by Billy "muthafuckin"
(INTRO) Dublin, Ireland born/US based DJ/writer Billy Jam has been down with hip hop from the very early eighties. In addition to spinning hip hop on various radio stations he has written about the genre for numerous publications, both underground and mainstream, including BOMB hip hop magazine, Source, Vibe, BAM, XXL, Ill Tip, Down Low, Rap Sheet, Blaze, Payin Duez, Strivin, San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Guardian, and Murder Dog from where the following article was previously published. Jam is about to release on CD a limited edition Shiggar Fraggar show feat. Q-Bert, Apollo, Disk, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, UB, & DJ Killahoe. You can reach the jam man at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hip hop and all its components, including DJing, emcee-ing, breaking, & graffiti, may have been born in New York City back in the seventies but it is the Bay Area where the current world wide renaissance of the entire genre and in particular the DJ as artist or rather "turntablist" is centered. For several years now such Bay Area DJs as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, the Space Travelers, Peanut Butter Wolf and DJ Shadow have each been, not only keeping alive the art of the DJ, which was pioneered in New York, but also advancing it to new creative heights while simultaneously educating a whole new wave of rap and hip hop fans about the DJ.
"In hip hop it needs to get
back to when it was the DJ first and then the MC, like DJ Jazzy Jeff and The
Fresh Prince," said Phoenix Arizona DJ Z-Trip who like many others believes
that, thanks in part to such factors as rap videos and meddling major labels,
that for over five years now in hip hop that the DJ has almost become extinct.
"The new movement of the DJ is a reaction to this. So now the DJs are saying
fuck it. I'm going to go for self. People like myself and Cut Chemist (Jurassic
5) are out shining the emcee to a degree because now the DJ is the star attraction,"
said Z-Trip at San Francisco's Justice League club in January where he and fellow
Bomb Shelter DJ Emile were spinning at "Future Primitive" - an ongoing
Bay Area traveling club that showcases the DJ as artist and has featured such
DJs as Mix Master Mike, Quest, Peanut Butter Wolf and Disk - all of whom get
major respect worldwide.
DAVID PAUL's PIONEERING BOMB DJ COMPILATIONS:
One thing that all of these DJs have in common is that they've each been featured on the two groundbreaking "Return Of The DJ" compilations put out by San Francisco's pioneering Bomb Hip Hop Records. It was in 1995 when hip hop visionary and Bomb CEO David Paul released the world's first ever DJ collection, "Return Of The DJ Vol. I." This very first hip hop battle DJ compilation introduced most of the world to such turntable wizards as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (Q-Bert, Disk, & Shortkut), Mix Master Mike (solo) Peanut Butter Wolf, Beat Junkies, Cut Chemist, and Rob Swift (X-Men). And although it was only three short years ago when this first all DJ album was released, it was too far ahead of its time for most ears who weren't quite ready for an all turntable album. Consequently it only sold 5000 copies. However by the time Paul released the critically acclaimed follow up "Return Of The DJ Vol. II" in 1997, which featured such "turntablists" as Z-Trip and DJ partner Radar, New York's Roc Raida, Canada's Kid Koala, and Mr. Dibbs/1200 Hobos from Ohio, fans had caught up with this new worldwide phenomenon. Paul, who himself started out as a mobile DJ in 85, put together the first "Return Of The DJ" collection because he noticed that DJ tracks on albums had become pretty much obsolete. "In 1994 I noticed that most albums no longer had that sole DJ track like with Cash Money or Jazzy Jeff or even DJs featured on tracks like back in the day," he said. "And the Bay Area has always been into scratching since the 1980's with the mobile crews like the Skratch Piklz. Out here the art of the DJ never really died but it did in the so-called 'rap/hip hop industry,' " said Paul who knew such contributing DJs as New York's X-Men (now known as X-ecutioners), LA's Beat Junkies, and Frisco's Invisibl Skratch Piklz from the five years he had been putting out his now defunct "Bomb Hip Hop Magazine." This highly respected zine had always reported on such DJ battles as the DMC and the New Music Seminar Superman contests. Note that today DJ battles include the aforementioned DMC, ITF (International Turntablist Federation), and Vestax competitions. "Return Of The DJ," for which each contributing DJ was told to do whatever kind of mix they wanted but to keep it under five minutes, went on to become the blueprint for what a DJ/turntablist album should sound like. It also familiarized many new fans with such DJ techniques as scratching and beat juggling. Paul sees a lot of the new interest in the DJ as sign of rap's current creative lull, noting that MTV and other channels that play rap music videos changed the public's perception of what rap and hip hop is today. "You don't have to go out to a show to see hip hop anymore. You can see it right on TV but unfortunately most rap music videos don't show a DJ," said Paul who added that for him the attraction of a concert by say Gang Starr was as much DJ Premier as the emcee Guru.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HIP HOP DJ:
Like hip hop, the hip hop DJ started in New York by way of Jamaica in the mid seventies when legendary DJ Kool Herc took it back to the States but instead of using reggae beats which reggae vocalists would "toast" over he instead started played disco or funk beats for "MCs" to rap over and for B-Boys to break to. Fellow New Yorker Grand Wizard Theodore soonafter followed, being the very first DJ to scratch. Last year Grand Wizard Theodore flew out to San Francisco to the ITF World Championships at the Palace Of Fine Arts where ITF president Alex Aquino honored him with a lifetime achievement award for creating the scratch technique. The fact that a New York hip hop legend would be honored by the San Francisco based ITF organization (who's goal according to Aquino is "to promote the art of turntablism") again proves how the Bay Area is and has long being the premiere spot to recognize and respect the DJ as an artist.
Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore may have been the pioneers but it was Grand Master Flash with his group The Furious Five who popularized the DJ through such releases as "Grand Master Flash: Adventures on the Wheels Of Steel." Other pioneering New York DJs included Afrika Bambaata, Marley Marl, Grandmixer DST, and Jam Master Jay from Run DMC. Around this time, as hip hop spread to other cities outside New York's five boroughs, Philadelphia became another DJ haven. It was DJ Spinbad outta Philly who came up with the "transform scratch" which later was adapted and speeded up by DJ Cash Money and then later commercialized by Jazzy Jeff of Fresh Prince fame, both also Philly DJs.
Meanwhile out west in LA Egyptian Lover, who released the classic "What Is A DJ If He Can't Scratch" back in 1983, and such other DJs as Dr. Dre, Aladdin (Low Profile) and Joe Cooley (Rodney O) were spreading the art of turntablism. Meanwhile up the coast in Frisco Q-Bert, Apollo, Mix Master Mike, and most of the other DJs now associated with the Invisbl Skratch Piklz were all involved in mobile DJ crews and as such were carrying on an art that was born in New York a decade earlier.
To list all the DJs who've contributed to the art form over the years would take too much space but ones that deserve mention include Funkmaster Flex, Charlie Chase, AJ Scratch, DJ Whiz, DJ Honda, DJ Krush, DJ Disk, Mind Motion and Pirate DJs, Doo Wop, Ron G, DJ Tat Money, DJ Pooh, Frankie Cutlass, Spinderella, DJ Pam The Funkstress, The Angel, DJ Cue, DJ Quest, DJ Red Alert, Magic Mike, Captain Sky, DJ Hollywood, DJ Mark the 45 King, The Automater, DJ Kool, Terminator X, Kut Master Kurt, and Q-Bert who David Paul described as "the Jimi Hendrix and the Eddie Van Halen of turntables."
Without a doubt of all the DJs in today's turntablist movement it is Q-Bert who seems to be the best known and respected all over the globe for his turntable finesse. In fact so good are Q-Bert's skills that at the 1994 DMC (Disco Mixing Club) DJ contest in London, England he and turntable partner Mix Master Mike, were forced to retire from the competition. The organizers announced that they were `too intimidating to competitors' after winning in both '92 and '93'.
Consequently Q-Bert has continued to wow both fans and peers alike with his ever evolving creative growth as a soloist (he's recorded with the likes of Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon and DJ Shadow) and with his crew, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. Along with fellow Piklz Mix Master Mike, Shortkut, D-Styles, & A-Trak, Q-Bert is constantly flying off to spots such as Japan, Australia, and Switzerland to perform. The prolific Skratch Piklz have put out a series of mix tapes and videos and break beat albums. This year will see their full length artist debut plus a Mix Master Mike album and a Q-Bert solo album.
Speaking recently between studio sessions Q-Bert said that he's really pleased with all the attention that the DJ as an artist has been getting in the last year or two. "It's great that the art of sound manipulation is becoming stronger everyday and that there's so many people now wanting to be DJs," he said noting that how in Japan and other places that turntables and mixers are now outselling guitars and amps. As a turntablist Q-Bert is also an educator. "Some people ask what's scratching got to do with hip hop and we tell them that it dates back to the origins of hip hop. You know a lot of people don't know the origins of hip hop before the drum machines," he said. Another interesting observation is that Q-Bert still uses many of the exact same records that the old school New York pioneers used to use. "The techniques get crazier and more intricate everyday but for some reason we're still using the same records that they used. I just use them in a different way," he said.
