From John Cage to Kool Herc: A Brief History of Turntablism

History of Turntablism- Grandmaster Flash
Critics of modern Dance music and DJ culture often throw around the charge that DJs simply “press buttons,” insinuating that there is no skill or artistry in the craft. Every so often, controversy will break out when a major DJ act is accused of having their headphones unplugged, or their gear powered down during a set, showing that the question of whether DJs are “real artists” is a contentious debate to many. What may be unknown to the critics is that the turntable and its predecessors have been used, not just as playback devices, but as full-blown instruments of their own since their inception over a century ago.

Coined by DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies crew, the term ‘turntablism’ emerged in 1995 to reflect the artistic practices of the hip hop DJ and, specifically, to denote the difference between playing back records and using turntables to manipulate sound. What’s described as turntablism today however, extends beyond hip hop, and its history starts much earlier.

Even before turntablist pioneers such as DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash started to popularize techniques like beat-juggling, others like John Cage and Pierre Shaeffer were fiddling with the use of turntables and vinyl records in a variety of experimental platforms. To help educate people on the history of turntablism, The Vinyl Factory has written up a brief history of the different ways people have used vinyl and other physical recording mediums to manipulate sound. Head to their site for the full story, and take a look below for an (even briefer) look at some key moments in turntablist history.

Pierre Shaeffer Musique Concrete
Pierre Shaeffer, pioneer of musique concrète

Precursors to Turntables

Seventy years before hip hop turntablists, traveling showmen would, as the grand finale to an evening’s entertainment, instantly record a cornettist and then perform sped-up takes of the recording by turning the phonograph handle faster and faster.

Even before true turntables had been invented, performers were beginning to experiment with the manipulation of pre-recorded material in a live setting. Early inventions like Thomas Edison’s phonograph allowed not only for playback, but for recording of live sound, sound which could be played back normally, as well as be sped up, slowed down, or played backwards, and this capability helped to pioneer techniques that are still used by modern DJs.

20th Century Experimental Composers

During the 20th Century, as turntable and record technology developed further, experimental composers like John Cage and Pierre Shaeffer started to develop musical styles that revolved around creative uses of turntables. Pierre Shaeffer pioneered the genre of musique concrète by using psuedo-sampling techniques, playing records forwards/backwards, at different speeds, and breaking the grooves to create loops.

Musique concrète (French pronunciation: ​[myzik kɔ̃.kʁɛt], meaning “concrete music”) is a genre of electroacoustic music that is made in part from acousmatic sound, or sound without an apparent originating cause.

John Cage, a composer known for his piece 4’33”, composed pieces for performance with records and turntables, such as his Imaginary Landscape No.1 and Credo in Us, both of which involved performers playing records at different times and speeds.

Reggae, Club, Hip Hop, and Radio DJs

In the 2nd half of the 20th century, modern DJ techniques began to be developed in a number of places. During the 50’s and 60’s, Jamaican reggae DJs began to develop techniques like beat-juggling and cutting back and forth between records, which allowed them to create original compositions on the fly from old records.

Jamaicans like DJ Kool Herc brought these techniques to the US, helping to pioneer what would be come hip-hop. Early hip hop DJs were extremely important, often taking on the role of producer and performer, manipulating records to create instrumental tracks that MCs could rap over.

At the same time, club and radio DJs began to pioneer the art of beat matching and mixing two records together, with DJ Francis Grasso being credited as the first to really perfect the art of beat matching records. During the 1970’s and 80’s, club DJs began using two or more turntables to mix records into one another, as opposed to only one turntable, marking the dawn of modern DJing.

Contemporary Practice

In the 21st century, the turntable is understood to be a powerful tool of sonic manipulation, and many continue to push the musical development of the platform. This piece, by Gabriel Prokofiev, features a DJ soloist with an orchestra accompaniment, a bizarre pairing that blends together with surprising ease.

Outside the realm of modern classical music, the annual DMC DJ competition pits the best DJs in the world against each other, serving as a showcase of the world’s best talent, and gives aspiring DJs something to set their sights on. Below is a video of Canadian DJ VEKKED’s winning set at the 2015 DMC competition. The DMC competition has traditionally been sponsored by Technics, however in recent years the rise of digital DJing technology has led them to allow the use of vinyl emulation controllers. The arrival of digital DJ technology has been met with a lot of scrutiny, however some digital platforms offer a degree of control that is unavailable with an analog set-up.

As you can see, turntablism has quite a history as an art form, and involves a bit more than “pressing play”.

If you’re interested in learning more about DJing, make sure to look at our courses. Our instructors DJ Rugged One and DJ Esq are particularly good at it. In fact, here’s Pete (ESQ) being shouted-out by Kid Koala, one of the more artistic turntablists in the world:

A video posted by Mmmmaven (@mmmmaven) on

Contact me about setting up a free introductory lesson and tour of the studio. Our students really love it. But don’t take my word for it, read what they’ve said about us on Google Places.

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