Music: Itching to turn the tables

You'll need two turntables, a sack of vinyl and a `highly evolved wrist action' before you can put yourself on the cutting edge of new music. Yet the art of scratch mixing, or `turntablism', has its roots in a place you'd never think to look.

Martin James
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:52

THE NOISE of a record deck being manhandled, the abrasive sound of music disrupted by sleight of hand, the stuttering rhythm of phonetic repetition... It was 16 years ago that an unsuspecting public was first exposed to scratch mixing through Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Girls" and "D'You Like Scratchin'?". For many, it represented little more than a disposable gimmick. However, for the nation's nascent b-boys, this was a skill to be acquired; for DJs everywhere, it was an injunction to "K- k-k-keep scratchin'".

Just as the previous generation had marvelled at the fret-work of Jimi Hendrix, the 1980s hip-hop generation came to idolise the dexterity of the scratch mixer, embracing the apparently new musical form as part of the hip-hop lifestyle. It's an obsession that has developed into a global phenomenon today, with scratch crews emerging everywhere, and the influence of the scratch mix is now widespread.

However, the concept of the scratch as artform antedates hip-hop by some 40 years with the works of avant-garde classical composer John Cage. His Imaginary Landscape No 1 (1937) manipulated turntables to create a rhythmic texture, while Cartridge Music (1938) found him rubbing a stylus against various inappropriate objects.

These were the basics of what has become known as "turntablism". In Cage's work lies the fundamental ideology behind hip-hop: the subversion of standard hardware usage and the destruction of musical tradition. Put simply, the scratch involves reducing the record to an unidentifiable frequency through the misuse of a Technics SL 1200 record deck. It is, as Kudwo Eshun suggests in his book More Brilliant than the Sun, "a violence against vinyl rather than respect due to the greats".

Mixmaster Mike (the Beastie Boys' DJ, and part of San Francisco-based crew Invisbl Skratch Piklz) says: "Scratch mixers can take any piece of music and manipulate it into something which is unrecognisable and then use it to create a bass and snare, or simply scratch a drum. It's all part of the skill."

The most common misunderstanding surrounding turntablism is that scratching is simply about moving a record backwards and forwards under an amplified cartridge. In fact, it's a skill that involves tremendous dexterity. As one hand manipulates the vinyl, the other works the mixers' cross-faders, phase switches, volume slides and EQs at lightning speed, occasionally adjusting the pitch control for added effect. Throughout, records are replaced and needles placed on the required groove with precision.

The intensity of this kind of performance can occasionally echo the self-indulgence of a guitar solo. DJ Shadow, whose recent production work on the Unkle album explored many of the techniques of scratching, calls this "the Van Halen effect, where those really long scratch solos - which are as boring as an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo - bore an entire audience except for the two or three other DJs who appreciate his highly evolved wrist action".

This type of show-off activity is, however, at the very heart of b-boy culture. Where rappers challenge one another to freestyle sessions, the scratch DJ goes in for the deck dual. From the days of Grandmaster Flash working his infamous wheels of steel in competition with Grand Wizard Theodor (reputedly hip-hop's first scratch mixer at the age of 11), and other notable showdowns like those between Scott La Rock and Marley Marl, the battle is essential to the development of the art. Indeed, since 1985 the leading DJs have been involved in the highly organised annual DMC Championships, a battleground where scratching techniques are premiered.

Far from being a specialist style with a limited audience, scratch mixing has proven to be exceptionally influential. Turntablism informs the work of artists as disparate as Portishead, Goldie and The Prodigy - the latter's cut-and-paste ethic echoing the scratch in its most basic form. Furthermore, the guitars of avant-rockers Sonic Youth and Tortoise, and the pop tones of artists such as All Saints, all display a huge debt to the cut-and- flow nature of the scratch.

"Scratching filters into every kind of music these days, just as every city has a scratch crew," says DJ Shadow "Whether it's the Scratchadeliks in Stockholm or The Scratch Perverts in the UK, the art of scratch mixing has never been more relevant to the times. It's exciting because it's like how garage punk bands used to be - a self-supporting scene with its own code, language and ideologies which exist outside the major industry."

The sound of artist turned rhythmatist, at one with machine and living inside the record's grooves, the scratch mix is far more than simply a part of the recent old-school hip- hop revival. It's a unique art form that involves hard-earned skill and the obsessional nature of a champion athlete in training.

