From the reggae sound systems of Jamaica in the 70s, to England’s illegal pirate radio stations of the 1960s and beyond, the history of global DJ culture is impossibly rich and complex. In music circles around the world, Philadelphia is recognized as a breeding ground for some of the world’s best DJs. Having to bridge the gap between technical skill, taste and a deep knowledge of the music one plays, the art of being a (good) DJ in this city no simple task. Club culture in this city is built upon a foundation of decades of history and tradition.
In the wake of the cultural and economic boom of the disco-era (led by Philadelphia International Records), the essence of modern DJing as we know it began to take shape. Spurred on by a few key technical innovations — most notably, the creation of extended, “remixed” versions of popular R&B / soul cuts, the 12” vinyl single, and the practice of creating a seamless flow of music by mixing two records together on two turntables and a mixer — the disco-era initiated a gradual shift of focus away from bands and concerts, toward DJs and clubs, and effectively changed the way we experience music.
With the birth of hip-hop in in the Bronx in 1973 and the culture’s subsequent flowering throughout the East Coast, DJing in Philadelphia was infused with an even deeper power and broader participation. Taking the concept out of the Disco clubs and placing it in the hands of young people who brought it to parks, high school gymnasiums, YMCAs and block parties throughout the city, early Philly DJ crews like Sex Machine, Grandmasters of Funk, Force 5 and pioneering turntable giants like Grand Wizard Rasheen, Groove Damoast, Cash Money, DJ Miz, Jazzy Jeff, and others would pave the way, making Philly one of the most vital DJ scenes in the world.
Today, Philadelphia’s DJ culture is in a state of flux. Changes in Philly’s racial and economic demographics threaten the vital, creative, cultural energy that comes out of the city’s Black, Brown and QTPOC communities. As iconic venues close and creatives move to other cities, DJ culture and the unique character of our nightlife is in danger of being stymied by the forces of gentrification and capital. To get an idea of the state of DJing, I spoke with six working DJs of varying ages and backgrounds and got them to share a bit of their personal history and musical tastes as well as some of their thoughts on the challenges our city’s DJ culture faces, and what the future of DJing in Philadelphia might look like.
Michael The Lion
Lean Wit It
The Key: How and why did you start DJing?
Cosmo Baker: So back in the 80s, hip-hop was both this fledgling movement, but also it was kind of omnipresent with kids my age. You’d be taking the subway to school or you’d be hanging out downtown on Chestnut or Market Streets, and all you’d see was people walking around with big boom-boxes playing rap music, kids with cardboard or linoleum sheets breakdancing on the street corners or down the Concourse and all, and even then it felt like a movement that I “belonged” to. Mimi Brown was on WDAS and I think Lady B was on Power 99 at the time and I listened to both their shows religiously. And it would always be customary for kids to listen to stuff being played on the radio over the weekend, sometimes we would tape the shows, and always it would be a hot topic of discussion in the lunchroom at school that Monday.
I was buying tapes way before I was buying vinyl cause I had a dual cassette deck and would tape stuff off the radio, and then get cassingles, and would make my own little mixes and end up loaning them to kids in school. Would make my little pause-tape mixes and then became known as the kid who was up on all the new music and became the go-to kid for that stuff. There was a lot of things that were on vinyl that wasn’t on cassette so I eventually just started buying 12″s and I had a shitty turntable that was my mom’s, and then I realized I needed a second so I just started with two really crappy turntables, a Realistic mixer…and then I was off to the races. Was just the natural evolution and if I REALLY wanted to DJ then I had to get off that cassette shit and take it to the turntables.
Gravers Lane: I’ve been a musician since I was very young and have played out for many years in bands and as a solo artist. Along with this, I’ve encroached in nightlife and dance music culture since I was an early teen. Last September, Wassup Gina approached me one night when I was at The Barbary and asked that if she gave me lessons, would I DJ the next Soft Leather party? The transition for me into DJing made a lot of sense. I’m in two-party crews (Spellbound and Left Rite) so it’s good for me to have this skill in case I ever have to fill in at a party. DJing is just another way to make music in my eyes. DJ’s are musicians too.
