My first club DJ gig w/ Xponent: MAMBO JAMBO

Few hobby DJs ever make the transition from DJing in their bedrooms to Djing gigs in real clubs.  The pinnacle of a typical bedroom DJ’s short-lived career is a “Woweez this mix roks!” user comment on his 10-minute YouTube mix, or a fratboy’s drunk congratulations on his “awesome” mix during a Bosses-N-Secretaries-themed frathouse party.  However, within the cesspool of bedroom DJs clamoring to be recognized for their misguided self-belief masquerading as “talent”, there are a few DJs blessed with real talent: the God-given ability to listen – really LISTEN – to music, and a natural attunement to the musical zeitgeist of the future.  These are the DJs – Aldrin, Tiesto, PVD, Oakenfold, to name a few – who successfully transition from bedroom to club, from part-time hobby to paid services, from Zoukout to Ibiza.

Unfortunately, I am not one of them – so I approached my first club Djing gig with the proverbial blue balls.  Club SG was organizing DiaS’pura 2, and had promised a “Mambo afterparty” at an Olde City club/lounge.  Due to my history with Club SG/DiaS’pura, I volunteered my services, expecting a small, private party crowd in the upstairs room of a dingy Philly lounge, where my elaborate set would be met with the same enthusiasm as any random person playing the Mambo Jambo CD on repeat.

A few days before the event, the curveball came – the venue was changed to Level Lounge, which, in spite of its name, was a three-storeyed CLUB in Center City.  Worse, I would be spinning on the first floor of the club, and all partygoers  would first pass by our floor on their way to parties on other floors.  That meant that the first strains of music that these paying customers would hear upon entry would be from my as-yet incomplete setlist.  I had been prepping with the little free time afforded to me by work (Thanks to Andrea for being understanding as I was spending all my waking hours mixing), and that was inadequate for a full three hour set.  The prospect of something going terribly wrong and then having to face a jeering audience, or worse, no audience, weighed heavily on my mind.

Disclaimer: I use the word DJ very loosely to describe my mixing.  I’m not a turntablist and I don’t use vinyl, so my version of “spinning” essentially refers to a few mouseclicks to drag and drop an mp3 into Torq, and using an all-in-one midipad Xponent to mix the tunes.  I’ve DJed for two of my own house parties before, but that’s as much experience as I’ve had DJing.

Here’s a list of the gear that I lugged from NY to Philadelphia for this gig:

M-Audio Xponent
15′ Macbook Pro Unibody 2.4 GHz w/ 2 MB RAM
Stanton Uberstand
Software: Torq 1.5

All stuffed into an overpriced Xponent gig bag, which does NOT protect your Xponent from bumps/shocks at all.  The padding in the bag is way too thin, and the Xponent fits a little too snugly in the bag for my liking.  Might have to invest in a hard casing eventually.

I left the musical about an hour early to set up, which seemed like a reasonable amount of time to set up my equipment to do a soundcheck.  Without an inkling of what the protocol for a DJ at a club was, I sauntered up to the velvet rope and dropped the line:

“Hi, I’m the DJ for tonight’s party.”

And that was when I realized, dammit the success of this party is gonna fall squarely on my shoulders.  THE DJ.  For THE party.  My heartbeat went from nervous to frantic, reaching the same beats per minute (“BPM”) as the muffled thump of the bass coming from another party on the floor above mine.  The club owner dumped me in the DJ booth, which was next to a kitchen sink and had a couple of naked bulbs dangling from the ceiling as lighting.  He also left me with the most rudimentary of instructions – a few cursory introductions of the mixer and volume control, etc.  He had that “Do I look like I give a f*ck” look on his face, not unlike that of an air stewardess demonstrating how to put on a life jacket in the event of a plane crash.  Apt analogy, as the gig started to look like it would be stalled on the runway.

First, the inputs.  When I whipped out the Xponent and placed it on the deck, the owner gave me a an incredulous look

“You’re using that?”

Granted, the Xponent looks like a cheap plastic toy, but underneath the machine’s LED-studded plastic hood is an elegant and powerful engine.  However, the Xponent only has RCA outputs, which appeared to be incompatible with the club’s XLR-input speakers.  When I asked the owner how I would connect my Xponent to the speakers, he shot me the inevitable questi0n:

“Is this your first time Djing in a club?”

