7 DJs known for outstanding technique tell us how they do it

We hear from some of the most technically accomplished DJs, as Jeff Mills, Neffa-T, DJ Perly, DVS1, Mr Switch, James Zabiela and DJ Puffy each explain how they achieved mastery in the DJ booth.

Performance DJing has never been more in demand or celebrated. Whether it was scratching, beat juggling or mixing on four decks, there’s always been a school of DJs who ventured beyond what’s considered “the basics.” But as traditional turntablism has evolved towards the multi-deck CDJ showmanship we see today, a variety of factors have ushered in a new age of performance DJing, elevating the craft and inspiring people the world over.

In a post-sync button world, beatmatching is just one of the many ways DJs now express themselves. Access to affordable DJ gear, now packed with a variety of functions, means even the most basic equipment allows DJs to use loops, hot cues, stems, and FX in their performances. You can remix on the fly. Incorporate samples and acapellas to transform popular songs. Use the power of surprise to mash genres together. In response to the “what do DJs actually do?” meme, performance DJs are doing a whole lot. 

At the same time, accessibility has naturally led to saturation in the market. As participation in DJing has increased, it’s become increasingly difficult to be noticed. Add to that the impact of social media. Filming and streaming of sets is widespread, meaning that DJ culture (for better or worse) has never been more visual. Viewed through this lens, performance DJing can be seen as engaging and entertaining—both important factors in this new digital landscape. Put simply, showmanship and skill, mixed with viewer curiosity, make performance DJing a more interesting proposition. 

With this in mind, we spoke to a range of DJs who, through years of dedication and practice, are all widely respected for their skills. How did these innovators start to break the mold? What role has technology played in developing their skills? And how often do they practice to achieve such spectacular results? We asked some of the most prominent performance DJs to share their stories.

Jeff Mills

Credit: Jacob Khrist

Over the past few decades, DJs have forged many avenues to push beyond the basic skill of beatmatching. Early on, word-of-mouth led to experimentation, according to Detroit pioneer Jeff Mills. “In the early 1980s, the art of DJing was still evolving,” he said. “Around those years, and even without a fast and fluid method of communicating between cities, information about what DJs were doing was being circulated around the country.” 

“Either by gossip, rumors or second and third-hand accounts, we would just hear what someone was saying a DJ did—and from that, we would try to figure it out ourselves. No video, no recordings, etc. It was just by imagining what it might sound like and what it might take to materialize it. So, we had to be very creative and skillfully proficient. Very quick and precise.

 “I was mostly inspired because of the creativity that was involved in programming music. With two or three turntables, one could literally dissect a track and rebuild back up again,” he added.

 Jeff’s credentials as an innovator go back to the 1980s, when, as a hip-hop DJ, he earned the title “The Wizard.” His high-octane mixing and scratching set him apart from his peers, and he transferred those techniques to techno. This embrace of evolutionary ideas is at the core of his artistry. Over the past four decades, Jeff has blazed a trail with his visionary philosophy and continuous push to utilize technology and futuristic concepts.

When he’s playing records, Mills boils it down to “extraction of sound.” “Most of my time is spent taking a track away from the mix,” he said. “A technique that mainly uses a combination of modifying the EQ and frequencies and lowering volume until the track vanishes from the mix.” This can be seen in his now legendary Exhibitionist mix, playing on three turntables, transitioning between tracks rapidly, and using the EQs to subtly adjust the frequencies and create harmonious blends.

Though he’s renowned for his future-facing outlook, Mills still places great importance on his own technical ability when it comes to technology. “What I’ve learned over the many years is that it’s better to not rely on technology as much as my own skill and technique. Meaning, if the technology is designed to do everything for me, then I tend not to use it. I would prefer to still have certain ideas that I need to sort out myself. Physically. Not by pushing a button.” 

Ever the visionary, he imagines how technology could take on a more organic, mobile form. “I want to have DJ equipment more in the direction of an instrument than a computer,” he said. “Not just colorful pads, but something that would allow me to be more of a soloist. Now, I think we need more than tabletop machines or boxes. By now, I would imagine that machine would have taken on a more organic appearance.”


