A resource for music researchers -
The Art and History of DJ-Mixing
by Alex Cosper
The art of DJ-mixing has climbed to the top of the mythical pyramid
in certainscenes. For many people, it's a subliminal art that carries a message of nonstop dancing.
Different sources credit different DJs as leaders in the field. The story of how DJs started mixing records for clubs is
actually not so much about which DJ deserves the most credit, but about the development of new technology and how it played into
the evolution of electronic dance music.
Prior to the introduction of compact discs in the early eighties (circa 1982),
everybodylistened to music on turntables and cassette decks. By 1977 the cassette had become half aspopular as vinyl.
By the end of the eighties the cassette had surpassed CDs and vinyl in sales,although CDs would take the lead in
the early nineties.
The main drawback about cassettes was hiss and stretched tape, but many consumers still saw the cassette
as better than vinyl because the stylus that played the record, was also wearing out the record every time it got played.
That's because the weight of the tone-arm was so heavy on most turntables. Records easilygot scratched as dust added to pops
and skips while trying to enjoy the record. Besides,a cassette could fit a lot more playing time or "extended play."
The cassette revolution had been brewing since the early sixties but really took off inthe seventies when consumers became
more aware of sound quality. FM radio began to overtakeAM radio because of better fidelity. The record industry moved away
from mono recordingsand concentrated on cleaner production of multi-track stereo recordings.
What caused asmall culture of club DJs to hang on to the turntable and vinyl records was a companycalled Technics.
While the consumer turntable manufacturers were giving up on making thevinyl record experience as enjoyable as possible, Technics
catered to the professionaluser. In 1972 the Technics SL-1200 turntable became the model turntable for the DJ worldof radio stations
and mobile DJs.
Technics had introduced the first direct drive turntable, the SP-10, in 1969. This wasimportant because
turntable motors were otherwise driven by a belt, which after timebecame worn out, causing records to turn in warped rotation,
adding to the machine noise workingagainst the music. The SL-1200 was an improvement on the SP-10. Between 1972 and 1984Technics
began to add features suited for the needs of DJs to the SL-1200, whichinevitably evolved into the SL-1200 MK2, the all-time
definitive DJ turntable,in which a pair was widely referred to as "Technics 1200s."
Some of these features included pitch
control and a light tone-arm so that the stylus didn't grind into the record. Vinyl sounded more dynamic and true to the analog
recording on such turntables. The fact that pressing the start button immediately started the turntable at the desired speed,
allowed the DJ to have more power over the delivery of music than with common consumer turntables,which had "latency" flaws or
a delayed start. While most belt-driven consumer turntables did not naturally spin backward, Technics 1200s spun backward to
accommodate the DJ who needed to spin the record forward and backward to hear thecue position through headphones.
The experienced DJ, however, also uses padding under the record called a "slip matt" and holds the record over the
spinning turntable and pad until the desired moment. The more savvy DJs put an anti-static plastic pad under the slip matt for even
more control. With the record cued up through headphones, the DJ releases the record and it starts playing instantly. Another reason
for padding under the record, from a musician's point of view, is that it creates more control for moving the record backward and
forward for generating the "scratching" sound effect. For scratch, skip and pop reduction, a DJ trick is to spray cleaning fluid or
wood alcohol on the record while playing.
The most creative use radio stations found for pitch control in the mid-seventies
was speeding up recordsso they could get to the commercials quicker. AM Top 40 stations tried this approach in an effort to create
an accelerated upbeat sound. AM stations had to do something to still seem exciting against an emerging backdrop of better sounding
FM stations. But increasing the tempo turned out to not help AM overcome the massivesweep to FM in the late seventies. What AM top 40
did in its final years of influence, however, was popularize disco music.
If anyone deserves credit for starting the disco
revolution it was Barry White. He wroteand produced the first disco record ever to hit number one in America, which was "Love's Theme"
in early 1974, recorded by White's instrumental backing band the Love Unlimited Orchestra. It eventually became the theme song to
ABC's Wide World of Sports. White also hadhis own hits dating back to 1973 with "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby,"
whichwas a top three pop record and a number one R&B record. It had the elements of early discoas did White's 1974 hits such as "Never
Gonna Give Ya Up," "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe"and "You're the First, the Last, My Everything."
repetitive, pulsating rhythm sections became the hallmark of the disco sound.His arrangements with lush horn sections also
contributed to what shaped the jazzy sound of disco.Some music historians will say disco actually started in France or
Australia or that the beatreally came from Latin music, but Barry White was the first to make disco big in America.The infectious
sound came out on several 1974 hits such as "Rock the Boat" by Hues Corporationand "Rock Your Baby" by George MacCrae, which were
both number one records. "Rock Your Baby" waswritten by Harry Wayne Casey, who went on to sing vocals on several number one hits as
KC & The Sunshine Band.
As the popularity of disco began to escalate in 1974, club DJs started trying to come up with their
own extended mixes to keep people dancing longer. The average 45 rpm (rounds per minute)record was in the three to four minute range.
So club DJs would take two copies of the samerecord and mix them together on separate turntables. This may be why TK Records released
an instrumental versionof "Rock Your Baby" on the flipside, as was the case with the more bouncy pop number one of the same time
called "Rock Me Gently" by Andy Kim. Soon more and more hit records started having instrumentals on the B-sides so that DJs could
mix in and out of both records.
The popularity of extended mixes grew quickly. By 1975 record labels started issuing "12 inch"
singles, which were the size of regular 33 1/3 rpm albums as opposed to the 7 inch 45 rpm single.Mixes were extended by making longer
intros and "break" sections. This was the same year that electronic music was developing with the German band Kraftwerk, who had a
22-minute (album version) song called "Autobahn," that marked the beginning of electronic instruments dominating the production in
popular recordings.But the idea of the all-synthesizer/electronic drum band didn't start to become common and popularuntil spearheaded
by the hits "Just Can't Get Enough" by Depeche Mode, "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell and "Don't You Want Me" by Human League seven years
Disco continued to rise in popularity the rest of the seventies. The Saturday Night Fevermovie and soundtrack
in the 1977-1978 period crystalized disco as timeless dance music withbig hits from the Bee Gees such as "Stayin' Alive" and "Night
Fever." Donna Summer, the queen of disco, began her string of dance hits in late 1975 with "Love To Love You Baby," a quintessential
theme as to what discowas really all about. It was also one of the first long extended mixes with a 16 minute version on a 12" issued
byCasablanca Records. Her other big hits included "I Feel Love," "Last Dance," MacArthur Park,""Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls." The great
thing for DJs about "Love To Love You Baby" and "I Feel Love"was that the emphasis was clearly more on the dance beats than the
lyrical storyline or structure.This meant the DJ had more freedom to mix in or out of the song since the dancer wasn't hangingon to
hear a lyrical story.
By 1979 it looked as though disco had commercially conquered everything else in music with hits like
"YMCA" by the Village People, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, "We Are Family" by Sister Sledgeand "Do You Think I'm Sexy" by
Rod Stewart. Disco hit its peak in popularity in 1979 as Chic opened the year with the number one hit "Le Freak" and hit the top
again that summer with "Good Times." The flipside was an instrumental of "Good Times." A group called Sugarhill Gang took that
flipside and used it for the basis of the first rap hit "Rapper's Delight," which hit the top 40 at the end of 1979. There had been
earlier less known rap by R&B artists such as Curtis Blow, but "Rapper's Delight" became the dance floor anthem and prototype for
future dance/rap hits. In the summer of 1981 "Double Dutch Bus" by Frankie Smith was another huge early rap record on the pop charts.
The whole concept of disco was based on repeating rhythms - usually with quarter note drum beats, meaning every beat of the 1-2-3-4
pattern was accented,creating a hyper pulsating effect. Up until that time most drum tracks on hit records were either pulled way
back in the mix or concentrated onaccenting every other beat, especially in rock and roll. Eventually disco transformed into what was
called "crossover dance music," which fused thedisco sound with the syncopated rhythms of r&b. It became a complex mix of quarter note
accents laid over completely different rhythms that usuallyincluded louder accents on the second and fourth beats and sometimes 6/8
rhythms laid over 4/4 foundations.
The star of the disco record, unlike the rock star, was not so much the singer as it was the
dancer on the dance floor. The dancer's most intimate connection with the disco record was that familiar pulsating sound of the drums,
that was becoming more and more the driving force of pop musicfrom the mid-seventies on. In the late seventies live drummers with huge
drum kits were no longer necessary to make dance recordings as the electronic drummachine came of age. The first drum machine, the
Rhythmicon, actually dated back to the early 1930s. It produced 16 different rhythms. The firstcommercialization of this concept began
with organs that integrated drum machines in the late sixties. In the early seventies the Rhythm Ace, featuringpreset rhythms,
came on the scene as an early introduction to the company that became Roland. In 1978 Roland issued the CR-78, which was the
first programmable drum machine, that allowed the user to create their own drum patterns. Drum machines began to be heard more and
more on hit recordsin the early eighties.
