For all the books and documentaries that have focused on hip hop, there are very few that deal explicitly with the role of the DJ, with the exception of Doug Pray’s 2001 documentary, Scratch. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton cover hip hop in Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, their book chronicling the history of the DJ, but the book seems much more interested in exploring dance music than hip hop. Fortunately, the void was noticed by Mark Katz, Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work finally gives us the history and exploration of culture we were missing.
Katz’s commitment to the culture and desire to tell the complete story is apparent from the opening pages of the book. The story of early hip hop has been told many times before, with DJs Kool Herc, Afrika Bambata, and Grandmaster Flash now discussed mythical status. Katz, however, does an excellent job of investigating everything himself, complicating preconceived notions of who did what, and how the different styles and technology developed, from scratching and mixing to building sound systems. The book is thorough without becoming exhausting, with Katz discussing how the turntable became a musical instrument, how the culture spread, how race and gender factor into the equation, how battle culture and turntablism came to be, the challenge of recording a DJ album, and the current struggle with advanced technology. Katz not only researched extensively and conducted numerous interviews, but also learned how to become a DJ himself in the process. Katz isn’t examining this culture from a distance. Instead, he chose to immerse himself and absorb as much as possible. I believe this especially helped him with the ability to convey the mechanical aspects of DJ culture in a way that enlightens readers without alienating them with too much technical jargon.
The last section of the book resonates especially loudly, as he discusses how the new developments in technology have affected the culture. It’s something that I struggle with myself, and always a topic of discussion with other DJs. Vinyl is fun to spin and mix and gives you a connection to the past, but what do you do when most new music is being released as digital only? How does an audience respond to someone in a DJ booth who’s staring at a computer screen the whole time? It’s a complicated era we’re in right now, and Katz does a great job of bringing in all the developments in technology and getting different viewpoints into the discussion. There aren’t any clear answers right now, but I’ll be curious to revisit this section of the book in five to ten years.
Groove Music achieves a rare feat in both filling a void and standing up on it’s own merits. Katz recognized a need for the book, and he filled it, but he did it so well that we don’t have to focus on the unique position of the work - we can instead focus on the quality. What’s really important is how well Katz is able to incorporate so many different aspects of hip hop DJ culture, and his ability to explain everything in a fashion that speaks to both the layperson and the seasoned DJ. That’s no easy feat, and that’s why Groove Music is so special.
|Title:||Mark Katz - Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ|