God Bless The DJ

it’s time to put some respect on their names

For many, the makings of a great DJ rely heavily on their ability to tap into the energy of a space and determine just how to match or boost the mood in the room. From setting the mood with slow jams on night-time radio shows, to playing the hottest new songs on the block, the role of the DJ has always been to package the best sounds to suit the moment. With the rise of radio in major cities like New York and Memphis, DJs started to gain more cultural relevance, as well as an increased demand to have their sets heard in spaces other than your car stereo. But the origins of modern day DJing go back to The Bronx in the early 1970s, where DJ Kool Herc introduced the idea of choosing two identical records and extending the rhythmic segments by blending the sounds from the end of one song to the start of another. 

DJs became the fuel for Hip-Hop jams, as they researched the right selection of music to match their audiences tastes, while introducing new sounds that they could tap into. With this level of responsibility, these vibe curators were understandably very focused on the process and hardly had time to pick up the microphone and interact with their audience. That’s where Emcees, or as we refer to them now, hypemen, came into the picturetheir job was to get the people involved. So before the arrival of streaming platforms and increased accessibility to music across the globe thanks to the internet, DJs had already begun cementing themselves as true music custodians. From block parties to wedding receptions, the craft gradually transcended into opening for various acts at events or festivals, effectively enabling DJs to stake their claim in the music industry. 

Later in the 1990s, the industry witnessed a significant influx of international DJs who gained popularity for one-of-one sets and mixes with refreshing experimentations across Hip-hop and Techno. DJs across Africa began navigating a steady come-up by pairing homegrown influences and soundscapes with Western sensibilities. The likes of Vinni Da Vinci, DJ Superfly and DJ Mbuso soundtracked a large part of the movement into the continent, intricately weaving House music into the identity of South African people. 

Thanks to high cost implications and sometimes unavailability of artists during this time, event planners began stacking their festival lineups with DJs, giving them the room to build more tangible audience relationships. South African veteran DJ, Black Coffee, made his way into the scene with the Red Bull Music Academya travelling music initiative with festivals and workshopsfrom joining his cousin’s sound system crew at parties across SA. He slowly weaved his way into the international dance scene in the mid 2000s with a series of memorable sets, a remix for Hugh Masekela’s 1972 hit, “Stimela,” and a debut album. He became a fixture of the global electronic scene and has since flown the flag of the vibrant House sounds in his native South Africa and beyond. His impact has stretched further into mainstream, R&B and Pop-leaning audiences with a chart topping sample for Drake’s Jorja Smith-assisted “Get It Together” off “Superman” from his 2009 album, ‘Home Brewed’ or his refreshing approaching to mixing on Snoh Alegra’s “Do 4 Love” and Alicia Keys’ “In Common.” Black Coffee’s magic lies in taking sounds commonly associated with  niche music audiences, and making them digestible for any kind of palette. 

As the production-led electronic genre went globe-trotting, DJ-led initiatives sprang up everywhere, with resources dedicated to empowering the craft’s finest talents. Think Boiler Room, one of the biggest online music broadcasting and promotional platforms, established back in 2010. Alongside promoting great music in a vibrant environment to select partygoers, Boiler Room focuses on underground DJs, giving them an audience that will yield steady streams across the internet. Canadian-American DJ Kaytranada, who had his breakthrough moment on the platform over 10 years ago, has gone on to be one of the scene’s leading faces, sticking out for his unique interpretations blended with Pop, Hip-Hop and a slew of other genres. At this point, it feels like clockwork to see a new DJ-producer emerge onto the scene but veterans like DJ Khaled have long guarded the keys with mammoth tracks like Rihanna and Bryson Tiller’s “Wild Thoughts.”

In these parts however, DJs are still slowly upgrading from being second class citizens in the music industry. Tracks like DJ Maphorisa’s “Soweto Baby” and SPINALL’s “Gba Gbe E” or “OHEMA” would rule the airwaves for weeks on end but many fail to recognise the songs’ ownership when the vocals are provided by behemoth artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy and Mr Eazi respectively. Another unmissable mention in this ilk of uniquely talented but previously underappreciated DJs is Prince Kaybee, forever transforming the face of Dance with soul stirring features like “Charlotte,” off his 2017 sophomore album, ‘I Am Music.’ Crediting issues aside, these acts spun unforgettable mixes on the deck and produced evergreen tracks in the studio, summed into an impact that cannot be overstated. 

Still, the pandemic-induced resurgence of the House scene, serving sounds straight from the burbs of South Africa, introduced a newfound admiration for the craft. This Deep-House soundscape from the 90’s emerged with soulful innovative accents often paired with jazz sensibilities and a message certain to transcend language barriers. Acts like DJ Lag who popped up on the scene in the early 2010s as a pioneer of Gqom, stirred the pot of Electronic music now presented alongside uniquely South African touches in the form of instrumentals and ad-libs. From there, a genre that holds similar sensibilities upon which Gqom was built, Amapiano, emerged. Amapiano DJs and producers were breaking out from the underground spaces into lounges, unlicensed liquor spots, clubs and more only to later earn peak time slots at events and festivals. ‘Piano luminaries like Scorpion Kings, Major League DJz, Virgo Deep and Focalistic came into full view with inventive equations that drew from Deep-House led excursions and the growing presence of Private School Amapiano.  Shining bright in the male-dominated scene are acts like Uncle Waffles, with three extended plays featuring hit tracks “Tanzania,” “Yahyuppiyah” and “Peacock Revisit”, and a spot on the music festival stage of our generation, Coachella. Right by her side are acts like Lady Du and DBN Gogo, also stretching boundaries with their Bacardi-infused takes. 

Away from the domineering South African music scene, we have decade-long contributors like Sarz, breeding the cross-continental collaborations like “Happiness,” coupled with appearances across global stages. The burgeoning party culture, padded by an ever-evolving club scene that drives audiences from across the world to Lagos and Accra, has also shed great light not just on the importance of DJs but the harsh realities they face back home.

In an exclusive sit-down with DJ Lag, he shared,

“Most of the places I play treat me like a king but back home they wont give that much respect because you’re born here. They already know who you are. Overseas they take you seriously because you’re an international artist to them.” 

The craft has always held a certain level of sacredness, where a DJ playing your song in the club could see you catapulted to success, especially for underground artists yet to be discovered. Because if your record popped off in the clubs, successfully winning the souls of intoxicated attendees searching for an escape, you were likely to receive support on radio which later translated to high streaming numbers in days to come. Think Davido’s “Champion Sound” , which became hot in the clubs and on the streets months ahead of its official November 2021 release, when the Focalistic-featuring Amapiano tune was leaked to DJs. 

Despite their indelible impact in the promotion and preservation of the culture, DJs are still slow to receive unbridled industry-wide support and respect. When considered for bigger events and festivals, they either barely play ten-minute sets or find themselves trapped opening for an artist with a three hour set they’re hardly prepared for. On the other hand, Emcees whose entire presence acts as a plus for the DJs, often receive higher monetary compensation or recognition than the acts themselves. Other times, issues arise when DJs who’ve made a name for themselves request their names be boldly written with style specifications on your lineup like the main acts they are. But whether or not the scene chooses to prioritise their craft,  DJs across the continent have taken their power back with the aid of DJ-focused events. Boiler room continues to spread its global impact with its recently concluded Lagos comeback while DJ Spinall flew Lagos to Palm Springs for Coachella. Accra’s iMullar Sound System, SA’s Barcardi Best Day Ever and Lagos’ Obi House or Element House also serve as noteworthy references of just how much growth the industry is bound to witness if we put some respect on their names.

Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE