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The art of the resident DJ

The art of the resident DJ

Features & Interviews


In an age where so many DJs bask in superstar status, the skill and record collections of so many others go unnoticed. The resident DJ is commonly an unsung hero who can find themselves falling into this category. Andrew Kemp pays homage to those selectors who are all to often heard and not seen, allowing their hands and selections to do the talking.


A resident DJ sits at the heart of any club, transforming it from a blank canvas space into a living entity with its own character and aura. Often underappreciated in their importance to the night that they represent, a resident sets the tone for everything that lies ahead, embodying the personality of a night and establishing the connection between the club and its gathered congregation.

The importance of a good resident has often been discussed, and it is generally accepted that high up on their list of responsibilities is their role in establishing the character of the night, preparing the audience, the sound system and the club itself for the booked guest or guests. For many, clubbing is the embrace of escapism, but the relinquishing of the world outside is not an immediate endeavour; the art of the opening set is in ensuring that the journey is not a sudden drop into the depths of a night, but rather a manageable descent at an appropriate gradient. Giles Smith, a resident at Secret Sundaze, describes the ideal situation for a party as one where the resident is charged with warming up and closing down the party - what he refers to as “bookmarking proceedings”. In playing the closing set, a DJ must offer the party its most memorable moments, but though closing sets often takes the plaudits, the opener tends to require more skilful navigation. It might not be easy, but when steered successfully, the opener can set the stage for the party to reach another level altogether.

"A resident sets the tone for everything that lies ahead, embodying the personality of a night and establishing the connection between the club and its gathered congregation."

Beyond merely opening and shutting down a night, the role of the resident is to judge and adapt to the needs of the audience, striking a balance between the demands of the crowd and the identity that the night sets out to achieve. Some have achieved this with such splendour that their names are forever associated with the place of their residency; Larry Levan’s legendary relationship with the Paradise Garage is an often cited but nonetheless perfect example. For Levan, Fabric’s Craig Richards, or the various residents of Berlin’s superclub Berghain, attachment to a permanent home has seen their reputations grow to be synonymous with the club that hosts them. For the majority of residents, however, they remain the unsung heroes of dance music’s most treasured havens.

Terry Francis DJ'ing(Photo: Terry Francis)

“The role of a resident DJ is controlling the musical flow of the club, to pay respect to the people arriving at the club by steadily inviting them to relax into the dance floor”, argues Yousef, long-term resident and founder of Liverpool’s Circus. Whilst the high-profile booking may draw the crowd, it is the opening set which sets the foundations, and a good resident will allow the crowd to ease into the night as they have a drink or get stretched out for the later hours. “As my mate Kenny Hawkes used to say, we’re all glorified jukeboxes playing other people’s music”, Terry Francis points out, discussing his view that a resident should not bring attitude to their role, but instead let the music do the talking for them. Having held a Fabric residency since 1999, Francis knows what it takes to be a good resident, and believes that it is all about the fit, not necessarily the song itself. “It doesn't have to be harder - it can be groovy, soulful, deep, tougher - but just better; one that fits right for the moment”. Secret Sundaze’s Smith argues that this skill relies on a combination of patience and “instinct”, knowing not to “over shoot things too quickly”. Whilst the main booking might be revered for playing the peak hits at the appropriate time, John Digweed concurs that a resident who tries to “take the glory and smash the dancefloor” is failing in his duties. Usually, a resident’s role lies in laying the groundwork, providing the artful assist rather than the furore-inducing final touch.

“Someone who knows the room and the crowd can set the night up for the guest in the right way, by leaving the music at the perfect point for the guest to take over and take the night to the next level”.

Digweed goes on to note that a residency is as important to the club as a whole as they are to any individual night; whilst headline acts come and go, the resident will “maintain a consistency that both they and the club will benefit from over time”. Clubs come and go, but what lifts the Watergates, Plastic Peoples or Golden Pudels of this world to immortal status is the reverence that they receive from their regular guests. Even more important than bookings or sound quality, a club’s atmosphere underpins its quality, and a large part of this atmosphere arises from a strong relationship between performer and receiver. Of course, the very best DJs are able to engineer this connection in relatively short periods, but it is no coincidence that the most celebrated DJs gravitate towards longer sets. The longest sustained relationship that an audience can hold with a performer is that with the club’s residents, its development occurring over weeks, months or even years instead of mere minutes or hours. “Someone who knows the room and the crowd can set the night up for the guest in the right way, by leaving the music at the perfect point for the guest to take over and take the night to the next level”, Digweed states, drawing on the experience of residencies held in New York, London and Brighton. The club trusts its resident DJs with its identity, and so it is vital to the club that the resident remains synergetic with the audience in establishing this essence.

John Digweed DJ'ing(John Digweed - Photo: Neigbourhood PR)

Whilst a good DJ will stamp their own character upon a set, the resident must balance their own tastes and moods with the audience before them, requiring versatility and the ability to adapt not just to changing lineups, but to changing audiences. More than anything, a good resident will be able to play tracks that capture the imagination, stretching the audience with music that they might not have heard before. “A good resident DJ is a digger, someone who is dedicated to unearthing and playing great music that is not hyped”, says Giles Smith, noting that it takes maturity to control the pace and energy of a party without prematurely bringing it to its peak.

"Developing a relationship with an audience takes time, skill and dedication, but once it is there the support of a loyal and sympathetic crowd can be liberating, allowing the space to explore new territory which a one-off audience are less likely to tune into."

The regularity of a residency spot, and in particular the chance to really get to understand an audience, is an invaluable stage in a selector’s development. Thinking about his relationship with the Circus crowd, Yousef muses that “I have a better connection with the audience, and they know me, trust me and see what I can do, so that energy and confidence resonates”. Developing a relationship with an audience takes time, skill and dedication, but once it is there the support of a loyal and sympathetic crowd can be liberating, allowing the space to explore new territory which a one-off audience are less likely to tune into. It is here that DJs are afforded a chance to extend their musical identities beyond the confines of saturated genres, dipping into more obscure, less-travelled territory where they are more likely to find their own distinction.

Yousef at Circus(Photo: Yousef)

The euphoria that so many people find in dance music is a shared experience, requiring a level of cognitive unity which can only be achieved over the course of an extended musical journey. Achieving this is no easy feat, but with the right combination of location, resident and audience, a DJ can find themselves at the centre of something that extends beyond the party, its longevity exceeding the opening of doors and the turning on of lights.

So, before we venture out to our favourite watering holes and meditation spots, venturing deep into dark basements or up into the shimmering light of a disco ball, here’s to those adventurers who carve out the paths; here’s to those who explore the boundaries and lay the floor upon which the spirituality of a night is built. Here’s to the residents.


Words by Andrew Kemp
Main photo courtesy of DJ Tech Tools 

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