Neffa-T’s multi-deck performances are spectacular, entertaining and precise. He’s been driven by personal challenges from his youth, using perfectionism and not feeling good enough to fuel a constant drive for self-improvement. Neffa’s formative years as a DJ were a deep dive into playing with multiple turntables while keeping the energy engaging. Timing and balance are all well and good, but they’re nothing without actually cultivating energy on the dance floor. 

“I try to walk a line between the excitement of technical moments and a heartfelt level of expression, that hopefully communicates a story without conversation,” he said. “I’m always striving for perfection and precision. I believe that you can obtain perfection, but it’s subjective. For me, it’s more about the energy I set out to convey in a mix, as opposed to how ‘clean’ each part is.”

Nowadays it’s more a case of practising when Neffa’s mood dictates. My practice is quite sporadic and spur of the moment. For me, the more open to experimentation and the potential of happy accidents I can be, the better. I usually just throw a bunch of new and assorted tracks into a folder on my USB and dig to see if I can extract new combinations, both in terms of technique and new ideas for merging tracks together.” A crucial part of his approach is the mantra “what the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve”.

Like everyone included in this piece, technology has played a key role in inspiring Neffa to develop his performances. “I was always (and continue to be) excited about the potential of how we can use technology in new and different ways; ultimately as tools of expression, allowing us to share moments and connect with one another,” he said.

That said, Neffa’s current outlook is about making the most of what he has. Using CDJs, his performances demonstrate how the technology can be pushed to its limits. At the moment, it’s less about seeking out new technology and more about how I can utilise what I already have,” he said. “I find it exciting to re-imagine an effect or its surface ‘purpose,’ by trying to utilise it in a way that it perhaps wasn’t intended.”

On the subject of AI, his view is one shared by his peers in this piece: the technology should be used as a tool to creativity, and not something artists depend on. “The main thing I hope for is that we’re able to integrate and not depend on technology as we move forwards. If so, I think we can retain the sacredness of connecting with one another through music.”

“I want to push and learn my own limits,” Neffa explained. “I think there’s something in me that wants to give everything I can to the art of DJing, whilst I can. I don’t know when but I imagine one day my ears or spirit will be too tired to go on at the level that I am now”.

DJ Perly

As a DMC beat juggling champ and six-time DMC World Finalist, DJ Perly has demonstrated her ingenuity on the world stage many times. Her mixing, scratching and flair techniques are always being worked upon, and she revels in the opportunity to spend her days practising.

“Technology keeps me inspired with the things that are coming out now,” she said. “It’s mind-blowing. And that gets me really curious to know, ‘How can I incorporate this in a DJ set? How can I elevate my skills? Or how can I transform an idea into something doper than how I imagined it previously?’ You learn the basics, and then you just break the rules and do your own thing.”

But for many people, actually making the time to practise, learn, create and refine techniques is another matter. Perhaps what separates the DJs in this piece from the pack is their dedication to expanding their repertoire, while pushing the limits of technology and their own skillset. “I practise pretty much every day,” said Perly. “If I don’t practise, I feel like I’m missing out on an opportunity where I could have gotten better at something.” Her approach is driven by the notion that there are always new things to learn. Like Neffa, Perly referenced the happy accidents that can occur when you switch your mind off and let creativity (and human imperfection) loose on the equipment.

She described her style as “badass” and “funky, fun, technical, full of surprises, with an open mind to trying out new things and not being afraid of discovering the new possibilities of creating that are out there (with technology).” Essential to developing one’s craft is this ethos of always being open to new ideas. To stay in a lane for too long is to stagnate. 

Perly’s outlook is centred on moving forward, the only limit being herself. “I still want to push myself and discover new ways of creating,” she said. “I want to keep myself on my toes and see what I can create and how I can create—what’s a dope way for me to present [what I’ve created] and perform it in front of people for the first time. And just keep going.” 

