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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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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