If you are a travelling swing dancer, you’ve probably seen him with his laptop and headphones playing music at the main party of huge festival. This is Christian Bossert, from Zurich, Switzerland. He is a well known Swing DJ, spinning at international dance workshops, camps and events throughout Europe and overseas. Christian also organizes workshops for Swing DJs and classes about Jazz music history and musicality for dancers. But I got to know him first by his project http://swingdjresources.com. This is kind of treasure for beginner DJ and good source of inspiration for experienced ones. We talked with Christian a bit about his story and passion.
Hi, Christian. Tell me how all this started? Did you fall in love with the music and then started dancing or was the dance first?
The dance was first, absolutely. I did a lot of different dances before I started swing dancing. Then I saw a performance and I also watched the movie «Swing Kids». That was kind of «oh wow! I want to learn that dance!». And I liked the music of course. I knew it from back home when I was a kid. My parents had some records, I don’t remember exactly what that was, for sure Glenn Miller, some popular stuff.
I really got into Swing dancing in 1999. I did some Lindy Hop before, though, but that’s what I call my starting point. At the same time, I started to buy Swing music on CDs. In 2006, I started to DJ in my local city, in Zurich. My girlfriend and I used to run parties with live band in our apartment 4 or 5 times a year (we’re still doing this). During the band breaks I played some music. At one of those parties in late 2005, there was a friend of mine and he asked me if I want to be a DJ at his event. That’s how I remember it.
Do you still buy CDs? Or you get everything from iTunes now?
Both, but iTunes is just one place for digital downloads, I buy music where ever I can find it. I also buy vinyls and shellac records.
Do you use records for DJing?
No, I don’t DJ with records. Maybe I will do it in future, but I don’t have enough records yet. I started to collect them a few years ago. They just remind me of my childhood.
How did you start collecting music?
When I started I got a library from friends: CDs and compilations. I copied them. I thought “ok, that’s the stuff everyone is playing” and I got a feeling for it. But I felt that was not my music, not what I really like. So I started to find my own stuff. From the beginning I always wanted to play the music I like to listen to. I also play for myself. I went to second hand CD shops and just bought jazz CDs. I didn’t really know that much about swing music at that time so I bought all kind of jazz music. And then I got a feeling what is good for dancing and what doesn’t work. It comes over time with buying music, listening to it, DJing and seeing what’s happening on the dance floor.
It’s like learning by doing. You have to do it to get a feeling. As soon as you have it, you don’t think about it anymore. You know by heart what works and what doesn’t.
How do you organize your collection?
I organize it in iTunes, because I work with Mac. What I always do: I count the BPMs and I rate the songs. I don’t need more than 5 stars to know how good the music is. I can trust this system:
• 5 star songs are a complete winners, I don’t have to pre-listen them, the always work.
• 4-star songs are very good for dancing but I need to pre-listen them.
• 3-stars songs are those that still work for dancing but I consider them not really good.
• 2-star songs are actually good songs but they don’t work for dancing (I rarely use that rating)
• 1 star indicates that I have a better version (quality-wise) of the same song in my library
Usually, I only play 4- and 5-star songs. But when I need new inspiration, I go into my list of 3-star songs and sometimes I realize: “oh, that song is actually better than I thought before”. Over time my taste changes and my rating changes. It can be that a 4-star song get downgraded if it doesn’t meet my expectations anymore.
How many 5-star songs do you have?
I don’t know… I think between one and two hundred.
And 4 stars?
Many more. When I hear a song that I like and think I would play it then it gets four stars.
Where do you find the inspiration? Do you buy modern musicians’ CDs?
I find inspiration everywhere I am. It could be from a podcast like Hey, Mister Jesse. It could be other blogs. It could be DJ sets. It could be an event where I discover a band. Usually. when I see a band and I like it I buy the CD. Perhaps, I don’t play the music from it but maybe there are songs or titles I’ve never heard before and then I look for other versions of them.
Then, I do a lot of research online. It’s because I run the blog Swing DJ Resources and the series „DJ Chrisbe’s Song of the Week“. With that I discover a lot of new stuff. Or I just hear a song somewhere and I think “Oh wow this is great”!
Do you use Shazam for that?
When there’s a DJ I ask him.
Oh, I have to try to do that!
Absolutely. I don’t have a problem to tell someone what song I’m playing. I won’t give away all my songs or a hard drive at once. But if you come to me and ask me what song that was of course I would tell you, why not.
What is the appropriate quality for songs. Are there technical characteristics?
