Is There A DJ In The House?
During the first half of this century, not even the most attuned psychic could have foreseen the cultural impact that the vinyl shaman known as the DJ would have on today’s modern pop music landscape; but now, artists as diverse as Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the Beastie Boys, Beck, Ozomatli and the Chemical Brothers have persisted and helped make the DJ a virtual household word. The history of the DJ-as-artist extends much farther back than the ’80s and ’70s, however, so let’s go back to where it all began…
Is It Live, Or Is It Memorex?
Early DJ activity dates back to WWII, when a person armed with a single turntable and a box of 78 RPM records would entertain troops in mess halls. Following in the ’50s and ’60s–the golden days of radio’s rule–the term “Disc Jockey” was applied to those professionals who spun records and chatted informally on the air between songs. Notably absent was the prominence of mobile and club DJs, who aside from an odd job here and there were still somewhat limited by cumbersome, inefficient technology. And so it remained that the preferred musical entertainment of the day was a live act, as opposed to a canned one. But that was about to change.
Island Vibes, Or, Jamaica’s “West Side Story”
In the 1950s, when all of Jamaica was hooked on American R&B, young Jamaican speaker-cabinetmaker Clement Dodd introduced what would become the most accessible form of entertainment on the island for the next two decades. While working seasonally in America, Dodd acquired a box of records from a friend, returned to Jamaica and lent them to Duke Reid; Reid, an ex-policeman, would play the records in his family’s liquor store. During his next trip abroad, Dodd, already determined to go into the Sound System business, bought the equipment he needed, and shipped the amps, speaker boxes, record decks and generator back to Jamaica at the end of his working contract. Back on the island in 1954, Dodd began playing house parties, calling his sound (system) “Sir Coxsone The Downbeat.” He was virtually an instant success and attracted a very large following. At the pinnacle of his Sound System activities, there were at least four sets of equipment being run by a number of DJs, including King Stitt, Prince Buster and the infamous Lee “Scratch” Perry–the latter of whom is still profoundly affecting music today, even guesting with the Beastie Boys.
Duke Reid soon followed Dodd into the Sound business, and he too was an overnight success. Compared to the younger, milder Dodd–who rarely took to the decks once he had built a solid reputation, opting for the business side of things instead–Reid was something of a showboat. Reid often insisted on playing the No. 1 set himself, and made his grand entrances to events on the shoulders of his supporters while sporting a trimmed cape, bandoleers across his chest and a revolver held cowboy-style in a holster. On occasion he even clipped a hand grenade to his belt or carried a razor-sharp machete for extra dramatic effect.
Sound Systems were now attracting several thousand people and soon became recognized as a profitable, legitimate business. Competition between the Sounds was fierce, with exclusivity being the name of the game; DJs would often scratch the labels off their best records and rename them to ensure that rival Sound Systems couldn’t readily identify the records and obtain their own copies. And the promoters were not above using truly underhanded tactics to gain the upper hand. Sometimes they sent “dance hall crashers” to competing parties, with the intent of provoking crowd trouble that would cause the police to shut the dance down. Even worse, if there was an opportunity, the rival Sound System’s equipment would be smashed, putting the competition temporarily out of business. These “Sound System Wars” forced many DJs into the recording studio, thus spawning a revolutionary Jamaican sound and forging the path for the evolution of the modern DJ.
The Summer Of Love, Pt. 1
Hell’s Kitchen District, New York City, 1969. Salvation, located on West 43rd Street and decorated like a Witches’ Sabbath, opened as one of the first flamboyantly out gay dance clubs. Pretentiously perched in an altar above the dance floor was DJ Francis Grasso, who helped pioneer the seamless technique of mixing one record into another. He employed such concepts as combining a heavy breakbeat with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” using its orgasmic moans and dropping the treble and bass in and out to help peak the energy, then fluidly segueing into African drums or chants and on into rock and soul.
7″ To 12″ In 33 RPMs Flat
Meanwhile, in a nearby factory loft, young designer David Mancuso was holding regular Saturday rent parties where attendees would dance, sweat and romp well into Sunday morning. Possibly the earliest evidence of dance/ clubbing as a lifestyle, the club sound of the time was lushly orchestrated disco with deep rhythms emanating from Philadelphia, the “City Of Brotherly Love.”
In 1975, a revolutionary development was spearheaded by DJ Tom Moulton, who began producing promotional copies of songs on album-sized 12″ vinyl instead of the traditional tinny-sounding 7″ discs. This breakthrough allowed for more dynamic elements to be introduced, as singles were no longer limited to the typical three minutes and could be expanded into 10-minute epics. The new format was targeted directly at New York’s club underground and sparked a musical revolution that helped exposed an alternative artform.
Burn, Baby, Burn
In the mid-to-late ’70s, disco evolved as a new musical style driven by dancers’ tastes and inspired by Philly classics like the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” The genre’s burgeoning popularity would soon allow for the development of countless new artists, and club DJs were quick to apply the endless stream of new grooves to their dance floors. The theatrical release of 1977 box-office smash Saturday Night Fever brought disco fever to the mainstream and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business, thus greatly expanded the possibilities for dance music–and for the DJs who spun it.