At that point, I decided to ditch all pretense of knowing what I was doing and asked him to help me set things up.  This is not like my job, where I can usually get away with pretending to be more knowledgeable about a subject than I actually am.  I mean, there’s no way I’d ever look cool pressing buttons on the Xponent, so I might as well fully embrace the part of the curious geek tinkering with a new toy.  Thankfully, one of the club’s resident DJs was around, so he helped me get around the RCA problem by routing all the sound through one channel in the mixer.  I turned up the volume, pumped up the bass, switched on the monitors, and was ready to partaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!

Except that the place was completely empty. And remained so, even half an hour into my set.  That was the next big problem.  I got a couple of pitiful looks from partygoers who were stopping by on the first floor to use the adjacent bathroom. The musical had run a little late, and there seemed to be a reluctance to leave the exuberance of the Sing City set behind for a crummy little Philly club.  So there I was, lone bespectacled Asian nerd, playing with a cute light-up machine and an Apple Macbook Pro paid for by the rents, spinning for a non-existent crowd of friends who all RSVPed “Maybe” on the Facebook event invite.  And we wonder why so many violent gunmen turn out to be Asian immigrants.

WTF WTF WTF looped through my mind.  The stream of people entering the club, glancing at a completely empty dancefloor and heading straight up the stairs was a big downer.  Each time I saw an Asian group of kids entering through the main doors, I thought to myself: Singaporeans!  Finally!  But I was always disappointed – they all headed upstairs.  I considered just stopping the set as a self-imposed mercy rule.  When a couple of Singaporeans finally arrived, they unpatriotically plonked themselves on the couch with winter jackets still on, seemingly engrossed in discussions about where to go next.  Urgh – quitters.

Then I went through an introspective phase in the middle of playing Robbie Williams’ “Rock DJ”.  I was mixing for a inter-state gig (sorta) in Philadelphia, all my gear was functioning properly, I was hooked up to a massive speaker system that I would never be able replicate in my own home, I had a chance to practice a full-length Mambo Jambo set – all the conditions were in place for me to have a good time.  With that cognitively dissonant boost of optimism, I focused on completing a full 3-hour set, regardless of the turnout.  After all, one or two people were starting to bob their heads to the music – who knows where it would go from there.

And then people started arriving.  It started with a couple of familiar faces from Penn, then small groups of out-of-towners.  The night reached a turning point when a guy in a suit started waving the call me/shaka hand sign in time with the lyrics of the song, “Call Me” by Spagna.  A Mambo regular!  Mambo is NOTHING without the moves!  In fact, Mambo as a concept is really cumbersome to explain to non-Singaporeans, so having people who actually knew the actions to the main songs would be KEY to showing non-Singaporeans how to appreciate the finer points of a Mambo party!

[As an aside, I have used the following words before to try to explain what Mambo is to a non-Singaporean: retro, pop, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, mish-mash, Zouk, Wednesday night, synchronized dance moves, hand actions in time with the lyrics, standing in a circle and dancing, no grinding, anthemic, conformist culture, influence of the military, lame, clubbing initiation, ah bengs, loads and loads of fun]

Of course, I still got the house/hiphop requests from some people, to which I could only reply, “sorry, the organizers want me to play this type of music.”  Turning down a request for a Flo Rida song was HUGELY gratifying.  Anyway, by that point, a crowd was starting to build – people started doing the Singaporean thing of standing in circles of 4-5 people, facing inwards and shaking the dust off the old Mambo moves that had been closeted ever since they went west (life is peaceful there).  It was also strangely satisfying when someone ran up to the booth and begged me to play “Summer Rain”, as it reminded me of the whole masochistic thing when a dog holds a stick in its mouth, begging for its owner to “please throw it!” (in this case, begging for a song to be played so that everyone can do the same dance moves together).

By the time I got through to around 125 BPM, the floor was packed.  That was also the point (1+ am) when people realized that this was it, this was the party, there wasn’t going to be any hiphop/trance/house – might as well let go of their inhibitions and follow the herd.  I was a little further from the dance floor than I would have liked, but what I saw looked like it was Sunday in a charismatic church.   A cyclone of sweaty bodies collectively raising their hands together in a trance-like state, going “square rooooo-ooooms”.  Amen!

