Forgotten Classics is a new weekly feature where we ask FACT contributors and noted diggers from across the spectrum to pick an obscure gem that they think has been unfairly brushed under the carpet and explain why it’s worthy of re-appraisal. This week:
(Beat Junkie Sound, 2002)
RICCI RUCKER & MIKE BOO
Scetchbook: An Introduction to Scratch Music
(Sound in Color, 2002)
Picked by: FACT contributor Laurent Fintoni
It depends who you ask. To some it was mere noise, static to be ignored. To others it was a pioneering modern musical practice, born of the subversion of a home appliance. And to yet another group it was turntablism: a subset of one of hip hop’s four pillars, DJing. Not unlike jazz, turntablism required hundreds of hours of devotion and private practice to achieve a level of technical skill and musical understanding that allowed you to create, compose and freestyle in ways few had imagined possible.
While this isn’t the place for a history of scratching, some degree of historical setting is required to understand the importance of the two albums I’ve chosen to highlight. In brief, it goes a little something like this: the DJ births hip hop in the mid-to-late ’70s; by the late ’80s, the producer comes in as the music man; by the early ’90s, as hip hop is commercialised the MC becomes the public face of the music and the DJ is pushed to the side; and so the DJ retreats and goes underground, evolving the hip hop practice of scratching into turntablism. By the late ’90s, the DJ, by then reborn as a turntablist, returns and stakes a claim to being an artist in his own right, one who no longer requires the producer or the MC to do his thing.
And so we find ourselves at the turn of the century, amid a scratching renaissance of sorts. There’s the documentary Scratch, the DMC DJ battles, the big names like DJ Shadow and Q-Bert, and growing talk of scratching as a valid musical practice and of the turntable as an instrument. Amid all this attention there’s a lesser known movement taking hold, one that argues for music made primarily, or entirely, from scratching: scratch music.
The scratch music scene was small, worldwide but small, a niche within a niche. It was largely unified by technology (internet forums, early VoIP software) and a love of music – hip hop of course, especially its sampling practice and the early turntablist experiments of the ’90s, alongside jazz, from which fans borrowed a dedication to technical skill and freestyle proficiency. And it’s within this scene that two albums were released in the early ’00s on the West coast of the U.S. Different yet linked, these two albums came to epitomise all the potentials that scratching philosophy had hinted at and promised until then.
The first album in question is D-Styles’ Phantazmagorea, released in 2002 via the Beat Junkie Sound label – the West Coast DJ crew D-Styles was a part of, alongside his membership of legendary ’90s turntablist outfit the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. Phantazmagorea was a dark and twisted tale told with a pile of records, a space echo and a hand control that is widely acknowledged as the best on the planet. All songs on the album were recorded in the previous four years, a time span that shows in the music. ‘F.U.P.M’ is closer to the ’90s turntablist aesthetic, choppy and percussive, rough around the edges, while ‘Clifford’s Mustache’ is a sonic snapshot of turntablism post-2000, musically more coherent, its rhythms similar to the human-machine funk of a good MPC beat and its scratch verses more refined.
Listening back to Phantazmagorea today is a fascinating experience. It sounds more relevant than upon its release, reinforcing a saying often bandied around back then that the music was ahead of its time. It’s the perfect evolution of hip hop’s sample addiction: an album made entirely of samples manipulated by the human hand and overseen by a human brain. For my money, ‘The Murder Faktory’ and ‘Diabolikal’ are still some of the hardest beats from the 2000s, a foretelling of the beat explosion that would engulf L.A later that decade.
The second album is Ricci Rucker and Mike Boo’s Scetchbook: An Introduction To Scratch Music, the first full-length release on a then little-known label called Sound In Color, soon to be home to the likes of Blu, GB and Exile among others. Coming out around the same time as Phantazmagorea, in the second half of 2002, Scetchbook represented a more meditative and broad take on scratch music’s potential.
Using the same ascetic approach to production, the pair set out to create an album entirely out of samples and physical manipulation on the turntables. They dug just as deep as D-Styles had, transforming fragments of recorded sound into new building blocks and relying on vocal samples to tell the stories that needed to be told. The album compiles solo tracks from the pair alongside collaborations, showing a rare artistic cohesiveness: they touch on ambient in ‘Cosmaphonicphonofunktopalis’, African rhythms in ‘Junglistic Beats Make A Nigga Hyperactive’, minimalist head nod on ‘Slow Down Edgar’ and just good old fashioned banging hip hop on my personal favourite ‘The Buddah Fights Too’.
I wanted to highlight these two albums together because for me, as a fan and someone who got his writing chops in the turntablist scene, they are inseparable. To dismiss one as more important than the other is to miss the point, to diminish their collective impact. And it was a collective impact, not just because they came out in the same time frame but because they argued for the same point – that you could make music entirely out of manipulated records – and because their authors were friends who continued to work together for years under various guises to try and see just how far the idea could be taken.
While both albums are thematically and, on the surface, sonically different, they share the same technical DNA: a love and understanding of sampling rooted in hip hop semantics and a technical proficiency based on the understanding of applying technique to the service of music as opposed to dick-showing bravado. There have been some great turntablist/scratch music albums over the years – from Q-Bert to DJ Shadow, The Allies to The Return of The DJ compilations – but these two stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of arguing for a musical validity to scratching as a practice.
Scratching, scratch music and the hip hop subculture it birthed is responsible for a fair bit of the music that is popular today. Not singlehandedly of course, but it played its part. And it’s too often written out of the historical picture. Scratch music and the turntablist scene is one of the reasons why Low End Theory exists today, it’s how A-Trak got to be where he is, it’s how Om Unit, Hudson Mohawke and others got their chops and discovered a world of musical potential unlike any other, a world that was free from boundaries and restrictions and allowed you to experiment. Its core aesthetic and philosophies bled into the minds of a new generation of musicians who have gone on to help shape the modern musical landscape.
“There’s no parallel to scratching; it never existed before being used in this incredible way. Scratching is more like a transformation sequence, more like the audio parallel of The Thing or American Werewolf, where you see the human transformed into a werewolf, and just before they finally become a werewolf you suddenly get a glimpse of the human, then it flashes away again. That’s what skratchadelia does.It’s this unstable mix of the voice and the vinyl. It’s this new texture effect.” – Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun