The Hip-Hop DJ
by DXT formerly known as Grandmixer D.ST
Like the Jedi in Star Wars fighting against evil, enduring strenuous training, accepting a life-long 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 rumor. 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, backspinning, 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 Tri-Force Kool DJ Herc had a style of playing oldies but goodies and only playing the dopest part of the records. He also traveled with a massive sound system that was impressive in its own right. Grandmaster Flash was a technician about his work. He went against the rules of the disco DJs and left behind smooth mixes. He went straight to the cut. However, despite the equipment and technique, a DJ has to be in total harmony with the rhythms. That means being at one with the force (the rhythms of Africa), and the one who understood that overall was Afrika Bambaataa. He played rhythms that would penetrate your soul and make you move. In the old African tribes he would have been known as the medicine man!
Other DJs during that time (early 1970s) were Kool DJ Dee, DJ Smoke and the Smokatrons, Mean Jean, Disco King Mario (Chuck Chuck City), Pete DJ Jones, Grand Master Flowers and DJ Hollywood, just to name a few. However, Herc, Flash and Bambaataa had the most profound influence on the development of hip-hop culture. These three men represent the Tri-Force of the hip-hop DJ: Kool DJ Herc (presence), Afrika Bambaataa (energy) and Grandmaster Flash (technique). Their examples inspired young teenagers from all over the Bronx to become hip-hop DJs.
Out of the hundreds of DJs spawned from the spirit of the Tri-Force, sweeping through the parks and clubs of the Bronx, only a few stood out, for they had truly harnessed the power: DJ Jazzy Jay, DJ Charlie Chase, Tony Tone, DJ Lil Quick, Imperial Jay Cee, Whiz Kid, DJ Breakout & DJ Baron, DJ Tyrone, Grand Wizard Theodore (inventor of record scratching), DJ Africa Islam (the son of Bambaattaa) and Grandmixer D.ST. whose turntable skills mutated the turntable into a musical instrument. These young men along with Herc, Bam, Flash (the Tri-Force) and their MCs are the Jedi Knights of hip-hop culture. From them you have all the DJs and MCs you see and hear today. In fact, hip-hop culture has disseminated the force from the ghettos of the Bronx, New York to almost every culture in the world.
Looking for the Perfect Beat
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 favorites, 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, neighbor'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 backspinning. 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.
The Empire Strikes Back
The hip-hop DJ now had power throughout the city. People would come from miles around just to see Bronx DJs git down. More people became interested in the culture, because they recognized the true spirit in the expression of hip-hop and its magnetizing effect on people. Some hated it because of its universal potential and some only saw one thing: MONEY. Unfortunately, they all played a part in the decay of the culture and the DJ's transition into the shadows.
First, the DJs themselves made a critical mistake. They allowed non-DJs to learn the names of songs that were secret. People from outside hip-hop culture would come to parties to meet DJs so they could discuss records. Sometimes DJs would need new copies of some of their rare beats, and these men would provide them. In return they would ask for the name of a beat that you played. At the same time they'd offer the name of a beat that they got from your competition that you did not have. By doing this, the hip-hop DJ was breaking his own code of secrecy, unaware that their sacred collection of records (their energy) was being consolidated into what we now know as Super Disco Breaks and Break Beat records. So now without the knowledge that could only be acquired through research and hard work, anyone who wanted to be a DJ had access to the sacred beats. This caused a great disturbance in the Tri-Force, and was the beginning of the hip-hop DJ's transition to obscurity.
Second, record companies began signing hip-hop groups with no true interest in the culture to record deals. The DJ and his MC were the two components of one unit, each complimenting the other. Their presence on stage would create energy levels that would leave crowds in awe. However, this was not important to record executives; they only cared about record sales and the MCs were all they needed to sell records. Record companies began to push the MCs into the spotlight, pulling them away from their DJs (the foundation of hip-hop) and pushing the DJs further out of the picture.
Third, the MC now had his own power, but this power was false because he received it from record company executives through their perversion of hip-hop culture and not from the Tri-Force. (And this is still the problem today.) In this perversion, the MC could easily be programmed to think that he or she was still representing hip-hop, even if he or she replaced a DJ with a DAT tape.
Return of the Jedi (The DJ)
We now see a new genre of music: A distorted by-product of true hip-hop culture called rap music (really rap-u-sic) where the MC has been transformed into something called a "rapper." Where money is energy, jewelry and expensive cars are his presence and he possesses no technique at all. For in his blindness he has been used to destroy everything hip-hop culture stands for. Within this madness, the DJ, who has become nothing more than a sidekick to the rapper, continues to struggle, doing everything he can to bring hip-hop from the underground to the service where it belongs.
The hip-hop DJ now spends more time with samplers, computers, synthesizers and drum machines than with turntables. Now some DJs just call themselves producers and the rap artist depends on them to make up beats with the new technology. So it seems that everything happens for a reason, because now that sampling is the main process of rap music, the producer has to find new sounds to sample. He must educate himself like the original hip-hop DJs did because the only way to compete is to practice hard and research (the new "Quest for Beats"). In this quest/search you will find hip-hop culture; it's there, it's always been there, and it will always be here. For it is truly the cosmic rhythm of the universe and its beacon on this planet is … AFRICA THE ORIGIN OF ALL HUMANITY
This article was commissioned for the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame and appeared on their website in 1999:
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