by Alex Cosper
See also: How to Find a Wedding DJ
The art of DJ-mixing has climbed to the top of the mythical pyramid in certain scenes. 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), everybody listened to music on turntables and cassette decks. By 1977 the cassette had become half as popular 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 easily got 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 in the seventies when consumers became more aware of sound quality. FM radio began to overtake AM radio because of better fidelity. The record industry moved away from mono recordings and concentrated on cleaner production of multi-track stereo recordings. What caused a small culture of club DJs to hang on to the turntable and vinyl records was a company called Technics. While the consumer turntable manufacturers were giving up on making the vinyl record experience as enjoyable as possible, Technics catered to the professional user. In 1972 the Technics SL-1200 turntable became the model turntable for the DJ world of radio stations and mobile DJs.
Technics had introduced the first direct drive turntable, the SP-10, in 1969. This was important because turntable motors were otherwise driven by a belt, which after time became worn out, causing records to turn in warped rotation, adding to the machine noise working against the music. The SL-1200 was an improvement on the SP-10. Between 1972 and 1984 Technics began to add features suited for the needs of DJs to the SL-1200, which inevitably 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 the cue 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 records so 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 massive sweep to FM in the late seventies. What AM top 40 did in its final years of influence on music fans, however, was popularize disco music.
If anyone deserves credit for starting the disco revolution it was Barry White. He wrote and 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 had his own hits dating back to 1973 with "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby," which was a top three pop record and a number one R&B record. It had the elements of early disco as 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."
White's fast, 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 beat really 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 McCrae, which were both number one records. "Rock Your Baby" was written by Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch, the team that wrote five number one hits for KC & The Sunshine Band, in which Casey sang vocals. The first time the word "disco" was mentioned in a big hit was in the late 1974/early 1975 hit "Get Dancin'" by Disco Tex & The Sex-o-lettes
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 same record and mix them together on separate turntables. This may be why TK Records released an instrumental version of "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 popular until 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 later.
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 with big 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 disco was really all about. It was also one of the first long extended mixes with a 16 minute version on a 12" issued by Casablanca 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 hanging on to hear a lyrical story.
By 1979 it looked as though disco had commercially conquered everything else in music at least on the singles charts with hits like "YMCA" by the Village People, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge and "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 lesser 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 on accenting every other beat, especially in rock and roll. Eventually disco transformed into what was called "crossover dance music," which fused the disco sound with the syncopated rhythms of r&b. It became a complex mix of quarter note accents laid over completely different rhythms that usually included 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 music from 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 drum machine came of age. The first drum machine, the Rhythmicon, actually dated back to the early 1930s. It produced 16 different rhythms. The first commercialization of this concept began with organs that integrated drum machines in the late sixties. In the early seventies the Rhythm Ace, featuring preset 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 records in the early eighties, especially after the popularity of "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes.
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 the top 40 and started creating their own universe of music. The consequence of the radio industry's decision to saturate pop stations with disco led to a music industry recession, because the industry depended on album sales to make big profits and disco was more of a phenomenon with singles than albums.
The industry put all its eggs in one basket following the success of the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack. A big part of that album's success was that it was loaded with tracks that had already been popular hits, much like a greatest hits compilation. Disco failed to sell deliver big album sales while it dominated the singles charts, which was a vehicle primarily to sell albums since singles usually didn't even break even and were considered loss leader promotion expenses. As a result, the music industry feel into a sales slump from 1979 through 1982 and didn't recover until the release of the Thriller album by Michael Jackson.
The entire nation had actually moved into deep recession by the early eighties. Nevertheless, electronic music continued to grow in popularity at night clubs and roller rinks. The beat of popular music, which had gotten up to 160 bpm (beats per minute) and higher in the disco era, slowed down in the early eighties as 90-120 bpm dance records became more common. As disco began to disappear from the charts, DJs turned to R&B music and the emerging sound of electronic music. Rock music never seemed to fit into 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 overall mix told a thematic storyline in the lyrics, or the mix was interesting from segue to segue simply because the music blended well. But back then the consideration for blending sounds had more to do with lyrics, musical key, notes and 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 and seventies 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 while their 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 DJs made cassette mixes of their shows and circulated them among a new breed of fans. The trend even made it to record stores 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.
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.
Disc jockeys had been around since the 1920s, with the arrival of public address sound systems using microphones and speakers alongside 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, not counting "Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones in 1965. "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 major American 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 different style 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 sometimes includes vocals from rock songs laid over electronic beats of a more typical club song. Many club DJs even started to move away 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 had pitch control evolved over time. Originally the feature 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 technology prior to the advent of digital keyboards and recording, which became standard by the late eighties. The equalization is thinner 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 the beat 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 important component 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 Michael Jackson. The opening beats are so strong they fit after almost any record regardless of tempo. Records with strong drum 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 with 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 merely delivering a paid service.
The turntable has survived because it has become imbedded with the popular cultures of hip hop and techno. There is also a crowd of indie rockers who prefer vinyl because it has a "warmer sound" meaning more life-like. Even though pitch control has been featured on CD decks, club DJs still prefer turntables for some technical but mostly cosmetic 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. 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 artistic than 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 history.
So what makes a DJ? It actually starts with the equipment. A DJ is simply not a DJ without a sound system. At bare-minimum the 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 Mac-based computers, featuring the iTunes program or other playlist-oriented music software (such as MegaSeg), 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.
On top of these requirements are the many extras DJs like to throw in to enhance their shows. These extras include a 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 is playing through the speakers the DJ is making something happen, assuming people are present. The big test for the DJ is populating the dance floor, unless it's music not intended for dancing, such as dinner background music.
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 work more 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 ones who present a seamless flow where transitions are not obvious. Unlike radio, a dance mix suspends judgment on songs and instead creates an atmosphere that promotes crowd unity.
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