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Hip-Hop Lesson: DJs and Turntablism

This lesson, re-posted on Education World with permission from Seattle radio station KEXP, was created by Tiffany Grobelski, Educational Coordinator-KEXP Documentaries and Michele Myers, Producer-KEXP Documentaries. The entire series of lesson plans appears here.

See also on Education World:  What is Hip-Hop? A music, history, art and culture lesson

Education World note: In the course of doing Internet research on hip-hop related topics, or in the course of accessing the resources (videos, Web sites, articles, etc.) listed in thislesson, students may encounter material that contains objectionable language or content. Teachers may want to limit Internet access and/or screen specific resources ahead of time to select the options that will be most appropriate for their class.


6-8, 9-12


Four to six 50-minute sessions

Subject Areas:

Music, Cultural Studies, Language Arts

Learning Objectives:

In this lesson, students will:

  • Learn about the roots of hip-hop music and culture, with a focus on DJing.
  • Be responsible for teaching their classmates about turntablism.
  • Gain tools to respond intelligently to critiques of turntablism.


Analytical listening; critical thinking; expressing and supporting opinions in writing and discussion; independent research; collaborative learning; presentation skills


A classroom or computer lab equipped with:

  • Computers and headphone sets for each student in the class
  • A computer at the front that everyone can see, with speakers

I.  Introduction

  • Some say DJs have been around since the times of early humans. They were the ones in charge of the beats, chants, and getting people dancing.
  • DJs take many forms: radio DJs, DJs at wedding parties, club DJs, and hip-hop battle DJs who compete against each other to prove who has the most skill.
  • Turntablism began in hip-hop in the late 1970s.
  • The hip-hop DJ’s main tool of expression is the turntable, which many consider to be a musical instrument. The practice of using a turntable as a musical instrument is "turntablism." Musicians who use turntables are "turntablists."
  • Although Grandmaster Flash is considered the first turntablist in hip-hop, some credit other sources with being the first to feature sounds made by turntables. The 1939 song "Imaginary Landscapes No. 1" by experimental composer John Cage used two turntables. In the 1940s and 50s experimental composers in the musique concrete movement used turntables. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1968 song "Walk on the Water" contains a scratching sound effect like one that can be made on a turntable.

II.  Listen to KEXP Documentaries

The following are part of the Masters of Turntablism series:

#3 The First Turntablist Grandmaster Flash
#4 Grandwizzard Theodore and The First Scratch

#5 Grandmixer DST and Rockit, all i.

Students should take notes on what they hear, writing down important points. Give them a short break in between each documentary to finish taking notes and re-focus.

III.  Discussion questions

  • What is the difference between a DJ and a turntablist?
  • What did big band leaders have in common with hip-hop DJs?
  • What is “the break”? Why is it significant?
  • What are the contributions of each of these artists to turntablism:
    • Grandmaster Flash?
    • Grandwizzard Theodore?
    • Grandmixer DST?
  • What is the relationship between hip-hop and other types of music such as jazz, funk, and blues?

Keep these next questions in mind, since we will revisit them later:

  • What makes someone a musician? Can anyone be a musician? How is a DJ similar to or different than another musician, like a guitarist? Is a DJ a musician? Why or why not? If so, at what point does a DJ become a one?
  • What makes an object a musical instrument? Can anything be a musical instrument? Is the turntable an instrument? Why or why not?

IV. Teach your classmates

Each of these activities requires students to get into groups of four.

  1. Where are the women? Most hip-hop DJs are men. Why? Discuss this as a group. Find an example of a woman hip-hop DJ and find out some information about her. Each group will present its findings.
  2. The Musicians. Each group will choose one of the remaining documentaries in the Masters of Turntablism series:

    # 7 Mix Master Mike, Q-Bert and the Invisibl Skratch Picklz
    #8 The X-Ecutioners
    #9 DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist Dig
    #10 DJ Kentaro Breaks Down the Walls

    First each group member will listen to the documentary individually and take notes. Summarize the main points of the documentary. Describe the style and sound of the DJs described—Is the sound serious? Playful? What elements do they use? What techniques are they known for? Jot down a discussion question about the documentary. When each member of your group has finished, meet to synthesize your notes. Prepare to present your documentary to the class.
  3. Turntablism Technique 101. Each group will choose three turntablism terms, research them online, and teach them to the class. Choose from the following list: peek-a-boo, scratching, cutting, front door/back door, fake phase in, needle dropping, beat juggling, body tricks, back spinning, digging, sample, cueing, mixer. Try to find an example online you can play to demonstrate. We heard examples of many of these in the documentaries.

