Imagine it’s another hot summer day in 1973. However, you and your friends are planning to attend a party in the New York City borough of the Bronx. After a long subway ride and getting lost, you make it to the party just in time to hear Clive Campbell, better known by his chosen name DJ Kool Herc, start his set. He is playing the music you came to hear. However, when it gets to your favorite part of the James Brown record the DJ suspends musical time by playing Breakdown—the drummer’s solo—continuously. The party erupts with joy. You ask yourself how DJ Kool Herc pulled off this magic? The answer lies in the dual Technics Direct Drive Player System SL-1200. By some stroke of luck, you are present for what many regard as the founding of Hip-Hop.
It’s now 1993. The TV volume drowns me out as I scream the words out of breath and offbeat: “Sippin’ on Dannon juice laid back. My mine on my money, and my money on my mine.” The purity of my 5-year-old attempt to sing along to Snoop Dogg’s hit paled in comparison to that of my oldest cousin’s pure Black boy Joy. This occasion was the first time I noticed the person in the background—there was a presence behind a booth. Their hands stayed in motion as their body grooved to whatever was streaming in the singular headphone they wore. My cousin informed me this person was known as a DJ, and they were the soul of Hip-Hop.
Today, Hip-Hop is as ubiquitous as it is vibrant. As the dominant genre in the U.S., it is in nearly every commercial, smooth jazz versions of its greatest hits are playing in the background of grocery stores, and rappers are making deals with fast food chains to make special edition menu options. Hip-Hop is the pulse of culture. As result, more focus is being placed on the history of this art form. For instance, many are aware of Hip-Hop’s spatiotemporal origins at a 1973 party in the New York City borough of the Bronx. There DJ Kool Herc’s tool of choice was the Technic Direct Drive Player System SL-1200. Released a year earlier, it is part of a series of die-cast aluminum turntables designed for the needs of the disco DJ. The signature dots engraved in the side of this series, in concert with its pitch adjustment dial and vibration absorbing cabinet enabled beat cueing by matching the dots. Using his fingers and the engraved dots to seamlessly blend two identical records upon his dual setup, he was able to continuously play Clyde Stubblefield’s legendary drum solo. In doing so Kool Herc repurposed the tool to embody the instrumentation, reinterpret it, and to play in the blurred binary of the discrete and the continuous. He essentially converted the time signatures into something akin to the keys of piano. Prior to this point, the disk jockey had been the curator of the groove by selecting songs in sequence, experimenting with pitch, tune, speed, and the like. This innovation endowed the DJ to not only play the music but play with the temporality of the music. This gave the turntable the capacity of contribution. It was on the SL-1200 that the turntable transitioned from just a media player; it was an instrument to be played.
Article written by Aryol Prater, Research Specialist for Black Play & Culture at The Strong National Museum of Play