Home about US Courses Studios Music & Video Tutorials
Old School

Old school - The Block Party DJ's

'Block Party' was the term used to describe large open air free performances given by local DJs in the inner city areas of New York in the mid to late 1970s. These 'parties' allowed emerging DJs to demonstrate their prowess on their equipment as they entertainment the crowd. DJs such as Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa were early innovators with the use of the turntable, transforming it from a static playback machine into a highly expressive instrument. This tradition of innovation was carried on by a whole new generation of 1990s DJs ( now called 'turntablists') such as Mixmaster Mike, DJ Q-Bert, and Cut Chemist.

Clive Campbell (best known as Kool Herc - from the nickname that he would spray paint on the side of subway cars in the Bronx) was born in 1955 in Jamaica. As a young man he had been strongly influenced by the Jamaican sound systems and the DJ technique of toasting. He moved to New York in 1967 and 1971 he was asked by his sister Cindy to DJ at a party in the recreation room of a high rise building [1]. After this performance he was asked to perform at parties on a more regular basis, and gave his first block party in 1973.

Kool Herc attempted to incorporate the Jamaican tradition of toasting (reciting improvised rhymes over dub versions of reggae records) but, since people in the Bronx were not interested in listening to reggae, he began to recite his rhymes over the short percussive sections of popular songs of the day [2].

Herc also noticed the dancers' enthusiasm for the 'funky drum' portion of a song[3], and by using two turntables he managed to pick out these rhythmical sections ('breaks' ) of popular songs and join them together in a longer rhythmical collage. He achieved this by 'cutting' (switching) from one turntable to the other, while cuing the first turntable to play another break. This created the effect of extended rhythmical sections, which became known as 'breakbeats'. The music was drawn from a wide cross-section of funk, soul, jazz and pop, and was fused together through the use of the turntable, introducing an early form of 'sampling' [4] ). Herc mostly used songs by James Brown and Mandrill to supply the grooves behind the breakbeats [5].

Herc would typically 'tailor his sets for participants most of whom he knew by name' [6].Calling out improvised words and greetings over the music and using audience members names, Herc he tried to produce a response from the crowd, and this style of toasting became known as 'MCing' [7].During the breakbeat section of Herc's performances, dancers would compete with each other, showing off their latest moves. Herc called these dancers 'b-boys' ('break boys' ) and 'b-girls' ('break girls' ) and their style of dance was 'angular', 'acrobatic', involving 'sharply snapping the head and limbs', and later becoming more energetic with spins, freezes and body rocks [8].

Kool Herc eventually turned his attention to the complexities of DJing while two friends 'Coke La Rock' and 'Clark Kent' took over the emceeing. This became the first 'MC' team, known as Kool Herc and the Herculoids. His career ended when he was involved in a knife attack and was stabbed twice in the side and once across his hands.

Grandmaster Flash (b. Joseph Saddler, 1958) was born in Barbados but raised in the Bronx, and he had regularly attended Kool Herc's performances. He believed that he could improve on Herc's turntable re-cueing technique, which was mostly done by feel [9]. From his Bronx bedroom he developed a more precise way of cueing, monitoring the process with the use of headphones. This enabled him to seamlessly join the breakbeats together, and this process became known as 'segue' [10]. He received the nickname 'Flash' when audiences first saw his rapid hand speed when employing this new turntable technique: 'He played his turntables as if he were Jimi Hendrix, cuing records with his elbow, his feet, behind his back [11]. Flash also became renowned for perfecting Grand Wizard Theodore's turntable technique of 'scratching' (spinning a record back and forth to create a scratchy rhythmical sound) [12].

The music played at block parties (which were becoming increasingly popular [13] ) mostly drew on music by older funk groups such as James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. This had the effect of re-popularising funk, which had been largely abandoned by black radio. The breakbeat section became more and more extended, allowing the MC to rap longer, 'expressing himself while executing keen lyrical agility' [14] . Vocal parts of the backing music began to disappear, leaving just the breakbeat sections and allowing the emcee to rap uninterrupted. People (apart from a few break dancers) would stand and listen to the emcee, and DJs relied on the exclusivity of their breakbeats to create their own sound and style - going to some length to protect the identity of their music by removing record labels and distinguishing marks.

In 1976 Grandmaster Flash and the (now) Furious Five released their first single 'Super Rappin'. This song was enormously popular in the hip hop community, but it was The Sugarhill Gang's song 'Rappers Delight' (1979) that became the first hip hop single to enter the American Top Forty. In 1982 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five signed to the Sugarhill record label and released 'The Message', their first major chart success. After a disagreement over money Flash and two of the members of the Furious Five left the Sugarhill label, and signed to Elektra. The remaining members of the group (which included Melle Mel) immediately had another success with 'White Lines (Don't do it)' The songs title was ironic, considering that by this time Flash was free-base cocaine addict.

[1]Farley, 1999(a), p.46

[2]Daveyd, 'The History Of Hip Hop', [Online] http://www.daveyd.com/raphist2.html [1999, August 28]

[3]Clayton, 'Hip-Hop's Radical Roots', [Online] http://infoplease.com/spot/hiphop.1.html [1999, August 28]

[4]Larkin, 1995, p.2353

[5] Farley, 1999(a), p.47

[6]Larkin, 1995, p.2353

[7]Daveyd, 'The History Of Hip Hop', [Online] http://www.daveyd.com/raphist2.html [1999, August 28]

[8]No Author attributed [Online] http://www2.cs.uwindsor.ca/60‑205/99win/sec1/roldan/page4.htm [1999, August 28]

[9]Farley, 1999(a), p.49

[10] Larkin, 1995, p.1720

[11]Farley, 1999(a), p.52

[12]Rose, 1994, p.53

[13].Rose, 1994, p.55-56

[14]Daveyd, 'The History Of Hip Hop', [Online] http://www.daveyd.com/raphist9.html [1999, August 28]