Flow — DJing for Blues and Swing dancers Part 6

Mr Ben
Swing & Blues for dancers
11 min readNov 26, 2021

Let’s talk about flow, baby. Let’s talk it through you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. Let’s talk about flow.

Wait, what do I mean by flow? Flow is how the music you play fit together. How the transitions work. If they are smooth or jarring. If they are jarring in a bad way or a good way. If there is a sense of cohesion to your set or if it feels like you just pressed shuffle. If you want to skip all my philosophising and just want some exercises, then skip to the end.

If it’s your first time reading one of my posts, welcome! If you are actually interested in what I have to say about DJing, check out the full series. If you are just reading because you like the way I write about a pretty boring topic… well then you are pretty weird but I would love for you to tell me so by commenting below or dropping me al line.

I guess it’s time to get started, I have postponed writing this article for about a year and a half already so I better get typing. Sit down, buckle up, and if you ain’t careful you might learn something. Now keep your damn arms and legs inside the carriage at all times and don’t forget to have fun.

Nils von Dardel — The Waterfall

Flow is almost as subjective as what makes a good DJ so instead of trying to spoon feed you my view on flow, I will give some tools for how you can work on flow and what to think about when examining your own flow.

Flow works differently depending on if you are building a playlist, playing a dance or doing a bar gig. The narrower the span of music you play the easier it is to create flow. For example it is easier to make music fit together if you are playing a New Testament Count Basie feature than if you are playing a 50th birthday party where they have asked you to play Disco, Metal, Reggae, and Techno. Yes this has happened. No it was not fun. But at least the variety means people won’t get bored because everything sounds “samey”. Samey, that is a term we need to define, I’ll do so later but meanwhile here is an intentionally samey playlist I made for a friend. It’s great listening but if this was a set at a dance I would request the DJ to play Panic.

Oh and if you are going to do this while DJing, you need a way to preview your songs unless you have perfect auditory memory. If you want to learn some more about the equipment needed for that check this post.

What is Flow — Baby don’t hurt me

Don’t hurt me. No more… I have been trying to avoid this topic. It is so difficult to define. But its the topic I have been asked about the most so I guess I just have to. I mean I don’t have to, but I should face my fears or something.

To me flow is one of the things that separate a DJ from someone just playing music. I can appreciate the flow of a DJ playing songs that I don’t feel like dancing to more than someone playing songs I like to dance to in an order that lacks flow. Actually lack of flow with goof songs will probably annoy me more because it will take away from each song rather than add to them. Given that the music that doesn’t inspire me makes other people dance and is genre appropriate of course. Because the other main thing that separates a DJ from someone just playing music is reading the floor as discussed here.

There are music theory ways to discuss flow within a song, and also flow between songs. what chord follows which, what key should the next song be in. While I am an amateur musician, I wasn’t when I started DJing so I have no idea how that works. I go completely by ear and by gut. Does this song feel good to me after that song. Would I want to dance to this song after having danced to that song. When building a playlist this is the only thing that matters. When playing for a floor You need to temper it with what you see and experience from the dancers.

I want to tell you a story

Is one of the mental tricks I use when plying a set. What is the journey I want the dancers to go on? I know where we are right now and I know where I want the them to go. Perhaps it is the end of a festival and I want to put people in the mood, perhaps I want to make a high energy Jam happen, pr maybe I just want to keep people in the room between band sets. How do I accomplish this? By telling a story.

I can’t jump straight from something mellow to something extremely high energy and expect the dancers to change their mood and their body immediately. You have to have a plan to raise the energy. It might take a few songs to get people to change their mood, try playing around with low energy high tempo and high energy low tempo and of course mid tempo everything and see how that influences your body and your mental state. See what works for you first before trying it on the floor.

For some reason the only example of this I can come up with is when I want to get people “in the mood” and that’s a trick I don’t want to give away right now. but think of what you want to tell the floor, what you want them to feel during your set. But as always, don’t just talk, you also have to listen.

Flow doesn’t mean it sounds the same

When looking for something that flows well, I try to find something that it has in common with the previous song while at the same time there is a difference. Perhaps the driving rhythm is the same up the instrumentation is different. Perhaps the last song ended on a nice piano lick and the new one starts on a nice piano lick but then isn’t piano heavy. If you are DJing for swing mix up your tempo. If you are playing blues, please mix up your styles and most importantly your rhythms.

While making playlists for listening and playing for dancers are completely different things this is an issue I had to grapple with a lot when I was doing weekly playlists that included both blues and swing. How do I create a nice flow that includes many styles and tempos? Personally I just went by ear. Sometimes its just so simple as “this thing sounds good after this”.

Here is an example what isn’t swing or blues and absolutely shouldn’t work, but somehow I just feel it does. I made it for a friend who asked me to DJ their mood or something. I can’t remember. I think it just works, I have no idea why, especially going from System of a Down’s Chop Suey to Sweet Lorraine, who would have ever thought that would be a thing? I mean they are the best two songs to ever have been written, but still…

I will give some exercises at the end for working on flow.

Modulating the flow — how not to be samey

I discussed this a bit in the do’s and don’ts article but lets dig a bit deeper. First a quick recap. It’s when everything just sounds too much the same so eventually it just fades away into background noise. At the extreme that is. It could also be when you are playing a set and you only play one style of blues or one style of swing which bores part of the dancers because perhaps they don’t feel like dancing to small combo trad jazz or what sounds like a 45 min set of Sidney Bechet playing at 60bpm for an hour.

