Know Your Hip-Hop History – The DJ


DJing: one of the most quintessential elements of Hip-Hop. Whether you hear the scratching of the turntables, all the way down to beat matching and looping, DJing has helped shape the way we see and hear Hip-Hop today. If it wasn’t for moments like these, then it could be argued that the genre as whole would be non-existent. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that in the forty-plus years of Hip-Hop, each decade has had their key DJs that helped shape the movement.

The first device ever made to record sound was called the phonautograph, invented in 1857 by Leon Scott. Twenty years later, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. The machine was created using tin-foiled coated cylinders along with two needles that allowed you to record and playback the sound you made. In 1878 he began to sell them as the Edison Speaking Phonograph across the United States. The phonograph was even used during World War I.

The first known DJ, short for disc jockey was Ray Newby, a 16 year-old from California in 1909. Newby had played records using a small transmitter while in college. But the term itself wasn’t used until the 1930s. The first DJ dance party took place in 1943 and was held by Jimmy Savile. Savile was also the first to use turntables for the continuous play of records. The first club, or discotheque was opened in Paris and called “Whiskey, A Go Go” in 1947. By the 1950’s there would be DJs who would appear in person and host “sock-hops.” The name was coined as many would take their shoes off and dance with their socks and stockings. In other countries such as Jamaica, promoters would call themselves DJs and would throw parties in the streets. Their music would be blasted through a PA (Public Address) system, which later became known as a sound system.

By the late 1950s and 60s, discotheques had become widespread across the United States and Europe. This is also around the time that the mixer was created and marketed. Mixers allowed DJs to have more control over the songs they played. By 1969, another DJ named Francis Grasso had popularized beatmatching, which helped songs seamlessly intertwine so the dancing never stopped.

Fast forward to August 11, 1973 in New York City, specifically the Bronx, Clive Campbell, better known as the legendary DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy threw a Back to School jam in the recreation room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, a place now considered by many as the birthplace of Hip-Hop and the culture itself. Kool Herc would get two copies of the same vinyl records and play them on separate turntables side by side. He would then play the break beat on one record then throw it over to the second one and play the same part over again. This was the earliest known form of looping a song on turntables.

In 1975, a young Grand Wizzard Theodore had accidentally discovered scratching while messing with a record player in his living room. His mother had told him to lower the volume of his music, while he had one hand on one record while the other one kept playing. He fell in love with how the sound rasped against the beat and moved it back and forth. Little did he know at the time that it would help change the way records were mixed.

Alongside Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa are also considered founding fathers of Hip-Hop. Although Grand Wizzard Theodore is credited with creating scratching, it was Grandmaster Flash who perfected it. Grandmaster Flash appeared on many records coming out of Sugar Hill Records, the first ever Hip-Hop record label.  However he never actually performed on any of their records until 1981. He released his first album, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” which helped showcase his skills of mixing on record.

Afrika Bambaataa on the other hand, gained his fame as a DJ who was known for his way of mixing styles and genres of music that would be considered taboo. In 1982 he released “Planet Rock,” which features several samples from the German electronic music group Kraftwerk. Planet Rock was yet another stepping stone in Hip-Hop as it was one of the first songs to challenge the particular rhythm the genre had at that time.

Although scratching was known amongst many, it wasn’t necessarily a mainstay in the culture. It wasn’t until GrandMixer D.St’s single “Rockit” broke onto the scene in 1983, which paired the young DJ with jazz-legend Herbie Hancock as well as many others. What helped the scratching movement was seeing GrandMaster D.St scratch live at the 1984 Grammy awards. From that point on, you’d hear scratching on countless Hip-Hop records which led to it becoming a common trend on albums as well.

In 1985, British radio DJ Tony Prince began DJ competitions for the Disco Mix Club (DMC), an organization he founded in England. The competition showcased the skills of many European DJs, that was until New Jersey native DJ Cheese won in 1986. His scratching style stunned judges, spectators and competitors alike. This officially set the bar for DJ battling and the DMC competition became the place for DJs to show their best skills and still remains active today.

Nearly twenty years later, DJing was finally introduced to the digital age. In 2001, the digital visual system (DVS) was introduced as a means to connect a laptop to the traditional turntables and mixer. At first DJs were reluctant to use DVS, but eventually it became a standard part of equipment. As technology improved, so did the appreciation of the convenience of storing all of their music while keeping the feel of the turntables alive.

Now, a little over forty years later, DJing is still one of the most prominent aspects to the culture of Hip-Hop. From radio, to television, to even concerts and tours you’re bound to hear a DJ hyping up the crowd. This is not to say that it overshadows or gets overshadowed by other aspects, but more as a way to get the crowd going. So it’s only right that DJs get the recognition they deserve.

Now that you have some DJ history knowledge, come out to the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival’s “Salute the DJ” event which is part of the Juice Hip-Hop Exhibition on July 15th, 2016, and show some love and appreciation to one of the founding elements of Hip-Hop.  On deck we have DJ Kat Daddy Slim giving that old-school Southern Hip-Hop. Followed by DJ Midnite representing New Jersey and last, but not least Brooklyn’s own Kerim the DJ who has won numerous DJ battles nationwide. So show-up, show out and salute the DJs present, past and future.