Rock Steady Meets Wild Style
In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” which fused the bass groove from Chic‘s “Good Times” with the humorous rhymes of Big Bank Hank, Master Gee and Wonder Mike. The basis of Sugarhill’s style was rooted in Bronx house parties, where DJs mixed slamming funk records though powerful sound systems. Critics labeled the song an intriguing novelty hit.
However, since that time rap has constantly evolved. In 1982, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” helped link rap to other elements of R&B, like blues, soul, funk and disco. The relative low cost of equipment made rap music accessible to nearly anyone; all one needed was a couple of microphones, a PA, turntables, and a DJ with some source records and the skill to cut back and forth between them.
One such person was Afrika Bambaataa, founder of the Zulu Nation, a social and political outlet for kids in the Bronx. Also a DJ, Bambaata soon became interested the German mid-’70s electronic outfit Kraftwerk after hearing their song “TransEurope Express.” With the rest of the Zulu Nation, Bambaataa had the song jammed at every Bronx house and block party, making the song an instant favorite in the black and Latino communities. Bambaataa was searching for the future of music, and with the release of his own single, “Planet Rock,” he introduced what he called “electro-funk.” Together, Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker perfected the use of electronic drum machines, making it easy to mix between songs.
The release of Run-DMC’s remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” made rap music and the urban DJ more accessible to the white rock audience than ever before; in the song’s video, DJ Jam Master Jay demonstrated cutting between beats to mainstream America and revealed how he used the turntable as a musical instrument in itself. And as the technology developed, so did the music: The dense, sample-heavy sound of Public Enemy’s 1987 release “Fight The Power,” which used James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” as its base, brought increased complexity to rap and dance music.
About the same time in Detroit, the Belleville Three–Magic Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson–began making music on machines’ terms, seeking rhythms inside the silicon soul of a computer. Expanding on the space-age funk of Parliament-Funkadelic, techno music–dubbed “modern black man’s soul music” by May–provided the only way to dream one’s way out of desolate post-riot Detroit. All three prolific Belleville DJ/ producers continue to be recognized for their priceless artistic sensibilities and are undisputedly responsible for the birth of techno.
Electronic music exploded throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Back in Chicago at a club called the Warehouse, DJ Frankie Knuckles increased songs’ danceability by adding percussive intros, extending the length by several minutes and even changing the tempos. His initial exposure to dance music was at NYC loft and rent parties, and the eventual application of Knuckles’ deep soulful roots to Detroit’s techno would, in a sort of homage to the Warehouse, signify the beginning of house music.
The Summer Of Love, Pt. 2
In post-punk Britain the various electronic musical styles were converging, while nearby on the Mediterranean isle of Ibiza, a cosmopolitan mix of vacationers was helping create a new sociocultural facet of techno. The free-spirited heritage of Ibiza dates to the ’60s, a time when soul-searching travelers made the island a stop on their way to Kathmandu and Goa. It was this idealistic mentality, deep within the islanders’ collective conscious, that would be carried back to England by the partiers and DJs who had been affected by Ibiza’s open air, free parties, good music and dancing.
Back in the U.K., Londoners wanted to stave off Winter’s gray mood and maintain the free-spirited dance-mindedness found on the fantastic shores of Ibiza; they did so by merging the various musical styles and emulating the vibe of Ibiza’s dance clubs. Soon dance parties were cropping up all over London–in gyms, warehouses, abandoned buildings, underneath bridges–the primary goal being to share in the celebration of dance and revere in the DJ’s ability to conduct the party.
A decade later, dance music is at its peak and innumerable genres and variations have challenged traditional, guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll. With DJs having such a broad musical background to build upon, their business has spread like wildfire. What began as the do-it-yourself approach of DJs selling mix tapes or recordings of live mix sessions in order to keep records in their crates has grown into a booming industry.
Big-name U.K. clubs helped set the precedent by selling their DJs’ mix CDs and founding independent record labels; using 12″ singles as the basis for production, it wasn’t long before they had enough material to put out compilation CDs. Now many of today’s DJs are afforded the same critical recognition as any major pop act; modern DJs and acts like Justin Robertson’s Lionrock, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim (a.k.a. Norman Cook) now play large venues instead of local pubs or gymnasiums. Even the international market has grown, with Germany’s Kruder & Dorfmeister (another blossoming DJ/ producer combo) or France’s DJ Cam and MC Solaar (a DJ and MC, respectively) being just two examples.
Record companies regularly produce studio mix CDs showcasing a DJ’s style, and often usher DJs into recording studios to add flavour to remixes of other artists’ songs. With DJs receiving more respect and attention than they have since 1950s Jamaica, countless future collaborations between artists, DJs and producers are possible. No one can ever really predict what the future holds for music, but DJs’ explorations of musical boundaries will certainly exceed the expectations of the most astute visionaries, as well as that of the DJs themselves.