Has Post-1996 Hip Hop Abandoned the Turntablist?
2:30PM ET December 1st, 2011
Contributor : Todd Williams
A Rocky Williform Company
"Where's the DJ?"
The late, great Jam-Master Jay used to say that 'It ain't hip hop if there ain't no DJ," and while the rigidity of that statement may seem antiquated to a lot of contemporary rap fans, there was a time when it was entirely applicable. Hip hop has changed a lot since Run DMC were ruling the airwaves, but one under-discussed change in the culture is the demise of the DJ. Sure, the 'real hip hop' purists that dominate cyphers and showcases around the world still understand the importance of the man on the wheels, but for hip hop's mainstream, the DJ--and other aspects of 'classic hip hop'--have slowly been all but erased.
The Great Hip Hop Divide, generationally-speaking at least, seems to be 1996. That was the year the Death Row/Bad Boy feud escalated to ridiculous proportions, garnering numerous national headlines and dividing fan opinions from Brooklyn to Watts and all points in-between. The tragic killing of Tupac Shakur that September was one of the most talked-about stories of the year, and when Biggie died in March of 1997, hip hop fans reacted with understandable shock and grief over the loss of their two biggest icons.
But the aftermath of that feud and those twin murders slanted the perspective of hip hop audiences--in a way that seems to have created a chasm between late 90s/2000s hip hop fans and hip hop heads who remember what the landscape looked like before 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. were decreed the two bi-coastal pillars of rap music.
The late 90s emergence of Jay-Z is also significant. His popularity, along with the martyrdom of 2Pac and Biggie, have led to a generation of hip hop fans that are most familiar with the approach that 'The Trinity' used to make music. In the post-2Pac/Biggie/Jay-Z hip hop world, a DJ is more of a sideshow oddity and a top rapper has beats emailed to him and he just picks the ones he prefers to rock over. While this approach isn't 'new' at all, it has become the dominant approach and resulted in a generation of artists and fans who have a very limited notion of hip hop and artistry.
There are constant debates regarding who is the Alpha Male of hip hop currently. This is a decidedly post-1996 conversation. Prior to 2Pac and Biggie, hip hop's pinnacle was shared by groups and solo artists. Run DMC were hip hop's kings in the mid-1980s, with Public Enemy assuming the mantle as the 1990s dawned. Other collectives like N.W.A., A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan also emerged as pivotal forces in the genre. But it seems that groups began to die a slow death following the Death Row/Bad Boy beef. And while rap fans have argued about the best emcees since the genre's inception, the idea of who's 'running' hip hop became an ongoing topic after the dominance of the 'Super Solo' rhymer in the late 90s.
Rappers didn't want to be in groups anymore--they wanted to be kings.
The slow demise of hip hop groups led to another shift in the sensibility of hip hop fans; the idea of the self-contained hip hop group. A friend was watching the A Tribe Called Quest documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, and asked if Ali was a 'real' member of the group. They didn't understand why someone who didn't rap was in a rap group. In the first twenty years of hip hop's recorded history, the DJ was an indelible part of the music, culture and scene. Hip hop groups weren't just collectives of emcees--they were emcees, DJs and (many times) the producer/beatmaker was also a member of the group.
Groups like like Tribe, N.W.A., Wu-Tang Clan and more never had to go outside of themselves for producers; the producer was in the group. And the DJ was always included. MC/DJ duos were very common as well, with the DJ's name almost always listed first--a testament to the turntablist's importance to the hip hop aesthetic. Even solo rappers like LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane made a point to shout-out their DJs on a fairly consistent basis.
As more and more artists and fans fill up the blogs, Twitter and various message boards with their opinions on who are the best rappers today; it would benefit the genre for everyone to get more familiar with what was happening before 1996. Broaden the horizons of hip hop's future by understanding and celebrating its past.
And always shout-out the DJ.