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The Evolution of DJ Culture in NYC

The Evolution of DJ Culture in NYC

by Felice Leon

Chapter one:

Examining the Culture and Evolution of DJing in New York City

Felice León

Class of 2014

Copyright

Felice León

2014

LEON

MASTERS CHAPTER ONE

PROF. COOPER

HOST INTRO: The earliest examples of radio pioneers playing records over the air date back to before World War I. But the radio record disc jockey, or DJ, didn’t really catch on until the 1940’s, when local radio stations proliferated across the U.S. and their managers discovered that playing music was a cheap way to fill airtime. So if there was a moment of birth, when the concept of the DJ as a person who plays music for an audience actually began, it was then, in the 40s. .

As Felice León reports, our notion of the DJ has evolved tremendously since then.

_______________

NARR: Back in the day, if you said “DJ,” here’s what people thought of. .

AMBI: Archived audio tape of 1950’s radio DJ

NARR: During the mid-20th century, and for years beyond, a DJ was the guy who played records and use his booming voice to announce what was on the air. He might joke or do some commentary or take phone-in requests. But he didn’t mess with the music he played.

BUT, that was then and this is now.

AMBI: QBert scratching.

Today, the DJ tosses records on two turntables, and performs. Listen closely, because there are some serious DJing techniques employed, and scratching, or pushing the record back and forth is just the start. At a February showcase in New York City, DJ Qbert’s scratching is on fire.

FADE AMBI: QBert scratching.

NARR: Hip-hop culture elevated the DJ, from a mere record spinner, to a real performer. Hip-hop DJs used vinyl records. But they didn’t just play them. They manipulated them, in clubs and other venues, before live audiences.

But, to get from the old notion of the DJ to today’s understanding of the term, let’s take a look at hip-hop, the culture that gave birth to contemporary DJing.

AMBI: Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force

NARR: Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx in the early 1970’s. It was a tumultuous time in America – and particularly chaotic in New York City’s, South Bronx. The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is a song that vividly describes urban plight.

AMBI: Audio of The Message

BAMBAATAA: That was the time when you were coming out of the Civil
Rights and the human rights movement.

NARR: That’s Afrika Bambaataa, a legendary DJ and a prominent figure in hip-hop.

BAMBAATAA: The Martin Luther King, the Malcolm X, and the honorable Elijah Mohammad and all of these types of groups were trying to find freedom, justice and equality for our people. That was the time when Blacks and Latinos were known for the fight for justice for the people.

NARR: Africa Bambaataa is widely regarded as the Godfather of hip- hop. One of his followers is DJ Jazzy Jay, who is also from the South Bronx.

JAZZY JAY: Peace, this is the Original DJ Jazzy Jay from the mighty, mighty Zulu Nation, rock creation.

NARR: Jazzy Jay is a member of the Universal Zulu nation, a value-driven organization, which was founded by Bambaataa. Today the Zulu nation still works to preserve hip- hop culture through its work.

JAZZYJAY: You know, we are in the ghetto, in the Bronx. At that time in the 70’s the Bronx was like no- man’s land. A lot of burned- out buildings, and out of the rubble of the chaos came this music form.

NARR: Hip-hop was more than music. It was a culture steeped in the language of revolution and created by Black and Latino teens. DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash – known as hip hop’s founding fathers – were just teenagers when it all began. And they all became pioneers of the new DJ culture that grew out of hip- hop.

FADE AMBI: Audio of The Message

NARR: Today, hip-hop culture consists of four elements: DJing, MCing, B-boying and graffiti art.

NARR: Professor Joe Schloss is an ethnomusicologist and teaches at Baruch College at the City University of New York. He recognizes that the hip-hop DJ was influenced by the circumstances in which it was conceived.

SCHLOSS: Hip-hop was a particular style of DJing that grew out of the needs of that particular community at that time.

NARR: Hip-hop culture, he says, has many musical influences, too.

SCHLOSS: I think that one of the really exciting things about hip-hop is that it wasn’t just African American music, it was Afro-Latino music, it was Afro-Caribbean music, and it had all of these different elements that came out of the African Diaspora and got blended together.

NARR: Now, how did this culture set off a revolution in DJing?

Let’s start with the equipment.

The double turntable allowed the hip hop DJ to transition seamlessly from one record to the other — no need to stop to change the record, the music just kept going in one continuous flow. Joe Schloss attributes this practice to DJ Kool Herc.

SCHLOSS: What he did was buy two copies of the same record and use it to segue back and forth between two copies of the same break, thereby extending the break.

