Prior to Hip Hop, in 1857, Leon Scott invented the first device capable of recording sound. This new invention was called the phonautograph and is the primary catalyst behind the commercialization and recording of music. The term “disc jockey” (later shortened to DJ) entered the music lexicon in the 1930’s, and beyond that, it was Jimmy Savile who threw the first DJ led dance party in 1943. At the time it was all about jazz for Jimmy Savile, who also became the first to use a turntable so that the music could play, without pause, all night long.
While these inventions and events were taking place in the United States and England, the history unfolding in Kingston, Jamaica fostered the birth of Hip Hop. In the 1950’s Jamaica was in the midst of extreme political and economic turmoil, and the people needed an escape. Groups of DJ’s and sound engineers called Sound Systems put on parties, which played mostly Reggae or Ska music, as a way for people to enjoy themselves and temporarily forget their troubles. Here amongst the political warfare and parties of the Sound Systems, DJ Kool Herc was born.
Herc moved to the Bronx from Kingston at age 12 and grew up during a particularly difficult time in the area. The Bronx’s infrastructure was crumbling and just like Jamaica; the people needed a break from the bleakness of their neighborhood’s condition. Herc innovated how music could control the mood of the party by mixing two identical records together at the same time to extend the most rhythmic parts of the song. The “break” is the term Herc coined to describe the parts of the song that he felt truly got the people dancing and became the foundation from which Hip Hop grew.
After Herc had laid the foundation others began to further innovate his methods and Hip Hop flourished. Another legendary DJ who called himself Grand Wizzard Theodore made a significant discovery while practicing on a turntable in his room. In a way, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Theodore’s mother whose abrupt interruption caused his hand to stop a record and produce a sound now known as scratching.
Around the same time, Grandmaster Flash developed his Quick Mix Theory that allowed him full control over the turntable with a precision in his mixing that was completely unrivaled at the time. Flash received criticism early on because this new style had him putting his hands all over the records, potentially damaging or dirtying the needles and record discs. Some of the techniques Grandmaster Flash pioneered include cutting, back-spinning, and phasing.
- Cutting describes the way Flash would move between different parts of the songs so precisely to plan out what sounds the crowd would hear before they were audible.
- Back-spinning is simply repeating the same sound multiple times, giving the DJ an option to have more creative and structural input in the progression of the song.
- Phasing furthered this control by giving DJ’s the ability to increase or decrease the tempo of the music for a variety of effects on the audience.
What truly separated these Hip Hop pioneers from the DJ’s of the past was that they synthesized methods allowing the DJ to become an artist in their own right as opposed to only hitting play on a song made by someone else. Now the same song played by different DJ’s had the flexibility to sound entirely different from person to person. Partygoers could re-experience the same songs as an entirely new experience, and this facilitated an infinite amount of music options in each DJ’s arsenal. Each unique perspective and style translated differently to each crowd, helping take people out of their day-to-day struggles to create a sacred place of shelter from the harshness of the world.