What’s really going on in the mind of a heckler at a party? We ask the thoughts of a DJ who’s had more than just insults thrown at them during a set.
There’s always one. A lone figure standing out from the crowd, leering in your direction. At first amongst the din of a booming soundsystem, their attempts to get your attention appear will intentioned. Perhaps they’re asking the name of a tune. Or trying to reach a friend behind the booth. But then as you begin to piece the words that you can hear from them together, their intentions become apparent. You have a heckler on your hands.
For DJs, hecklers come in various levels of annoyance. Some can merely be a source of noise to be ignored and blocked out. The more persistent types however can throw you off your game and ruin not only your set, but everyone else’s enjoyment of it too.
DJing is a very subjective art. You can’t please all of the people all of the time and that realisation comes easier to some people and harder for others. When it comes right in the middle of your set, the act of pulling your head together and playing on is a right of passage that every DJ at some point has to learn. DJing is about finding a state of flow. A state where the tracks seem to pick themselves and if you’re caught off guard, a heckler can stop that flow in its tracks.
Hecklers seem to have a finely tuned awareness of when to press your buttons. Perhaps you’re on your last legs after a weekend of sleepless travelling in which one airline blunder after another has already pushed your sanity to the edge. Or thanks to a clueless promoter, you’re already playing on a weird festival lineup where your music is out of place amongst the other artists on your bill.
They appear whether you’re playing badly or not. Whether the party is busy or not. And more often than not, they appear when you’re playing at your best and crop up at gigs that are critical for your career. Every time I played Panorama Bar for example, a club that I had dreamed of playing every since discovering it in 2004, I had to contend with a heckler.
How to handle a heckler as demonstrated by Obama.
The second time was right at the end of playing a four hour set to start the night. After weeks of frantic digging and a week of practicing, the set had gone well. Right up until the track when a heckler appeared in the breakdown of King Britt’s remix of Josh One ‘Contemplation.’ For me it’s a classic track that is hard to argue with, and one that provides a peak to an early set without stealing the thunder of the DJ about to take over. For my heckler, however it was obviously an abomination and one that demanded snarling a diatribe of abuse at me in the breakdown while the rest of the dancefloor partied deliriously.
The next time I played Panorama Bar the heckling took a far weirder turn. Out of the corner of my eye while mixing a track, I spotted a missile lazily cruising through the air at me. It luckily missed and landed to the right hand side of the deck but on closer inspection, it turned out to be a condom. Whether it had been used or not is anyone’s guess.
I saw the funny side of it of course. And I certainly didn’t let it put me off my set. But not every interjection from a heckler is harmless. The worst kind can be physically threatening or violent. On two occasions I’ve had members of the public swing punches at me over the wall of the DJ booth for not agreeing to play a track request.
The track request crew are often just indicative of a bad gig. A bad booking for a club that hasn’t quite attracted the right crowd for their DJ, or conversely, the right DJ for their crowd. The further you get into your career, these luckily fade away. But the altogether creepier variety with better taste still pop up in the clued up crowds of even the best parties.
Female DJs seem to suffer the worst of their attentions. My other half is a DJ and told me about an incident on the weekend where a heckler had appeared in front of the booth to demand she play “harder” music. The “harder, harder” variety are of course a very particular subspecies of idiot who are likely to demand something harder than what’s already being played whether they’re listening to ambient or gabber. Like many hecklers, this particular man chose the very peak of the night, when everyone else in the crowd seemed to be enjoying the music, to make his presence felt.
For comedians dealing with hecklers is an artform in itself.
From one mix to the next, he repeatedly hurled expletive laden abuse, until she finally cracked and screamed at him in no uncertain terms to fuck off. Luckily the force of her delivery caught him off guard and had its desired effect. But not every incident can go like that. On another occasion she had a bottle thrown at her which narrowly missed her head, once again during a party in which everyone else was enjoying the music.
What is it about hecklers that makes them feel they need to make their presence felt at a party? My own theory is that hecklers feel threatened by other people on a pedestal. The DJ attracting the attention of a room, is a challenge to their power. Often it is a glaring indication of their own insecurities. They are often a failed DJ. Or a failure at some other endeavour that invites the attention of others. Despite their failures, they are often the person who feels like they deserve to be on the pedestal. Add alcohol and drugs into the mix and these insecurities seem to bubble to the surface all the more vigorously.
I used to get annoyed by hecklers. But now I just feel sorry for them. They are after all wearing their own mental health problems on a flashing neon sign of insecurity.
So if you feel like heckling just remember you may be revealing more than just your disdain for the DJ. And remember, you don’t know best. The DJ doesn’t know best. None of us know best. We are all swimming through a world of opinions and amongst the madness, some of us are just trying to do a job.
Now listen to some of the best DJs in the world: