Hip-hop and everything it has influenced—from electronic dance music to modern pop and R&B—wouldn’t be the same without one extraordinary tool: the Technics SL-1200 turntable and its powerful direct-drive motor.
Introduced in 1972 but perfected with 1979’s MK2 version, the 1200’s unique design made turntable techniques possible. Pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, breakbeat inventor Kool Herc, and scratching trailblazer Grand Wizard Theodore made it the go-to deck for DJ culture, first in their ’70s South Bronx street jams and then in the downtown Manhattan clubs, where hip-hop gained widespread attention.
"IT HAD THE MOST SPEED STABILITY, AND SUPERIOR PACE AND RHYTHM TO SIMILARLY PRICED BELT-DRIVEN TURNTABLES."
In 1969, Shuichi Obata of Technics’ parent company, Matsushita (now Panasonic), designed the SP-10, the first turntable powered by a direct-drive motor instead of a rotating belt. When Obata perfected his direct-drive technology with the first 1200 a couple of years later, he didn’t have hip-hop DJs in mind—they didn’t exist yet. But the genre’s early innovators soon developed moves made possible by the 1200’s high-torque direct drive. With no breaking belts to worry about and virtually no lag in startup time, the turntable freed DJs to follow their instincts and start building the tools of their trade: the scratching, backspinning, breakbeats, and more.
“You need a pretty strong motor to move a record back and forth without slowing down the platter,” says producer, DJ, and Fools Gold Records cofounder A-Trak. The 1200’s direct drive did just that. Steve Cohen of New York City audio shop In Living Stereo adds that the 1200’s torque got it back up to speed faster than others. “It had the most speed stability, and superior pace and rhythm to similarly priced belt-driven turntables,” he said.
By 1979, Obata was working with New York DJs to make the 1200 MK2 even more of a mix magician’s friend. While the earlier model had an evenness of speed that made it ultra-accurate, the MK2 allowed users to bypass that automatic speed regulation using a pitch-control slider. That made it easier for DJs to alter one record’s speed and sync it with another, perfecting the foundational technique of beatmatching.
And the MK2’s molded rubber– insulated, die-cast aluminum body made it less vulnerable to vibrations, feedback, or breaking in two. This was invaluable to DJs heading into the battleground of a live performance. “It’s built like a tank,” says A-Trak.
Technics introduced a dozen updates of the 1200, but Panasonic discontinued analog turntables in 2010, perceiving lower demand for vinyl. But after outraged DJs collected 27,000 signatures on a petition to bring the 1200 back, Panasonic relented, resurfacing the 1200 in 2016 and releasing another update in 2019, the MK7.
It’s been 50 years since Obata developed the direct-drive turntable. Its legacy is a profound one, and versions of the first 1200 are still the instrument of choice among top DJs. “The 1200 still plays a huge role in turntablism,” says A-Trak.