Djing is a huge and prominent part of our modern world. It has incorporated itself into the way people go out and enjoy themselves, and as a legitimate profession that people can pursue.
Not only that, but the rich history of DJing has impacted many of the genres of music that we can listen to today. The modern impact of DJing is widespread and continuous, and the history of DJing itself is also vibrant in culture and diversity.
The term “Disc Jockey” was first coined in 1935 by Walter Winchell, an American radio commentator (x). He used this term to describe fellow radio announcer Martin Block, who was the first radio announcer to gain widespread fame for playing popular recorded music over the air.
His show was called “Make Believe Ballroom” and it was the first time people were able to listen to prerecorded songs on the radio, so it made them believe they were in a ballroom. He played these tunes in between news casts, and the Make Believe Ballroom quickly became a hit.
In 1943, radio DJ Jimmy Savile launched the first DJ dance party in the world by playing jazz records in an upstairs function room of The Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds in Otley, England. He claimed to become the first DJ to use twin turntables in 1947, and in 1958 became a radio DJ at Radio Luxembourg.
It should be noted, however, that after his death in October of 2011, multiple accounts of sexual assault against women and young girls on Savile’s part shunned him from the DJ community. These incidents were investigated and resulted in many landmarks and memorials made for Savile to be taken down.
In 1947, the world’s first discotheque opened in Paris, France called the Whiskey a Go-Go. In 1953, Regine began playing on two turntables there. Regine (Regine Zylberberg) is a Belgian-born singer and nightclub impresario who dubbed herself “Queen of the Night”. Shortly after this, discos started popping up all over Europe and the United States.
In the 1950s, American radio DJs started appearing live at sock hops and parties and assumed the role of the human jukebox. They usually played popular singles on one turntable and talked in between songs. Sometimes a live drummer would be hired to play beats in between tracks to keep the dance floor going.
Around the late 50s, sound systems were developed in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. Promotors, who usually called themselves DJs, threw large parties in the streets and often played dance music from large, loud PA systems. They would banter over the music with a boastful, rhythmic chanting style called “toasting” (x).
Djing History in the 1960s and 1970s
As we continue to look through the history of DJing, by the mid 1960s, nightclubs and discos were becoming incredibly popular everywhere in Europe and the United States.
This is also around the time that DJ equipment began to appear on the market, which meant that anyone with the money for it could get their hands on Rudy Bozak’s classic CMA-10-2DL mixer (you can buy one this yourself if you’ve got $3,200 to spare!).
In 1969, American nightclub DJ Francis Grasso started popularizing beatmatching at New York’s Sanctuary nightclub.
The purpose of beatmatching is to create seamless transitions between tracks with matching beats or tempos. This way there would be no pauses in between songs so people could keep dancing without pauses in between.
Along with beatmatching, Grasso also developed slip-cuing, a DJ technique where the DJ holds the record still while the turntable is revolving underneath, releasing it at just the right moment so it creates a sudden transition from the previous record.
The first DJ accredited to mixing tracks and editing them live was Mexican born Agustin Martinez. In 1964 he was the DJ at the famous Acapulco “Tequila a Go-Go” nightclub.
In 1973, Jamaican born DJ Kool Herc performed at block parties in his Bronx neighborhood. DJ Kool Herc is widely regarded as the father of hip-hop culture, and during his block parties he developed a technique of mixing back and forth between two identical records in order to extend the rhythmic instrumental segment, called the break.
Turntablism started to develop rapidly; this is the art of using turntables not only to play music, but also to manipulate sound and create original tracks (x).
In 1974, the Japanese audio equipment brand Technics released the first SL-1200 turntable, and it continued to evolve into 1979- it remains an industry standard for DJing to this day.
Along with the release of turntables on the market, the German electronic music band named Kraftwerk released the 22-minute long song “Autobahn”, and years later the band would become a significant influence on many hip-hop artists.
With all this rapid growth and diversity, around the mid 1970s is when hip-hop music and culture started to emerge, primarily in the urban parts of New York City among African American and Latino people.
In 1975 when he was 12 years old, hip-hop DJ Grand Wizard Theodore invented the record scratching technique by accident. It came about when he was trying to record a mixtape to be played over the loudspeakers at school when his mother, wanting him to turn his music down,
burst into his room and startled him. His hands had been on the records and when he went back to listen to his recording later, he realized that the sound was good and began perfecting the technique of the record scratch (x).
Later on in 1979, the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight”, the first hip-hop record to become a hit.
In 1977, Saratoga Springs disc jockey Tom L. Lewis introduced the Disco Bible (it was later renamed Disco Beats), which published hit disco songs listed by their tempo (beats per minute), as well as by either artist or song title.