Mixing disco records in clubs to create a continuous dance beat was well in effect
in the late seventies,appearing as early as 1974 and coming into mainstream consciousness around 1978 with the popularity of
Saturday Night Fever. The movie brought back earlier disco hits such as "Disco Inferno" by the Trammps, "You Should Be Dancing"
by the Bee Gees and "Boogie Shoes" by KC & The Sunshine Band. The soundtrack went on to become the biggest selling album of all time
until Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1983.
But disco suffered an incredible backlash by the summer of 1979 due to the
fact that it had taken over AM radio and that it was being "overplayed" everywhere. Clubs, dance halls, roller rinks and other dance
venues started breaking away from disco and the hits and started creating their own universe of music. As record labels began phasing
out the 7" on the commercial level by the end of the eighties, they continued to issue 12" singles as the primary medium for DJs. By
this point hit songs had multiple dance mixes that the club DJ could choose from.
The beat of popular music, which had gotten
up to 160 bpm (beats per minute) and higher in the disco era, sloweddown in the early eighties as 90-120 bpm dance records became more
common. As disco began to disappear fromthe charts, DJs turned to R&B music and the emerging sound of electronic music. Rock music
never seemed to fitinto the club mix because the emphasis was more on guitar and melody in rock than a consistent pulsating rhythm.
It's interesting that the concept of mixing music creatively really started with the freeform radio
rock DJs of the late sixties. Back then the idea was to create a seamless sonic continuum in which the overallmix told a thematic
storyline in the lyrics, or the mix was interesting from segue to segue simply becausethe music blended well. But back then the
consideration for blending sounds had more to do with lyrics, musical key, notesand guitar chords than with drum beats.
By the early eighties underground dance music had become its own culture, nowhere resembling the sound of the sixties andseventies
counter-culture. Several styles of electronic dance music began to emerge such as hip hop, rap, house, techno, industrial and
acid jazz. Early examples of new wave merging with disco were "Heart of Glass" by Blondie in 1979, "Pop Music" by M in 1979,
"Funky Town" by Lipps Inc in 1980, and "Rapture" by Blondie in 1981. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five were considered top
of the rap scene at that time and the songs "The Message" and "White Lines" became early rap anthems. Grandmaster Flash had been a
DJ in the Bronx in the late seventies. The sounds of the underground started to mix together as electronic and hip hop merged with
songs like "Freakazoid" by Midnight Star in 1983. It was during this 1982-1984 period when MTV became popular and video became very
much a part of the dance scene. MTV also delivered the new sounds of alternative music, also known as "rock of the
eighties." Rock finally merged with hip hop in 1986 when Run-DMC covered the Aerosmith hit "Walk This Way."
Throughout the eighties the club DJ's image and status grew in the dance music world. It was a decade in which DJsmade cassette mixes
of their shows and circulated them among a new breed of fans. The trend even made it to recordstores on CDs. Some DJs were elevated to
producer status by doing various "remixes" of recordings. It even inspired a new form of music in which records imbedded samples of
other records and soundbites as in a radio program. The most famous of these records was certainly "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer
in 1990, which sampled the bass hook from "Super Freak" by Rick James.
One of the first big dance hits to feature soundbites
was "19" by Paul Hardcastle in 1985, but adding samples to recordings had been done as far back as the Beatles and Beach Boys in
the mid-sixties. The big hit "Pump Up The Volume" by M/A/R/R/S in 1989 provided a more modern example of electronic sampling. Another
hit that year that contained a sample was "I Beg Your Pardon" by Kon Kan. The record incorporated a sample of the 1971 Lynn Anderson
country hit "Rose Garden" over the electronic drum track. Bits and pieces of classic hits began appearing in pop records more frequently,
including "Swing The Mood" by Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers in late 1989, which featured samples from popular fifties hits. The sampling craze
began to fizzle by the mid-nineties, however, after several producers faced copyright infringement cases for not getting prior permission
from the original songwriters and sound recording owners.
Disc jockeys had been around since the 1920s, with the arrival of public
address sound systems using microphones and speakersalongside the development of commercial radio. But it wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s
that hit records began to comment on the relevance of the DJ. "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles opened the eighties then Re-flex
had a hit four years later called "The Politics of Dancing" that said "the politicians are now DJs." In 1986 Cameo's funk hit "Word Up"
commented on the relevance of "sucka DJs." Perhaps they summed it up with the line "you've got to realize / that you're acting like fools."
