A Brief History of the Turntablist

A Brief History of the Turntablist

Over the last several decades, the turntable has cleared a pathway for new artistic skills, provided a medium for blending unique cultures, and even helped generate music genres that continue to flourish today. While some may look at the turntable as just another piece of home entertainment equipment, many use it as its own fundamental instrument.

We call those people turntablists.

Though the term "turntablist" was not coined until the 90s, the definition reared a significant renegotiation of the role of the typical DJ. Put simply, the DJ's job under this expanded role evolved from simply selecting songs and records into mixing music from one track to the next to keep the energy of the dance floor active and engaged. More than mere "selectors" of the music, turntablists became musicians in their own right who mixed, swapped, and scratched records on the turntable to create new music for listeners on the spot. Some of the pioneers of this craft even helped design new ways for vinyl record pressing, printing, and production to enable their unique mixing style, thus embedding turntablism deeply into the history of recorded music as we understand it today.

To fully understand turntablism as an art, we need to take a closer look at the pioneers who broke ground and helped pave the way for what would become a radical new approach to not only the use of the turntable as an instrument but to the entire craft of being a disc jockey.

Disco and the West End 12-inch mix

If we are going to talk about a pivotal time in the rise of the turntablist, we have to make a stop in New York City.

It's 1977 — the height of the disco era — and the Paradise Garage has just opened. It's a place where anyone, and I mean anyone — of any race, gender, sexual identity — is warmly welcomed. Larry Levan, known so wildly for his decade-long residency at PG and universally regarded as one of the best selectors of club culture, is at the helm of the dance floor every night and can make or break a songwriter's career with the single drop of a needle.

Larry was revered as an innovator of turntablism, developing novel techniques of manipulating the players and implementing distinct phrasing patterns to mix and blend in new music and sounds at the right times, all of which would attribute to his legacy. With the guidance of West End Records production chief and Paradise Garage financial backer Mel Cheren (known for his work in the Gay Rights movement and activism during the 1980's AIDS epidemic), the two would pioneer a key ingredient of the DJ's crate that continues today: the 12" mix.

The true definition of the 12" mix is a record with one or more extended mixes of a song. Until this point in time, disco music was roughly 3 to 4 minutes long, forcing the selector to get creative and quick with their mixing. Not only would pressings include physically bigger and "hotter" records that provided better sound, but turntablists would now have access to extended sections of a song. This allowed them to create extended intros and outros and more elaborately EQ and blend their mixes, helping build tension and more of a storyline. This technique is wildly used to this day and is arguably one of the defining components of the modern DJ's role.

"The Godfather of Disco" – Documentary on Paradise Garage, West End Records & Mel Cheren.

The Influence on Dub

In the late 1960s, big moves were being made in Kingston, Jamaica. Osbourne "King Tubby" Ruddock, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Erol Thompson were pioneering a brand new genre of music based purely on the way they manipulated the turntable and their carefully crafted crate of records.

That genre was dub.

The name of the game was effects: echo, reverb, delay, and on occasion, weaving in the dubbing of a vocal or an instrumental clip from its original track. Another key component here was putting the main emphasis of a performance on the drum and bass elements of the arrangement. Regarding the turntables and the mixing desk as their instruments, King Tubby, Perry, and Thompson would come to develop an entirely new sound and feel through these techniques while elevating it to an art form that continues to evolve today.

It is not a surprise that the earliest stirrings of sound system culture were similarly afoot in Jamaica at this time. Dub music was typically distinguished by an instrumental version of an existing song. The bass was the most prominent feature, which naturally lent itself to being played on large sound systems.

Early dub artists would often incorporate fluid textures and soundscapes such as nature elements: bird songs, flowing water, the cracks of thunder. These multiple layers of sound — best heard on massive sound systems and paired with space-bringing effects — would draw attention to the depth of dub and ultimately create an incredibly unique and organic sound that continues to resonate through music produced today. Not created by a DAW or even a tape reel but simply made on the spot with the use of the turntable, it was early innovations such as these that would leave a lasting mark on music as a period of fearless creativity and genius.

Mixing It Up: Scratch Techniques and the Breakbeat Scene in NYC

When thinking about the forefathers of the scratch technique, the names Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa immediately come to mind. These three innovators contributed to a style of turntablism techniques that are still in use today, celebrated in DJ sets and through scratch battles and competitions worldwide. With incredibly high levels of hand-eye coordination, a dedication to creating precise needle drop points by physically marking on the record (the "Get Down"), and a technique that includes shifting the position of the turntables in the DJ booth for easy access ("battle style"), these three scratch pioneers collectively changed the way the turntable was used as a performative instrument in New York City in the 1980s and eventually all around the world.

Amidst this rapid evolution of the art of turntablism, Jamaican-American DJ and hip hop forefather Kool Herc was hard at work mastering his craft and developing the "breakbeat" technique. By jumping back-and-forth between two identical records, he was able to loop parts of a song manually. This created an entirely new sound that would evolve through the decades into a genre that continues to change with each passing year.

On a more serendipitous level of innovation, Grandmaster Flash's protégé, Grand Wizard Theodore, is largely attributed with creating the iconic "scratch" technique at the moment when, at age 12, he attempted to stop his record by hand in order to hear his mother shouting at him to turn down the music from another room.

To mix it all together (no pun intended), Afrika Bambaataa, born in the Bronx and of Jamaican and Barbadian descent, built off of the Jamaican dub movement by infusing it with the scratch and breakbeat methods laid down by Herc and Grandmaster Flash as a part of his widely revered New York street parties.

Grandmaster Flash shows the Break Mix.

Continued Innovations

Turntablism as an art form has come a very long way, continuing to inspire many artists and creators to take on their unique styles and uses of the turntable. For example, Maria Chavez, a New York-based abstract turntablist, employs methods she has crafted over the years using intentionally-broken needles, smashed and sun-beaten records, and her own unique 'needle bounce' method to create an innovative way for both the turntablist and the listener to view the record player as its own instrument  Regularly used in university courses all over the world that teach improvisation and sound art, these self-made methods are elaborately described in her book, Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable.

As the years pass, new ways to manipulate the turntable are bound to rise out of the creative depths of artists and musicians alike, and we can directly trace all of it back to these original and fearless pioneers. The turntable is a continually evolving tool that has, in many senses, transcended the record. As digital music has come to replace the CDs, tapes, and records of the 20th century, the turntable continues to flourish in homes, studios, clubs, and music events worldwide, enabling new generations of pioneers in their journeys creating novel music experiences for the audiences of today and tomorrow.

Maria Chavez explains her Abstract Turntable approach.