IASPM-US Interview Series: Mark Katz, Groove Music

by justindburton on April 30, 2013


In Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), Mark Katz explores the scratche(r)s, mixe(r)s, and battle(r)s of hip hop DJ history. The book is full of interviews with musicians explaining their craft and reflecting on the role of the DJ in hip hop, and Katz wrote it with the explicit goal of producing a book for hip hop DJs as much as for the rest of us. The result is an accessible and fun read that takes seriously its promise to the musicians whose story it tells.

Groove Music

Justin D Burton: In your 2004 book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (2nd edition published 2010), you have a chapter on DJ battles, and you discuss in the intro to Groove Music how this book grew from that chapter. But you covered a lot of ground in Capturing Sound; what was it about DJs and hip hop that suggested that you’d enjoy working on a full-length book project on this subject rather than expanding something else from Capturing Sound?

Mark Katz: My chapter on DJ battles for Capturing Sound condensed about four years of research into a little over twenty pages. I touched on (among other things) race, gender, ethnicity, virtuosity, discourse, and, of course, technology, any of which I could have explored in greater depth. Capturing Sound came out in 2004, so when I started thinking about a topic for my next book, DJing was a natural choice. What clinched it was a grant I received in 2005 from the National Science Foundation (with historian Rayvon Fouché) for a project on turntablism. So I had a great project and some money to fund my research. Now, I’m leaving out a few details. One is that Groove Music wasn’t my second book–in 2006 I came out with The Violin: A Research and Information Guide, a book that I had been writing in my spare time since I was a grad student. The other is that Groove Music was originally going to be co-written with Ray Fouché. As it turns out, he was told by his chair that a co-authored book wouldn’t get him a promotion, so we reluctantly decided to work on our own projects. But it turned out well–the NSF is getting two books for the price of one, and I was able to be obsessive about every last detail of my book without driving Ray crazy.

But let me circle back to the question of what attracted me to the subject in the first place. Part of the appeal was visceral: I loved the sound of scratching and it was thrilling to watch these amazing musicians at work, especially in the adrenaline-fueled battles I attended. But there was an intellectual appeal, too. Here was a playback device—the turntable—that a group of Bronx kids transformed into a musical instrument in the 1970s, and in the process created a new form of music, and really, way of life. I wanted to know why and how this happened when and where it did, how this art form developed in the decades since, what it meant to those who created and practiced the art, and what it means for our understanding of music and technology. So many burning questions!

I’d like to pick up on that last point about DJing and turntablism starting at a certain time in a certain place.  In your chapter on early DJs in the Bronx (Chapter 1), you push back against a longstanding trend in hip hop studies that reads early hip hop art forms as primarily oppositional, political practices. Without glossing over the difficulties of living in the Bronx in the 1970s, you return repeatedly to the idea that hip hop DJs were primarily trying to create a good time for party-goers. Is the equal emphasis on fun something you would’ve stressed at the outset of this project, or did this evolve for you as you researched for and wrote the book?

My thinking about the birth of hip-hop definitely evolved as I was working on the book. When I started my research I had heard the stories about the the Bronx in the 1970s—about the poverty, the crime, the poor state of public education, and so on—and I had heard various scholars and others link the rise of hip-hop and the hip-hop DJ directly to those dire conditions. It’s tempting to make that link, and of course there’s some truth in it—obviously the hip-hop pioneers were influenced by their surroundings. But after speaking with some of these pioneers myself, it became clear that they didn’t devote their years to DJing primarily to make a political statement, or to combat oppression or what have you. They did it because they loved music, because they loved records, because it gave them a rush to get crowds dancing or to win DJ battles, in general because it was deeply meaningful to them. I was also influenced in my thinking by the hip-hop scholar Joe Schloss, whose book Making Beats offers a nuanced discussion of this issue, and makes the excellent point that if we buy into the view of hip-hop as culturally determined we then leave little room for the agency of the musicians. It’s interesting, classical music scholars often face the opposite problem: they need to fight the “great man” theory of history and make sure that cultural factors are not ignored when studying changing musical styles and trends. In Groove Music I tried to find a happy medium, one that would account for the role of the individual and the role of society in the development of this art form.

A lot of that happy medium comes through in the interviews, where many of the DJs seem to shift fluidly along that spectrum spanning politics and entertainment. Can you share some outtakes from the interviews—some surprising or simply interesting things that came out in your conversations with DJs that you weren’t able to incorporate in the book? Or perhaps discuss some themes that recurred in many of your interviews that intrigued you?

