The Hip-Hop DJ

While these inventions and events were taking place in the United States and England, the history unfolding in Kingston, Jamaica fostered the birth of Hip Hop. In the 1950’s Jamaica was in the midst of extreme political and economic turmoil, and the people needed an escape. Groups of DJ’s and sound engineers called Sound Systems put on parties, which played mostly Reggae or Ska music, as a way for people to enjoy themselves and temporarily forget their troubles. Here amongst the political warfare and parties of the Sound Systems, DJ Kool Herc was born.

Herc moved to the Bronx from Kingston at age 12 and grew up during a particularly difficult time in the area. The Bronx’s infrastructure was crumbling and just like Jamaica; the people needed a break from the bleakness of their neighborhood’s condition. Herc innovated how music could control the mood of the party by mixing two identical records together at the same time to extend the most rhythmic parts of the song. The “break” is the term Herc coined to describe the parts of the song that he felt truly got the people dancing and became the foundation from which Hip Hop grew.

Kool Herc
After Herc had laid the foundation others began to further innovate his methods and Hip Hop flourished. Another legendary DJ who called himself Grand Wizzard Theodore made a significant discovery while practicing on a turntable in his room. In a way, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Theodore’s mother whose abrupt interruption caused his hand to stop a record and produce a sound now known as scratching.
Around the same time, Grandmaster Flash developed his Quick Mix Theory that allowed him full control over the turntable with a precision in his mixing that was completely unrivaled at the time. Flash received criticism early on because this new style had him putting his hands all over the records, potentially damaging or dirtying the needles and record discs. Some of the techniques Grandmaster Flash pioneered include cutting, back-spinning, and phasing.

Grandmaster Flash
• Cutting describes the way Flash would move between different parts of the songs so precisely to plan out what sounds the crowd would hear before they were audible.
• Back-spinning is simply repeating the same sound multiple times, giving the DJ an option to have more creative and structural input in the progression of the song.
• Phasing furthered this control by giving DJ’s the ability to increase or decrease the tempo of the music for a variety of effects on the audience.

What truly separated these Hip Hop pioneers from the DJ’s of the past was that they synthesized methods allowing the DJ to become an artist in their own right as opposed to only hitting play on a song made by someone else. Now the same song played by different DJ’s had the flexibility to sound entirely different from person to person. Partygoers could re-experience the same songs as an entirely new experience, and this facilitated an infinite amount of music options in each DJ’s arsenal. Each unique perspective and style translated differently to each crowd, helping take people out of their day-to-day struggles to create a sacred place of shelter from the harshness of the world.

Like the Jedi in Star Wars fighting against evil, enduring strenuous training, accepting a lifelong commitment to obtaining the knowledge of the universe and being heard but never seen, the hip hop DJ has very much the same destiny. The hip hop DJ has to endure the process of obtaining a vast knowledge of music and rhythm (the force), be able to synchronize the grooves and beats, and continually search for new sounds to maintain his status in the culture. Much as the Jedi is rumored to be the ultimate warrior of the universe, the hip hop DJ has become just that, a rumour. Nevertheless, the DJ will always play a major role in hip hop culture despite its ever changing nature.

In Star Wars, becoming a Jedi meant that a warrior had to feel the “force,” know it and always recognize it. The hip hop DJ has to do the same. As a DJ, a person has to feel the rhythms and identify them as being a natural part of their existence. Either the force is with you or it isn’t. Feeling rhythm is a skill that cannot be taught. This was a sign of a true beat hunter someone who could instantly feel the rhythms. DJs listened to all genres of music from rock, Latin, country, opera … whatever, but their main inspiration came from funk and R&B. Funk/R&B music is the closest source of music that resembles the original drum sounds from Africa. No matter what, funk always moved a crowd. Somehow, after 400 years of displacement out of Africa, the true hip hop DJ can still feel the rhythm of the drums of Africa. Once you’ve established a vast music collection, now you have to know how to work it! Not only does a DJ have to know the music on the record; a DJ must also know exactly where the rhythm is on the record. Developing DJ skills requires hours of practice and listening. Techniques such as needle dropping, cueing records, back spinning, scratching and the like are skills that have evolved out of pure hard work and creativity. Developing your own style is key in making your mark in the culture.

The hip hop DJ’s original mission overall was rocking the house, and to do this he or she needed an arsenal of beats (records). The DJ’s ability to keep a dance floor packed relied on his selection of records. Not only did he have to have radio favourites, he also had to keep up with the latest beats the other DJs had. In addition, he had to have his own collection of obscure beats and this wasn’t an easy task. It was only a matter of time before the other DJs would find out the names of your beats. So, to keep your uniqueness, you had to constantly search for new beats. Thus begun, “The Quest for Beats!”

Other than the development of the MCs, the “quest” was one of the most important events in hip hop culture because of the demands of maintaining the codes of discipline. First, you had to develop a vast understanding of music this required much research. You had to listen to all forms of music, no album or album cover was too serious or silly. Nothing was excluded. If it was on vinyl, it had potential. So the more you researched, the more your knowledge of music grew along with your record collection. Second, always travel alone and if you were with someone, they had to be part of your crew. Any rare recording found was declared top secret and no one outside of your crew could know its name. Everyday, DJs would head out into the streets of New York to find beats. They would look for thrift shops with large collections of used records. The major record stores were next, to find the latest radio hits. However, the best stores were the small mom and pop record shops throughout the five boroughs of the city. Unlike the bigger commercial stores, the mom and pop record shops would have the old and the new. There wasn’t any place that the hip-hop DJ wouldn’t dig for beats. It could be mom’s, dad’s, aunt’s, uncle’s, cousin’s, neighbour’s or friend’s. No one’s record collection was excluded. If there were mountains with caves full of vinyl, you would find a DJ mining for hip-hop gold. Once you collected enough beats, sometimes just hours before your next party, you had to remove any part of the record label that revealed the artist or the name of the song. Then, you had to subconsciously find where the new beats would fit in your set. Next was practicing the new beats had to be played in a way that wouldn’t give away the artist. If it was just a drumbeat, it was hard for other DJs to know who made the record. So cutting the beat before the other instruments or singers came in was critical. This meant that you had to be fast and precise, and the fastest way to go from one part of a song to another is needle dropping (placing the needle in the same groove at will). This was the ultimate hip-hop DJ skill and was truly mastered by only a few.

The next best thing was Grandmaster Flash’s “Clock Theory” which later became known as back spinning. This technique proved to be very useful and allowed DJs to create more new tricks. However, there is a down side to this technique: the more you backspin the more you destroy that part of the record, and some records are too rare to be used like that. As time went on, hip-hop DJs began to incorporate other instruments (for example, Flash’s beat box and D.ST.’s synthesizer) into their sets. Always finding something new to mesmerize the crowd. This competition was key to the growth of hip hop culture, as each DJ’s skills increased, the threshold of hip hop perfection was raised.