Written by Sam Imhoff
If you’ve been out this year, you’ve probably seen Oliver Ward DJ at house parties. DJ OLI WARD is recognizable by his beaming and genuine smile, his plain grey t-shirt, and more noteworthy, his selection of uplifting disco and techno music. Though he’s been lauded by Colorado College students for his DJ sets, he’s actually weary of the DJ title; he’s not sure if it is deserved. Off-campus hosts have offered to pay him to play, but he’s refused the money every time. For him, it is “completely a social experience,” and accepting money or the DJ appellation would mar the purity of the experience. Ward likes to go home thinking that if it was worth it for one audience member to come out, it was a worthwhile night.
“[DJing] is super easy…and that’s not modesty—it’s just easy,” Ward said. At its core, DJing involves mixing between two or more audio tracks. However, it takes a much more complex process to DJ successfully and actually have an audience enjoy it. One cannot just choose two tracks to simultaneously play through the speakers; it’s an art.
To mix a non-cacophonous mess, a DJ will cut out the bass from one track and leave the vocals, the hi-hats, and the synthesizers. A DJ will only add the bass frequencies on one track in order to make a “mash-up” of the two. Using this among other techniques, the DJ selects between pre-recorded songs in their library and pieces together a continuous set of music with clean transitions and sensible song selection based on the vibe of the crowd. There are three components to talented DJing according to Ward: technicality—the skilled use of the DJ controller, musicality—applying music theory to determine whether a song will transition well into the next, and—most importantly—song selection.
When asked whether he uses Pandora, Spotify, or YouTube suggestions to find music, Ward cringed. “You can tell they all use a similar algorithm, or at least yield similar, expected results,” he said. Instead, Ward finds profiles of other music collectors with similar tastes and gains inspiration from what they’re listening to. However, as a DJ, it is important not to fall into the trap of the novice: browsing what an artist listens to on their public profile. The artists are likely told by their managers to listen to music within their label and not the music of competing labels. With that option nixed, it is better to follow great music collectors on Spotify and YouTube. Additionally, Ward is part of Facebook groups which have been instrumental in his search for obscure gems that nobody has heard but everybody will love. The specifics are a trade secret.
While some DJs plan their sets, Ward prefers to improvise. Before the night of the show, Ward will compile a library of 600 songs—100 of which are entirely new for that performance. Then he lets the music and the audience take the set where it will. “Good DJing is entirely meditative,” said Ward. “No thoughts cross your mind, you just know what to do next, and the set falls into place.” If the crowd isn’t feeling a particular song, Ward often opts to cut off the music and just start a new song from the beginning.
Ward believes DJs shouldn’t be wary of simplicity. “As long as you’re smiling in the audience, it’s working out,” he said. If a night isn’t going well and it seems more like an excuse to get drunk than a special experience for him and the crowd, he will turn off the music and leave. “That’s only happened twice though, and both last semester,” he said. “On the nights when you try to drink yourself to happiness, embodying the caricature of a DJ, you just say to yourself ‘Dude, this is not going to work.’”
The DJs who Ward admires inspire him with their minimalist approach, improvisational response to the crowd, and eclectic music choices. But among the good, “most DJs are really, really bad.” Ward believes DJs are often too egotistical and obsessed with how they want their set to sound, as opposed to catering to the crowd. According to Ward, good DJing is “pure happiness, and pure connection.”
If you’d like to see Ward play, keep an ear out for the Gaylord concert happening later this year, featuring DJ OLI WARD, his good friend and alunus Mansour, and a professional DJ from Denver. Until then, be aware of those house parties “with a live DJ,” because there is a high chance it will be DJ OLI WARD; he plays often and likes a large, happy crowd.