October 20, 2014

20 years of DJing

It was around this time 20 years ago, in 1994, when I got my first DJ set-up. A pair of Technics 1210s and a Gemini Scratchmaster mixer. I don't often do editorial pieces on my blog, but seeing this year marks my 20th year of DJ'ing, I wanted to write up a little piece to mark this occasion.

My interest in DJing and scratching started in the 80's, messing around with my older brother's record collection. We had one of these combo stereo systems that had a radio and a double deck cassette player, with a turntable built in on the top. My brother had a pretty mean 7" collection, with a few 12"s mixed in. I remember tagging along with him to spots like The Wiz in Woodbridge Center Mall, and even Bradlees (which had a small music department) to shop for records. His taste in music was pretty bad. He was buying whatever popular 80's synth bands were hot on MTV at the time, so he could play them at the basement parties he would have at my parents house. His main objective was getting the girls rockin.' Fortunately for me, he did buy the occasional Hip Hop record, like Rob Base's 'It Takes Two' and Run DMC's 'Walk This Way.'

'Walk This Way' was a hugely popular song at the time, which anyone around in '87 will tell you. It mixed rock and hip hop in a way that had really crossed over and introduced hip hop to a wider audience. For me, though, it was the first time I saw anyone scratching on a record. The video for 'Walk This Way' was getting a lot of burn on MTV, and when I saw Jam Master Jay introduce the track with his 4 bar baby scratch it completely blew my mind. I remember thinking how strange and bad-ass scratching was. To use a record with music already on it to make new musical sounds? To use a turntable as an instrument when it was only meant to play a record? I was instantly drawn in.

My brother brought that record home and I played it over and over again when he wasn't around. I was always paranoid listening to his collection, because he would beat my ass if he caught me. I would play the records at low levels to keep my ears open for his car door slamming, so I could shut off the system and tuck whatever record I was listening to back into the sleeve before he made it through the front door. 

Anyway, after playing 'Walk This Way' a few times, I ventured to try and duplicate what I saw JMJ doing on the video- scratch. I would even scratch on top of JMJ's scratches, making his 4 bars turn into 8 bars, and I thought I was genius. Now, the stereo system I had was not at all meant for scratching, which was evident after I tried. It didn't so much fuck up the needle as much as it completely fucked up whatever record you were trying to scratch on. To this day I still have that same copy of 'Walk This Way,' and you can see what kind of damage I caused to it.

As a kid growing up in Jersey during the 1990's house music was really popular, and seemed to be the music of choice for DJ's to play out. DJ's that I saw were mainly concerned with getting people to dance, and keeping the party exciting, and house music was made for that. Towards the end of 1994 the tempo of hip hop records had slowed down considerably from earlier years. The dancing part of hip hop seemed to be played out. Tempos heard on Rakim's 'Juice' had slowed down to what you'd hear on say Jeru's 'Come Clean.' Your typical party goer didn't want to hear that shit on the dance floor, they didn't know what to do with it.

I had been to many of the NASA dance parties in NY during the early 90's, and I had an appreciation for house music and that scene. However, the 'chill out room' in the clubs (where DJ's were throwing on hip hop records) were much more appealing to me. It was at one of these parties where I saw Stretch Armstrong DJing, and first heard records like KRS-One's 'Rap VS Hip Hop.' It was in those clubs where I first saw DJ's play live, and I would study what they did in awe.

I still remember the day when I saw my friend John with a pair of 1200's in his house, with a small milkcrate full of house records. It was the first time I saw a DJ set-up outside of a club, and I was completely  enamored. It was beyond my comprehension that anyone I knew would have a set of turntables. I would have been just as surprised to see a gun at his house. Not many people were trying to be DJ's at that time. After all, it was a very expensive hobby. You had to pay like a grand for the set-up, and then you had to pay $5 or $10 for each record you wanted to play. He gave me a chance to play some records, so I put on the headphones, threw on a record, cued another, and there I was with my first beatmatch and blend going. I was hooked right there.

That night I went home, and as I was falling asleep I debated getting into DJing myself. I knew that I always wanted to make the transition from a listener to someone who actually played and created music, and I had now seen it wasn't that hard to do. John had showed me that it was possible for anyone to DJ, you just had to want it. There was no secret password to being a DJ which seemed to be my thinking at the time. I bugged my parents to get me a set-up, promising them I would pay them back in full from the shitty job I had at Musicland. I doubt I gave them half of what they spent, as I quickly turned to spending all my money on records I needed to play on these tables. 

