The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

As a classically trained violinist and music scholar, UNC-CH professor Mark Katz might seem an unlikely choice to champion hip-hop and DJ culture in the hallowed halls of academia.

But Katz’ new book, “Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ,” is likely to change a lot of perceptions. The result of five years of intensive research, the book aims to bring the art of the hip-hop DJ – sometimes called turntablism – to students, scholars and anyone else interested in this musical form.

Katz joined the UNC music faculty in 2006 and was recently elected chair of the department; he will begin his five-year term this summer. In addition to the book, Katz teaches several classes related to DJ culture and the use of turntables as musical composition tools. Speaking from his office in Hill Hall – next to a shiny new Technics turntable rig – Katz discussed musical open-mindedness, teaching DJ classes and wandering Tokyo dance clubs at 3 am.

Q: How did the book project get started in the first place?

Well, my Ph.D. dissertation was called “The Phonograph Effect,” and it was about the influence of sound recording on musical life in the early 20th century. Then in 2004 I wrote a book, “Capturing Sound,” that expanded on the topic – about how technology has changed music generally. One of the chapters in that book was about DJ battles, and a friend of mine said, you know, you could really write a whole book on this.

Q: How did you first get interesting in hip-hop and DJ music? Was it strictly a scholarly pursuit, or were you listening already?

A combination of both, but it goes pretty far back. I remember hearing Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” in 1983, and that was the first time I’d heard scratching. That was GrandMixer DXT, by the way, who I interview in the book. I got interested in the idea of scratching, but it seemed like just a fad. I thought about learning to scratch the same way I thought about learning to break dance, or wearing those red leather pants like the guy in Loverboy. So it was at that level.

Later on, when I started really studying it, what impressed me is how musically open-minded these DJs are. It’s not just about hip-hop. DJ Shadow calls it an “omnigenre.” It’s not just one genre. It’s all genres.

Q: The book digs into the global nature of DJ culture these days. Did you do a lot of traveling in your research?

Yeah, I spent a lot of time in San Francisco and L.A. and New York. I’ve been to London, and I spent nine days in Tokyo talking to Japanese DJs. I went to a lot of battles and that’s what’s really memorable – hanging out with these DJs.

I went out with one DJ in Tokyo as he made his rounds of the clubs, and of course everything starts after midnight. It was great, but at every club, people were buying us drinks, and of course you don’t want to be rude. All of a sudden, a table full of shot glasses. Boy, that was not easy.

Q: That’s a young man’s game!

Exactly, and I’m not a young man! It’s funny, the most I ever drink is when I’m doing my research. But the DJ culture in Japan is amazing. There are more vinyl record stores there than New York and San Francisco combined.

Then in New York, I interviewed Grand Wizzard Theodore, who essentially invented scratching. He drove me around the Bronx and showed me where he grew up, where this battle happened, where he developed his scratch.

Q: Is the book intended for an academic audience or a more general readership?

Actually, both. That’s been a real challenge. The idea was to write a book that scholars will respect and everyone else will read. I want to be rigorous and do good research, with solid documentation and argumentation. But I want to reach out to a broad audience.

Q: You’ve also taught quite a few classes at UNC on DJ culture, right?

Yes, I bring DJs in to demonstrate and have students make playlists and go out to battles. I try to integrate my research and my teaching, and the students are really into it.

Actually, the class that I’m going to be teaching next spring is going to have a turntable lab. I got some grant money for turntables, so the students will have a lab section and learn some basic DJ skills. As far as I know, this is one of the first classes for credit at a major university that actually teaches DJ skills.

Q: Do you have plans for more classroom things down the line?

What I’d like to do is develop classes in performance and composition that don’t require the ability to read musical notation, and that are in tune with popular style of today. I’ve done a class on beat making – I team-taught that with a DJ. The students bring in their laptops and are making beats, and that’s essentially a composition class. I’d like to get a rap lab started, where students would write rhymes and perform. It’s a whole initiative that I’d like to get off the ground, to expand the scope of music instruction.

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