Perfect Sound Forever


Mixmaster Mike
Mixmaster Mike- photo by Chris Taylor

By Randy Gelling (June 2000)

Turntablism... an unfortunate, even clumsy phrase to describe what is one of the most vital and promising developments in underground music. The term was allegedly first coined by the Beat Junkie's DJ Babu, but one shouldn't let the off-putting emphasis on technical jargon like the Crab, Hamster, Chop and Tear (all different forms of scratching) lead you to dismiss turntablism as mere "turntable wanking." The real intention behind the "turntablism" term was to differentiate the much more intense use of the turntable as instrument through scratching, sound-collage and beat juggling that some hip-hop DJ's were developing throughout the U.S. from the more prevalent and significantly different aesthetic of seamless, almost invisible mixing favoured by disco, house and electronic dance DJs.

 The history of turntablism could conceivably be traced back before hip-hop, to the 1939 piece "Imaginary Landscapes No. 1" composed by the American avant-gardist John Cage which involved two record turntables playing recordings of test tones. For decades the use of the turntable as an instrument was largely the domain of composers working in avant garde electronic music and musique concrete like Pierre Schaeffer and Pauline Oliveros (check her amazing piece "Bye Bye Butterfly"). This highly abstract, beatless approach is still in evidence today in the turntable music of Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide, among others. Much of the musical cut-and-paste aesthetic of turntablism was hinted at in the early solo albums (Canaxis 5, Movies) of Can's Holger Czukay and the similar Brian Eno/David Byrne album My Life In The Bush Of The Ghosts feeds directly back into the hip-hop continuum as an admitted influence on the Bomb Squad productions for Public Enemy. Indeed, the dense samplescapes evident on the late '80's/early '90's albums of Public Enemy, De La Soul and Ice Cube were one reason for the increased musical skills of the hip-hop DJs known as turntablists. But the influence of the studio producers is downplayed (rightly) by the majority of turntablists who see themselves as extending the early achievements of Grandmaster Flash's sound-collage "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel," as well as Grandwizard Theodore and DST's scratching (especially on the seminal but dated "Rock It") and Afrika Bambaataa's musical eclecticism. One vital, nearly forgotten elder was DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant who brought the influence of the dub-master King Tubby's block-rocking sound system and the toaster DJs to the West Bronx. As if this wasn't enough, Kool Herc is also credited with creating the technique of skipping back and forth between two records to make a "loop" of the stripped down percussive breaks that drove the dance audience wild. This technique has been extended into the modern technique known as beat juggling, wherein the turntablist uses two copies of the same record to manipulate the beats, hooks, etc. into an original, very subtle and shifting rhythmic composition.

 The quickest way to convert skeptics wary of the turntablist hype is to get them to check out a quality turntablist in a live setting. My own personal Damascus was at a club where Roc Raida (of the NYC crew the X-Men/Executioners) and DJ Babu cut it up live. I had been collecting twelve inches, mixtapes and compilations of various turntablist crews for a while but nothing had prepared me for the physically assaultive sonic power and abstract extremism these turntablists exhibited in person. Roc Raida took classic old-school hip-hop tracks and tore them into pieces. Heavy jabs of bass and explosions of high-end distortion and scratches ripped the guts out of every track, leaving only the warped choruses and fractured rhythms pounding inside my head. If classic dub-reggae is equivalent to a musical x-ray of the original song, then Raida's approach is the equivalent to a musical death ray that vaporizes the song's flesh and burns the bones to ashes.

In contrast, Babu focused almost entirely upon his scratching. Traditionally in hip-hop, the scratch serves either a percussive or disruptive function. As Tricia Rose points out in her excellent book Black Noise, the scratch in hip-hop usually serves as a percussive accent that disrupts the near continuous flow of the rhythm track to both release or build musical tension. Under this traditional method the scratch is a functional element in the overall "song" but with Babu the "song" is built almost entirely from the scratching. While still retaining the percussive character of the scratch Babu also makes the scratch "melodic" in the sense that it is the central musical event in the track. This seemingly contradictory creation of melody out of an apparently "unmusical" sound is consciously asserted by the title to the track "A Scratch Is A Musical Note" on Rob Swift's Soulful Fruit . The liberation of percussion from the role of musical time-keeper to being a fully integrated partner or even the "solo" star in a musical piece is also reflected in jungle/drum n' bass, free jazz and the 20th century avant-garde. But whereas free jazz and the avant-garde are consciously drawing on the traditional music of Africa, there is little evidence that the turntablists or junglists have been consciously pursuing a more "African" basis for their music. More likely is the fact that the turntablists are building on the musical tradition of James Brown, whose development of rhythm over melody or harmony was in turn never consciously "African."

