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Is There a DJ in the House?

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

If video killed the radio star, some might argue that technology crippled the hip-hop mix masters. Crippled, maybe, but the deejay is not obsolete.

When it comes to hip-hop's core elements -- emceeing, deejaying, breaking, graffiti art (and sometimes beat boxing and knowledge of self) -- the art of emceeing has enjoyed the most recognition. During hip-hop's formative years, the DJ, or deejay, was the main attraction. Pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash worked their turntables at a frenzied pace to provide extended loops for b-boys and b-girls to dance to. Back then, the emcee's role was that of host, acting as master of ceremonies, and the emcee's delivery often resembled a barker at a carnival or festival.

As time moved on, the deejay's role began to shrink to the point that, these days, one can scarcely find a mainstream rap artist being supplemented by the skills of a prominent deejay. Underground crews tend to keep the deejay-emcee mechanics in play, but the waning visibility of the deejay is worthy of concern. One theory posits that the advent of "gangsta rap" was the genesis of the deejay's downfall. After all, the "hardcore" gangsta image hardly needs to be bolstered by a deejay working the "wheels of steel". That, however, is too pat, too simplistic.

The history here is a bit more nuanced and evolutionary. Truthfully, hip-hop fans probably didn't realize the severity of what was happening at the time. It begins, I think, with the dramatic shift in the emcee's skill set in the mid-'80s, as rappers like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-One ushered in an era of lyrical innovation. Lyrical innovation promptly granted emcees access to the spotlight. West Coast rappers and crews injected personality and attention to storytelling that helped to expand the emcee's profile.

By the late-'80s, and gaining speed in the early-'90s, the rise of the emcee as hip-hop's focal point encouraged the decline of the deejay. In the United States, enforcement of Copyright law, and the attendant costs of clearing samples, was another factor, as was the amount of attention, albeit of the controversial type, garnered by rappers during this time. As a result, rappers emerged from this period at the height of visibility and with new commercial prospects. Not only did they become spokespeople for a wide range of products, they earned prominent and popular roles in movies and television, transforming themselves into full fledged name brands. Rappers became celebrities but the deejays standing behind them faded into the background.

Faced with hip-hop's mainstream success, deejays took to the clubs as facilitators of the ultimate party atmosphere. Some retreated to the underground and the mixtape circuit, while others translated the deejaying experience into the slightly more detached role of producer. These days, the interaction between deejay and emcee continues in splintered fashion. Thanks to technology, emcees are making their own beats minus label input and without oversight from a deejay. If video killed the radio star, some might argue that technology crippled the hip-hop mix masters. Crippled, maybe, but the deejay is not obsolete. There's more life in deejaying than just playing DJ Hero.

At this juncture, we can identify the ways that hip-hop artists celebrate their deejays in song. Keep in mind that, for this discussion, our concern is the erosion of the deejay-emcee dynamic, not the lamentation of the emcee's success.


The most effective and efficient way to honor the deejay is to keep the deejay engaged as an integral part of the music. When the emcee's lyrical skill meets the deejay's expert turntablism, the result is a potent blend. Rap songs have long been criticized for their lack of vocal harmonies. I would argue that rap often substitutes the fusion of lyrics and deejay wizardry in place of the harmonies and melodies we expect to find in so-called traditional songs.

Few things in hip-hop are better than the bond between rappers and deejays. Out front, the rapper brings the rhymes that outline and develop the song's themes. Behind that comes the deejay, adding textures and scratches to embellish those themes while matching, and often influencing, the rapper's mood and intensity.

Rappers acknowledge the contributions of their deejays, even if it's only as an aside in a song that's not specifically designated as a tribute. In MC Lyte's "Cha Cha Cha", the cuts and scratches decorate the breaks, consisting of Lyte's distinctive voice saying, "Kick this one here for me and my deejay." In Salt-N-Pepa's "I Desire", the female emcees declare that "deejays come and go, just like the wind / but mine is better than all of them". Meanwhile, a true classic in this regard is Eric B. & Rakim's "Eric B. is President", wherein Rakim's formidable voice touts his own deftness while trumpeting his deejay's ability to make the crowd "clap to this" ("Eric B. is on the cut and my name is Rakim"). The emcee and the deejay work together, complementing each other.

Better still are entire albums that demonstrate the ideal synthesis. Eric B. & Rakim's Follow the Leader (1988) arguably falls into this category, containing songs dedicated to Rakim's passion for rhyming ("Microphone Fiend", "Lyrics of Fury", "The R") and Eric B.'s record work ("Eric B. Never Scared", "Just a Beat", Beats for the Listener"), in addition to the combined fire of songs like the title track. Likewise, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper (1988) gives equal footing to Will "the Fresh Prince" Smith's rhymes and "DJ Jazzy" Jeff Townes's turntable genius, along with "special assistance" from then-group member and beat boxer Clarence "Ready Roc C" Holmes. Even the title gives Jeff first mention, and thereby first billing, despite its first person perspective being from Will Smith's eye. "Brand New Funk" and "Pump up the Bass" merge Will Smith's storytelling with Jeff's deejaying, creating fluid presentations while tracks like "DJ on the Wheels" and "Jazzy's in the House" give Jeff room to spin megamixes. It showcases the talents of both artists, if not always completely mixing the two.

Of course, we know how things turned out. Will Smith became a superstar in blockbuster movies. DJ Jazzy Jeff… didn't, although one (or maybe just me) might contend that Jeff's outstanding credibility in hip-hop circles (and Will Smith's lyricism, not so much) is equally thrilling. One (or maybe just me again) would probably have to be a diehard to agree. And even then…

He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper was kind of tight, and Will Smith's emceeing has been completely underrated as the album has aged. For my money, though, the shining crown of the emcee-deejay aesthetic belongs to Gang Starr's Step in the Arena (1990). Gang Starr, comprised of DJ Premier (Christopher Martin) and Guru (Keith Elam), has a dauntingly consistent discography. In 2010, Guru's untimely passing closed to the door to future Gang Starr material, but at least we have Step in the Arena to listen to and reconsider. Now, I know Gang Starr fans are crazy about albums like Daily Operation (1992), Hard to Earn (1994), and Moment of Truth (1998), but Step in the Arena is a gem when it comes to the merging of an emcee and a deejay.

The album features Guru's methodical rhymes filled with life lessons, urban wisdom, and every poetic device from alliteration to extended metaphor. Significantly, DJ Premier's work is characteristically stellar, with painstaking intricacies that add layers to Guru's rhymes and, with songs often devoid of spoken hooks or choruses, DJ Premier's handiwork coupled with Guru's vocals practically makes each song a duet. When Guru announces, "The DJ's name is Premier, and I'm the Guru," on album intro "Name Tag", he echoes Will Smith's "He's the DJ, I'm the rapper" perspective. More than that, the album's precise execution shows the significance of their positions, as deejay and emcee, relative to hip-hop and to each other.

I've wondered if, in the year following Step in the Arena, Pete Rock & CL Smooth's proper debut Mecca & the Soul Brother (1992) inadvertently signaled the role reversal and coming schism between emcee and deejay. Here, unlike the first billing for DJ Jazzy Jeff on He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, "Mecca" (CL Smooth's nickname) preceded "Soul Brother" (Pete Rock's nickname). No doubt, the chosen title, culled from a previously released single, rolls off the tongue far better than "Soul Brother & Mecca", but other aspects of the album hinted at the genre's coming changes. Notably, Pete Rock, as deejay and producer, went solo on a couple of songs, and handled collaborative spots on others, much like Dr. Dre would do in his NWA days or on his first solo effort The Chronic.

Unlike Dr. Dre, it's tough to argue that Pete Rock was undervalued as a vocalist, and his gorgeous, horn-tinged productions reign supreme among the fruits of his talent. Pete Rock's undertaking to speak as a rapper rather than solely through his deejay craftsmanship opens the door to the question of whether the roles within deejay-emcee duos in general were blurring but becoming less interconnected. The deejay's desire to be heard also manifests in Pete Rock's vocal flourishes in the background of his beats and in the backing vocals behind CL Smooth. Pete Rock is an absolute genius, but listening with headphones, the extra mumbles and cheers are rather annoying, an ill-advised technique that, in my opinion, afflicts releases by other artists, such as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and some of Diddy's tracks.

However subtle the divisions were by the time of Mecca & the Soul Brother, the cracks in the deejay-emcee partnership were already relayed, jokingly but tellingly, in Mr. Cee's "DJ's Get No Credit". Mr. Cee was Big Daddy Kane's deejay, and he stepped to the mic in this short tune from Kane's Prince of Darkness (1991) album. In it, Mr. Cee decides he's had enough of hanging "in the background / supplyin' the sound but my props is yet to be found". Responding to his emcee's song title "It's Hard Being the Kane", Mr. Cee scoffs, "Hmm, but all you gotta do is rap." Mr. Cee is the one doing the heavy lifting. Lyrically, it never matches Kane's delivery, but it's funny and makes the point that deejays are underappreciated.

Equally amusing is Snoop Dogg's "Freestyle Conversation" from Tha Doggfather (1994). Deejays and producers who felt marginalized would find no solace in the intro to the song, wherein Snoop, faced with the comment that people are expecting his beats to be "delicate" in Dr. Dre's absence, responds, "Delicate? Beats? So that's what makes me now?...I don't give a f*ck about no beat."

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