Twelve Crucial Moments in Hip-Hop DJ History
By Mark Katz
I covered nearly forty years in the history of an art form — from its birth in the early 1970s to the latest technological developments — in my new book, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. I wanted to highlight some of the most important events in that rich history and for you to enjoy the accompanying sights and sounds.
1. August 11, 1973: DJ Kool Herc’s First Party
On a hot summer night in 1973, a teenaged Clive Campbell, already known as DJ Kool Herc, spun funk and soul records at a party in the community room of his Bronx apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Kool Herc became a central figure in development of hip-hop and many now see that party as the birth of this music and culture.
Listen to Kool Herc talk about hip-hop and the Bronx, from a 1984 BBC Documentary, “Beat this: A Hip-Hop History.”
2. c. 1975–1977: GrandWizzard Theodore Invents Scratching
A South Bronx middle-schooler named Theodore Livingston — later known as GrandWizzard Theodore — was mixing records in his room one spring afternoon in the mid-1970s when his mother came in to tell the young DJ to turn the music down. At the moment his mother entered, Theodore had his hand on one record as the other one played. While his mother berated him, he kept his hand on that one record and moved it back and forth so he wouldn’t lose his place. He liked that rasping sound set against a funky beat and decided to add this as-yet-unnamed technique into his DJ sets. That day scratching was born.
Listen to GrandWizzard Theodore explain the birth of scratching in his own words.
(From a 2006 interview with Mark Katz.)
3. 1981: Release of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”
The name “Grandmaster Flash” appeared on many of the early hip-hop records coming out of the Sugar Hill label, but the pioneering DJ did not actually perform on them, having been replaced by studio musicians. It was not until 1981, and “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” that Flash had the chance to demonstrate his artistry on record. “Adventures” is his masterpiece, a virtuosic and witty work that deftly mixes bits of songs by Blondie, Chic, Queen, and others into a seven-minute tour de force.
Grandmaster Flash, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”
4. 1982: Release of “Planet Rock”
Along with Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa is considered one of the founders of hip-hop. As a Bronx DJ, he was known for his wildly eclectic sets that paired styles and genres no one else would dare combine. His legacy reached well beyond New York when in 1982 he released a track called “Planet Rock,” which memorably sampled tracks by the German group Kraftwerk. “Planet Rock” is not only a key work in the history of hip-hop, but also spawned whole genres such as electro.
Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, “Planet Rock”
Listen to Afrika Bambaataa talk about hip-hop and the Bronx, from a 1984 BBC Documentary, “Beat this: A Hip-Hop History.”
5. 1984: Grandmixer D.ST Scratches at the Grammys
This was the scratch heard around the world. Although GrandWizzard Theodore and others had been scratching for the past several years, that distinctive sound had not yet become a familiar part of the musical soundscape. That changed in 1983 with the recording of “Rockit,” a track that paired jazz great Herbie Hancock with, among others, a young DJ known as GrandMixer D.ST. The sound of D.ST’s scratching — and especially the sight of him scratching on the telecast of the Grammy Awards ceremony in 1984 — inspired many to become DJs, including Mix Master Mike, Qbert, and Rob Swift.
Herbie Hancock (featuring Grandmixer D.ST on turntables), “Rockit”
Grammy Awards Performance (1984)
6. 1984–1988: The Era of the DJ Track
After “Rockit,” the sound of scratching could be heard in countless hip-hop songs, and soon it became common for albums to have at least one track that spotlighted the group’s DJ, sometimes as a soloist, sometimes in a kind of musical conversation with the MC or MCs. Classics of this era include “One for the Treble (Fresh)” by Davy DMX (1984); “King Kut,” by Word of Mouth, featuring DJ Cheese (1985); “Peter Piper,” by Run DM.C., featuring Jam Master Jay (1986); and “DJ on the Wheels” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (1988).
