In today’s society, disc jockeys, or DJs, play a significant role in entertainment culture. Some are high-profile celebrities who can pack venues during live sets. Others are known for their collaborations with rappers and singers, giving them catchy beats to put their vocals over. DJs can be the life of the party, turning a low-energy event into an exciting celebration.
What it means to be a DJ has evolved a lot since the occupation’s earliest days. Keep reading to learn more about disk jockey history and how DJing was created.
When Was the Term Disc Jockey Invented?
The first question to answer is why they’re called a disk jockey in the first place. Every name has an origin story, and the term disc jockey is no exception. First, it’s important to mention the man who made DJing possible — Thomas Edison. Yes, Thomas Edison, the man most renowned for inventing the tungsten light bulb, was also the person who created the phonographic cylinder in 1877.
Edison’s phonographic cylinder marked the first time people could record audio and listen back to it. This innovation let consumers listen to music in the comfort of their own homes on their phonograph, rather than having to go out and hear a live band.
Eventually, companies moved away from the cylindrical shape of the original phonograph, and the familiar disc shape of vinyl records became mainstream. Radio broadcasting for entertainment began around 1910, and broadcasters, known as “record men,” would play vinyl records on air for their listeners’ enjoyment.
The use of vinyl records on-air led to the first-ever mention of the term disk jockey in 1935. Radio presenter Walter Winchill used the nickname to describe fellow radio announcer Martin Block. In his radio show “Make Believe Ballroom,” Block would spin the newest and most popular dance songs to stimulate the sensation he was reporting from a live ballroom. Therefore, many attribute Block to being the first disc jockey in the world.
DJ History Timeline: How the DJ Changed Over Time
After Block’s renowned radio show, the idea of what a DJ could be expanded rapidly. The following decades transformed people’s perceptions of the role of a DJ as others explored how DJs could use their role to create new art forms.
Early Years: 1940s and 1950s
In 1943, DJ Jimmy Savile held the world’s first live DJ dance party in the upstairs flex room of the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds in Otley, England. He spun jazz records and chose what the party-goers would hear and dance to, similar to the DJ dance parties people attend today. Savile also claimed to be the first DJ to use twin turntables to achieve continuous play, a technique that would become a staple in DJing.
Meanwhile, in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, during the 1950s, DJs were throwing street parties with their massive sound systems that made the disc jockey the center of attention. DJs established their own personalities and sought to one-up each other by playing the hottest new songs on the loudest sound systems. DJs would rhythmically chant on a microphone, boasting over the music in a technique called “toasting.” These events planted the seeds for rap and hip-hop culture.
Major Evolution of the DJ: 1960s and 1970s
By the mid-1960s, discos and nightclubs had grown in popularity as a place for people to dance, listen to music and party. These establishments started transitioning from live bands for entertainment to prerecorded music and DJs. Yet switching between tracks had a tendency to ruin the vibe of the room, so American club DJ Francis Grasso crafted the technique of beatmatching in 1969. Beatmatching allowed DJs to keep the same beats per minute between tracks, so the dancing could continue uninterrupted.
Hip-hop began to emerge in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City in 1973 with DJ Kool Herc, who is known as the father of hip-hop culture. DJ Kool Herc transformed the art of DJing into a new form of music creation with his technique of switching back and forth between two identical records to extend the length of musical breaks. This technique gave people more time to dance and rap over the beat, giving birth to “turntablism,” the art of using turntables to create original music and sounds.
In 1975, DJ Grand Wizard Theodore accidentally discovered the scratching technique and began implementing it in his sets as a rhythmic addition. In 1977, a disc jockey from Saratoga Springs, New York, named Tom L. Lewis introduced the Disco Bible. This resource included tempos of the most popular dance songs of the day, so DJs could beatmatch more precisely instead of only relying on their ears.
Mainstream Exposure and Digital DJing: 1980s and 1990s
Today’s DJs are known for their electronic mixes that blend elements of house, techno and other electronic-oriented genres. You can trace the roots of modern DJs to the 80s, thanks to the artistry of names like DJ Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Larry Levan and DJ Frankie Knuckles, who is known as the Godfather of House Music. These DJs blended synthesizers and samples with electronic drum machine beats to create a sort of disco fusion that paved the way for today’s electronic music.
The 80s also saw the first mainstream exposure of hip-hop with the Run DMC and Aerosmith collaboration, “Walk This Way.” This song brought attention to DJing as a legitimate band member and artist, a concept that was expanded with nu-metal bands throughout the 90s and early 2000s.
In the DJing timeline, the 90s may be most notable for the introduction of digital DJ equipment. The implementation of digital audio files and the internet allowed people around the world to DJ over internet radio, opening the door for anyone to become a DJ if they had the desire and the gear. Digital turntables were also introduced, letting people put on great shows without the need for lugging around an entire record or CD collection.
Start Your Own DJing Journey With Gear From Record Head
From the early 2000s to today, DJs have only grown in popularity and cultural influences with some of the greatest DJs of all time, like Daft Punk, Deadmou5 and Avicii, inspiring millions worldwide to try DJing for themselves.
If you’re wondering if you need to move to find success as a DJ, the good news is that you can get started right here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Record Head sells new and used DJ equipment to jumpstart your new hobby or career.