When you think of DJing, what comes to mind? Headphones, turntables, speakers, lights and an energized crowd on the dance floor?
Naturally, all of these things are associated with DJs (just ask anyone who’s been to a nightclub). But, like many things, there’s more to DJing than meets the eye. The truth is that DJing has a very interesting (albeit lengthy) history. For example, did you know that the first DJ was only 16, and that the term “DJ” did not come about until the 1930s?
In this article, we explore the history of DJing and electronic music from its infancy in the late 19th/early 20th century all the way up until the present.
The Origins of Modern Day DJing
It may be hard to believe, but the truth is that DJing has its roots in the late 19th century.
In 1857, French printer and bookseller Leon Scott invented the phonoautograph, the first ever device to record sound. Scott was followed shortly thereafter by Thomas Edison, who invented the phonographic cylinder, which allowed for the playback of recorded sounds.
Strange as it may seem, some people actually consider Edison to be the first ever DJ. He certainly didn’t play at parties the way we think of them today, but his invention of the phonographic cylinder was a major step forward for DJs everywhere.
Phonographs that were made after Edison’s were eventually mass produced, which became the first time in recorded history that people could buy and own recorded music. Before this, if you wanted to hear music, you would either have to play it for yourself or go listen to someone play it live.
The next breakthrough for DJs came in 1906 in Stockton, California. 16-year-old Ray Newby became the first person to ever play a song over radio (it was not radio as we think of it today, but rather a small transmitter with short range). In 1909, Ray Newby began playing records from his transmitter, thus cementing his place in history as the first ever radio disc-jockey.
By 1910, radio broadcasting was a part of everyday life, and consisted of dramas, comedies, news and some music. Those who broadcasted music were known as “record men”, not disc-jockeys. The term disc-jockey was not heard until 1935. It referred to radio announcer
Martin Block, who hosted a radio show called “Make Believe Ballroom”. Block pretended to broadcast from a ballroom and would play all the new and popular dance songs.
1943 was a big year for DJs, as it marked the first time a DJ moved from the radio to a live performance. British radio and TV personality Jimmy Savile hosted the BBC’s music chart show “Top of the Pops” and hosted the first ever DJ dance party in Otley, England, where he played jazz records for his guests.
Savile also claims he was the first person ever to use two record players to keep the music going. However, there is no evidence to suggest this is true.
The following years saw radio personalities making regular live appearances at social events such as dances and sock hops (informal sponsored dance events for teenagers in the mid-20th century). Radio DJS would often appear with bands, sometimes with only records, but other times with a combination of records and a drummer. The drummer would play while the DJ was changing out records. The first discotheque, Whiskey A Go-Go, opened in Paris in 1947, and several more opened in the US and Europe shortly thereafter.
The Rise of the Disco
An important movement in Kingston, Jamaica was taking place in the 1950s. Known as the Jamaican Sound Wars, various music personalities would build giant walls of speakers, put them on the backs of trucks and take them to parks and play.
Jamaicans referred to these “party entrepreneurs” as “sound systems”. The size and volume of the speakers were certainly important, but what really mattered was who had the newest and most popular songs.
Toasting was another unique component of these sound battles. Beat Media describes it best: “In Jamaica, the person playing the record is known as the “selector,” the person on the mic is not the emcee, but the DJ. So, in toasting, the selector would play tracks for the DJ to rhyme over. Toasting, is what would eventually help bring Hip Hop to life.”
In the 1950s, DJs would appear in person to host sock hops for kids all across the US, and discotheques continued to pop up all across the US and Europe. In 1969, a DJ by the name of Francis Grasso started to popularize beatmatching, cleverly mixing his songs so people wouldn’t have to stop dancing.
Towards the late 60s, however, the popularity of DJs in clubs began to decline, and as a result, DJing was moved to the streets.