The break. It was the thing that was new and funky about hip-hop. The break is a brief percussion solo in a song – most often found in funk songs. James Brown, is well known for using breaks.

Here is the break in his song, A Cold Sweat.

AMBI: A Cold Sweat by James Brown

NARR: So, that’s what the break sounds like. To ‘cut up the break,’ the DJ must first isolate the percussion solo, then play that solo again… and again. This is how “cutting up the breaks” sounds.

AMBI: Audio from “Beat This: A hip-hop history” documentary – early DJs performing.

SCHLOSS: The DJing innovation that’s associated with hip-hop is cutting up the breaks, and that’s generally attributed to DJ Kool Herc and it completely changed everything.

NARR: That’s DJ Jazzy Jay who owns nearly half a million-vinyl records, which he plays on dual turntables, two at a time.

JAZZYJAY: When cats like Kool Herc came in and played those cuts that you didn’t hear on the radio. It had a breakdown on it – the percussions, and the grooves, and the beats, you’d hear it and be like “whoa, that’s them beats!”

AMBI: Jazzy Jay replicates the sounds of beats

NARR: Now, picture this: DJ Kool Herc is playing in front of a basement full of teens. The music is non-stop and the crowd is amped- up. The energy in the room is sky-high and people dance, dance, dance.

DJ Kool Herc’s nuanced way of spinning records had major implications, says Schloss.

SCHLOSS: What I think he didn’t realize was that in doing that, he would force people to dance to that break longer and come-up with new dances.

NARR: And the non-stop dancing to DJ Kool Herc’s breaks created another innovation.

SCHLOSS: He became so busy in cutting-up the breaks that he wasn’t able to talk as long as he wanted to talk, so he had to get somebody else to do the talking, which became the MC.

NARR: …And then…

SCHLOSS: The longer he cut-up the breaks, the longer the MC had to talk, the longer the dancers had to dance. People would drop to the floor during the break and they would stay longer on the floor, which became B-Boying. So, it really set-off a whole series of innovations as hip-hop developed.

NARR: There you have it – the inception of hip-hop in the South Bronx, the transformation of DJing, the introduction of the MC – all packaged for what became known as a house party.

DJs took the lead in coordinating these parties. Most of the partygoers were underage; as a result “jams,” would often take place in public spaces like a community center, school, or even outdoors in the park. This took a lot of coordination. In his day, Afrika Bambatta was one of those coordinators.

BAMBAATAA: The DJ was the one that put everything together.

NARR: Schloss says that the responsibilities of the early hip-hop DJ went far beyond keeping the music playing.

SCHLOSS: In the modern sense, these early DJs Kool Herc, Africa Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash (to some degree) were promoters as much as they were DJs – they were putting on their own shows, they were collecting the money, and they were keeping the money at the end of the night. They were the whole deal.

NARR: In the early years of hip-hop, the DJ was king. The organizer. The head-honcho. The hero. Like Jazzy Jay, who used turntables as a musical weapon.

JAZZYJAY: At that time, we didn’t know that we were going to create something new, something different, something bold, something that was going to be long-lasting; we just had fun doing it, and just wanted to be a part of it.

NARR: Hip-hop caught on, moving far beyond the South Bronx, turning up all over the country. And that inspired yet another development. This live music genre began to move into the studio, where companies, like Sugar Hill Records capitalized on it. This hip-hop song, Rapper’s Delight, Became a national hit as a recording.

AMBI: Rappers Delight

Hip-hop records marked a turning point for the hip-hop DJ. By the late 1970’s the MC was ascendant. The hip-hop DJ was in decline.

FADE AMBI: Rappers Delight

SCHLOSS: Pre-1979, if you were going to see Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, you were going to see a DJ named Grandmaster Flash playing records that you wanted to hear.

NARR: The records Grandmaster Flash played were other people’s music. An MC assisted him by rhyming over the records, or by making an announcement. At times he would command the audience to “clap your hands.”

A performance AFTER 1979 was a live routine featuring the MC – Schloss explains the distinction.

SCHLOSS: After 1979, if you were going to see Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, you were going to see a rap group perform songs that you knew from the records. This was a very different thing.

NARR: DJs were pushed to the back burner. Hip-hop records were produced in studios, and often, live music was used. This shifted the power structure within hip-hop.

SCHLOSS: When the records began to come out they started to feature the MCs more. Not only were people going to see the MCs, but they were going to see them perform their songs. People didn’t really understand what a DJ did and that really hurt the market for hip-hop DJs.

