The modern DJ’s role as a performer who creates a seamless and extended mix of music for a dance party or club atmosphere evolved from radio personalities who introduced and played individual selections of recorded music on broadcast radio stations. In 1935, American radio commentator Walter Winchell coined the term “disc jockey” (the combination of disc, referring to disc-shaped phonograph records, and jockey, which is an operator of a machine) to describe radio announcer Martin Block, the first radio announcer to gain widespread fame for playing popular recorded music over the air.
In the 1950s, American radio DJs would appear live at sock hops and “platter parties” and assume the role of a human jukebox. They would usually play 45-rpm records, featuring hit singles on one turntable while talking between songs. In some cases, a live drummer was hired to play beats between songs to maintain the dance floor. In 1955, Bob Casey, a well-known “sock hop” DJ, brought the two-turntable system to the U.S.
In the late 1950s, sound systems, a new form of public entertainment, were developed in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. Promoters, who called themselves DJs, would throw large parties in the streets that centered on the disc jockey, called the “selector,” who played dance music from large, loud PA systems and bantered over the music with a boastful, rhythmic chanting style called “toasting”. These parties quickly became profitable for the promoters, who would sell admission, food, and alcohol, leading to fierce competition between DJs for the biggest sound systems and newest records.
1960s and 1970s
In the mid-1960s, nightclubs and discothèques continued to grow in Europe and the United States. Specialized DJ equipment, such as Rudy Bozak’s classic CMA-10-2DL mixer, began to appear on the market. In 1969, American club DJ Francis Grasso popularized beatmatching at New York’s Sanctuary nightclub. Beatmatching is the technique of creating seamless transitions between records with matching beats, or tempos. Grasso also developed slip-cuing, the technique of holding a record still while the turntable is revolving underneath, releasing it at the desired moment to create a sudden transition from the previous record. (This technique had long been used in radio.)
By 1968, the number of dance clubs started to decline; most American clubs either closed or were transformed into clubs featuring live bands. Neighbourhood block parties that were modelled after Jamaican sound systems gained popularity in Europe and in the boroughs of New York City.
In 1973, Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc, widely regarded as the “father of hip-hop culture,” performed at block parties in his Bronx neighbourhood and developed a technique of mixing back and forth between two identical records to extend the rhythmic instrumental segment or break. Turntablism, the art of using turntables not only to play music but to manipulate sound and create original music, began to develop.
In 1974, Technics released the first SL-1200 turntable, which evolved into the SL-1200 MK2 in 1979—which, as of the early-2010s, remains an industry standard for DJing. In 1974, German electronic music band Kraftwerk released the 22-minute song “Autobahn,” which takes up the entire first side of the album of the same title. Years later, Kraftwerk would become a significant influence on hip-hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles. During the mid-1970s, Hip-hop music and culture began to emerge, originating among urban African Americans and Latinos in New York City. The four main elements of Hip Hop culture are graffiti, DJing, b-boying, and MCing (rapping).
In the mid-1970s, the soul-funk blend of dance-pop known as disco took off in the mainstream pop charts in the United States and Europe, causing discothèques to experience a rebirth. Unlike many late-1960s clubs, which featured live bands, discothèques used the DJ’s selection and mixing of records as the entertainment. In 1975, record pools began, providing disc jockeys access to newer music from the industry in an efficient method.
In 1975, hip-hop DJ Grand Wizard Theodore invented the scratching technique by accident. In 1976, American DJ, editor, and producer Walter Gibbons remixed “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure, one of the earliest commercially released 12″ singles (a.k.a. “maxi-single”). In 1979, the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight”, the first hip-hop record to become a hit.
In 1977, Saratoga Springs, NY disc jockey Tom L. Lewis introduced the Disco Bible (later renamed Disco Beats), which published hit disco songs listed by beats per minute (tempo), as well as by either artist or song title. Billboard ran an article on the new publication, and it went national relatively quickly. The list made it easier for beginning DJs to learn how to create seamless transitions between songs without dancers having to change their rhythm on the dance floor. Today, DJs can find the beats per minute of songs in the BPM List.
In 1981, the cable television network MTV was launched, originally devoted to music videos, especially popular rock music. The term “video jockey”, or VJ, was used to describe the fresh-faced youth who introduced the music videos. In 1982, the demise of disco in the mainstream by the summer of 1982 forced many nightclubs to either close or change entertainment styles, such as by providing MTV-style video dancing or live bands. Released in 1982, the song “Planet Rock” by DJ Afrika Bambaataa was the first hip-hop song to feature synthesizers. The song melded electro hip-hop beats influenced by Yellow Magic Orchestra with the melody from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express.” In 1982, the Compact Disc reached the public market in Asia, and early the following year in other markets. This event is often seen as the “Big Bang” of the digital audio revolution.