But as the decade progressed the term "DJ" crossed over into successful artist names. Run-DMC had already hit it big and credited DJ Jam Master Jay
as one of the musicians. He was the turntablist who did the scratching. Then came Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
The art of beat-mixing finally debuted as a nationally syndicated radio program called "Hot Mix" put together by Andrew Starr and Dave Rajput in 1986.
It actually was launched on Phoenix top 40 station KOPA a year earlier,
but after a format change,it migrated to the more popular cross-town hit station KZZP, programed by Guy Zapoleon. From there it went national and in
a matter of a few years was played on over 175 stations across the country, typically on Saturday nights. The show lasted through the early 2000s before
getting phased out through the layers of corporate consolidation in the radio industry.
Raves started in England in the early eighties and by the
early nineties were huge underground festivals in majorAmerican cities. The all night private dance parties were held in big venues for thousands of
people, playing high energy techno music. In the early nineties it seemed that rave music was poised to take over popular music or at least the
alternative radio format but it never really happened, partly due to being overshadowed by the media frenzy of the Seattle rock scene.
There are now two main kinds of DJs who play for public crowds. One is the club DJ who mixes beats together to create a continuous flow of dance music.
The other is the more traditional mobile DJ who plays for weddings and corporate events. The latter is more concerned about playing specific songs that
the crowd wants to dance to whereas the club DJ is more concerned about continuous music flow and context than selection. Either way still works when
done appropriately. The club DJ usually attracts a crowd that already knows and expects that the music will be treated with "beat mixing" and that a
lot of the music will be more from the club scene than what's played on the radio. The traditional wedding DJ is more mainstream and sticks with
popular hits and has a completely differentstyle of mixing songs. The mixer creates the feeling of a continuous hypnotic soundscape based mainly on
electronic beat music while the traditional DJ creates a series of moments with a wider range of styles and eras.
In the 2000s a new style of
mixing dance music emerged called "mash up." A mash up contains surprises from styles of music outside of the typical disco/electronic/r&B/hip hop club
sound. A mash up tends to include vocals from rock songs laid over electronic beats of a more typical club song. Many club DJs even started to moveaway
from beat mixing in the early 2000s, in an attempt to sound more unpredictable. The popularity of iTunes, the iPod and then the iPod Shuffle forced radio
and clubs in general to come up with more unpredictable formats, as consumers became increasingly aware of how to program their own music.
The secret to beatmixing has more to do with knowing and understanding tempo and rhythm than anything. Every record has a tempo that can be measured in
beats per minute. Mixer DJs like to stick with electronic-based records because the drum beats are loudly and consistently pronounced in the mix. The
reason Technics 1200 turntables have pitch control has evolved. Originally the device was to account for inconsistencies in record pressings. Ultimately
it became the tool DJs used to match tempos with records of different timing. For example, if the current song playing has a tempo of 124 beats per minute
and the next record is 120 beats per minute, the DJ can pitch the next record up to 124 bpm to create a better mix.
The general rule is to not mix tempos that are far apart. The idea is to gradually build the tempo up to an aerobic level leading up to a break. The break
can be the DJ hitting the off button and the last record begins to slow down to a complete stop. Or it can be an announcement or it can just be silence.
Or it can be any creative idea the DJ comes up with to basically mark the end of a set. Then the tempo-building process starts all over again, except not
necessarily starting with slow music. Increasing the tempo need not be from one record to the next as the DJ can gradually pitch up during a song,
especially during a drum beat solo or musical break. A record that ends with a cold fade is a great introduction to increasing the tempo either with
the next song having a faster tempo or pitching it up. Even though it's all based on the science of counting beats, the DJ must not feel restricted by
rules in order to make beatmixing an art.
A good mixer DJ either counts the beats per minute of every song or already knows and categorizes this
information. This way it is easier to select music when it is categorized by tempo. But just because two matching tempo records are played back to back
doesn't mean the records will sonically match. It still requires artistic considerations when mixing from one song to the next regardless of tempo.
There are concessions, though, that allow any person with any experience to pull off a great mix between two songs. The easiest mix is when the first
record ends cold or with a cold fade, meaning the music has a natural ending as opposed to a producer's fade. The next record can literally be anything
since there are no beats to trip over. Mixing classic disco with newer electronic music can be tricky since the disco hits of the late 70s used
technologyprior to the advent of digital keyboards and recording, which became standard by the late eighties. The equalization isthinner on older music,
so the DJ has to work a little harder with EQ to get a good mix when dealing with pre-1983 music.
