Good for: Ages 13 and up.
Estimated Time: You need about 12 minutes to watch the videos, but give yourself extra time to read the information here, learn more, try some activities, and discuss ideas with friends and classmates.
Key Technology:You can watch these videos here, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes.
Subscribe to this video series:
In this podcast series, turntablist Kuttin Kandi, one of the best battle DJs in the game, demonstrates the basics of her instrument.
Episode 1: Drop it on the One
While every DJ adapts their setup for their own unique needs, Kandi’s demo uses the same basic setup that 95% of all DJs use. The two turntables attached to the mixer allow the DJ to create transitions from one record to another. Each turntable is connected to a channel at the rear of the mixer, and these channels are controlled by the levels at the center of the mixer immediately above the fader.
The levels control the amount of gain (or sound) that comes from the turntable assigned to that channel, and the other nobs on the mixer allow the DJ to adjust the EQ (or equalizer), which alters the tone of the sound coming out of the mixer. Think of it as helping you bring out the highs and lows.
Some DJs like to use the same hand for the turntables and the same hand for the mixer instead of switching back and forth. Doing so would require a different setup. Notice how Kandi switches her hands as she moves from one turntable to the other. It’s really a matter of comfort or preference, but just imagine what the setup would look like if the turntables were right next to each other with the mixer on the end.
When Kandi talks about “the clock,” she’s really talking about the place where the needle sits on the record. The needle is the part of the turntable at the end of the arm that actually rests in the groove and transmits the sound from the vinyl.
Many DJs—including Kandi—use dots to know how far into the record, or which groove the needle has to be in, to know where to find the sound she is looking for. If she dropped the needle in the wrong groove, she wouldn’t hear the sound she was looking for. Learning where to drop your needle is a very important skill.
Now that she knows “where” to find the sound on the record, she can “cue it up” by pulling the record back and forth to make sure she knows where the sound begins. Once she lets it go, she has to backspin it the same number of rotations to get it back to the beginning of the sound.
The most important part of the DJ’s job is keeping the needle steady, which means you have to hold the record in a way that doesn’t make the needle skip. The needle has to stay in the groove or you might scratch the record. And keeping the needle in the groove requires the right “touch.” So a DJ has to practice and be flexible enough to hold each vinyl record with the same consistency, regardless of its weight and the groove’s width.
High quality equipment may help you become a better DJ, but nothing beats having the right “touch.”
Episode 2: Scratching
Kandi introduces “the scratch,” a move where you pull the record back and forth while the needle is on the record. But scratching is as much about rhythm and style as it is about technique.
For beginners to DJing, it’s important to develop hand-eye coordination to accurately select the parts of the scratch you want people to hear. The dexterity of your hand on the fader is just as important as the dexterity of the hand on the record. The beauty of scratching is in the way the two hands work together.
Most DJs today prefer to use the fader when scratching. When Hip-Hop first started, some mixers didn’t have faders, so the DJ would use the channel gain or line-in switch. DJ Jazzy Jeff made history when he started Transforming, a new type of scratching. It was considered an innovation because he was able to use the line-in switch to select the parts of the scratch he wanted people to hear at a quicker pace than other DJs could do using the fader.
Episode 3: Looping and Sampling
When DJ Cool Herc spun, he noticed that the audience would respond when “the break” part of the record was being played. The “break” is the section of a song where all instruments except the percussion disappears. Over time, Hip-Hop DJs learned to extend the break using the mixer to create seamless and continuous loops. As rappers became featured artists, it was the DJ’s job to keep the beat (or the break) steady, so that the rappers could rap to the beat, do their routines, or recite full verses without interruption.
DJing has continued to evolve, and most recently, audio and consumer electronics companies have developed digital interfaces that allow the DJ to manipulate MP3s using a traditional turntable and a digitally encoded vinyl record.
During this episode, Kandi explains the difference between analog and digital DJing. While there is something to be said for the convenience and portability of having your record collection on your computer, a great number of DJs still enjoy and even prefer the warmness of sound that comes from vinyl. The decision is up to the individual DJ, and it doesn’t matter which you pick, as long as you start scratching!
DJ is short for “disc jockey.” Some people spell it out “D-e-e-j-a-y,” but any way you spell it, it should always be pronounced: D-J.
Back in the day, the DJ didn’t just play records. He was the leader, the master drummer, and the center of attention. He was a scholar, a researcher and a historian; the technical engineer, a master craftsman, and some might even say, a magician with a bag of tricks.
Research some of the more well-known early DJs—Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Lovebug Starski, June Bug, Eddie Cheba, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, Sequence, and The Sugar Hill Gang. How did they fulfill some of these roles? What do they have in common with modern DJs?
