Hip-Hop embraces these artistic elements, most definitely. But it also has blended and transcended them to become a means for seeing, celebrating, experiencing, understanding, confronting, and commenting on life and the world. Hip-Hop, in other words, is a way of living—a culture.
DJ is short for “disc jockey.” Some people spell it out “D-e-e-j-a-y,” but any way you spell it, it should always be pronounced: D-J.
Back in the day, the DJ didn’t just play records. He was the leader, the master drummer, and the center of attention. He was a scholar, a researcher and a historian; the technical engineer, a master craftsman, and some might even say, a magician with a bag of tricks.
Research some of the more well-known early DJs—Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Lovebug Starski, June Bug, Eddie Cheba, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, Sequence, and The Sugar Hill Gang. How did they fulfill some of these roles? What do they have in common with modern DJs?
While the role of the DJ has grown over time, the basic setup—a mixer between two or more “wheels of steel”—remains the way DJs perform their craft. Consider ways that making music this way has changed—whether due to the move from records to MP3s, or from turntables to computer apps.
The 5th Element
Afrika Bambaataa, the founder of the Zulu Nation, was one of the first DJs to bring Hip-Hop music from places like the Bronx River Housing Projects to clubs like Danceteria. DJ Afrika Islam, also a member of the Zulu Nation, was one of the first Hip-Hop DJs to have a Hip-Hop radio show. Dive into the history—and ongoing impact—of the Zulu Nation on Hip Hop Culture.
Additional DJ Videos
The Emergence of the Hip-Hop DJ
Reggae, Dub, and Dancehall music are famous for their PA systems: amplifiers, speakers, and microphones. DJs from the Caribbean would use their PA systems to play music in the street and “sound clashes” would pit opposing sound systems against each other. The winners would earn local fame and the chance to play their selections on the radio. This Caribbean musical tradition migrated to the States in the early 1970s with its people.
As Disco was declared dead, and the New York City dance scene began to fade, there was more room for fresh energy in the club. New dance music like house, garage, techno, and Hip-Hop came along to fill the void; and even though they each had their distinct audiences, they were all reincarnations of the Disco DJ.
Hip-Hop DJs played music in the streets just like they did in the Caribbean, but here in the States they were called “jams.” A jam could happen in a community center, a schoolyard, or a park anywhere in the greater New York City area from the late 70s to the early 80s. Flyers and “word of mouth” were the primary means for getting people out to the jams, but cassette recordings of these jams became the advertising arm of Hip-Hop. Cassette tapes were sold on the street for $5 a pop, and it’s because of these tapes that local crews and DJs were able to become famous all over the city.
Hip-Hop DJs emerged as the perfect marriage between the sound systems of the Caribbean playing “jams in the park” and the Disco DJ who knew his way around the club scene and learned to turn his passion for playing music into a profession.
Places like The Disco Fever, whose name harkens back to the days of Disco, was a Hip-Hop club located in the South Bronx. On any given night you might see hanging out or performing. With the popularity of clubs like “The Fever,” Harlem World, The T-Connection, as well as others like Negril, Hip-Hop would soon be welcomed in some of the most famous clubs in New York City: The Copacabana, Studio 54, and The Roxy.
Resources to explore:
Chang, Jeff (2005). Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Picador, ISBN 0-312-42579-1.
The DJ advanced the status of recorded music from a process of recording “live” music to the business of “making records,” which were promotional products made specifically for DJs. The DJ’s promotional muscle was a major factor in the creation of the modern music industry, the broadcast advertising industry; and in the early days, DJs were key in fostering an understanding between different races and cultures.
The history of the DJ traces all the way back to the famous inventor Thomas Edison, who created the cylinder phonograph in 1877, and Emil Berliner, who gave us the flat-disc gramophone in 1887.
However, it wasn’t until the advent of the electron tube, which gave birth to radio, that people could harness the power to play recordings over the airwaves. Reginald A. Fessenden, an American engineer who worked with Edison, was one of the first people to transmit radio waves overseas in 1906.
Lee DeForest is often considered to be the “father of radio” for his invention of the triode, which made broadcasting possible; and some consider him to be the first DJ because he played a recording of the “William Tell Overture” from his laboratory in the Parker Building in 1907. Charles “Doc” Herrold considered himself the first person to realize the entertainment value of radio in 1909. He gave all of his neighbors radio sets so they could receive the music and interviews he broadcasted.
Dr. Elman B. Meyers started broadcasting an 18-hour program that was mostly records in 1911, and Sybill True, the world’s first recorded female DJ, went on the air in 1914 with a show she called “The Little Ham Program.” She borrowed records from the local music store and concentrated on young people’s music in an attempt to encourage youthful interest in the possibilities of radio. Her program had a noticeable effect on the music stores’ record sales.
Britain gets the credit for giving birth to the first syndicated radio DJ in 1927 on the BBC. As the progenitor of the trade, Christopher Stone was the first to ad lib his introduction, and he developed a conversational, almost chatty style of interacting with the audience as he spun American and American-influenced Jazz music.
Almost immediately, the presence of records on the radio aroused opposition. In 1927, the Department of Commerce was granting preferential licenses to stations that didn’t use recorded music. They claimed it was of inferior quality, and it was ruled unnecessary by the Federal Radio Commission. But during the Depression, the use of records increased because stations like NBC and CBS couldn’t afford to broadcast live music all day long.
September 11, 2019
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