Once upon a time the disc jockey (DJ) was king. The art of manipulating music has transformed over time and has helped develop what we know as hip-hop today.
“They don’t get a lot of attention. And if it weren’t for them none of this thing we call hip-hop would’ve happened,” said Fernando Orejuela, senior lecturer at Indiana University’s Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.
The birth of the DJ begins in 1973 with DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant who resided in the Brox, New York. He brought with him to the U.S. the concept of the Jamaican outdoor party and the mobile dj system.
He and his sister decided to host a party at a local community center that set the stage to modern DJing. With a dual turntable, he began to mix heavy funk beats giving him the ability to allow partygoers to dance longer. The crowd responded positively.
“He named his music b-beat, the first hip-hop music. That stands for break beat. The break is the most rhythmic and percussive section of the song. His technique, he called merry-go-round technique. That’s the going back and forth on the turntables,” said Orejuela.
DJ fever grew like wildfire and others began copying Herc’s style or creating their own sounds. Also, credited with being a founding father of DJing is Afrika Bambaataa. Orejuela said Bambaataa was a high official in a South Bronx street gang called the Black Spades. His parties followed in Herc’s tradition – give people great music. In addition to putting together great collectives, Afrika Bambaataa was considered a unifier meaning he saw the potential to change attitudes. He began converting his own gang into a social club. They called themselves Zulu Nation and found non-violent ways for youth to express themselves outside of gang culture and low socioeconomic statuses.
He’d become most famous for “Planet Rock,” a recording significant to the hip-hop and electronic dance community.
The third forefather is Grandmaster Flash. He is said to be the first DJ to physically lay his hands on the vinyl and manipulate it in a backward, forward or counterclockwise motion, when most DJs simply handled the record by the edges.
He is also said to invent the Quick Mix Theory, which included techniques such as the double-back, back-door, back-spin and phasing. This allowed a DJ to make music by touching the record and gauging its revolutions to make his own beat and his own music. Flash’s template grew to include cutting, which, in turn, spawned scratching and other techniques.
The DJ was the star until about 1977 when the tradition of MCing took flight. The DJ further became secondary in 1979 when the first recording was created, “Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang.
Ironically, as Kool Herc set up the beats, he’d invite his friends to come up on stage and “toast” or talk to the crowd, also a Jamaican tradition. There were also the complementary dancers and partygoers that further moved DJs into the background.
In the late ‘70s, African-American youth began to take more control over the narrative portions of the movement.
“The DJ was still the person you always tipped your hat to before you said your rhymes. He was the one who told you when you could come up on stage and do your rhyme. In the early days, it was all about the DJ,” said Orejuela.
Over time, DJing has had various highs and lows. The DJ resurged during what’s considered the “golden era” of hip-hop. The poster children include Run DMC and their DJ, the late Jam Master Jay and LL Cool J and his DJ, Cut Creator. There was also Eric B and Rakim.
“The fact that Eric B’s name comes before the rapper is an homage to the past,” said Orejuela.
Other influential DJs in ‘80s and ‘90s include DJ Jazzy Jeff, who helped begin the hip-hop career of actor Will Smith known then as the Fresh Prince; female DJ Spinderella; and the West Coast’s Dr. Dre, who most notably transformed the DJ into the producer. The late J Dilla is also known as a modern DJ turned producer.
“Technology changed so they just embraced it. Even though they had vinyl and turntables, by 1991 they started incorporating drum machines and the sampler becomes readily available,” said Orejuela. “They took over in the studio.”
Instead of using turntables and vinyl records to keep the party going, today’s DJ primarily use computers.
In addition to sparking a revolution, DJing has also evolved based on geographic location. Orejuela sites danceable “Miami Bass” sounds of Florida; Dr. Dre’s California G-Funk sound which is a much slower, automotive friendly kind of music; and the chopped and screwed, drug influenced sound of Houston, Texas.