Before rappers became iconic celebrities who stood alone, the men and women who controlled the turntables and mixers behind them were frequently equally as acclaimed. Eric B. was mentioned before Rakim, Gangstarr is as much about Guru as it is DJ Premier, and the key to Run-DMC's success is the fact that Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay were all DJs before they pursued any other goals in rap music. Given that these mixologists were stars of their own accord, they would want to test their egos and skills against each other in both friendly and fractious competition. There have been countless DJ battles throughout music history, most of which are not captured for our viewing or listening pleasure. Of the ones uploaded to the internet, this is a list of ten of the finest.
It is important to note that within this list is an impressive historical record of the industry that developed and continues to thrive around the art of DJing, and notably, the skills (scratching, wordplay, beat juggling, and body tricks) that emerged via battles. The New Music Seminar's Battle for World Supremacy head-to-head battles of the 1980s were iconic. Moreover, the national and international competition scene that was birthed from those events is also significant. Also, noting the currently quite strong international slate of DJs who quite actively carry forth one of the essential elements of hip hop is necessary.
This list is in chronological order. It highlights a blend of personal favorites, plus is derived from years of studying the craft of turntablism, speaking to the individuals involved in these competitions, or falling into deep internet or Youtube holes and discovering them, too. This list is far from exhaustive. It's meant to inspire as much conversation as it does broader and deeper interest.
1987 - New Music Seminar DJ Jazzy Joyce vs DJ Cash Money
DJ Cash Money vs Joe Cooley
By 1987, rap music and hip hop culture began the process of entrenching themselves as an American pop-crossover music industry staple sound with growing international appeal. American acts were branching out on international tours that year, including Def Jam Records which toured Europe. New York City's New Music Seminar had always, because of Sleeping Bag Records president Tom Silverman's involvement, had a soft spot for hip hop culture. Thus DJ exhibitions had been a part of the event since its 1980 inception. The idea that both a female DJ (DJ Jazzy Joyce) and a west coast DJ (Los Angeles' Joe Cooley) were involved in 1987 is key.
Having DJ Jazzy Joyce, a woman battle DJ in an era where there were incredibly few women battle DJs, compete in 1987's New Music Seminar Battle for World Supremacy competition is significant. As DJ Rob Swift notes, "Joyce's routines were impressive, but she was going up against the only DJ to unify both the New Music Seminar and DMC titles. I don't think GOD himself could have beat Cash during the two years he battled!" Cash Money frequently performed with DJ Jazzy Jeff as The Kings Of Spin and as a tandem, they perfected the Transformers cartoon-inspired "Transformer" scratch.
Fans of unique turntablism tricks and progressive-minded scratch work note that Joe Cooley was cutting 130 BPM electro breaks while using a single turntable to do double-drops of the same section of a record using a single turntable. To this day, many still consider Cooley the victor in this battle.
How significant were Technics DJ Hall of Famer DJ Cash Money's 1987 Battle for World Supremacy DJ contest performances? They ultimately led to him releasing’Ugly People Be Quiet’ and the album, ‘Where's The Party At?’ on Sleeping Bag Records by the end of the year.
1991-1992 - Supermen Battle For World DJ Supremacy Roc Raida vs Ninja B
In the annals of battle DJing, few showdowns are as heated as the two-year-long feud between Harlem's DJ Roc Raida and Boston's DJ Ninja B. The height of said battle was at DJ Clark Kent's first and second-ever Supermen Battle For World DJ Supremacy. This event evolved from the first event sponsored by the New Music Seminar.
"For as great of a DJ as he was, he was an even better person. As ill and intense as he was when he was on stage, he was nothing like that off stage. He was one of the nicest, coolest dudes I've ever met," Ninja B says about Roc Raida, who tragically passed away in 2009. Craze adds, "[Roc Raida] was just a problem. Once again, his style was awesome; he just looked like a fuckin' G. He was the body-trick specialist. He would use every part of his body to do body tricks, and he came with the disses. He was the King of New York back then, battle DJing, it was Roc Raida. He's still the best body-trick DJ of all time, rest in peace."
In regards to Ninja B, he was adept at fast cuts, body tricks, and using crossfaders to create an "echo" effect with a breakbeat. What's important to note as well with Ninja B is that, similar to Cash Money, Ninja B spent less than five years overall as a "professional" battle DJ. By 1993 he hung up his needles and became a record producer while still occasionally diving into showcase work.
Fascinating to consider is the idea that as iconic in battle DJing as Roc Raida vs. Ninja B is a contest, it was never a final round matchup. Ultimately this is a testament to how many gifted DJs began to emerge in the mid-1990s, plus the number of highly-anticipated, yet ultimately underwhelming matchups transpired in the era, too.
1994 - Supermen Battle For World DJ Supremacy DJ 8-Ball vs DJ Noize
1994 is the precipice of the "big business" era for global DJing. The year is one before A-Trak beginning his DJ career as a 13-year old Montreal prodigy, three away from his first DMC championship, and five years away from Coachella introducing battle DJs to festival crowds. Thus, the battle between San Francisco's DJ 8-Ball and Copenhagen, Denmark's DJ Noize, is important.
Regarding Noize's style, Craze (himself a notable battle DJ) recalls, to the Miami New Times that "[Noize] would get up there and just completely diss the shit out of you, your style, everything about you with words. What was crazy is that he would take two different songs, and somehow he would make the disses rhyme, which was like fucking crazy at the time. And he had such a smug look on his face that it was just like, 'Oh my god.'" Of course, Noize is Danish and note-perfect mimicking American rap culture, it's impressive.
DJ 8-Ball emerged from a then highly competitive San Francisco battle scene to perform at the 1994 New Music Seminar. "8Ball was one of the guys that I look up to because he came out with the style where he would take a tone, like a long, single note, and make it into songs," Craze notes, highlighting his most notable skill.
