Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ, by Mark Katz
Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ, by Mark Katz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0195331127.
In the four decades since hip-hop developed in the Bronx and became a national cultural phenomenon, there have been few monographs on the hip-hop DJ as in-depth and as historically insightful as Mark Katz’s Groove Music.1 While the term “disc jockey” was originally coined as a derogatory reference to the radio personalities that simply played records on the radio, “DJ” and “DJing” can now refer to a number of artistic practices and cultural and professional identities. Katz, an amateur DJ himself, makes clear in his introduction that the type of DJ on which he chose to focus is what he calls the performative DJ—“those who not only select recordings, but manipulate them in real time for audiences.”2 While performative DJs practice in myriad styles, with numerous techniques and a host of equipment, Katz primarily focuses on turntablism, or the practice of scratching, sampling, and mixing sound together, principally using vinyl records and a phonograph turntable, in the performance of hip-hop specifically.3 The term “hip-hop” itself has a complicated history and etymology that includes many facets of the entire subculture: “b-boying” and “b-girling” (known by non-practitioners as ‘breakdancing’), “MCing” (or rapping), producing beats for MCs, graffiti art, DJing, and the ethos surrounding these practices. In this book, Katz touches on most of these, specifically focusing on the DJ as performer of hip-hop music and as a contributor to the social construction of hip-hop culture; this monograph is well-suited for scholars, students of popular music, and practitioners alike, and proves to be a significant contribution to the study of hip-hop and to the history of DJing as a performance practice.
“It’s all about the break,” writes Katz as he begins his discussion of the roots of the hip-hop DJ in the Bronx in the early to mid-1970s, and he starts with James Brown—the artist from whom the “break” may have originated, with hip-hop’s roots steeped deeply into the funk genre.4 Here, Katz describes how Brown makes a “break,” colorfully describing an instance in Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (1970):
About four-and-a-half minutes in, Brown calls out to his band of nine: “I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got here. When I count to four, I want everyone to lay out and let the drummer go. And when I count to four I want you to come back in.” The groove continues for thirteen bars before Brown counts off, calling out to the drummer Clyde Stubblefield to “Hit it!” The clouds part, and a ray of pure funk shines down, a simple but slightly off-kilter call and response between the bass and snare drum, the hi-hat keeping time in sixteenth notes. Brown can only keep quiet for two bars before he starts testifying, exclaiming “Good God!” and “Ain’t it funky!” All too soon, he counts the rest of the group back in, and the moment slips away. That moment was the break.5
Katz lays out how these breaks become the foundation for many of hip-hop’s notable features. He quotes the DJ known as “Steinski” from a telephone interview with the author, writing, “It’s like all of a sudden the song took its clothes off.” Herein lies a double entendre: the break is where people “got down;” in the 1970s, “get down” could mean “to dance with abandon, or to have sex.”6 It is within the context of this double meaning that the sexual tension of some hip-hop music can be understood, and also how “breakdancing” developed from literally getting down and dancing during a particularly funky break. In the rest of this chapter, Katz describes how pioneering DJs in the Bronx, such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Grandmaster Flash, and GrandWizzard Theodore, contributed to the development of this dance craze by creating breaks through scratching records, repeating samples, and other early turntable techniques. He also writes at length about the influence of Caribbean (Jamaican, specifically) music, salsa and Latino music, disco, funk and the urban cultural milieu within which DJs found themselves that all contributed greatly to the development of hip-hop and to DJing as a legitimate musical practice.
Chapter 2 is an in-depth look at the emergence of turntablism as a music-making technique and cultural practice in hip-hop. Katz describes the early DJ battle scene wherein competition further fueled the development of the tools and techniques of DJing. From amassing large sound systems to honing their techniques, DJs developed style and employed a wider range of equipment during the 1970s that insured both a battle win and hip-hop’s own survival. Katz describes many of these new developments, such as the introduction of horizontal crossfaders that allowed DJs to switch easily and seamlessly from one record to another with the introduction of the Clubman Two to the market in 1975. In doing so, Katz provides a rare glimpse into the creative process and innovative genius of many DJs from that time. A quick glance at the bibliography will show readers that Katz did years of fieldwork and interviews in preparation for writing this book; he interviewed over 60 DJs, practitioners, and scholars, and in doing so, gives this book the “street cred” many in the hip-hop world value over academic credentials and scholarly citations.
