How DJs think about tempo (and genre) 

Jumping between styles, mixing in half-time, big decreases in BPM—eight DJs discuss their techniques and philosophies when it comes to tempo.

A few years ago, a fellow journalist, who wrote a column for a broad-ranging music magazine, told me about a chat he’d had with his editor, who’d asked something along the lines of, “Erm… why do you talk about BPM in dance music so much?”  

It’s a great question. Why do we talk about BPM (beats per minute) in dance music so much? When you’re deep in this thing it can be easy to forget or overlook how fundamental tempo—and, by extension, genre—is to this scene.   

We could say that this stems from DJing. Not to state the blindingly obvious but, as DJs, if we want to mix tracks we need to match their BPM. How fast or slow something is—thus determining its potential to be mixed—is a fundamental question, one that organises and influences the wider culture. Stop someone randomly in a rave and they might not be able to guess the BPM of the current track, but they’ll probably have preferences over tempo and expectations about how fast they’ll be moving their body that evening.

Even back in the day, when BPM information wasn’t embedded into DJ gear, a sense of tempo was a skill you’d acquire, building a picture of which records in your collection were in the same range. Those records were limited by how much you could adjust a track’s original tempo: Technics turntables, for years the industry standard, allowed you to adjust the pitch (which does the same thing as tempo but also changes the key of a track) by only +/- 8%. You could play a 45 RPM track at 33 RPM, or vice versa, but you might be doing something to the tune that sounded pretty wacky.  

These days, we’re almost completely in control. Modern DJ gear tells us the exact BPM of the tracks we’re playing. We can adjust a track’s tempo by as much as +/- 100%. A feature like Master Tempo means we can change the tempo of a song while keeping it in the same key. Essentially, DJing can be described as selecting tracks from the entire history of recorded music and playing them in a desired sequence. With the advancements in DJ technology, which facilitate the wildest blends of sounds and tempos imaginable, this statement takes on extra resonance. 

So how does genre factor into all of this? Well again, not to state the obvious but genre is, to a large extent, defined by tempo. A 4/4 track at 120 BPM? Probably house. A 4/4 track at 130 BPM? It might be techno. There are no strict rules, of course. But tempo can be considered a rough guide to the terrain of dance music. Producers make tracks at a certain tempo to join a conversation with other tracks in his or her preferred genre. 

As you’ll see below, when DJs adopt an open mind towards tempo and genre, things quickly become very interesting. 

For this feature, we’re focussing on eight experimenters who use tempo as a springboard for exploring different styles and creating divergent moods on a dance floor. We’ll hear about some of their general attitudes and techniques. And you’ll hopefully agree that by speaking to DJs from across the scene, the words below represent a melting pot of ideas that are ripe for reimagining.  



The Fool’s Gold boss explains some of the many ways he switches tempo and genre

Jumping between genres is a big part of my style of DJing, so I end up breaking the tempo a few times in most sets. Even though I play a lot of house and electronic music, I still approach DJing from the hip-hop tradition, which is basically: if it’s got a cool beat, I’ll play it. Doesn’t matter about the BPM. 

The fun part about covering different tempos is that you can really think about the arc of the whole set. It’s like going on a road trip where the landscapes change a few times. 

There are lots of ways to change tempos, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Sometimes you might want it to feel like a sudden left turn. Maybe you want to jolt your audience! Other times you’ll disguise it so that the crowd barely notices it. So it’s all about the desired effect and what sounds right to the ear. You can make a big jump to a completely different tempo, but you can also subtly accelerate (or slow down) over the course of a few records. If you know how to do both of those things, you can kind of get anywhere. 

Some records have intros that feel like transitions already. If a song starts with a sound effect or a vocal before the beat comes in, I’ll usually throw it in a playlist of transitions. That way, if I’m trying to switch into the tempo of that song, that can be the first one that I play. 

