Each year National Disc Jockey Day recognizes the DJs playing the music and spinning the records. The observance takes place annually on January 20th.
A disc jockey, or DJ for short, is a person who plays recorded music either on the radio or at a club or event.
The first disc jockey was an experiment on the airwaves. In 1909, sixteen-year-old Ray Newby was a student under the supervision of Charles “Doc” Herrold at Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless. He played the first records over the airwaves before the word disc jockey even existed.
What started as an experiment from the Garden City Bank Building where the college was located in San Fernando, California, was soon being replicated by radio broadcasters across the country. Initially, Newby primarily broadcast his news, music, and entertainment live.
It wasn’t until 25 years later that radio commentator Walter Winchell coined the term disc jockey.
Today, contemporary DJs play music from vinyl to digital. Regardless of the medium they use, the term disc jockey still applies.
Hip-hop DJs became popular in the late 70s and 80s using multiple turntables and using the turntables themselves as an instrument to alter the music. Mobile DJs often act as the master of ceremonies at events or parties directing the evening’s activities.
National Disc Jockey Day gives us an excellent opportunity to celebrate our favorite DJs. Give them a shout out on social media. Learn more about the history of DJs, too. We suggest:
Rock the Dancefloor by Phil Morse or Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ by Mark Katz. You can also stream a documentary about DJs and their music. Take a look at What We Started directed by Cyrus Saidi and Bert Marcus, Scratch directed by Doug Pray or go a little further back in time and watch I Am What I Play directed by Roger King.
Share and give your favorite DJ a shoutout using #NationalDiscJockeyDay on social media.
5 Influential Disc Jockeys – The first radio broadcast took place in 1906. However, the term “disc jockey” wasn’t coined until 1935. Walter Winchell, an American radio commentator, came up with the term. “Disc” referred to disc records, and a jockey was the name for a machine operator. Disc jockeys went on to play records at discos, nightclubs, wedding dances, street parties, and high school dances.
Throughout the years, the DJ has played an essential role in music and culture. We explore the stories behind 5 influential disc jockeys who have been incredibly impactful on the music industry.
The first DJ appeared on the music scene years before the term ever existed. Ray Newby was just 16 years old when he began playing records over the airwaves in 1909. Ray was from Stockton, CA. The teenager was under the supervision of radio pioneer Charles “Doc” Herrold.
Many consider Halloween Martin to be the first female disc jockey. KYW-AM in the Chicago metro area hired her in 1929. One year later, she began hosting a morning program called “Musical Clock.” Along with playing music segments, Halloween Martin gave the time, temperature, and weather every 5 minutes from 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM. Before her radio stint, Martin wrote news articles as a newspaper repor
Our 3rd of 5 Influential Disc Jockeys is known for his gravelly voice and exuberant on-air style. Robert Weston Smith, aka Wolfman Jack, is one of the most famous disc jockeys in the music industry. As a child, he became obsessed with R&B music that he heard over the radio and the disc jockeys who played it. In 1962, he worked at KCIJ/1050, a country music station in Shreveport, Louisiana. It was here that Smith developed his alter ego, Wolfman Jack. Throughout his career, Wolfman Jack worked at radio stations with some of the most powerful signals in the country. Working at these stations increased his popularity immensely. Wolfman Jack worked as a DJ right up to the time of his death in 1995.
Born in 1949 in Brooklyn, Francis Grasso is known as “Father of the Club.” In 1969, Grasso popularized a technique called beat-matching. The method involves seamless transitions between records with matching beats. Beat-matching created a non-stop mix of music in nightclubs. Radio DJs also used this technique, but Grasso was the first to use it in a nightclub. This technique was revolutionary in the 60s and 70s. Besides beat-matching, Grasso was a pro at putting songs together into sets corresponding with the disco dancers’ energy on the floor.
Known as the “Godfather of House Music,” Frankie Knuckles is an African American DJ, record producer, and remixer. House music emerged in Chicago in the 1980s as a disco-influenced electronic style of dance music. Growing up in the Bronx, Knuckles frequently went to discos in the 1970s and ended up working as a DJ. In 1987, he took his house music to the UK, where he worked as a DJ in London. Knuckles won the Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year, Non-classical in 1997. In 2005, he was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame.