The Turntables Might Wobble but They Don’t Fall Down: The Amazing Renewable Phonograph

It is rare that a technology be considered new only once; rather, history shows that technology often goes through a process of renewal.  As media scholar Benjamin Peters paradoxically suggested, “…new media history is older than old media history.”[1]  What Peters means is that all technologies were once new and most, if not all, go through a process of negotiation and experimentation that often leads to new uses and cultural understandings.  While a once new and exciting technology may become domesticated, future generations or other cultures may interrupt the accepted normalcy of any given technology by appropriating it for different uses.  The history of the record player clearly illustrates how cultural innovation shapes technical inventions to alter their initial purpose(s).  Through tracing the history of the record player from Thomas Edison’s phonograph to the Hip Hop DJ’s turntables I intend to illustrate the process of technological renewal that changed the phonograph from a technology of both production and consumption to purely a medium of consumption and back again.   

Edison’s phonograph was invented in 1877 and was the first invention capable of recording and playing sound.  As you can see from the picture above, it was quite different from the record player of today.  First it used a rotating tin cylinder in which indentations were played by a stylus and amplified by a large horn.  Secondly, the phonograph was not electric; rather it was powered by a hand crank on the side of the box.  Finally, the early phonograph was capable of recording sound and was not merely a device for listening.  This final technological difference led Edison to view his new invention primarily as a device for letter writing and dictation.  In an article from 1878 entitled “The Phonograph and its Future”, Edison writes that “The main utility of the phonograph, however, being for the purpose of letter-writing and other forms of dictation, the design is made with a view to its utility for that purpose.”[2]  Correspondence rather than entertainment was the primary function of this new technology. However, Edison clearly had an understanding of the social shaping nature of technology as he wrote, “In the case of an invention of the nature and scope of the phonograph, it is practically impossible to indicate it to-day, for tomorrow a trifle may extend it almost indefinitely.”[3]  How correct that Edison fellow was.    

Perhaps the earliest example of cultural influence on the phonograph is that music soon became the primary function.  This change was largely created by the Victor Talking Machine Company who abandoned Edison’s tin cylinder and became the largest producers of the forerunner to modern-day records[4].  The Victor Talking Machine Company focused on the production of these musical recordings in order to push its victrola (a phonograph with its mechanical parts concealed within a cabinet) into homes across the country. 

As the picture above shows, the Victor victrola was made to be an elegant piece of furniture that would not only be pleasing to the ear, but to the eye as well.  The early records produced by Victor were to match the elegance of the player and featured trained singers, operas, brass bands and other elite forms of entertainment that could bring the art of the stage or auditorium into the home.[5]  As the following victrola ad from 1921 states, “It isn’t possible for everyone to go out to the parks and auditoriums where the famous bands play to vast audiences, so the victrola brings the bands to you.” 

Even Edison adapted the use of his invention to favor entertainment.  As a recorded advertisement created in the early 20th century states, “I am the Edison phonograph.  Created by the great wizard of the new world to delight those who would have melody or be amused.”  The previous ad would have been present at most early Edison phonograph dealers and clearly focuses on entertainment; recording for the purpose of dictation and letter writing were no longer the main functions of the phonograph.   Because of popularity of the Victor Talking Machine company’s music records and the economic incentives for other companies in the market to produce similar entertainment the phonograph changed from a technology of both creation and consumption to one that favored the later.  This functional change became apparent later in history as the titles phonograph and victrola were replaced simply by record player.

While the phonograph’s main purpose in the new decade became providing a means to consume entertainment, there were some innovative uses in 1930’s Germany.  Instead of consuming music, German composers Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch were using the gramophone to create music; turning the gramophone into a musical instrument of sorts and creating what they called “Grammophonmusik.”[6]  According to author Mark Katz, Hindemith and Toch created numerous pieces for the tenth annual Neue Musik Berlin, which was a festival that specialized in forward thinking, at times odd, music.  The festival’s final selections entitled Originalwerke fur Schallplatten (original works for disc), manipulated prerecorded music to “…explore the technical abilities not of the performer but of the instrument.”[7]  Here is a segment of Hindemith’s Trickaufnahemen (trick recording).