Basically, I don’t care if there is noise on old recordings. It depends. If it’s a little bit there in the background and it’s not too strong then it’s okay. So I play a lot of old songs which are scratchy or a little bit noisy. First of all, quality is my own taste. But sometimes you hear it differently in your headphones and in a ballroom. That’s true but that’s where I say “try it”. Just play it and you feel it. It depends on the room. There is no theory working for that.
Could you define the type of music you like most of all?
It’s really difficult just to define it. There are always exceptions. I would say I like a song that has interesting patterns in it. For example, driving rhythms and unexpected changes. I also like minor key harmonies, melancholic types of tunes. Most of what I’m doing is coming from my stomach. It’s just feeling. DJing is a very intuitive thing for me. I often can’t tell you why I’ve chosen that song. I just feel this is a good song to play now. A friend of mine once called me an atmosphere designer. She meant I’m able to find the right music for the right situation. I like this definition a lot.
Can the atmosphere be designed with prepared playlists?
I think a good DJ in any style is someone who has the ability to feel the floor, to feel the energy and to lead this energy. Say: “We are together on a trip and I guide you”. But I also have to feel what do they need now. Is there a high energy in a room and do I need another high energy song or are they already too tired and I have to bring it down so they can take a breath and be ready for a next wave. This is not about mixing or doing playlists. This is about creating an atmosphere.
Do you use any special software?
For a long time I only used iTunes, even for DJing. But with iTunes I had the problem that when I accidentally touched the space button the music stopped. So I decided to go for djay. For the need of a Swing DJ it’s really good and with the latest version you can easily pre-listen the songs within the library. The software is also available for iPad and iPhone.
I know that on PC a lot of people are using MediaMonkey and JRiver Media Center. There is also a free open source software called Mixxx available, but I never DJ with it. You still need an external USB sound card so that you have two output channels: One for pre-listening and one for the master output. You can have very cheap ones to use only for pre-listening and use the computer output as the main output or you get a more professional one where you have both outputs integrated.
What other equipment do you have? What do you bring with you when you’re going to a venue to DJ?
In the meantime. I also bought an external controller. I use it a lot. Because we have songs from 1940s with bad sound quality and we have modern music. Of course they have total different settings.
But iTunes also has equalizer
It has but I’m a very haptic person. Although I work a lot with digital stuff, I like to have buttons and faders, it’s more sensitive. I just prefer having something I can touch.
How did you decide to create a website?
Which one? Swing DJ Resources? I started from another blog called Shuffle Projects. It’s the project name for all the things I’m doing within the swing scene: organizing events, DJing or teaching classes. In 2009, I thought I could start a blog and write about what I’m doing, my events, feelings and opinions.
But in the meantime, many different blogs started writing about swing dancing and I thought “Ok, I’m not a philosopher, English is not my mother tongue and I’m not such a good writer, it doesn’t make sense to keep writing about dancing”.
So I decided to have a blog especially for Swing DJs. I already got a lot of questions and requests about music and I felt that there’s a need to share knowledge about DJing itself, how to do it, how to build a playlist and so on.
Most people want music tips and get inspiration for new music. That is my main focus. But there’s also a big need in technical knowledge. There are a lot of beginners who just started or didn’t start at all – they say “I kind of want to do it but I don’t know how to start or don’t have enough music yet or need some ideas how to structure my music”.
Which blogs do you read and consider helpful to yourself?
I subscribed to all the blogs I can find about swing dancing or music (I use a RSS reader). I don’t read all the articles but I can see if there is something interesting showing up. On Facebook, I also subscribed to all the pages somehow related to my interest – swing bands, teachers, DJs. So I can see for example when a band has a Kickstarter project or if they release a new album.
Here is the Facebook list
To round it up, can you give your advice to someone like me who’s just starting out as a DJ?
If you want to do something – take action! When you’re attending an event and you want to DJ just ask for a set. I started exactly like that: At every event I went I asked if I could DJ. You can start with a small library. It doesn’t matter if you only have two hundred songs. It’s far enough to play a cool one-hour set. As soon as you’ve got started you can get this feeling, you’ll find out what works and what doesn’t. Even in your local scene, instead of playing a playlist just sit down, take an hour and try to create an atmosphere. Maybe it will work, maybe not. It’s all about practice, like with every other skill.
You told me once, that you would have DJ class in Zurich. I have some ideas to bring it online. Is it already on?
Yes, I ran a Swing DJ course last year and I just announced a new one for February 2015. I actually have plans for an online Swing DJ course, but there are no concrete plans yet, when that would start.