I also mess around with halftime / doubletime a lot. That’s an easy way to get from house to slow hip-hop, for example. And once I’m there I can go to other types of hip-hop. There are some sets where I’ll cover anything between 60 and 170 BPM. But there are also other sets where I just stay between 120 and 130. It all boils down to whether I want to take the crowd on a rollercoaster ride or if I prefer to keep them in a groove.


The Australian selector tells us why she loves to start slow and end slow

For me, tempo isn’t the main player when it comes to DJing—what comes before tempo is the energy of the song. Over the years, I’ve discovered that the tempo of the track can’t define its energy and drive on the dancefloor.

I play many different genres of music so the tempo really ranges, but one rule I have is the later it gets, the slower it gets. My greatest moments DJing have always been slowing it down to 100 to 105 BPM at 6 AM and beyond. I find the slower you play, the more people can find their groove and dance harder and actually move their hips more. I’m all about those hips! There really is something special about hearing lovers rock, boogie or r&b when the sun is coming up. Not every closing set has to be the fastest BPM or the hardest set of the night. 

The tempo I start my set at is usually dependent on the DJ before me. To be honest, I usually just echo it out and reset the energy. The main reason for this is that the DJ before will be playing 128 BPM-plus, which is a bit too fast for me. If it was a main room slot, I might reset it to 115 max. If it was me playing all night long then I’d be starting at 90 BPM. That’s a whole other story—what I love the most is those sets, starting slow and ending slow. My favourite thing after the 6 AM slow jams is just dropping an R&B song out of nowhere after a huge disco section. Going from 125 to 88 but somehow the song has the same energy—when you nail that it’s so satisfying. But when you don’t do it well…Good night.

How much I increase or decrease across a set would again be dictated by the type of set. All night long would at least span 30 to 40 BPM-plus, but if it was two hours of power then maybe only 10 BPM. The longer you play the more you can stretch the old legs (tempo) out. 

As I’ve mentioned, I feel like tempo is sometimes irrelevant if the song has huge drive and energy. An example of that is “Teardrops” by Womack & Womack. To me it’s a song I would be swaying to and thinking it’s quite slow, but it’s actually 133.5 BPM. The problem with this is matching the flow—mixing in a house track could really make it feel off, which I just tried and it sounded terrible. For an amazing production like this you’ll need to find a tune that has that slower groove at 133 too. 

It all really depends on your crowd. Some nights you can do anything, but then there are sets where you watch everyone like a hawk and make one wrong move and it’s all over and unfolding before your very eyes. When it comes to all-night sets you have more freedom with this, and I always try to work out different pockets of the crowd. Some who like the house/Italo more and the disco section, of course. This way you can change it up and give them toilet breaks, ciggie breaks. It’s something I worked out doing all nighters as a dancer because it’s a marathon not a sprint and you always try to challenge a crowd and play stuff they might not expect. If a genre or tempo shift is really abrupt, I’ll echo out. Seeing people’s faces when you do this is priceless too, sometimes they think it’s all over. 

Don’t be afraid to turn off the Master Tempo. I love hearing disco songs pitched up a little bit more. I’m also a sucker for pitched-up slow jams. Also, always listen to records at different speeds. By mistake I’ve discovered so many songs are fantastic Balearic burns at 33 RPM. 

There are no rules with me but one thing is not to jump through tempo too fast. I’m super impatient and sometimes you’ll hear it because I’m desperate to play a song in four tracks’ time at a certain speed—I need to get to that speed and I of course race too fast. The crowd hears it, they feel it and it’s distracting to the floor.

When it comes to mixing genres, I don’t really have techniques. Hell, I don’t even know if I’m doing it right but I try to go with whatever feels good. Sometimes this does not work and you clunk a mix but when it does work… holy moly! You can see people give you the nod of approval— “I didn’t see this coming but I like it.” 