This list of songs made it easier for beginning DJs to learn how to create seamless transitions in between songs so dancers wouldn’t have to change their rhythm on the dance floor. Today, you can find the tempo of songs on an online BPM list (x).
History of DJing in the 1980s
In 1981, the cable TV network MTV was launched. It was originally devoted to music videos, particularly rock music. Around 1982, disco had essentially disappeared and by the summer of that year it forced many nightclubs to either close entirely or change entertainment styles.
Their choices were primarily MTV-style video dancing or live bands.
The first hip-hop song to feature synthesizers was released in 1982; “Planet Rock” by DJ Afrika Bambaataa melded electro hip-hop beats influenced by Kraftwerk, mentioned above. Around this time is also when the use of compact discs for digital audio became popular; it’s marked as sort of the “Big Bang” of audio revolution.
Around the early 1980s, DJ Larry Levan, known for his electric mixes, gained more of a following. He DJd in a nightclub in NYC called the Paradise Garage, and it became the sort of prototype for modern dance clubs where the DJ is showcased.
If you have ever been to any club with a DJ booth, this is where it started. Right around this time, a mix of disco and electronic dance music was becoming popular in Chicago; in the Warehouse Club on Jefferson street, it was coined as house music, and it’s where DJ Frankie Knuckles mixed old disco classics and Euro Synth pop.
In 1983, Jesse Saunders along with Vince Lawrence released the first house music track “On & On”. The record was meant to replace one from Saunders’ collection that had been stolen, and it combined hypnotic lyrics with dream synthesizer music and a beat made by a drum machine.
The mid 1980s also welcomed New York Garage, a house music hybrid that was inspired by Levan’s style as well as the classic Chicago House style. This was right around the time techno music started to emerge in the Detroit club scene; Detroit, nestled between Chicago and New York, picked up both elements of house along with European imports.
Unlike disco, however, techno distanced itself from its predecessor by becoming almost purely electronic with synthesized beats. In 1985, Fort Lauderdale, Florida hosted the Winter Music Conference which became the premier electronic music conference for dance music disc jockeys.
1985 was also the year that TRAX Dance Music Guide was published by American Record Pool in Beverly Hills. It was the first national DJ-published music magazine, made on a Macintosh computer and using extensive music market research and early desktop tools.
1986 saw the release of “Walk this Way”, a rap/rock collab by RUn DMC and Aerosmith, and it became the first hip-hop song to reach the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In the early 1990s, the rave scene changed dance music, the image of DJS, and the nature of promoting shows.
The scene created an environment with new and innovative marketing, and this gave birth to new superstar DJs who would establish “brands” around their names and their sound. Some of these DJs even toured around the world, reaching millions of people of all kinds and thus able to branch out into other music related activities.
During this time the Compact Disc surpassed the record in popularity, and so records were made in much more limited quantities and distributed primarily to club DJs and local acts recording on small regional labels.
Mobile Beat magazine, a music magazine geared specifically towards mobile DJs, started publishing in 1991. In their premier edition they featured award winning club and mobile DJ Chris Pangalos from Rolling Thunder Productions.
In 1992, the Moving Pictures Experts Group released the MPEG-1 standard, designed to produce reasonable sound at low bit rates. The compression scheme MPEG-1 Layer-3, known as MP3, later revolutionized the digital music market.
In 1998, the first MP3 digital audio player was released, the Eiger Labs MPMan F10. Later on the company N2IT developed Final Scratch, a DJ tools system that was digital and allowed DJs control of MP3 files through special vinyl records or CDs.
The “Final Scratch” system shipped its first units in early 2002, and by summer of the same year DJs were all spinning on digital vinyl. This became the first step in the digital DJ revolution, Djing based on digital forms of media.
Recent Trends in Djing: 2000s and Onward
There are now many different DJing styles. Some focus more on the electronic, while others prefer keeping it with old-school records. After the development of audio and video mixers, bringing the MTV world of the 80s and 90s to the new DJ personality of the 200s was simple.
DJs are now more virtual than ever. It’s easy to download audio mixers and record sounds, music, and mixtapes. With websites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp, anyone with an internet connection and some of these tools- many of which you can get for free- can upload their own music, playlists, and mixtapes.
The popularity of vinyl records is also coming back. More and more of today’s artists release their new albums on vinyl, and the younger generation now seems to be intrigued with the “old-school” way of listening to music.
Vinyl and tape players are now being sold on various markets, and the old way of DJing can be seen performed by DJs who love the traditional way of doing things like making dance music.
DJing and its evolution as time has gone by is a testament to the innate human desire to dance and to have fun; the history of DJing is long and colorful, as are the multitude of music genres that have been born because of it.
IT has now become easier than ever for artists all over the world to share their music and their sounds with anyone and everyone who is willing to hear it.