Mapping The Scratch: Great Moments in Turntable History

1. 1937-1979

John Cage drops the needle and DJ Kool Herc picks it up again "Percussion music is revolution," wrote composer John Cage in 1939, predicting the beat-based style shifts that were to change the face of music and culture years later. In his Imaginary Landscape No 1 (1937) he serves up the first scratch piece.

This irreverent approach to the turntable had to wait until 1978 to be further explored by DJ Kool Herc. By placing identical copies of a record on the decks and cutting between the instrumental sections on both, Herc developed the first breakbeats, an approach soon taken up by Afrika Bambaataa, who later invents electro with "Planet Rock".

2. 1982

Buffalo Girls dominate the airwaves

Punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren bumps into Bambaataa (who is wearing a "Never Mind the Bollocks" T-Shirt) and gets invited to a hip-hop party, or "block jam". Here, he finds DJ D. ST working a scratch that had been accidentally invented by the 11-year-old Grand Wizard Theodor three years earlier. Along with Grandmaster Flash, Theodor had laid the foundations of the scratch with the techniques of back-spinning records, cutting from deck to deck and rubbing the vinyl back and forth against the cartridge to create the scratch.

McLaren brings the vibe back to the UK with his hip-hop concept album Duck Rock.

3. 1983

"Wild Style - The Movie" goes on general release

Scratching is displayed to the world with this docu-drama which explores the hip-hop phenomenon with far greater success than the later Breakdance and Beat Street films. Throughout the world, on shows like Top of the Pops, Herbie Hancock's electro-inspired "Rockit" features robots going through everyday routines to the sound of D. ST's orchestrated scratch solo. The flipside, "Change the Beat", features the sound of D. ST cutting up the track, and proves to be the inspiration for an entire generation of turntablists.

4. 1986

The Fresh Prince in training for Bel Air

The soon-to-be world famous Will Smith (aka Fresh Prince) teams up with DJ Jazzy Jeff and releases "He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper", which introduces "transforming"; this involves pushing the cross fade to create more intricate rhythm. However, DJ Cash Money claims to have invented the technique for the 1985 DMC Championships, where he was the first to perform using his own track, "Play it Cool".

The "transform" scratch becomes championed by Ritchie Rich, Spinbad and Run DMC's Jam Master Jay and presents the foundation for all other scratch developments.

5. 1988

Scratch gymnastics

In 1988's DMC Championships Cutmaster Swift introduces a spectacular display of choreographed scratching. This includes using his nose to rub one record while his hands work both mixer and second deck. Although there had always been a showmanship element to scratching, this performance brings the art in line with breakdancing.

DJs also start constructing virtual sentences by picking out words from records and transforming between decks while changing vinyl at great speed. This technique is later pursued by 1995 DMC winner DJ Noize, who places stickers on his records to indicate the correct section on which to drop the needle.

6. 1998

All Saints scratch on Top of the Pops

Turntablism can be heard throughout contemporary music. All Saints feature the style heavily while trip hoppers like Portishead, Unkle and big beat's Fatboy Slim - among others - employ the scratch to huge effect.

The true mavericks, however, have been developing the style continuously. In 1992, DJ Q Bert wins the DMCs with a display of virtuosity that stuns the scratching cognoscenti. He goes on to win the following two years and is banned from the competition.

In 1997, 15-year-old A-Track wins the DMCs, ushering in a host of new tricks and the next generation.

A Beginner's Guide to

New Skool Turntablism

INVISBL SKRATCH PIKLZ (right) Cutting-edge turntablism. Mixmaster Mike believes scratch to be "a form of extraterrestrial communication. Recommended: The Invisbl Skratch Pklz vs The Clams of Death (Asphodel).


Uniquely talented at eclectic funk hoedown. Recommended: Jurassic 5 (PAN/ PIAS).


The palm-skin genius who has scratched for Money Mark at recent shows. Recommended: Scratchhappyland 10 (Ninja Tune).


The current UK DMC champions include the ludicrously talented 16-year- old Harry Love. Recommended: B-Boys Revenge (X:Treme).


Breathtaking UFO vibes and scratch invention. Recommended: X-Pressions (Asphodel).

Rockit (Columbia): a compilation of old-skool hip-hop and electro.

Wave Twisters by DJ Q-Bert

with The Invisbl Skratch Piklz (Galactic Butthead Records).

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