The 10 Best Old School DJs of All Time

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Published By:

DJ Fierce

December 6, 2023

Best Old School DJs

The best old school DJs of all time introduced a string of innovations impacting the art form for decades and transforming how DJs performed.

Beginning in the 1970s, these DJs showed the world how to make the most of two turntables and a mixer to blend music while inventing new music genres.

In this article, we’ll break down how these pioneering DJs showcased their unique style and went on to influence electronic music for years to come.

 

The 10 Best Old-School DJs of All Time

The art of DJing has undergone a variety of transformations over the years as innovative techniques and new genres have emerged worldwide.

We’ve picked the most influential DJs that have led to the birth of hip-hop and house while paving the way for future generations.

Here’s everything you need to know about the 10 best old-school DJs of all time:

 

10. DJ Screw

Robert Earl Davis Jr., known by his stage name DJ Screw, began his music career in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that his influence kicked in.

An avid hip-hop DJ, he played in and around the Houston area alongside rapper Mike Jones and made his name as the creator of the chopped-and-screwed DJ technique.

The founding member of Houston’s Screwed Up Click, this technique essentially paved the way for how to make mashups today using various track elements.

His method of slowing down a track’s tempo and manipulating it with stop beats, scratches, and rap vocals changed the hip-hop DJing landscape forever.

DJ Screw was one of the first DJs to popularize mixtapes, selling them around Houston and strengthening his reputation as one of the most influential DJs of his time.

While many of the best old-school DJs achieved incredible fame during their lifetime, DJ Screw earned his recognition posthumously.

It wasn’t until 2005 – five years after he passed away from a codeine overdose – that he gained the widespread attention he deserved for reshaping DJing techniques.

 

9. Larry Levan

House DJ Larry Levan, whose real name is Lawrence Philpot, transformed the house music genre as significantly as DJ Screw impacted the direction of hip-hop.

Widely regarded as one of the best gay DJs of all time, Levan came to prominence after hosting a ten-year residency at New York City’s Paradise Garage.

Over the following years, Larry Levan performed DJ sets at some of the best nightclubs in the world, reshaping disco by fusing it with electronic music.

He developed a reputation for his effortless mastery of the dance floor, using the mixer’s EQ in new and innovative ways to blend seemingly disparate tracks.

Throughout the 1980s, Levan became one of the most prolific music producers, collaborating with many iconic singers and performers.

This diverse approach to music production was reflected in his eclectic DJ sets, which often included elements of hip-hop, Chicago house, and German electronic music.

One of the best DJs of his generation, Larry Levan, paved the way for DJs today, known for their multi-hour-long sets and creative mixing skills.

 

8. DJ Premier

Another notable DJ who helped to transform hip-hop history is DJ Premier, who worked with the production team Gang Starr throughout the 1990s.

During this era, DJ culture was evolving thanks to the introduction of sample-based music production, of which DJ Premier was a trailblazer.

Working with many of the luminaries of East Coast hip-hop, he produced music for iconic artists, including The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, and Biggie Smalls.

His impact on the music industry extended well beyond the hip-hop genre, with megastars such as Christina Aguilera and Limp Bizkit also seeking out his talent.

DJ Premier’s core foundation as one of the leading DJs provided the backbone to his production prowess, known for his impressive scratching and driving beats.

Jazz, funk, and soul music genres were all deployed during the impressive sets that further helped him hone his production skills and reshape American pop culture.

Active since 1987, DJ Premier continues to perform DJ sets and produce music for some of the biggest acts in the industry.

 

7. Frankie Knuckles

Frankie Knuckles did for house music in Chicago what Larry Levan did for the genre in New York, both of whom played a key role in the evolution of dance music.

Indeed, Levan and Frankie Knuckles were close friends, sharing their insights and experiences of what a DJ does and developing new techniques.

Frankie Knuckles got his first major break when he began DJing at the Warehouse nightclub in Chicago, from which house music takes its name.

By 1983, he had invested in a drum machine from techno pioneer Derrick May, using this to augment his sets and begin producing his own music.

Fusing driving beats with disco sounds, Frankie Knuckles influenced a long list of local music producers in Chicago before making waves in the United Kingdom.

Here, he DJed at clubs such as DELIRIUM! and Heaven, kickstarting the rise of house and techno in the UK and the second summer of love that soon followed.

One of the most influential DJs and the “Godfather of House Music,” Frankie Knuckles, has left a lasting legacy that is felt throughout electronic music today.

 

6. Grand Wizard Theodore

While DJ Screw is regarded as one of the pioneers of the chopped-and-screwed DJ technique, Grand Wizard Theodore is credited as the inventor of scratching.

He began his DJing journey under the mentorship of another icon of the hip-hop scene, Grandmaster Flash, after playing records in his bedroom in the mid-1970s.

As legend has it, an interruption from his mother caused him to hold the record in place, liking the sound it made when he accidentally moved it back and forth.

By the early 1980s, he’d formed Grandwizard Theodore & the Fantastic Five, known for the trend-setting track “Can I Get A Soul Clap.”

In 1982, the group made a guest appearance in the classic movie Wild Style, which showcased the diverse subculture at the time that included hip-hop, graffiti, and breakdancing.

