Five Books about DJ Culture

When asked if he had any favorite books about DJ culture, DJ DB, founder of Brooklyn electronic music store Breakbeat Science, answered, "I've been in a couple and never even read those, sorry." Perhaps artists focused on creating culture are too busy to read about it, but his role as a pioneer DJ and promoter in the American rave scene is indeed documented in Simon Reynolds' Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, just one of many books that document the rise of the DJ in popular culture.

DJ's are everywhere bands used to be -- school dances, wedding receptions, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs -- and in relatively new exciting places such as the DMC (Disco Mix Club) World DJ Championships where turntablists battle each other with their beat-juggling and mixing skills which often encompass acrobatics. In 2004, for the first time, a DJ, Tiesto, even played the opening ceremony of the Olympics held in Athens.

As sales of DJ equipment (turntables, CDJ's, mixers) have grown to rival those of guitars and drum sets, books chronicling and celebrating the emergence of the DJ as full-fledged musicians have emerged, too.

Here are five of my favorites:

1. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton.
The title says it all; inspired by the name of a 1982 r&b song by Indeep, no doubt millions of dance floor habitues have woken up after a magical night of dancing and thought just that thought. "A truly great DJ, just for a moment, can make a whole room fall in love," say the authors in this entertaining biography of the DJ, with club charts from the mid-50s through the end of the '90s. Their How to DJ Right: The Art and Science of Playing Records, is even more fun.

2. DJ Skills: The Essential Guide to Mixing & Scratching, by Stephen Webber.
Dedicated ("Now God Has a DJ") to the late Jam Master Jay, rap group Run-DMC's DJ, Berklee College of Music professor and Emmy Award-winning composer Stephen Webber offers a solid primer on the history, tools and skills of DJ'ing with insightful interviews with respected club, hip-hop and scratch DJ's.

3. Looking for the Perfect Beat: The Art and Culture of the DJ, by Kurt B. Reighley.
An enjoyable read with lots of quotes by popular DJ's. Says the author, "If [my book] spares one neophyte DJ a little frustration, prompts a single pro to examine his or her art from a new angle, or just makes the reader think differently about how [musical] ideas can be presented and combined, then I won't feel like such a jackass when I tell people I'm a DJ."

4. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, by Tim Lawrence.
A valuable historical record of the disco phenomenon describing, from over 300 interviews with influential scene players including legendary DJ's, its transformation from gay and urban subculture to mainstream popular culture, including a fascinating selected discography of the music of the era.

Grandmaster Flash performs during the 2007 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

5. The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats, by Grandmaster Flash with David Ritz.
The inspiration for countless DJ dreams, the legendary hip-hop founding father and Bronx native (aka Joseph Saddler) sets the record straight in his new autobiography, including how he originated techniques that revolutionized DJ'ing from just playing records to reinventing the turntable as a musical instrument, and the story behind his classic track, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," which became the first DJ composition recorded by a DJ. It's all good.

What books on DJ culture do you recommend?

-- Mary Ishimoto Morris

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  October 16, 2008; 7:29 AM ET Mary Morris
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Last Night A DJ Save My Life

Excellent read. Covers the history top to bottom. While not a technical how-to, you'll know the origins and history of the major genres and movements.

Posted by: Chris G | October 17, 2008 11:07 AM

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is really the best of the bunch as it covers the beginnings of radio djs and the like to segue into dance culture and the like.

Generation Ecstacy is good when the writer isn't writing in a way that seems to be designed to maximize his street cred.

What I love reading about is the birth of hip hop dj culture because it came pretty much from nowhere. Check out Born in the Bronx (for a great visual record of the era) and Can't Stop Won't Stop (for a good if MC leaning examination)

Posted by: Eric Phipps | October 17, 2008 11:12 AM

Great post, Mary. One book I purchased when I was first starting out was _Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ_ published by Berklee. As a beginner, this book was very useful, helping me think of my turntable as a musical instrument vs. a music player. It's written by someone who isn't actually a DJ by trade (he's some music professor at Berklee if I recall correctly), which was interesting. It also comes with companion scratch records (with audio lessons). I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who already knows how to scratch, but if you're just starting as a DJ (or are a DJ that doesn't know how to scratch), take a look at this one.

Posted by: Dan Amitai | October 17, 2008 11:24 AM

Grateful for the feedback, Chris G and Eric Phipps! Thank you!

Glad to hear you both back up Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. I was so happy that book was written.

