Scratching is a DJ or turntablist technique used to produce distinctive sounds by moving a vinyl record back and forth on a turntable while optionally manipulating the crossfader on a DJ mixer. While scratching is most commonly associated with hip hop music, since the 1990s, it has been used in some styles of pop and nu metal. Within hip hop culture, scratching is one of the measures of a DJ’s skills.

Scratching was developed by early hip hop DJs from New York such as Grand Wizard Theodore and DJ Grandmaster Flash, who describes scratching as, ‘nothing but the back-cueing that you hear in your ear before you push it out to the crowd.’ Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc also influenced the early development of scratching; he developed break-beat DJing, where the breaks of funk songs—the most danceable part, often featuring percussion—were isolated and repeated for the purpose of all-night dance parties.

Although previous artists such as William S. Burroughs had experimented with the idea of manipulating a record manually for the sounds produced (such as with his 1950s recording, ‘Sound Piece’), scratching as an element of hip hop pioneered the idea of making the sound an integral and rhythmic part of music instead of uncontrolled noise.

Christian Marclay was one of the earliest musicians to scratch outside of hip hop. In the mid-1970s, Marclay used gramophone records and turntables as musical instruments to create sound collages. He developed his turntable sounds independently of hip hop DJs. Although he is little-known to mainstream audiences, Marclay has been described as ‘the most influential turntable figure outside hip hop,’ and the ‘unwitting inventor of turntablism.’

Grandmaster Flash was the first person to release a song, ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,’ with scratching on it in 1981. In 1982, Malcolm McLaren & the World’s Famous Supreme Team released a single ‘Buffalo Gals,’ juxtaposing extensive scratching with calls from square dancing, and, in 1983, the EP, ‘D’ya Like Scratchin’?,’ which is entirely focused on scratching. Scratching (and sampling) later gained mainstream popularity in the UK and Europe from the 1987 hit ‘Pump Up The Volume’ by M/A/R/R/S.

Vinyl emulation software allows a DJ to manipulate the playback of digital music files on a computer using the turntables as an interface. This allows DJs to scratch, beatmatch, and perform other turntablist maneuvers that would be impossible with a conventional keyboard-and-mouse. Scratch software includes Traktor Scratch Pro, Final Scratch, Mixxx, Serato Scratch Live, Virtual DJ, M-Audio Torq, algoriddim djay, and Digital Scratch.

More rarely, DJs scratch with magnetic tape, sometimes by recording music onto magnetic stripes and disassembling a cassette tape recorder to play the magnetic stripes.

Sounds that are frequently scratched include but are not limited to drum beats, horn stabs, spoken word samples, and lines from other songs. Any sound recorded to vinyl can be used, and CD players providing a turntable-like interface allow DJs to scratch not only material that was never released on vinyl, but also field recordings and samples from television and movies that have been burned to CD-R.

Some DJs and anonymous collectors release 12-inch singles called battle records that include trademark, novel or hard-to-find scratch fodder. The most recognizable samples used for scratching are the ‘Ahh’ and ‘Fresh’ samples, which originate from the song ‘Change the Beat’ by Fab 5 Freddy.

There are many scratching techniques, which differ in how the movements of the record is combined with opening and closing the crossfader (or another fader or switch, where ‘open’ means that the signal is audible, and ‘closed’ means that the signal is inaudible).

While scratching is becoming more and more popular within pop music, sophisticated scratching is still predominantly an underground style. The Invisibl Skratch Piklz from San Francisco focuses on scratching. In 1994, the group was formed by DJs Q-Bert, Disk & Shortkut and later Mix Master Mike.

Scratching has been incorporated into a number of other musical genres, including pop, rock, jazz, heavy metal and classical music performances. For recording use, samplers are often used instead of physically scratching a vinyl record. Rage Against the Machine (and former Audioslave) guitarist Tom Morello performs scratching-inspired guitar solos. In the song ‘Bulls on Parade,’ and many other songs in which he solos, he creates scratch-like rhythmic sounds by rubbing the strings over the pick-ups while using the pick-up selector switch as a cross-fader.

Since the 1990s, scratching has begun being used in a variety of popular music genres, such as nu metal acts (like Linkin Park, Slipknot and Limp Bizkit) and in some types of pop music (e.g. Nelly Furtado), and in some types of alternative rock (e.g. Incubus).. Scratching is also popular in various electronic music styles, most particularly in hard-groove techno.

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