I was done with half of my set when I realized that I had only 20 minutes before the club closed.  The second half of my set was the more experimental section (or so I like to believe – I consider Enrique Iglesias pretty “experimental”).  Another point to note is that yes, I had a pre-planned set – but it had in/out points where I could jump to other sections as need be, depending on time constraints or on the mood of the crowd (I even went as far as a printed and formatted excel table, with cue points explained for every song in my set).  After the Grease megamix, I skipped a half-hour of my set and jumped right back into the Mambo favorites, much to the delight of the floor.  “I Heard A Rumor” was met with some dude’s shrill screams of OMG OMG OMG.   Even with this clusterfucking measure, I was still unable to complete the second half of the set and was foreced to stop right after playing the perennial Kylie fav “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”.  At 2 am (it’s Philly after all – how do you stay awake after one of those cheesesteak dinners?), a burly bouncer stepped onto the dance floor, signaled to me to kill the music, then barked at the crowd that the party was over – a move which elicited a chorus of boos.  As the lights came on, people wiped their glistening foreheads, caught their breath, and lamented their sore throats/temporary deafness, all with the cheery afterglow that only Mambo + alcohol can bring.

As I had pessimistically predicted for my first DJing gig, there were indeed jeers that night.  Thankfully, they weren’t directed at me.

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11 Responses to “My first club DJ gig w/ Xponent: MAMBO JAMBO”

  1. Jess Says:

    Hey great account.
    I have been asked to play a 21st at a well known club and waas hoping that my xponent and macbook would be reliable enough- as i have only used it at one kids party. after reading your account i feel confident that it will be sufficient.
    Do you have any advice for djing a first gig.

    • clubsingapore Says:

      Thanks for the comment! Just some thoughts off the top of my head:

      1. bring one of those extension power plugs in case the electric outlets at the club are shady (unlikely)
      2. talk to some people to figure out what kind of music they’re expecting at the party
      3. remember that these club owners are unfamiliar with electronic DJing, so forgive them for the incredulous looks
      4. remember 3/4 of the people on the dancefloor don’t everything you already know about beat-matching, etc., and they just want to hear the popular tracks (and they’re probably too drunk anyway)
      5. enjoy yourself!

  2. Peter Says:

    I have done house parties with my xponent, I have yet to do a club set. I’m releasing my demo to club owners around the area and I’m starting to get nervous that I will be laughed at when I bring my laptop and a midi controller to a real club. I have also heard that many clubs have the industry standard pioneer cdjs and pioneer mixer…of which I have no experience on. I never use auto sync though, so I would probably be able to get by on a cdj setup…but I would want to use my xponent…what do you think?

    • clubsingapore Says:

      I think you’d want to use the equipment you’re most familiar with at your first club gig. You’ll have enough to worry about on the day itself, and it would be more embarrassing if you used the CDJs and they don’t respond the way you want them to in the middle of your set. Good luck, and let me know when you land a big gig!

    • jaroo Says:

      I would say going from a xponent to a cdj kit will be rather strange. U have alot of visual aids on a laptop while djing with a kit is completely different. You have to know ur tracks in and out, know every drop to every takeoff. Dj’ing on a cdj is on the otherhand much easier! Why? Because you got SO hands on control it’s amazing… you don’t have to use ur mouse to fix anything wich is lovely… and u know that ur cdjs wont fail 🙂

      I havent dj’ed for a long time, nor have I devoted alot of time to it but I have produced music for a few years now. I have my first gig 21 nov and I’m rather excited. I’ve played in my schools bar before wich went ok on the technical aspect but the people there were more into rock etc so the mass werent feeling my set. This time I think it’s in a real venue, with a real system and people who are after some real EDM!

  3. Micky staines Says:

    Thanks for sharing your story.
    I’m doing a gig next thursday and was wondering how you went around fixing the RCA to XLR problem.
    I’m going to see if I can get an extension RCA to XLR, but I’ve never setup before.

    Micky

    • clubsingapore Says:

      I connected the RCA cables to one of the RCA inputs on the club’s mixer (originally intended for a turntable), and fixed the crossfader on that input’s side. Hope that helps.

  4. Micky Staines Says:

    Thanks for your reply,
    I’ve found a shop that sells RCA to XLR cables, so that might work as well.

  5. noiv Says:

    hi, im currently trying to find a mambo dj for a party in australia and i came across your post. is it possible for you to contact me if you are interested? thanks a mil (:

  6. confused Says:

    hey, im kinda in same situation. i want to go play with my xponent + lappy so was wondering, i can just use the RCA cables to plug it into one mixers lines or however they are called lol. drop me a reply or a email if you have a chance, my gigs on sunday in a festival 3 times so i be runnin around with plastic toys thgouhg crowds of people lolol. the less emberasing moments the better 🙂

  7. confused Says:

    looks like you have replied to it just above, sorry for being lazy and not reading the comments 🙂

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