Spin cycle

A new book traces the history of the disc jockey.

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Headphones clapped to one ear, head nodding, free hand in motion – the club DJ is now as familiar a cultural figure as the lead guitarist or the game-show host. But while everyone knows what a DJ does, even dedicated clubbers probably don't know the full story of how he (and it's almost always he) came to be, and to be ubiquitous. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton offer a remedy with Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, a frequently fascinating history of how guys playing records became tastemakers, commercial powers, artistic forces, secular priests, outlaws, and the new century's budding musical superstars. Last Night starts with Reginald A. Fessenden, the first person to play a record over the radio in 1906, and follows the radio "disc jockey" up through the rock 'n' roll era before diverting focus to clubs and club DJs. It is in the book's meaty middle sections, on the evolution of contemporary turntable-driven nightlife, that Brewster and Broughton's combination of clued-up research and tour-guide chattiness really shines. The authors detail the way the innovations and influence of DJ subcultures such as British Northern soul, Jamaican sound systems, early disco, and hip hop led to the genesis of house, techno, and the flowering of ecstasy-fueled rave culture. Between illuminating thumbnails of little-known figures (such as disco pioneers Francis Grasso and Walter Gibbons) and fully fleshed portraits of icons now overshadowed by their legends (house guru Larry Levan and hip-hop pioneer Kool Herc, to name two), Last Night fills in some gaps, corrects some myths, and relates a taste of what it was like to dance at crucial clubs such as the Loft or the Paradise Garage. Along the way, this account shows time and again that the U.S. music industry has never quite known what to do with DJs, and it underscores how inseparable anything happening near two turntables today is from black music or gay culture or both. Unfortunately, the book bogs down in the final chapters on the modern DJ. Veterans of club-culture magazines such as Mixmag and The Face, Brewster and Broughton take a soul-searching look at the up-from-underground, globe-spanning contemporary scene, which brings in billions of dollars and pays brand-name DJs such as Paul Oakenfold many thousands for a few hours work. But this new era is hardly a decade old, and the basic facts are fairly well known; Brewster and Broughton can't come up with enough new information or insight to cut the rhetoric and match the drive and interest of the earlier chapters. Last Night is well worth reading by DJs and reflective clubbers. Interested laypeople may want to wait for the second edition.
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