Kissy Sell Out: 5 ways to become a better DJ

MusicRadar's best of 2018: Kissy Sell Out has been at the forefront of UK dance music for over a decade. He kicked off his career remixing tracks for the likes of Mark Ronson, Calvin Harris and Groove Armada, and you may remember him from the Kissy Klub, the BBC Radio 1 show that he hosted from 2007 to 2012.

As well as being a specialist DJ, Kissy has also released five albums, and a new record under the KSO moniker is set to land on 31 August. This features collaborations with DJ Q, Dread MC and Darkzy, and a single from it, Step Back, is available now on Beatport.

What with all of this and a passion for astrophysics, which he pursues in his spare time, Kissy is a busy man. However, luckily for us, he still found time to tell us the golden rules you need to follow if you want to be a successful DJ...

1. Love it!

“It amazes me how many conversations rage on to this day about what ‘good’ DJing is. Twitter threads and forum comments kick off constantly about topics like beat-matching, DJ tricks, ‘skills DJs’ vs ‘selectors’, the importance of practising, etc. They over-simplify the subject by trying to argue that there’s one thing that makes a DJ greater than another.  

“Well, to be honest, there is one thing, in my humble opinion. It sounds so simple that sometimes I just don’t have the energy to try and convince people to see my point of view, but there’s always been one thing that all my favourite DJs have in common – they love it!

Whenever I get handed demos by aspiring producers and DJs on my travels, I always ask them the same set of questions. Now, truth be told, they are all trick questions, but if you are really serious about DJing or producing then they should be easy to answer. They are as follows: Is this demo the best thing you have ever done? What genre of music is it? Who is your biggest inspiration?

There’s always been one thing that all my favourite DJs have in common – they love it!

“My point is that if you really love it, then all these questions are effortless to answer. Firstly, any demo you give to people should always be the best thing you’ve ever done. If it’s not, then why bother? Additionally, why should anyone else listen to your demo if even you don’t think it’s that great?

“Secondly, if you really love the music, and have what it takes to make it in the music game, then you should know exactly what genre of music you are doing. You wouldn’t take a car mechanic very seriously if they didn’t know what each part of an engine was called, just as you wouldn’t trust a dentist who couldn’t identify each of your teeth - and becoming a professional musician or DJ is no different.

“Lastly, if you don’t have a favourite DJ of your own, someone who inspired you to save-up for your first set of decks, then you don’t love it enough. You can’t be any good at something if you don’t study it with some degree of passion.

2. Beginning, middle and end

“A rather sobering fact for all DJs to bear in mind is that no matter how clever and flashy some of your mid-set mixes are, the majority of any audience you’re playing to will only remember three main things: the way you open your set; the way you close your set; and a track you played that they wish they knew the name of or a track you played that is one of their favourites already.

“I promise you this is true; and it doesn’t just apply to good DJ sets, either. In fact, over the years I have witnessed dozens of DJs play bafflingly boring sets to huge crowds, but then when it comes to the end they play an excellent show closer. This results in the crowd leaving with big smiles on their faces, despite not enjoying anything about the performance up until the last five minutes.

“When it comes to intros and outros, there’s a piece of advice I pass on to other DJs along my travels. It’s simply this: never be afraid to box yourself off from the DJs before and after you, by stopping the music and resetting the vibe. Fundamentally, DJs are booked to entertain the crowd and keep venues poppin’, but you are also specifically booked to do your thing. Whilst it might be tempting to mix your first tune out of the previous DJ’s last, resist the urge and start afresh! By doing this, you will have just made the first step towards making your DJ set a performance which people will be more interested in watching.

3. Mile-stoning

“If I was to pick just one of these DJ tips as the most important way to inject some personality into your DJ style, it’s probably this one. The basic mantra is: you can play any track that no one has heard before, as long as it’s presented in an entertaining way - and it’s actually good!

“This is the polar-opposite of both ‘cheesy’ DJ sets and ‘cool’ DJ sets. In my opinion, cheesy DJ sets and cool DJ sets are rarely entertaining or interesting, unless you combine an element of mile-stoning.