Another interesting parallel can be drawn between turntablism and bebop. Of course one can only stretch the comparison so far but there are striking similarities. Both forms are abstract, non-dance oriented music that developed out of an earlier dance form; traditional hip-hop and swing respectively. Though one should also be wary of the elitist assumption that music designed for dancing is inherently musically inferior to more "sophisticated" or abstract music. This holds true when comparing swing to bebop or hip-hop to turntablism. Turntablism and bebop also share many of the same musical concerns: improvisation, increased rhythmic sophistication and musical abstraction. Bebop politicos like Amiri Baraka in Blues People argued that bebop was an "anti-assimilationist" move on the part of black musicians against the more commercial swing of Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman. Similarly turntablism can be seen as a reaction against the commercial rap of Puffy and the gangsta rappers. At the same time one needs to be careful of the seductive tendency to oversimplify and project political intentions. The history of bebop reveals that the claims that it was intended to be a purer "black" music are often contradictory and not backed up by the facts (like the supportive role many white musicians played in bebop's inception). Similarly, turntablism has yet to reveal any conscious political intentions, which isn't to say that it doesn't have some political implications, as all art inevitably does. At most there is some vague hostility to commercial hip-hop and black pop, although this is far from being completely enforced dogma as many turntablists are fans of everything from Michael Jackson to Wu-Tang Clan. Even less convincing is the purer "black" music claim when one considers that one of the most noteworthy details of the turntablist scene is its multi-racial mix of blacks, hispanics, whites, Filipinos and (on the West Coast) Samoans. At the same time there is no denying that the early innovators of turntablism were overwhelmingly black.

In many ways the turntablists are making a strategic retreat back after seeing the aesthetic dead-end reached by most of the studio-bound producers and MCs whose tired four-bar loops and "keeping it real" minimalism has lead to a creative cul-de-sac where they have collapsed back into conventional notions regarding melody, session players and "soul singing." The turntablists aren't the retro fetishists some have accused them of being. What they're doing is reviving the prematurely abandoned potential of the turntable in the same way punk rock explored the prematurely abandoned noise-guitar of garage rock after witnessing the aesthetic outrages of the prog-rockers.

Brian Eno is one of the most articulate and ironic critics of the studio-bound music being created today (ironic because in many ways he pioneered the studio as instrument). In an interesting interview in Wire magazine he proposed several solutions to dealing with technology in music that are also very insightful into what are the major advantages of turntablism over the studio-tradition in hip-hop. Eno said that computer-music programs and synthesisers don't allow their user to have a physical, tactile relationship with the music they create; there is no sense of rapport between the player and their instrument. Turntablism is obviously tactile since the turntablist literally plays the technology by using his fingers to scratch and manipulate the record. This may seem a mundane notion but it brings back the essential tradition of live performance and spontaneity to hip-hop (and the black tradition it's part of) after years of MCs rapping to DATs or even lip syncing like the most vacuous of pop stars, without backing down from the radical rejection of traditional instruments. Eno also notes that the rhythms of computers are "locked" and don't allow any of the give and take of a rhythm section. Again, in turntablism the remarkable thing about beat juggling is the exciting range of rhythmic subtleties, inflections and even interaction between crew members that becomes possible. Timbaland's much vaunted polyrhythms are similarly lively but much more predetermined. In many ways beat juggling is the most exciting and least explored element in turntablism. Finally, Eno said that the assumption that the multitude of options in the latest technology would lead to better music is patently false as the users became trapped by their own machines. It's often better to be confined to limited equipment and circumstances (two turntables, four-tracks, DJ Battles) rather than drown in an ocean of unrealized possibilities.

Before you run out to buy your first turntablist album, be warned that most of the best turntablist music isn't found on full-length CD's. Although there are exceptions, the majority of turntablist full-length albums released so far have been disappointingly conservative compared to the radical, raw productions available on twelve inches, mixtapes and compilations. Too often "real" musicians are brought in to play--rarely matching the brilliance of the turntablist--or the turntablist holds back so that guest MCs can shine. No doubt concerns regarding copyright infringement also restrict turntablists in ways that they've never had to worry about in live performance or on underground twelve inches and mixtapes. There are some encouraging developments though, with several excellent mixtapes now being re-released on CD by mini-indies. Here are my picks of some of the best, modern turntablist releases in no particular order:

Also see an appreciation/interview of Kid Koala

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