The Technics 1200 — Hammer Of The Gods [XXL, Fall 1998]
“Once Technics came out with the 1200 then that was it. It was designed for what we do.”
— Grandwizard Theodore, inventor of the scratch
There are milestones in everyone’s professional life. For pro ballers, it might be winning that first big playoff game. For an actor, it’s being nominated for your first Grammy award. But what about for DJs? That’s easy: getting your first pair of Technics SL-1200s.
In most fields, there is fierce competition between the name brands that the top bananas use, whether it be about laptop computers or the car you drive to the Indy 500. But in the wild world of the cut and the scratch, there is really only one choice. The dominance of the Technics brand is, interestingly enough, reliant not upon crafty marketing schemes or well-placed publicity. They rule solely upon the strength of the product’s design and its almost unreal durability.
The SL-1200 is nowhere near the only model out there. It’s a plateau — a peak that you work towards, physically, mentally and monetarily. Not one world-class DJ out there started on a 1200, although most have used Technics for their entire career. Only after dominating other, lower-level models did the greats (Grandmaster Flash, Grandwizard Theodore, Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, DJ A.J., Charlie Chase, Grandmixer DXT aka D. ST and Cash Money, to name a few) step up to the final stage of DJ mastery.
The SL-1200 was designed for the Osaka, Japan-based Matsushita company (Technics’ parent company) in 1971 with a team led by engineer Shuici Obata. The major achievement of the turntable itself was (and still is) the fact that it is “direct-driven.” Older belt-driven and rim-driven models had certain problems — a slow start-up time, and they were more prone to wear-and-tear and breakage — and the 1200 was meant to fix all that. First released onto the market in 1972, a classic was born. And while some time passed before it took hold among club and hip-hop DJs, when it did, it was for good. As Philly’s DJ Cash Money relates, “It was like heaven when I got my first 1200’s. It was like, ‘These turntables were meant for me.’” Fellow DMC world battle champ Roc Raida (of New York’s X-Ecutioners), who himself owns a pair of gold 1200s given to him by Technics, concurs: “The 1200 is just the perfect turntable. They’re the pinnacle for a DJ to have.”
Originally designed for audiophile home use and radio stations, by the mid-1970s Obata (who traveled on research trips to the United States twice by 1978) soon realized that record jocks at discotheques were also using the new decks. The advent of cut-and-scratch perfection was still slowly creeping its way into the mainstream, but the world was beginning to hear about Technics. The result of Obata’s on-site disco research was 1979’s SL-1200MK2, a modified version of the original 1200 which had a better start-up speed, more vibration-absorbent material, a sliding “fader” for the pitch control, and quartz control for pinpoint start-and-stop accuracy.
The first non-club, non-radio DJ to make direct-drive technology popular was DJ Kool Herc, the man who invented hip-hop with his bare hands. To this day, Herc’s turntables are the stuff of myth among those who saw him in action. As DXT recalls, “Kool Herc had some industrial turntables with huge bases and big giant feet on them. Nobody had turntables like him.” Using ultra-expensive, imported Thorens decks (said to cost $1,000 each), Herc finessed these monolithic cutting machines in front of his booming “Herculords” speakers to blow away all competition. It was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Grandwizard Theodore, who used Herc’s Thorens decks on many occasions, confirms their larger-than-life status: “Technics were the Mercedes-Benz, but Thorens were like the Lambourghini of turntables. Nobody knew the model number except for Herc, because I have never known anybody else on planet Earth who has owned a pair of them.” Herc’s non-Technics direct-drive decks were no doubt menacing, but there was a practical side to his use of new technology as well, which would take the rest of the DJ world several years to catch up to.
Oddly, although the Technics SL-1200s (and their predecessor, the SL-1100) had been available since 1972, throughout the 1970’s Herc was one of the only Bronx warriors to utilize the direct-drive system. Even as they approached the height of their popularity DJs like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Grandwizard Theodore were using Technics belt-drive turntables such as the SL-210 and SL-2300. It was simply a matter of habit. They had gotten so good on the models they had learned on (which also included the relatively primitive Technics B-101 and SLB-200), that they saw no reason to switch up to the SL-1200. Once they got a taste of the good life that the 1200 provided to a DJ, though, there was no turning back.
