Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ

September 6, 2012

In its earliest form, the music and culture of hip hop boasted five key areas of activity: break-dance, graffiti, rap, DJ'ing and knowledge. Each of these so-called tenets of hip hop has come under varying degrees of scrutiny in the academy, with particular interest being shown - perhaps not surprisingly - in the area of knowledge. However, with the exception of generalised historical accounts, the hugely influential art and culture of the DJ has remained relatively unexplored. To say that Mark Katz's extensive research into this understudied area is long overdue is an understatement.

This excellent book draws on 10 years of interviews with some of the key figures in hip hop's emergence and development in order to explore the art, culture, geography and technology of the hip hop DJ, or turntablist. Katz presents a compelling account of the rise of turntablism from its roots in block parties in New York's Bronx district in the 1970s to its entry into mainstream popular culture in the 1980s. Indeed, the DJ's approach has become increasingly central to popular music, with its hybrid methods having a significant impact on the ways in which popular music of all contemporary styles and genres are constructed and produced.

Author Kodwo Eshun once described turntablism as "violence against vinyl". By this he meant that the hip hop DJ's approach to the record was diametrically opposed to that of his or her rock counterpart. Hip hop DJs elevate specific parts of a recording over the whole by singling out key sections, or "breaks" as they became known. Katz picks up on this notion and draws on a broad range of approaches to investigate the stories associated with the rise of the hip hop phenomenon.

Early hip hop DJs such as Kool Herc drew from an eclectic mix of vinyl histories to source and isolate rhythmic breaks in records. These breaks would be extended by switching between two turntables, thus creating a pioneering soundtrack for partying to and MC'ing, or rapping, over. The sources of these breakbeats were closely guarded secrets known as "battle weapons", a term that linked the art of the DJ to the "battle", where aspects of hip hop culture would be expressed through varying forms of public challenge, with the best known being between rappers, or MCs.

The hip hop DJ's battle weapons eventually extended beyond breakbeats and into the entirely new realm of scratching. Here, the turntablist turned the turntable and vinyl into instruments, revealing a level of innovation and dexterity usually associated with traditional rock and pop instruments such as guitars and keyboards. As Katz notes, the resulting cacophony of looped breakbeats and montages of chirruping scratches offered the perfect sonic expression of the traffic noise that assaulted New Yorkers on a daily basis. Put simply, hip hop was the sound of life in the Bronx.

Katz explores in detail how, in the hip hop DJ's hands, there can be no such thing as the finished article, only tools to be used in constructing a groove. Rock DJs, on the other hand, promote notions of the originating genius and the perfected craft of songwriting by playing entire songs exactly as the artists meant them to be heard. In effect, the hip hop DJ plays history, while the rock DJ archives it.

Turntablism's contribution to hip hop and broader popular culture may have been largely ignored in favour of the academy's continued obsession with the rock canon, but Katz's exhaustive research and attention to detail have produced a gripping study that goes a long way towards filling the knowledge gap. Groove Music is strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in popular music and culture formations.

Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ

By Mark Katz. Oxford University Press. 352pp, £60.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780195331110 and 311. Published 26 July 2012

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