Ivy Lab

The UK bass music duo break down the three main ways they switch-up tempo

It’s not so much a rule, more of an arrived-at position by feedback from our audience, but BPM-wise we tend to spend a lot of our time now between 120 and 150 BPM. We’ll dip down to 100 or 105 BPM in sections. We will peak up to 160 to 170 BPM in some sections. But generally speaking we have this mid-tempo that we focus on and accent up or down during the set, and the number of times we do that depends on the set’s duration. 

Our decision about what tempo to start at is purely dependent on what the frontrunner is for the opening track. Sometimes that’s faster, around 170, sometimes that’s slower, down at 105. And I guess because the majority of what we play is plus or minus 140 BPM, that’s what it ends up being most of the time. But that’s not a decision that’s just about the quantity of material available to us, so it’s more likely it will fall into that range. 

So we play from 100 BPM all the way to 170 BPM. As long as it’s got some kind of hip-hop feel to it, we’ll cover that genre. We probably consider the 100 BPM stuff to be a bit more risky. We’ll only veer towards that with the right audience. And actually increasingly, uptempo—160, 170 BPM stuff—if it’s not part of the kinda footwork/jungle tradition, if it’s more kinda traditional beat-scene stuff, I guess there’s less of that we’re into these days, so it’s a smaller proportion of the set, maybe a quarter at maximum. We’ll always veer there but probably less so than in years gone by.

We make abrupt tempo shifts. We tend to do this using the mixer effects. We create an “ether section” where the first track, which represents the new spell of BPM, probably has quite an ambient, percussion-and-time-signature-free intro, and that ends up just growing out of the ether that has been created by [using effects on] the last moments of a previous track at a different BPM. 

Big genre changes, big tempo switches are a risky thing to do. So I think the way we think about it is we imagine we will play, say, four or five tracks in a row of a similar BPM family, but actually when it comes to play this thing we will do maybe seven or eight tracks, and if that section is not working we will curtail it down to three tracks, and do some kind of switch to another BPM. And if it feels like it’s really working, we probably won’t take that risk and reward the audience with another five or ten minutes of that BPM before we decide to go off and do some big change.  

So there are basically three ways that we do BPM switches. The first is the “ether” technique we’ve already spoken about. The second is in sync mode: a gradual changing of pitch of the master track whilst it’s in the mix. I think BPM changes go unnoticed if they happen while two tracks are being mixed together. If it’s happening over one track it’s easier to perceive there’s this BPM change happening, and that can sound quite pleasant but also sound a little bit awkward at times, so we tend to do this when in the mix. The third technique is if it’s a really big change, like, say, 170 down to 120, we’d put the master track into a loop and then in wide mode slowly bring that loop down, so it feels almost like an elongated vinyl break but with another track being mixed in as this long descend takes place. Again, having two tracks in the mix when doing big BPM changes helps disguise what’s going on. 

As long as it’s a fast-sounding half-time track and a slower sounding double-time track, going in either direction—from double to half or half to double—can seem quite effortless. If you’re going from a very sludgy half-time track to a very pacy-sounding double time track, that tends to sound quite jarring and a bit of a shock. But I guess there’s a school of thought where big shocks in a DJ set are actually quite pleasant for some people’s style and some people’s genre preference. For us, we play meditative music, so that lends itself to more elongated, gradual, hidden-sounding mixes. 


The Juke Bounce Werk member explains why throwing together genres defines his style of DJing

I’m definitely very rhythm-based. I grew up playing drums, so I feel like I’m always homing in on the rhythm of songs and catching the drums easier, just because I can hear in breakdown drum beats. My ideal DJ set will have solid blends and all of that, but also, depending on where I’m playing (if it’s a mix for the internet you can do whatever you want)… I like to always have some kind of unexpected twist to things. 

I definitely try to wait to decide what tempo I start at until I get to the space, unless I know the party or am familiar with the club—that can always give you a little hint of where to start. Any time I try to do big planning I just end up trashing it the moment I get to a party. I feel like the biggest contributing factor at most parties is whatever the DJ before me is playing. 