Davy DMX, “One for the Treble (Fresh)” (1984)
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “DJ on the Wheels” (1988)
7. 1986: DJ Cheese Introduces Scratching to the DMC Battle
In 1985, the British radio DJ Tony Prince started a DJ competition for the organization he had founded called the Disco Mix Club, or DMC as it is better known. The first competition, in 1985, spotlighted the mixing talents of a variety of British and European DJs. The competition changed forever in 1986, when New Jersey native DJ Cheese won the international battle with a scratch routine that stunned the crowd, the judges, and his competitors. This marked the moment that scratching and hip-hop entered the battle, and the competition — which runs to this day — became the premier showcase for hip-hop DJs and a crucial testing ground for new turntablist techniques.
DJ Cheese, Winning Routine for the 1986 DMC World Championship Battle
8. Summer 1996: Epic battle between the X-Men and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz
One of the greatest battles in turntablist history took place in New York City in the summer of 1996, pitting the X-Men from the East Coast against the Invisbl Skratch Piklz from the West Coast. Lasting well into the night, it included both team and individual routines and featured astonishing feats of vinyl virtuosity, devastating disses, and a lot of good humor.
Invisbl Skratch Piklz vs. X-Men, Team Routines
Invisbl Skratch Piklz vs. X-Men, Individual Routines
9. 2001: The Introduction of the Digital Vinyl System
Although DJ-friendly CD players had been common for several years, it wasn’t until 2001 that hip-hop DJing entered the digital age. This new age was ushered in by a technology called the digital vinyl system (or DVS). A DVS connects a laptop to the traditional two-turntables-and-a-mixer setup, allowing DJs to mix and scratch digital sound files by manipulating vinyl just as they always had. DJs resisted the DVS at first, but within a few years it became a standard piece of equipment; especially as the technology improved, they came to appreciate the convenience and flexibility of storing all their music on a laptop while maintaining the feel and tradition of vinyl and analog turntables.
DJ LigOne demonstrates Serato Scratch Live, a popular DVS
10. 2002: Release of “It’s Goin’ Down”
“It’s Goin’ Down” can be thought of as the “Rockit” of the new millennium, for it brought the sound of scratching back into the mainstream through a collaboration of artists from different areas of the musical spectrum. This time the collaboration was between the X-Ecutioners (formerly the X-Men) and members of the rap-metal group, Linkin Park. The song helped sell 500,000 copies of the X-Ecutioners’ album, Built from Scratch, and propelled them into the media spotlight.
X-Ecutioners (featuring Mike Shinoda and Mr. Hahn of Linkin Park), “It’s Goin’ Down”
11. 2009: The Release of DJ Hero
In the first decade of the 21st century music video games were huge — Guitar Hero, Rock Band and others were being played in millions of homes across the world. In 2010, DJ Hero entered their ranks, selling 1.2 million units in its first year and giving countless players the chance to simulate the experience of rocking a party from behind the wheels of steel (well, plastic). The controller was a small plastic turntable with a crossfader switch and three color-coded buttons. Some DJs complained that it was nothing like the real thing, while others praised it for giving fans an appreciation of the skill it takes to mix and scratch. DJ Hero 2 was released in 2010.
DJ Hero 2 Official Trailer
12. 2010: The Technics 1200 is Discontinued
In October 2010, the Japanese electronics company Panasonic announced that the Technics 1200, the iconic and beloved turntable, would no longer be sold. Because they are virtually indestructible, the 1200s will be seen and heard for many years to come, but this announcement symbolizes the end — or at least the waning — of the analog era in hip-hop DJing.
April 2012: Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ, is released.
OK, this was hardly as momentous as the first hip-hop party or the invention of the scratch. Groove Music, however, can claim to be the first book-length history of the hip-hop DJ. May it not be the last!
Are the other crucial moments you’d add to the list? Share them in the comments section!
Mark Katz is Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ and Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music, and editor of the Journal of the Society for American Music. He is a violinist, a radio DJ, and an aspiring turntablist. Learn more about Groove Music at the dedicated website.