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Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ by Mark Katz (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 1, September 2013
pp. 109-111 | 10.1353/not.2013.0123

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

With Groove Music, the hip-hop DJ community gains a thoroughly researched, comprehensive, and well-written narrative history of its practices, from hip-hop’s mythological beginnings at a party thrown by DJ Kool Herc in 1973 to the present day. Author Mark Katz’s work addresses an important hole in the field of hip-hop scholarship: while nearly all hip-hop scholars note the existence of four elements of hip-hop culture—rapping, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti—their works tend to focus largely, if not exclusively, on rappers and their lyrical creations. In presenting a study that examines the world of DJs, Katz’s book is an important contribution towards our understanding of the many facets of hip-hop culture.

Katz’s narrative begins with an explanation of the break, which he concisely defines as “a brief percussion solo, typically found towards the end of a funk song, though it may show up anywhere in a song, and really, anywhere in music” (p. 14). Katz’s discussion of the musical qualities of breaks—what makes them compelling and worthy of being looped over and over again—shows his ability to convey ideas both to music scholars and non-specialists:

Rhythmically speaking, [breaks] are usually anchored by a heavy downbeat emphasized by the bass (or kick) drum—‘the one,’ as it’s often called—but are dominated by forward-leaning syncopations that seem to propel themselves back to ‘the one.’ Over the course of just a few seconds—usually two to four bars—a sense of stability is constantly being undermined, reestablished, and undermined once again.

(p. 24)

Breaks found on records like James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” or the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun” were especially popular with dancers, and DJs such as Grandmaster Flash and GrandWizzard Theodore developed several techniques for repeating and extending these breaks. As Katz shows, hip-hop DJs were therefore both discovering and creating a new property of vinyl records. “Records were not inviolate; songs did not need to be played from start to finish. A turntable therefore was not simply a playback device, but a means for manipulating sound” (p. 16). Arguing for the turntable as a “means for manipulating sound” is key to one of the basic arguments of Groove Music: while some custodians of high culture might be skeptical, Katz argues forcefully for treating the turntable as a bona fide musical instrument and DJs as creative musicians. The list of the turntable’s “idiomatic techniques” he offers as evidence of its status as an instrument will, however, be unconvincing to readers who doubt the existence of strict ontological boundaries between instruments and non-instruments (p. 62). Instead, Katz is on more solid ground when he argues that “[i]t is not simply through the actions of musicians that a new instrument comes to be; it is a community of listeners that renders the verdict…. They have thought of and experienced these sounds as music. And in the end, that’s how we know that the turntable is a musical instrument” (p. 63).

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, MCs (rappers) rose in prominence and came to overshadow DJs, a situation that continues to the present day. Paradoxically, this happens at the very time when hip-hop DJs are making great technical strides and becoming better known nationally and internationally. While Katz details the technical prowess and ingenuity of Grandmaster Flash’s “Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” Fab Five Freddy’s “Change the Beat,” and Grandmixer D.ST’s contributions to the Herbie Hancock hit “Rockit,” perhaps none of these recordings have had as much enduring influence as The Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 track “Rapper’s Delight”—a song which not only did not feature a DJ, but for which Hank of The Sugar Hill Gang stole lines from DJ and MC Grandmaster Caz. It must be a cruel irony to the DJ community that “Rapper’s Delight” remains the song best known to casual listeners as an example of early hip-hop.

As his narrative moves forward in time, Katz is particularly strong on the subject of DJ battles, a scene slightly isolated...

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