what to play and when. I work in beats per minute (BPM) – while some people go for bars per minute – I don’t see any real advantage to either – it’s just a matter of what you’re used to.
There’s a range of tempos that I might potentially use for Lindy, and there’s the ‘sweet spot’ – a range of speeds that I’d ideally love great new tracks to fall into. Where that sweet spot is will be entirely dependent on your local scene – for me, it’s really in the 120-200 bpm range – but ultimately, even if the song is far faster, or far slower than what I normally play, if it’s good enough, I’ll still add it to the list. If it’s good, the opportunity to play it will come up sooner or later.
Energy and tempo are two very different things. Compare this clip of Wingy Manone’s Prisoner’s Song
With Buddy Johnson’s Shufflin’ and Rollin’
Shufflin and Rollin
Shufflin’ and Rollin’ is significantly slower, but has twice the energy, and it’s important to be aware of this, and to take it into consideration when choosing tracks. There are times to play more mellow music, and times to play more exciting music, but in the main, good mid-tempo high-energy tracks are like gold-dust, I grab them whenever I can.
- Structure & Consistency
Swing tracks generally follow a well-defined and consistent structure, that dancers expect, and can play around with. A good track for dancing will generally be of a standard structure, and should remain consistent throughout. As an example of the latter…
A while back, I was DJing at a two-room event, in the less popular of the rooms – so much less popular in fact, that an hour before my set, there were only about five couples in there, as opposed to a couple of hundred in the other room. When I came back to set up a while later, I was happy to see that the number had grown to around twenty couples, and mentioned this to the DJ, who said something along the lines of: “Yes – it’s been hard work building this up, so nurture them.” And as he spoke, the current track (a version of Bei Mir Bist du Shön) suddenly broke into a long and utterly undanceable drum solo. Before the solo had ended, every single dancer had left the room. It was an … interesting moment. Moral of the story – listen to each track all the way through, and if anything too untoward happens, throw it away. Or consider editing it, if you can find a way of salvaging the track, and if the rest of the track is worth the hassle. This may seem like obvious advice, but if we’re listening to and sorting out a lot of music, it can be easy to listen to the first half, say “that’s awesome”, add it to the list, and move on. Bad idea – you can easily be caught out that way.
Arguably the most subjective if the criteria on this list – a great melody goes a long way. More to the point, for me, it’s a huge deal-breaker – if I’m not keen on a melody, the track goes into the bin. Much as I love Ella, A Tisket, A Tasket, I’m looking at you… whereas almost every swing version of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho makes it onto my playlist. Here’s one of Kid Ory’s versions, as a lovely example of why.
08 Joshua Fit De Battle Of Jericho (10-15-46)
In fact – this track sums up a lot of the points I’ve made here. It swings. It has great chug, fun rhythms – there’s a lot here to play around with. The energy is good, it’s consistent, and has one of the catchiest tunes going – all of which makes it a must for everyone’s collection.
Time to draw a line under this article. I could go on a good deal longer, but I hope I’ve provided some food for thought, and some insights into how I choose the music I do. Choosing music is a very subjective process – every DJ does it differently, and heaven forbid that should ever change, or w’d become very bored hearing the same music all the time – so to you new DJs out there, do experiment, do find your own style and your own voice – do not take articles like this to be chapter and verse. All the same, I hope you find it useful.