If you are a young person going out to nightclubs, you will be quite familiar with the whole DJ-as-Rockstar image. You know the scene: a guy spinning records on two turntables with headphones propped up against one ear entertaining a packed dancefloor in rapture. For over twenty years the DJ has become one of the most revered figures in popular culture associated with fame, money and of course downright partying.
What you may not know is that DJing, like all of the creative arts, has its origins around the globe, from Jamaica to New York, Chicago and Detroit to the UK and beyond. It’s a fascinating history built on technical genius, whirlwind creativity and a passion for collecting and playing music so deep its barely comprehensible (unless you’re actually a DJ in which case you know exactly what I’m talking about).
Red Bull Thre3Style is, as its core, about the essence of DJing: The balance between the skill and technique of the art, and the ability to rock the crowd. It’s therefore interesting to go back in time and take a look at the pioneers who built the foundations because it helps us understand why and how DJs do what they do so well.
Island Style: Jamaican DJs set the standard
Although DJing has been around since the birth of recorded music, the core elements of modern DJing can be traced back to Jamaican Soundsystem culture. In the 1950’s entrepreneurial Jamaican DJs would throw large outdoor parties playing American Rhythm & Blues records. The catch was that their soundsystems, the speaker, amplifiers and turntables, were mobile. Loaded onto the back of a truck, the DJs would travel around Kingston town throwing parties to eagerly awaiting fans.
The likes of Sir Coxsone Dodd’s Downbeat, Duke Reid’s Trojan and King Edward’s Giant were all famous Soundsystems of the time owned by eccentric DJs. These DJs began to get competitive with each other and a sense of rivalry grew between the different Soundsystem crews. This competitiveness culminated in what is known as Soundsystem Clashes, where two crews would set up their Soundsystems in close proximity to each other. They would play music either at the same time or back-to-back and the crowd would party along. Whichever crew had the loudest Soundsystem and best records would receive more applause and attention from the crowd than the other Soundsystem and in doing so would win the Sound Clash.
Roots Music: From R&B to Reggae
Initially the music the DJs played was R&B by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding and Ben E King. The DJs would travel all the way to America just to get their music or get friends and family members who traveled to bring them music back. Having a certain popular record that no other DJ had was a triumph and many DJs would scratch the title off the record so that if any other DJ looked at it they wouldn’t know what record it was and go and find it for themselves.
As the lineage of Jamaican music grew throughout the 60’s and 70’s, from Ska to Rocksteady to the sound we now all know as Reggae, the DJs started playing more homegrown music.
They in fact went one up on this and began making their own “versions” of popular Jamaican songs. They would either borrow the tape-recordings from the studio sessions or work with the sound engineers from the studios where the song were recorded to essentially remix them, which would most often involve making the bass and drums much more prominent in the mix and add echo to the vocals in certain places. This was in fact the birth of Dub a genre described by Wikipedia as, “either an instrumental subgenre of reggae music, or a separate genre of music that involves revisions of existing songs.”
From Jamaica to the rest of the world
So almost 50 years ago Jamaican DJs had established some of the most important aspects of DJing: sourcing the best music that no-one else has, making edits of popular songs to better suit ones set and the sense of competitiveness that lies in every DJ: that feeling that you can rock the party better than anyone else. The Jamaican DJs would go onto directly influence the birth of hip-hop and in a sense DJs around the world to this day. Without their creative ingenuity there probably wouldn’t be a Red Bull Thre3Style.