Updated: Nov 1, 2019
What is a DJ? Well if you ask someone in their 20s or younger, you will probably get a completely different answer to the question if you asked it of someone in their 40s. Today I want to tell you my experience of being a mobile disco DJ throughout the past 40 years.
This is my personal observation and you may have seen it differently, particularly if you were a DJ coming into the game at a different point over the past 40 years Back in the mid 70’s when I DJ’d at my first ever disco in a youth club in Stevenage, one of the most important tools of a DJ along with his records was a microphone. The DJ was the entertainment, he didn’t ‘just stand there playing records’, an observation that was often made by many of my mates who wanted to become DJs. The DJ’s sole responsibility was to pack the dance floor and keep it packed.
Being a DJ whether in a youth club, night club, or as a DJ running a mobile disco through the late 70s and 80’s performing at an event, be it a birthday party, a wedding, or just a Sunday night in the local pub meant that you were ‘doing the disco’. You were the performer of the night, you had your music to help you but your personality is what you used to get the dance floor full, not Beats Per Minute (BPM).
I vividly remember many of my better performances, the ones where the dance floor was packed all night and I got a standing ovation at the end (ok they were already standing up on the dance floor) crowd appreciation was your confirmation that you’ve ‘still got it’. The ‘it’ was an ability to select the right record at the right time to keep your crowd up and dancing, and knowing when and when not to use the mic.
The mic was a double edged sword to a mobile disco DJ in as much as you wanted to get your personality across but talk too much and people would sit down because they wanted to hear the music. A disco DJ was not a radio DJ. Using the mic was a skill in itself, a few one liners, song introductions, or funny comments over the music wouldn’t stop people dancing but would maybe give them a little smile to themselves, it would also help to make you the talking point the next day when your audience were discussing the party they went to the night before. Yes, we DJs back in the day loved to be the centre of attention!
The mic was important not just for introductions and light hearted banter, it also gave you a chance to show off your cueing skills. Get the record lined up properly at the beginning and you could talk over the introduction to the track and finish just as the singing started, a skill I mastered pretty quickly really although I know of many DJs who struggled and often missed the cue and ended up red faced, much to the amusement of any rival DJs in the audience, even though the rest of the audience probably didn’t notice. The mic was an integral part of any DJs weaponry and we used them to our full advantage, introducing records, little comments, and the DJs favourite ‘calling the raffle’. Calling the raffle was either loved or loathed by DJs and it all depended on when the raffle was being called, there is nothing worse than a packed upbeat crowd of people on the floor dancing to Rick Astleys Never Gonna give You Up and the organiser comes up and asks you to stop to call the raffle. However, if the raffle was called early enough you could use it to your advantage and ‘warm up’ the crowd. This was upside of the raffle, once again you got your chance to show your skills to everyone, this time as a stand up comedian or compare.
Ask yourself this question, if you went to a disco last night and the music was great and you had a good ol’ dance, what would you remember? The music, right? Now same question if you went to a disco last night, music was great and you had a good ol’ dance but the DJ had a great personality, was telling jokes and interacting with the crowd, being friendly and welcoming and entertaining. What would you remember? The DJ of course. It was usually during or soon after the raffle when the music went back on that a DJ would get asked for a business card.
As I have mentioned, I started DJ’ing at an early age, I was 13 when I did my first youth club disco and 15 when I did my first disco as a mobile DJ. By the early 80s I was pretty well established as the Catch 22 Disco Show, to this day I don’t know why we called it a disco show.
Throughout the 80s as time moved on things started to change for mobile discos. In the early years getting booked to do a wedding was much the same as any other disco apart from you would have to cater musically for a wider audience from kids to grandparents, wedding discos would generally be just an evening affair for the reception.
In the early ‘80s, mobile discos were still being influenced by the disco movement of the 70’s and films like Cars Wash, Thank God it’s Friday and Saturday Night Fever so we would go out with huge light shows made up mainly of light screens and ropelights and later with the addition of spot lights, pin spots, and smoke machines. We had this thought that the customer wanted a mobile night club, and to some extent they did.
