A Brief History of Hip-Hop Part 9 – The Turntable as an Instrument

Read The Introduction, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Hip-hop started with the DJ. This is a point that I cannot emphasize enough. From the very first block parties, DJs used record players in very creative ways. They didn’t merely play a record for people to dance to. They mixed up two copies of a record to extend the break. The used a mixer to make this switch between records seamless.

In 1975 Grand Wizard Theodore invented the scratch. The legend goes that his mom yelled at him and he accidentally put his hand on the record and stopped it from spinning to hear her. The sound intrigued him and he experimented with moving the record back and forth to create a scratch sound.

Scratching didn’t get captured on record until the 1981 release of Grand Master Flash’s “The Adventures of Grand Master Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” This release helped to solidify the turntable as an instrument and gave us a new way to describe it. DJ equipment is still often referred to as wheels of steel.

In order to scratch a record all you really need is a record player and a record. The turntable spins the record while the needle reads the music on it and sends it up the arm to the receiver. Stopping the record in mid-spin produces a sound that is like a musical note. Like any instrument, you can use a turntable to get all sorts of different notes and pitches by manipulating the sound that is on the record.

There are a few ways to manipulate the sound on the record. The first is by cutting the record back and forth at different speeds. It is important when doing this not to let the needle leave the groove of the record. This way we are working with one sound that is on the record and we are basically playing it forwards and backwards rapidly. This gives us a duffa-duffa-duffa sound. The sound drastically changes depending on what sound you are scratching on. For example, a snare drum will sound a lot different than a kick drum.

If you hook up a mixer to the turntable you can rapidly cut off the sound of the record whenever you want by moving the crossfader to the side. If you move the record rapidly and the crossfader rapidly at the same time, you can play just the forward bursts of the sound. If you move the record slowly back and forth and the crossfader quickly you get what is called a transformer scratch.

The turntable is a versatile instrument. DJs work hard learning tricks and creating montages of sounds that can be created into unique musical compositions. It is quite the show to see at DJ at work. It takes years of practice to get good at it and learn the basics. This makes it like any other instrument out there.

Next Up
PART 10 – The Production