The Changing Practices of the Hip Hop DJ

Since its beginnings the art of DJ-ing has evolved dynamically along with the evolution of audio technologies such as speakers, mixers, storage devices, and music playback players. Curating, layering, mixing, and sequencing sounds has been practiced by DJs since the beginnings of the hip hop movement in the South Bronx back in in the 1970s, and even earlier by reggae selectors in Jamaica. DJs’ craft has always been a technological one. Their relation to electronic audio tools has been very creative, making them essential part of live performances in front of an audience. Innovations such as looping records to make the break beats last longer, scratching, layering and mashing-up different songs, and creating long sequences of beats and instrumentals for MCs to perform on the top, have become an essential part of the repertoire of  hip hop DJ practices. The digital age, however, has created new challenges for the DJ. The access to playback and storing devices (software and hardware) has been popularized, and huge collections of music records have become available online. The Internet, the personal computer, and the mobile phone, along with other mobile devices and the MP3 format are rapidly transforming the practices of the hip hop DJ, making the selection of beats and the layering of sounds, a more distributed task. A few examples from my fieldwork at the Austin Mic Exchange (AMX) scene illustrate some of the current changes.

Hip-Hop DJ-ing practice is becoming more distributed and democratic, more open. The selection of the beats is now made by several hip hop practitioners, and the DJ has adapted to receiving sound signals from other devices that are not part of his set and sound system. Instead of setting up the beats for an MC to perform a freestyle or pre-written song, the DJ now has an open channel in his mixer where to connect a mobile device using a stereo miniplug cable. This channel is open to any signal coming from a smart phone, an ipod, or other playback device where the beats are stored. Sometimes MCs do even bring laptops to reproduce their songs directly from their own computers.

Because the origin of MCs beats can be traced many times to the Internet, the networked aspect of the DJ performance becomes even more distributed, especially since several of the beats come from all parts of the world. Aspiring Mcs hunter and gather beats on web 2.0 platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud, and BandCamp, or what could be called the new digital underground. They download the beats usually as MP3, cut them and prepare them for their performances, following the long standing hip hop tradition of the mixtape. That is, the re-use and re-appropriation of recorded sounds, and the organization of them according to a sequence and a song structure.

Beyond phones and ipods, another changing DJ-ing practice that shows a more open and distributed performing practice is related to the uses of the laptop computer. The computer is connected to the turntables (using Serato software and control vinyls) and the mixer, and carries a huge record collection inside its hard drive. Further, it also can work as a playback device for other storing and portable formats brought by the rappers. For instance, it is common that MCs bring CD-s and USB drives to the stage and plug them directly into the DJ laptop computer in order to access and play their beats for their freestyles or pre-written songs. When this happens, the DJ can more easily have access to the track using the Serato software and the turntables and can queued it up.

Bringing their own beats to the stage and play them in front of an audience gives a lot of power to the MCs, who some times can prepare especial sequencing of tracks in order to perform more than one song during the time slot. The DJ then, needs to be very attentive to the length of the track played on the mobile device and has to be ready to equalize it and fade it using the mixer. However, despite being placed on the back of the stage and having lost some of the control on the selecting, layering, and sequencing of the beats, the DJ continues to be one of the most important figures to maintain the energy and the rhythm of the night through several hours. One of his most important practices is to play several tracks from his own selection between the different MCs performances. During this transition, the DJ reclaims his creative control and has the opportunity to mix and sequence his favorite cuts, crossfades, and scratches.

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