V. Assignments

1.  DJ YOU.  "Everyone is a DJ…when you’re the one choosing music in the car, or loading up a CD player at a party; you’re a DJ."  –Jam Master Jay.
If you make mix tapes, CDs, or iPod playlists, you are a least an amateur one!

Some factors that make a DJ set good are: mixing skill, track selection, programming, and originality. Mixing is about using the equipment to incorporate blends, tricks, scratches, or effects. Track selection is about the quality and appeal of the tracks the DJ chooses. Some people say that the track selection should be a blend of popular/accessible tracks with new/unique tracks. Programming is about the flow of a DJ’s set. The DJ should try to make it progress smoothly and make sure the audience is not bored. Originality can be about sound, look, or effects—anything that makes a DJ stand out.

Create your own 20-minute DJ set. Some things to think about:

-Do the tracks you choose go well together? Why?
-How do you want your set to flow? How do you want your listeners to feel at the beginning, the middle, and the end of your set?
-Are you original? What can you do to make yourself stand out as a DJ?

Write down your set list and explain the choices you made.

2.  Turntablism Argument. Is a DJ a musician? Is the turntable an instrument? Construct an argument in response to these questions. Outline first, then write an argumentative essay. Make sure you have a clear thesis supported with facts and examples. Your tone should be objective. Where necessary, address counter-arguments. Revise your essay at least once before turning it in.

VI. Extension activity:

If the expertise is available locally, give your students the chance to get some hands-on experience with turntables. You can:

  • Invite a local DJ to your class to demonstrate basic techniques. He or she may bring in vinyl or digital turntables. Ask the DJ to give a run-down of his or her equipment and why s/he uses that particular equipment. Have him or her demonstrate basic techniques the students learned about. After the tutorial, let the students try their hand at turntablism.
  • Take your students to a local turntable class, workshop, or exhibit. Places to look:
    • Music schools. Berklee College of Music in Boston was the first music school in the country to offer turntable technique classes as part of its general curriculum.
    • Community centers. The Katalyst hip-hop educational program for youth at WAPI in Seattle is one example of a youth program where students can learn about DJing.
    • Museums. One interactive exhibit is the DJ Hallway in the Sound Lab at the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle.


Web sites

AllMusic: Turntablism.

DMC World DJ Championships.

Experience Music Project Sound Lab. [archived version of the Web page circa 2012]


Runell, Marcella, and Martha Diaz. 2007. The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook Volume 1. New York: Hip-Hop Association.

Schloss, Joseph Glenn. 2004. Making Beats: the Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Webber, Stephen. 2008. DJ Skills: The Essential Guide to Mixing and Scratching. Oxford, Focal.

Webber, Stephen. 2009. Turntable Technique: the Art of the DJ. Boston, MA: Berklee Press.


Associated Press. "Turntable Class Teaches the Art of the Scratch," 24 February 2004.

Czyzselska, Jane. "Let’s Talk About Decks Baby…" The Observer. 3 November 2002.

Katz, Mark. 2007. "Men, Women, and Turntables: Gender and the DJ Battle." The Musical Quarterly. 89 (4): 580-99.

McNamee, David. "Hey, What's that Sound: Turntablism," The Guardian. 11 January 2010.

Norris, Sian. "Turning the Turntables," The Guardian. 28 December 2007.


"Scratch." 2001. Directed by Doug Pray.

"X-ecutioners - Built to Scratch." 2004. Directed by Jake Davis.



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Last updated on 07/20/2017