The Community of Groove: How DJs, Emcees and the Crowd Rock as One

There are many things I love about going to live hip hop shows at small clubs where a DJ and an Emcee are working to groove a Crowd.

And one of those things I love the most is getting lost in the groove of the moment.

But I know that moment of groove-induced escape doesn’t just happen.

There’s something else that creates it.

There’s something else going on that dynamically brings us all together.

I recently had a groove-induced moment when I felt as one with the Crowd during a show with Common, The Roots and Heavy D at the Shrine.

During shows like that I take a moment to step outside of myself and I close my eyes for just a few seconds to feel the energy of the music and everyone moving and grooving all around me.

Then I open my eyes and look around at everyone else moving to the music.

Then I get an inspiring buzz in my heart that goes straight to my mind and I start to wonder…

What makes us all get lost together in the groove…?

Is it the DJ’s deft ability to study the Crowd’s body language, feel their emotions and then adjust the beats on the fly to match, or even change the Crowd’s mood?

Then I look to the one holding the mic and wonder…

What role does the Emcee play?

Is he/she simply a human volume dial only designed to get us to “make some noise?”

Or should emcees be true masters of the ceremony and act as dynamic emotional connectors between the DJ and the Crowd?

Those questions could lead us into a wider discussion on hip hop club culture.

But I’m not taking us there right now.

We’re going to keep the microscope nice and close so we can understand the dynamic Community of Groove between the DJ, Emcee and the Crowd.

How are we going to do this?

We’re going to do a Live Fix Experiment that combines two elements.

1)  A quote from one of my favorite music books Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. It’s a brilliantly comprehensive book written by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton that chronicles the history of the modern DJ. It’s a book that deserves to be studied,  highlighted and read over and over. If it’s not already, it should be used to teach a DJ or hip hop class and be required reading for any DJs, emcees or fans who want to learn the historical roots of modern DJ culture.

2) A live concert review from my friend and fellow music journalist Moira McCormick as she tells the story of what when down when Chicago rapper Rita J, Detroit’s Guilty Simpson and others did worked the Crowd during the Bring the Beat Back Showcase at the Dark Room in Chicago.

And whether you’re a fan, a beatmaker, emcee, writer or producer, I invite you to come along and discover what makes us all groove together.

But before we get grooving, here’s a few helpful instructions for you:


Consider this post an organic and blogified mixtape where you can add your own rhymes in the form of your thoughts and suggestions. Got a rhyme to illustrate your thought? Go ahead and share it in the comments below.


Like a jazzy Bob James or funky James Brown track, please sample any thoughts. And like a mental remix, I invite you spin the Experiment in new directions and use your live show experiences to send the discussion down unexpected paths.


I know we all love being caught up in the groove during a transcendent hip hop show or DJ set. So you can make some real noise here on Live Fix by sharing your hip hop, house, rap or dance show experiences, too.  Most of all, I hope you begin to discover why we look towards the DJ and Emcee to lift us to higher ground once when we enter the club.

Last Night A DJ Saved My Life

The quote I want to share with you comes from British DJ Norman Cook (AKA Fat Boy Slim) as he talks about the role of the DJ/Producer/Remixer.

“Most DJs become DJs because they love music, and if you love music you feel you have some of it in you waiting to come out…When you’re DJing, you spend untold hours just standing watching people dance. And you begin to realize which bits of record people react to and which bits get them going. You just learn what makes people dance. And this experience translates easily into inspiration for remixing and production.”

Cook is talking about many DJ/Producer elements that go beyond the live club show.

But I love it when he alludes to the fact that the best DJ’s “learn what makes people dance” because he’s talking about an ability that only the best DJs possess.

He’s talking about the DJ’s ability to study the Crowd’s response to the music and instinctly use what he feels, or sees, to pick specific combinations of beats and rhytms that will build on the emotional vibe or increase the Crowd’s physical and psychological “groove.”

And though he doesn’t mention them outright, I think Cook would agree that the same “studying the Crowd” ability is a necessary skill for any Emcee who wants to be more than just a noise-making hypeman.

That said, it makes perfect sense that all three groups—the DJ, Emcee and the Crowd—are dynamically dependent on each other during the show. We need all three to be in sync to create that “groove” we love so much.

And when all three are in sync, the “Community of Groove” gets created. And each time the groove gets passed around, from the DJ to the emcee to Crowd, the Community gets tighter. And that’s what we get love to get lost in.

But does the Community always groove together?

