#DecipherIt – Role of Hip Hop DJs

Namaste! How is the COVID-19 Lockdown treating y’all? Not like we enjoy being caged, but hope y’all keeping yourself productive and healthy. Using this time wisely would help us get through. Be in knowledge, be the Observer. Talking bout so, you can always spend some time reading through our blogs and know more about the community. One such topic is Role of Hip Hop DJs in a jam and in the community. Before getting straight to the point, do revise the history of DJin’/Turntablism in our earlier blog here. Now we shall be seeing today’s chapter about Hip Hop DJs and their role, limb by limb.

Let’s put the record on baby…..

Who is a DJ?

A DJ(disc jockey) is the one who mixes, cuts, scratches, samples the existing records according to the crowd. Nothing more or nothing less. A disc jockey uses discs/records for making music. Though the defination has changed throughout the years as the technology transformed from analog to digital. Thus according to their purpose, there are different types of DJs like Radio DJs, Club DJS, Resident Djs, Mobile DJs, Scratch DJs and many more. To know more of the types, visit this link.

A Hip Hop DJ is also known as a Scratch DJ or a Turntablist. They use equipments like the DJ mixer with a crossfader and two turntables on which the vinyl records are spinned. Unlike the other types of disc jockeys, turntablists are mainly known for their scratching which was an accidental invention of Grand Wizzard Theodore.

Originally the term “turntablist” was coined by the DJ Disk of Invisibl Scratch Piklz (an American DJ crew). Though it received its popularity in 1975 by DJ Babu of Beat Junkies (a Californian DJ crew). He used the term in order to differentiate a Hip Hop DJ from the other kinds. Although, who coined this term is widely argued.

Keeping aside this argument, the term turntablist seems precise for Hip Hop DJs as their artistic practices included the use of turntables, records, stylus, turntable speed controls and a mixer. All the sounds were produced by physical manipulation of the above. Since then, the term and art flourished.

Turntablism

Y’all have an image of turntablist in your head, right? But do you exactly know what runs down in Turntablism? Sure there are many techniques, inventors and improvisations from the history till date. But knowing the foundation is the golden rule of DecipherTheStreets.

Since the invention of phonograph, there have been several improvements in this circular rotating platform called the turntable. Hip Hop DJs prefer the direct-drive turntables over the belt-drive turntables. The belt-drive turntables were initially used but due to it’s slow start up they suffer a lot of wear and tear. The belt would often break due to the scratching and backspinning. These direct-drive turntables used a motor to directly drive the vinyl-resting platter instead of the belt.

The first direct-drive turntable was made by a Panasonic(earlier known as Matsushita) engineer, Shuichi Obata. Technics was their brand name for audio equpment series. In the year of 1969, they released the first model SP-10. With strong motor, fidelity and durability, they again released the next model Technics SL-1100 which was then adopted by the Hip Hop DJs. DJ Kool Herc used this for originating his signature “breakbeat” technique. He used to extend the breaks in a song, play two copies of the same record and switch b/w the two to make a loop of these breaks. These were called the Breakbeats.

Herbie Hancock’s Rockit

Later with the release of the long-lasting and popular Technics SL-1200, Grand Wizzard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash adopted it to invent more techniques of scratching. They realised that the record would keep rotating at the same RPM(rate per minute) even if they moved it back and forth. Grandmaster Flash is the creattor of the quick mix theory as well. Grand Mixer DXT aka Grandmaster DST also contributed to this art by rhythmically scratching a record on one or more turntables at different velocities(speeds) to alter the pitch. He was a kicking the real musicians off their own turfs. His insane scratching in Herbie Hancock’s 1983 hit song “Rockithas influenced many known Hip Hop DJs.

Not being on the front, yet DXT’s skills made the people rock. DJs watching him live and on TV were itching to get their hands on the discs. I think just talking wouldn’t justify it, so do the watching now. The movie flips you to no end. You just want to travel back to that era.

Scratch: The Movie by Doug Pray

Wasn’t that movie rocking you off the chair?

DJ Jazzy Jeff in the comic book Hip Hop Family Tree

Now back to the topic. During the early 1990s, Steve Dee of X-ecutioners(a DJ crew from New York) introduced beat juggling. It was an intricate technique for making new patterns out of existing drum patterns via mixer. Scratch drumming and chopped ‘n’ screwed(introduced by DJ Screw, Texas) was evolving alongside as well. Various scratching techniques like crab, flare, chopped, tear, transform, orbit, chirp, stab emerged anew. Flare was invented by DJ Flare, transform and chirp by DJ Jazzy Jeff and crab by DJ Qbert. Click here to know more.

Decline in the role of scratch DJs

Without a doubt, music in Hip Hop was evolving but somehow with the technology breeding around DJing was seen disappearing. DJs and Emcees were always a pair; the turntablist used to scratch and the rapper would feel the music and spit rhymes to it. But the increasing studio techniques conveniently replaced the DJs. The art of Djin’s was pushed underground and producers took the side of the rappers. Production happened for the good but DJing went underground. The backbone of Hip Hop weakened. It’s kinda harsh, but true.

