The Evolution of the DJ: Part 1

DJs have been around a lot longer than you might imagine. In fact, the earliest known sound recording was made in 1857 by the ingenious Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, a French printer and bookseller from Paris. Originally called the Phonautograph, Scott de Martinville used a horn to collect the sound which was vibrated off a stiff bristle attached to a diaphragm used to inscribed a crude image onto a cylinder. Until Thomas Edison was able to play back the recordings in 1877, these recordings served only to aid research into sound waves and their behaviour. By 1892, Emile Berliner began commercial production of his gramophone records, the first disc records to be offered to the public and a mere 50 years after its inception, the first record transmitted by radio broadcast in history played Handels’ Largo from Xerxes.


The term Disc Jockey can be traced back to 1935, to an American radio presenter called Walter Winchell, although it is worthy of noting the first DJ was actually 16 year old Ray Newby who began regularly playing records on a small transmitter while a student at Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless in San Jose, California circa 1909. Years later in his memoirs he reminisces, “We used popular records at that time, mainly Caruso records, because they were very good and loud; we needed a boost… we started on an experimental basis and then, because this is novel, we stayed on schedule continually without leaving the air at any time from that time on except for a very short time during World War I, when the government required us to remove the antenna… Most of our programming was records, I’ll admit, but of course we gave out news as we could obtain it..”

Towards the end of the second world war, a British DJ, Jimmy Saville pioneered the first dance parties playing jazz records. Later in 1947, it is claimed he was the first DJ to play music on 2 turntables continuously. He later went on to work for Radio Luxembourg a pirate radio station located on a boat mored off the British coast. This post war time also created the radio personality and elevated the Disc Jockey from faceless music nerd in to bonafide superstar. Its also worth considering club culture, although in its infancy, was also beginning. The first commercial nightclub was opened in Paris, France in 1947 and was called ‘Whiskey a Go-Go’, meanwhile in America, DJs were playing 45rpm rock n roll records for kids at ‘sock hops’ talking between tracks to keep the energy up. It wasn’t until 1955 that Bob Casey, a seasoned sock hop DJ, brought a 2 deck sound system to the US, revolutionising the scene.

Sound systems began to spring up all over the world, most notably in Jamaica in which promoters quickly learned they could charge admission and sell food and alcohol at what was ostensibly a large street party. The DJ or ‘Selector’ became the focus at these parties which essentially became the blueprint of modern rave culture. Another Jamaican, DJ Kool Herc brought this cultural heritage with him to New York and is largely recognised as the father of Hip Hop. From this new music, using the breaks of popular funk jams and MC-ing or rapping lyrics in time with the music came breakdance. Grandmaster DXT explains, “At first the dance was simple: touch your toes, hop, kick out your leg. Then some guy went down, spun around on all fours. Everybody said wow and went home to try to come up with something better….”

New York's Hip-Hop, circa 1970's - 80's (5)

As hip hop culture exploded in the ghettos of New York during the latter half of the 1970s, in the dance clubs of Manhattan the sound was Disco. DJs like Larry Levan, David Mancuso and Francois Kevorkian took people on musical journeys over the course of the night changing tempo and styles with the grace of a swan and the precision of a jet fighter pilot. Much of the modern ethos of DJing was forged in those nightclubs of NYC. By the 1980s, Disco was in decline, not helped by the Disco Demolition Night staged at Cominsky Park baseball stadium in Chicago by Radio DJ Steve Dahl in July 1979. The story goes that anyone bringing a disco album to the game; a night time double-header between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers, would be admitted for just 98 cents and between games, DJ Dahl (a rock DJ for WDAI -FM fired after the station changed formats to all disco) would blow up those disco albums with fireworks. All had been calm during the first game, but sure enough, mayhem soon reigned as thousands of fans stormed onto the field, tore up the pitch and threw records at each other like Frisbees.  “I never thought that I, a stupid disc jockey, could draw 70,000 people to a disco demolition,” Dahl said later in an interview, “Unfortunately, some of our followers got a little carried away.”  Around that time in Chicago, a DJ called Frankie Knuckles started playing a new form of music in a club called ‘The Warehouse’ (which became Ron Hardy’s ‘Music Box’.) Later dubbed ‘House Music’, Knuckles described his proto-house as ‘Disco’s Revenge’.