More recently, samples from his work have appeared in tracks from the likes of Bomb the Bass and Public Enemy, among many other notable works.

If you’re learning how to scratch, revisiting old footage of Grand Theodore Wizard is a great way to master your turntables with a range of techniques.

 

5. DJ Kool Herc

1973 is the year hip-hop was born in the recreation room of 1520 Sedwick Avenue in the Bronx, and Clive Campbell sat at the forefront of this moment in time.

After making a name for himself playing hard funk records, DJ Kool Herc isolated the instrumental section of a record that focused on the drum beat.

This became known as the “break,” a term still widely used by DJs, which Herc used to switch between one record and another using a two-turntable setup.

By using two copies of the same track, DJ Kool Herc was able to stretch the breakout, with his use of funky, disco-infused drums forming the basis of hip-hop.

Initially naming this technique the “Merry-Go-Round,” he later coined the term “break beating” and would go on to influence other major names such as Grandmaster Flash.

Known for his lively and energetic parties, Herc gave the dancers at his events the nicknames “b-boys” and “b-girls,” another term in common parlance to this day.

With such a profound and lasting impact on the hip-hop genre, it’s no surprise that DJ Kool Herc has been named the “Founder of Hip-Hop” and “Father of Hip-Hop.”

 

4. Afrika Bambaataa

An overview of the history of DJing wouldn’t be complete without an assessment of Afrika Bambaataa, who was heavily inspired by DJ Kool Herc.

Based out of The Bronx River Houses, he formed the Universal Zulu Nation in the late 1970s to help draw local kids away from gangs and violence.

By the early 1980s, Bambaataa had ventured into the world of music production, releasing the single “Planet Rock” in collaboration with Soulsonic Force.

He developed his skills over the following years, inspired by German electronic music producers Kraftwerk, and released the 12-inch white rap/spoken word “AEIOU Sometimes Y.”

This broke ground as the first American single to have been produced entirely on a computer, signifying a significant shift that would impact music for decades to come.

Over the following years, a string of albums and singles would follow, released on major record labels and continuing to push the envelope of what hip-hop could accomplish.

Not only did he help to push the genre into the mainstream, but his influence on rappers and DJs is hard to underestimate.

 

3. Kool DJ Red Alert

Following in the footsteps of Bambaataa but no less influential, Kool DJ Red Alert came to prominence and introduced Americans to hip-hop through his popular radio show.

After joining the New York City radio station 98.7 Kiss FM in 1982, he established a dedicated fanbase that essentially proselytized hip-hop to a new generation.

The all-time record holder for the most guest appearances in hip-hop music videos, Kool DJ Red Alert, was the first DJ to record mix compilation albums.

Through his role as a radio show host, he became the go-to presenter for pushing out the latest music to the public, launching many successful careers.

A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, and Boogie Down Productions are just a handful of the many artists he promoted on his shows.

In addition to his radio show, Kool DJ Red Alert was a regular fixture in the clubs of New York, notable for bringing punk and New Wave to the downtown Roxy Club.

 

2. Carl Cox

One of the most famous DJs in the world, Carl Cox, influenced house and techno in many ways, from pioneering mixing techniques to bringing house music to the UK.

Since the early 1980s, he’s been a central figure in the electronic music scene and was pivotal to the rising popularity of the rave scene in the 1990s.

Known for his lengthy sets blending house, techno, and other electronic music genres, he’s performed at most major venues worldwide.

His mainstream popularity skyrocketed after he took a regular slot presenting the Essential Mix on BBC Radio 1.

By 1997, Carl Cox had become one of the most influential DJs in the world and was the first to be named the number one global DJ by DJ Magazine.

Cox is also notable for his long-standing presence in the clubs of Ibiza, where he has held residencies at the biggest and most sought-after venues.

Few figures in the house and techno world have contributed as much to the music scene as Carl Cox, who continues to set dance music trends and influence DJ culture.

 

1. Grandmaster Flash

While previous DJs paved the way for innovations and mixing techniques, Grandmaster Flash propelled them into the spotlight.

The first bona fide superstar DJ, he developed hip-hop techniques, including punch phrasing and backspinning, while taking scratching to new heights.

Any aspiring DJs learning how to DJ with vinyl owe a sincere debt to the path forged by Grandmaster Flash and the unique techniques he introduced to the next generation.

He first came to attention in the 1970s while performing at parties with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

During this time, he became the first person to refer to himself as a Master of Ceremony, the abbreviation MC still commonly used today.

His 1982 album The Messenger helped to bring him to a wider audience, certified platinum by the RIAA and featuring the singles “It’s Nasty” and “The Message.”

A string of popular albums and singles followed, with Grandmaster Flash continuing to showcase his outstanding DJing skills at international venues.

For his immense contributions to music history and the art of DJing, Grandmaster Flash was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

 

Summary

That’s a wrap on this deep dive into the best old school DJs in music history who have helped shape some of the most iconic dance music genres ever.

With their innovative approach to DJing and immense commercial success, these titans of the music industry have transformed how DJs perform.

Whether you’re learning the art of turntablism or hosting a house music party, following in their footsteps is a surefire way to rock the crowd.

 

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