The right music, at the right time, at the right volume—that is Carl Brashears Jr.’s simple formula for the perfect event. Yet, so many couples struggle when choosing their music vendors, out of fear that their disc jockey will fall into the cheesy cliché of a “Macarena”-playing, mouth-running distraction. Brashears, known as DJ Carl Jr., not only understands the concern, but has dedicated his professional career—spanning over 20 years, two continents, numerous night clubs, techno bars, film festivals, socialite and celebrity special events, and just shy of 1,000 weddings to date—to “blowing that stereotype apart.”
Brashears’s musical leanings started when he was young, listening to his parents’ wide range of records. Later, his older sisters introduced him to hard rock and metal. Soon, Brashears was saturating his ears with any genre of music he could get his hands on. But the impetus for Brashears to go from Carl to CJ the DJ to his current well-known stage name of DJ Carl Jr. came from an unlikely source: famed Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. Born with a congenital heart defect, Brashears underwent open-heart surgery at age 8 at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, dashing any possibility of him ever playing competitive contact sports. Brashears remembers feeling devastated after learning the news. “For a kid, to miss that healthy part of childhood was challenging,” he remembers. “I was viewed as an outsider—not normal—[it] was hard to deal with.” To help him adjust to his new normal, Brashears’s mother arranged a surprise phone call from Unitas.
Decades later, Brashears still speaks of the memory with awe. He remembers talking to Unitas about his heart surgery and the news from his doctors about sports. Unitas asked Brashears what other interests he had. “Listening to records,” he told him. Unitas encouraged Brashears to play an instrument or help teach others how to play. Finally Unitas said, “Or you could become a DJ.” At that, Brashears says, “lightbulbs went off.” Later, at one of his high school dances, where his mailman was moonlighting as a DJ, Brashears took the opportunity to ask everything about becoming a DJ. At 17, Brashears started an advertising campaign of his services as CJ the DJ. First, he headlined a school dance, then moved onto neighborhood church youth-group events, and, eventually, to parties of family friends. Then he secured his first wedding gig. Although he remembers it as a success, he also remembers the stress and feeling that performing weddings was “so dynamically different than anything I had ever done.”
To counteract the pressure of playing weddings, he generated a questionnaire, a version of which he still distributes to his clients. In 1993, he founded his own company and, in 2012, Classic Collective DJs expanded to include a team of five audiophiles, all of whom began their careers outside the wedding industry. For them, it all comes down to the music. And Brashears knows he has done his job well when he sees guests popping like hot kernels out of their seats. Says Brashears, “Hearing the screeches of approval, watching people sing along to every lyric—it is addictive as a DJ.”
Q: How do couples go about finding the right DJ?
A: Couples can find their DJ in a variety of ways: magazines, bridal shows, web directories, as well as friends and family. But it all comes down to the comfort level you feel for all of your vendors. When you get to that week leading up to the wedding, you really need to trust that your vendors will deliver what they promised. When interviewing DJs or any vendor, ask open-ended questions and let them talk so you can decide if their approach and level of experience works for you.
Q: How do you decide on a set list for a wedding?
A: It starts with the initial conversation with our clients about their likes and dislikes, then progresses to the song list we ask them to provide. We can glean their preferences and fill in the gaps with music that supports the overall vibe they are trying to create. We ask them to mark their must-play songs and make sure they are actually in the room when they are played so they don’t miss them.
Q: So, you suggest couples create a play or don’t-play list to share with the DJ?
A: Absolutely. We encourage our clients to give us as much input as they feel comfortable providing. The more input they give, the better we can deliver exactly what they want. We’ve had a range: From a couple that only had six songs they absolutely wanted to hear to a 13-page Excel spreadsheet. The do-not-play list is the much easier list to make.
Q: How do the expenses compare between hiring a band and hiring a DJ?
