The Evolution of DJing: From Disc Jockey to Digital Jockey

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Everyone has their own distinct image of what a stereotypical “DJ” is. For some of us, we immediately think back to the “old school” persona, brought about by the era of hip-hop music, while others might think of the more modern EDM festival they attended last weekend. Whichever image resonates in your own mind, one consistency is certain: the art of DJing is an activity that has developed over time to cater to morphing musical interests and the constantly increasing technology in this digital age. The origins of disc jockeying can be traced back to the beginnings of radio broadcasting. Starting in the early 1900s, records had begun to be transmitted through the airwaves. It wasn’t until the 30s, however, that the term “disc jockey” was first used as means of describing prominent radio announcer Martin Block (many allow him to hold the respective title of being the world’s first “DJ”).

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Now try and imagine the very first party that could have been accompanied by a DJ’s presence. In 1943, DJ Jimmy Savile was the first known performer to utilize twin turntables in order to play a continuous jazz “dance party,” at a private dance hall in England. This very well could have been the ancient origins of the classic Bucknell register. After Savile’s performance, nightclubs and discos began spreading modestly throughout Europe and the United States.

While all this was going on, there was a much different approach seen elsewhere in the world. Specifically in Jamaica, there was an extremely quick surge of the sort of hip-hop, block-party DJing that many people might think originated here in the States. Rather, DJ competing became very prevalent in Jamaican culture, with a huge emphasis on playing the loudest music to accompany massive outdoor parties. This style eventually caught on in America in the latter half of the 1970s, and is what lead to the eventual creation of the modern hip-hop disc jockey.

Before we saw classic Emcees like the Sugar Hill Gang emerging, though, the disco-funk phase had to take its toll on the DJ scene. Songs like “Ten Percent” by Double Exposurewere remixed by American DJs and released for public use. As you can tell from listening to just the first ten seconds of the song, this sounds nothing like the booming bass lines and catchy sampling methods early hip-hop artists would utilize.

Nevertheless, with the help of the newly created cable television network, MTV, club and disco styles were largely demoted in the DJing realm. Prominent DJs such as DJ Afrika Bambaataa revolutionized the American DJ scene and created what we might refer to as the first disc jockey-induced subculture. This is that awesome, technical style of DJing marked for its heavy use of the “scratching” technique we’re all familiar with.

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Enter the 90s: the beginning of the digital music age. With CDs becoming increasingly favored over the gramophone record, a new phase of DJing was inevitable. Shortly after the popularization of CDs came the origination of the Digital Disc Jockey. Rather than toting around carts of cases of CDs or records to every event, the option for DJs to store their music on hard drives became possible (but still a very limited option until the turn of the century). A new rave scene emerged in the United States, and this is what brings us to the more modernized view that we attribute to DJs around the world today. The nightclub scene has seen yet another resurgence (remember its first decline, back in the 70s?) and Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has become an increasingly popular and profitable realm for the modern Digital DJ. Along with this, the role of the DJ has also greatly expanded. Rather than relying strictly on live events for profit, many modern Digital DJs also produce their own music tracks outside of their live work.

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This has widened the role of the DJ, and made it much more prevalent throughout American music culture. Underground block parties have been consumed by huge public dance music festivals, and vinyl has been overturned by digital music sharing. Next time you’re out at a register or club, imagine what differences you might have experienced ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago! The role of music is constantly changing, and while it’s important to have a good understanding of where it’s headed in the future, we can only accomplish this by delving into its past.