If for nothing else, the competitive interplay in this battle is fascinating. 8-Ball switches styles from showcasing his technical prowess to getting into an entertainingly grimy diss battle while still maintaining a need to showcase his tone skills. This battle set the template that excited a lucrative decade for the art of DJ battling, worldwide.
1995 Killamanjaro Sound System vs King Addies Sound System
While this isn't a scratch battle, no conversation about DJ battle culture could be complete without the inclusion of reggae soundclashes. DJs like Jamaican-born Kool Herc were influenced by the sound system party culture and likely heard acts similar to Killamanjaro, and King Addies. There's a root in this that links directly to the "DJ battle" era. Thus, a battle that occurred during the growth in acclaim of America's development of enjoyment of DJ culture and hip hop overall must be noted.
By 1995, Noel "Papa Jaro" Harper's Kilimanjaro Sound System had been in existence for 25 years. The crew had birthed influential toasters (rappers) associated with the crew like Super Cat and Ninjaman. Plus, their name refers to their loud speakers and mountainous collection of now-classic reggae dubplates. Comparatively, Adolphus "Addie" Shawn and Father Ethan's King Addies Sound System was a crew of relative upstarts, born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1983, with now global star Tony Matterhorn as their lead toaster over the emcee's dubplate drops.
The level of energy in Portmore, Jamaica, this evening is incredible. As one YouTube commenter notes, "this clash also had a numbing effect. It got to a point where Addies was playing so many new tunes, so many awesome tunes!!! It got to a point where everyone was like damn....this can't be real!!!" Is there a dubplate involved where then American r’n’b superstar Toni Braxton proclaims her love of the King Addies Sound System? Of course. Is it as lethal as any DJ dissing another DJ with a battle cut? Possibly more.
1996 - International Turntablist Federation Battle X-Ecutioners vs Invisibl Skratch Piklz (DJs Mista Sinista, Rob Swift, and Roc Raida vs. DJs Shortkut, Mix Master Mike and QBert)
Arguably, the previously mentioned San Francisco scene's breakthrough occurred in July 1996 at the International Turntablist Federation's (ITF) battle event in New York City. Alongside the New Music Seminar's activities and the DMC's success, from 1995-2005, the ITF carved an impacting space in the global DJ battle community. Namely, the organization allowed New York City's X-Executioners, and San Francisco's Invisbl Skratch Piklz evolved into legendary DJ collectives.
Swift himself recalls, "my fellow X-men brothers [and I] battled Shortkut, Mix Master Mike and DJ Q Bert. Words can't describe how tense the months, weeks, and days of practice were leading up to this historic battle. We billed it as sort of a 'scrimmage' battle; it was supposed to be for fun. Yeah right! Both sides left it all on the stage. If you weren't there, you're probably asking yourself, ‘who won?’ The truth is there was no winner in my book. More important than ‘who won?’ both crews sacrificed their reputations to put on a great show for hip hop fans who came from all over the globe to witness history."
A YouTube comment concerning this battle notes the following: "Mix Master Mike sounding like he quantum leaped into 10th dimension and warped the wormhole on his way and simply mindfucked turntablism forever." Yes, it's that good.
1999 DJ Craze vs DJ QBert
Then Miami-based Craze emerged from Miami's bass music and drum ‘n’ bass scenes as, by 1999, a four-time Winter Music Conference Scratch-Off competition champion. At this time, QBert was a three-time DMC Champion, one of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and fresh from playing a Sunday night gig in the Sahara Tent at the first Coachella. This era of DJ battling would involve local promoters advertising a night of DJ battles like boxing cards, with "main event" talent like Craze and QBert being flown in to spin against each other. Seeing the size and excitement of a crowd in a city that's not on the radar as one of the "key" cities to the era's turntablism culture is essential. It demonstrably showcases that the turn of the 21st century was a massive "tipping point" for rap music and hip hop culture.
1999 - New York City MTV Hip Hop Week
Here's a fascinating continuation of a point from the previous entry. In 1999, some 18 years after its inception, MTV celebrated rap music's pop-crossover success with a "Hip Hop Week" from March 8-14, 1999. As part of their programming, MTV hosted a half-hour long "DJ Battle" that was much more a showcase of the craft. Ultimately, as a college radio DJ and wannabe turntablist, it spawned my 20-year love affair with the craft. If interested in seeing the battle-style skills of names including Grandmaster Flash, Jam Master Jay, DJ Skribble, DJ Infamous, and more (with a guest spot from Stretch Armstrong), it's all here.
2017 - V1 International Hip Hop Festival in St. Petersburg (Russia) X-Ecutioners vs Russian Scratch Crew
Twenty years after their ITF battle, the X-Ecutioners (then touring as DJs Total Eclipse, Rob Swift, and Precision) contested the Russian Scratch Crew (DJs Worm, Chin Machine, Mone) in a three-on-three battle. Given that, at the time of the competition that the Russian trio had combined as many years as professionals as Rob Swift alone, their skills are quite significant. Also, there's something notable about the presentation of the crowd here – head nods, giant polite smiles, and generally respectful interest – that denotes a certain level of "continuation of the cycle" of DJ battle culture.
2019 - DMC Battle For World Supremacy Final DJ K-Swizz vs Matsunaga
Not since the days of A-Trak has a teen sensation swept through the DJing industry like New Zealand's 16-year old DJ K-Swizz. He's the defending, back-to-back DMC Battle for World Supremacy champ, and with good reason. His style proves that though the innovation in trickery is likely not as significant as before, it's discovering that the DJs' personality as expressed via the beats, breaks, and samples, that make great battles and battlers stand timelessly supreme.
Marcus K. Dowling is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter