The Turntable Hip-Hop Made Famous Has Scratched The Culture That Built It
The Technics 1200s turntable is one of the tools of the Hip-Hop trade. Introduced in October of 1972, the SL-1200 has grown step-by-step with the musical culture credited with a birthday less than one year apart (August 11, 1973). Over the years, more than three-million units have sold, many in pairs belonging to DJs in Hip-Hop, House, Disco, Techno, and other genres. As Rap stepped to the forefront of Hip-Hop culture, by the mid-1980s, even MCs could not overlook the importance of the high-torque, magnetic platters with the S-shaped tone-arm. On “Ego Trippin’,” Kool Keith name-checked the direct drive hi-fi player as far back as 1986. A Tribe Called Quest (“Clap Your Hands”), EPMD (“Funky Piano”), and Beastie Boys (“Unite”) all followed. Put bluntly, Jam Master Jay’s turntables might wobble, but those records rarely skipped thanks to a high-dollar turntable that looked as built to last as the records it rotated.
That love affair (and its six modernized iterations) lasted through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and the 2000s. In November of 2010, Technics (which had since been purchased by Panasonic) announced its cease in production. While Panasonic vowed to maintain releasing Technics headphones, the turntables were facing extinction.
Panasonic released a statement on the DMC (Disco Mix Club) website, including this excerpt: “We are sure that retailers and consumers will understand that our product range has to reflect the accelerating transformation of the entire audio market from analogue to digital. In addition, the number of component suppliers serving the analogue market has dwindled in recent years and we brought forward the decision to leave the market rather than risk being unable to fulfill future orders because of a lack of parts.”
An outcry, especially within the Hip-Hop community, followed. After petitions accumulated more than 25,000 signatures, Panasonic responded in late 2015, confirming plans to resume production. In January of 2016 the Technics SL-1200G and the SL-1200GAE were announced, and began launch. The rebirth aligned with a massive resurgence of vinyl sales, with some data tracing the medium back to its glory years.
One year later, The New York Times profiled Panasonic, Technics’s parent company in Japan. There, it appears the brand and its franchise product are distancing themselves from grandmasters, mixmasters, and all DJs. “Our concept is analog records for hi-fi listening,” Hiro Morishita told the newspaper. He is a creative director in the Technics department. “DJ’s are fine, too, but as a marketing target it’s problematic. We don’t want to sell the 1200 as the best tool for DJing. The 1200 is the 1200.”
“For all their passion, Panasonic calculated, the SL-1200’s core customers were not numerous enough, or rich enough, to make reviving the Technics brand financially worthwhile. It needed to reach wealthy, older audiophiles who would spend extravagantly on gear — not only the turntable, but also the amplifier, speakers and other equipment that the company markets alongside it,” writes journalist Jonathan Soble. While Hip-Hop Heads (and Dance music Heads too, for that matter) can buy Technics merchandise, or splurge on its headphones, they appear to be priced out by marketing the departments associated with the turntable that turns 45 years old later this year.
Even in the Technics boutique listening room, there are no Rap or Hip-Hop records. The brand who once took the needs and desires of DJs into its consideration (and addressed in advertising) fancies itself in an audiophile’s paradise with ’70s Soft Rock smash “Hotel California” by The Eagles on the deck, as Soble observes. However, aside from some motor tweaks, the product itself is reportedly the same as it ever was.
“Listening to records is like tea ceremony, or flower arranging,” said Michiko Ogawa, director of the Technics division. The brand hired a Classical pianist, Alice Sara Ott, to be Technics’s Global Brand Ambassador. Meanwhile, competitors such as NuMark/Gemini and Vestax have traditionally aligned with DJs such as Q-Bert, who NYT spoke to in understanding the turntable’s significance.
DJ Jazzy Jeff is a Technics owner who is not pleased or surprised. The Grammy Award-winning former DMC champion says that this is the latest pace away from Hip-Hop by Technics. “They never really gave support to the DJ community,” he wrote during the relaunch campaign, via a January 6, 2016 Facebook post.
QBert, who won four back-to-back DMC World Championships (three with Beastie Boys’s DJ and fellow Invisibl Skratch Piklz member Mixmaster Mike) between 1991 and 1994 says the re-release of the Technics 1200 is not felt in his DJ circle. “I don’t know anyone who’s bought the new one,” the San Francisco, California native tells The Times. “It seems like it’s mostly for collectors.”
J. Rocc, a member of JayLib and the World Famous Beat Junkies, was one of the Hip-Hop DJs who worked with Technics in the past, evident in this marketing video:
Collectors may be the only ones who can afford these turntables, of which only 20 are made per day. Panasonic does not publicize its sales figures, but confirmed that the first run of 300 units sold within 30 minutes of being made available. Those tables are approximately $3,000, a far cry from its three-figure beginnings (and pricing as recently as the late 1990s).
Previously, non-electronic brands have intentionally distanced themselves from Hip-Hop culture and Rap music. Following reigning lyric endorsements by Jay Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, and Big L, winemaker Louis Roederer’s Managing Director Frederic Rouzaud dismissed the brand recognition of Cristal in lyrics. “What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business,” he said to The Economist in 2006. Jay Z, arguably the biggest endorser of the champagne, responded by removing the label from his clubs and lyrics. Jay, who had previously been in the liquor business, acquired Armand de Brignac (aka “Ace of Spades”), a premium champagne of his own. While sales data is unavailable, Cristal’s popularity in Hip-Hop immediately gave way to competitors, including Armand de Brignac.
Back in consumer audio, records keep spinning, especially in Hip-Hop. However, based on who they market to, and how they present the history, Panasonic and Technics may have taken Hip-Hop out with the fader.
#BonusBeat: The 1995 DMC World Finals, featuring QBert & Mixmaster Mike’s tandem routine:
This features Technics 1200 turntables, and some classic Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and more.