Mr. Switch

Mr. Switch, real name Tony Culverwell, has won DMC’s Battle for World Supremacy three times, and in 2014 became the DMC World Champion. Widely known for his flair and dexterity, he initially took inspiration from scratch DJs he saw accompanying bands like Limp Bizkit. Later on, Tony was drawn to garage innovator DJ EZ, while videos of the DMC Championships opened his eyes to a whole other world of advanced techniques. “It looked superhuman,” he said. “So my whole thing was, I wanted to work out how they were doing all this crazy stuff.”

Tony clocked most of his 10,000 hours of training when he was still at school. “I did my homework and then went off to practice,” he explained. “I didn’t really track time, I just got lost in jamming with stuff. I’d get really tired and my eyes would be drooping and then I’d go, ‘Right, that’s two hours.’”

In terms of his creativity, Tony is all about the idea. That spark of inspiration is the foundation of everything, guiding him to try an unconventional blend, or add a twist to a pre-existing technique. “For me, the idea is the cornerstone,” he said. “Figuring out if it’s doable, then developing the technique itself. When I won the first World Championship, I saved my best routine for last, which was based on James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good.’ I came up with the idea of flipping this short jazz break in the middle, making it into a double-time swing track. The idea came first, and the technique followed.”

Tony has a long standing working relationship with Pioneer DJ / AlphaTheta, and as the host of product and technique videos he’s been able to go deep with the gear and bring his own style. “I’m one of those guys who likes reading the manual and digging into all of the features,” he said. “I also like seeing what other people are doing with gear and being like, ‘Oh, no one’s used that feature before.’”

For Tony, it’s about expanding the possibilities of live performance; going beyond sedentary mashups and taking CDJs into new realms to see how much can be done on the fly. But in doing so, it’s about keeping a human element at the forefront, maintaining risk factors like spontaneity and ad-libbing. “I’m currently digging into building things around the CDJ,” he explained. “What we did on turntables was make use of every single button, and pitch slider—everything that did something we came up with a technique that used it. So I’m really interested to take that and do it on the CDJ and come up with things that let you use the CDJ in a more interactive way and do more interesting things.”


As DVS1, Zak Khutoretsky has been juggling multiple turntables since his early days, when he was an all-vinyl selector. He mastered the standard two-deck format and pushed onwards, focussing his multi-deck mixing on building layers of sound around a core rhythmic structure. 

“Moving to the CDJ, the limitations change,” he said. “You can loop tracks, they don’t have to run out, you can select just certain parts, or you can extend anything on the fly, you don’t have to be limited. The only problem with digital is that I can keep adding, it lets me do too much. So then it was a question of, ‘How can I push my limit but not do too much?’ And still remember that what I’m doing is creating a beat and rhythm experience for people. 

“Just because you can play on four decks doesn’t mean you should,” he said.

Like his peers in this piece, Zak’s technique comes less from regimented practice and more from the excitement of play and experimentation. “My gigs are practice, and that’s every weekend for me. Playing 130 or 140 shows a year on average, I’m almost playing every other day. My practice happens live in front of people.”

He described his distinct style as “hopscotching”: “I start with one deck, maybe an intro, then I mix another deck. And I’m like, OK, I got two going, now let me add a third because I’m stable here. I’ve figured out where things sit in the mix, I’ve got the EQs how I feel like they should sound… Now I’ve got all three going, one of them’s going to run out soon. I don’t want to loop it, so let me look for a fourth track on this open CDJ.

“I’m basically hopscotching to the open CDJ, wherever it might be, and finding my way. Sometimes that fourth CDJ might just be used for an acapella, or maybe for some noise,” he added.

Zak expressed some concern at the impact of AI, and how it could amplify the already significant number of “Instagram DJs,” who spend more money on marketing and image than they do on music. While he’s accepting of the way in which technology has democratized DJing, he also mentioned the fact that it’s made it a lot easier. “My generation would not have been any better,” he said. “Had we been given cameras, technologies, sync buttons, we would have had just as many fake DJs in the ‘90s as we have today. So we are no better. We were just limited to the fact that everyone in my era only had what we had, and we had to learn. And that became a natural filter”.

