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The History of Turntablism

Wednesday Jun 8, 2011

The History of TurntablismIt has only been recently that USB turntables have started becoming popular with modern music-lovers, may they be working as professional DJs or just enjoying listening to music. However, the use of the turntable to mix, match, and create new music goes back in history, specifically in the 1920s, when Edgar Varese started experimenting with turntables. In the next decades to come, experimental composers such as John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer started making music using most DJ techniques we know today. This was the start of what is now known as turntablism, an entirely new musical sub-culture involving the creation and manipulation of music using a turntable.

Varese’s experimental music, though, did not give rise to the modern, upbeat hip-hop music produced by today’s DJs, but it certainly inspired modern experimental musicians such as Phillip Jeck, Christian Marclay, Janek Schaefer, and Otomo Yoshihide. It was in the 1970s when turntablism started to become the modern music form loved by party-goers and clubbers.

One of the most popular DJ techniques is scratching, which was accidentally discovered by Grand Wizard Theodore. Stories passed through word of mouth say he put his hand on the record to silence the music as his mother was calling him, when he discovered the technique of scratching by moving the record back and forth under the stylus. Grand Wizard Theodore was an apprentice of Flash, who popularized the technique during his own public shows and making it a staple of hip hop music since the early 1980s.

With the rise of USB turntables, scratching became modernized by turning the fader on and off and moving a block of sound under the stylus. This began to be known as transformer scratching among professional hip hop music-makers. It was popularized in Philadelphia by DJ Spinbad, DJ Cash Money, and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Unfortunately, these three were later on relegated to the B-list of DJs when personality started becoming a big thing in hip hop.

Scratching, though it is the most popular DJ technique known to many, was only later developed after DJ Kool Herc introduced “real” DJing, or at least the one we know today, where the DJs don’t just play one record after the other. Instead, they have their own share of musical talents and they create their own type of music for others to enjoy. Kool Herc is known to have popularized the break-beat technique, the first method that led to the modern concept of DJing. Kool Herc was also the one who coined the term “turntablist” to refer to himself and other people who did what he was doing.

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