Second-and-third-generation DJs experienced similar technological ladder-climbing, eventually working their way up. As Mixmaster Mike of San Francisco’s Invisibl Skratch Piklz crew recalls, he got one whiff of fellow bay area DJ Apollo’s 1200’s and immediately started doing house parties and weddings to get his own. “Then I was in paradise,” he beams. Cash Money started on Technics B-101’s in 1980; Roc Raida (who began cutting at the tender age of 10) on Technics SL-210's in 1981; Mixmaster Mike on SLB-200's in 1985.
As Grandmixer DXT points out, an important reason for many a DJs switching was a direct result of the popularity of hip-hop DJing at the time. As the art of cutting became more in-demand and started heading downtown from the Bronx, the clubs that DJs were now headlining — such as the Roxy and Broadway International — had the SL-1200MK2 as standard equipment. DXT explains, “The 1200 was forced on us actually, when we were going into the bigger clubs. There was no choice.” It was a matter of adapting to the new way of spinning or staying uptown, where the cash wasn’t as thick and the exposure wasn’t as flashy or alluring.
On the technical tip, the quick start-up time of the 1200 line is what is most important to most of the DJs who use them. As DXT explains, “The torque and the weight of the 1200 turntable are the most important things. They can take more abuse than the 210s could.” Direct drive tables place the motor directly up against the platter itself, eliminating many shortcomings that frequently occur with belt-drive tables. Secondary to this is the stability and solidness of the turntable itself. Weighing several pounds, the casing itself is made of aluminum diecast and molded rubber, designed to reduce most vibrations, which can lead to feedback from low-end tones coming back through the needle. This sturdiness also makes 1200s the hardest decks to skip. Short of stomping on the turntable, it’s damn tough to get it out of its groove. Cash Money relates, “When I touched a 1200 I could feel the difference immediately. It just doesn’t jump. And I was even trying to make it jump!”
The dominance of Technics among club and battle DJs isn’t something that can be explained by marketing savvy — the company is embarrassingly derelict in promoting itself to the practitioners who have made the tables famous. DXT, who can be credited with giving the scratch DJ its first major international exposure, performing worldwide as DJ for Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning “Rockit” Band in the early ’80s, has never once been contacted by the company. “We kept Technics alive and after 20 years they’ve never even called once,” he intones. Other world-class DJs, including Cash Money and Mixmaster Mike, have similar stories. Grandwizard Theodore, who praises the SL-1200 on technical merits until the cows come home, says “They should give Herc, Bambaataa, Flash and myself each a pair of gold 1200s, because we have used their turntables for all these years. I know the product speaks for itself, but they should give something back.” Kool Herc refused to be interviewed for this piece because he did not wish to help Technics in any way as repayment of their indifference over the years.
For better or worse, it’s a matter of the product being so good that you can’t help but use it. Add to the fact that important DJ competitions like the DMC and ITF use 1200s as standard equipment for all battles and there’s no way around it. Other market competitors such as Gemini and NuMark (who are more popular in the DJ mixer arena) are straight-up second-tier models, mostly used by beginners and non-competitive DJs. Vestax, a newer Japanese company with a smarter marketing and sponsorship plan (including current deals with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and X-Ecutioners), may give Technics trouble in the future, but they have some very heavy habits to break first.
The reported 1.8 million 1200’s out there on the market (most sold in pairs) add up to almost one million happy DJs worldwide. DJ culture owes a great debt to Technics, whose technological advances have given dexterous and inventive DJs the tools they have needed to bring the next shit to frothing hip-hop fans on the regular. But Technics owes just as much to these DJs, who have supported the company despite a seeming lack of interest in the artists that have made their product a household name. If rumors of cheaper “1200 clone” turntables creeping onto the market in the near future are indeed true, Technics’ past promotional blunders may very well come back to haunt them: technological loyalty is indeed high among turntablists, but brand loyalty may not be. And sponsorship money can certainly change a wax magician’s mind pretty quickly, especially if the clones are as good as people are saying.
Only time will tell if the 1200 will continue to rule the DJ world as we all spin towards the next millennium. But Roc Raida (one of the world’s only DJs sponsored by Technics) echoes what most DJs across the world seemingly still feel: “I’ll keep using 1200’s no matter what. They’re just *that* good. There’s nothing wrong, so why fix them?”
For more information about Brian Coleman and his journalistic work, visit www.BrianColemanBooks.com.