I can increase or decrease the tempo of my set a lot depending on how long the set is. If it’s like an hour-long set I will try to [either] start slow or start fast and go down because I like to play anything from house music to Jersey club, Baltimore club, footwork, house, techno, all that stuff. I try to make all that a smooth transition. 

I definitely make some abrupt tempo and genre shifts, for sure. I love playing techno into Jersey club, rap into techno. All that stuff, it comes from the same place and that’s the message I try to send with my sets: that everything informs each other. Genre shifts is my constant style of DJing. But with tempo shifts, I definitely love it when songs are produced to have a second part, a switch-up…100 BPM to 130, it’s very good to have a folder of those. 

There definitely can be some risk with the dance floor not following you with big tempo or genre shifts but I feel like I’m honestly down to weed those people out [laughs]… I feel like I’m always trying to speed things up, slow things down incrementally, but sometimes I’ll throw in those transition tracks. I love slowing rap music down crazy with the pitch lock off [Master Tempo], so it can be like a live chopped and screwed thing, just slowing it down, people are usually into that. 

Mixing tracks at half tempo can be tricky but I always do it. I’m sure you can find DJs with the phone calculator out doing some math, cus trying to figure out what 75.5 x 2 is can be hard in the moment, at least for me [laughs]. Maybe you should put a calculator in the next CDJ, that would be sick.  


The former Red Bull 3Style Japan champion explains her technique for half-time mixes

I don’t have any specific rules, but I try to keep the tempo in check in order to create a sense of timing, situation and groove while playing. I don’t necessarily have the idea of only playing the same BPM while DJing. The tempo I start my set with depends on the timing and situation, but… I usually start with an “up” tempo (105 to 120 BPM) that I can get into. Then, I tend to halve the tempo to 55, 60, 70 or even change the genre. When the duration of my set is limited, as in 60 minutes or such, I tend to change the tempo every 15 to 20 minutes. When I’m playing longer in a club or in front of an audience, it depends on timings and how it goes. 

I change tempo and genre often. As a DJ, I want the audience to listen to a variety of music. I’d like to bring something new for them, and create a groove. Making transitions as naturally as I can is important in this context and it’s always in my mind. There is a high risk of the audience not following a tempo or genre shift, especially when it doesn’t fit to what is demanded. Keeping this in my mind, I always prepare extra tracks so that I can handle these scenarios.

With big shifts, I start by making transitions between 110 and 55 BPM, 120 and 60, 130 and 65 etc. Then I pick a phrase to loop, use the tempo slider to slowly adjust the tempo for the next connection, or I remove Master Tempo and slow down / stop the vinyl speed adjust, then shift to a track that has an impactful intro. I also do some simple effects like echoing out and shifting, and I often add Hot Cues and edit the song itself. I occasionally edit a part of the song where the sound is extended, such as the “A” part, and apply the minced loop and add effects such as Spiral, shifting to the next track. Oh and I also use sampling to add variety. 

Timings and interactions between tracks matter, so it’s better to decide and change things depending on those. Tracks and mixes do sound different depending on who is playing. I always keep it in my mind. Seamlessness is of course important but not everything. Understanding the characteristics and strengths of each song, paying attention and respecting those, mixing tracks like a puzzle (with edits and making inflection on tempo)—these things will spice up your mix and add more originality for your DJing.

DJ Yoda

The UK turntablist tells us why he finds reverb so useful

I treat tempo like I treat genre. The only rule is: no rules at all!

A lot of the time I like to start a DJ set with a 95 -100 BPM tempo. My reasoning for that is that I’m a hip-hop DJ first and foremost, but I make a point to explore all areas, genres and tempos. I like to start with a hip-hop tempo to let the audience know where I’m coming from, and then we can take it from there.