Of the newer breakbeat albums, Q-Bert recommends DJ Babu's "Superduck Breaks" on Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw Records. "Those break beat records are the best cos they have everything on there; slow beats and fast beats. You can do tricks with them and scratch and practice your skills," said the DJ who counts among his all-time favorite records as Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals" and Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" featuring Grandmixer DST. As far as early influences Q-Bert includes Mixmaster Mike, Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff.
Thirteen years ago when Q-Bert started out he was in a crew with people like DJ Cuts, Dreamy D, and Toad Man. At that time Apollo was in a Daly City group called Unlimited Sounds and Mix Master Mike was in a group called Hi Tech. "The first thing I learned was how to scratch rather than to mix and that just amazed me. Just manipulating sound with your hand is like a miracle, " he said. "The basic root of scratching is a musical instrument; you're figuring out all these time signatures and rhythms and patterns and notes." As for the current wave of interest in the DJ Q-Bert thinks that its more than a passing fad. "Of course you'll have some people who'll get into it and check it out and if they don't like it they'll get out. But there's always going to be people who'll stick with it. Just like us. We're making our own music. And if this world doesn't accept us we're going to make our own world."
ROB SWIFT X-MEN:
Rob Swift is one of the four super talented DJs in New York's X-ecutioners who changed their name from the X-Men to avoid legal complications. In January Rob and his partners (Mista Sinista, Roc Raida, & Total Eclipse) who were touring with Common in support of their recent debut "X-pressions" (Asphodel), rocked the full house at San Francisco's Maritime Hall. After their incredible set which included scratching in classics from MC Shan and LL Cool J and had the 1800 fans on their feet from start to finish Rob talked on his favorite topic. "I love doing what I do cos I get to express myself without having to speak. I connect with the crowd just by the movements of my hand. It's a dope feeling," he said. Rob says that he and his crew as well as Q-Bert and the Piklz and the Beat Junkies are all advancing the art by constantly being innovative. "We all have access to the same tools but each person has their own style depending on the person's personality," he said. Like good jazz musicians Rob and the X-Men improvise. "Like tonight when we were doing our group set one of our records was missing so we just improvised."
According to Rob what makes the X-Men unique is their diversity. "We put equal emphasis on all the facets of turntablism: scratching, beat juggling, body tricks, and showmanship," he said. Another thing that sets the X-Men, who are all African American, apart from many other crews is that they're one of the few all black DJ crews. "Its weird but for some reason there are more Filipino or white DJs or rather turntablists than there are black turntablists. I think blacks are more into vocals or rhyming than turntablism but hopefully we'll influence more blacks to get into it," he said.
"Ten years ago you never would have thought that a DJ group would be traveling on tour with another rap group," said Rob when asked about what he sees as the future of the DJ. "So in a couple of years we'll probably see whole DJ group tours and also DJs will start to get the kind of artist recognition they deserve like Grammy awards."
Considered by many as the original Filipino Frisco b-boy DJ Apollo started out in 1983 as a mobile DJ and break dancer. Soonafter he had a crew called Unlimited Sounds and by the time he was in tenth grade he and Mix Master Mike had formed the group TWS (Together With Style) with whom he'd DJ at parties all around the Bay Area. Later they hooked up with the rap group FM 20. Soonafter Q-Bert joined them they started entering national DJ competitions usually under the name The West Coast Rock Steady Crew DJs. After such triumphs as winning the DMC World Championship battle in '92 in England soon the whole hip hop nation was familiar with Apollo and his partners. In '93 Apollo hooked up with Souls Of Mischief as their DJ. He also recorded on their second album, all the while still performing with Q-Bert and Mike. Then in '95 Branford Marsalis, on the advice of DJ Premier, invited Apollo to join his progressive jazz ensemble Buckshot Le Fonque. As such he toured the country and even played on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (Marsalis' previous short-lived gig). Today Apollo, who is no longer an official member of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz but is still down with the crew, DJs solo and also with the San Francisco Filipino hip hop group KNT whom he also produces. Regarding the high visibility of Bay Area Filipinos in the local hip hop scene Apollo joked, "Filipinos; we're like the west coast Puerto Ricans. There's so many Filipino DJs out here in the Bay Area but if you look at it, it all roots back to the mobile DJ crews in the eighties. We were all into music and throwing parties. We just did it out of love."
