Know Your History: Episode 3 part 2 – The DJ

Welcome to Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. This is the place where we get to celebrate all that is the rich, cultural history of hip-hop. This is Part 2 of the transcript of this month’s show. The show is aired on 93.3 CFMU in Hamilton, Ontario and it just one segment of DOPEfm. You can download the podcast of this show for free and listen along as you read.

If you missed Part 1, go read it here. Without further ado, here is Part 2.

Let’s take it back. Back to the defining moment when the DJ created what is hip-hop. It’s hard to define the exact time that hip-hop was created. There are so many influences that came together to form the culture and many of them far predate hip-hop.

So where did it come from?

It was born out of dancing and the love of music. DJs began to play parties and realized that partygoers liked dancing to the breakdown of the record. A break is a part of the song where there is no singing and the rhythm is stripped down to a simple drum pattern and some backup sounds or instruments.

DJs soon learned that they could use two record players playing the same song in order to prolong the break. As soon as the break ended on one record, the DJ would time it so that it would immediately play again on the second record. This way, the DJ could extend a 30 second break indefinitely. Thus, break dancing was born.

I want to show you a little bit about how that works. I’m going to play a song by James Brown called “The Funky Drummer” and I’ll point out where the break is. You’ll probably recognize that you’ve actually heard this break in quite a few rap songs. It’s probably the most sampled break in hip-hop so here it is, listen to it, and I’m gonna break it down for you.

You will have to listen to the podcast since I can’t really point out the break here in this transcript. But here’s the song nonetheless if you want to try to find the break beat yourself.

Notice how the song played for quite a long time until we came up to that break. Also notice that he talked over it so really it wasn’t a 30 second break. It was really about 10 seconds. So what DJs would have two copies of that record and they’d let that really dope drum solo play for ten seconds. They’d have it set up on the other turntable and they’d then let that play for ten seconds right after and they’d keep going back and forth between the two records.

So deejays using turntables used to do what we do with samplers now. Now I could just take that loop, put it right into my computer, and have it keep playing over and over again. But back in the days when hip-hop started as a culture, we didn’t have the technology to do that. So deejays just being ingenious figured out that two records could do the same thing. Amazing, amazing, amazing stuff. I can’t say that enough.

So let’s go back in time right now and talk about when hip-hop was born. For all intents and purposes, the godfather of hip-hop culture is a man known as DJ Kool Herc. His real name is Clive Campbell and he was originally from Jamaica but he came to settle in The Bronx borough of New York City.

Now here’s where the legend begins.

He held a block party in 1973 that is considered to be the birth of hip-hop culture.

Why? What was so special about this point in time?

Like I said before, a lot of things about hip-hop predated this time. But this is when the culture began to solidify and form. What he did is set up his turntables outside and invited everyone to come party with him. It was a block party; it wasn’t a club party. You didn’t have to pay to go there. It was a poor community. Not everyone couldn’t afford to go to the clubs, so he brought the music to them. Historic address, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue.

He played the breaks of the records and extended them when he realized that that was the part of the music that people liked dancing to the best. So that really was the birth of hip-hop culture right there. He also took it a step further and introduced a reggae style known as toasting. Toasting is when a deejay would speak in short pithy rhymes just to hype up the crowd.

So from these humble beginnings, hip-hop was born. DJs would play records, get the crowd dancing, and talk a little bit. DJ Kool Herc wasn’t the only DJ who was doing this though. Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Master Flash quickly became legends. They all wanted to improve their DJ skills, and soon they employed emcees to help them. You have to remember, at his point that MCs didn’t exist. The culture was just beginning to take shape and it all started with the DJ.

Another DJ that we need to mention here is Grand Wizard Theodore. In 1975, he is credited with inventing the scratch. The story goes that he was praticising deejaying, doing a set in his basement and his mom yelled at him. He didn’t want to lose his place so he put his hand on the record to stop it so he could hear her and it made an interesting sound. He then experimented with that some more and he cut the record back and forth, moving the record with his hand so that he record when back and forth and back and forth against the needle. That gave us that duffa-duffa sound.

So right there, we have all the elements we need. We have deejays playing music, speaking in rhyme, and we’ve got the scratching musical element of turntablism starting to take effect. Now this is a lot to cover in one half hour segment, to talk about what encompasses all that a DJ does and their importance in hip-hop culture. But the last point we really need to make in this show is that the turntable itself became an instrument. What DJs can do with it is incredible. Grand Wizard Theodore kicked it off with the scratch and just cutting the record back and forth. But then we had mixers and all these different things that could really manipulate the sounds on the record. So you can actually use a record player as an instrument.

This kind of started with a DJ mixing championship, which is the DMC. DMC, again, started as just a mixing championship but now it’s become the birth of turntablism, where DJs just use the record players as instruments and it’s not so much just mixing any more.

I want to play something for you. This is Rob Swift. It’s off his new album called “The Architect” where he takes classical music and does some amazing things with it. This is an album that needs to be listened to straight through and in order because it’s been purposely designed and put together using sounds from a turntable to create something brand new. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

Once again, this is an art. DJs are artistic. DJs put together sounds purposely to make something new. They take a break form a record that is well known and play it over and over again. Or they can use different sounds and scratch to put together beautiful sonic landscapes. So we’re really going to have to touch on this some more in a further episode of Know Your History.

This is Rob Swift, who used to be in a group called X-ecutioners and this song is called “Rabia Second Movement.” Enjoy!

Wow, that’s all I can say there. Rob Swift, nice job! That just goes to show you what deejays are capable of doing. Not only can we take a break and extend it however infinitely long we want to get people to dance and have a good time. Not only can a DJ speak in rhymes to hype up the crowd. But a DJ can take a turntable and use it as an instrument to create sonic landscapes and amazing things.

We really have to credit some amazing DJs here. To reiterate, Kool Herc birthed hip-hop culture when he started playing his block parties in the early 1970s. Grand Wizard Theodore is credited with creating the scratch. And then we had the DMC, the disco mix championships which elevated turntablism and turned it into a complete art unto itself.

What we really need to give credit to is that deejays just create something out of nothing, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. I mean, hip-hop culture started with somebody playing a record, realizing that people like to dance to the break of that record, then hooking up a second turntable so he could let the break play on one record and then have another record playing on a second turntable to let that break play and just keep going back and forth to extend the break. And then with Grand Wizard Theodore inventing the scratch and bringing that in made the turntable an actual instrument to manipulate all sort of different sounds with. Pretty impressive.

That’s what we are trying to do here with Know Your History. We are celebrating this rich cultural landscape that is hip-hop. I hope you have been enjoying the series so far and I hope you’re going to continue to tune in because we are going to bring you the hip-hop knowledge each and every month here. My name is Chase March and you better know your history.

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