DJ Culture, a Form of Musical Expression Born of Technology, Part 1

18 Dec 2014

For the first half of the 20th century, the idea of paying for the privilege of hearing someone play records for an audience wasn’t all that appealing. 

But beginning in 1943, Englishman Jimmy Savile began playing 78 RPM records in men’s clubs in the UK using a homemade sound system.  Because so many musicians had been sent to war, Jimmy’s act was considered to be an acceptable substitute.

As Savile’s reputation was spreading in the UK, the French invented the word discotheque, deriving it from bibliotheque, the word for library.  The first discotheque was in the port city of Marseille.  Sailors stored their music collections in the back rooms of cafes while they were out to see.  When they returned home, they’d spend hours either playing these records or listening to others play theirs in the same cafes.

The first venue to formally use the word was La Discotheque, a venue on rue Hutchette in Paris.  Again, because musicians were in short supply because of the war, there were no bands for people to go see.  People flocked to La Discotheque mainly to hear American jazz music.  When the war ended, so did the practice of listening to someone play records in public.

In North America, the concept of the school “sock hop” caught on.  Dances were hosted by local radio DJs playing new 45 RPM records through a sound system.

By the 1960s, the idea of listening to pre-recorded music in British clubs had taken a strong hold because of the tightly controlled radio industry.  In a nation producing the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks, it was nearly impossible to hear this music on the BBC.  Rock fans turned to pirate and offshore radio stations and flocked to clubs where they could hear the latest new music.

In 1965, DJ Terry Noel presided over a hot New York club called Arthur.  As far as anyone can tell, he was the first DJ to mix records into long continuous sets of music.  He was so successful that he spawned imitators across the continent.

Meanwhile, DJs were a major part of the culture in Jamaica.  Armed with giant sound systems, they travelled from party to party with special recordings that were stripped of vocals so they could rap (or “toast”) lyrical improvisations over the music.  DJs battled each other for toasting supremacy.

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