Apollo is also quick to make note of the irony of how now in 1998 when the DJ is such a huge phenomenon that its near impossible to find records. "Back when we started in the eighties you could just walk into Tower Records or anywhere and everything was vinyl then. You didn't have any problems picking up an album on vinyl. Now even in the main 'record' stores like Amoeba you still can't find everything you want on vinyl," he said. Records that Apollo recommends for DJs include break beat albums such as the ones the he and the Piklz put out: "Battle Breaks," "Bionic Booger Breaks," and "Toasted Marshmallow Foot Breaks." Of all the DJs, Apollo cites Mix Master Mike as his all-time favorite because of his total uniqueness. "The way he thinks, his theories and philosophies about DJing are brilliant and I can relate to him and he has always been an inspiration to me," he said.
What makes Arizona DJ Z-Trip and San Francisco DJ Eddie Def unique is their individual affinity to incorporate rock music into their mixes. In fact it was Z-Trip's "Rockstar" - a cleverly collected collage of rock classics - that became many listeners favorite track on the "Return Of The DJ Vol. II" compilation. "I'm eclectic. I grew up listening to everything so I sample it all which is what a good hip hop DJ should do anyway. I sample funk, rock, Gregorian chants, whatever," said Z-Trip whose Bomb Shelter crew includes DJs Radar & Emile. Currently Z-Trip, who has an impressive discography of mix-tapes and records, is putting together a rock tape with rock breaks from such classic head bangers as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.
Likewise Eddie Def of San Francisco's Space Travelers crew is also very eclectic. ``I love hip hop, particularly old-school hip hop but I listen to rock groups like Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails more. Plus I grew up listening to a lot of rock and other stuff," he said. His last mix-tape, the incredible "Hemp Lords. Vol. II" is perfect proof of this. The ninety minute tape, which he spent two months carefully crafting, includes samples of Nine Inch Nails, Led Zeppelin, Blur, Billy Joel, and The Beach Boys to name a few. Other eclectic DJs include San Francisco's legendary DJ Mix Master Mike whose 1997 album "Muzik's Worst Nightmare'' was an inspired smorgasbord of found-sounds such as The Doors mixed with Method Man.
Meanwhile internationally acclaimed Davis DJ Shadow, whose music doesn't necessarily sound "hip hop" although its approach is, is another sample king as witnessed by his 1996 hit debut ``Endtroducing......'' and its recent successful follow up "Preemptive Strike." Shadow cites among his early musical influences Depeche Mode, Afrika Bambaata & The Soulsonic Force, New Order, Egyptian Lover, and Art Of Noise.
Before Shadow or most of the DJs mentioned in this article ever put out records or CDs they first made mix-tapes. Mix tapes, which were popularized in New York by Kid Capri but now pop up in all corners of the world, offer DJ's an opportunity to display their skills and also make some extra cash. Ninety minute mix-tapes sell for $10 or $12 with an average DJ selling anywhere from twenty to two hundred cassettes although some, such as Chicago's DJ Boogie Boy, often sell 5,000 or more copies. Despite the fact that mix-tapes are technically illegal bootlegs most record companies turn a blind eye since they view them as promotional tools. In fact many labels even commission DJ's to mix tapes for them. For example New York DJ Evil D (of Black Moon fame) mixed "Sound Bombing" for Rawkus Records and DJ Premier just mixed "New York Reality Check 101" for Payday Records.
Note that mix-tapes do vary in format but the two basic types are party tapes, with all the latest songs and rap free styles, to mixing & scratching tapes. It is the latter, from DJ's such as Mix Master Mike, Q-Bert, Eddie Def, Rob Swift, Mr. Dibbs, & Roc Raida, that are the more popular at Cue's in Daly City. Store owner DJ Cue said that they've become more and more popular in the last two years. Note that DJ Cue is about to release a DJ/emcee double vinyl compilation called "Cue's Hip Hop Shop" on Dogday Records.
SUGGESTED DJ RELEASES:
Besides the hundreds of excellent mix-tapes floating around out there and the releases mentioned in this article worth tracking down are. `Deep Concentration,' a CD-Rom that pays homage to the hip hop DJ with an informative historical overview plus twelve sample-based instrumental tracks featuring such acclaimed DJ's as Prince Paul, The X-Men, Peanut Butter Wolf, and Cut Chemist. Also recommended upcoming releases include DJ Koala's "Carpel Tunnel Syndrome " and the Bomb Records' DJ Faust's "Man Or Myth" and DJ Disk's " Ancient Termites ."
FUTURE OF THE DJ:
One thing that everyone interviewed in this story is in agreement on is that this is just the beginning of the whole DJ as turntablist movement. As Rob Swift said, "Soon DJs will start to get the level of respect that people like Whitney Houston already get. Cos really its all music being made by artists. One just happens to be a singer and one a DJ."
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