The Turntables of the 1970’s
The 1970s was another important decade for the evolution of DJing. In 1971, electrical engineer and Holocaust survivor Alex Rosner built what was considered to be the first DJ mixer, thus giving DJs creative freedom over their music.
The development of the mixer also helped the disco scene grow during this time. DJs began to play regularly at nightclubs around the world and started to acquire followers and fans.
Hip-Hop really began to take off in the 1970s as well. Born out of gang violence in New York City during the 1960s, “B-Boy battles” slowly started to replace gang fights, and New York City became a hotspot for experimentation.
The DJ was at the center of these battles, and the first hip-hop DJ was DJ Kool Herc. Herc, also known as the “father of hip-hop” was of Jamaican descent and brought the concept of the Jamaican Sound Wars to the Bronx.
Herc would bring his sounds to parks and rec centers, and have parties where B-Boys would go to battle. Herc is credited with being the first to mix two records together at the same time, extending the parts of songs that he thought had the best beats; a technique known as “break”.
DJ Kool Herc was followed by big names such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, who developed new ways of spinning records. This was similar to the parties happening in the disco scene, but the big difference was that all the action was happening on the dance floor, rather than on stage.
These DJs would keep the party going by assuring the music would play constantly, by integrating one song into the next and looping the percussion breaks in the song (this is where the term ‘breakdancing’ comes from).
The DJs at these parties would often have emcees rhyme over the beats to pump up the crowd, similar to toasting in Jamaica. This is the beginning of hip-hop as we think of it today.
The 1970s was also the time that turntables started to become popular. DJs were not simply choosing songs and playing them, they were now artists and musicians who could modify tunes to create new and exciting sounds that people could listen to for hours on end. In addition, bands were created who made their music electronically from start to finish, which had never been done before. Hip-hop and electronic music came together to bring in the disco era of the 1970s. These new dance clubs replaced live acts with DJs, which opened the door for DJs to play their music all night long.
The 1970s was also the first time a DJ discovered the “scratching technique”, when a DJ manually moves the record up and down on the needle, altering the sound. It’s an interesting story, really. In 1975, hip-hop DJ Grand Wizard Theodore was practicing in his room, when his mother came in and asked him to turn the music down.
The story goes that as he put his hand on the record to stop it and moved it back and forth, he heard the sound it made in his headphones and became fascinated with it. He developed this technique and first showcased it in 1977. This paved the way for turntablism, which would eventually become a sub-genre of DJing in its own right.
A Decade of Growth: 1980s
As the title of this section suggests, the 80s were a time of great growth for DJs. Technological advancements gave DJs even more opportunities to enhance their creativity, and DJs also gained more publicity during this time. For instance, DJ mix shows became common on many radio stations in large markets, and the DMC competition came to fruition in the mid-80s in London.
The DMC is a turntable competition hosted in cities around the world, with regional and national champions, and culminates with a worldwide champion. DJs began to replace bands at weddings, sweet sixteens, and other celebratory events, and mixtapes also came about during this time.
Arguably the biggest change for DJs in the 80s, however, was the move from playing someone else’s music to producing their own songs. Several early hip-hop DJs produced their own songs, such as Afrika Bambaataa, Dr. Dre, Marley Marl and Eric B.
The 80s also saw the development of house music. In the early 80s, a new club called “The Warehouse” opened in Chicago, and the DJs who played there created a whole new sound. It came to be known as house music (after the club) and was inspired by disco and heavily electronic. The development of House Music is credited to Henry Knuckles, who many consider to be one of the greatest DJs of all time. House music is simple, with a 4/4 beat, lots of drums and samplers, and a heavy baseline. It was extremely popular when it first debuted and remains one of the most well-known genres of electronic dance music (EDM) today.
Detroit also created its own sound during this time, which we know today as straight-up techno. Techno differs from house music in that it is entirely electronic noise- it takes the disco element out of itself almost entirely. The Chicago House and Detroit Techno movements lead to house and techno music, which would eventually lead to what is known as EDM today.
Also, in 1985, the Winter Music Conference was established in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and soon became a paradise (of sorts) for DJs and styles of all kinds to gather, share techniques, and learn from one another. The conference is popular to this day, and with a week of ongoing parties that ends with the two-day Ultra Music Festival in Miami, it truly is one-of-a-kind. Be sure to attend if you’re thinking of becoming a DJ, or just want to learn more about music!
Publicity & Technology Galore: 1990s- Turn of the Century
The 90s saw rave come onto the scene, and acid house became the preferred genre of dance music. Acid house is similar to house music but focuses more on repetitive hooks and trance-like sounds. Rave was very popular in Europe, and its popularity helped elevate DJs to celebrity status.
The rave scene of the 90s also provided opportunities for DJs of several kinds. For instance, EDM DJs gained more publicity, which helped them become big stars that now headline festivals all over the world. However, DJs slowly began to disappear in hip-hop, as MCs began to take center stage. Some of these DJs continued to work on their skills and helped grow the turntablism movement, while others found their niche in new genres like rock.
Important advancements in technology came about during the 90s and helped DJs with their careers as well. Although tapes became obsolete, the term “mixtapes” was still in use, and several DJs, such as Clue, Drama, Kay Slay and Funkmaster Flex, were able to foster a career on their mixtapes alone.
CDs became common during this time, and in turn gave rise to the mp3 format of digital music. Internet radio first appeared in the 90s. Electronic music began to spill over into other genres as well, and it was common for rock bands to have their own DJ on the 1s and 2s.
In 1998, the software program Final Scratch was introduced. Although initially rejected, this program was revolutionary for DJs everywhere: it allowed DJs to modify songs in digital format on their turntables by way of time coded vinyls, which meant they would no longer have to carry crates of records to their shows. Naturally, it took some time for DJs to get used to the new technology, but Final Scratch was instrumental in paving the way for today’s era of digital music.
What it Is Today: The 2000s & Beyond
Like the 90s, the 2000s saw lots of technological advancements which gave DJs new opportunities for experimentation.
In 2004, a program called Serato Scratch hit the market, and has since become standard for turntable DJs who wish to mix their vinyl collection with their extensive mp3s, and in 2006, Serato Scratch introduced its own mixer to make the process even better.
It even comes with a plug-in that allows DJs to modify their music videos the same way they do their records.
These days, DJs don’t even need to work the old turntables anymore if they don’t want to, as many DJs play their music solely by mp3 files. It’s also common to see DJs use special electronic tables that are maneuvered the same way as real records, the only difference being that there isn’t anything on them.
Dance music continues to evolve as well. House music DJs play around with different filters and effects to create jarring, noisy beats, and mash-up is also becoming commonplace. This is where DJs blend two tracks together (usually the beat from one and the vocals from another) in order to create a catchy new sound. And with the release of the video game DJ Hero (which was a spin-off of the Guitar Hero series), it seems that DJing is expanding to all parts of life and will only continue to grow.
Beat Media offers a great take on DJ technology, and noted that despite these new technologies, the importance of DJs remains the same: “Technology has always been a driver in advancement for DJing, and it has never been more obvious as it is today. Today, aspiring DJs don’t need a huge collection of vinyl records in order to be competitive.
New software allows novice DJs to perfectly mix two songs together with little effort. Internet radio has made it possible for anyone with a broadband connection to broadcast their mixes.
However, in spite of all these advancements, the essence of the DJ has not changed.
DJs introduce us to our favorite songs. DJs play the first songs at our weddings. DJs create the party mood at parties everywhere. DJs play the soundtracks of your life. Respect the DJ.
What does the future hold for DJs? Based on trends of DJ experimentation, appearance of new sub-genres like house and techno and sharing of musical knowledge at events such as the Winter Music Conference, the future of DJing is very bright indeed; and it seems like we will get more new sounds, fresh beats, and enthusiastic DJs who will be excited to play and share their work with others.