We all know that no two DJs and Emcees approach their live show the same.  They all have dynamic differences in style and personality that makes each show unique. That’s what makes each show so exciting and interesting. We get to see how each DJ or Emcee approaches their live show.  And it’s their level of emotional and real-time sociological skill, that Cook mentions, that ultimately determines if the DJ or Emcee can create the Community of Groove.

And as you read Moira’s review you’ll see the unique approach of each DJ/Emcee when she quotes rapper Black Spade and shows us the interactions between Rita J, Guilty Simpson and the others.

Most of all, as her review unfolds, we as readers get to determine if the Community of Groove was created between the DJs, the Emcees and the Crowd at Darkroom that night.

Chicago rapper Rita J (of the veteran hip-hop collective All Natural’s Family Tree crew), whose deft rhymes and piquant observations have spiced the local hip-hop menu for much of the decade, launched her new CD Artist Workshop Nov. 14 at the Darkroom. Miss Jackson appeared alongside a bevy of Midwestern cohorts – Detroit’s Guilty Simpson, St. Louis’ Black Spade, and her All Natural/Family Tree colleagues Tone B. Nimble and Mr. Greenweedz among them – in the kickoff of a new bi-monthly Darkroom series, Bring That Beat Back.

The congenial Ukrainian Village bar, whose black and red décor plays off a photo-development theme, was at first lightly-thronged on this Saturday in mid-November, but became more populous as night ripened. Nigel Ridgeway, aka DJ Trew (one of several Chicago turntablists who took turns manning the ones and twos) said Bring That Beat Back “aims to showcase Chicago hip-hop artists on the verge of going national in 2010, as well as those making progress locally.” Ridgeway’s company Ground Lift Media produces the event, about which, he adds, “Soulful, progressively-minded, and true school are a few adjectives we use” to characterize what BTBB offers.

First up were increasingly renowned, intriguing Chicago beatmakers Radius and Scott Free, who top-billed a producers’ showcase – egged on by the evening’s host, MC 5th Element – before Black Spade took the stage.

The rapper-producer had his warmup work cut out for him – “It’s like bible class in here,” Black Spade cracked in reference to the still-sparse crowd’s stillness – but by set’s end, he’d wrested a respectable reaction.

Rita J took over with the breezy élan of someone just named to URB magazine’s up-and-comers list, “25 Now” (which hailed Rita’s “gritty, realistic and soulfully sedated rhymes.”) Backed by DJ Tone B., and abetted by sparkplug MC Greenweedz, lovely Rita served up Artist Workshop as a chewy combination of frolicsome and foundational. (Both qualities were especially abundant in “Inconspicuous,” a wryly catchy, humorous ode to nonconformity.)

Sounding somewhat higher-pitched live than she does recorded – which rather increased her already party-sized supply of verve – Rita worked her smooth-staccato flow with guest turns from Black Spade and Stones Throw artist Guilty Simpson, both of whom reprised their cameos from Artist Workshop.

Black Spade crooned the moody minor-key hook for “Listen” (“Just listen to the words I say”);the burly, bearded Simpson kicked in on “Outlasted,” Rita’s triumphant tip-of-the-hat to her own perseverance: “Save the best till last, Rita J outlasted these other bastards.”

Simpson, chiming in with, “I’m still here, but I gotta knock on wood,” remained onstage. Then, accompanied by DJ Sean Doe, Simpson segued into a pugnacious set of his own, pure eau de thug with glints of poetry (“In these dark days I can separate clouds…”)

A longtime associate of Motor City genius Jay Dee, Simpson paid frequent homage to the late beatmeister, at one point exhorting the crowd, “Say D-troit I to the L-L-A.” Declaring, “I celebrate Dilla every time I grace the stage,” Simpson lurched into the muscular raunch of “Baby,” a Dilla track on which Simpson guested with Madlib in 2006.

“I represent when hip-hop didn’t give a shit about the dancing and the glittery outfits,” Simpson proclaimed, near his set’s conclusion. “Crazy shit gonna be with us forever; I’m the balance.”

As the Experiment continues…

I wonder what sort of new beats were created in the minds of the beatmakers/producers Radius, Scott Free and others as they studied the Crowd’s groove.

I wonder what Rita J and Guilty Simpson learned as they felt the emotions of the Crowd.

I wonder if the Crowd left feeling like they were a part of the Community of Groove.

Much thanks to Roper and Ground Lift Media for the photos.

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