The Wheels of Steel: DJ Clark Kent on the Heart of Hip-Hop

LET THE DJ PLAY: The legendary DJ Clark Kent, who has worked with rap icons Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., continues to carry the torch for hip-hop culture with his turntables and believes the role of the DJ is as relevant as ever. (Photo by Theo Wargo / Getty Images)

The culture known as hip-hop is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, a factoid that is hard to ignore following a Grammy Awards ceremony on Feb. 5 that honored the legacy of hip-hop music with an electrifying 14-minute set that chronicled eras of the rap genre with distinguished artists. The segment was one of the show’s highlights, and it was only appropriate that such a celebration of the culture and its music be kicked off not by an MC, but a DJ.

The legendary Grandmaster Flash got the party started at Los Angeles’ Arena performing classics “Flash to the Beat” and “The Message,” showing that the DJ remains the backbone of hip-hop culture and is very much alive — a notion that the renowned DJ Clark Kent certainly believes.

“The death of [the DJ]? Nah, man,” Kent tells Pollstar. “It’s about how you keep yourself in the game.”

Kent has managed to keep himself in the game since the inception of hip-hop in New York during the early 1970s. He grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, listening to Motown records using his grandmother’s stereo system. By the time he was 11 years old, he learned how to DJ and managed to land what he refers to as the biggest gig of his life: Jamming with Grandmaster Flowers at Lincoln Terrace Park in front of 400 people.

“The feeling I got from it made me want to do it forever,” he says. “It becomes part of your fiber. I played that park jam, and I went home and told my grandmother, ‘I’m going to be a DJ forever.’”

Hip-hop was born from these events from DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, who laid the foundation of the culture’s music with their turntables and innovative techniques such as isolating records and extending percussion breaks to keep the dancefloor vibrant, and that’s how one of the other pillars of hip-hop — breakdancing — came to be as an expressive art form.

“We couldn’t afford instruments. We had turntables,” Kent says. “So, we took pieces of records to make it cool. We were dancing on cardboard. We weren’t singers, we were talking to the crowds, talking rhythmically. Rhythm and poetry — rap. … Out of desperation comes beauty. Hip-hop could have only started in New York because we were people in desperate situations, and when you’re in desperate situations, you take the smallest of things and make beauty. You take whatever clothing you had, and you make it cool. You take whatever music you had and make it cool.”

Since the 1970s, the culture has not only remained intact but is as cool as ever with many of the music industry’s biggest stars being rap artists. In the early days of hip-hop, it was the DJ’s name on the marquee, not the MC, drawing hundreds and thousands to events.

“When you went to clubs, you didn’t see the Furious Five. You saw Grandmaster Flash AND the Furious Five,” Kent says.

So, what changed? Capitalism.

“When money came into play, that’s when things started to become compartmentalized,” Kent says. “That’s when they pulled the rap part away, and they used the rap part because music is entertainment, and people will buy entertainment. … Commercially, the rapper gets to shine. That’s fine, the rapper’s doing the rapping, so that means the DJ has to make sure he gets his moments.”

DJs found ways to continue thriving in the music industry by producing records of their own or collaborating with MCs all while working at clubs and arenas. To this day, DJs remain a big draw at music festivals.

“It might seem like a resurgence, but the good DJs didn’t lose their spot,” says Kent, who produced Jay-Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt and worked with Notorious B.I.G. “You never stopped hearing Grandmaster Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Clark Kent or Funkmaster Flex. The guys who didn’t let their careers slow down because they didn’t have a rapper, their star never stopped shining.”

Kent maintains his shine the only way he knows how: By minding his own business, continuing to study his craft and searching for new music not only to entertain the crowd but to educate them.

“A true DJ teaches the audience,” says Kent, who owns more than 200,000 records. “I study my craft to give a good performance and have people walk away and say, ‘That mother fucker is special.’ That is my goal every single time I hit the turntables.”