“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. […] It’s this unstable mix of the voice and the vinyl. It’s this new texture effect.” – Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun
Scratching has existed for as long as there have been phonographs, a by-product of the stylus following the grooves on a record. It would take nearly a century before it was fully realised, thanks to a teenage Bronx DJ by the name of Theodore Livingston. As legend has it, sometime in 1975 Theodore inadvertently heard himself scratch on his home system after his mother had asked him to turn the music down (else she turn it off). The sound wasn’t new; it wanted to be found and Theodore heard its call. With some more practice he refined the back and forth hand motion into the ‘scratch’, a rhythmic element that made its first public appearance shortly after at a local club.
It’s often said that hip-hop has three founding fathers, all DJs, though it has no constitution. If it did, the first articles would focus on records: how to dig for them, how to mix them up, and how to extract the break. Theodore scratched the fourth article into the constitution while no one was looking.
The next big leap for scratching came in 1981 when Grandmaster Flash recorded the first ever DJ track, ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’. Seven minutes of rudimentary cuts and sequencing, ‘Adventures…’ amended hip-hop’s constitution to remind everyone that the DJ was the music’s first artist.
The itch was spreading from its Bronx birthplace, confusing some while intriguing others. It went viral in February 1984 at the 26th Grammy Awards show in Los Angeles with the performance of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, a song inspired by hip-hop and put together as a last ditch attempt to salvage the jazz musician’s ailing career. Produced and written with the help of Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn of experimental band Material, ‘Rockit’ featured drum machines, synthesisers, and the first scratch solo, performed by another Bronx DJ, Grandmaster D.ST. The turntable, still barely thought of as an instrument, had made the band.
On stage at the Grammy Awards, D.ST scratched while Hancock played the Clavitar. Three pairs of disembodied legs danced above them. This was a vision of the future, beamed into thousands of homes where kids sat mesmerised by the sight and sound of scratching together. Mark Katz, in his book Groove Music, refers to ‘Rockit’ as “the scratch heard around the world.” The song and its performance inspired a generation to pick up a turntable, retreat to their bedrooms and make some noise.
Ah, this stuff is really fresh
D.ST’s scratching in ‘Rockit’ uses one word—“fresh”—taken from a 12″ single released the year before on Celluloid, ‘Change The Beat’ by Fab Five Freddy. The record was a promotional tool paid for by a French radio station ahead of the first European hip-hop tour. At the end of its B-side is a sentence spoken through a vocoder: “Ah, this stuff is really fresh!” This phrase became one of the most popular samples of all time.
Most people assumed that Freddy was the voice behind the sentence, but history is tricky. Speaking to Dave Tompkins in his book How To Wreck A Nice Beach, Bill Laswell, who produced the record, revealed that it was in fact that of his manager, Roger Trilling. It was recorded on a whim during a late night in the studio. Trilling was clowning a record executive from Elektra known to utter the sentence when he liked a song. D.ST took the joke and performed a solo for the ages with it.
‘Change The Beat’ has been used in more than 1,500 recordings over the past 33 years, the words worming their way into our collective consciousness. Within a decade, two of the words – ‘ah’ and ‘fresh’ – became scratch standards used by DJs to practice their instrument. The sound of thousands of crossfaders being furiously manhandled in the name of artistry all thanks to a French radio company, an American recording executive, and a vocoder.
There’s another article in the constitution of hip-hop that refers to battling. It states that you can battle with words, legs, spray cans, and records. It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.
The first DJ battles in hip-hop were an echo of Jamaica’s sound systems: selectors pushing the volume as far as possible to swamp out the competition. In the early 1980s the concept was refined into a performance with judges and rules, the necessary cornerstones for a pantheon of winners and losers.
It all started with the New Music Seminar (NMS) in 1981, an annual event in New York billed as a music conference and festival. The first winner was Whiz Kid, whose 1983 single for Tommy Boy – the label of NMS founder Tom Silverman – exhorted the DJ to “play that beat.” The NMS battles inspired Tony Prince, a British DJ who had got his start on Radio Caroline, one of the original British pirate stations. In 1983, Prince started the Disco Mix Club (DMC) and two years later turned it into its own annual convention. True to its name, the first DMC battle was all about mixing. The following year, New Jersey’s DJ Cheese gatecrashed the party and cut his way up to victory, forever changing the competition into a scratching championship.
The NMS ended its battles in 1994. At the same time the DMC was gaining in popularity with competitions that often walked a fine line between concentrated displays of musical skills and circus acts — DJ David snatched the 1991 title by finishing his routine with a handstand on the right turntable.