James Zabiela

James Zabiela is a poster boy for the advancement of DJing through technology. Globally renowned for his performances, he integrated technology into his DJ setup early on and has been at the forefront of cutting-edge techniques for over two decades. Similar to other innovators, it was seeing scratch DJs that gave him the initial desire to have fun with DJing. That, alongside his love of video games, meant that his first encounter with an FX unit felt “similar to getting a Super Nintendo as a kid,” he said. “That’s where it comes from and it’s never really gone away.” From that he progressed further into controllers and formed a relationship with Pioneer DJ. 

James’s attitude to creativity comes from a place of having fun. He never considered his experiments as “practice” per se, more like “just playing and staying up really late at night. Having a stupid idea at two in the morning, like, what if I try this?’”

He described his approach as “exploiting” technology and its functions. “There’s always a thrill of finding that thing that isn’t supposed to be used in the way you’re using it,” he said. “I always sort of look for those things to exploit. The classic example was the feedback loop on the old EFX 500 that got carried all the way through. Pioneer’s engineers laugh at me because pretty much every bit of equipment they put in front of me now my first question is always, ‘Can it do a feedback loop?’”

For James, human imperfection is important to his performances, particularly in the wake of AI music tools. “With the AI stuff, people will seek out something more human,” he said. “I feel like, in a way, there’s never been a better time to be imperfect. Because I think when you go to a club, you want some human stuff in there. I personally don’t use the sync feature on the CDJs and sometimes I’ll do a bit of a wonky mix. But I think that the crowd responds to that in a positive way.

“With anything, it’s the perfect marriage of using the tools you’ve got to help you rather than do the work for you,” he added.

His working relationship with Pioneer DJ / AlphaTheta means he’s often testing new products or being given a heads up on what’s upcoming. “I would get massive FOMO if I wasn’t always having one eye on everything and staying on top of it as things were getting developed and coming out,” he said, mentioning that much of his audience now expects him to innovate. That expectation, coupled with his own desire for fun and enjoyment, is what keeps him pushing forward and playfully innovating—he also said that he’s been reacquainting himself with his Technics turntables and buying records again.

DJ Puffy

For Barbadian selector DJ Puffy, experimentation was always part of his personality.My parents would always say that I was a forward-thinking kid,” he said. “It’s definitely in my nature to want to go above and beyond in everything that I do. Studying Computer Science at university also plays a major role in how I seek to integrate new tech, concepts and skills into whatever I’m doing. Watching other DJs do that served as the perfect cocktail of inspiration.” 

Among those who inspired him during his formative years are local Caribbean performers such as Scratch Master, DJ Simply Smooth, DJ Fuzz, DMZ and Jon Doe, as well as DJ Craze, James Zabiela, Clark Kent and Jazzy Jeff. 

The Caribbean has an ecosystem of DJs who exhibit a similar approach to Puffy. Surprise and showmanship are key signatures in this circuit, and almost any style of music is fair game when it comes to rousing the crowd. Moments of hype and excitement are constant sources of inspiration for Puffy and his peers, sparking the desire to develop increasingly showstopping performances.

Puffy said he uses any spare moments to develop his craft and generate new ideas. Any idle moment I have when I’m in my studio in Barbados tends to turn into a session for me,” he said. “I try to let my mind wander as much as possible and ignore all limitations. This allows me to come up with cool ideas and routines that I can use in my shows or live streams online.” 

Besides harmonics and key, mixing multiple genres, and looping and scratching, Puffy referenced local Caribbean culture as being central to his approach. My DJing also utilizes elements which are rooted deeply in Caribbean culture: high energy performance, crowd interaction and participation, elements of surprise in song selection and creative transitions using word and tone play.” This more localized influence can be seen in footage of his sets, where crowds react to the outrageous surprises he lines up for them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Puffy has a very positive take on technology, curating his online environment so that he’s privy to the latest tech.New technology is critical to what I do,” he said. “I will always embrace anything that allows me to take my performance to the next level. Whether it’s something that aids in making a task easier or something revolutionary, I’m open to it all.”

Text: Marcus Barnes