The latest instalment in our ‘Top Tips’ series with CUPRA comes from DERV. The Dublin-based DJ talks about the value of understanding your music catalogue, reading a room, preparing for guest mixes, breaking out of her comfort zone, and more.

CUPRA continues to shine a light on Irish artists in the electronic music scene as they pave the way for future DJs, following the success of their recent ‘On The Pulse’ DJ Competition, which awarded a rising DJ the opportunity to play Beyond The Pale as well as a cash prize to further their artistic ambitions.

Derv‘s ascendance in Ireland’s post-COVID dance music scene has been a captivating journey, with the young DJ rising through the ranks to become one of the country’s busiest selectors, frequently playing for revered labels and parties such as Steel City Dance Discs, Slither, Index, and making her Boiler Room debut in October of last year. Along with these dancefloor endeavours, DERV has been curating her own night Salvaged and running Another Perspective, a platform dedicated to highlighting female and marginalised DJs and producers in the Irish electronic music scene, as well as working as a booking manager at Bodytonic with Wigwam.

DERV’s chameleon-style approach to DJing involves her playing with numerous genres and mixing off-kilter track combinations to create an immersive and jolting dancing experience. Her refusal to be pigeonholed by a certain style and genre has allowed her to fit in and out of diverse lineups, making her an excellent complement to club nights around the country. Her diverse musical pallet includes ghetto, house, techno, electro, trance, breaks and more, with memorable moments of unexpected but welcome vibe flips and curveball tracks. Her multifaceted approach to music will continue to propel her to the pinnacle of the Irish dance music industry.

We caught up with DERV to hear some of her essential DJ Tips to help aspiring DJs on their journey.

What are your top tips relating to track selections, local crowds, reading the room, playing frequently for the same promoters and so on?

The first thing I’m going to say here is to learn how to play an opening set properly. It is genuinely so important and I’m so glad I learned this so early on. The opening DJ sets the tone for the night, so if you can do this right, you’re winning. When I first started DJing I thought playing the opening set was boring, until I dug deeper in my track searching and very soon realised that BPM does not equal energy. Now I want to drill this into other people’s heads. Remember, Pool Party Music is 126bpm.

Knowing your place on a lineup is just as important. We all have the tracks that we’d love to hear on a big sound system, but you have to know your time and place with these things. The way I always think about an opening slot is that yes you are opening for the headliner, but more importantly, you’re opening for the main support DJ and setting the tone for where they will pick up from you. Of course, every lineup and gig is different and some exceptions are made sometimes with how rules are bent, for example, local and day parties can be a little bit more lenient, but generally being respectful of your place on a lineup is very important. I think the rule of thumb is to remember that you’re doing a job at the end of the day, and I don’t say that to take the fun out of it, DJing and music should always be fun above all. However, if you’re playing a support slot somewhere like Index for a big-name headliner, your job is literally to get the dancefloor warmed up and ready for the headliner in an appropriate manner. The worst thing you can do is tire a dancefloor out too early in the night. It’s better to come away from a gig and think to yourself “I actually probably could’ve gotten away with playing a bit more up-tempo”, but if you play too fast or inappropriately from the start, there’s no coming back from that. I do think that this is why I’ve been booked for so many support slots over the past two years. I am in no way an incredibly skilled DJ, but I know how to open properly and get a dancefloor warmed up.

In terms of your USB and playing gigs, in my own opinion, it’s better to have 50 tracks that you know inside out rather than 400 tracks that you barely know. This does not mean playing the same 50 tracks at every gig that you play, but it’s better to know the tracks that you’re playing to a crowd than playing tracks that you’re not familiar with. It’s important to know the music that you’re playing basically.