I hear you re: Generation Ecstacy, Eric Phipps. Best parts for me were the historical ones.

I'll have to track down Born in the Bronx - thanks for the recommendation! Just looked it up on amazon and it looks great:

Had to have Can't Stop Won't Stop by Jeff Chang, but haven't read it yet. Thanks for mentioning it - I look forward again to reading it.

Much respect,
Mary Morris

Posted by: mary morris | October 17, 2008 11:34 AM

Thanks, Dan Amitai!

I'll definitely have to add Turntable Technique to my collection! Thanks for the review!

Much respect,
Mary Morris

Posted by: mary morris | October 17, 2008 11:37 AM

Just got some good news from Duke University Press re: Tim Lawrence (Love Saves the Day) - he has a new book coming out next year called Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene (1973-92). :)

Posted by: mary morris | October 17, 2008 11:48 AM

I really appreciate how "Last Night..." takes a more scholarly, anthropological "DJ as shaman" tack on the evolution of the art. And it also gives a lot of insight as to how the art of DJing can itself influence the evolution of forms and genres of the media it showcases. See: Northern Soul. Fascinating stuff. Its the go-to for anyone who wants to know what the hell is really going on in the booth, and in the DJs mind before and as she performs.

Posted by: Outliar | October 17, 2008 12:02 PM

Looking for the Perfect Beat: The Art and Culture of the DJ by Kurt B. Reighley

I enjoyed this book just for all the little quotes from DJ's I've met over the years, from Mixmaster Morris to DJ DB to Kemistry&Storm.

This can also be previewed on Amazon, which is nice.

Posted by: Mike Francois | October 17, 2008 12:12 PM

Thanks for the additional illuminating insights - from a DJ's perspective - on "Last Night...", Outliar.

Much respect,
Mary (a non-DJ :)

Posted by: mary morris | October 17, 2008 1:03 PM

Mike Francois, thanks for the first-person pov and link re: Looking for the Perfect Beat. Nice that you've been able to meet so many DJ's quoted in it, especially the late, great Kemistry whom I've always regretted not being able to hear live.

Much respect,

Posted by: mary morris | October 17, 2008 1:13 PM

there will one day be a book a bout a lady who would give out blowpops to the promoters who stood outside of nation giving away fliers all night. This lady would record what everyone said, and find ways to publish it, giving a voice to a culture that has struggled to be properly understood since its inception.

a good read of a book that already exists is

Altered State, Updated Edition: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House.

i read this book while on tour djing around america, and it opened my eyes to the history of the music that we call acid house, house music, or whatever. it put things into their place, and opened my mind to the historical context of what we are doing. this book was solely responsible for my ability to ever throw a rave, and to know why i was doing it.

if your looking for clubbers to be literarily minded, there will probably not be as many reading books as one might hope, but for those of us who understand the bigger picture, it is nice to see some reccommended titles, and a space in which to consider the higher possibilities of understanding the history of our music.

Posted by: dj t.e.c. | October 17, 2008 6:07 PM

New School Dancescapes by Mireille Silcott. It's not strictly about DJ culture, but it's probably the most comprehensive case-study look at DJ culture in a couple of major cities, including the gay circuit scene of a decade ago.

Posted by: Legba Carrefour | October 18, 2008 12:38 PM

'Last Night...' definitely deserves to be at the top of that list. Mary - great perspective, as always. :)

Posted by: Charly | October 18, 2008 1:36 PM

DJ T.E.C., Thank you for your thoughtful comments! Since you are someone who has DJ'ed around the world as well as thrown some memorable events, your perspective is deeply appreciated.

Thanks very much for bringing up Altered State by Matthew Collin:

Collin also wrote another great book called Guerrilla Radio: Rock 'N' Roll Radio and Serbia's Underground Resistance:

It's about the role that rock and rave music played in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic. I loved this story.

Thanks again so much for posting.

Much respect,

Posted by: mary morris | October 21, 2008 8:16 PM

Thank you for your suggestion, Legba Carrefour. I have this book but haven't read it yet - your overview reminded me that I've been meaning to - thanks!

Your input is very much appreciated.

Much respect,

Posted by: mary morris | October 21, 2008 8:20 PM

Charly/DJ Muramasa - Thanks so much for stopping by. :)

Hope I get to hear you play again soon.

Much respect and appreciation,

Posted by: mary morris | October 21, 2008 8:22 PM

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