Barely known beyond a few Bronx ZIP codes, hip-hop in 1973 hadn’t yet been named, and few if anyone considered it—whatever exactly it was—to be a distinct art form. Ten years later, hip-hop was a household word and had an identity as a four-pillared artistic and cultural phenomenon combining music, dance, and painting. Millions of hip-hop records were funking up stereos across the world, while b-boying, MCing, and graffiti were known to millions more via newspapers, television, and film. Highbrow galleries featured the work of graffiti artists; national networks covered a b-boy battle staged outside Manhattans venerable Lincoln Center.1 Hip-hop was branching out, it was moving on up, and it was changing.
DJing was swept up in these changes as well, but the changes suggested conflicting possible futures for the art form. Some DJs were tremendously popular, holding forth at the hottest downtown New York venues or rocking audiences in Europe and Asia. The 1983 scratch vehicle “Rockit” made a star out of Grandmixer D.ST and showed the world that DJs could be instrumentalists in their own right. Yet these star DJs were outliers. More commonly, DJs of the early 1980s served to provide sonic support for MCs, at least those who weren’t replaced by digital audiotapes. Introduced in 1987, the DAT (digital audio tape) allowed producers to record beats onto high-quality backing tapes, which could then accompany MCs in concert, leaving many DJs out of the loop completely. As hip-hop journalist Lefty Banks observed, “The DAT eliminated the cost and hassle of bringing DJs on tour, and let rappers bask solo in the glow of the marquee.”2 But back in the pre-DAT age of 1983 it was anybody’s guess as to whether the art of the hip-hop DJ would flourish or fade.
In a sense the DJ both flourished and faded—faded from the mainstream, but flourished in the underground. These competing trajectories make it impossible