Samey can take many forms. It can be same style, same tempo, only instrumentals, only female vocals, just anything that makes everything blend into a grey mess.

Switch it up

Switch your tempo. Switch your rhythm. Go between instrumental and vocal. Switch male and female vocals. Go between eras. Basie 1938 doesn’t sound like Basie 1945 which doesn’t sound like Basie 1982. Try playing some jazzy twinkly blues followed by some John Lee Hooker stomp blues. Mess around at home or in your preview phones while playing. Remember, you are not paid enough not to have fun, but you are also there to make sure other people have fun so don’t be a jerk.

Using silence

I don’t like using automix where songs play automatically one after another. There are a few reasons for this. The most important is that I don’t trust it. The number of times that has led me to accidentally change songs mid songs are too many. It can be because I am clumsy, because someone bumped into me while I was reorganizing songs, or because my hands were shaking from cold and I accidentally double clicked. I just don’t trust it or myself.

Another reason is that I like to play with the length between songs. This is another underrated aspect of flow. It is also one of my favorite things to mess around with. As Swing and Blues song selectors, we don’t remix, beatmatch, sample or any of the other things DJs do to put their touch on the music. All we can do is chose songs and play with the silence between them.

There are a number of reasons to mess with this. If the floor is very big, people might need a longer time to find a new partner, if it was a very intense emotional song to dance to people might need to breath and digest it for a few seconds extra, if it was very fast maybe they need to breath a few seconds extra. When I say silence we are talking like 2–10 seconds. 10 seconds of silence is pretty long and usually way beyond what feels comfortable. According to scientists 4 seconds is all it takes for it to feel like uncomfortable silence.

But you can use this silence to your advantage. It builds tension. And then the song you play after comes as a release. It works if you go up in tempo and then the silence felt like anticipation. It works if you go down from a very fast song to something much slower when it works as a place to breath. It works as when switching styles radically as it allows for time to reset from the previous song. Test it out at home and then try it out on the floor.

Practice makes acceptable

I think I have blabbered on too long already and it’s time to give you some homework. What, you thought you could just read this and that would be enough? Nope DJing takes work if you want to do a decent job, which after all is all I hope that I am doing.

You can use these methods to explore set ideas of songs that really work well together, but more importantly to train your ear to what just works in for you. Working on this stuff at home is not the same as playing it for a floor where there are more things to take into account, but it’s not really fair to the dancers to do your homework when you are supposed to be working.

1. My favorite songs

Take your 20 favorite songs and put them in alphabetical order or whatever random order you feel like.

Chose which song you want to start on and then try to organize the entire playlist so that one song flows well into the next without being boring. do this until all 20 are in an order that you like. Listen to the whole playlist. Listen to the last 15 seconds of a song and then the first 15 of the next and check if it works and do that for the whole playlist. Try to understand why something works and why it doesn’t.

Try doing it in a few different ways. Imagine you are doing it for a beginner dance floor, imagine you are playing for people who are sitting in a bar. Explore how these things change how you think about tempo and style transitions.

Have a friend listen to it and see what they think. Perhaps you have friends who are also working on their DJing, you can give each other feedback.

2. These ain’t my songs!

Have a friend give you 10–20 songs for you to do the same thing with. I had this idea once to create a DJ improvement group focused on flow. Every week everyone would nominate a number of songs and then everyone had to make a flowing playlist out of it. It got as far as me making the first song selection and talking to some people that we should do it. We never did. If you want a random list of songs, here is the one I made in an unorganized order. See if you can make it good.

3. Write a few stories

When I say write, I mean chose songs to create a few stories. But every story has a beginning a middle and an end. But the journey from the beginning to the end shouldn’t be all that straight forward, that‘s a pretty boring story. I went to the store because I wanted to buy some milk. I walked there, I bought the milk, I walked home. That’s not all that interesting, but perhaps you saw a cute dog on the way, perhaps you tripped and almost fell, if you are DJing for a floor you might realize the store is out of milk, but thats ok because they had a sale on lychee instead and lychee is delicious so its great that you went anyway.

When building a story, remember that you want a beginning. Perhaps you need to imagine what state the floor is in when you start. It also needs an end, so unless you think this is the last set of the night, which is a story as well, add a few songs at the end. For example if you just created a massive high energy jam circle, what is the next thing you play?

Here are some ideas for “stories”

Pump up the Jam — a set that leads to a jam

Surfin’ — a set that keeps the energy level high without exhausting the dancers

Let’s get it on — a set that builds “the mood”

Cry — A set that makes people sad, but not because the music sucks

Smooth sailing — a set that just takes you from point A to point B without being too interesting, like a band brak or perhaps a beginner intro

There are many stories that can be told, think about what you want to say.

Some closing words

As I have said before. Learn to do the simple before you start experimenting. Learn the most common 100 songs because that will give you an idea of what works so that you know what to look for. This means read the previous articles before you read this one. And if you think I am wrong about what I write, I hate you, but you are probably right. Find what works for you, it’s an art not a science.

While the main reason I write is to just scratch an itch, I am always happy to hear that people have read it, whether they like it or not so please leave a comment below or drop me a line. If there are things you would like me to write about in the future I will be happy to hear because I am kinda out of ideas for now.

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Mr Ben
Swing & Blues for dancers

Swing and Blues DJ with a love of music and dancing. Ranter, raver and unstructured of mind.