Life is a Circus

A Short History of DJing

How the art of the DJ became the cultural force it is today.

The Art of the DJ – or disc jockey – goes back more than a century, and has evolved along with technology, entertainment and international culture. 

The role of the DJ emerged in the 1920s, with the dawn of radio. The first commercial radio broadcast took place on November 2, 1920, and soon radio time was filled with on-air hosts playing phonograph recordings of music – in other words, vinyl records. These hosts would physically queue up music on turntables, which ran at 78 revolutions per minute, then eventually slowed to 45 rpm for singles and 33 rpm for long-playing records. In addition to operating the phonographs, the host – later dubbed “disc jockey” for handling the vinyl records – would comment between the songs. 

Over time, the single radio-studio turntable became two turntables, allowing the DJ (or music operator, as the functions became separated) to mix music in a continuous fashion. The “two turntables and a microphone” set-up – basic elements of the DJ arsenal – was born. 

With the advent of affordable hi-fi systems, DJs moved out of the radio studio and onto the dance floor at private parties and dances. English radio personality Jimmy Saville claimed to be the first DJ to play public parties with two turntables in 1943. In 1947, the Whisky a Go Go became the world’s first discotheque. (The word “disco,” taken from vinyl records, referred to venues that featured recorded music rather than live musicians.) Dance clubs soon spread the world over. 

In Jamaica in the late 1950s, DJs built powerful sound systems and threw giant block parties. By 1968, dance clubs were in decline, as these outdoor parties spread to Europe and the boroughs of New York City.  

And that led to what is probably the single biggest cultural explosion since the birth of rock’n’roll. In the Bronx, Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc started making new music with beats taken from records and techniques like scratching, giving birth to hip-hop. Over the following decade, hip-hop culture exploded around the world, with DJs such as Public Enemy’s Terminator X taking center stage. 

The 1990s were the age of the rave scene, which gave birth to its own superstars. But with the advent of digital music and MP3 files in 1992, digital music mixes began to replace the traditional two-turntables-and-a-microphone set-up. 

By the 21st century, DJ culture and the dance scene were ubiquitous – and technology allowed DJing (mixing music) to be combined with VJing (creating and mixing video).

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