The enduring success of established competitions like the DMC — which turns 30 this year — spawned hundreds of copycat events with music equipment shops, magazines, and manufacturers all offering bedroom hermits a chance to step out into the real world. Battles were sometimes brilliant, often awkward, but they did foster a sense of community, however warped. While early events like the NMS had offered a stepping stone for some towards a musical career — touring, recording — by the late 1990s battling had become an end in itself with time constraints favouring technical intricacies over musical expression, leaving the average spectator confused and forcing DJs to substitute skill for showmanship.
Speaking in the 2002 documentary Scratch, Miami’s DJ Craze — the first to win three consecutive DMC world titles — offered an apt and concise summary of DJ battles: “It’s all an act.”
He’s The DJ
Will Smith, aka The Fresh Prince, is absent from the cover of his 1988 debut album. Instead it’s DJ Jazzy Jeff, the other half of the duo, who stands against a white background pointing fingers at himself. Smith is relegated to the back cover, his finger pointing at Jeff across the vinyl’s spine. The cover, and the album’s title, He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, sent a clear message: DJs matter.
As hip-hop expanded throughout the 1980s, the MC became a more viable alternative for those seeking to capitalise on the music. This shift from the DJ to the MC as the primary artist in hip-hop is documented in the second half of the decade through a string of DJ tracks that were descendants of Flash’s adventures: Cash Money scratched to the funk; Eric B was on the cut; and DJ Premier was in deep concentration. If it wasn’t the DJ cutting up his own praises, it was MCs singing them. In Los Angeles, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru rapped about the bionic superiority of their DJ, a fresh faced Andre “Dr. Dre” Young.
The commercialisation of hip-hop challenged its unwritten constitution, and while some tried to fight back, the industry ultimately won. By the early 1990s, the musical contributions of DJs were subsumed into the role of the producer and their presence on stage replaced by machines.
You forgot about the West
New York birthed the scratch. Philadelphia improved it. And San Francisco took it to places no one had imagined.
The history of sound system culture is a history of immigration. In America, the seeds were sown by Latin, Asian, and Caribbean immigrants who brought with them a love of music and a sensibility for big sound. Mobile DJs—who toured with portable systems and visual entertainment—were an extension of that culture and often proved a fertile training ground for many would-be scratch geniuses.
The San Francisco Bay Area had its own thriving mobile DJ scene in the 1980s, a scene dominated in part by the Filipino-American community. A microcosm of social and cultural interactions, this birthed the next evolution of scratching in the 1990s as individual DJs broke from the ranks of tightly-knit crews to venture out on their own.
In 1991, Richard Quitevis, a San Francisco native of Filipino descent who had started his DJing career as part of the Live Style mobile DJ crew, won the American leg of the DMC. As DJ Q-Bert, Quitevis was an energetic young scratcher with a thirst for knowledge. He travelled to London for the world championships only to be thwarted by DJ David and his handstand circus trick. On his return home he joined forces with two other Filipino-Americans mobile DJs: Mix Master Mike and Apollo.
Together, the three DJs began to think of scratching not simply as a rhythmic accompaniment or melodic sound, but as something more. In 1992, under the name Rocksteady DJs, they entered the DMC and took the crown at the world finals. In 1993, Mike and Q-Bert entered as The Dream Team and retained their title. Legend has it that the DMC asked them to retire, fearing no one would dare compete. What set Mike, Q-Bert and Apollo apart was a dedication to their craft and a belief that the turntable could be an instrument and a DJ crew could be a band, each with a precise role to fulfill. Apollo drummed, Mike cut the bass, and Q-Bert was the lead scratcher. It was a simple concept that would revolutionise the art form.
From DJ to turntablist
In 1995, the Rocksteady DJs became the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (ISP) with a rotating cast that included D-Styles, Disk and Shortkut, and their embrace of technique in the pursuit of music inspired a new generation, just as ‘Rockit’ had inspired them to first pick up a turntable.
Further south, in the Los Angeles area, a Filipino-American DJ by the name of Chris Oroc, who looked up to the likes of Q-Bert as a role model, came across a new nomenclature that captured the scratch zeitgeist of the time. Sometime in the mid 90s, Oroc took a marker and inscribed his homemade tapes with “Babu The Turntablist” as a way to make them stand out. To the record industry, home taping was killing music. To fans, it was spreading it. “We’d all talk about these new scratches and how they really started to allow us to use the turntable in a more musical way,” Babu told me in 2005. “Then we’d think about how people who play the piano are pianists, and so we thought ‘we’re turntablists in a way, because we play the turntable like these people do the piano or any other instrument.'”
Hip-hop can trace part of its lineage to jazz, and the budding turntablist movement also found a spiritual kinship with jazz in the rigour and practice needed to master their new instrument. DJs would spend countless hours learning from each other and developing new techniques and ideas. Bay Area crews like the ISP and the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters often did this while tripping on weed and acid. The drugs warped time and unlocked new ways of thinking and hearing — as well as, perhaps, a proclivity for stupid sounding names. The acid they ingested in those early years forever stained the pages of hip-hop’s constitution.