In the above recording the strings were recorded on one record and the xylophone on another while a third record was used to capture the simultaneous playing of both, essentially creating the first overdub.  While cello and viola can be heard, Katz believes that Hindemith only used a viola and simply slowed down the record to produce the lower pitch of a cello.   Katz also believed that during the performance of this piece Hindemith played two phonographs, started at different times, to create a round.  Grammophonmusik, while never popular, laid the groundwork for re-conceptualizing the phonograph as a source of new musical creation.  As Katz wrote, “…the story of Grammophonmusik makes clear, the ambitions a technology inspires in its users can far surpass the capabilities of the technology itself, ambitions that may only be fulfilled long after the originators are gone.”[8]  The social shaping of the phonograph into a type of musical instrument wouldn’t be fully realized until decades later.    

While DJ’s (disc jockeys) gave concerts of sorts by playing records in public areas such as clubs and discos as early as the 40s[9], it wasn’t until the 70s when technology finally caught up with the aspirations of Hindemith and Toch.  Early DJ’s would use what ever equipment was available but eventually  “The industry responded by designing turtables for DJ use.”[10]  A Japanese company called Technics began producing the SL1200 and SL1210.  These “decks” were designed with a new patented “magnetic drive device” which allowed DJs to control the speed of the record as well as stop and move the record back and forth by hand without damaging the mechanics of the deck.[11]  It was this ability to spin back a record by hand that proved to be essential to the beginnings of Hip Hop.   Technics made Hip Hop possible; DJ Kool Herc made it a reality. 

In the mid 70s, a Jamaican immigrant by the name of Clive Campbell (DJ Kool Herc) started to throw parties in the Bronx projects.  While playing old soul and funk records, Kool Herc noticed that his partiers would grow with excitement during the instrumental drum break of a song.  He wanted to keep the crowd hype, so he came up with a way to extend these short sections by using two decks and a mixer.[12]   Herc invented what he called the “Merry-go-round.” As Herc shows in the above link, two records that contain the same break are fused together using the cross fader on the mixer.  As soon as the short instrumental break has finished playing on the first record, another record begins playing the exact same break on the other turntable.  That first record is then spun back to the start of the break and allowed to play as soon as the second record’s break comes to an end.  This process alows the short segment of music to play indefinitely. 

Herc’s partys and his new use of the turntable was the beginning of Hip Hop culture.  As White and Crisell explain, “…the young partygoers were transfixed by the skill, which not only revolutionized DJing but also led to a new style of dancing—break dancing, which soon became known as ‘b-boying.’”[13]  But DJing and break dancing are just two of the four elements of Hip Hop culture.  The MC, or master of ceremonies, also was a direct result of Herc’s new use of the turntable.  According to Watkins, MCing “…was essentially a live performance-art form that complemented hip hop’s main attraction, the DJ.”  Watkins goes on to say that “…some DJs began…to add MCs as a way to keep rivals from stealing their two most prized possessions: their records and their technique.”[14]  While the fourth element, graffiti art, isn’t as closely linked to the DJ, many early “taggers” produced the flyers promoting the parties held by Herc and his contemporaries.  Below are some examples. 

While these flyers aren’t the best example of accomplished graffiti artists, it is important to note who is being promoted.  It’s not the MC, as is common today.  It is the man behind “the wheels of steel” who is the focus.   And when an MC is noted he is secondary to the DJ.  The second flyer reads “DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock,” not the other way around.    

Herc may have built Hip Hop on his “Merry-go-round” and been the father of modern day sampling, but other DJs soon begun manipulating the turntables in equally creative ways.  DJs such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa developed their own sounds and trademark skills.  Perhaps the second most important innovator of the turntable though is Grand Master Theodore who is credited with inventing the scratch.[15]  This staple of Hip Hop music was created by rubbing the record back and forth with the fader open creating a percussive scratching sound.  This example from DJ DeezNotes should prove helpful. 

