These are the movies I watched when I first fell in love with DJing as a teenager in the early 2000s. I just missed the 90s underground rave scene. Any concept I had of the artform strictly came from my imagination or a handful of pre-blog websites and forums.
These films were my first connection to a musical lineage outside of Lake Zurich, Illinois. They gave perspective to what I was doing and influenced how I wanted to do it. They made me proud in a way that wasn’t always accessible when playing records for drunk people.
Below is my list of essential films every DJ should watch to understand the artform and the cultures that gave birth to it. Together, they are a bonafide DJ curriculum. If you watch them, you’ll know more about this craft than 98% of people today. Enjoy.
A Tale of Two Beats
DJing comes from 2 lineages – hip hop and house. Both paths trace back to 1970s New York counterculture. Born on opposite sides of the city, they grew up side by side and criss-crossed countless times as they took over global popular culture over the next 40 years.
These films are best understood with respect to these 2 stories – hip hop and house. You’ll find this curriculum arranged accordingly.
Quick Note: Tip Your Local Filmmaker
I’ve tried to find the best previews available of every film below. Most are available in full online. That said, these films aren’t free. Each one took years and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars to make.
Where possible, I’ve included a link to an official version where you can buy or rent each movie for a reasonable price. Support the creators and help them make more great stuff for us.
History of Disco, House & Dance Music
Chicago’s import of New York’s disco gave birth to house music. Disco, born in decrepit early-70s downtown Manhattan, was an escape for its LGBT youth at risk of violence elsewhere. It was a home for outsiders, many of whom had been thrown out of their real homes.
The spirit of house has always been something of a spiritual one. Masses of misfits, united on a dance floor, losing themselves in uplifting music, dancing their problems away. It would transform again into modern rave culture when it came to the UK in the 80s and spread throughout the world.
Support: Get the DVD
Maestro tells the story of early 70s New York disco. Featuring its pioneering founders, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles, the film focusses on the original maestro, Larry Levan. A time capsule into Levan’s Paradise Garage, the original modern nightclub, the film consists of some of the era’s rarest archival footage and interviews with countless legends who are no longer alive.
2. Paris is Burning
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Paris is Burning is not a movie about DJing. It’s a movie about the LGBT scene that disco emerged from. Released in 1990, it’s packed with quotes and visuals that have since permeated modern popular culture. It’s a deeper dive into the social/cultural context of Maestro’s musical story.
3. Pump up the volume: A History of House Music
Pump Up the Volume picks up where Maestro leaves off. Frankie Knuckles brought disco to Chicago where it became house. The film then follows house’s escape from dark clubs in the US to large fields in the UK, where it finds a global audience and gives rise to modern rave culture.
4. Real Scenes
Real Scenes is a documentary series that offers an intimate look into the modern scenes of culturally pivotal cities like Detroit, New York, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and more. It captures a world where house music is global, but focusses on those aspects that are most uniquely local. It’s refreshingly current, spending little time on nostalgia, speaking to artists about the challenges and opportunities in creating and spreading electronic music in every corner of the world.
Here are a few of our favorites. You can watch the rest here.
History of Hip Hop
10 miles from downtown, New York’s impoverished South Bronx would give life to its own movement, hip hop. Four interrelated artforms, DJing, MCing, b-boying and graffiti, would emerge as a highly competitive alternative to pervasive gang violence.
Although uplifting like disco, the spirit of hip hop was not to get lost in the music, but to shine as brightly above it as possible. An alternative to physical violence, hip hop never lost its aggressive edge. Defined by battling and cultivating skill, hip hop quickly gave rise to some of the most formative innovations in modern music, dance and art.
5. Style Wars
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On its face, Style Wars is a documentary about graffiti. In reality, it’s a time machine to the early days of hip hop. Filmed in 1983, before Run DMC collaborated with Aerosmith, before Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince won a Grammy, before Eric B ran for president, Style Wars documents the early days of hip hop so carefully that its creators must have foreseen its world takeover in the following years.
