“You say … you say … you say, you say, you say, you say, you say one for the trouble …”
These words, lurching forward and then pausing and rewinding, hesitant at first, as if aware that a new world awaits on the other side when this pause is resolved, form the opening seconds of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” the 1981 single by the titular DJ. As it turned out, the music on the other side of those words did change music — not just the way it was produced, but its very conception, as the relationship between making records, playing them back, and listening to them were forever blurred. The techniques found on “The Adventures” weren’t new — scratches and high-speed cuts between two records had been performed many times, by Flash himself and other DJs — but this is the first time they were all found together in one place on vinyl. And one tool made a performance like this possible.
“It is kind of like the Stradivarius or the Steinway of hip-hop,” says Professor Mark Katz, who teaches at the University of North Carolina and has published books including Capturing Sound: How Technology Changed Music (2010) and Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (2012). “I say that not in terms of it being a luxury item, though; it is expensive, but it is a crucial touchstone in hip-hop history. It is for many DJs either what they own or aspire to own.”
Katz is speaking of the Technics SL-1200 turntable, the device used by Flash on “The Adventures” (he had three in the studio, and cut the song live, with no post-production editing). These decks have been the standard for DJs spinning records since the 1970s. Asking a DJ about their 1200 is like asking any craftsperson about their favorite tools. They speak of them in rhapsodic terms, not so much as record-laying machines but as extensions of their creative selves. For many decades, if you DJ’d, nothing else would do.
Technics SL-1200 | Photo by Zane Ritt, Courtesy of DJpedia
Consider the turntable: a mechanical device for playing records comprising a base, a motor, a platter, a tonearm, a cartridge, and a needle. For most of its history — from the earliest phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 to the Emile Berliner’s Gramophone, with its hand-crank action and flared horn jutting into the room — the record player required care. You use your hands to put the record on the device and put the needle in place, but once playback started, any contact with it might cause problems, never mind bumping the table or jumping up and down. Records were prone to skipping and the cheaper models had audible speed fluctuations, and as for reliably manipulating a record while it was spinning, forget it.
Turntables as we know them now, designed for LPs and singles spinning at 33 or 45 RPMs, first hit the market in 1948 and had become widespread by the 1950s.
In early turntables, a high-speed motor drove the platter via an idler wheel, a small device about the size of a silver dollar with edges of rubber. Idler wheel turntables could get up to speed fairly quickly, but it was an engineering challenge to keep vibrations from the high-RPM motor from affecting play (not to mention that the idler wheels themselves wore out over time), and they didn’t hold their speed particularly well.
The issue with vibrations was reduced with the rise of the belt-drive turntable in the 1960s, but these units took longer to reach the proper RPM and were sensitive to contact with the turntable; a belt could easily break or slip off if one were to slow the platter down by hand. They reinforced the notion that the turntable is a fragile device designed for extracting sound from records under very particular conditions.
In 1970, Technics, a division of Japanese electronic manufacturer Panasonic, introduced the SP-10, the first widely available direct-drive turntable, designed by engineer Shuichi Obata. By coupling a slower-spinning motor directly to the platter, Obata’s unit offered unusually precise speed in a durable design. Two years later, the company rolled another Obata creation, the SL-1200, descended from the SP-10. It wasn’t cheap, retailing for $350 — about $2,100 in 2020 dollars — but over the next few years, it grew in popularity, especially with DJs in radio and in clubs.
When it first arrived on the market in 1972, the SL-1200 was heavy (27 pounds) but not unusually so for a mid-to-high-end turntable. The Thorens TD-125, an audiophile table beloved by legendary DJ Larry Levan, was roughly the same weight. But the Technics unit was unusually rugged for a turntable, able to play perfectly when subjected to heavy use by DJs in both a club or radio set. This was due to the high-torque motor, and that the deck’s quartz-locked speed was so consistent (the electromechanical properties of quartz, a common mineral, had been used to improve the accuracy of clocks and watches since the 1920s). The SL-1200 pairs a robust motor and heavy platter with a solid base of metal and heavy rubber, which further dampens vibration.
The SL-1200 sold well in the 1970s and carved out an audience with DJs, but it still wasn’t the standard deck in that setting. In this decade, there was a lot of overlap between the club systems and the world of hi-fi, and among some audiophiles, there was skepticism about direct-drive turntables. The belt was thought by some to be crucial for isolating the platter from the motor and reducing noise. It took some time for the 1200 to win over skeptics, but the SL-1200 MK2, released in 1979, went a long way on that front. This update, among other improvements, moved the pitch adjustment mechanism to a slider on the top of the base, which made tweaking precise speed much easier and beat-matching more accessible. Those qualities, combined with a much-improved pitch control, which easily altered the speed +/- 8% via a slider on the plinth, meant that the 1200 was on its way to being a tool not just of music playback, but of music creation.
Technics SL-1200MK2 | Photo by Darren Wood
Through the 1980s, the MK2 became the standard deck for DJs (or at least the one they aspired to own), from hip-hop to house to techno, even as vinyl was rapidly losing ground as a format for consumers. If you wanted to DJ, there was one turntable you needed to own, and every DJ who came of age during that era remembers their excitement of first cueing up a record. “I then went to an Uncle Jams Army Dance and played with a Technics 1200 turntable and lost my mind,” Egyptian Lover told the New York record and equipment shop, Turntable Lab, in an interview series called My First 1200. “The turntable was so strong and sturdy. I could do so many tricks on them.”
After the MK2, the 1200 spread through culture along two sometimes parallel and often-intersecting paths: hip-hop and dance music. Lines between the two are often blurry and sometimes non-existent, but each application draws upon different strengths of the unit.
Dance music is of the body. It can be listened to and appreciated intellectually, but the ultimate determinate of its quality is if it gets people moving. This connection goes back to the dawn of our understanding of music, to the earliest drums and crude instruments used for cultural rituals that brought communities together. The 1200 achieved its status in the dance music world because it’s an instrument of the body — the machine became an extension of the DJ’s anatomy.
The 1200 was a popular turntable in the 1970s, but it took a while for it to become the DJ standard. Realizing club DJs were a good market for the 1200, Obata began consulting with DJs about features for the second edition of the turntable and engineered with them in mind. The SL-1200 MK2 was marketed directly to people who played records for dancers. Magazine ads for the deck touted it was: “Tough enough to take the disco beat. And accurate enough to keep it.”
Photo by Mijabi
With near-perfect speed and pitch control, a pair of 1200s, with each plugged into a mixer, allowed for seamless transitions from one record to the next. Records with a slightly different BPM could be matched by tweaking the speed of one and aligning the beat of the next record to the previous one via headphones.
These 1200s, often “floating” on a jerry-rigged contraption made by tightening dozens of rubber bands around a can or similar surface so that the deck didn’t come into direct contact with the surface the gear sat upon, was from this point forward standard equipment in the DJ booth, as ubiquitous as a light switch or volume nob.
The development of the SL-1200 as a street-level tool for music-making and transformation happened in parallel with its ascendence in the club world but grew out of a different culture.
Hip-hop was born and developed through the 1970s with no single piece of gear becoming standard. The ingenuity of early hip-hop DJs was such that by modifying the equipment and finding workarounds for easily skippable records (slipmats, like the one Grandmaster Flash created from material his mother, a seamstress, had lying around the house, and heavy cartridges, which kept the needle pressed down though it was hard on both the stylus and the vinyl) they could rock a party with gear that would send later DJs running away in fright.
“Much respect to the 1200, but if wasn’t for its ancestor — the Technics SL23 Belt Drive — the Quick Mix Theory there would be no music bed for Humans to speak on, no Hip Hop/Rap,” Grandmaster Flash said in a Facebook post last year, shouting out an early favorite among his tools.
But with the introduction of the MK2, the art of the hip-hop DJ took a quantum leap. Scratches, backspins, and beat-juggling were already in the mix and were technically possible on many turntables, but the weight, precision, and toughness of the 1200 meant that DJs could think about the music first and the technique second. There will never be a substitute for practice, but the effort required to attain the skill to manipulate vinyl on an inexpensive belt-drive unit could now serve on next-level ideas.
“The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was an early signpost in this development and arguably among the most musically sophisticated uses of the 1200s capabilities in hip-hop history — the tricks are simple and serve the flow of the tune, and the record choices and juxtapositions are brilliant — but through the rest of the 1980s and ’90s, the place of the 1200 in the music was central.
“The 1200s were never the first set of turntables for anybody, which says something about how valuable they are in terms of what people do to get them and saving money for years and years trading up,” Katz says. “An enormous amount of time and labor went into getting a pair.”
Indeed, the 1200s were an aspirational purchase, and owning a pair implied seriousness. “I could never afford Technics 1200s so I always had cheap no-name brand belt drive turntables,” DJ D-Styles aka Dave Cuasito told Turntable Lab. “The kind of turntable where you had to scratch using the side of the record because if you pressed down on the record the whole platter would dip down and the needle would jump like a motherfucker.”
