Is There a DJ in the House?

by Quentin B. Huff

8 March 2011

Image (partial) from the cover of DJ HERO – Grandmaster Flash – NYC (GamesMediaPro) 


Some rap songs are designed to spotlight the deejay. Instead of having rapper and deejay work in unison to illuminate a distinct theme, these songs make the deejay’s craft a theme of its own.

There are rap songs that do more than mention or shout out the deejay. These songs showcase the deejay’s skill so that the deejays move to the forefront and the rappers reside in the background. Even where the rappers deliver verses, their lyrics are in praise of their deejay’s prodigious talents. These songs almost always mention the deejay’s name, alongside the rapper’s description of the deejay’s abilities.  Big Daddy Kane’s “Mister Cee’s Master Plan” and EPMD’s “Funky Piano”, spotlighting DJ Scratch, work this template to perfection.  Yet, I say “almost always” because there are exceptions in which the deejay gets a sort of anonymous credit, having been celebrated by the emcee yet remaining nameless. Talib Kweli’s Bilal-assisted “Waiting for the DJ” and, except for a line about “Mike” doing the scratches, Tone Loc’s “Cuttin’ Rhythms” (cleverly bending and chopping “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney & Wings) are examples of this.

Perhaps Run DMC’s “Peter Piper”, showcasing the one and only Jason Mizell, better known as DJ Jam Master Jay, might serve as a model for deejay appreciation.  As Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels trade lines about how good Jay is (“he’s the better of the best, best believe he’s the baddest”), the legendary deejay goes to work. “Peter Piper” is so cool because Run DMC set the lyrics around fables and tall tales—referencing the likes of Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose, Humpty Dumpty, and King Midas—which positions Jam Master Jay as a mythical figure with magical powers over his turntables.

LL Cool J’s “Go Cut Creator Go” is LL’s homage to his deejay Cut Creator. Musically, the song opens with the numerical count from “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock”, and then builds on Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”, with a chorus championing “Johnny B. Goode”, another Chuck Berry mainstay.  Like “Peter Piper”, “Go Cut Creator Go” elevates the turntablist to iconic heights by LL’s mentioning him in the same song as a giant like Jimi Hendrix and juxtaposing his deejaying skills with the aforementioned nods to Chuck Berry.  The song is also about LL Cool J’s rise to prominence, from a wishful thinker sitting in the front row at other people’s concerts to a rapper “standin’ on top”. Each verse ends with LL Cool J announcing Cut Creator’s contribution to the song, which in turn resonates as an acknowledgement of the deejay’s role in the rapper’s journey.

Similarly, Public Enemy’s “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” coupled front man Chuck D’s booming endorsements with expert handles from DJ Terminator X (Norman Rogers). Politically relevant samples bind the lyrics to the deejay’s showcase, proving that the art of deejaying can be just as political an act as performing lyrics tackling weighty social problems. Terminator X, Chuck D, and guest Sistah Souljah pulled the same maneuver on Terminator X’s single “Buck Whylin’”. There, the stutter stepping rhythms accentuated Chuck D’s pointed delivery while Sistah Souljah earnestly described dominant society’s declaration of war against the political and racial minority. Interestingly, there’s been talk of a Terminator X release for 2011, under the title Judgment Day, with an emphasis on hip-hop’s basic elements.

Lastly, but not insignificantly, Salt-N-Pepa gets another mention for “Spinderella’s Not a Fella (But a Girl DJ)”, a tribute to Spinderella’s turntable presence as a “mix empress”. If we can agree that deejays in general aren’t getting enough shine, there’s no question that female deejays are due for more attention.

As an expansion from tributes and showcases, we find songs that give the deejay complete autonomy. With plenty of room to spare, the deejay creates a sonic collage from bits of instrumentals, comedy sketches, and vocal samples from other rap records. Samples from songs outside the genre have an inclusive and educational effect. Samples from other rap songs reinforce the hip-hop canon, forming a sense of collaboration and solidarity.  Take a listen to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” as an example. That was in 1981. In these days of increased individualism revolving around the personalities of rappers, not to mention the costs of sample clearances, mammoth deejay tracks aren’t the order of the day.

In the past, the deejay solo track appeared amid the emcee-helmed songs on a rap album. Big Daddy Kane’s It’s a Big Daddy Thing (1989) contained the mighty deejay opus, “The House That Cee Built”, featuring Mr. Cee’s deft blending and scratching.  In the same year, MC Lyte’s Eyes on This contained the dramatic deejay mix “K-Rocks Housin’”. The Afrocentric-oriented X-Clan highlighted DJ Sugar Shaft in “Shaft’s Big Score”, wrought from an insistent tribal rhythm. The title of the jam played on both the deejay’s name and the heyday of the Blaxploitation flick.

A related avenue occurs when the deejay solo is narrated by the accompanying emcee. On “I Wanna Rock”, Will Smith narrates as DJ Jazzy Jeff takes the “I wanna rock right now” portion from Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” and manipulates the speed and cadence to percussive effect.  Rhythmic manipulation also operates in the seamless beat transitions of Big Daddy Kane’s “Put Your Weight On It” and Ice Cube’s “Jackin’ for Beats”. In the latter, Ice Cube rhymes about how he will “jack”, or steal, beats ranging from the well known backgrounds of Public Enemy and LL Cool J to those of Digital Underground and X-Clan. While it’s impressive to witness a rapper’s ability to navigate a backdrop in constant flux, the deejay also gets a high five for creating that flux, thereby forcing the emcee to flow at the deejay’s whim.

An entire album by a deejay/producer is the ultimate form of the deejay’s separation from the classic deejay-emcee format. Typically, the deejay sets the tone for these releases, and enlists a variety of rappers to join the festivities. On the plus side, the deejay gets the chance to develop and execute a singular vision while further showcasing production skills and musical sleight of hand. On the minus side, the beats are frequently bigger than they need to be, drenched in an abundance of minor chords, and undergirding raps about the art of rapping itself.  From Terminator X’s solo album Terminator X & the Valley of the Jeep Beats (1991) to Amp Live of Zion I’s Murder at the Discotech (2010), albums by deejays and producers are brimming with ideas, offering experiments so tantalizing you hate to rain on the free spirit of the album by demanding consistency and cohesion.  Versatility among genres and styles is great, but these albums also illustrate the need for synergy, inasmuch as an emcee’s agenda is advanced by the presence of a swift deejay and, vice versa, the deejay’s strength rests in maintaining a healthy musical relationship with emcees.

One album that does justice to the art of deejaying is DJ Revolution’s King of the Decks.  The album brings a varied roster of rappers to the microphone, but DJ Revolution clearly envisioned an album dedicated to crate digging and mastering the mix. KRS One’s aptly titled “DJ” speaks for deejays (“A DJ is not an iPod”), directly to the deejays (“Don’t shout your name over other rappers’ lyrics”) and to the importance of deejays in the culture (“Deejaying and emceeing together is hip-hop’s true fusion”).  The track makes a great companion piece to KRS-One’s own “MC”, an ode to emceeing and the responsibilities the emcee owes to the art form and to the audience.  Historically, this is where hip-hop has been able to thrive: in the shared vision between these two core elements.

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