Music Selection: Club DJ vs Mobile DJ
Knowing what your audience needs, music-wise, is familiar to club DJs. Many working DJs are skilled in open format and adjust to the varied music requirements of the venues they play in. Some venues need more urban tracks, others want regional styles like Jersey Club, some require heavy doses of lounge-friendly house music. I know DJs with residencies in popular tourist destinations where they have to play 100% clean/radio edit tracks.
Working club DJs face many of the same music diversity requirements as mobile DJs! If you’re looking to break into the mobile market, knowing what music is needed for common types of gigs can be a big help when getting started. Keep reading for my advice on music to pull for common mobile DJ gigs.
Author’s Disclaimer: This is in no way a “music bible” article. The advice below is based on my personal experience working for many years as a mobile DJ in North America. Consider this a great starting point – but no blog article will ever tell you everything you need to know about what music to play at mobile gigs.
Weddings + Proms/Homecoming + Corporate Gigs + Birthday Parties
These events tend to make up the majority of most mobile DJs’ clients. Naturally, some clients might have specific preferences (someone may like more rap, more country, more rock, more oldies than other styles, or differ because of age). Beyond those preferences, most of these events feel pretty much the same: straight forward open-format/Top-40 gigs. I could write a whole article on just these events and the music played at them, but to keep things short, I’ll just summarize for any complete mobile-noobs out there.
At the time of writing this article, here’s the lay of the land for music at these events:
anything on the top 40 dance/pop charts will work
cross-over country has made a huge comeback
mid to late 90’s pop really gets people active
late night sets can get fairly liberal with popular rap, hip-hop (Drake, etc..) and rap/hip-hop throwbacks of the late 90s, early 2000’s (Remember those Def Jam compilation CDs? Those things could still hold up a party today)
You’ll want to have all clean/radio edits for these events
If you’re looking for a list of tracks to get you started (particularly with weddings), DJ Event Planner keeps a yearly-updated list of their most requested songs (by clients).
Moving on to more niche gigs. With niche events, DJs generally only need 10-20 songs per category to cover the bases. Most events have a fairly mixed crowd where even your clients/hosts aren’t concerned with trying to make it a fully immersive experience. Play a couple each hour, then back to your normal open-format/top 40 mix. With that, below are suggestions for different types of unique mobile DJ gigs:
Colleges and Universities
Photo credit: Samantha Gades on Unsplash
I’ve DJed at dozens of College and Universities coast to coast in the US. From those experiences, I’d categorize this market into three common crowd types: Most Schools, Preppy/Frat’y Schools, and HBCU’s. Let me break them down.
Most colleges and universities will fall under the Open Format / Top 40 realm. These schools are great to gig at because you can hit every end of the music spectrum and the students are generally grateful for the good time and good music.
These schools have a lot of preppy or greek organizations dominating the social pecking order. I wish I was making this up, but basically whatever Kaskade played during his Ultra Miami set, mix in a few tracks of whatever underground Southern/Atlanta rapper that just went mainstream in any given year, and that will be what they want to hear. This might feel a bit simplistic, but at the moment, it’s a pretty good guide.
"Starting point: This Reddit r/DJs thread has a lot of great practical song advice from DJs who have played a lot of frat parties."
HBCU/Predominantly African-American schools
If you did not attend or visit a HBCU during your college years, you’re in for a treat. These schools are a lot of work, but arguably the most satisfying gig when you kill it (and you’ll know if you did or not). Be ready to reach deep in your Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B playlists, but mainstream Top 40 will be just as welcomed here without any push back.
Do not walk in unprepared. The magic that is Historically Black Colleges & Universities are life changing, particularly for those who are not black or familiar with black culture. You’ll – without question – experience at least one moment where you play or do something not of their liking, and you will get booed. It can be brutal – but on the other hand, when you play that one song (you’ll know it when it happens), everyone loses their mind as if you are Oprah
giving away free cars.