“So, what is mile-stoning? Well, it’s the simple idea that if you assemble a selection of new tracks you want to play, then your set will be an order of magnitude more entertaining if you sprinkle references and samples from well-known crowd favourite tracks in between them. However, if you overdo this then your set will run the risk of being cheesy. Underdo this, and you run the risk of alienating your crowd by being too cool for school.  

“To hit the sweet spot, I make sure that roughly every five to 10 minutes there is at least one thing that people will definitely know in my set. The trick is that you don’t actually have to play the original version of the track. I do this in my sets by either using the breakdown section from a well-known crowd favourite and switching the fader over to a totally new DJ battle weapon for the drop (something I was first inspired to do by listening to Andy C’s drum ’n’ bass sets), or I will take the acapella from a famous tune and slap it down over something the crowd hasn’t heard before. That is what I find exciting about DJing, and you can hit that sweet spot by sampling just about anything and mixing it with just about anything - as long as it’s good!

I make sure that roughly every five to 10 minutes there is at least one thing that people will definitely know in my set.

“The term mile-stoning is what I use, but most decent high-profile DJs and dance music live acts will do a version of this every time they perform, even if they call it something else. After all, if this wasn’t true then The Cure wouldn’t play In Between Days in their shows, and The Prodigy wouldn’t play Out Of Space or Firestarter.

“The concept is essential when performing to a live audience, and when you are not The Prodigy - who have dozens of famous tracks they made themselves - selecting which tracks to use, and dropping them in perfectly, is also an insanely difficult thing to do! It requires a lot of thought and practice to get right, and is probably one of the aspects of my own DJ sets which I spend longest time thinking about.”

4. Don’t drop the bar too low

“I once had a warm-up DJ play Yeah by Usher before I walked on stage to perform in Leicester for one of my album tour nights. The pitfall with playing a track like that is that once you have set the bar that low, you now have to deal with a crowd that will naturally expect you to play more of the same music.

“If you are trying to play a DJ set with any integrity or credibility, there is no place for Usher’s Yeah in a decent mix. This is because a track like that isn’t a crowd favourite. Crowd favourites are linked to nostalgia - music that reminds people of happy moments in their life. Usher’s Yeah has 203,548,872 views on YouTube; this means that any nostalgic semblance this track once had has by now been drilled so deep into the ground that it has gone through the other side of the Earth and out into space. Sure, the crowd will know what it is if it plays, but there’s nothing entertaining about hearing a DJ drop such a bland and industrially blunted track.

“So, what is a crowd favourite? Well, there are loads – literally tens of thousands to choose from! One of my go-to tracks that has served me well over the years is The Key, The Secret by Urban Cookie Collective. Everybody loves that track, but no one expects you to play it.  

“Crowds like to hear things that they recognise, but they also turn up to see you play because there’s something unique about what you offer as a performer. Play only well-known tracks people have heard before, and it’s boring. They might as well stick on a Now That’s What I Call Music compilation instead!” 

5. Know your tunes and practise

“A few weeks ago, a long Twitter debate began about whether DJs need to practise or not. In short, of course you need to practise! Hopefully as often as possible, too! After all, the only reason I’m any good at it is because I spent literally every single evening practising mixing tunes after school, college, and university – from the age of 13 to 21 before I ever got booked for a proper gig.

“Back in those days, practising was simply spinning vinyl records on your direct drive turntables each night, over and over again. These days I think of it a bit differently. In many ways, simply tune-hunting online is a kind of practice. Listening to other DJs’ recent sets is also a type of practice, too, if you think about it.

“At the end of the day, you can make your sets as complicated or as simple as you like as long as you know your tunes well enough to be able to react with the vibe of the audience in real-time. I can tell you that many of the most highly-rated DJs in the world practise regularly, and always have. So, if you want to carve out a place for yourself in the DJ game, you need to hit the decks, start editing your tunes to fit your style and build up your own empire from scratch. Just imagine, though, how cool would it be if you pulled it off?! Big ups, folks.”

Ben Rogerson
Deputy Editor

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it.