6. Wild Style
Wild Style may be hip hop’s greatest cult classic. Not a proper documentary, but close enough. The film is a slice of life of Zoro, a fictional graffiti writer played by now famous artist Lee, as he grows up amongst the 4 elements of hip hop. Zoro encounters a cast of legends in Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash and more as he tries has to make a name for himself.
Scratch is the turntablism documentary of record. A production of the 2000s, it traces the evolution of hip hop DJing from Afrika Bambaataa to the 90s explosion of turntablism with DJ Shadow, Mix Master Mike, Z-trip, Qbert, The X-ecutioners and more. It covers DJing as a lifestyle, from record digging, to party rocking, to battling and using the turntable as an instrument. Scratch may have singlehandedly caused the destruction of more records than any movie in history.
8. Freestyle the art of rhyme
Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme is more than a documentary about freestyle rap, it’s about jazz, improvisation and the skill of spontaneous self expression that has always defined hip hop. From renowned MCs like Biggie and Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) to underground legends like Supernatural and MC Juice, the film shows freestyling as a method of creating community while elevating yourself in it.
9. Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap
Unlike the skill of spontaneous freestyle, The Art of Rap is about the composition and content of the written rhyme. As Treach of Naughty by Nature says, “a lot of MCs say they don’t write their rhymes down – and it sounds like it.” Directed and hosted by West Coast pioneer Ice T, The Art of Rap is a deep dive into language, storytelling, and the life experiences that shape rap lyrics.
10. Deep Crates
Deep Crates is a 2-part documentary series dedicated to the art of record digging as it defined the sound of golden-era hip hop. The lifeforce of all sampled music is the original record, whether you’re rocking a party or chopping it up for a beat. Dedicated to J Dilla, the film meets with every pioneering DJ and producer to discuss the digger’s role as an explorer, historian and preserver of culture.
Here is Deep Crates 2.
11. Adult Rappers
Support: Watch or Download HD Online
A 2015 release, Adult Rappers meets with the who’s who of independent hip hop artists to discuss the non-glamorous and often unsustainable life of being an underground legend. Neither optimistic nor pessimistic, it tells the honest story of the artists many of us grew up with, but who struggled to pay their bills with our praise. Frankly, it’s the story of most working DJs as well.
Rhythm Roulette is an incredible series from Nas’s Mass Appeal based on a simple premise – blindfold a world-class producer, have him/her pick three records at random and make a beat by sampling them. It’s an inspiring view into just how many music creation workflows and approaches there are as well as the creative process of many of the greatest producers alive.
Here’s one of our favorites. Watch the full series here.
Only Love (Blatant plug. We made this.)
Earlier this year, we were sick of our heroes dropping like flies and the divisiveness around us. The DJ Hookup teamed up with award winning dj, SLEEPER, to create something beautiful that would bring people together. The result was Only Love, a mixfilm that blended SLEEPER’s acclaimed technical mixing with a seamless cinematic experience. The response has been and continues to be humbling.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton
Support: Watch HD Online
I intentionally avoided films about individual artists/labels, but Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, the story of Stones Throw records deserves a special mention. Stones Throw is the story of birth, death (literally) and rebirth, over and over again. The label that brought us Madlib, MF Doom, J Dilla’s solo work and Aloe Blacc deserves special mention as it’s learned to adapt and recreate itself repeatedly in a rapidly changing world.
Red Bull Music Academy
Red Bull Music Academy is a series of intimate long form conversation with the many of the greatest modern producers, DJs and creators. A TED for modern music, featuring everyone from Nicky Siano, to DJ Premier and MIA.
Here’s a classic with our friend, Chicago house pioneer, Ron Trent. Watch the full series here.
We hope this post lets you revisit old favorites and discover new ones. What films influenced you? If you think there are any other essentials we missed, tell us in the comments below and we may include them. If you’re an educator, tell us what other resources would help your students.
As always, please share with another DJ if you dig.