[Editor's note: In clubland, few topics ignite more heated debates than the question of whether DJs should or shouldn't play requests. Below, writers and DJs Lina Lecaro and Liz Ohanesian lay out both sides of this controversial subject.]
No Requests: It's About Respect
By Lina Lecaro
We all know that thanks to technology, anybody can be a DJ these days. But not everyone has the ability to read a crowd and create a room-elevating transition with new killer beats or long-forgotten classics. Those are the unique, unteachable skills that still separate the pros from the wannabes.
Unfortunately, in many club and party environments, these abilities are not always appreciated. The lowest common denominator party posse doesn’t give a crap about the tempo or tension a decksmith might be building throughout the night. They don’t even care about beat-matching skills. No, the drunkards who bombard DJ booths to make requests usually care about one thing only: They want to hear “Baby Got Back” and they want to hear it now!
A respectful song request that starts with please, ends with thank you, and is well-suited the DJ's style is fine (as long as the DJ is not busy cueing on headphones or flipping though crates at that moment). But most who approach are not respectful. They expect full attention and act entitled. They think they know best, when most of the time they really don’t. Its’s a very Kanye West type ‘tude: “Imma let you finish that track but... Beyonce would be better."
These A-holes have ruined it for everyone else and are why most big DJs don’t do requests. I’m no fancy mix-master or anything — I prefer to call myself a selector — but with a few exceptions (birthdays, C-notes) I totally agree: Requests are never best.
When I started spinning weekly in the Plush Lounge at Key Club on the Sunset Strip (now closed) a few years ago, it was a dream gig. It was during a popular rock & roll weekly — Steel Panther’s residency — and the room was small, so there wasn’t the pressure of filling a huge floor. Plus, it was a rock night so the complexities of EDM or hip-hop mixing wouldn’t be an issue.
But I soon learned that when spinning in Hollywood, the theme of the night (goth, rock, disco, rave, whatever) means squat if the club is a hot spot and frequented by randoms. Like clockwork, usually at what would be considered “prime time,” I’d get a request for the over-played pop hit of the moment or some cheesy “ironic” drivel that completely ignores the tempo, mood or genre I happened to be playing. Mind you, this was often with a full dance floor and tables hopping with VIPs and major rock stars digging the sounds.
Not every person who comes to the DJ booth is a clueless jerk, of course. But always keep in mind when you approach that the DJ has dealt with many dark and soul-crushing nights of harassment before you. Also, DJ booths are not that big and if there isn’t one at all, looking over our shoulders onto the laptop — or, even worse, plowing through our records or CDs — is not OK.
Everytime I spin, I try to pull out an old fave you haven’t heard in a while. I often get patrons coming to the booth to ask the name of the song so they can dig it up later, which is so cool. Unfortunately, it also leads to the other type of request that hurts things for everyone else: the express-to-impress music snob. They can be even worse than the mindless pop mongers. They can’t believe I don’t have the rare remix from that obscure German band. Worse, they don’t get that even if I have it, it would clear the floor or kill the vibe. There’s a fine line between challenging listeners and alienating them, and not everybody knows the difference.
Respect goes both ways, and you have to give some to get some. Some male DJs take advantage of their power position on the decks, choosing their sets based on how hot the girl asking is. (See No Breasts, No Requests, the awesome blog and recently released book of the same name by Mick DiMaria, who DJs at Full Frontal Disco here in L.A. under the name Mick Fiction.) But nine times out of ten, when a male partier approaches a female DJ, if he’s not flirting, he’s being condescending. Dudes almost always have to let me know that yes, they DJ, too! Newsflash: This means nothing because everybody does.
If you really aren’t digging what you’re hearing, maybe you’re in the wrong place. Or maybe you should just go home and play with your iPod.
And now, the counter-argument...
Say Yes to Requests
By Liz Ohanesian
A friend recently reminded me of the night we met. It was probably more than a decade ago inside a venue that no longer exists. I was DJing. He made a request. The nature of the request is now uncertain. I thought it was Ladytron. He thinks that it might have been Fad Gadget. Either way, that led to a conversation and, ultimately, friendship.
Making friends in the DJ booth is part of my life. In the fall of 1996, I played my first club DJ gig. Over the nearly 19 years that followed, I've played large venues like Park Plaza and Variety Arts Center, tiny bars, downtown lofts and backyard parties. During this time, I've made a lot of friends. Every so often, those friendships formed because someone wanted to hear a song.
No doubt, there are lots of folks who make DJs loathe requests. People stumble up to us with drinks ready to spill over the gear. They shout when we're wearing headphones and try to look through our music. They are often rude when we decline a request. (My all-time favorites are the pretentious bro who asked, "Do you even know who Brian Eno is?" and the Depeche Mode fanatic who insisted that I play a song again because he left the room and missed it.) However, a good request from a polite person can be the start of something beautiful.
The best requests can make a big impact on a DJ's set. In the early 2000s, I had a weekly party called Transmission at a now-defunct West Hollywood bar called The Parlour. Every Wednesday night, I played electro, post-punk and anything else that felt like it would fit. We had a large crowd with regulars who had impeccable taste. One of those regulars asked for "To Cut a Long Story Short" by Spandau Ballet. This was something I never played in a club before and didn't have on hand. I brought a copy with me on another Wednesday night and played it after the requester hit the dance floor. Not only did he go crazy for it, the rest of the crowd did too. I still drop that track whenever I have the chance and people still fill the floor for it.
On another Wednesday night at the same venue, a longtime acquaintance asked to hear Visage's cover of "In the Year 2525." That wasn't a Visage song that I normally played, but I happened to have it in my crate. Once again, the crowd loved it. Years later, it's my go-to track from the band.
Truthfully, requests aren't a major part of my set. I play vinyl and only bring what fits into a single travel case, so if the song isn't in the crate, it won't be played. Plus, I have a hierarchy for requests. Songs suggested by friends and regulars get played first. They are typically first on the dance floor and have helped make the gig happen by spreading the word to their friends, so this is a way of saying thanks.
Even then, there's one major rule of requests that applies: I have to like the song.
My DJ friends and I used to crack jokes about how people treated us like jukeboxes. In 2015, Spotify is a more appropriate reference, but the sentiment remain the same. We aren't on the decks to play what you want to hear when you want to hear it. However, I recognize the benefits of requests. Playing a song for someone else can lead to a lot of special club moments, both for the patrons and for the DJ.
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Lina Lecaro and Liz Ohanesian still DJ regularly throughout the L.A. area. You can hear Liz at Club Shadowplay at Grand Star Jazz Club in Chinatown on Saturday, Feb. 28, and Lina at 7 Deadly Sins, a launch party for I Am Sin makeup at the Hustler Hollywood Store in West Hollywood on Friday, March 6.