As the 80s progressed to the 90’s, music changed and so did lightshows. The light screens were seen as ‘old hat’ and were replaced with lighting effects that although were smaller could give out a much better display over a bigger area. Small metal boxes that could throw out beams of many colours, lasers, strobes, and smoke machines were the order of the day for late 80’s and 90s dance music. It was during this time that the DJ started to change. No longer was the mic such an important part of a DJs arsenal, now it was all about mixing and BPM, DJs became artists of their craft, remixing tracks, blending one track into another seamlessly and shamelessly while the crowd jumped and swayed to the thumping beat of the new dance craze. This, in a strangely enough paved the way for a new kind of mobile DJ, The Wedding DJ.
Now you may know different but I am of the opinion that ‘The Wedding DJ’ was probably born out of a mixture of two things, 1. The old school DJs not wanting to get into all the new style of mixing and dance music and 2. Young girls no longer letting their parents organise their wedding for them, they didn’t just want an evening reception anymore, they wanted a whole day affair, this resulted in the DJ that couldn’t or wouldn’t become a mixing DJ or MC taking up the gap in the wedding market.
As time moved on the wedding DJ started to offer other services. Taking on the role of toastmaster or Master of Ceremonies gave the DJ the chance to utilise his services for the whole day rather than just the evening reception. Later DJs introduced new products such as ‘LOVE’ letters, dance floors, photo booths, sweet carts etc. as part of their wedding package.
The mobile DJ is still going strong. They still do your birthday parties and still do your weddings. There are some that will do both and some that will specialise in one or the other. You will notice that the light shows on discos these days are pretty minimalist compared to 20 or 30 years ago and the mic isn’t used as much either because many of the mobile disco DJs who have started in the last 10 years are still being influenced by the club DJs but still have that sole aim to get people dancing. It’s much harder these days in the age of social media and mobile phones, and even the smoking ban has changed how we do things. No longer does everyone stay in the venue, they go outside for a smoke, to use their phones or just socialise with guests who have done either.
Mobile discos now are usually a fully registered and insured business unlike when I first started. Back in the early years most DJ’s were part time and worked cash in hand for their fee. Today it’s unlikely that a good DJ will not have some kind of public liability insurance and all his equipment will be safety tested and certificated. Todays mobile disco prices will vary greatly depending on what you want and what other services they can provide, a word of warning though, always get a few quotes and ask what you are getting for your money. Remember that you get what you pay for, a disco charging £80 or £100 probably either isn’t very experienced or maybe is cheap because they don’t get many bookings, in which case you need to ask yourself why they don’t get many bookings.
I still run Catch 22 disco, but it is advertised as a retro disco now. There is a market for 60’s nights, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s nights. I have performed at ‘Classic Disco Nights’ where the customer has asked for old school disco music from the 70’s and 80’s, so as you can see there are people who still love the old disco.
Personally I think that there is always going to be a market for the mobile disco but it is changing so fast now that technology is moving so quickly. Music is very accessible these days and streaming a playlist for your party is all too easy. We do see parties where the organisers’ friend has a laptop with lots of music and a powered speaker and they decide to do their own music. That is all well and good if you just want your friends personal top 40 for the night but does everyone like his music? A good mobile disco will play to the crowd, they will be able to read the crowd and know what the best track to play next is, they will be able to keep everyone happy with a varied music choice to suit everyone and will know what requests to play and what to ignore. Yes we sometimes choose to ignore requests, not because we don’t like them, but because sometimes that one track can make or break a good night, leave it to the DJ to decide if it’s a good choice, he knows what works and doesn’t. So, there you have it, if I had enough space and time I could probably write another 200 pages on the subject and cover everything you ever need to know about the mobile disco so until my book is written and published, thanks for reading.