The Evolution of the DJ (Part One)
In the first part of a series on 'The Evolution of the DJ', Alex Busby takes us through the beginnings of DJ culture.
Over the course of the last 30 years, the DJ has flourished in a world where club culture has become arguably the most prominent and thriving sector of the music industry. Many will spend their hard-earned cash on some of the most expensive venues to watch some of the most revered DJs, but do today’s bucket hat-wearing ‘deep’ house fanatics know where this culture came from? Or more to the point, how our disc jockey idols developed such a renowned turntable technique? Without further ado, let’s delve into the history of turntablism; the evolution of the DJ.
Some of you may already be familiar with the booming club scene that sprung up in Ibiza in the 90s or the birth of house and techno music in Chicago and Detroit respectively in the 80s, but this is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to DJ history. Before this is even touched upon we must jump much further back into the 20th century. With the state of technology today, it’s as easy as popping down to your local DJ or audio equipment store and picking up a digital controller for little more than 100 quid, but it hasn’t always been as easy as pressing the ‘sync’ button. Back when DJing truly was born in the analogue era, turntables were the weapon of choice.
"…in the 1950s when Jamaican DJs started to adopt the dual turntable technique, they had a hell of a party"
The term DJ or ‘disc jockey’ we hear so frequently was first coined in 1935 by an American radio presenter, Walter Winchill, who used it to refer to someone who operated a machine playing a vinyl record. It wasn’t until a few years later though that these disc jockeys had the wild idea to utilise two turntables simultaneously to create the illusion of non-stop music. This concept caught on and made its way to the Caribbean where arguably the earliest incarnation of DJ culture employed itself in the form of Jamaican Sound Systems. It might be hard to believe that the flourishing club culture we experience today all stemmed from a tiny island in the Caribbean, but in the 1950s when Jamaican DJs started to adopt the dual turntable technique, they had a hell of a party.
The Jamaican sound system was born through the use of huge homemade sound systems, imported RnB records from the States and eventually locally produced records (reggae, ska and rocksteady). These DIY street parties became immensely popular and created the party atmosphere that we might recognise in the raves of today. They were also where an early imprint of white labels were introduced by DJ’s competing over audiences wanting to hide the freshest imported grooves from the U.S. Although quite far removed from the bass-heavy, four-to-the-floor pulsing anthems that echo around clubs in the 21st century, the sound system parties still incorporated the superstar DJ icon, the first of these being Count Machuki.
This idea of a ‘selector’ who is responsible for providing the crowd with the best tunes to keep them dancing could be considered the first major evolution for the DJ. That key concept – keeping the tunes pumping – still remains first and foremost the main responsibility of the disc jockey. So the next time we’re ogling at our beloved DJs amidst a sweat-soaked dancefloor, let’s take a moment to think of Count Machuki and Jamaican sound system culture…
Count Machuki and others like him had laid the groundwork, but someone else had to make the next move. This next move would prove to be a massively evolutionary step for DJing technique and is what we now know today as beat-matching. Nobody ever really considered the possibility of matching the tempos of two records and playing them simultaneously until a particular DJ called Francis Grasso came along and turned this phenomenon into an art form. Eventually this new revelation which was now known as ‘mixing’ would be taken to the streets of New York. A particular neighbourhood, the Bronx – for which we all know for that musical movement called hip-hop – was an instrumental location for this new DJing technique. Before the electronic music surge consumed the States, hip-hop pioneered the DJ culture. The very concept of the Jamaican sound system street parties were reincarnated in the concrete jungle and the DJs were again the formidable driving force. DJ Kool Herc stands as being one of, if not the most highly regarded disc jockey within the hip-hop musical movement. The innovative technique he used to seamlessly mix the instrumental break sections of two identical funk and soul records created an extended period for the break-dancers of that time to throw their best shapes. It stands as no coincidence that Herc was born and raised in Jamaica for the first 12 years of his life before moving to the Big Apple.
Herc went beyond the art of mixing that Grasso had devised and further broke musical boundaries by conceiving a whole new platform for the discerning hip-hop b-boys. With his fresh skills, this movement soon grew beyond the legendary block parties of 1520 Segdwick Avenue in The Bronx, New York.
Block parties began to utilise this seamless mixing technique and even saw the birth of scratching to create extra-rhythmical elements to these breaks. None other than its founder Grand Wizard Theodore truly does it justice.
Shortly after Herc had been revolutionising the streets with his extraordinary mixing technique, Technics would release a new model of their turntable: the now legendary, SL-1200. Even after its incarnation 41 years ago, it is still widely used by all manners of vinyl DJs today and is the definitive ‘industry standard’ for turntables. Although Herc’s specific method of looping the 8-bar breaks were intentionally a hip-hop concept, the idea of creating new musical aesthetics via DJing was a concept that carried across to other genres and is still very much present in the music scene today.
Disco was on the rise by this time in the mid-70s, and the ever-popular DJ began pushing the live bands to the backburner whilst they filled the dancefloors. Today’s wildly popular clubbing scene is the direct descendant of these DJ-driven discotheques, and with the arrival of the Disco Bible in 1977 (aka Disco Beats - a comprehensive book of disco hits identified by their BPM), the would-be DJ and professional alike could turn to this guide to identify a record by its BPM. This reference guide could have marked the moment where DJing was no longer just for the highly skilled beat-matcher with an ear as sensitive as that of a DJ-savvy bat. The undenounced amateur could now come along with a lot of hard work done for them and dazzle the discotheque with their favourite tunes. Could this have been a serious turning porint for the evolution of the DJ?
Certainly there was much more room for the DJ to evolve with the incoming bombshell that would implode to become electronic dance music.