Evolution of the DJ | Features | MN2S

From humble beginnings as 1930s radio presenters to the modern day superstars recognised today, we chart the evolution of the DJ.

Strange as it may sound, the shadow of Jimmy Saville looms over the start of this historic narrative. It is said that he was the first man ever to throw a DJ dance party, supposedly spinning a selection of jazz records to a group of unsuspecting acquaintances in a room just above the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds in Otley in 1943.

The term ‘disc jockey’, however, was invented a long time before that. In 1935, American radio commentator Walter Winchell first used the phrase to describe Martin Block, the earliest radio personality to gain widespread fame for playing popular music on air.

It’s fair to say though, that these DJs are a long way from the kind of headliners we’re used to seeing pack out events today.

The earliest dance parties that can be likened to contemporary raves are the kind that sprung up in Jamaican ghettos in the 1950s. Promoters would compete to own the loudest PA systems and hottest RnB tracks from the US. These events were capitalised on through the sale of tickets and alcohol. Count Machuki was the first of the ‘selectors’ from this era to reach the kind of superstar status that DJs enjoy today. The responsibility of the selector was to provide songs which maintain the momentum of a crowd across the whole night – and this role of course remains unchanged.

The significance of innovators like Count Machuki in the grand turntablism narrative has been lauded by many, including legendary Jamaican artist  U Roy: “Count Matchukie, well he was a man I used to love to listen to. Whenever you been listening to this man, it was like you never hear anybody like that before. This man phrases his words in time, he doesn’t crowd the music when he’s talking. You can always hear what the vocalist got to sing. I used to say, I’d like to be like this man.”

By the end of the 1960s, the universe of the DJ was due a huge shake up. Please welcome to the turntables, Francis Grasso. This New York DJ changed the future of the art form by inventing beat matching. This process involves aligning the tempos of two tracks, so that the cued track plays seamlessly after its predecessor. This, along with the technique ‘slip-cuing’ placed Grasso in the DJing hall of fame and made him at hit at New York’s renowned Sanctuary Night Club.

In many ways however, the most significant figure in this story is DJ Kool Herc. In 1973, DJ Kool was throwing block parties in the heart of the Bronx. The reason he is hailed as the father of hip hop, is due to his ground-breaking technique of mixing between two identical tracks, to create an extended break. This gave party-goers more time to dance and pioneered the new hip-hop culture. In a paper discussing reggae’s impact on hip hop, Kool Herc explains that “the whole chemistry of [hip hop] came from Jamaica… In Jamaica all you needed was a drum and a bass. So what I did was go right to the yoke. I cut off all the anticipation and just played the beats. I’d find out where the break in the record was and prolonged it and people would love it. So I was giving them their own taste and beat percussion wise… ’cause my music is all about heavy bass.”

Indeed, although the concept of creating new musical landscapes from existing tracks seems trivial to us now, at the time, this was cutting edge.

Only two years later, another shockwave was to ripple through the scene. The iconic, instantly recognisable vinyl ‘scratch’ was accidentally discovered by DJ Grand Wizard Theodore. Through manipulation of the record’s rotation on the table, DJ Wizard created intricately textured rhythms over existing tracks. This ‘scratch’ has now become a weapon in many top DJs’ arsenals, including MN2S acts DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Scratch, Scratch Perverts, and Skratch Bastid. It has also featured on countless, seminal hip-hop albums, such as Straight Outta Compton and Wu Tang’s debut LP, 36 Chambers.

As this art form began to solidify, new DJ equipment became available. By 1980, the SL-1200 MK2 had been released, a piece of kit which is still used by artists today. This new injection of technology helped give birth to what we might recognise as House music today. Utilising disco tracks steeped in electronic drum machine beats, DJ Frankie Knuckles showcased this new sound to party-goers across Chicago.

ARTICLE: Frankie Knuckles Day

But this was only the beginning; DJ dance parties became all-the-more electronic, when Detroit based disc jockeys began fusing Chicago House and New York Garage to produce a purely electronic, techno sound. These synthesised beats took the globe by storm and can still be heard in popular music today.
By the 1990s, the acid house scene was redefining the industry itself. DJs were becoming brands in their own right, with marketable sounds and aesthetics. They had become the new celebrity ‘rock-star’. By the late 1990s, the digital revolution had changed the way DJs performed; they were now able to use computers to play their music – carrying around thousands of songs on one miniscule hard drive. The digitisation of music opened up avenues for tracks to be streamed online. Sites such as Last.FM, Pandora and SoundCloud offered its users access to a treasure trove of songs, at a fraction of the cost of CDs.

ARTICLE: Why are we surprised by SoundCloud

At this point in time, the vast majority of music you hear whilst on a night-out, will be spun by a DJ. New DJ equipment emerges annually, with which fresh sounds can be engineered and the discipline may thrive.

ARTICLE: Pioneer DJ launches KUVO

From quaint beginnings in a smoky 1930s radio studio, to drum and bass Bloc parties in the Bronx, the role of the DJ has blossomed from a humble entertainer, to a revered musical artist. The creation of the break, not only ushered in one of the most culturally significant genres of the century – hip hop – but it also opened up a means through which new music could be created from old.

No longer is the creation of music something that only the wealthy instrument owner can participate in; it’s become something that can be done for free, by anyone.
So, the history of the DJ is also a history of music itself. It charts our changing approach toward the creation of new sounds and genres.

Check out our DJ and Celebrity DJ roster.

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