Essential DJ Reading Pts. 1&2

Two books that are required reading for anyone with an even passing interest in DJ culture: Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey and its companion tome The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries.

the definitive history of the DJ

In 2000, Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton wrote what can arguably be called the definitive history of the DJ: Last Night a DJ Saved My Life (named after the classic disco cut by Indeep).It is a thoroughly compelling read, exhaustively-researched but breezily-written (you can tackle it in an afternoon).From the DJ’s modest beginnings in the 1930’s up through to the end-of-the-millennium collapse of rave culture and the rise of the superstar DJ, Last Night moves fluidly through DJ history, crossing and inter-weaving genres and continents. Like an epic DJ set, the authors make crucial and convincing connections between northern soul, reggae, disco, hip-hop, house & techno.

Legends are explored and myths become fully-fleshed facts, but all the stories are basically in support of the authors’ theory that disco was the apotheosis of DJ culture, that everything before led up to it and everything after has been influenced by it. Not the glittery commercial disco of Saturday Night Fever (that became reviled as quickly as it was embraced), but the all-encompassing, truly underground movement that birthed the modern DJ.

Of particular fascination for me was the story of Frank Grasso, the true father (grandfather?) of disco. Grasso was the first DJ to mix records and was doing it in 1968, not 1978 (!). Searching for a way to keep the energy level up on his dance floor, he pioneered playing one song into the next on-beat (up until this point, a DJ cued a record, played it start-to-finish, and then played the next record). Grasso became famous (at least in NYC) for his eclectic DJ sets, seamlessly mixing beat-heavy rock records with Motown and rare European imports, slip-cueing on belt-driven turntables without pitch control and a rudimentary rotary knob mixing console. Even with such relatively primitive gear, Grasso consistently blew the minds of his celebrity discotheque dancers and forever changed the way we all listen to and dance to music. Stunning.
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The source material for Last Night is primarily first-hand accounts from the pioneering DJs, promoters and clubgoers. These accounts were collected via interviews conducted by Brewster & Broughton and the transcripts have been finally published some 10+ years later in Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries. A companion of sorts that becomes the go-to when you’ve torn through Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and are hungry for more.
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And once you’ve read these books and have to scratch that itch yourself (ha!), pick up Brewster & Broughton’s practical handbook, How to DJ Right: The Art and Science of Playing Records. Besides being authors, Brewster & Broughton are accomplished DJs themselves, and tell you in clear, insightful and often funny language how to select, mix, promote, and produce.
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