“Every genre has its creation story – Hip Hop has the Genesis of Turntablism”
Beginning In the very early 1970s, New York party DJs came to understand that the short drum solos and instrumental sections that emphasize the drums or “breaks” from songs such as James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and The Winstons’ “Amen Brother (aka the Amen Break),” were popular with dance party audiences.
DJ Kool Herc, also known as the “Founder of Hip-Hop,”
began to isolate the break—and using the same two-turntable set-up of disco DJs and two identical records he would extend the ‘break’, resulting in what is known as ‘break-beat’ dance music and the rhythmic base for hip hop songs.
Adopting the two decks and a mixer set-up style from the downtown Disco scene, Herc played his first party. The location was the common room in the tower block his family lived in, and the occasion was a ‘back to school jam’ fundraiser for his little sister. Rather than the Disco of the day, Herc dug deeper into the hard Soul of James Brown and the funkier side of Rock of bands like Babe Ruth, which would go on to be the backbone taste of early B-Boy get-togethers.It’s at parties like these that he began to hone his famous ‘Merry-Go-Round’ technique – snatching and doubling the hypest sections of these beats for maximum carnage by using two copies of the same record.
Check out “The first hero of the hip hop groove” here as he takes his speakers for a spin around the Bronx…
.The Beginnings of Turntablism.
The origins of turntablism proper can be traced back to one legend, Grandmaster Flash. When the DJs of mid-seventies were mostly content to simply play one record into another, Flash helped develop and define many of the techniques modern scratch DJs now take for granted. Listen to the epic The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (just over seven minutes of madness – all live and laid down after a handful of takes). He’s cutting up two copies of a beat, scratching in melodies, layering up spoken word passages and changing up the selection within the blink of an eye.For months at a time he would lock himself in his home laboratory dreaming up new theories about the science of mixing. Other pioneers like Kool Herc may have isolated the ‘get down’ parts of instrumental Funk records and doubled them haphazardly with two copies to extend the break, but Flash’s lightning fast techniques made that simple trick seem positively antiquated in comparison.Peep Flash getting busy in the kitchen in this classic clip from the seminal Wild Style…
Grandmaster Flash, then a teenager, carefully studied the styles and techniques of earlier DJs, particularly Pete Jones, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flowers. He began experimenting with DJ gear in his bedroom, eventually developing and mastering two of the innovations that are considered standard Turntablist techniques. The “Quick-mix theory”: which is a technique which allows a break to be extended indefinitely.and Punch phrasing (or, clock theory): a technique involves isolating very short segments of music, typically horn hits, and rhythmically punching them over the sustained beat using the mixer.Grandmaster Flash perfected these techniques among others and brought them to new audiences, exhibited a unique performative aspect of party DJing: instead of passively spinning records, he manipulated them to create new music..
It was a protégé of Grandmaster Flash’s, The Grand Wizard Theodore, who created ‘scratching’ – the sound made when the record is rubbed back and forth. He discovered the technique by accident as he stopped the record with his hand to hear what his mother was shouting at him.
GrandWizzard Theodore invents scratching
Theodore Livingston was brought up in a hip hop household: His older brothers were party rockers who rolled with Grandmaster Flash. The tweenage Theodore tagged along, standing on record crates showing off his uncanny ability to needle-drop – his trick of looping a break by returning the stylus seamlessly to the start of the bar.
One day in 1975, whilst having a cheeky mix at home, his Mom interrupts. As the oft-repeated legend goes, and one he’s fond of retelling, young Theo doesn’t want to lose the beat he’s cueing in his cans so holds it rhythmically under his hand – a technique the old schoolers’ called rubbing.
As his Ma bleats on, he’s distracted by the rhythmical back and forth in the headphones. Something clicks, and after he’s appeased his old dear, he goes back to the sound and feverishly experiments with its musical potential.
Other DJs like Flash had heard the ziggy-ziggy before, but the prodigious GrandWizzard Theodore is widely credited with making this scratching sound part of his act. Thanks, Mom!
In the 1980s scratching was one of the main features of the emerging turntablist artform and a staple of hip hop music. Herbie Hancock’s 1983 single “Rockit” is perhaps the most influential record of the period because its use of scratching established the Turntablist as one of the key pillars of the song.
As the cream of turntablist documentaries (Battle Sounds, Scratch) rightly point out, Rockit was a seminal moment in the evolution of turntablism. Nearly every DJ of note has it down as their number one reason for picking up (or putting down) the needles.
The 1983 record and accompanying animatronic video were hits, but the Grammy performance blew minds. It was the first time many people outside hip hop had seen DJing, and for those that were already down, it was on some very next level tip.
Bandleader, Herbie Hancock, may have been centre stage with his keytar, and flanked by body-popping mannequins, but it was the glimpses of the figure of his DJ, D.ST, that turned the most heads. It was like he’d been beamed from space, a million miles from the Delancey St. in New York where he took his name.
Live and on record it was his percussive cutting and orchestrated scratching that gave the Electro instrumental workout it’s futuristic and shocking edge, and it showed the world that the turntables were now as relevant as any musical instrument.
Check out this D.ST-dominated live version of the song here…
DJs Spinbad, Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff transformed turntablism by inventing the ‘Transformer scratch’ – so named for the sound it created which echoed the popular 1980s cartoon. This technique of flicking the cross fader back and forth on the mixer whilst simultaneously scratching gave a greater tonal range and allowed Turntablists to experiment with the rhythmic qualities.
The transformer scratch
The origin stories of the transformer scratch centre around a triumvirate of Philly DJs: Spinbad, Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff. The first has been acknowledged as its inventor, albeit it in a rudimentary form, whilst the other pair are credited with developing it much further. It takes its name because of the sonic similarities it shares to the sound the characters from the Transformers cartoon made when they changed shape.
Jeff was the first to put it on wax with The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff. You might have clocked him at Union Square in ’86, but that recording wouldn’t be released for a couple more years.
Cash Money used the trick to dominate DJ battles around the same time, winning the New Music Seminar’s World Supremacy battle in 1987, and then the DMCs in 1988.
No one up to that point had managed to coax so much out of so little for so long as the masters of the transformer. To the first wave that caught it, it was like they possessed the power to turn back time. No wonder the New Music Seminar’s comp was called the Superman Battle…
Catch DJs Revolution and Jazzy Jeff transforming here…
it wasn’t until the 1990s that the term ‘turntablism’ was coined. This definition marked a significant transformation in the role of the disk jockey (DJ), which had been evolving since the 1970s. Traditionally the role of the DJ was to play records on the turntable, mixing in one track after the other. The emergence of a new music genre, hip hop, produced DJs who were significantly more skilled. These DJs – or “Turntablists,” as they came to be known – are performers and musical artists in their own right who move records whilst playing on the turntable to manipulate the sound and create original compositions.
The 1990s saw an increase in the invention of new, more sophisticated turntable techniques. Turntablists began to push the boundaries of what they could achieve and a range of new scratches were created.
Q-Bert created “The Crab”, named because of how the Turntablist’s fingers move back and forth from side to side like a crab whilst flicking the crossfader,
DJ Flare Created “The Flare” and as Turntablism grew many other techniques came out of turntablists innovating to establish their own signature styles.
However, it is Beat Juggling which is perhaps the most important development of the decade.
With the rise of hip hop the DJ had undergone a dramatic transformation – from a player of records, to Turntablist, a composer of new, exciting music and a chain in the creation of an entirely new artform.
Turntablism continues to evolve, with artists innovating to be the fastest, most creative players of their instrument – the once humble turntable.