DJ A-trak killin’ at DMC 1997

With God’s grace and all the DJing community efforts, the art of DJin did not die out due all of this. DMC World DJ Championship sponsored by Technics and Ortofon were taking place since 1986. Talented DJs kept battling and showcasing year after year, raising the bars higher.

Return of the DJ – Vol. 1

A few years later, many Hip Hop DJs like DJ Qbert, Cut Chemist, DJ Z-Trip, Beat Junkies, DJ Babu, Mixmaster Mike and crews together decided to make a comeback into their careers with the first ever all dj/all scratching (turntablist) album. It became a series of 6 albums called Return of the DJ – The Bomb D.J.’s. Y’all must digg into these volumes. Too dope!

Some odd myths!

After years of gap from the people seeing the DJs alongwith rappers led the common people and even the community people to be fogged with the idea of DJing. With breaking flourishing its own way and rappers being the mainstream faces, the music produced was mostly studio-made than scratched. Though DJs maintained the artform, the once-loved turntablism seemed to be replaced by music production. Jams missed the raw vibes that people felt in the block parties or park jams then. And that’s where I think, newer generations considered produced beats, breakbeats and raps being the whole Hip Hop music. It might not be the scene all over the world, but in my country it does feel so. It might sound brutal and maybe offensive, but do consider my apologies for so. We need scratch DJs more than breakbeat DJs.

Evolution of any artform is essential however turntablism is the base of Hip Hop culture. If DJin’ isn’t looked after then consequently Hip Hop would lose it’s essence of peace, love, unity and having fun. Don’t y’all think so?

There are some odd notions go around, like –

DJs and Producers
  • A producer can DJ and a DJ can produce – Actually I think that totally depends on the individual’s interest. He may or may not produce but only DJ and viceversa. To be precise, in a Hip Hop jam it has be a DJ with the Emcee who set the vibe and the others append and rock to it. It just can’t be a producer with the emcee and be called a Hip Hop Jam. Just saying, no offense to the anyone. Both DJs and producers put in the same amount of work in whatever they do. They can’t swap places or be compared. Both deserve respect.
  • The person with headphones, tracks playlist and laptop is a DJ – Duh! Headphones and laptops cannot make one a Hip Hop DJ. A DJ with no turntables, no great digging skills, no good ear for music and a stagnant music collection isn’t the real deal babies. I mean, the turntables are costly in various places including India and laptops nowadays give you a quick access to learning through tools. However to learn the real Turntablism, you need to know how it feels to spin the tables. So it is essential for rookies to switch from laptops to the turntables in due course.
DJ Shadow – God of Crate Digging
  • A breaking jam has to be only be about breabeats – Nooooooo! A breaker definitely loves dancing to breakbeats but that isn’t the only thing. Remember all these breaks were a part of vintage records which we are yet not aware about. DJs gotta dig and breakers as well. Turntablists like DJ Shadow, DJ Jazzy Jay, Cut Chemist, Afrika Bambaata and infact all from that era were record diggers. No kidding, they used to go for vinyl shopping. Mixmaster Mike was fond of other genres of music as well. And that’s the kind of shit that makes you groove and rock. So get that kinda vibes to the jams and battles than just breakbeats. Take the Art of Diggin’ seriously! Build your own music libraries.

I am sure after watching that movie Scratch y’all must have learnt about the real ways of Hip Hop DJs. If you still haven’t watched it then you must. There is lot to learn and share in there not just for a DJ but for every Hip Hop head. That movie is a literal guide to who is DJ and what he does to the people around him. I could feel every ounce!

Role of a DJ in a Hip Hop Jam and community

Hush! Finally on to the main topic now. The whole idea of all this exploring was to explain how much DJing matters to all the elements. It’s like I mentioned in the earlier DJing blog – No DJ, no Hip Hop.

Just like this picture, turntablism engulfs all Hip Hop

Simply say if we remove Air from the nature’s five fundamental elements, none of them would work as they must. Fire won’t burn, nothing would move in the vast Sky, Water won’t rain and Earth won’t give birth to anything. DJin’ holds the same place in Hip Hop. Hip Hop DJs are the core of the jam and community. They keep things fresh by scratching and digging the vintage. Yet in jams we choose to pay less attention to them. All the same we don’t know how much efforts are put into it. If you wanna grow the scene, then first educate yourself and it to consider every element equally. Second, dig far into DJing so that you build a good foundation to pass it on to the next generations. So that they are not left unaware of this very important element of Hip Hop.

Breakers, graffiti writers, skate boarders and all the other street artforms who feel connected to Hip Hop deserve great party-making spritual creatures called the DJs. Respect to all the real DJs out there! Big ups to all the sisters and mothers, brothers and fathers for taking care of us. Happy Deciphering!

See ya. Peace 🙂

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7 thoughts on “#DecipherIt – Role of Hip Hop DJs

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