The third chapter, “Out of the Bronx and into the Shadows: 1978-1983,” details how DJs slipped into relative obscurity as MCs became more famous when hip-hop became more mainstream; however, Katz is quick to point out that as the fame of MCs grew, so too did the reputation of the DJ, with some gaining international notoriety. In a particularly enlightening section of this chapter, Katz carefully diagrams the various records, breaks, and methods of manipulation used by Grandmaster Flash in the production of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”—the first commercially produced solo DJ record.7 Katz also discusses the further proliferation of hip-hop into mainstream culture though the popularity of a few notable songs: “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), “Change the Beat” (1982), and “Rockit” (1983).
DJing further developed in the 1980s, largely due to the notoriety MCs brought to hip-hop culture and artistic practices. During this time period, DJing spread across the country even though DJs themselves were finding themselves upstaged by MCs. Katz remarks, “In a sense, the DJ both flourished and faded—faded from the mainstream, but flourished in the underground. These competing trajectories make it impossible to pull a single narrative thread through this part of our story. There is, however, a unifying theme: expansion.”8 Katz describes how hip-hop spread to other sections of urban America, especially Philadelphia, and how national and international DJ battles, and the further development of more turntable techniques such as transforming and beat juggling all contributed to this expansion. It is also in the 1980s that DJs become producers, and Katz describes how “making beats” for DJs and performing live on the turntables share specific aesthetic qualities essential to hip-hop.
In Chapter 5, Katz outlines the development of the term turntablist and how it became apropos for describing what performative DJs are. He writes:
In 1995, Chris Oroc was a gas station attendant and a talented amateur DJ living in Southern California. One day as he was labeling homemade CDs, he unwittingly gave a name to an emerging musical movement. When he performed, Oroc was known as Babu, and on each CD he wrote “Babu the Turntablist”; later he called one of his tracks “Turntablism” . . . . Turntablist came to designate a distinctive type of DJ, an instrumentalist who does not simply reproduce existing music but creates entirely new music out of records; turntablism is an art . . . . The “-ism” in turntablism was more than a simple suffix—it was a crucial signifier. Turntablism lent a sense of seriousness and cohesion to the art and even suggested something of a philosophy.” (emphasis in original).9
Here, Katz explains the further development of this technique and philosophy in the late 1980s/early 1990s as DJs introduced scratch needles, more advanced crossfaders, virtuosic scratching techniques (such as the crab scratch), and even turntablist crews (or groups of turntablists that perform together or as a team). A very strong and valid point that Katz makes here and in other parts of the books is that hip-hop is not necessarily a uniquely black art form; here, he describes how the rise of hip-hop in San Francisco and the Bay Area leads to many notable Filipino American practitioners and attracts many white DJs as well. Katz also includes examples of women DJs such as Kuttin Kandi and Shortee, and crews such as “Chicks with Decks,” “Females wit’ Funk,” and “Queens of Noize” in a section he titles DJ Heroines.
In the 1990s, battles became very important as DJs fought for recognition, notoriety, and ultimately—superiority. Chapter 6 outlines many of the important DJ battles, describes the multifaceted ways in which DJs honed their craft to prepare for battles, and discusses the proliferation of battle records (compilation disks of many song clips, film audio clips, and other samples created especially for DJ battles). Katz goes on to describe the dilemma created by these battles—overspecialization. As DJs practice scratching for hours in preparation for battle, they become virtuosic experts in scratching and other turntablist techniques; in doing so, their artistic path becomes more concentrated, shutting out amateurs and “party-rocking” DJs in the process. It was as if DJs created their own “ivory DJ booth,” and Katz demonstrates how some DJs believed these experts marginalize others the same way MCs had marginalized DJs in the 1980’s. He also explains how others believe turntablism had become too technical.