By how much do I tend to increase or decrease tempo across a set? This is really difficult to answer, and totally depends on the kind of set I’m playing, as I do a lot of different kinds of things. The only thing I don’t really do is “rave”-type music, which is where I expect people most need the tempo to stay consistent. If I’m doing AV-heavy stuff—which often involves clips from movies/TV shows, random vintage TV adverts, cartoons, anything—then I’ll be jumping all over the place with tempo. Even without that, I may play trap/drill/reggae stuff as low as 55 BPM, all the way up to fast drum & bass at 180 BPM. 

I often like a complete mood shift or left turn. A lot of the time if the music I’m trying to get to doesn’t mix neatly, I’ll just stick a fat reverb on the end of a bar of music and start fresh at a totally different tempo.

Is there a greater risk with big tempo or genre shifts that the dance floor won’t follow you? I hope not, because I’m guilty of a lot of this! Seriously though, I think it works for an open-minded dancefloor. And by that, I think I mean a dancefloor that isn’t too full of drugs haha.

As I mentioned, I find a big reverb to be the most useful tool. There are trickier and cleverer techniques that I also sometimes use, like finding a melodic or lyrical connection between the two tracks and emphasising that connection. This is a very “Red Bull 3Style” way of DJing!

I mix tracks that are at half the tempo as much as possible. Reggae and drum & bass are perfect bedfellows. Even UK drill and uptempo hip-hop works. I love that kind of thing. 

A tip: Use the natural end of a song to then start a new song at a different tempo very organically. You don’t need to play the whole of the first song, you can set a cue point for the end of the track and use it whenever you’re ready. And also: gentle consistent nudging of tempo in one direction whilst a song is playing can sometimes work if you’re trying to get to a different speed.

DJ Vice

The Los Angeles DJ on how he navigates playing across many genres

I do not have any general rules or ideas when it comes to tempo. With my sets I’m constantly switching tempo and I switch off the vibe of the crowd. My sets are never pre-planned, and I can literally be playing an 80-BPM song and I wanna get up to 126 and I’ll be like, “Alright, time to jump.” I’d usually loop the 80-BPM record, auto-sync, and put the pitch on wide. So I’d hit that loop, drop in the next beat—the house track—and just start riding the pitch up. So I have no rules. 

How do I decide what tempo to start my set at? Depends on the market I’m in. For instance, Boston. I remember, pre-pandemic, I had a very cool intro that was at 75 BPM that was like a trap intro that was working really well in Vegas at the time. I did a gig in Boston, dropped that intro, and it fell flat. That crowd wanted 128 BPM, they wanted to start off “rage mode.” So I don’t have a specific tempo to start at, I do base it off what city I’m in and also what the DJ before me was playing. If they had been playing house music the whole two-hour opening slot, and he kept it at 126 to 128 and then I’m getting on, I will change the tempo to maybe 100 BPM to just give some energy with an intro. 

Since I’m so open format, I can go anywhere from 55 BPM to 128—I tend to not play anything faster than 128. It could be hard trap that’s somewhere in the 150 range but I guess you could technically classify that as 75 BPM. So I’m all over the place. 

Do I make abrupt tempo or genre shifts? Yes! All the time. One that I will do usually is I can be at house music tempo at 128, “big-room,” and after I hit a peak of playing too much of it—for instance I was at LIV Miami this past Friday, and that crowd was definitely open to EDM but there was a rapper performing so they wanted hip-hop as well. So in that 128 shift—that down to like 75 BPM, I literally just did a big reverb out and started off with a very intro-friendly hip-hop song. This can happen four or five times throughout my two-hour set. 

Luckily in the bigger rooms I play in, the crowd tends to follow with big tempo or genre shifts. But this is definitely where your skill comes in. When you shift tempo, you have to come in with something that the crowd is familiar with, in the sense of the rooms that I play in. There is risk, where you see people who are listening to house music and they don’t want to hear hip-hop. But it’s all about the way you come in. For instance, if I was playing house music and I’m gonna come into hip-hop I will play a Travis Scott and Drake track but the Skrillex remix, so it has an EDM feel and people aren’t thrown off by the sound of the vibe that I’m playing. 

