Over the last few months, we've deep-dived into hip hop's major elements, like street dance and graffiti culture. But you can't talk about hip hop without giving props to the originators who started it all: hip hop DJs.
Since the early '70s, hip hop DJs have played an integral role in shaping hip hop culture as we know it. With two turntables and a microphone, they founded a culture that continues to evolve today.
Music, dance and art have always been part of human history. But we wouldn't have hip hop if the DJ hadn't dropped those beats in the right places, at the right time.
A HOT SUMMER NIGHT IN THE BRONX
As legend has it, the night that changed everything was August 11, 1973.
It was over 80 degrees in The Bronx that night. Even hotter inside the crowded community room at the Sedgwick Avenue apartment complex, where 18-year-old Clive Campbell was DJing a packed house party.
Clive—known to some as DJ Kool Herc—tried something different that night …
Like disco DJs, he was spinning records on two turntables. But instead of using two different albums, he placed the same record on both turntables. This allowed him to continuously loop parts of a song that got the biggest crowd hype – the "break."
'TO THE BEAT, Y’ALL! YOU DON’T STOP!'
The break is the heavily percussive part of a song that gave dancers time to show off their moves. But since the breaks on each record were usually short, Herc extended them by using two records to cue up the same break, over and over again.
It was a technique he called the "loop of fury" and "The Merry-Go-Round" – and the crowds ate it up.
Dancing during these breaks became known as "breaking." Herc referred to these dancers as b-boys, b-girls and breakers, coining the name of this fundamental hip hop dance style. From behind his turntables, Herc hyped up the dancers with now-legendary calls, like "To the beat, y'all. You don't stop!"
THE BIRTH OF HIP HOP
Herc's parties in The Bronx are now widely considered to be the birthplace of hip hop, with Herc as its founder.
But it was only the beginning of a culture that spread across New York and eventually the world, continuing to evolve along the way.
Hip hop DJs became the new norm at urban block parties. Mixing tracks and beats became their new language. Breaks became the backdrop for dancers to express themselves.
It wasn't just a new style of dance music. It was the start of a new culture and a new art form.
EVOLUTION OF THE HIP HOP DJ
Hip hop was literally founded on the idea of change.
DJs mastered the art of reviving old recordings in creative new ways. They made new beats from old ones. They turned little-known tracks into entire new experiences.
Hip hop culture gained popularity because it was fresh and different. The whole point was that it was new and constantly evolving. DJs made new beats, new sounds. Dancers unveiled new moves, new fashion styles. It was never static.
DJing AS AN ART FORM
The "Merry-Go-Round" was only the first of many techniques that hip hop DJs would innovate in the years to come.
Originators like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and GrandWizzard Theodore all expanded on DJ Kool Herc's style, creating new styles of their own.
GrandWizzard was the first to experiment with scratching—the signature sound of a DJ intentionally scratching a turntable needle against the vinyl. That too evolved into numerous techniques like scribble scratching, tear scratching, flab, crab, tweak and orbit scratching – each of them designed for a unique purpose within a DJ's playlist.
Today's hip hop DJs use a wide range of equipment to create new sounds: not just turntables but digital audio decks, sequencers, sampling software and other gear.
A POWERFUL INFLUENCE
It's a mistake to think of the hip hop DJ as only a "disc jockey" behind a mic. Unlike traditional DJs, they don't simply play one track after another. They mix and reinvent them. That is where DJing becomes an art.
But the power of that innovation doesn't stop there.
Hip hop DJs, and the culture they forged, created the opportunity for people to reinvent themselves like the DJs reinvented their beats. For many, the movement created a new lifestyle and a new path.
The music that DJ Kool Herc sampled—including hard funk tracks of artists like James Brown—were considered an alternative to the violent gang culture of The Bronx. Herc's parties become a new outlet for teens to avoid trouble and devote their energy to creative new passions instead: hip hop dance, DJing, street art and music discovery.
The hip hop pioneers themselves often came from troubled backgrounds.
When Afrika Bambaataa first experienced DJ Kool Herc's beats in-person, he was a leader of one of the most notorious gangs in The Bronx, the Black Spades. Two years later, Bambaataa was DJing his own parties and is now widely considered to be one of the most influential figures in the history of hip hop.
That is the power of the hip hop DJ: the power to influence, inspire and energize. The constant evolution of hip hop is what makes it so powerful. From dance to DJing, the culture is constantly raising the bar for those who practice their art, inspiring others along their own personal evolutions.