DJing: A (Very) Brief Lesson in Early History

The word “DJ” means different things to different people.  This is with good reason, as there are many different types of DJs.  In this post, I want to take a moment and reflect on how we got to where we are today.

Of course, at it’s very core, the “disc jockey” as we use the term in modern times refers to anyone who plays pre-recorded music to an audience.  The term was coined in 1935 by American radio commentator Walter Winchell while describing Martin Block, an early radio announcer.  At the time, the big news story was the kidnapping of the son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.  While awaiting details and developments, Block played records to give the impression that he was broadcasting from a ballroom.  He called the show Make Believe Ballroom.  Prior to this, most music heard on the radio was played live.  Jimmy Savile claims to have been the first DJ to use twin turntables for continuous play in 1947.  He launched the world’s first DJ dance party by playing Jazz records in the upstairs room of a UK-based mutual society organization, and eventually became a radio DJ himself.

The first commercial disco is often considered to be the Whiskey á Go-Go in Paris, France, which opened in 1947.  (The word discotheque is a French word which referred to a nightclub whose entertainment was provided by recorded music rather than by live musicians, and was a result of their Nazi occupation during the second World War…. since they had banned evil jazz music and shut down most of the dance clubs.  The earliest discos were actually much like the American concept of a speakeasy.  That’s right, folks… the first underground raves were rebellious Frenchman playing jazz records to young dancers, and involved passwords, memberships, and rotating locations!)

“That’s right, folks… the first underground raves were rebellious Frenchman playing jazz records to young dancers, and involved passwords, memberships, and rotating locations!”

After the war, the idea of the radio DJ/personality became en vogue, and the DJ often was responsible for the actual musical selection based on his own tastes.  During the 50s, radio personalities would begin showing up at parties to play 45 rpm records and speak between songs, sometimes involving a live drummer to play beats between records in order to maintain the dance floor.  This served the same purpose as beatmatching and mixing does today… to keep the party going and the energy up instead of having a jarring change between individual songs.  People began to realize the benefits of momentum when it came to social events.  Francis Grasso began using beatmatching and slip-cueing in the famous Sanctuary nightclub in New York, during the 60s and 70s.  Meanwhile, DJing became an important part of Jamaican culture.  Selectors (as they were called) would set up sound systems in the ghettos of Kingston and “toast” each other while playing records back-to-back.  This became a huge part of dancehall and ragga music, which became a large influence on hip-hop (and eventually, drum-n-bass).

In 1973, DJ Kool Herc began to experiment with various techniques, such as mixing back and forth between identical records in order to extend breaks.  The idea of DJing being able to be an artform in and of itself began to take root, as people started using turntables to actually manipulate and create original music.  Turntablism was born.  And then, there was disco.  The idea of the dance nightclub/discotheque began to see a rebirth, and mixed records were the standard form of entertainment.

DJ Kool Herc - A Living Legend.
DJ Kool Herc – A Living Legend.


This is only my opinion, but the culture seems to split into two timelines at this point (with several “bridges” along the way).  From a DJ perspective, Jamaican street parties and dancehall/dub music shared a lot of common bonds with early hip-hop, leading to a lot of development in the area of exhibitionist DJing.  The concepts of scratching, beat-juggling, and improvising with other DJs showed how the turntable could be used as a musical instrument in its own right.  Meanwhile, the resurgence of nightclubs and discos in the US and Europe tied DJ culture to disco music, and then eventually to house music (thanks to Frankie Knuckles in Chicago), techno (thanks to Detroit), and the rave scene… typically with an approach of maintaining energy, having a sense of flow, and creating a musical journey.  Many examples of bridges between these two lines of development exist, such as drum-n-bass (which tied together many elements of reggae/dub/jungle to the techno/electronic scene).  Electro music (not to be confused with so-called Electro House) might be considered to be a bridge between American hip-hop, Detroit techno and European synth-pop.

As you can see, this is a far different scenario than the DJs of today, with our fancy laptops, DJ controllers and multi-thousand dollar CDJs.  But the general idea was the same: provide relevant music to an audience that people wanted to hear, without losing momentum.

Of course, there is much more to the story…. this just gives the basics of the very early years.  Any other cool tidbits of DJ history you care to share?  Feel free to post it up on the comments below!