Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice

DJing: The Artist at the Turntable

The magic behind the beat


DJ-Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of DJing—Hip-Hop’s music style include:

back spinning turntable technique that quickly “rewinds” a section of a recording
beat juggling manipulating two or more recordings to create a unique musical arrangement
beat matching following a song with another that uses an identical or similar rhythm
break, or breakbeat instrumental section of a song that emphasizes percussion and rhythm
cue positioning a recording to play at a specific point
DJ short for “disc jockey,” a person who plays recorded music for an audience
drum machine, or beat box electronic device used by DJs to synthesize drum beats
looping replaying a section of a song to extend it
sampling lifting a section of a recording and using it in a different number or recording
scratching technique of physically manipulating a recording to create a unique effect
turntablism live and extensive manipulation of recordings to create a unique song

DJs are the soul behind the beat that pleases, surprises, and puts people on the dance floor. The best DJs have an almost mystical sense of mood at a party or club. They sense the right moment to cue the right song using the right technique to take the party where it’s ready to go. It is that insight, a passionate knowledge of music, and technical know-how that make DJing one of the pillars of Hip-Hop culture.

Working the Sound System

A DJ’s sound system is a laboratory for making music magic. Twin turntables are standard, allowing the DJ to switch easily between songs, or spin and manipulate records in tandem to create effects or unique musical combinations. The turntables are wired to a receiver, amplifier, and earthquake-causing speakers. The DJ may use headphones to cue up the next song or song segment as the current music plays. Then he or she uses a mixer, or fader, to make transitions from one turntable to the other—hopefully without missing a beat. Today’s DJs often incorporate digitized and computerized components, as well. But most Hip-Hop purists frown on DJs who button-push preprogrammed playlists. Hip-Hop culture saves its greatest praise for inspired improvisation.

Before the rise of Hip-Hop, the DJ’s basic role was relatively simple—spin records at a party, club, or on the radio. DJ Kool Herc’s keen observations changed that game. He noticed the energy on the dance floor went off the charts during the “breaks” of songs. Breaks are the instrumental sections in many pop and rhythm & blues numbers that highlight percussion and rhythm.

Herc experimented with methods to extend these sections by playing the same record on both turntables, a technique refined by fellow pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash. With needle-fine timing, they switched back and forth between the turntables to multiply the break. Crowds, especially dancing b-boys and b-girls, couldn’t get enough. Since the beginning, Hip-Hop DJs have been instrumental in channeling youthful energy away from trouble and toward creative fun.

Good DJs constantly explore ways to pleasantly shock their audiences. They may give people the songs they expect, planning out smooth transitions by matching beats and musical keys from one number to the next. They also innovate by listening for songs within songs, lifting and linking snippets to take the music somewhere new.

In the never-ending quest to distinguish their mix, DJs often haunt used-record stores. They are on the prowl for long-lost songs or sounds they can make new again through the magic of Hip-Hop. Legendary DJ and all-around Hip-Hop luminary Afrika Bambaataa is famous for creating sets that spin from the Pink Panther theme to Kraftwerk to calypso to speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. All that is good from the past and present has a place at the Hip-Hop turntable.

Scratching and Turntablism

As part of the Hip-Hop style of life, DJs are constantly experimenting to set themselves apart from competition. One technique DJs embraced is scratching. To scratch, the DJ physically manipulates the record beneath the needle. Grand Wizzard Theodore stumbled on the technique in the mid-70s. He was a young teen blasting his music when his mom scolded him to turn it down. He fumbled the needle, liked the effect, practiced it, and began using it in shows. Other DJs quickly added scratching to their repertoire as a way to inject more personal style into the music flow.

More recently, turntablism has become an astounding source of new style. It involves extensive real-time sampling from spinning records to create something funky and fresh. Watching an experienced turntablist create in real time is an awe-inspiring experience.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Image via Creative Commons; flickr.com user Fora do Eixo

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