A: The national average rate for DJs is around $1,400 for four hours—that figures everything from New York and LA to Tinytown and Smallville. In Baltimore, DJs range from $1,100 to $2,400 with varying levels of approach and experience. Some charge below-average prices for very good reason. Don’t expect to hire a great DJ at an average rate. Most good bands start around $5,000 and can cost double that or even more. There’s no denying a live band can bring more entertainment value to your event than a DJ, but as one bride, who could clearly afford any band, told me: “We want people to say, ‘Wow, they had a great wedding’, not ‘Wow their wedding band put on a great show.’”
Q: What are some benefits of working with a DJ over a live band?
A: DJs provide a much larger library of songs compared to the relatively limited songs that bands rehearse, although some really good bands can play pretty much anything. DJ’s play the original artists of the songs you love and not a band’s interpretation of that song. Most DJ’s don’t take breaks and if you find one that does, don’t hire them. Most bands take energy-killing breaks in between their sets and what you get is a few of the band members playing or the sound guy’s iPod. Some clients have hired us to play band breaks where we keep the energy up and play different music that the band can’t or won’t play. It’s a win-win. Lastly, some couples don’t like the spotlight on the band and want it on the overall party and wedding celebration, so a low-profile DJ playing stellar music fits the bill perfectly.
Q: How many hours does a typical entertainment contract cover?
A: The average time frame is between four and six hours. The longest we’ve ever played has been eight hours at a private residence for the owner of a supermarket chain. They just wouldn’t stop dancing.
Q: What happens if the couple decides halfway through the reception that they want to extend the contract, can a couple request an extension?
A: Yes, that option is spelled out in our contract with the price listed, pro-rated at 30-minute intervals. We also remind them that any extensions will obviously have to be approved with the venue and caterer first.
Q: How closely do you work with the caterer/wedding planner/couple to ensure the reception stays on schedule?
A: After the couple signs off on the final timeline, the caterer, planner, and I work together to make it all happen smoothly and handle any little speed bumps that may arise, so that the event proceeds flawlessly.
Q: How do you get guests up from their chairs and onto the dance floor?
A: Getting guests to dance is approached differently at every event. If the group is raring to go, then we will just jump right into the fun dance music. But if they are hesitant about dancing, we can usually entice them onto the dance floor with a great, classic slow- or mid-tempo track that they can’t resist, such as Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
Q: How do you ensure that your playlist is relatable to everyone at the reception?
A: Our DJs have literally played thousands of songs for thousands of people over thousands of hours, so we have keen insight into what music appeals to various demographics, and we always make sure the music format represents the clients’ tastes but also appeals to the masses, without resorting to overplayed songs or going cheesy.
Q: How early do you come to the reception venue to set-up?
A: We arrive about two hours prior to our start time for set-up and allow about 45 minutes for break-down at the end of the party. We never charge for that time. Those times can vary if we have a larger set-up with lighting or a larger sound package.
Q: Can the couple expect the DJ to help MC their evening?
A: Yes, the DJ usually takes on that role unless the venue has a master of ceremonies or if the couple decides to have a family member do the honors, which has happened a few times.
Q: Will a DJ come with all of his/her necessary equipment in tow? Is there anything specific a couple needs to ask of the venue ahead of time?
A: Any professional DJ should not need anything except a table and a power source to do their job. We spend hours preparing for our events to be absolutely certain we are equipped to handle almost any scenario that can happen, but it has taken years to get to that point of Zen preparedness.
Q: Do couples ever hire more than one DJ to work their wedding?
A: We have played events where two different DJs were hired, one for the reception and one for the after-party, which has become a popular trend for couples who want to extend their party for a few more hours.
Q: What type of music do you play?
A: It really depends on any given moment in time. My personal tastes run the gamut from old jazz, rock, and pop to current electronic tracks. I make no apologies for the music I love, and I’m really in my element playing music for any room of people who are having a great time and digging the songs. For every event I play, there are a few standout songs that punctuate that wedding and no doubt leave the guests with great memories tied to that song for a long time. The power of music is formidable. Any song that causes people to ask you what it was, or you see them identifying the song with Shazam on their smartphone, means you’re doing something great.