Josh Kun – The Art of the Crossfade (Excerpt) Lyrics
In 1969, Joseph Saddler, an aspiring Bronx DJ originally from Barbados, caught a set by Pete Jones, one of Manhattan’s top club DJs. Jones would spin 2 copies of the same record—James Brown, People’s Choice, B.B. King—so that he could isolate and then repeat what used to be called the breakdown, the drum heavy section of the song that ignited the dancefloor. Saddler watched Jones extend seconds into minutes, moments into rhythmic soliloquies, using a basic Sony microphone mixer and a pair of headphones to cue up a part of the record on one turntable and then cue up the same part on the other, over and over again, to create a ping pong effect using the same part of the song. It was the beginning of what is now called a loop, and Saddler would also see it at work back in the Bronx at parties by DJs like Kool Herc, and while Saddler liked what he saw, he wanted to take the act of moving between records—moving between the same records-- to the next level. When he DJ’ed parties as Grandmaster Flash in the late 70s, he began to rely on the same design as Richard Wadman (the British sound engineer who created the first mixer with a horizontal fader, the earliest example of a “crossfader”). Flash brought the crossfader into the party music we know call hip hop. Afrika Bambaataa might have been a better selector—he might have had a deeper record collection with more eclectic tastes and might have been able to flip Kraftwerk into psychedelic rock, but Flash was interested in the mix more than taste. He was like Wadman, an engineer—he wanted to develop the science of not just playing the percussive breaks of his favorite records, he wanted to develop the science of flow, connecting those breaks to each other without losing the beat. Crossfading: the beat science of connection, the art of not losing the beat
Crossfading was also an enabler of something else: the art of the scratch. You can scratch a record without a crossfader—that’s what Grand Wizard Theodore did in his bedroom, by accident, when he used his fingers to keep a record from playing while he talked to his mom and in his headphones heard the percussive black noise of vinyl rubbing beneath a stylus. But what turned the scratch of a record into its own science, was the crossfader
How long you keep the crossfader open as a record plays and how fast and how many times you snap it closed, then open, then closed, then open, will change the shape and the curve of the parameters of the scratch. Using the crossfader turned scratching from being about simply manipulating a sound’s distortion, to developing a set of movements, gestures, and routines that moved the scratch into a wider palette of erasures and revelations. The scratch covers up, then reveals meaning. “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Jean-Michel Basquiat said that
The crossfader puts holes into sound, punctuates decibels with quick stabs of silence. It makes something silent so you can hear it better, and then turn its erasure into the beat of a new song. It’s what allowed Jazzy Jeff to perfect the transformer scratch, Steve Dee to perfect the robocut beat juggle, Q-Bert to freestyle the hamster scratch. Manufacturers started to build DJ mixers with variable crossfaders to allow for rigorous scratch routines and to allow for different “crossfader curves,” so the fades in and out of a song could be set at slower and faster default speeds. The crossfader became about invention: it helped you replace a hi-hat with a kick drum, chop up a word, turn “oh yeah” into a minute long exclamation you could dance to...
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