If there is a Heaven, I hope there’s a special place in it for DJs. I imagine a boundless Apple store-looking space crammed with turntables, mixers, amps, and speakers, filled with icons like Roc Raida, Kool DJ AJ, DJ E-Z Rock, Jam Master Jay, DJ Mehdi and the countless others who played a crucial role in pioneering the music we enjoy today. They’d be flipping samples from a never-ending crate of divinely orchestrated breakbeats to an eternal standing ovation.
That’s the kind of tribute they deserve, anyway. In reality, the role of DJ has historically been a thankless one—a tribe of behind-the-scenes heroes who continued to shape the direction of music long after they’d been largely removed as a contributing force, at least in the hip-hop realm.
Recognizing DJs for their invaluable contributions to hip-hop and electronic music is the reason the Global Spin Awards exist, and it’s the same reason Atlanta legend T.I. was glad to accept the role of host for this year’s ceremony in New Orleans during All-Star Weekend.
When asked about the importance of DJs in an interview with Forbes’ Shawn Setaro, T.I. shared a sentiment that, while grateful and well-intentioned, is sadly no longer true.
"DJs, they’re the gatekeepers," he says. "They’re the cornerstones of the hip-hop community. The way people find their new artists and hear their favorite songs first is through the DJ. As an artist myself, if the DJs decide not to play our records, then you don’t have a voice. They’re our extension."
I can see where T.I. is coming from having been birthed from Atlanta, a city that still to this day has a DJ-led system in place—Who's trying to take a trip to Magic City?—that has played a huge part in propping the Southern metropolis up as the current mecca for exciting new hip-hop. Unfortunately, that system exists in few other cities, and on a national level, DJs have long since been left outside the gate they once patrolled.
In the digital era, one could argue that the role of gatekeeper has been taken over by folks like Carl Chery at Apple Music, who curate and control the playlists on major streaming services. As the relevance of radio continues to slip through the fingers of a scrambling music industry, there are far too many avenues for music to be discovered—too many gates, if we’re keeping up with that metaphor—and the unfortunate truth is that DJs play a minuscule role in this new paradigm.
Club and radio DJs, once considered the premiere tastemakers in hip-hop, who could decide the fate of a record with the flip of a wrist, have been relegated to chasing relevance in a time where if one of them refuses to play what’s already decidedly hot, there are 1,000 other youngsters with digital decks and a hard drive full of “Bad and Boujee” remixes eager to take their spot.
I’m not here to undermine T.I.’s appreciation for DJs. As I wrote earlier, they’ve played a pivotal role in shaping the culture and sound of hip-hop, and for that, they deserve infinite praise. But to continue to ascribe the part of tastemaker to the current DJ landscape, at least in the world of hip-hop, is simply unrealistic, and has the potential to gloss over the possibility of actually keeping them in the mix (pun not intended, I swear).
I hope in 20 years there will still be a place in hip-hop for DJs, I really do, but when music discovery has taken on such varied methods and radio is a sinking ship, their involvement is unfortunately decreasing, rather than the other way around.