NARR: The hip-hop DJ didn’t return to the limelight until Herbie Hancock’s 1984 Grammy performance of “Rock it” with Grandmixer D.ST. Herbie Hancock was then a young, talented musician. They’d won a Grammy the year before for Rock It, and went on to perform for a live audience. This inspired a new generation of DJs.

AMBI: audio of “Rock It” performed at the Grammys.

NARR: Grandmaster D.ST performed as a DJ on an international stage – it was a BIG DEAL. He manipulated the records on his turntables. The sounds were entirely unique – he created new music from preexisting music. D.ST’s record manipulation skills brought recognition to the DJ. And the turntable slowly became recognized as an instrument in its own right.

FADE AMBI: audio of “Rock It” performed at the Grammys.

NARR: Musical scholars acknowledge this Grammy performance to be a time when “hip-hop and hip-hop DJing, began to spread its horizons.” Hip-hop culture, and the DJing that’s evolved from it would transcend the South Bronx and go on to receive mainstream recognition. It will never be the same.

Felice León, Columbia Radio News.

SOURCE NOTES: CHAPTER ONE

The reporting for this chapter was based on interviews of Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Jazzy Jay and Professor Joseph Schloss.

The inception of the hip-hop DJ is historical. Much of the research on the hip-hop DJ came from work written by hip-hop historians and journalists: Bill Brewster, Jeff Chang, Dan Charnas, Nelson George, Mark Katz and Joseph Schloss. I also used documentaries by Dick Fontaine, and Doug Pray as references. Their specific pieces are as follows:

Written Work:

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey (Bill Brewster, 1999)

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation (Jeff Chang, 2005)

The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop (Dan Charnas, 2011)

Hip-Hop America (Nelson George, 2005)

Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Mark Katz, 2012)

Making Beats: The Art of Sample Based Hip-hop (Joseph Schloss, 2004)

Documentaries:

Scratch (Dir: Doug Pray, 2002)

Beat This!: A hip-hop History (Dir: Dick Fontaine, 1984)

*************************************

Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx in the early 1970’s. It was a tumultuous time in America – and particularly chaotic in New York City’s, South Bronx — Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey (Bill Brewster, 1999), Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation (Jeff Chang, 2005)

Hip-hop was more than music. It was a culture steeped in the language of revolution and created by Black and Latino teens. DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash – known as hip hop’s founding fathers – were just teenagers when it all began. And they all became pioneers of the new DJ culture that grew out of hip- hop. — Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation (Jeff Chang, 2005), Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Mark Katz, 2012)

Today, hip-hop culture consists of four elements: DJing, MCing, B-boying and graffiti art — Hip-Hop America (Nelson George, 2005)

The break. It was the thing that was new and funky about hip-hop. The break is a brief percussion solo in a song – most often found in funk songs. James Brown, is well known for using breaks — Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Mark Katz, 2012)

The double turntable allowed the hip hop DJ to transition seamlessly from one record to the other — no need to stop to change the record, the music just kept going in one continuous flow — Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Mark Katz, 2012), Making Beats: The Art of Sample Based Hip-hop (Joseph Schloss, 2004)

To ‘cut up the break,’ the DJ must first isolate the percussion solo, then play that solo again… and again. This is how “cutting up the breaks” sounds — Beat This!: A hip-hop History (Dir: Dick Fontaine, 1984), Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Mark Katz, 2012)

Hip-hop caught on, moving far beyond the South Bronx, turning up all over the country. And that inspired yet another development. This live music genre began to move into the studio, where companies, like Sugar Hill Records capitalized on it. This hip-hop song, Rapper’s Delight, Became a national hit as a recording — The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop (Dan Charnas, 2011)

The hip-hop DJ didn’t return to the limelight until Herbie Hancock’s 1984 Grammy performance of “Rock it” with Grandmixer D.ST. Herbie Hancock was then a young, talented musician. They’d won a Grammy the year before for Rock It, and went on to perform for a live audience. This inspired a new generation of DJs — The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop (Dan Charnas, 2011), Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Mark Katz, 2012) and Scratch (Dir: Doug Pray, 2002)

Musical scholars acknowledge this Grammy performance to be a time when “hip-hop and hip-hop DJing, began to spread its horizons.” Hip-hop culture, and the DJing that’s evolved from it would transcend the South Bronx and go on to receive mainstream recognition. It will never be the same — Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Mark Katz, 2012)