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What Is A DJ If He Can't Scratch: A History Of Turntablism

Jul 13, 2008
Turntabalism, on the other hand requires a certain amount of skill and a lot of dedication. Turntabalists differ from DJs in that their skill is focused more on turntable techniques as opposed to pure mixing. A club DJ can make a living by merely 'beat matching' their records whereas a turntablist needs to provide many different tricks including cutting, scratching and beat juggling to please the crowd.

Scratching, in it's purest form, is the art of pulling the record back and forth under the needle of the record player. The sound was developed by early hip hop Djs from New York such as DJ Grandmaster Flash and his protege, Grand Wizard Theodore. Flash described the sound as "nothing but the back-cueing that you hear in your ear before you push it [the recorded sound] out to the crowd."

One of the earliest recordings to feature the scratch sound was Herbie Hancock's Rockit which was a huge success in 1983 and to many, a revolutionary piece which inspired generations of DJs to push the boundaries forward. Rockit established the DJ as the star of the record, rather than the man in the background.

Scratching has continued to evolve over the years and the combined manipulation of both the 12" vinyl and the mixer have helped create far more complex sounds and rhythms. The most basic scratch, dubbed 'the baby scratch', is a simple sound achieved by pushing the record forward and dragging it back again. The 'flare', on the other hand involves simultaneously dragging the record forward and backwards whilst cutting the cross-fader in and out.

Beat juggling, the other prominent skill utilised by the turntablist, is the art of creating a new and unique beat or loop by using two or more turntables and a mixer. The skill has its roots in cutting whereby a small section (usually four beats) of a record is looped together using two copies of the same record. The first DJ to push this sound was Kool DJ Herc, who used breaks (the part of the song with just a drum beat) from old funk records to create a solid, continuous beat to dance to.

Turntablism has its roots firmly in Hip Hop culture and forms one of the four elements of the genre alongside rapping, graffiti and break-dancing. Hip Hop groups Jurassic 5, Dialated Peoples and The Beastie Boys have put the DJ at the centre of their act, dedicating whole songs to them. 'Three MCs and One DJ' by The Beastie Boys is a song praising their mixing maestro, Mix Master Mike. The music for the song comes from just one section of a 12" record, scratched and cut to sound like a solid beat.

The art of turntablism is not, however restricted to Hip Hop. Krafty Kuts has familiarised himself with the art of scratching and readily uses it in his Breaks sets the world over. Limp Bizkit have employed the skills of Ex House of Pain DJ, DJ Lethal, creating a fresh approach to the nu-metal scene whilst Australian electronic band, Avalanches utilised the skills of DJ Dexta to create their album from more than 3,500 samples. As a turntablist, Dexter has a slightly different take on the scene pulling records from the likes of Prince and Hendrix to create his sound. He claims his sound has a Hip Hop feel without actually containing any Hip Hop elements.

Like many other successful DJs, Dexta has competed at the highest possible level: The DMC World DJ Championships. The Competition has been at the forefront of new DJing tricks and techniques for many years now. DMC began more than 20 years ago in 1985 by the Disco Mix Club founder, Tony Prince and has constantly pushed the boundaries of the turntablist scene forward.

The first competition was won by Roger Johnson in the UK and documented a pure 'mix' of records. It was only the following year, in 1986 when DJ Cheese started to add scratching to his routine that the contest really began to transcend into the competition that we all recognise today. Holland's Orlando Voorn, the unhappy runner-up in the year's contest allegedly grabbed the mike from Prince and bellowed into the crowd, "What is this, a mixing competition, or a scratching competition?"

The competition was, and always will be a battle between DJs as to who has the greatest tricks and ability behind two turntables and a mixer. The rules for the competition are thus: Contestants must use two Technics turntables, an audio mixer of their choice (with no effects) and two Ortofon cartridges. Contestants then have six minutes in which to construct an uninterrupted mix of records and sounds in whatever way they see fit.

Points are awarded for originality, technicality and general showboating. First Rate pulled off his special move in the 2001 mixing championships which involved moving the cross-fader with his stomach. Craze's own special move was to scratch the record with the whole length of his body whilst in one year's competition, an unknown DJ actually pulled a handstand on the spinning platter.

Today, the death of vinyl is almost upon us. In years to come the DMC championships will change and it will be a contest involving CD decks rather than record players. With advances in technology now allowing the user of a CD deck to manipulate the CD in much the same way they could touch a vinyl record, the options are seemingly endless.
About the Author
Samantha is an expert Research and Theatre consultant. Her current interests are UK shortbreaks including LEGOLAND Windsor and Drayton Manor..
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