The DJ is the foundation and backbone of hip-hop music and culture.
During hip-hop’s infancy in the mid-1970s, the DJ was the star attraction of the show. And the DJ did more than just “play records,” like the disc jockeys of broadcast radio. They mixed songs seamlessly into each other using two turntables and a mixer to keep a consistent flow of music and dancing. But one of the most influential techniques that set the hip-hop DJ apart from everyone else came at the hands of DJ Kool Herc. During a DJ’s set in the early days of hip-hop, the most popular part of a song was the “break” in the middle of a song. It was usually no more than 30 seconds, so Herc wanted to find a way to extend it.
In Dan Charnas’ book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, Herc’s solution was explained: “He needed two copies of the same record. Placing one copy on each turntable, as soon as the break section ended on the first, he’d start the second. Back and forth he’d go, turning a 15- or 30-second breakdown into a three-, five- or 10-minute beat-down, before moving onto the next break, and the next.”
Songs like “Apache,” by the Incredible Bongo Band, “It’s Just Begun,” by Jimmy Castor Bunch, or any James Brown record with funky, up-tempo drum beats were the most popular. Kids would later make their own breaks using drum machines, spawning the hip-hop of today. Later on in hip-hop’s infancy, scratching and cutting records would be added to a DJ’s performance as a percussive element. The quickest and most creative DJs would get the most attention.
Techniques evolved that made use of pitch manipulation, volume control, needle handling, body tricks and other skills, all the while keeping in time with the beat and tempo. These skills are displayed each year at the DMC World Mixing Championships, where DJs from around the world compete against one another.
Thirty-some years after DJ Kool Herc did his thing, Denver resident Francisco Chacon was one of the newest apprentices learning how to carry on one of hip-hop’s most storied traditions. Known as DJ Cysko Rokwel when behind the turntables, Chacon started DJing in the late ’90s, rocking house parties and developing DJ skills. After a few years of competing, losing and going back to the drawing board, Chacon went on to become one of Colorado’s (and the nation’s) elite DJs.
“In 2001, I went to [Los Angeles] to compete in the DMCs, because I thought I’d be good enough, but I got my ass kicked,” says Chacon, now the DJ for Prime Element. “They all had their own style, and everyone had their tricks. Here in Denver, there were only a couple kids really doing stuff. Plus in L.A. there were a lot of DJs who already won battles before, and it was just overwhelming. But it opened my eyes and showed me what a real battle scene is like.”
Since then, it’s expected that Chacon will make DMC’s U.S. Finals every year. He’s been considered among the top five American DJs competing for at least the past five years, but still hasn’t grabbed that No. 1 spot to go to the world finals. Last year’s U.S. Finals in New York seemed like it’d be the year that Colorado, now a hotbed for DJs, would finally take on the world, since five of the 12 competing DJs were from Colorado, with Chacon leading the pack. Unfortunately, none of the Colorado DJs placed in the top three, with Chacon getting fourth.
“The judges were basically looking for a certain thing, like the flow of the routine,” Chacon says. “The thing with battles — it always comes down to the judging. You never know what those judges are feeling or what they’re thinking. That’s the thing when you’re in a competition. There isn’t a certain amount of points you can earn when you’re in a DJ battle or emcee battle. It’s all opinion.”
Alex Gardner was in New York for the 2010 U.S. Finals. He was one of the Colorado DJs competing. Spinning under the moniker Skip Ripken, Gardner performed a solid set, finishing second out of the Colorado DJs. The competition is available on the 2010 DMC USA Finals DVD (available at www.dmcworld.com), along with some clips of Colorado hip-hop group The ReMINDers, who performed at the New York regionals.
Gardner also came of age in the mid- 1990s making pause mixtapes and watching DJs, hoping to get his hands on his own pair of turntables. It wasn’t until he was 19 that he finally got to take a shot at what he’d been dreaming about since he was a tween.
“It was through a friend who had a cheap turntable, another friend who had a cheap Radio Shack mixer and another friend who had an old-school Technics turntable,” Gardner says. “So everybody kind of got their stuff together, and we went over to my friend’s apartment, hooked it up, and the setup stayed there for a few months. And after that first night of trying it out, it felt so good. It was something that I wanted to do for several years, so I just kept going over there every chance I could to keep practicing. It just took off from there.”
Gardner paid his dues DJing underground hip-hop parties, competing in smaller events and being the DJ for Colorado hip-hop group Fresh Breath Committee. Last year was his first time competing in the DMCs, scoring a second-place finish at the Denver regional competition, which gave him a shot at the U.S. title. That’s pretty good, considering he only came up with a routine a few days before the competition. But the reception in New York wasn’t all daps and smiles when it came to the Colorado DJs, which Gardner thinks may have contributed to none of them placing in the top three.
“They were kind of hating a little bit because Colorado had such a strong presence out there in New York,” Gardner says. “I also think custom vinyl helped out [the winners] too, because two of the top three guys had custom vinyl. The previous year’s winner had custom vinyl, too.”
Custom vinyl is a recent trend among DJs, at least the ones who can afford it. Thanks in part to the lack of vinyl production in recent years, DJs will put sounds, songs and samples on a vinyl record they have pressed themselves. The custom vinyl allows for a more seamless performance, lessening the need to lift up the needle and switch out records.
“You basically produce your own record,” Chacon says. “They go through one trick, and the next trick is already lined up. The last 10 years, most of the U.S. champions won using custom records.”
This year, however, DMC organizers are allowing the use of Scratch Live, a vinyl emulation software developed by Serato Audio Research that allows DJs to play back audio files, like MP3s, on special timecode vinyl records. DJs mostly refer to the technology and software as “Serato.” This addition makes a DJ’s music library endless and is a big step up for the tournament.
“Lots of top battle DJs campaigned for DMC to allow Serato/Scratch Live and other DVS [digital vinyl system] programs over the years,” says Christie Z-Pabon, DJ battle coordinator for DMC USA. “Some of the arguments for not allowing DVS programs came from the traditional purist hip-hop heads, which I understand. But then I have to ask, are the purists actually entering the battles? If not, we need to accommodate the present-day battle DJs, because if they stop entering, we won’t have any battles. From day one, DJs have always embraced new technology. DJs should now have better music selection, better disses, etc. This should really challenge their creativity. They can no longer use the excuse that they can’t find anything on vinyl.”
Chacon couldn’t be more excited. “I’m glad this year that they’ve opened up the competition to use Serato, just that the people who can’t afford custom records that have Serato can actually do something,” he says. “Since that announcement, I’ve heard of at least four past champions who are competing again. It’s hard to find dope records nowadays. Serato allows people to be more creative, which is what I think is bringing a lot of people out of the woodwork.”
Still though, for most DJs, there’s nothing like slipping on that new record and dropping that needle.
“Vinyl is off the chain,” says Gardner.
“There’s nothing like the real thing.”
On the Bill:
The DMC USA Denver Regional is at Casselman’s Bar and Venue in Denver on Saturday, April 30. Performances by DJ Rob Swift, Mane Rok and DJ Tense. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Tickets $7 in advance, $10 day of show. 21 and up only. 2620 Walnut St., Denver, 720-242-8923.