With the HID mode that I use with Serato, when you hit the four-beat loop, it automatically starts looping and I can hit the “out” on the loop and I can do the same effect that a lot of house DJs do on a CDJ where you pull the platter backwards and the loops starts getting tighter and tighter and gives it that “ahhhh” effect. A lot of DJs don’t know that you can do that on the HID mode. 

I do half-time mixes a lot. That’s a very common thing in my mixes. I could be playing a house track at 128, and I’ll mix in “Bad and Boujee” by Migos at 64 BPM and it’s exactly the same tempo and it has an intro on it that really works perfectly and it drops in easily. 

I’m big on Auto Sync. In the open-format kinda hip-hop world I’ve heard from DJs like, “Oh why do you use Auto Sync so much? That’s cheating.” I’m like, “Because I know how to mix records.” I already know and I’ve proven that I know how to blend. It’s kinda like, I’ve already proven that I know how to write a letter and put it in the mail and send it—I don’t need to prove to people that I’ve already proved it, that’s why I send emails, you dummy! [laughs]    

object blue

The experimental club artist is a big fan of playing tracks at the “wrong” speed

My rule is not ruling things out. I don’t hesitate to play a 90-BPM track at 140, and vice versa. There are some tracks that just don’t sound as good at the “wrong” BPM, but most tracks are pliable in my experience, Master Tempo on or off.

I start anywhere from 100 to 140 BPM. I just loosely plan which first six to 10 tracks to start the set with then freestyle from there. The starting tempo is entirely dependent on that track selection, which is formed by which tracks I’m currently obsessed with, or which tracks work for the type of event/time of the night (I would feel comfortable starting at 100 for an 11 PM start at a weird club event, but would start at 130 for a 1AM start at XOYO). The lowest I usually go is 75 BPM, which I also count as 150; I rarely go higher than 168. In the throes of European raves I have gone up to 200, but only a couple times. 

I think [tempo and genre shifts] are one of the most fundamental aspects of my mixing. If I’m mixing genres I tend to shave off the high frequency of the previous track; I find that the sharpness of hats can really clash between the genres with its different rhythmic patterns, and get distracting. Especially when I use a lot of flanger, those hats want to murder each other!

Is there a risk that the dance floor won’t follow you through big tempo and/or genre shifts? Sure, but fortunately the people who come to my sets seem very open to that! I haven’t had a dancefloor die on me as a result of tempo or genre shifts. 

How do I usually make these shifts? I wait until the percussion drops out then pull the slider up/down a lot right before the percussion comes back in. I really love this, it breaks the familiarity of what was playing, gives the track a new breath of life. I also slide the tempo slowly then suddenly slide really fast, but in the opposite direction. So I would slide steadily from 130 to 108, over eight bars or so, then I’d jump quickly from 108 to 138. It’s delirious and fun, and also easier to pull off if you put the track on a one- or two-beat loop and do the fast jump. You can hear an example of that in my Crack Mix intro with Cyndi Lauper. 

Any more tricks? A shitload of reverb. I also try to supplement the existing track with the incoming track, for example: if the existing track has a dense rhythm, I could supplement it by mixing in a more atmospheric track with stripped hits, rather than bringing in another percussive track that would fight over the frequencies. And when these two very different tracks end up supplementing one another, tempo and genre changes seem so small in the context of this hybrid—it’s peachy!

I think mixing half-time tracks is another great way to change your set tempo. I spend a lot of time in rekordbox making sure things loop correctly, and also enabling the “read at half tempo” function, so when I’m on CDJs it saves me the extra minute of changing the tempo range to + Wide then sliding the tempo up or down.

Once I overcome the pandemic-induced rustiness, I might play with beat subdivisions so you can hear tracks at two different tempo, depending on your frame of mind… watch this space!


Author: Ryan Keeling

Designer: Olesia Li