Hip hop celebrates its 50th anniversary in August of 2023, and The Strong National Museum of Play is poppin’ and lockin’ into position to show our appreciation. Originating with the technique that DJ Kool Herc called “The Merry-Go-Round,” hip hop toyed with the time signatures of contemporary funk hits by extending the drummer’s solo on dance albums. In turn, hip hop crafted a borderless sonic landscape and established a new playground for innovation. Utilizing two turntables and a mixer, DJ Kool Herc sustained the groove by sublimating the sonic happenings of two albums, switching between them in rapid succession—thereby suspending time. The significance of this moment is akin to the big bang; a genesis of a culture was the result. A wave of this sound washed across the city, as looting during the 1978 New York City blackout brought a flood of audio equipment into Black neighborhoods. With that influx of gear, newly minted DJs discovered unforeseen opportunities for playing with time. New York City youths lined the streets with towering speakers and dual turntables. Improving upon the toyetic techniques they learned from DJ Kool Herc, they too suspended parties in the temporal grace of infinite rhythmic loops.
One innovator is primarily responsible for the systematizing of this toyification of time. Grandmaster Flash contributed to the ludic scaffolding by using an item often relegated to grade school. Marking the starting point of the “get down,” or drummer solo, on his records with a white crayon afforded him unprecedented precision. As a result of the marks, he was able switch between the songs on the exact beat intended, fostering a symphony of synergy between the two turntables. In a 2018 demonstration, the venerable DJ explicated the numeric pacing required to utilize the markings. Letting the record spin, he counted to six before stopping the record. He used his fader to allow audio from the adjacent record so that he could demonstrate the skill in real time. Over the music, he informed the audience that it took six counterclockwise spins to get the record in place, and four back and forth motions to check the placement. As he said this, the fader switched to the other record, enabling him to remove the other one without skipping a single beat. This demonstration illustrated the groundbreaking technique that shaped the trajectory of hip hop.
If DJ Kool Herc was responsible for converting the turntable into an instrument to be played, then Grandmaster Flash provided the means to play the scales. Moreover, their joint contributions to the capabilities of the device endowed DJs with the ability to make time a plaything. In recognition of his significance to music and popular culture, toy company Super 7’s ReAction line has released an adult collectible figure in Grandmaster Flash’s image. The tracksuited and Kangol-clad four-inch figure is a welcome addition to The Strong’s growing collection of hip-hop-themed artifacts.