In the last 30 years, the role of the DJ has transformed from being a mere purveyor of pop music to being the creator of pop music. This transformation is due almost solely to the humble analogue technology of the record turntable, which still thrives in the midst of this supposedly digital decade. In DJ Culture, Ulf Poschardt, editor in chief of Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, has attempted to trace the evolution of the DJ and his impact on musical culture.
However, Poschardt is not interested in simply discussing fashionable modern DJs who create their own records. He spends the first third of DJ Culture discussing the prehistory of today’s DJs, the record spinners who arrived with the advent of radio. There are not many histories which can pinpoint an exact date and time for their origin, but Poschardt maintains the DJ came into being in 1906, when electrical engineer Reginald A. Fessenden played a record of Handel’s Largo in the world’s first radio broadcast.
DJ Culture details the social influence of this powerful new mixture of recorded and transmittable sound, along with the DJs’ subtly subversive light entertainment programming. While 1940s disc jockey legend Alan Freed never scratch his own tunes together, he introduced a whole post-war white generation to the black music of jazz and rhythm and blues, flying in the face of McCarthy-era conservatism.
Just as the DJ was created by technology, so DJs began to exploit that technology to take control of the sound of the records they played. With the beginning of house and disco clubs in the early 70s, DJs sought ways to extend their audiences’ favourite sections of particular tracks, which led to using two turntables and repeating the same segment.
From the sonic DIY experiments of Grandmaster Flash, Kool J Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Culture meticulously traces the roots of the modern DJ and the birth of the record as technological collage, concluding with the emergence of drum’n’bass and the seemingly infinite possibilities of computerised music.
Poschardt manages to write about DJ culture in a scholarly but informal style, interweaving quotes from DJs with citations of numerous critical theorists. In the hands of a less thoughtful writer, this could have resulted in clumsy prose, but Poschardt uses nuggets of academic theory to persuasively emphasise the radical shift during this century that has happened to music, DJs and society itself because of technology.
Most importantly, Poschardt reveals the significance of something which is seemingly so insignificant – pop music – and yet manages to keep a tone of infectious, subjective enthusiasm about it. In doing so, he has written a near-definitive secret history of the DJ.