DJs created beatmixing probably out of the
necessity to keep the dance floor packed. No DJ likes to see a packed floor followed by an empty floor caused by one song. Instead of making the song
the focal point, why not the beat? Then thebeat can change cleverly when the DJ feels like it. One must remember, however, that no DJ is a god of all
people.The real key is getting a specific crowd to the event in the first place, since not everyone likes the same kind of music. Finding a crowd that
already likes forms of electronic music has always been the most importantcomponent to the DJ mixer's success over the years. Then again, some songs work
in any mix and can ignite a crowd.One of those records that seems timeless and embraces pop, rock, soul and even country is "Billie Jean" by
MichaelJackson. The opening beats are so strong they fit after almost any record regardless of tempo. Records with strongdrum intros are key components
to an interesting dance mix.
When a DJ must deal with a random crowd and does not know what the crowd likes, it's a whole different scene than
when the DJ already knows the crowd and the crowd already knows what to expect from the DJ. A random crowd is going to be a mix of mainstream,
underground and hard to please people. A targeted crowd is probably the result of marketing, either by a social leader stringing together circles of
friends or through media advertising, especially in flyer distribution. One other thing that distinguishes the mixer DJ with the traditional DJ is that
the mixer is more in a position to be thought of as a scene leader, as opposed to someone delivering a service.
The turntable has survived because it has become imbedded with the popular cultures of hip hop and techno. There is alsoa crowd of indie rockers who
prefer vinyl because it has a "warmer sound" meaning more life-like. Even thoughpitch control has been featured on CD decks, club DJs still prefer
turntables for some technical but mostlycosmetic reasons. It would seem that the more digital the better for DJs who rely on the world of electronic
music.Why not use CD players or computers with pitch control to deliver the music?
One thing a turntable is that other delivery systems aren't,
is a musical instrument with its own musical possibilities depending on the DJ/artist. Another thing is that compared to CD players, turntables have a
more on-demand feel by the DJ, who can start a record more precisely than with a CD player, which sometimes has delay problems. A DJ feels more in
command when on-demand ability is not in question. But the turntable is also more for show. It just looks more technical than a CD player, plus you
can see what the DJ is doing, handling and cueing up records. It looks more scientific and artisticthan popping a CD in a CD player or clicking a file
on a computer. Chances are, the turntable will still be around for years to come. It has made a mark in dance culture that has ensured its place in
So what makes a DJ? It actually starts with the equipment. A DJ is simply not a DJ without a sound system. At bare-minimumthe DJ needs
powered speakers (with built-in amplifiers), a four channel or better mixing board (with Numark being a popular brand), a microphone and any type of
sound source such as a laptop, CD players, turntables or mini-disc players. Thanks to the development of music storage and the computer revolution, many
DJs in the 2000s are using laptops, particularly the MacIntosh iBook, featuring the iTunes program or other playlist-oriented music software, to generate
the music flow. DJ-mixers, of course, are sticking with turntables while other DJs are hanging on to CD players. If the speakers do not have built-in
amplifiers, then the DJ needs to add an amplifier to the equipment list. Many DJs like to assemble the components except for the speakers all in one
racked-mounted case or box on wheels. In many situations a venue will set up a table with table cloth matching the event so that the DJ fits in more
with event coordination, which makes it better for DJs who condense their equipment in a small box or simply set up the components separately.
On top of these requirements are the many extras DJs like to throw in to enhance their shows. These extras includea light show with strobes and
multi-colored beacons, wireless microphones, wireless headsets, expanders, limiters,and MIDI equipment. The main thing a DJ will always have to make a
priority is the music. As long as something isplaying through the speakers the DJ is making something happen, assuming people are present. The big test
for theDJ is populating the dance floor, unless it's a period of music not intended for dancing, such as dinner backgroundmusic. Usually a continuous
dancing crowd is what makes the DJ a star. That means the DJ must know or learn the crowd as much as possible, by figuring out which songs work for
that particular crowd. For a DJ-mixer, it's the mix that needs to workmore than anything, which means creating an evolving tempo scheme with a
bpm-organized music library and pitch control.
DJ mixing at its most amazing has a subliminal effect on people's minds, and the best of the
best are the oneswho present a seamless flow where transitions are not obvious, which unlike radio,
suspends judgment on songs andinstead creates an atmosphere that promotes crowd unity.
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