A few other things somewhat unique to the HBCU world: many greek organizations are co-ed, dance offs among school clubs/groups, line dances to nearly everything (even 90’s boy band hits – I’ve seen it, it’s amazing), you might asked to stop the music for a step routine or two, and my god, seeing the human-made wave of swag surf’n is almost spiritual to witness.
"Starting points for HBCUs: Swag Surf’n, Knuck If You Buck, Hustlin’, 7/11, anything by Drake, Migos, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and real trap music (like Gucci Mane, not “new wave” EDM trap like RL Grime or Flosstradamaus)"
Latino/Hispanic Weddings + Parties
In the United States, Latino and Hispanic cultures make up a significant part of our population. It’s common for any mobile DJ to get gig requests from clients that want their ethnic roots to be represented in the music played at their events.
In most places that don’t directly border Mexico, DJs will most ocmmonly encounter clients seeking Caribbean-rooted Latin music – aka, Latin Club music (Bachata, Merengue, Salsa, Reggaeton). If a client wants Mexican/Texana music, they will usually explicitly ask for it – otherwise assume if someone asks if you can play some Latin/Hispanic music, it is the former.
If they want almost all Latin music and you are not already a Latin DJ, politely pass and offer a recommendation to another DJ.
In my experience, Latin music has an immortal shelf-life compared to American pop music. I think it’s just because Latin America culturally differs in nearly each individual country, and far fewer Latino artists go mainstream outside of their country of origin. The classics aren’t “throwbacks,” but rather just required musical repertoire. If you aren’t familiar with Latin Club music, Listen to the various styles to get familiar with the differences. Nothing is worse than asking a DJ to play a Salsa song and they play a Cha Cha! Don’t be that DJ.
Good starting points for different Latin Club music styles: • Bachata: Prince Royce, Aventura, Romeo Santos • Salsa: Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, Fania All-Star, Jerry Rieva • Merengue: Elvis Crespo, Oro Solido, Grupo Mania • Reggaeton: Angel y Khris, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Don Omar • Latin Pop: Shakira, Selena, Enrique Iglesias
La Hora Loca (The Crazy Hour):
While on the subject of Latin events, La Hora Loca is a time during a party, usually very late in the night/wee-morning, where people revive the energy with a fresh supply of food, booze, and rowdy music. Take a peek at the video above to get a sense of the vibe at a wedding.
It’s basically 30 – 60 minutes of Carnival style antics. Often the host will pass put out masks, festival hats and headdresses, glow sticks, things with blinking LED lights, etc. The music is high-energy dance party music. If you get asked to do such a thing, ask for song requests to help you out.
Other Ethnic Events
Ethnicity will vary depending on where in the world you are located. In the US, I’ve found that Indian-American and Middle Eastern/Arab nations are pretty common client requests. Of course, there might be other cultures that look for mobile DJs to play specific non-Western styles of music! If you have advice, please share in the comments.
Indian-Americans are fairly wired in their own community and have DJs who cater to them. However, the following tracks have a few dozen plays in my music collection from encounters with Indian party-goers.
I must be specific here, even though I lived in Qatar in my early 20s, I’ve only DJ’ed at a couple weddings for couples from Egypt. Other DJs out there probably know more than me for music tips for Arabic gigs, but here are two songs I played at every event I did.
Events That Need Familiarity/Training
Over the years, I’ve agreed to almost every kind of gig that came my way just to see if it was something I could handle – and because I needed the money! There are some events that fall into the category of “know what you’re doing or don’t agree to the gig.” These are events that have many traditions, rights of passage, or religiously significant items you have to aid in as MC/DJ.
For me, these events include Jewish Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and Quinceaneras. I’ve never DJ’ed any of these events because I don’t live in a place where they are in demand – so I’d be clueless if I had to work one myself. Since me and my company’s reputation would be on the line, I’ll just politely decline and try to find a reliable referral to offer. If you’re considering taking a stab at events where you’re an outsider, I recommend:
attending a few (if you’re able to)
finding a fellow DJ who does them often who is willing to show you the ropes
There you go! Now again, this is just a starting point and you’ll still have to put in some research and music digging to have enough music to cover whichever type of event you expect to add to your gig repertoire but you can at least now have a head start.