The Vinyl Anachronist
Photo by G*Force
by Marc Phillips
LXVIX: The Turntablist Chronicles:
Boy Eats Drum Machine
"I recognize the artistry of some of the best DJs, and I marvel at some of their pyrotechnics. But they have to leave the music in for me to remain interested. When it's just a beat, it's, well, just a beat. It's not necessarily music. And that's why, for me at least, good analog reproduction is 'where it's at.'"
My words have a habit of coming back to bite me in the ass. When I wrote the above in February 2001, I was living a comfortable and boring middle-class existence in the San Fernando Valley. Well, it's precisely eight years later and I've been completely immersed in the Portland music scene for the better part of the last two years. After hearing some of the turntablists in the area, I'm utterly hooked on this art form. I'm hearing an extraordinary amount of imagination and musicianship and I'm curious to learn more.
This is the first in a series of columns on the current state of turntablists in the music scene. While the underground music fans that make up most of PSF's readership don't need an introduction to this kind of music, the audiophiles who specifically follow this column might.
I'm starting with the first artist who truly took me by surprise, Portland's own Jon Ragel. Jon performs under the name Boy Eats Drum Machine, and he's a virtual one man band on stage. His first LP, last year's Booomboxxx, stunned me with its passionate beats, exotic samples and healthy blasts of real live sax and percussion. Jon's singing voice is also surprising in its strength and clarity. What surprised me the most however, was his ability to replicate the songs on his album in his live performances thanks to skills in both the analog and digital domains.
Jon was kind enough to give me my first tutorial on the turntablist scene.
PSF: Many skeptics about the current resurgence in vinyl and turntables feel that "turntablists" and DJs are the ones who kept the medium viable over the last 10 to 15 years. Audiophiles like to think that the medium has endured due to sound quality. How do you personally feel about LP's and turntables? Do you listen to the medium for pleasure, or do you use it solely as a way to express your music?
I love listening to records---there is definitely an 'experience' quality to the sound and setup. I like the turntable to be in the middle of the action, like a drum in Native American songs. And while there are, no doubt, audiophile purists who love the 'warmth' of vinyl, my hunch is that cultural connections to '60's and '70's audiophile, '80's hip hop, and the global DJ scene are getting people into vinyl more often than not.
Other possible reasons people might appreciate a vinyl LP include the finite nature of a record. It's like a record says: "This is it. This is the work of art. It's done and there won't be additional pressings with B-sides added or studio out-takes." I also think 20 minutes (or so) is an ideal program length for most people---the perfect amount of time to make a statement. And let's face it: CD's are ugly and the CD booklets they come with even uglier. All that glossy paper folded a dozen times---how tacky. Meanwhile, a centerfold copy of Thriller with Michael posing with a baby tiger is looking totally awesome. Vinyl is the best graphical medium---no contest.
I plan on sticking with vinyl for live performances. I've had quite a few people ask if I'll ever switch to Serato or a CD deck. I can see the validity of those tools. I'm pretty amazed with Serato, for example, and I would likely use it if I were a club DJ. But for my work in BEDM, the turntable is a lead instrument. I like the way vinyl sounds when you physically manipulate it. The needle seems to wiggle back and forth, side to side, varying the sounds in the left and right channel in interesting ways. I don't see how a digital application could ever fully replicate that. Plus, I hate laptops and Serato doesn't smell like old records (yet). I like the finite nature of vinyl too---a cleaner workspace helps me focus. I've never used digital files for drums, for instance. In fact, the only time I've 'pulled' from digital files is for remixes. So vinyl appeals to me both in its physical and sound aesthetics, as well as its finite quality as a tool.
PSF: Tell me about the digital beatbox you use. Was it revolutionary in terms of how you perform? Do you see these devices replacing turntables in the future?
I like to trigger pre-sampled beats and bits and use the turntable as the lead voice. I also manage a lot of 'on-the-fly' samples from vinyl with a Korg Kaoss Pad II (KP2). That's how I get away with using one deck instead of two---I can lay down two samples from the record and get something else lined up. Again, simplicity in my tools and approach really helps me. I get asked about the gear every show---especially the KP2. People love the KP2---it's obviously central to what I do as a turntablist and it has cool glowing lights. Only fellow guitarists asked me about my guitar pedals when I played in rock bands. Now, everyone is curious about the gear.
That's been one of the most enjoyable parts of performing as BEDM---that connection with the audience. Or should I say 'lessoned barrier with the audience'? Either way, I figure most of us have touched a turntable, so there's often that connection people feel to it. And the KP2 looks totally simple to the audience in its use, because it IS simple in it's use and manipulation. Not all of us are fit to be virtuoso guitarists, but we can all make art, and I think DJ gear represents that principle to the audience in many respects. Ironically, turntablism is a bitch to learn.
PSF: You're quite unique in the way you meld DJ technologies into vocals, percussion and saxophone, going far beyond "two turntables and a microphone." In a variation on the chicken-egg question, were you a traditional musician who became a DJ, or were you a DJ that started finding ways to implement tradition instruments in your performances?
I've always been a song writer and arranger first, musician second. I remember picking up the guitar in high school and all of my friends were playing Led Zeppelin and jamming blues scales. But I just wanted to write songs. I took the same approach when I started learning how to manipulate the turntable. I remember the guy showing me his decks was like: "every turntablist has a break record with 'FRRRESH!' on it. What you do with 'FRRRESH!' shows how good of a turntablist you are." I decided at that point never to own a record with 'FRRRESH!' on it.
So I picked up the live band thing first, turntable second, and have since become a one-man musical act, drawing influence from traditional old skool DJ's, who were both turntablists and MCs.
PSF: What you do on stage in terms of athleticism, musicianship and interaction with the audience exceeds traditional definitions of a DJ. Do you think of yourself as a DJ? Is there a more hybrid explanation of what you do?
I'm always a turntablist---often an MC if the occasion permits. Every audience and performance is different though. I like to think of what I do as musical performance art.
PSF: A few years ago, I stated that I had little interest in the DJ scene (mostly to discourage all the emails I was receiving about how to assemble a good DJ rig, something I knew nothing about). Seeing acts such as Boy Eats Drum Machine has forced me to re-evaluate my position, since there is such an art to what you do. Are we in the middle of a DJ renaissance in terms of creativity, or do you see yourself as part of the vanguard?
I doubt we're in a renaissance as far as old skool turntablism goes. I rarely see the manipulation of vinyl as central to hip hop and electronic live acts. And I can't remember the last time I saw an MC with a DJ who was doing more than managing sequences and scratching 'WIKI WIKI' over the top of them. Obviously, laptops and CD decks are easier to manage and maintain for live use. So the turntable is a symbol of 'authenticity' in many dance clubs and on most hip hop stages these days, whether or not it is being utilized in a truly 'FRRRESH' way, if at all. Also, it seems most beat producers have removed the turntable from their work flow, which kind of negates the need for a turntable in the live performance of those songs.
That said, we're definitely in a renaissance as far as beats and home made music goes. Technology is allowing people all over the world to get into creating and sharing art in a way that was totally impossible even 10 years ago. In that way the most important aspect of DJ culture---the togetherness---is alive and well. I don't think there is any inherent 'pure' cultural quality to vinyl---if people are having fun, if they're getting down and feeling more connected, then whatever tools are being used are obviously working.
You can check out Booomboxxx and Jon's music at boyeatsdrummachine.com.
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