The primary medium for the music at that time was vinyl, although even in those days, some DJs would use reel to reel machines, keyboards and drum machines to enhance their sets – Greg Wilson and Frankie Knuckles being two such exponents. And it was adding these machines into the mix that transformed the DJ from human jukebox into bona fide entertainer. Dance music culture has built up around that very one premise, that a DJ can affect many others mood simply from the choices they make in what records they play. Each portion of the night broken down into parts; warm ups would become slower and more soulful, the peak times more energetic and the warm downs deep, languid and decadent.

pioneer CDJ1000web

Vinyl Mixing with or without added extras became the mainstay in many clubs around the world for pretty much 20 years, until companies like Denon, Numark and those clever folks at Pioneer came up with the CD deck. Much like the Technics 1210, the Pioneer CDJ would become the industry standard console in many clubs due in no small part to its user friendliness, durability and sturdiness. As the equipment changed so did the DJ. Scratching, beat juggling and all that other good stuff a seasoned professional could do with 2,3 or sometimes even 4 records was put aside for an effects and loops driven style. Now the DJ had even more control over how they could manipulate a piece of music to sound like they wanted. To the forefront came DJs like the insanely talented James Zabiela and Eddie Halliwell who could make a CDJ do pretty much anything they could imagine! Coupled with a reinvigoration for out board machines like the Korg Kaoss pad and EFX500, these DJs lead the world with a technically rich tapestry of sound and beats, the likes of which we found almost impossible to replicate. This trajectory has brought us almost inevitably to where we are today – the world of the digital DJ. Much has been said already on this topic, both positive and negative, but what is truly apparent is that it is here to stay and we must embrace the change with open minds, even if we have heavy hearts. Software companies such as Native Instruments and Serato now account for a large market share of the DJ business and that is only going to rise given the comparable costs of buying and learning to mix on software vs physical decks. Over the years the music has changed, in no small part due to the advance of technology. I remember as a young lad in the 90s learning to mix on belt drive turntables, practicing religiously every night to perfect my skills, hoping; praying (almost), that one day I could mix two record together seamlessly. I remember the day that happened. Vividly. It was one of the greatest days of my life, kinda like losing your virginity to the hottest girl in school! Now that the majority of kids learn on computers with the dreaded sync button; that small personal victory lost to a generation.

During the writing of this article, I asked some of my DJ mates what they thought about the evolution of the scene, Adam Kent (Pro-B-Tech/Empathy) remarked, “15-20 years ago you could spend hours of trawling through record shops hunting down tunes, spending a fortune, selling everything you own for a pair of 1200’s and mixer, but today it seems like you just need a laptop, knockoff copy of traktor and ten minutes looking at Beatport top 100…” Zoe Belucci (Chromozoa Records) was equally reminiscent, “I started mixing on vinyl at the height of the CDJ boom in 2007, it was precarious, it was hard but the sense of achievement and buzz from nailing a mix one after another with an audience was just spectacular. I cant imagine that the feeling is the same when all you have to do is press sync and play. I guess the real thrill in the new technology is being able to really focus on performance and effects; the multitude of hardware available to enhance your set while playing with Ableton or Traktor is phenomenal. I will always love vinyl as its the format I fell in love with [house music on], but DJs have to embrace change, just like in any industry.” Interestingly, it was Neil Quigley, a DJ known for his technical ability on a physical platform would was most upbeat about digital DJing, “…Traktor opened up many possibilities for me and saved me lots of time previously spent on burning CD’s and re-editing tracks, which I could now do on the fly. Funnily enough, I also found that the routine of beatgriding tracks made me familiarise myself much better with each track; I thought the opposite would be true….”

So there we are, a whistle stop tour of the history of DJing. The delightful thing though; its no where near finished evolving! We now have the computer skills to re-imagine the current wave of music software to make it faster and more user friendly. We have incredible artists like Richie Hawtin pushing ditial DJing to the limits and Max Cooper taking DJing and sound design to the next level with his amazing 4D shows. And theres more… LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy and Belguian Mash up kings 2manydjs have a new show with custom made speakers. Originally debuted at Manchester’s International Festival 2013, the monster 50,000-watt soundsystem comprises eight 11-feet-tall speaker stacks plus 48 amplifiers which they say creates a ‘unique listening experience’ designed especially for their vinyl-only sets. Then of course we have the touch screen DJ console – Emulator or the new eagerly anticipated variation Deadmau5 is developing for his shows… the opportunities are endless…