Learning to read a room comes with time and it’s about being able to put yourself in the position of the crowd and think ‘Is this track what the crowd wants right now or is it just me that wants to hear it’. Sometimes it’s a gamble, you could play something thinking it’s going to go down a treat and it just doesn’t or vice versa, but it’s about being able to make the decision in your head of whether it’s appropriate in that moment or not. I’ve often played gigs and been flicking through playlists on my USB and go to load up a track because my brain says, “Yeah this will mix in well” and then have to pull myself back because I quickly come to the realisation that it’s not the time or place for said track, just because my brain has registered that it might mix well. This is why I always tell new DJs to not plan their sets fully. I know it can be daunting to play in a club at first, but don’t get into a habit of planning your sets track for track, because you don’t know the energy of a room until you’re in it. Of course, I recommend creating playlists catered to specific gigs with tracks that fit the vibe, but don’t go into a gig with a set planned from track 1 to 30 in order, you will never learn this way.

What is the top tip you really benefitted from learning from when starting off? It can vary but try to pick something that stands to you to this day.

This might sound incredibly obvious, but mix with your ears, not your eyes. Imagine that there are no grids to look at on the decks. Your ear is your main instrument, so learn to trust it. When I first started learning to mix (2020) I went to Pierce Rooney for one mixing lesson, I had never used CDJs and wanted to know the difference between them and a controller and I’ll always remember him telling me to not look at the decks and don’t get into a habit of always looking at the decks. Look away and use your ears as your main signal. Don’t get me wrong, absolutely use the decks as your guide, but learn to trust and use your ears.

A tip that I myself would pass on to anyone starting out is to record as many mixes & guest mixes as you can. This doesn’t mean that you must do every guest mix that you’re asked to do, you can be selective, but your mixes are essentially your portfolio. Not only does recording mixes help you find your style, but you become better at mixing, you learn new techniques, it makes you dig harder / in different directions, and it shows people your style/sound. It also shows that you are proactive as a DJ. From a promoter’s point of view, it also helps to have mixes as a point of reference. I would also suggest not sticking to one specific genre musically. Each to their own of course but play around with genres and get to know the sounds that make you feel a love for music and the sounds that resonate with you the most when you are DJing and playing to a crowd. Remember that trends don’t last forever. Don’t think that you have to DJ a certain style of sound just because it’s trendy or in demand, do what feels right for you. I know that I’ve often gone through ‘moods’ with music in terms of what I do and don’t enjoy playing at certain periods of time and it helps to be eclectic during these times because I can lean into other sounds when I may not be in the mood to play something else and still make it work in my own way.

Have you got any tips for creating mixes?

As I mentioned previously, I really do believe that your mixes are your portfolio (as well as the gigs that you’ve played of course). I myself am a multi-genre DJ, I’ve never enjoyed the idea of being bound to one sound or style, simply because I enjoy too many genres. I enjoy being eclectic with genres in my mixes, or sometimes I might decide to stick to one sound, it depends on whatever mood I’m in musically at that current time. I try to bounce between genres in sets and mixes in the most appropriate manner. This doesn’t work for every gig, but with your own mixes, you have full freedom to do it your own way. It’s important if you’re doing a guest mix to recognise the sound of the platform that you’re doing it for.

I am definitely a perfectionist as much as I can be when it comes to my mixing. I am without a doubt a control freak, but I’m a self-aware control freak. I want everything I put out to be quality work that I’m proud of. I think it’s important to find balance in this. I will never put out a mix just for the sake of getting something out there if I’m not actually happy with it. In saying this, it’s very easy to tear so many little things apart with mixes and I’m definitely guilty of this when listening to my own work. We are all human, not robots and the point of mixing is showing that you are actually able to mix. Something I’ve said for years that I genuinely love hearing is a DJ slipping up in a mix and being able to fix it quickly, that’s a sign of a good DJ for me. I think my overall point here is don’t rush things. Take your time with preparing a good mix (or set) and have an idea of what you want the end product to be, rather than just throwing something together for the sake of it. It’s good to show that you’re proactive and passionate, but I think quality work will stand to people longer.

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