The creation of heroes has been important for American society. Heroes help define what it means to be an American, produce narratives about our collective historical past, stabilize our cultural surroundings, and represent the best of what we want our culture to be. The inventor is one of many cultural images that enable Americans to communicate about a common American origin, identity, and purpose. This has made inventors powerful and authoritative ambassadors of American technological creativity.
During Black History Month we often turn to African Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to connect with this inventive heroism. Yet when we focus on earlier periods, we often overlook today's inventors and innovators, who are forging paths in areas well beyond traditional realms. In the field of music, for example, African Americans have been tremendously innovative with technology.
Most people are familiar with the innovative way African Americans have used musical instruments to create the genre of jazz. The performances of artists such as Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, among many others, would not have been possible without black musicians innovating the way instruments like the piano and saxophone were used.
More recently, hip-hop musicians have innovated the ways turntables and vinyl records have been used. One example is DJs and the act of scratching. Scratching is the purposeful, manual manipulation of a long-playing (LP) recording in the reverse direction of the spinning turntable to produce a "scratching" noise. Depending on the speed, the duration, and the music already inscribed on the LP, scratching can produce a plethora of sounds. When DJs began scratching, they subverted the fundamental purpose of record players and LPs. This basic maneuver drastically diverges from the principal use associated with records and record players: to listen to pre-recorded sound/music. Therefore, DJs could rethink the way they used the technology based on their own black/ethnic musical sensibilities.
The sonic and cultural priorities that led these musicians to innovate new uses for listening equipment began to exert a broader influence as the popularity of hip-hop music exploded in the 1980s and 1990s. Initially, existing technology did not produce desired sounds. Musicians like Herbie Hancock, who embraced the tonal flexibility of synthesizers, would often have to "hack" (alter) them to produce sounds like those exhibited in his Grammy award-winning single "Rockit."
As hip-hop became an important part of American culture, the electronics industry embraced the technological tweaks of early hip-hop. DJ legend and hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash was instrumental in creating a set of new technological objects and practices that incorporated black cultural interests. For example, in 2002 the Rane Corporation, a leading manufacturer of DJ equipment, introduced the Empath mixer. Grandmaster Flash played a key role in this device's design. He presented Rane design engineer Rick Jeffs with a series of technical challenges that would extend his performance capabilities. Many of the suggestions pushed Rane's team to its technical limits. But through the collaborative efforts of Rane's innovative engineering and Grandmaster Flash's musical creativity, they produced an amazing new device. Grandmaster Flash and Rick Jeff brought together technology and black musical styles to extend the limits of technology and expand the ways black cultural priorities influence technological design and innovation.
Grandmaster Flash has also talked about testing turntable needles, experimenting with sound, and developing the quick mix theory (blending one music break with another), illustrating that for African Americans, technological innovation has been an important means of expression. African American innovation has changed technology just as much as technology has shaped African American culture.
--Rayvon Fouché is associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson (2005).
Banner image above: Grandmaster Flash's turntable, mixer, and copy of "Bustin' Loose"; Fab 5 Freddy's photo and boom box. © Smithsonian National Museum of American History; photo by Hugh Talman.