DJ Culture, a Form of Musical Expression Born of Technology, Part 2

20 Dec 2014

Club culture took off on a worldwide scale with the arrival of disco in about 1976, a sound that was born in the gay community of New York City. 

Disco’s first DJ star was Francis Gasso, who was perhaps the first person to present beat-mixing to audiences.  This technique had been made much easier with the introduction of the Technics SL-1200 turntable, which became the global standard for DJs.

As club culture developed, DJing developed more and more into an art.  Studying what made people dance, DJs were led into areas of remixing, programming, extending, adjusting and otherwise manipulating the sound of the original recording.  If, for example, a DJ noticed that particular passage of a song was popular with dancers, he might take that section and extend it by editing the same passage together again and again.  At first, these extended versions were played to the crowd on reel-to-reel tape but later pressed onto special edition vinyl.

Tom Moulton, another New York DJ, was one of the first to custom-press his new creations onto vinyl.  He started with 7-inch records but moved to 12-inch when he realized that larger-diameter records could hold deeper and wider grooves which allowed the recording to be louder and with deeper bass.  History records that the world’s 12-inch single was “So Much for Love” by Moment of Truth.

While disco was happening in the clubs, rap and hip hop was being born on the streets of New York.  DJs with a turntable and fast hands grabbed beats off a record while rapping their own rhymes over top.  MCs and DJs competed to see who had the best beats and the best rhymes.  Out of this culture came acts like Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC.

Technology made rap and hip hop possible.  This music lives in the world of sound, not just music.  And because sound can come from anywhere, the sonic possibilities of hip hop were much different (and often much broader) than with traditional rock.  Playing with notes wasn’t nearly as important as playing with sounds.

Another spawn of technology is techno, percussion-based electronic dance music focused on beats and baselines using synthesizers, drum machines and samplers.  Rising from a small scene in Detroit in the early 80s, techno spread, morphed and mutated into a variety of different flavors and genres.  Filtered through the House of Chicago, it became deeply entrenched in the UK by the middle 80s, evolving into rave culture which over the years has spun off literally dozens subgenres such as trance, jungle, dubstep, trip hop, drum and bass, gabber and Hi-NRG.

As far as anyone can tell, the first reference to this music as “techno” seems to be a track called “Techno City” by Cybotron from 1984.

Turntablism (a term coined by DJ Babu in 1995) goes mainstream thanks to the growing influence of DJ culture.  Performers create new sounds using turntables and a DJ mixer.  The art form grew out of a renewed interest in hip hop-styling DJing in the 1990s.  Turntablists use techniques like scratching, beat mixing and beat juggling.  At one point in the 90s, turntables outsold guitars.

Today, DJ culture has exploded with the rise of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), a global phenomenon where star DJs can make $25 million a year or more.

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