"This idea of a seamless flow of music that ran all night created by a DJ, that came from disco, and that has been one of the most radical changes in music in the last thirty years." - DAVID TOOP
VI. SAY A PRAYER AND DROP THE NEEDLE
My Catholic high school decided they would like to have a dance in the gym to raise money for some charitable cause. They wanted someone to DJ. Since my friend Bill and I played in a rock band and the school orchestra and had also spun at a few house parties, the priest organizing this asked us if we would like to provide the music.
Between us we had a large selection of records, loudspeakers, amps and turntables. Back in those days, however, one had two types of records: 45s and 33 1/3 LPs. There were no 12" dance mixes specifically designed for DJs. There were no DJ mixers as we know them. No headphones. And the turntables ran at two speeds, 45 RPMs and 33 1/3 RPMs. You couldn't adjust the speeds. You couldn't hold the turntable in place.
DJs back then played one record. Took it off of the turntable. Got the next record out and put in on and played it. There was no seamless mix. The dancers stood and waited between records. If you wanted to "extend" a hit that the dancers really liked you picked up the arm and moved it back to the beginning.
Like a lot of kids who were passionate about music, Bill and I spent most nights and a lot of weekends trying to find ways to overcome some of these technical problems. Since our first really big public performance was near at hand, and we didn't want to be humiliated before the entire school, we started to stay up all night rehearsing.
We had two good turntables and much of our record collection was duplicated, so we rigged the two tables with a switch into the amp so we could move from one to the other. Then we put the same recording on each turntable to try to extend the mix somehow. Of course the least we could do was play the same record twice in pretty rapid succession, which was better than making the dancer wait until we changed the record. But we preferred to build the mix by isolating various instrumental, vocal and drum segments and extend them by jumping from record to record. Very, very difficult. One literally had to know virtually every groove of the record. And dropping the needle down in the middle of the record was a mess.
So we got some felt and cut pieces to the size of the turntable. Then I would play the record to the point where we wanted to extend the mix and Bill would be on the second table holding the record at the point he thought was appropriate (he was slip-cueing - the felt allowed the table to spin while the record and arm were stationary) and I would throw the switch and he would take over, and visa-versa.
Who really invented all this stuff? Someone on the list rightly pointed out that Grosso wasn't the only one who slip-cued. Radio station DJs used this technique, and so, obviously, did a lot of kids. Remember, history is like that. The person who gets his/her story down first wins. And who cares? Reality is a lot more complicated and chaotic and inventions arise from a vast number of sources and influences. Like house music. Now to give Grosso and others props, they were one-man shows. Bill and I worked this together.
These primitive mixing techniques were, to say the least, terribly inaccurate and the margin for error very high. One had to catch the segment at just the right moment. Very, very anxiety-producing. This required much practice with individual recordings, great agility, and nerves of steel. Great turntabelists of the 70's like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash developed such techniques into an art form.
So we did our first DJ gig together, Bill and I. Unfortunately I made the mistake of getting stoned before our set which ended up increasing my paranoia and stage fright but.... You know, when we got rolling we were often dead on with the mixes. There were unfortunate moments. But on the whole the kids seemed to be impressed because they had never before heard mixing like this. They sure danced their asses off that night.
A. EARLY DJ TECHNOLOGIES
Back in the day people danced to DJs like Bill and I. Using the same technologies. Or they danced to jukeboxes, that is, early mechanical DJs.
Record playback technology in the '50s and even '60s was really not good enough to fill a large room with high fidelity sound. Around 1965 major jukebox manufacturers like Wurlitzer and Seeburg began to develop high fidelity equipment with the first extended-play records, all designed for dance environments. This was a decade before the record companies created the 12" EP for DJ mixing. Seeburg rightly saw back then that dancing to records would not be widely accepted until uninterrupted music could be provided. Thus, they created recordings for the jukeboxes with three titles per side with music in the lead-in and lead-out grooves so that one could have about eight minutes of continuous music.
In the early seventies the DJs tools began to progressively improve as the market for dance music and venues began to expand. Pitch control was added to turntables so one could speed up or slow down the tempo and run two turntables like Bill and I did at the same speed. Since headphones were still uncommon, DJs would position a monitor near the turntables to gauge the sound. But the records used were still the same formats, 45s and LPs, that were sold to the general public. These records had "A" sides and "B" sides and different songs were recorded on both sides.
What DJs were longing for was a format which would allow more creativity than available working with two copies of the exact same record on two tables. What they wanted was an "A" side with the commercially released version of the work and a "B" side that contained an instrumental mix only on a 12" recording. With this flexibility available one could really do an innovative mix for the dance floor.
Mel Cheren, the "Godfather of Disco", backer of the Paradise Garage and founder of West End Records, claims he the first to create the instrumental "B" side.
Mel was working for Scepter Records in 1973 when they acquired "We're On the Right Track" by Ultra High Frequency. Mel, who was heavily involved in the underground gay dance scene, presented a case for the creation of an instrumental "B" side before releasing the product and met with great resistance from Scepter executives because, it was felt, consumers would feel cheated if they bought a product and found the same tune, sans vocals, on the "B" side. Mel agreed that would be true for non-dance music product, but argued that the dance genre was a growing market with different needs and expectations. Mel prevailed and "We're On the Right Track" was the first single to be released with an instrumental track on the "B" side.
"We're On the Right Track" was a huge dance-floor success. The DJs went wild over the flexibility this format offered. In a matter of months recording companies finally recognized the potential of the instrumental "B" side on a 12" single and by the end of '73 it was well on the way to becoming the industry standard for dance genre releases.