Not only does Deez do a good job of scratching, he also demonstrates how a DJ can “beat juggle” and create new rhythms and sounds from one existing song.  Notice that he has his turntables turned so that the arms come down from the top.  This is so his hands do not bump the needle in the process of scratching and “backspinning” the record to the desired location.  Also notice the stickers at the top of his records.  These act as markers so he knows where the start of the track is and can then quickly and accurately pick different parts of the song to sample as he moves the crossfader frantically from right to left; controlling which turntable can be heard through the speakers.

I’ve included another example of beat juggling, this time from DJ Babu of the world famous Beat Junkies.  Pay special attention to minute 1:37 as the syncopated rhythm he produces is mighty impressive.  Babu is also credited with coining the term “turntablist” in 1995.[16] Rather than using DJ, the term is meant to convey a sense of seriousness and a desire to be viewed as a legitimate musician. 

While technologies, such as Stanton’s “Final Scratch” pictured above, have been developed to allow looping and scratching of digital audio files, records and actual turntables still remain vital to the DJ.  For some Hip Hop DJs there is a certain quality and skill in manipulating vinyl that is lost through the digital medium.  DJ A-Trak articulates the tension that exists between the use of vinyl and new technologies well,

“…vinyl is fundamental to turntablism, but these new technologies can be good tools.  For a while I wasn’t even paying attention to any of them, but now… you can’t help but want to try it out and see how you can integrate it into what you do.  But what you do as a turntablist stays essentially rooted in vinyl.” 

This quote is interesting as it illustrates an initial reluctance to try new technologies, even if they have the potential of improving one’s craft.  And even though A-Trak admits new technologies prove to be “good tools” he ultimately hails vinyl as king.  A-Trak’s quote and the resistance to new technologies in the Hip Hop community might also speak to the core Hip Hop values of “keeping it real” and remaining authentic.   

Whether the DJ stays true to the current incarnation of the turntable or adopts a new technology, it seems that the turntable will continue to live on in some form or another.  From Edison’s dictation machine, to Victor’s victrola, to Hindemith’s Grammophonmusik, to Herc’s break beats, to the modern turntablist, the history of the phonograph has shown its resilience and ability to adapt with current cultural trends.  Run D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper” was pretty prophetic: “The turntables might wobble but they don’t fall down.”

——————————————————————————————–

[1] Benjamin Peters, “And lead us not into thinking the new is new: a bibliographic case for new media history, New Media Society 11 (2009), 25. 

[2] Edison, Thomas. “The Phonograph and Its Future.” The North American Review, 126.262 (1878): 531.

[3] Ibid. 527

[4] Schaefer, Peter. “The Sound of Safety: Design, Disguise, and Disclosure in Early Phonography.” Conference Papers — International Communication Association, (2007): 8.

[5] Ibid. 8.

[6] Katz, Mark. “The Rise and Fall of Grammophonmusik” in Capturing Sound. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, (2004): 99. 

 [7] Ibid. 100. 

[8] Ibid. 113. 

[9] Rietveld, Hillegonda. “From Recording to Remix: The Technologies of Electronic Music” in DJ, Dance, and Rave Culture. Edited by Jared Green. Greenhaven Press, Farmington Hills, MI, (2005): 47.

[10] Katz, Mark. “The Turntable as Weapon” in Capturing Sound. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, (2004): 118. 

[11]Ibid. 48.

[12] White, Phil and Crisell, Luke. The Scratch DJ Academy Guide. St. Martin’s Press, NY, (2009): 28.

[13] Ibid. 28. 

[14] Watkins, Craig, Hip Hop Matters. Beacon Press, Boston, MA, (2005): 13. 

[15] Katz, Mark. “The Turntable as Weapon” in Capturing Sound. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, (2004): 116. 

[16] Ibid. 116.

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