Lil Dave: I spent a lot of time during high school collecting records, making mixes, and pause-tape beats. When I started college, I joined WKDU right away and use my weekly the radio show to get practice in. A lot of it was me figuring it out on my own. I just was a big hip-hop fan and listening to Vibes and Vapors on WPRB really got me hooked to the idea of doing radio.
Michael The Lion: I grew up in Pittsburgh’s East End and I used to go to shows and raves and park jams and never felt like I could find my place at the party as a dancer or schmoozer or a mack. I just loved the music and DJing was the role in the function that was meant for me. I watched some guys a bit older than me on the wheels like DJ Selecta and thought I wanted to be just like them.
Lean Wit It: My mom had a homie that did it as a side hustle and asked me if I wanted to make some extra cash when I was 13. The opportunity was DJing. He showed me how to turn everything on and the basic functions of the equipment in like 10 minutes and then dropped off equipment at my crib a week later.
Aura: I’ve been an audiophile for most of my life, and falling in love with Hip-Hop is what introduced me to Dj-ing. Djing gave me the opportunity to be the life of the party without being the center of attention. Djing allows me to create joy by bringing folks together to share experiences and make memories. One day, I found myself at a DJ workshop for women where I learned the basics and I fell in love and found my purpose. I saved my money, bought equipment and the rest is history.
The Key. Who taught you how to DJ, or who would you consider your DJ mentors?
Michael The Lion: Honestly, the first dude that really set me on my course was Neil Armstrong, who later became Jay-Z’s DJ. I saw him with 5th Platoon when I was like 17 in Pittsburgh. I booked him for a college show in Philly — I got some money from student council to do hip hop events. I saw him play sample sources in a party set and it completely rearranged my thinking about how you could play all the old records I’d been collecting. He really mentored me a lot more than he knows and we are tight to this day. I learned a lot by watching and listening. I used to back a hip-hop group in Philly called Parts of Speech and fill in for their regular DJ named Cezer. Did cuts over their CD instrumentals. I learned how to really mix from some DnB DJs and house DJs I knew from high school in Pittsburgh when I’d go home from college in the summer.
Gravers Lane: (Wassup) Gina has been a wonderful teacher to me. I’m beyond thankful that she pushed me into this because it was something I had been wanting to do. I guess I stopped myself because you often hear the whole racket about how “everyone is a DJ”. I do not believe any type of art form should be gatekept, though. Another blessing for me is all the support I’ve received from friends and fellow DJ’s. Gina was my first teacher, but my buds have been showing me tips, tricks, and other styles of DJing too.
Cosmo Baker: So, for a while, I was totally self-taught but I DID have a few “mentors” that kinda came after the fact. My dude DJ Storm was the DJ at this new club called Sugar Cube and it was kinda like an underage spot. He heard me through my buddy Ari and liked what I was doing so he started to put me on, opening up for him at Sugar Cube and also some other parties he was doing. This was now like maybe 1992. I had already been playing house parties and basement parties by this point but now I was doing full on clubs. I learned a lot from him, and then Sugar Cube closed and we moved the party to The Fever on 13th & Chestnut — so I would open and close for him every weekend.
Aura: I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of mentors. Being a DJ in Philly is a blessing. You can rub elbows with your heroes. Fatcat took me under his wing & taught me how to rock a party. DuiJi 13 taught me how to plan & execute parties; we sharpened our skills together at so many basement parties.
Lean Wit It: Sonny (James) and Rich (Medina). Funny thing is I met them both the same night at the J Dilla Tribute at Fluid when I was like 15. Rich has given me a lot of business game especially as of recent. He has also offered insight into how to mature my brand and how to exploit my strengths. Knowing the history of his career with taking risks musically and sticking to his guns influenced me to do the same over the years. Sonny has really taught me A LOT! Dude has taught me so much about the game and was also down to make me sharper as a DJ and content creator. He has been a major influence on my playing style and has been the model for how I’m able to make my vast music taste make sense on the dance floor. He has put me in rooms to play that I have never thought I would’ve been playing records in. Sonny got me my first international booking.
TK: What genres do you play and how would you describe your style?
Gravers Lane: Well, I don’t want to get lumped into being a one genre DJ, as I’m still so new. However, my first two gigs were techno parties and I certainly have an affinity for that. I’m interested in being a multi-genre DJ, but with styles that I already love and am well versed in. Anyone who knows me will pick up that I’m a major goth girl, so those different goth genres are what I’m trying to incorporate in my practice and gigs. Tech-house isn’t a bad word as long as it’s not too goofy, and I love Deep house.
Aura: I play almost all genres. Top 40 pop, hip-hop old school and new school, house, reggae, etc. But I LOVE 90’s R&B and deep house. I would describe my style as a collage of different types of music that serves a warm, nostalgic, and LIT vibe.
Lean Wit It: Black music. Not that I don’t play music by white artists but yeah… I think open format gets translated as Biggie acapellas over Aerosmith instrumentals. That ain’t what I’m doing lol.
Michael The Lion: I play classic funk, soul, and disco as well as house. I really don’t do hip-hop or open format anymore; I’ve progressed from being a “working DJ” doing whatever the function needs to be more focused on the styles that relate to my production. I’m not really a DJ anymore, I’m a producer who performs in that format, but the fact that I have 20 years of schooling in party rocking is the extra value to the brand.
Lil Dave: I play all styles of music with a heavy slant on the soulful side of things. I have a deep understanding of the past, but I’m also looking towards the future. I need a three-word statement that sums that up. I usually just say “everything”.
Cosmo Baker: Like if I like it and it’s funky, I fuck with it. And also I wanna shake shit up too, so like if I can do something that’s dope but then also take some shit left field – not for the sake of it but in a funky way that’s gonna make things different – I’m gonna do it. Cause you know, to stand out, to challenge yourself and challenge your listeners.
TK: Who are some of your favorite Philly DJs?
Lean Wit It: Mr. Sonny James, Rich Medina, King Britt, Jazzy Jeff, Excel, Cosmo Baker, Aktive, Damage, Matthew Law, Royale, AMH.
Aura: Jazzy Jeff, Rich Medina, Lean Wit It, The Sofistifunk Crew.
Gravers Lane: Oooh so many. I’m just gonna write this as a little list. I can’t name them all, but know that I love most of you DJ’s. Mr. Falcon (Ily and Blueshift), all the Left Rite resident DJ’s, all the Spellbound resident DJ’s (Shari Vari, Strykknine, Another Ghost), Nightwitch, Cristiña (formerly Teknacolor Ninja), Sweat Daddy, Wassup Gina, Wolf Dem, DJ Baby Berlin (A Black Celebration), Paul T (DJSC/Nightdrive), JHN RDN + EBGIII, Stateschool Girl.
Lil Dave: The obvious: Rich, King, Cosmo. Also, all my Illvibe brothers. Gotta say Joey Blanco and Qool Marv were big influences.
Michael The Lion: Of those who influenced me: Cosmo Baker, Rich Medina, Brendan Bring Em’. But the ones who most inspired me are the kids I brought up through the old “record boy” system who carried my crates. DJ Bruce and DJ Dav. They taught me far, far more about music than I ever taught them. Youthful inexperience is a great thing. Broke a lot of my biases and opened me up to new ways of thinking.
Cosmo Baker: Donald Stone, Jazzy Jeff, Cosmic Kev, Roger Culture, King Britt & Dozia, Sonny James, Excel is a beast, I mean there’s so many dope DJs from this city. Younger homies who really push shit forward and I fuck with like Jabair of course, Matt Law, Rebel Foster, Lean Wit It. I mean we got some amazing DJs from this city.
TK: What are some of the challenges facing Philadelphia nightlife?
Lil Dave: Just a lack of venues. There are a lot of places to go to, but only a handful of healthy places for club culture to thrive. There are only a handful of places with the right combination of creating a comfortable environment, quality sound, and owners / staff that are really about the music. So the best parties these days are happening in warehouses, art galleries, and unusual spaces. Some great venues are starting to pop up lately, but we definitely need more.