I have about 250 single-spaced pages of interview transcripts (and that doesn’t even include every interview I did), so there’s plenty of material that didn’t make it into the book. One group of interviews, unfortunately, received almost no discussion, and those were from my 9-day visit to Tokyo in 2008. Originally, the final section of Groove Music was going to focus on hip-hop DJs outside of the United States, and I wanted to have case studies on Tokyo, Paris, and London. But that would have delayed the book by a year or two, and given that I was running behind schedule I made the hard decision to wrap up the book without writing those chapters. When I was in Tokyo I interviewed several Japanese DJs—Ken-One, Mista Donut, DJ Miyajima, DJ Sarasa, and DJ Ta-Shi—as well as Laurent Fintoni, a French-Italian hip-hop journalist living in Tokyo at the time, and Hidemasa Gemba, who managed several local DJs. I also attended a battle, observed a DJ academy class, spent a very late night following Gemba from club to club as he checked on his DJs, and went crate digging in the Shibuya neighborhood, which probably has the highest concentration of record stores in the world. It was an amazing experience and I hope to return to Tokyo for some follow-up research.

[Editor’s Note: An excerpt from Mark’s visit to Tokyo will appear on the site tomorrow.]

That’s a lot of material on the cutting room floor. Any plans for all of that? Were there other chapters or sections of chapters that you had to cut?

The material on Japan is the most substantial that didn’t make it into the book. I did, however, cut thousands and thousands of words in the course of editing the various drafts, but I did that for the sake of clarity. I don’t need to subject readers to every clever turn of phrase, complex construction, or erudite reference I can conceive. I was occasionally sad to see some bits go, but it was always for the good of the book as a whole.

As you visit various places and musicians throughout the book, one of the overarching narratives is that of relationship, whether it’s the relationship between DJs and rappers, DJs and turntablists, or popular and niche artists. What are some of the tensions and love that energize these relationships? Though many of the musicians you interviewed are known best as a particular kind of artist (turntablist, DJ, rapper, popular, or niche), usually their activities are a bit more fluid than that. Does this fluidity (as well as the public’s inability to always recognize it) strike you as specific to hip hop artists, or do you think it’s the nature of any musician?  

The issue of relationships is an important one in the world of the hip-hop DJ. As I say in the book’s conclusion, “In one way, the story of the hip-hop DJ has been the story of a family drifting apart and then coming together again.” The very existence of hip-hop can be traced to the relationship between DJs and dancers at first, and later between DJs and MCs. Those relationships have always been fraught, and at various times DJs, b-boys and b-girls, and MCs have all asserted their independence from one another. But these groups also come back to each other and periodically declare their common bonds, as in KRS-One’s 2008 collaboration with DJ Revolution, “The DJ”: “The true DJ and MC are connected / Like me and DJ Revolution / Look at what we usin’ / Beats and rhymes, no confusion.” But there can be a bit of identity confusion, and yes, there is a good deal of fluidity in the activities of the hip-hop DJs. The same artist can be a party DJ catering to a club full of dancers one night, a turnablist jamming with friends or battling rivals the next night, and a beat-making producer during the day. Narrow specialization is hardly conducive to a musician’s economic survival, so DJs are just like all gigging artists trying to make a living. Moreover, to be a successful musician is to be adaptable, to be able to read and respond to changing tastes, times, and technologies. I certainly think that hip-hop DJs are exceptional musicians, but if readers come away from Groove Music thinking that these DJs are, in many ways, just like modern musicians everywhere, then I think I will have accomplished a great deal.



Mark Katz (Professor and Chair) holds degrees from the College of William and Mary (B.A. in philosophy) and the University of Michigan (M.A., Ph.D. in musicology). Before joining the faculty at UNC, he taught at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University (1999–2006). His scholarship focuses on music and technology, contemporary popular music, and the violin. He has written three books, Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (2004, rev. ed. 2010), The Violin: A Research and Information Guide (2006), and Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (2012). He co-edited (with Timothy Taylor and Anthony Grajeda) the collection Music, Sound, and Technology in America (2012). He is the editor of Journal of the Society for American Music, a senior editor for Oxford Handbooks Online, and a member of the National Recording Preservation Board.

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in and helped to design the school’s Popular Music Culture program. He focuses on hip hop, music technologies, and posthuman theory in his work, with forthcoming essays in the Journal of Popular Culture and the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies. He is also the Web Editor for the IASPM-US website.

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