From Brooklyn Disco to the Bronx Playground
“The idea of a d.j. making something new out of other people’s music might seem preposterous. But there’s no question that a real d.j. can shape a night of music with his personality, style, and spirit, magically turning a string of records into a spontaneous symphony.”–Vince Aletti– The Disco Files 1973-1978 —
Turntablists, or DJs, are an essential part of the development of two musical styles that have developed since 1970: hip-hop (& rap), and the variety of styles that are sometimes lumped under the banner of electronic, techno, or EDM. Hip-hop DJs developed both a new technique and a new style of music.
Electronic is sometimes referred to as “techno” music in consideration of the technology used to create it, but techno is actually a specific style of electronic music that developed in the early 1980s. The terms rap and hip-hop are also sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Rap is a musical component of hip-hop culture, which also includes a style of dress, styles of dance, and a style of visual art.
The turntable has a long and interesting history in the development of popular musical forms over the last half of the twentieth century. For our purposes, however, the story really begins in 1970, when the earliest hip- hop DJs first begin to mix music together to create a seamless dance experience and overall club atmosphere rather than simply play records.
Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Early Disco Scene
This cross-pollination occurred first as part of the disco scene, at Steve Mancuso’s New York dance party The Loft. But Mancuso wasn’t so interested in creating a seamless dance mix as in creating an atmosphere and sense of community. As reported by Vince Aletti in his Record World column, Mancuso wanted his dance floor to reflect inclusiveness and so his playlists were designed to appeal to black and gay audiences as well as young urban whites.
Brooklyn dance parties were being organized by promoters who rented out the backs of restaurants during a time when many of them were having a rough time financially. Pete DJ Jones, who came frJom North Carolina to New York City and started DJing around 1970, became a fixture at these parties. Jones, along with DJ Grandmaster Flowers, was DJing for the big dance parties and developing the standards for what would become hip-hop, though at the time the music was more of a funk and R&B vibe.
There is a discrepancy in the story of who created hip-hop and the associated innovations in turntablism. Traditionally it’s been reported that a triumvirate of Bronx DJs– Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa– created hip-hop as it became known and eventually recorded. In interviews, Pete DJ Jones makes it clear that he was there first and that other DJs learned from what he was doing.
The documentary Founding Fathers: The Untold Story of Hip Hop added fuel to the fire by claiming that Jones and Flowers were indeed the originators of hip-hop. Those who support the notion that hip-hop started in the Bronx maintain that what Jones and Flowers were playing was not hip-hop but disco. It seems as though the deal is that Jones and Flowers were first with some of the turntable techniques that became integral to hip hop but that the music blossomed culturally and sonically into what we now know as hip-hop in the Bronx.
Jones and Flowers don’t receive the recognition of the trio of Bronx hip-hop DJs who followed in their footsteps and were inspired by them, but they were pioneers who created their methods out of necessity. Jones was working with a mixer that had no cueing system, so he learned to ‘read’ the grooves and knew the records he was using backward and forward. Flowers was known as a mixer, smoothly moving from one record to the next, while Jones was a chopper, mixing breaks to create a seamless beat.
DJ Kool Herc
These ideas were noticed by a black DJ from the Bronx, six-and-a-half foot giant of a man who called himself DJ Kool Herc (short for Hercules). He began to wonder what would happen if the “break” of records—the part that caused dancers to go wild—could be played back to back. In 1974, he tried out his idea, playing just a series of breaks rather than the whole recordings. He didn’t try to match beats between the records or make it seamless; he merely faded from one record to the other, while talking over the transition.
This was something Herc had heard dub DJs do in his native Jamaica, a tradition known as toasting, which is a precursor to the eventual rise of the MC and full-blown rapping. The toaster doesn’t generally rhyme, though, merely shouting out phrases like “I’m rockin’ with the rockers, jammin’ with the jammers…”
It took some time for people to catch on to what Herc was doing, but the b-boys, guys who went out of their way to concoct and show off outrageous dance routines, latched on to him right away. Herc began devoting a section of his set every night to this break mixing, a segment he referred to as “The Merry Go Round.” Soon he was purchasing two copies of each record so that he could keep the same break going almost indefinitely. The music he used was a combination of James Brown, disco hits, and older R&B grooves.
But Herc’s style was fairly primitive, and it didn’t take too long for others to wonder whether they couldn’t improve on what he was doing. Joseph Saddler, a scientific whiz who was studying electronics a Samuel Gompers vocational high school, began to wonder whether he could develop a technique to take Herc’s break mixing and turn it into a continuous mix. He saw Pete DJ Jones, and was influenced by his mixing, though Jones was playing complete records at least some of the time. Saddler wanted to take DJ Kool Herc’s idea of playing only the breaks from records and combine it with the beat-mixing to really get the b-boys dancing.
Saddler approached his quest in a very scientific and disciplined fashion, much as any musician might. He spent time learning the mechanics of his instrument by studying the construction of the turntable, the way the cartridge was designed, and the way the needle worked. He shut himself away in his room for long hours of practice, eventually learning how to quickly switch from one turntable to another with lightning speed, to be able to quickly find the start of a break or a specific beat and to be able to play, recombine, and replay a few bars of music to essentially reconstruct a track in ways that had previously only been possible in a recording studio.
Upon developing these skills and a speed that no other DJ had at the time, Saddler dubbed himself Grandmaster Flash. Perhaps not surprisingly, no one really knew what to make of Flash’s sound at first, but in a short period the b-boys were hipped to him and his popularity in the Bronx grew to monumental proportions.
The third member of the mighty Bronx triumvirate of hip-hop DJ innovators was a man by the name of Afrika Bambaataa, known as “Bam.” Bambaataa was playing parties at the Bronx Community Center by the age of eleven, and he developed the Zulu Nation, a group of b-boys and b-girls who used music, break dancing, and graffiti as creative ways to escape from street gangs and violence.
This was during a period when the neighborhood was known as “Little Vietnam” because of the constant barrages of gunfire and skirmishes between rival gangs that would break out. One of Bam’s closest friends was killed, and this made him turn more fiercely than ever toward his music, with a message of unity through partying that continued to be a prime theme of his music throughout his career.
By 1976 Bam was a professional hip-hop DJ and became as well-known and respected as Herc and Grandmaster Flash. Flash was known for his speed and incredible technique, but Bambaataa was known for his outrageous mixes of music. He combed New York for vinyl, buying anything he thought he could incorporate into his mixes: funk, jazz, rock, even some of the new electronic sounds out of Europe.
By 1980, Herc was no longer DJing, but Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were becoming successful and Bamabaataa was on the verge of creating a new genre, techno, with Arthur Baker. DJs were teaming up with rappers to cut records of their own, putting them and the turntable on the map.