How to Pace Yourself (And the Crowd) When DJing an All-Night Set

Chicago natives and Argot label bosses Steve Mizek and Savile explain how restraint is essential when you're playing from open to close.
July 21, 2016, 5:45pm

We're Steve Mizek and Savile from Chicago. Together we run the labels Argot and Tasteful Nudes, and DJ as a duo across the US, stuffing our faces with whatever food we can find. Steve used to run a blog called Little White Earbuds, and Savile has released records on Stripped & Chewed, Northside '82, The Nite Owl Diner, and of course, Argot.

This Saturday, July 23, we're back in New York for another "Argot All Night" party at Good Room, where we'll be playing open-to-close in the Bad Room from 10PM-4AM, for a total of six hours. All nighters present DJs with unique challenges, like how to develop the room's sound to match (and manage) the crowd's energy throughout the night. But above all, playing a slamming set from open-to-close requires a DJ to exhibit a much sought-after trait: restraint. We don't claim to have much of that as individuals, but when we DJ together, we think we do an alright job of reminding each other not to get too excited.

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We've compiled this guide to playing open-to-close sets as a reference to some of the dumb ideas and good mistakes we've stumbled upon over the last four years in the booth together. It's a rough breakdown of what we aim to achieve during each hour of any given all-nighter, and we've also included recommended tracks that we think fit into each segment. Study up and we'll see you on the dancefloor!

10PM - Put a welcome mat on the (dance)floor.

One of the best things about playing all night is the space it affords to your set. It's easy to forget that when you're starting with an empty room, there's no need to drop drum tracks, or really anything else for that matter. Start with zero expectations. Throwing in your favorite pop, rap, or open-format songs in those early hours helps you and your audience get properly settled into the space, and lowers the assumption that there has to be a ton of dancing right off the bat. You have hours left to get people moving, so don't worry so much about beat-matching during the start. Try starting out with something like Ravi Shankar's 1997 Chants album. The release compiled Vedic and Hindu chants of peace and harmony, and is particularly good for placing a welcome mat on the dance floor.

11PM - Make some mystery.

11PM is still quite early in the grand scheme of things, so try to keep things light and build a curious energy in the room. It's not that hard to get people moving at this time, but clearing the floor is more typical when there's so few people in the room. That's actually not the worst thing as it lets you work out the kinks to see what sticks. This Ma Spaventi track for example—released on the first Most Excellent Unlimited 12"—does a great job of splitting the difference between grit and mystery. That sloping bassline sticks to the folds in the brain and the nourishing synth pads are magnificent.

12AM - Give them some shapes.

By hour three, if all is going well, the floor and your joints should be limber. It's now time to give the dancers some more options of how they can move their bodies. As a DJ with a whole night at your disposal you'll be well served to offer a variety of polyrhythms and percussive sounds to to keep your crowd interested, and give their limbs some different shapes to throw. Layering percussion has been a major part of our sets this year and few people bring more energy and fresher ideas to that game than Sotofett. His "Tribute to Sore Fingers," a recent release on the always-killer FIT, is a perfect example. You could dance ten different ways to this one!

1AM - Raise the ceiling—carefully.

1AM is strange territory. It's easy to pine for bangers, but it's important to remember that there are still more stairs to climb if the room feels like it. You have to be careful here because raising the ceiling with dissonant, moody tracks played too fast or too slow can really bend folks in half, in a bad way. We like to think about parties like No Way Back, and DJs like Patrick Russell, Carlos Souffront, Mike Servito, Erika, and BMG, who all play with such unhinged discipline. Try something like this obviously referential flip of "House of God" that feels familiar while also different. The 180 degree turn in the middle is the stuff screams are made of.

I Played a Ten-Hour Set Without Stopping and Learned the True Meaning of DJing

2AM - Engage punishment mode.

It's here you can get away with some pure, unbridled punishment. This track from Gesloten Cirkel might be too maximal to be called minimal, but it's definitely some zen-electro shit. It's the kind of track you can play from the first second to the last and people will still be tearing off their faces. This is the "dub" version of the track, running at an almost criminal 2:50. At the same time it's a blessing to not have the chance to ruin the track with a criminally long blend. This one's best served quickly and with a light hand. It's a rare kind of moment but always one to be chased.

3AM - Keep up the tempo, turn up the feels.

3AM is a time when folks are taking smoke breaks and finding their legs again, and this blinder from the unparalleled Mark Bell has a chord progression that pulls people right back to the floor. People often forget the importance of offering dancefloor relief via gratuitous melody, and like countless Red Planet releases or so many other Detroit classics, a tune like this manages to be demanding on your legs while at the same time overflowing with beautiful instrumentation. It combines the tech elements of Trelik-era of drum programming with the kind of synth work that's as tongue-in-cheek as it is ecstatic. Hard to find this caliber of writing anywhere. RIP Mr. Bell.

4AM - A final hug.

A syrupy finale is always something nice to land on. We've enjoyed these kind of borderline sing-a-longs as closing tracks as of late, and somehow audiences seem to look past the potential cheese when exhaustion and euphoria are in their sights. "To Know You Is To Love You" and its ilk are spotless hug-your-friends moments to end on.

In the end there are, of course, no rules. Do what you want!