Turntablism

qbert dunny

dmc

Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating music using phonograph turntables and a DJ mixer. The word ‘turntablist’ was coined in 1995 by DJ Babu to describe the difference between a DJ who just plays records, and one who performs by touching and moving the records, stylus and mixer to manipulate sound. The new term co-occurred with a resurgence of the art of hip hop style DJing in the 1990s.

Composer John Oswald described the art: ‘A phonograph in the hands of a ‘hiphop/scratch’ artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced — the record player becomes a musical instrument.’

Hip-hop turntablist DJs use turntable techniques like beat mixing/matching, scratching, and beat juggling. Some turntablists seek to have themselves recognized as traditional musicians capable of interacting and improvising with other performers. Some focus on turntable technique while others craft intricate compositions by focusing on mixing.

The history of the turntable being used as a musical instrument has its roots dating back to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when musique concrète composers and other experimental artists, such as John Cage, Halim El-Dabh, and Pierre Schaeffer, used them in a manner similar to that of today’s producers and DJs, by essentially sampling and creating music that was entirely produced by the turntable. Cage’s ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 1’ (1939) is composed for 2 variable speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano & cymbal.

Even earlier, Edgard Varèse experimented with turntables in 1930, though he never formally produced any works using them. This school of thought and practice is not directly linked to the current definition of hip hop-related turntablism, though it has had an influence on modern experimental sound artists such as Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck and Janek Schaefer. These artists are the direct descendants of people like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer and are often credited as a variant to the modern turntablist DJ and producer.

Examples of turntable effects can also be found on popular records produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1968 self-titled debut album features a backspin effect in the song ‘Walk on the Water.’ However, turntablism as we know it now did not surface until the introduction of hip hop in the late 1970s.

Turntablism as a modern art form and musical practice has its roots within hip hop and hip hop culture of the early 1970s. Scratching was already widespread within hip hop by DJs and producers by the time turntablists started to appear.

Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash are widely credited for having cemented the now established role of DJ as hip hop’s foremost instrumentalist. Kool Herc’s invention of break-beat DJing is generally regarded as the foundational development in hip hop history, as it gave rise to all other elements of the genre. The ‘break’ of a song is a musical fragment only seconds in length, which typically takes the form of an ‘interlude’ in which all or most of the music stops except for the percussion. The break is roughly equivalent to the song’s ‘climax,’ as it is meant to be the most exciting part of a song before returning once more to its finale (usually a return to the main chorus).

In addition to raising the audience’s adrenaline level, the percussion-heavy nature of the break makes it the most danceable as well, if only for seconds at a time. Kool Herc introduces the break-beat technique as a way of extending the break indefinitely. This is done by buying two of the same record and switching from one to the other on the DJ mixer: e.g., as record A plays, the DJ quickly backtracks to the same break on record B, which will again take the place of A at a specific moment in which the audience will not notice that the DJ has switched records.

Kool Herc’s revolutionary technique set the course for the development of turntablism as an art form in significant ways. Most important, however, he developed a new form of DJing that did not consist of playing and mixing records one after the other. The type of DJ that specializes in mixing is well respected for his own set of unique skills, but playlist mixing is still DJing in the traditional sense. Kool Herc instead originated the idea of creating a sequence for his own purposes, introducing the idea of the DJ as the ‘feature’ of parties, whose performance on any given night would be examined critically by the crowd on both a technical and entertainment level.

However it was Grand Wizard Theodore, an apprentice of Grandmaster Flash, who accidentally isolated the most recognizable technique of turntablism: scratching. He put his hand on a record one day, to silence the music on the turntable while his mother was calling out to him and thus accidentally discovered the sound of scratching by moving the record back and forth under the stylus. Though Theodore discovered scratching, it was Flash who helped push the early concept and showcase it to the public, in his live shows and on recordings.

These early pioneers cemented the fundamental practice that would later become the emerging turntablist art form. Scratching would during the 1980s become a staple of hip hop music, being used by producers and DJs on records and in live shows. By the end of the 1980s it was very common to hear scratching on a record, generally as part of the chorus of a track or within its production. On stage the DJ would provide the music for the MCs to rhyme to, scratching records during the performance and showcasing his skills alongside the verbal skills of the MC. The most well known example of this ‘equation’ of MCs and DJ is probably Run DMC who were composed of two MCs and one DJ. The DJ, Jam Master Jay, was an integral part of the group since his turntablism was critical to Run DMC’s productions and performances.

While Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa were using the turntable to explore repetition, alter rhythm and create the instrumental stabs and punch phrasing that would come to characterize the sound of hip hop, Grandmaster DST was busy cutting ‘real’ musicians on their own turf. His scratching on Herbie Hancock’s 1983 single, ‘Rockit,’ makes it perhaps the most influential DJ track of them all – even more than (Grandmaster Flash’s) ‘Wheels of Steel,’ it established the DJ as the star of the record, even if he wasn’t the frontman.

