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

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

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We explore the history of turntablism, from its primitive beginnings with travelling showmen right up to contemporary sound installations and the DMC.


Words: Sophy Smith


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.


Precursors

In fact the creative use of reproductive technology started early in the development of the equipment. From the mid-to-late 1800s, buyers of cylinder phonographs and graphophones were using the equipment not only to listen to pre-recorded music, but also to make their own vocal and instrumental recordings.

Both Edison’s phonograph and Bell-Tainter’s graphophone enabled sound recording as well as playback, with wax as the medium to allow the recording to be removed from the cylinder and stored for later listening. Although Edison didn’t foresee the creative and commercial potential of his invention, the first manipulation of recorded sound for the purpose of entertainment took place using his phonograph. 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.

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When a commercial version of Emile Berliner’s flat disc gramophone was introduced in 1985, both the phonograph and graphophone lost appeal because the new flat disc could support longer, better quality recordings than the cylinder. The disc gramophone, however, lacked home-recording technology – instead it was restricted to playing the records that were commercially available.

With recording out, musicians began to experiment with the gramophone as a performing and composing device, and from this point we see the development of what we now call turntablism. Musicians from across the board began to experiment with the creative potential of the turntable, transforming it from a reproductive device and into to a musical instrument.

The background to the creative musical use of the turntable falls into several distinct histories. The work of hip-hop pioneers and radio/club DJs is well documented, but the other earlier, and equally important history, lies outside popular music, in the field of experimental music and installation art.


Experimental Music and Art

In the early part of the twentieth century, a handful of composers became interested in the creative potential of the phonograph or gramophone, and began undertaking small-scale experiments. Paul Hindemith’s Trickaufnahmen (trick recordings), for example, investigated the technical abilities of the gramophone as well as the performer with a range of sound manipulation techniques – including acceleration and deceleration of discs and the knock-on pitch changes, possibly even using two phonographs simultaneously.

These experiments set the foundation for visual artists Moholy-Nagy and Christian Marclay and composers Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage; four major turntable pioneers emerging from a range of musical and artistic backgrounds.

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Moholy–Nagy, along with Oskar Fischinger and Paul Arma, attempted to alter the acoustic content of records before amplification by carving graphic structures into the grooves and running the record backwards against the stylus to scratch new patterns. Nagy hoped that his experiments with turntable music would result in the creation of a new musical language, through studying the graphic signs on the record.

Pierre Schaeffer, pioneer of musique concrète, also experimented with manipulating recordings by playing them backwards and forwards, juxtaposing sounds taken from their original time continuum, playing recordings at different speeds, and creating repetitive sound loops by breaking the groove at specific points.

Many contemporary turntablists manipulate the sound of records by creating repeating loops or ‘locked grooves’ and Schaeffer was the first to use this technique, pressing records with a groove that holds the stylus in a continuous cycle, looping the sound as the record rotates. This technique was used in Etude aux Chemins de Fer (1948) which was constructed from successive extracts of material made from manipulated recordings of steam locomotives at Gare des Batignolles, Paris.

In John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939), the records alternate between two speeds – 33 and 78 rpm – and rhythms are created by lifting and lowering the needle onto the record. Meanwhile in his work Credo in Us (1942) the player of the phonograph is instructed, “If phonograph, use some classic: e.g. Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Schostakovich” to add fragments of sound to the piece. His Imaginary Landscape No.5 (1952) work was composed for 42 records and 33 1/3 (1969) for twelve record players. This creative use of turntable technology also extended to the phonograph itself. In Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960), performers are directed to amplify small sounds using pick-ups taken from the tone arms of record players.

Marclay Footsteps

The idea of the record as basis for production is later found in the turntable music of artist Christian Marclay – his tribute composition John Cage for example is a recording of a collage made by cutting slices from a number of records and gluing them together to form a single disc. Marclay’s Footsteps also explores the effects of physically altering the record – three thousand five hundred records were used as flooring at an art exhibition over six weeks, packed in individual covers and then sold. For Marclay, these experiments that alter and distort the original recording highlight his understanding of the record as a constantly changing capsule of sound and he deliberately brings the residual sounds of pops, clicks and scratches to the foreground of the composition.


Reggae, Radio and Club DJs

Meanwhile in ’50s and ’60s Jamaica, musicians began a radical relationship with records that transformed recorded music into a live event. Until 1995 Jamaica had limited music copyright laws, meaning that soundsystem and reggae DJs could use records for their own creative ends. Through EQ alterations, sound effects and vocals, as well as pioneering tricks like the ‘rewind’ (spinning back a record to be repeated), DJ created original compositions using rhythm tracks from popular records.

Jamaica

Over in the States, early radio DJs played their part in developing turntable techniques. In order to enhance his promotions of records for example, Bill Curtis (veteran DJ for American station WUFO) began to manipulate the records he played, extending the record by slowing it down, repeating sections and/or talking over the track.

The first DJ to introduce mixing, albeit in a primitive sense, was Terry Noel, resident DJ at the ’60s New York nightclub Arthur. Working with a relatively simple set-up (having only a volume dial for each turntable), Noel subtly mixed tracks in a way never heard before.

Francis Grasso, resident disco DJ at The Sanctuary in New York, was arguably the first club DJ to manipulate recorded material for artistic purposes. Prior to Grasso’s turntable experiments DJs played records one at a time and club evenings lacked a cohesive flow due to the constant start-stop of three-minute records. Although Grasso was not the first DJ to mix two records together, he was the first to deliberately perfect beat mixing as a creative technique. In the 1970s, DJ Francis Grasso went on to introduce slip-cueing, which he had learnt from friends working as radio DJs.