Grandmaster Flash playing Technics in 1999 | Photo by Mika Väisänen
D-Styles was a member of both the Invisibl Skratch Pikilz and the Beat Junkies, DJ collectives who, in the 1990s, pushed the art of composition via turntable into realms unimaginable in the previous decades. When performing live, these crews would sometimes function essentially as a band, with one or two members scratching out a drumbeat as others add basslines and melody parts via scratches, speed adjustments, and various techniques with the mixer/deck interface. Sometimes called turntablism, this music was deeply rooted in the early days of hip-hop but leaned in the direction of the avant-garde. It wasn’t for everybody and was often rough and noisy and confusing. But to the devotees, turntablism represented the apex of the music created via bodily transformation, with remixes created on the fly.
Turntablism represented the inevitable endpoint of the innovations introduced by the earliest hip-hop DJs, and perhaps just as inevitable was the fact that DJing was about to transform radically following these innovations.
Starting in the 1990s, DJs had started using CD-J devices, which offered a flexibility that vinyl decks couldn’t match (a new mix could be burned to a CD-R and played minutes after completion, for example). And in the early part of the 2000s, software that integrated laptop computers and turntables were widely used. DJs who used vinyl only were specialists — they took pride in their ability to adhere to tradition, and some argued that the purity of expression led to more interesting mixes, but they were clearly in the minority.
A further blow to traditional DJing came in 2010 when Panasonic discontinued the 1200 line. There were thousands upon thousands of decks from the previous decades still in use — that solid construction proved itself over the long haul — but for a time it was no longer possible to buy a new unit.
That changed with the introduction of the SL-1200GAE turntable in 2015. Though it was still an SL-1200, made in the same factory to the same exacting standards, it was a turntable for a very different marketplace. DJs were still interested — no turntable has matched the 1200 for speed control — but the machine was even more enticing for audiophiles who welcomed the resurgence of vinyl because it allowed them to construct home stereo systems designed for the highest fidelity.
In an ironic twist, the thing that kept the 1200 from being embraced by the audiophile community in the 1970s — the near-perfection of the direct drive, that not-yet-trusted technology, which made it most useful as a tool for less-wealthy music obsessives re-imaging a new music — was now its greatest selling point. With the possibilities laid out in “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” having been realized and then some, and the world of music having changed completely at least three times, new editions of the 1200 were constructed with new dreams in mind.
5 Records the Technics SL-1200 Made Possible
In the 1990s, the Bomb zine kept the original vision of hip-hop alive, with special emphasis on the art of the DJ. It was founded by DJ David Paul in the San Francisco Bay Area and paid particular attention to the goings-of of that scene. The 1995 comp, Return of the D.J., is excellent, but the sequel is even better, showcasing the entire range of what scratch DJs were doing when the art form was at its peak, while also emphasizes musicality, which can sometimes get lost when DJs from this world get too technical.
Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, is a brilliant DJ in the rocking-the-house sense and he’s deeply skilled in the 1200s, but this album is a showcase of his skills as a composer. It was built entirely from samples, the vast majority of which are completely unrecognizable, and all of which were played back on his 1200s as they sat on a table in his home.
Jeff Mills, who was known as The Wizard, started his life in music as a radio DJ in his native Detroit, Inspired by the legendary Electrifying Mojo, Mills as the Wizard would mix early hip-hop and disco with oddities from across the musical spectrum. His skills on the 1200s came in handy when he later turned to techno. This set, recorded live in 1995, shows an astonishing, almost superhuman ability to juggle records with three decks. The mixing is far from perfect but the energy as he jumps between selections is jaw-dropping.
This two-CD set showcases the range of the Ninja Tune label in its earliest phase and nicely walks the line between the then-new idea of trip-hop (a genre unthinkable without the SL-1200) and more technically-focused turntablism. The Coldcut and DJ Krush discs sound very different — the former focuses more on scratching and sound effects, the latter offers supremely blunted mood — but both are steeped in hip-hop DJ culture.
From the beginning, this Montreal DJ had the dexterity of a competition-winning scratch DJ, but he always used his skills in service of music instead of showcasing his technique. This early EP features the legendary “Tricks ‘N’ Treats,” which finds Kid Koala transforming a vinyl LP edition of the Charlie Brown Halloween special into a head-nodding hip-hop jam.
Published in partnership with Technics.