I knew I wanted to be a hip hop DJ from the beginning. I didn't know the first thing about house records, as there was rarely any vocals or a way to determine who was making the songs (unless you knew other house DJ's, or wanted to spend countless hours at the listening stations). Add to this, there was only one record shop that I knew of that held house/techno music, a place called Planet X in New Brunswick. Seemingly every house record in the store the owner would throw a 'Made In England' sticker on to drive the price of the 12"s up to like $10-$30 bucks a piece. Fuck all that. I wasn't about to spend a shitload of money on equipment and records, just to play a bunch of expensive music that I really wasn't all that passionate about. I left that shit to the trust fund college kids who ended up selling everything once they graduated.

I wanted to play hip hop, and that was all I wanted to play. Most importantly, I wanted to use the turntable like an instrument the way I saw Jam Master Jay do in '86. I wanted to do the stuff I was hearing Funkmaster Flex and Stretch Armstrong do on their mix shows, double up on words, backspin the first four bars, do all types of different scratches, as well as blend. I wanted to be as creative and technically proficient as I could.

By the middle of 1995 I had a nice little collection going and I was rocking all the neighborhood block parties and an occasional club here and there. As a DJ, I didn't give a shit about making people happy. To this day, I never catered to a crowd or played what I thought people wanted to hear. I always wanted to hear album cuts and B-sides just as much as the singles that were designed for radio play. I wanted to put people on to music they never heard and give them a new experience, instead of being that DJ who took requests and essentially served as a jukebox. It was because of this I wasn't a huge club DJ and I didn't make a lot of money at the parties I played, but that really didn't matter to me.

I would sit home studying my records. I would compare each of my records next to one of Kenny Dope's 'Dope Beats' records (which had the BPM's written next to them), and jot down all the numbers so I would know which records would match. I would practice all my sets, and write out my set lists to bring to the parties I was playing. I would make mix tapes for all my friends, and love mixes for all my girlfriends. One of my favorite things about being a DJ was being able to have songs that weren't on the albums, like promos, remixes, B-sides, and unreleased songs. That was the exclusive stuff you could only get as a DJ.

I would hit up all the Jersey record spots like Alwick Records and Vogels in Elizabeth (which was prominently featured in Biz's 'Vapors' video as the store that denied Cool V a job), and also places like the US-1 Flea Market, where I would get lucky and find some older records for cheap. When I had enough money, and a ride, I would make my way out to NY to hit up Fat Beats and Downstairs records to get the latest indie records I was hearing on Stretch & Bobbito.

So, I had my bearings as a DJ. I was doing my backspins, my chirps, blending the instrumentals into the lyrics, and I thought that was as far as I could take it. Then I heard DJ Sinista do his 'SWAT' routine, which was my introduction to beat juggling. I knew instantly I wanted to do the same type of stuff he was doing. There was a whole counter culture of battle DJ's that I wasn't aware of. I thought 'Juice' was just a movie. I was completely wrong. I set out on a mission to learn as much as I could.

I had a cassette dub of Sinista's routine from a Stretch Armstrong Show and I studied the shit out of the tape, wondering how he did it. Back then there was no YouTube, and no internet, so I had to go out and cop a bunch of DMC videos on VHS, and of course the most influential video for me- the X-Men's 'In X-Ercise.' I went out and bought doubles of the Method Man 12" and two copies of the SWAT track on the UBB comp, and practiced them at home to learn the fundamentals of beat juggling. I would go out to all the turntablist events. Most notable was the X-Men Vs. The Skratch Piklz at the first ITF event in NY. For me, and anyone else into DJing during that era, it was just as legendary and monumental as seeing Jimi Hendrix torch his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival. There was a whole new wave of musical creativity being pinoeered by these guys. Watching the development of turntablism from 1994-where it is now was incredible. You really saw the growth, the tricks, and the amazing DJ's and DJ crews sprouting up every other day. When the next level mixers like the Technics mixer and the Vestax mixers came around, shit was really on.