Not far away, at the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan perfected the practice of constructing music from many different sources, blending rock, pop, electronica, soul, rap, funk and disco and in a similar vein Frankie Knuckles incorporated sound effects into his sets at the Warehouse, Chicago. In an unconscious nod to Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemin de Fer, Knuckles played an extended sound effect of a speeding steam train, panning the sound from the front to the back of the club, giving the effect of a train ploughing through the dance floor.

Larry-Levan

During his time at the club Galaxy 21, Walter Gibbons developed turntable-based cut and paste techniques to manipulate small sections of drum breaks – the forerunner to the beat-juggling techniques used by contemporary hip hop turntablists. Walter Gibbons’ cut and pastes enabled him to construct small sections of music into an original whole at the turntable.

The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a club-based popular music revolution that took DJs from using one turntable to two, and sometimes three, decks. These innovations, taking place as they did on turntables, established the concept of the DJ as music creator rather than solely player of records. and paved the way for the sound manipulation techniques and compositional processes of turntablist musicians.


Hip Hop

Perhaps the best known examples of turntablism sit within hip hop, which has embraced the genre from its outset. Creating original music using records, turntables and microphones from the early 1970 onward, hip hop pioneers and visionaries developed many of the turntable manipulation techniques that are still central to turntablism today.

The story starts with Afrika Bambaata, who in the early ’70s transformed his street gang into the hip hop orientated Universal Zulu Nation. Bambaata became known as the “Master of Records” for the wide variety of music and break records he would blend in a DJ set.

One of Bambaata’s contemporaries, Kool Herc, pioneered the breakbeat ‘merry-go-round’ technique. Noticing that dancers would go nuts for drum sections of funk records, Herc began to play these sections back-to-back, elongating the break and ignoring the rest of the track. This breakbeat DJ style set the blueprint for hip hop production.

DJ Grandmaster Flash added to the growing body of turntablism tricks with his Quick Mix and Clock theories. With Quick Mix, passages of music are spun back to be repeated, whilst Clock Theory allows the DJ to identify key sections of the record by markings out the record label. Flash also developed punchphasing, in which shorter sound sounds are played over the breakbeat from another record, and backspinning which allows the turntablist to quickly rewind a part of the record.

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Developed by Barry B (Get Fresh Crew) and Steve Dee (X-Men) in the 1990s, beat juggling also deserves a mention. Here new patterns are created by alternating between two identical records on different turntables.

And of course the most celebrated hip-hop technique is scratching, where the musician moves the record back and forth against the stylus whilst also cross-fading on the mixing desk. Legend has it that this was discovered, accidentally, by DJ Theodore in the early ’80s when his turntable practice was interrupted by his mother and his hand subconsciously rocked the record, producing a sound of its own.

These days there are dozens of scratch techniques – including (but by no means limited to): the baby, the tear, the scribble, the chirp, the transformer, the flare, the crab and the orbit.


Contemporary Practice

Turntablism is still thriving today. In 2007 Gabriel Prokofiev composed Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra which, following its performance at the BBC Proms with DJ Mr Switch as soloist, has received critical acclaim. The fifth movement was recently included in the BBC’s classical music initiative Ten Pieces, designed to introduce a generation of children to classical music. The idea of accompanying an orchestra with a turntable is hardly new though – Hansjörg Dammert, composer and pupil of Arnold Schoenberg called for a ‘concerto for phonograph’ back in 1926!

Artist Janek Schaefer has used turntablism in his work throughout the past two decades. In 1997 he developed the triple tonearm Tri-Phonic Turntable, which is inspired by Philip Jeck’s piece Vinyl Requiem, itself created using 180 old Dansette record players. Schaefer’s first composition using the Tri-Phonic was made with a T.S. Elliot poetry LP – playing ‘Burnt Norton’ simultaneously with the three arms, staggering one after the other.

Schafer is also known, and received acclaim, for his sound installation Extended Play. Three solo string parts were recorded separately, edited, and cut onto vinyl. In the installation, three cello EPs, three piano EPs and 3 violin EPs play at either 33, 45, or 78rpm using nine retro record players. These play continuously, modified to pause in response to the audience moving around the exhibition, changing the composition for each performance.

Perhaps one of the best-known examples of contemporary turntablism though is the DMC World DJ Championships. An annual DJ competition hosted by Disco Mix Club (DMC) since 1985, DJs can enter as individuals or teams and are allocated exactly six minutes to perform original routines.

Originally sponsored by Technics, since 2011 the DMC Championship has permitted the use of vinyl emulation systems, alongside traditional vinyl, to balance traditional mixing and the popularity of digital playback.

As well as supporting established techniques, digital vinyl systems also include additional tools including those for re-editing, effects, tempo awareness, key-locking and they offer visual feedback as well as the ability to sync up with external hardware. Whilst the manufacturers stress the creative potential of these systems, some feel that artistic experimentation is limited with this new equipment, promoting a future haunted by ghosts of the past.

This feature is based on Sophy Smith’s Hip-Hop Turntablism, Creativity and Collaboration book, published by Ashgate (2013).


Cover Artwork by Hector Plimmer

  • Gabriel Colucci

    “…version of Emile Berliner’s flat disc gramophone was introduced in 1985, both the phonograph and graphophone…”, 1985? The date is incorrect, was in 1895, pattent from 1887.