Mixin’ it old school
DJ Jazzy Gems
Hip-hop started with the DJ.
Thirty-five years ago, DJ Kool Herc is widely regarded as having started hip-hop at house parties in the Bronx. For Herc, it was all about the breaks, the instrumental part of a song—usually a funk song—that would play after the vocals ended. Herc would get two copies of the same record and play the break over and over.
A common term used to identify hip-hop fans, “B-boys"—short for “break boys"—started with Herc.
Herc started shouting his friends’ names over the breaks. Then he started rhyming.
A culture was born.
Aaron Shulman, who goes by DJ Jazzy Gems on the ones-and-twos, knows a thing or two about the breaks.
“You can’t just put two records together and make it sound good,” says the 22-year-old DJ. “There’s baselines … there’s snares.
“When hip-hop started … it was a DJ taking a small little loop and cutting it up between two different records. And I’m doing something that’s very similar.”
He is the resident DJ at Divine Ultra-Lounge, where he plays a lot of Top 40 songs.
“What I play is no different than what they’re playing at the next club,” he acknowledges. “I grew up on hip-hop. I’m a hip-hop DJ. But I’m playing in a club atmosphere … you’re getting a short, grimy mix from me that sounds really good. You’re getting a raw, distinct hip-hop style from me because of my background.”
Shulman bases his roots in old school and underground hip-hop.
“What I listen to and what I play are two different things,” he says. “I stick to my roots. I know what the fuck I like.”
Hold on, hip-hop puritans, there’s a moral to this story.
“Plus I’m playing underground hip-hop bangers that are mainstream crossovers … like De La Soul or Wu Tang or A Tribe Called Quest … you can dance to those, but they’re not banging them at other clubs.”
He mixes those vocals with house and mainstream hip-hop beats, but he didn’t start in the clubs. Even in high school, Shulman owned milk crates full of records—funk records, soul records, hip-hop records, classic rock records—all in search for the right breaks.
Shulman knows that some kids consider him a sellout for trading in some of the best hip-hop in the world for songs from Usher and 50 Cent. He’s not too worried about it. The simple truth, he says, is there aren’t enough clubs willing to play underground hip-hop. When they do, not enough people come out. And the ones who do don’t want to pay a cover.
DJing pays Shulman’s rent—a factor not to be taken lightly.
But he still makes hip-hop—not Top-40 hip-hop—real hip-hop, a major factor in his life. He DJs for a band in Oregon, Cloaked Characters, that he compares to some of the better independent hip-hop groups in Reno. He also works as an operations manager/DJ for the local booking company Amplified Entertainment.
Regardless, he knows hip-hop history. It’s what made him who he is today.