Later on I would have the privilege of meeting DJ Sinista, and a long list of other major and indie label artists, as my friend DJ Force and I hosted a long running show on WRSU, Rutgers college radio. I enjoyed doing radio much more than playing live. Even though I wasn't catering to the crowds that much, doing radio allowed you to go really deep in your crates and play stuff you really couldn't play live at parties at all. 

From there I branched off into other areas like collecting rare grooves, sampling, making beats, etc., but it was that first love of DJing and scratching that got the ball rolling for me. It's hard to believe it all started 20 years ago, but I can still hop on my turntables and play the same records I was playing back then and enjoy them just the same. I suppose once you find something you're really passionate about, you never lose the love for it.

There is a lot to be said about those early days of DJing for me, and being a fan of Hip Hop during that time. I suppose this is where I sound like an old man comparing the old days to modern times, but- People don't seem to go to record stores to buy physical copies of music anyomore, or get a chance to meet the artists to sign their record or perform at an in-store. DJ's aren't on the radio anymore, because there really isn't much going on on broadcast radio anymore. Boomboxes and radios are about as ancient as VHS tapes. There is no more 'Yo! MTV Raps' or BET's 'Rap City' or any genre specific music video show that made you feel like there was a movement happening. It's also a shame there aren't venues like Trammps or the Wetlands where you could count on the latest artists coming through weekly or monthly to perform live. Listening to those old Stretch & Bobbito shows, hearing the live freestyles, hearing Bobbito announce the shows going on that week, it was really a community and culture going on in hip hop that has since been lost.

I have to admit, when Serato was introduced in 2004 I was hating on it. Mainly because at that time I was a decade into record collecting, and here was technology that allowed anyone to have the same collection I had with a few clicks of a mouse. You don't have to pay your dues anymore to be a DJ. I was really hating on Serato when it being used in DJ battles. There's no challenge in cutting up arrangements you programmed yourself. The coolest part of beat juggling, IMO, is when a DJ takes a song everyone is familiar with and flips it to something completely different. Now you don't know where these people are getting the music from so you don't really know how they are flipping it. It seemed like a cheat move, like Eric B or Terminator X playing music while they pretended to scratch. I'm sure that's not the popular opinion, but fuck it. I mean, Serato does open up turntablism to a new level of creativity, but to me it doesn't really capture the essence of what it's really about. I still don't own Serato even though it's become the standard for all DJ's. I don't care if I have to lug a couple of crates out to a party, it was never that big of a deal to me. And I barely weigh 150 pounds. 

I slowly started to see the advantages of Serato, though- you can play joints that you didn't necessarily want on vinyl and just wanted to play for one night, you could do doubles of really rare records, or even cut up your own production which would costs thousands to press up on vinyl. Plus, it thinned out a lot of fools from buying up rare breaks, and dropped record prices tremendously, even though in the process it caused a lot of record stores to close. It is what it is. I'm convinced that turntables will soon become obsolete, people will just be cutting on two virtual turntables from an Ipad screen.

Anyway, 20 years, and 5,000 records later, I still love DJing the way I did when I started. As much as the culture and the technology has changed, I doubt there is much that will change that. I hope you all have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it, and taking a trip down memory lane. Peace to all the DJ's worldwide.


  1. Thanks Barry, I definitely have to get a new mix out soon

  2. i started djing around the same time. you're taking me back with that scratchmaster!

  3. I started DJing in 93, I got a Scratch Master and a set of 1200's, I worked my ass off waiting tables at a local restaurant to pay for them, now I have a Rane TTM54 which I love, I don't like the Serato either. I used to go to Castle Hill Ave in the Bronx to get my records

  4. I have a rane now too love that mixer

  5. This was a great read,Thanks!

  6. ill article written by a true dj who loves his turntables,records and has respect for the art form/ wrote similar to how i would express my experience since 88 but i also was buying mixtapes all those years too. B-sides/remixes and bootlegs are the records i love putting on tapes/cds/mp3 for people and still makes them say damn where u find dat!

  7. Peace excellent article.
    Started off with straight armed technics from the Wiz on Rt 22. Used to bag vinyl from Alwicks in Elizabeth, sometimes Livingston Mall, Vogels, Union Market, Moving Records in E.O., Random Access pathmark plaza on Lyons Ave, and Peddler Square(ha ha).

  8. That's what's up, jersey all day! Alwicks and vogels were great stores