While the role of the DJ has grown over time, the basic setup—a mixer between two or more “wheels of steel”—remains the way DJs perform their craft. Consider ways that making music this way has changed—whether due to the move from records to MP3s, or from turntables to computer apps.
The 5th Element
Afrika Bambaataa, the founder of the Zulu Nation, was one of the first DJs to bring Hip-Hop music from places like the Bronx River Housing Projects to clubs like Danceteria. DJ Afrika Islam, also a member of the Zulu Nation, was one of the first Hip-Hop DJs to have a Hip-Hop radio show. Dive into the history—and ongoing impact—of the Zulu Nation on Hip Hop Culture.
The Emergence of the Hip-Hop DJ
Reggae, Dub, and Dancehall music are famous for their PA systems: amplifiers, speakers, and microphones. DJs from the Caribbean would use their PA systems to play music in the street and “sound clashes” would pit opposing sound systems against each other. The winners would earn local fame and the chance to play their selections on the radio. This Caribbean musical tradition migrated to the States in the early 1970s with its people.
As Disco was declared dead, and the New York City dance scene began to fade, there was more room for fresh energy in the club. New dance music like house, garage, techno, and Hip-Hop came along to fill the void; and even though they each had their distinct audiences, they were all reincarnations of the Disco DJ.
Hip-Hop DJs played music in the streets just like they did in the Caribbean, but here in the States they were called “jams.” A jam could happen in a community center, a schoolyard, or a park anywhere in the greater New York City area from the late 70s to the early 80s. Flyers and “word of mouth” were the primary means for getting people out to the jams, but cassette recordings of these jams became the advertising arm of Hip-Hop. Cassette tapes were sold on the street for $5 a pop, and it’s because of these tapes that local crews and DJs were able to become famous all over the city.
Hip-Hop DJs emerged as the perfect marriage between the sound systems of the Caribbean playing “jams in the park” and the Disco DJ who knew his way around the club scene and learned to turn his passion for playing music into a profession.
Places like The Disco Fever, whose name harkens back to the days of Disco, was a Hip-Hop club located in the South Bronx. On any given night you might see hanging out or performing. With the popularity of clubs like “The Fever,” Harlem World, The T-Connection, as well as others like Negril, Hip-Hop would soon be welcomed in some of the most famous clubs in New York City: The Copacabana, Studio 54, and The Roxy.
Resources to explore:
Chang, Jeff (2005). Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Picador, ISBN 0-312-42579-1.
For the Educator
The DJ advanced the status of recorded music from a process of recording “live” music to the business of “making records,” which were promotional products made specifically for DJs. The DJ’s promotional muscle was a major factor in the creation of the modern music industry, the broadcast advertising industry; and in the early days, DJs were key in fostering an understanding between different races and cultures.
The history of the DJ traces all the way back to the famous inventor Thomas Edison, who created the cylinder phonograph in 1877, and Emil Berliner, who gave us the flat-disc gramophone in 1887.
However, it wasn’t until the advent of the electron tube, which gave birth to radio, that people could harness the power to play recordings over the airwaves. Reginald A. Fessenden, an American engineer who worked with Edison, was one of the first people to transmit radio waves overseas in 1906.
Lee DeForest is often considered to be the “father of radio” for his invention of the triode, which made broadcasting possible; and some consider him to be the first DJ because he played a recording of the “William Tell Overture” from his laboratory in the Parker Building in 1907. Charles “Doc” Herrold considered himself the first person to realize the entertainment value of radio in 1909. He gave all of his neighbors radio sets so they could receive the music and interviews he broadcasted.
Dr. Elman B. Meyers started broadcasting an 18-hour program that was mostly records in 1911, and Sybill True, the world’s first recorded female DJ, went on the air in 1914 with a show she called “The Little Ham Program.” She borrowed records from the local music store and concentrated on young people’s music in an attempt to encourage youthful interest in the possibilities of radio. Her program had a noticeable effect on the music stores’ record sales.
Britain gets the credit for giving birth to the first syndicated radio DJ in 1927 on the BBC. As the progenitor of the trade, Christopher Stone was the first to ad lib his introduction, and he developed a conversational, almost chatty style of interacting with the audience as he spun American and American-influenced Jazz music.
Almost immediately, the presence of records on the radio aroused opposition. In 1927, the Department of Commerce was granting preferential licenses to stations that didn’t use recorded music. They claimed it was of inferior quality, and it was ruled unnecessary by the Federal Radio Commission. But during the Depression, the use of records increased because stations like NBC and CBS couldn’t afford to broadcast live music all day long.