“The fact that people ignored the Bay worked to the benefit of the DJs there,” explains Oliver Wang, a scholar and journalist who was an early scribe of the Bay Area’s turntablist movement and recently documented the history of Filipino-American mobile DJ crews in the book Legions of Boom. “It also meant they were developing styles that would push the scene as a whole forward because it was unlike what anyone else had been doing. I think what Filipino DJs injected was a new creative sense of possibility that had not been sufficiently considered prior to that.”
You want a fresh style? Let me show you
The second half of the 1990s proved a golden era for scratching, a time of growth defined by a divide between two schools of thinking.
The arrival of Bay Area DJs on the scene forced many to consider the direction that scratching was taking. As Wang suggested, West Coast DJs defined themselves by a belief in the technical and creative potential of scratching. The East Coast had invented the scratch and the beat juggle — deconstructing rhythms using two copies of the same record — but the focus was often less on technical mastery and more on overall showmanship. Hands, legs, and mouths were used to perform body tricks that looked cool but ultimately didn’t say much.
In July 1996, the International Turntablist Federation (ITF) held its first annual world finals in New York. The ITF had been set up that year by Alex Aquino, a Bay Area enthusiast and one-time manager of Q-Bert and Mix Master Mike, to promote a more musical appreciation of the art of scratching, placing itself somewhat in opposition to the DMC and fans of body tricks.
The centrepiece of the night was a friendly showdown to celebrate the anniversary of the Rock Steady Crew, billed as a historical battle between the two biggest DJ collectives of the time: the ISP from San Francisco and the X-Men from New York. The 20-minute face-off was less about East against West than about two ideologies: scratching as music versus scratching as showmanship. As the host claimed at the beginning of the battle, who won that night was irrelevant. In the following years the West Coast’s belief in the turntablist as musician would come to dominate the scene. Showmanship never quite disappeared, but it paled in front of the music that could be made with practice and a little ingenuity.
The DJ economy
DJ culture peaked towards the late 1990s as VHS tapes, cassettes and CDs traded hands and the internet began to connect the outskirts to the centre. The idea that the turntable could be an instrument only gained traction. A growing economy centred around the DJ began to take hold.
Companies like Technics, the manufacturers of the DJ standard SL–1200 turntable and a main sponsor of the DMC, found growing competition from the likes of Vestax, a Japanese manufacturer who reinvented itself by partnering with turntablists to design new equipment including a string of turntables and mixers that remain standard to this day despite the company shutting down in 2014.
DJs also needed records. Just as the Ultimate Beats & Breaks series had simplified the concept of digging for breaks, DJs created battle records to perform and practice. The records were purely functional with a selection of instrumental beats and scratch sentences — sequences of samples, words, and sound effects. They first appeared in 1992 in the Bay Area; under the name Psychedelic Skratch Bastards, the ISP released Battle Breaks on their Dirt Style imprint while the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters released Hamster Breaks. By the end of the decade battle records were selling in the tens of thousands, becoming an industry of their own. Despite making practice and performance easier, battle records also disconnected younger users from the roots of the music by obscuring sample sources.
The Bay Area was also home to key early labels that propelled turntablism from the bedroom to the studio. In 1995, Bomb Hip-Hop released The Return of The DJ, a compilation that paid homage to the DJ tracks of old. Around the same time, local radio DJ and writer Billy Jam set up his Pirate Fuckin’ Radio broadcast and captured DJs improvising routines, raw and uncut. In 1998, Jam founded the Hip-Hop Slam label, releasing extracts from the broadcasts and a growing body of turntablist compilations and albums that remains second to none. Then came Asphodel, a home for incredibly strange music that built a bridge between the coasts and released debut albums from the ISP, X-Ecutioners, Mix Master Mike, and The Allies, a crew stretching from Miami to New York that included a young A-Trak and DJ Craze.
Speaking about first meeting the turntablists he later signed to Asphodel, founder and A&R Naut Humon recalled his surprise to the lack of support for realising their artistic ideas: “We put the focus on their approach and tried to support it. That’s where the best music would come out.”
Techniques, notations and growing pains
From the start, DJing had a secretive element, from obscuring labels to developing new techniques. In its quest for musical legitimacy, turntablism took the opposite stance and chose to open the bedroom door and let everyone peer inside.
In the summer of 2000, the ISP hosted Skratchcon 2000, an event dedicated to “the education and development of skratch music literacy.” Bringing together performers from around the world, Skratchcon was a logical continuation of the ISP’s hunger to learn. Throughout the 1990s, DJs like Q-Bert had shared their knowledge with the world in the belief that they, in turn, would learn something. This thirst for knowledge spread through videos and online, pushing scratching towards a technical plateau.
As public awareness of scratching grew, so did attempts to legitimise it as a valid musical form. In the late 1990s, New York City’s DJ Raedawn approached film maker John Carluccio and designer Ethan Imboden with a concept for scratch notation he had developed called The Fundamentals. This led to the creation of the Turntable Transciption Methodology (TTM), the most thorough attempt at creating a shared notation system for scratching. The TTM caught the attention of Time magazine and even featured in a CSI:NY episode in 2004. Further out west, Arizona’s DJ Radar released the track ‘Antimatter’ in 1999, complete with a score that transcribed all the scratches and production for the song. Echoing the ambitions of the TTM team, Radar’s stated aim was to secure scratching’s place “in written music history.” Radar then created the Concerto For Turntable, with the help of local student Raul Yanez. After performing a first movement in 2001 at the Arizona State University, the project culminated four years later in a performance at Carnegie Hall. In the early 2000s, a young A-Trak also developed his own notation system, as a way to practice and better communicate with other DJs, while French designer Laurent Burte released Scratch Graphique in 2003. Yet the quest for legitimacy that notation represented ultimately jarred with scratching’s DIY roots.
With so much focus on learning and legitimising, technique became an end onto itself, like battles before it, with many failing to see the forest for the trees. After all, musical technique is only useful if put to the service of creativity. In that sense, scratching was always best understood as an extension of jazz music, a practice suited to soloing and improvising where feeling trumps any rules. And the best DJs knew that.
An introduction to scratch music
The 2002 documentary Scratch was released at the peak of scratching’s flirtation with the mainstream: the turntable was outselling the guitar; Q-Bert, Rob Swift, and Shortkut were appearing in advert campaigns for Apple and The Gap; the X-Ecutioners had a new single featuring Linkin Park. But mainstream success was only ever going to be temporary, and soon enough scratch DJs were consigned to the dustbin of commercial history, next to b-boys.
Against this backdrop of mainstream interest, two albums emerged from the southern California turntablist ecosystem. D-Styles’ Phantazmagorea and Ricci Rucker and Mike Boo’s Sketchbook: An Introduction To Scratch Music were released within months of each other and argued for a rethinking of what turntablism could be. Instead of relying on a blend of production and scratching — as all albums had until then — the idea was to compose everything from, well, scratch. These three DJs had dedicated themselves to scratching with the same fervour as early pioneers like Mike and Q. And just like them, they’d attained a new level of understanding as to how technique could be put to the service of creativity.
Their argument – that you could compose entirely on turntables and have listeners be none the wiser – spread through internet forums, early VoIP technology, and videos. In Bruges, Belgium, Grazzhoppa set up the DJ Big Band in 2003, beginning with six DJs and a saxophonist and expanding to a cast of over 12 vocalists. Italy had the Alien Army, in Germany it was Noisy Stylus, and in France, C2C.
But whether the music was composed entirely from records being scratched or blended with more traditional modes of production, it remained a niche within a niche. The technical plateau of the early 2000s quickly led to a creative plateau by the middle of the decade, a situation precipitated by technological advances that made information flow faster and reduced the cost of previously expensive production tools.
Everything moves in cycles
Turntablism emerged in the 1990s as an answer to the DJ’s disappearance from hip-hop, a movement in support of the original amendment that the DJ was hip-hop’s first artist. But you can never go back, and so scratching became a gateway into hip-hop for new generations, inspiring them to think outside of the box and seek new ways to create.
Throughout the 2000s, turntablists dispersed into various corners of the electronic music world. A-Trak became Kanye West’s tour DJ and turned him onto Daft Punk before going on to build his Fool’s Gold empire. Fellow Allies member DJ Craze moved into drum & bass. In the UK, Ninja Tune picked up Japan’s DJ Kentaro following his 2002 DMC title. A few years later, a young Scottish kid by the name of Itchy, the youngest DJ to enter the UK DMC, renamed himself Hudson Mohawke and struck a deal with Warp in 2008. Back in California, Daddy Kev set up Low End Theory in 2006 and soon brought on board D-Styles as a resident, following years of collaborations with the local turntablist scene. In January 2014, after more than a decade in retirement, the ISP reunited for a performance at Low End.
The 2000s would ultimately be about another music maker: the producer. While many factors influenced the rise of the producer as artist in that decade — from super producers like Timbaland and Just Blaze to underground heroes such as Prefuse 73 and the beat scene centred around Flying Lotus — the contributions of turntablism shouldn’t be forgotten.
“The worldwide turntablist movement in the early 2000s gave birth to so much creativity,” Om Unit told me in 2013, in reference to his own formative years as a turntablist by the name of 2tall. “I think turntablism gave me a deep appreciation of rhythm, humour, and time dedicated to an instrument or a pursuit. I am grateful to have been a part of that and have taken that away with me. For me, it feels like I passed through jazz school!”
A turntablist’s star chart by Mat Pringle