Gravers Lane: There are many challenges as well as many good things. I am part of 24HrPHL, a nightlife activism group, so I really could go on and on about this. Especially when talking about safer spaces. For the sake of time, however, I want to touch on the whole gatekeeping thing I mentioned earlier. I think newer and older DJ’s have a lot to learn from one another. I do see more gatekeeping then I should with older DJ’s who think that because they played in Philly for X-plus years, they are the keeper of the craft. On the same end, a lot of newer DJ’s enter this life with completely overblown egos. I see it in even the way they market themselves online. The fact is, everyone is always learning all the time. Newer DJ’s like myself need to approach this art form with respect and at least some knowledge of its history, and older DJ’s should make way and show the same respect to those wanting to learn the skill. Also, who cares if “everyone” is a DJ? If you’re invested in the music, then this false competition parts of the scene have created shouldn’t be important to you. If you’re a good DJ and a kind person, you will find your places to play.
Lean Wit It: As far as DJ Culture in Philly, there isn’t enough mentoring / cosigning from the guys that are really on. You’ll see it happening often in other markets, but then again I also think that goes beyond DJ Culture to be honest. Also, I think a major issue in Philly is that its rich DJ culture isn’t properly documented, and that’s why we’re often overlooked and not given proper credit. A challenge I see in Philly nightlife is that there aren’t that many black-owned spaces or even just spaces for Black people.
Aura: Hmmmm….wow… [sips wine] There are only a few venues that appreciate Dj’s not only as artists but as the most essential part of nightlife culture. There’s no party without the DJ. Venues don’t make money if there no one there. Also, there aren’t enough venues, which is weird because Philadelphia is a large city, but people only party in the hip parts of the city. Also, DJ’s are expected to wear multiple hats. We locate and book venues, secure payment, create flyers for promotion, promote via social media. The process is costly and exhausting. But Philly has so much potential & there are so many talented DJs and people looking to have a good time.
Michael The Lion: The issues are endless. For starters, we need to make it easier to create and run a venue in this city. There are lots of people who want to express themselves and don’t have the space to do it. If we do that, we will reduce the number of people who hit their ceiling and move elsewhere. Second, we need to make marginalized communities feel safe and included here and provide every opportunity for musical expression — from the disabled to the non-binary and beyond. Lastly, I think we need to figure out how to preserve what we have and improve it. That goes for our spaces that are at risk of being priced out and our DJ culture that is a gift we gave to the world. Preservation for its own sake isn’t useful — we need to adapt our places and cultures to accommodate the youth as well.
TK: What are your thoughts on the future of Philly DJ and nightlife culture?
Gravers Lane: My hope is that we see larger venues than just one or two. I would like to see more large queer spaces for LGBQT DJ’s too, without it becoming a virtue-signaling situation. Venues for DJs in this city wax (there is a vinyl joke here somewhere) and wane. Right now it feels like it’s waning, but I’m confident we will see a burst of new venues soon. There are some pretty cool DIY spaces right now. It’s been dope to see a lot of spaces becoming more mindful of safety and consent practices as well.
Lil Dave: Many of the younger DJs I know are super talented and have great taste in music. I think the big thing is that the next generation needs to know that it’s ok to experiment and build a scene around music that isn’t top 40. It seems like they are already on that path.
Cosmo Baker: I feel confident that the future of DJ culture is bright in the sense that people will continue to develop new techniques and broaden the artisanship, and that in turn will spread new sounds, genres, and break new artists. Even with the problematic issues I’ve already mentioned. But I think that one of the things that we need in this industry is more autonomy and control, even ownership, over a lot of the aspects that we are unfortunately beholden to. I’m not necessarily saying that we all need to own our own clubs (although that’s a great thing) but the idea of us having a way of steering our own ships in a way that can let us continue to thrive is a really important thing that’s needed. Unions, co-ops, collectives, things that galvanize communities. These things are needed more than ever. And as for Philly, it’s also important for people within nightlife to establish political power. People often see nightlife as only this seedy underbelly that’s populated by weirdos and rejects. But it’s actually a BILLION DOLLAR INDUSTRY. So recognize its value, foster its growth, regulate it in ways that make it flourish.
Michael The Lion: As an old head I’d like to see our legacy and tradition carried forward, but that’s old head thinking. I really just want to see future generations have a productive and safe and inclusive space to explore and express themselves through music and community.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Edward (Eddie) G. Bowman, a historian and tireless supporter of Philadelphia DJs and music culture in general. Eddie loved our city and the music that makes its heart beat. Rest in Peace.
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