Despite New York’s continued pre-eminence in the hip hop world, scratch DJing was modernized in Philadelphia, where transformer scratching was invented and developed by DJs Spinbad, DJ Cash money and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Transforming was basically clicking the fader on and off while moving a block of sound (a riff or a short verbal phrase) across the stylus. Expanding the tonal as well as rhythmic possibilities of scratching, the transformer scratch epitomized the chopped-up aesthetic of hip hop culture.

Hip hop was starting to become big money and the cult of personality started to take over. Hip hop became very much at the service of the rapper and Cash Money and DJ Jazzy Jeff, saddled with B-list rappers like Marvelous and the Fresh Prince, were accorded maybe one track on an album. For example, tracks like DJ Jazzy Jeff’s ‘A Touch of Jazz’ (1987) and ‘Jazzy’s in the House’ (1988) and Cash Money’s ‘The Music Maker’ (1988).

The emergence of turntablism was prompted by one major factor – the disappearance of the DJ in hip hop groups, on records and in live shows at the turn of the 1990s. This disappearance was linked to the increased use of DAT tapes and other studio techniques that would ultimately push the DJ further away from the original hip hop equation of the MC as the vocalist and the DJ as the music provider alongside the producer. By the mid-90s the disappearance of the DJ in hip hop had created a sub-culture which would come to be known as turntablism and which focused entirely on the DJ utilizing his turntables and a mixer to manipulate sounds and create music.

Some claim that DJ Disk, a member of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, was the first to coin the term, others claim that DJ Babu, a member of the Beat Junkies, was responsible for coining and spreading the term turntablist after inscribing it on his mixtapes and passing them around. Another claim credits DJ Supreme, 1991 World Supremacy Champion and DJ for Lauryn Hill.

More sophisticated methods of scratching were developed in the 1990s, with crews and individual DJs concentrating on the manipulation of the record in time with the manipulation of the cross fader on the mixer to create new rhythms and sonic artefacts with a variety of sounds. The evolution of scratching from a fairly simple sound and simple rhythmic cadences to more complicated sounds and more intricate rhythmical patterns allowed the practitioners to further evolve what could be done with scratching musically. These new ways of scratching were all given names, from flare to crab or orbit, and spread as DJs taught each other, practiced together or just showed off their new techniques to other DJs.

Alongside the evolution of scratching, other practices such as drumming (or scratch drumming) and beat juggling were also evolved significantly during the 1990s. Beat Juggling was invented by Steve Dee, a member of the X-Men (later renamed X-Ecutioners) crew. Beat Juggling essentially involves the manipulation of two identical or different drum patterns on two different turntables via the mixer to create a new pattern. A simple example would be to use two copies of the same drum pattern to evolve the pattern by doubling the snares, syncopating the drum kick, adding rhythm and variation to the existing pattern.

From this concept, which Steve Dee showcased in the early 90s at DJ battles, Beat Juggling evolved into a technique for creating entirely new ‘beats’ and rhythms out of existing, pre-recorded ones. These were now not just limited to using drum patterns, but could also consist of other sounds – the ultimate aim being to create a new rhythm out of the pre-recorded existing ones. While Beat Juggling is not as popular as scratching due to the more demanding rhythmical knowledge it requires, it has proved popular within DJ Battles and in certain compositional situations.

Starting in the 1990s in the Southern United States and burgeoning in the 2000s, a meta-genre of hip hop called ‘chopped and screwed’ became a significant and popular form of turntablism. Often utilizing a greater variety of vinyl emulation software rather than normal turntables, ‘chopped and screwed’ stood out from previous standards of turntablism in its slowing of the pitch and tempo (‘screwing’) and syncopated beat skipping (‘chopping’), among other added effects of sound manipulation.

Visual turntablism is a more recent phenomenon in which ‘visual turntablists,’ or VJs, incorporate pictures, video, and computer generated effects into their live performances utilizing a separate video mixer in combination with their turntablist equipment. It can contain visuals without the audio being necessarily directly associated or synchronized.

Like many other musical instrumentalists, turntablists compete to see who can develop the fastest, most innovative and most creative approaches to their instrument. The selection of a champion comes from the culmination of battles between turntablists.

Battling involves each turntablist performing a routine (A combination of various technical scratches, beat juggles, and other elements, including body tricks) within a limited time period, after which the routine is judged by a panel of experts. The winner is selected based upon score. These organized competitions evolved from actual old school ‘battles’ where DJs challenged each other at parties, and the ‘judge’ was usually the audience, who would indicate their collective will by cheering louder for the DJ they thought performed better.

The DMC World DJ Championships has been hosted for 22 years. There are separate competitions for solo DJs and DJ teams, the title of World Champion being bestowed on the winners of each. They also maintain a turntablism hall of fame.

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