The last two chapters recount some of the developments of the art of turntablism as DJs pursued more legitimacy and sought to break down the barriers built in the 1990s (and earlier). Katz writes about instances in the late 90s wherein scratching had gone mainstream, even infiltrating bubblegum pop songs like “MMMbop” by the young Hanson brothers in 1997. This song had gone “double platinum” and was a number-one hit in several countries, and for Katz, demonstrated how incongruous hearing turntablist techniques in non-hip-hop sounded to him. He writes, “I remember hearing it for the first time and wondering, what is that sound doing in this song? Wicki wickies and all, “MMMbop” was beloved by millions, and brought the sound of scratching to a new generation and a new audience” (emphasis in original).10 Katz also details the further popularity of the DJ album, the rise popularity of DJs such as DJ Shadow and Kid Koala that achieved cult status, and further legitimization through the incorporation of turntablism into jazz, avant-garde practices, and even classical music.11 Theoretical approaches also develop, including hip-hop filmmaker John Carluccio’s “Turntablist Transcription Methodology” (or TTM) that serves as a notation convention for record scratching.12
The appendices and online content are especially thoughtful and would prove useful for students and other readers unfamiliar with the equipment, music, or DJs mentioned in the book. “Appendix 1: The DJ’s Instrument” includes diagrams drawn by Nicole M. Havey of two turntables and a mixer (with a separate close-up view of the cartridge assembly), replete with labels of each constituent component and control surface. Appendix 2 is a list of “Raw Materials and Finished Products: Breaks, Tracks, and Albums;” here, Katz provides a list of 20 classic breaks often used by hip-hop DJs, “Five Classic Samples used by DJs,” “12 Classic Solo DJ Tracks,” “16 MC Odes to their DJs,” and “25 Turntablist Albums.” Very helpfully, sound files for the breaks, samples, solo tracks, and odes can be found on Oxford’s companion website for the book. Appendix 3 comprises several lists of winners of various major battle winners from 1981-2011, most notably, several Disco Mix Club (DMC) battles of various competition styles. The companion website includes many more tracks, particularly those mentioned in the text, photographs of people and places that provide a frame of reference for the reader, and videos of interviews and demonstrations by prominent hip-hop DJs.
Groove Music is a well-researched historical account of the legacy and cultural influence of hip-hop DJs that will prove useful to any scholar or student of popular music. Not only is Katz’s book a compelling contribution to hip-hop scholarship, it is witty and accessible enough to serve as inspiration for future turntablists and current practitioners discovering their own roots.
1While there are other books with chapters devoted to hip-hop and related themes, the first comprehensive treatment for the subject is S.H. Fernando’s The New Beats: Exploring the Music Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop (New York: Anchor, 1994). A closely related analytical title is Mark J. Butler’s Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006).
3Turntablism is also widely used in electronic dance music (EDM) and in experimental and avant-garde practices. Katz also discusses the use of digital formats (rather than–or in addition to—vinyl records) by some practitioners (219-30).
7Grandmaster Flash, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” from The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, Sugar Hill Records 12-inch single SH-557,1981. See Figure 3.4, Katz, 80.
11DJs/artists such as DJ Spooky and works such as Raúl Yañez’s Concerto for Turntables exemplify this trend.
12See also Katz’s discussion of French graphic designer Laurent Burte’s scratchgraphique technique, 210-11.
Last modified on Wednesday, 06/03/2019
Michael Lee Austin
Michael Austin is Assistant Professor of Media, Journalism and Film and Coordinator for the School of Communications Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; he teaches undergraduate courses in radio/audio and music production, and sound design in the MFA Film program. He received a BM in Music Composition from the University of Texas at San Antonio, a MM in Music Theory from the University of Texas at Austin, and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Humanities - Aesthetic Studies (specializing in Arts and Technology/Music) from the University of Texas at Dallas.