College of LAS « Illinois

Faculty Focus

Sonic Inventors

‘Turntablists’ turned music upside down, but now have to adapt.


His name was Joseph Saddler, but people in the Bronx knew him as Grandmaster Flash. During the 1970s, Grandmaster Flash and his friends would block off an entire intersection, and he would blast the makeshift sound system that he had assembled using parts from abandoned cars and discarded stereos. For power, he tapped into the base of a streetlight, and then the streets filled with music and dancing.

Hip-hop music was born on the streets of New York in the 1970s, and with it came break dancing, rapping, and DJing. Grandmaster Flash was a DJ, and his innovations took this skill to a new level as he became one of the first to use turntables as a musical instrument, says LAS history professor Rayvon Fouche.

Fouche has long been interested in the innovations made by African Americans, for as he puts it, “I’m interested in how black people interact with technology in new and innovative ways.”

Previously, Fouche studied and wrote about black inventors working in more traditional areas—such as Granville T. Woods, an African American who holds numerous patents for devices on trains and streetcars. But more recently Fouche has gone beyond the traditional realm to look at “sonic inventors”—African Americans who have made technological breakthroughs in music, particularly in jazz and hip-hop.

These sonic inventors include “turntablists”—hip-hop artists like Grandmaster Flash, who turned the conventional turntable into a musical instrument. Just as a pianist plays a piano, a turntablist plays two turntables, one with each hand.

Using the turntables, DJs sample music from vinyl records and incorporate these sounds into hip-hop music. According to Fouche, Grandmaster Flash came up with the “quick mix” technique, which allowed him to seamlessly switch between the two turntables. Using both hands, Grandmaster Flash would locate musical phrases on the two vinyl records and switch between them.

Early DJs sampled music from sources ranging from the Beatles and Prince to Led Zeppelin and the Jackson 5. Of course, lifting music from vinyl records and then incorporating it into hip-hop songs eventually raised copyright issues, but in the 1970s there was an air of rebellion that encouraged this indiscriminate lifting of music.

“Early on, groups such as Public Enemy were known for sampling bits and pieces of music and not paying royalties,” Fouche says. “But in the mid-’80s there was considerable legal action to regain royalties. It’s now been ironed out, and there is a royalty system that allows people to be compensated for sampled music. But early on it was a terrible mess.”

With its early flouting of copyright law, hip-hop has always maintained a rebel outlook, a “resistance to the broader culture,” as Fouche puts it. “People said that instead of listening to prerecorded music, we’re going to perform prerecorded music with our turntables. Hip-hop today may have lost a lot of its African American roots, but it still maintains this idea of cultural resistance.”

Hip-hop upset the musical world’s apple cart, so it’s ironic that digital innovations have disrupted the hip-hop culture over the last 10 years. Turntables and vinyl records are artifacts of the past, Fouche says, and most artists have made the move, sometimes grudgingly, to “digital vinyl” systems.

With a digital vinyl system, DJs still use turntables, but the music comes from a laptop computer, not from vinyl records. The two turntables now act as controllers to manipulate the digital music on the computer, thus retaining some of the skill that DJs used to manipulate music on traditional vinyl records.

“It allows DJs to embrace all that is available in the digital realm without undermining the historical authenticity of performing with vinyl records,” Fouche says. “But there has been a lot of tension around this because when you move from turntables and vinyl records to digital controllers, it’s a different performance and a different skill.”

Fouche concedes that it’s easier to master a digital vinyl system than traditional vinyl records, “but the best are still the best whether you’re using a digital system or analog system or anything in between.”

By Doug Peterson
Fall 2011