In the early 1980s, NYC disco DJ Larry Levan, known for his electric mixes, gained a cult following, and the Paradise Garage, the nightclub at which he spun, became the prototype for the modern dance club where the music and the DJ were showcased. Around the same time, the disco-influenced electronic style of dance music called house music emerged in Chicago. The name was derived from the Warehouse Club in Chicago, where resident DJ Frankie Knuckles mixed old disco classics and Eurosynth pop. House music is essentially disco music with electronic drum machine beats. The common element of most house music is a 4/4 beat generated by a drum machine or other electronic means (such as a sampler), together with a solid (usually also electronically generated) synth bassline. In 1983, Jesse Saunders released what some consider the first house music track, “On & On.” The mid-1980s also saw the emergence of New York Garage, a house music hybrid that was inspired by Levan’s style and sometimes eschewed the accentuated high-hats of the Chicago house sound.
During the mid-1980s, techno music emerged from the Detroit club scene. Being geographically located between Chicago and New York, Detroit techno artists combined elements of Chicago house and New York garage along with European imports. Techno distanced itself from disco’s roots by becoming almost purely electronic with synthesized beats. In 1985, the Winter Music Conference started in Fort Lauderdale Florida and became the premier electronic music conference for dance music disc jockeys.
In 1985, TRAX Dance Music Guide was launched by American Record Pool in Beverly Hills. It was the first national DJ-published music magazine, created on the Macintosh computer using extensive music market research and early desktop publishing tools. In 1986, “Walk This Way”, a rap/rock collaboration by Run DMC and Aerosmith, became the first hip-hop song to reach the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. This song was the first exposure of hip-hop music, as well as the concept of the disc jockey as band member and artist, to many mainstream audiences. In 1988, DJ Times magazine was first published. It was the first US-based magazine specifically geared toward the professional mobile and club DJ.
During the early 1990s, the rave scene built on the acid house scene. The rave scene changed dance music, the image of DJs, and the nature of promoting. The innovative marketing surrounding the rave scene created the first superstar DJs who established marketable “brands” around their names and sound. Some of these celebrity DJs toured around the world and were able to branch out into other music-related activities. During the early 1990s, the Compact Disc surpassed the gramophone record in popularity, but gramophone records continued to be made (although in very limited quantities) into the 21st century—particularly for club DJs and for local acts recording on small regional labels.
In 1991, Mobile Beat magazine, geared specifically toward mobile DJs, began publishing and in their premier edition featured award-winning club & Mobile DJ Chris Pangalos from Rolling Thunder Productions. In 1992, the Moving Picture Experts Group released the MPEG-1 standard, designed to produce reasonable sound at low bit rates. The lossy compression scheme MPEG-1 Layer-3, popularly known as MP3, later revolutionized the digital music domain. In 1993, the first internet “radio station”, Internet Talk Radio, was developed by Carl Malamud. Because the audio was relayed over the internet, it was possible to access internet radio stations from anywhere in the world. This made it a popular service for both amateur and professional disc jockeys operating from a personal computer.
DJ performing with Danny Brown in 2014
In 1998, the first MP3 digital audio player was released, the Eiger Labs MPMan F10. N2IT developed Final Scratch between 1998 and 2002 and showed a non-functioning prototype at the BE Developer Conference, marking the first digital DJ system to allow DJs control of MP3 files through special time-coded vinyl records or CDs. The “Final Scratch” system developed by N2IT shipped it first working units in early 2002 and DJs were spinning on digital vinyl by mid 2002. While it would take sometime for this novel concept to catch on with the “die hard Vinyl DJs”, This would soon become the first step in the new Digital DJ revolution. Manufacturers joined with computer DJing pioneers to offer professional endorsements, the first being Professor Jam (a.k.a. William P. Rader), who went on to develop the industry’s first dedicated computer DJ convention and learning program, the “CPS (Computerized Performance System) DJ Summit”, to help spread the word about the advantages of this emerging technology.
In 1998, Nathan Burton (England) started using Computers to Dj instead of vinyls using the popular mpeg3 format at the time.
In 1999, Shawn Fanning released Napster, the first of the massively popular peer-to-peer file sharing systems. During this period, the AVLA (Audio Video Licensing Agency) of Canada announced an MP3 DJing license, administered by the Canadian Recording Industry Association. This meant that DJs could apply for a license giving them the right to perform publicly using music stored on a hard drive, instead of having to cart their whole CD collections around to their gigs.
At the start of the new century, the introduction of advances in technology made it possible for new sounds to be developed. The introduction of the Pioneer SVM-1000 Audio and Video Mixer and other high tech digital sound mixers made a whole new culture of disco DJ integration. The proliferation of Internet technologies have also created a culture of disc jockey enthusiast groups. DJ battles imitating the events on the game gave the DJ industry a more competitive phase. The DJ industry has become increasingly about the atmosphere that goes along with a performance. Now not only does the DJ show deal with music and mixing but also lights and effect go along with it.