Why I like
Turntablists, and why I hate Techno
essay by Noe Valladolid
The other day while I was driving home from college my brothers and I had an argument over music. While my brothers and I have different musical tastes we also have some common interests. We were listening to DJ Shadows Entroducing they complimented his ability to arrange and create music with old records and turntables. When I changed CDs and put in DJ Qberts Wave Twisters they instantly began disliking the music. Saying that they couldnt understand how I could find something musical in the noise of Qberts skratching as opposed to the truer musical arrangements from Shadow. Furthermore my younger brother questioned why I was always insulting his techno and dance collections when a lot of the things in both styles of DJ music sounded similar. I could not have argued the point of why I like turntablists then and there. I am too scatterbrained for doing that and paying attention to the road. But in recollection and in essay form I know I could put down and hopefully communicate why I like the music. Below is the essay that I wrote on the subject.
Why I like Turntablists, and why I hate techno.
In a nutshell turntable DJs present more musical ideas than dance, techno, rave or club DJs. To understand my thinking well have to look at the evolution of the dj and hip-hop culture. All of the DJ biographies were taken from the notes on Scratch, a documentary on turntablists. So dont think I really know that much about history. All of the info, biographies and trivia come from David Paul (Bomb Hip-Hop), Billy Jam (Hip-Hop Slam) and SCRATCH director Doug Pray.
Though DJ Kool Herc is the original founding father of hip-hop, no one can claim a greater influence on hip-hop culture itself than Afrika Bambaataa who founded The Universal Zulu Nation in 1973. Inspired by a UNICEF trip he won to Africa during high school, he returned to the South Bronx, became a DJ, and helped bring together many different kinds of street performers: graffiti writers, b-boys, emcees, and of course DJs. The Zulu Nation now has thousands of members worldwide, but at the time, it was a creative alternative to street gangs and became a positive outlet for kids throughout New York City and elsewhere. Afrika Bambaataa cultivated an entire group of influential DJs around him including GrandMixer DST (now DXT), Jazzy Jay, Red Alert and GrandWizzard Theodore. Musically, "Bam" is best known for the global hit "Planet Rock" by The Soulsonic Force, that helped launch hip-hop into the mainstream as well as contributing greatly to the development of the entire techno music genre.
Techno composers and DJs are related. Both stem from the same musical ideas inspired by Afrika Bambaataa. Techno instead is a musical offshoot and not necessarily related to the sounds emanating from the clubs and street of New York back in the day. Techno is an evolutionary process for sound as well as music. The line that separates composition, computer programming, found and made sounds is blurred by the entire electronic music genre. All revolutionary DJ work regardless of style is an experiment in sound, music and rhythms.
The turntablist is tied into a culture and history. Not all of the musical ideas in turntable djs are new. Like many other styles of music turntablism is influenced by other musical styles like jazz and rock and roll. However the entire evolutionary process in turntablism is just as advanced as any electronic music composition.
GrandWizzard Theodore, by all accounts, invented the idea of scratching a record by moving it back and forth. Grand Master Flash had first pioneered the concept of "rubbing" a record to enhance a DJ's segue into a new track, but Theodore gave the backward sound a percussive, rhythmic personality. In the late '70s, he was a DJ with the L Brothers (along with his brother Mean Gene who played with Grand Master Flash). He then started the Fantastic Five (a.k.a. Fantastic Freaks) a crew who figures large in the history of "old-school" hip-hop. Theodore also created the musical score for the groundbreaking 1982 film "Wild Style". That low-budget dramatic film, directed by Charlie Ahearn, features everyone from The Cold Crush Brothers, Fantastic Five, Busy Bee, Grand Master Flash and a host of influential graffiti writers and hip-hop dancers, is regarded as the most accurate portrayal of early hip-hop in existence.
To restate the above ideas; the hip-hop movement inspired rap and breakdancing via the rhythms established by early DJs like GrandWizzard Theodore and DJ Kool Herc. The 80s saw an evolution of many musical styles in hip-hop. The emcees that rapped over the breaks established by djs eventually gained popularity over that of a traditional vocalist in a pop or rock band. When the emcee became the dominant voice in hip-hop Rap Music was born. By the early 90s the emcee evolved into a rapper and strayed from the roots of hip-hop. The majority of rappers becoming popular outside the hip-hop culture by glorifying gang life and violence. In cultural circles the rapper claims that he has finally gotten over or gained mainstream acceptance by achieving a certain level of popularity. However traditionalists would say rap is not very original or musical. And while rappers may claim to represent hip-hop to modern generations their actions of promoting themselves over the collective effort of the dj, breakdancers and graffiti writer dictate otherwise.
Electronic music, techno, dance and rave clubs evolved in a similar fashion. I would be lying if I said that the dj has always remained a purist musically and never got over by appealing to the masses. Clubs and dj music have always gone hand in hand. Electronic music evolved from experimentation. The turntable had for a long time been thought as an appliance or a tool. Other tools were soon established for the grand experiment in music.. Computers, drum machines, the conversion from analog to digital devices changed rapidly in electronic music. Before too long new music was being found or created in sound labs. Music would be turned on its ear and the most popular styles of dj music would evolve from the loud bass thumps in underground clubs not only in New York but all over the world.
The rise in popularity to techno music would not halt or cripple the turntablist movement. As hip-hop was a culture and not just a musical genre so were the original djs who inspired the movement continuing to inspire a whole new use for the turntable. GrandMixer DXT, formerly known as GrandMixer D.ST, DXT was one of the original Zulu Nation DJs in the South Bronx during the late '70s and early '80s. He performed the solo scratches on Herbie Hancock's #1 hit instrumental song "Rockit" in 1984. That performance, seen by millions on The Grammy Awards Show and Saturday Night Live was the spark that lit the imagination of an entire generation of scratch DJs, including MixMasterMike, Qbert, Cut Chemist, DJ Faust and Babu, among others. His scratching on "Rockit" was so musical and beyond the scope of what anyone had done with a turntable before that, as Babu says in the documentary film SCRATCH, he really was "the first turntablist."
The turntable has been for a long time regarded as an appliance. While at home the record player was similar to a radio or television. It was a passive form of entertainment. When djs began scratching solos, the line between appliance and instrument became evident. The turntable as played by GrandMixer DXT inspired a whole new generation of djs. A scratch solo would no longer be limited to a few beats in between longer songs. Entire solos made up of scratching would gain popularity in true hip-hop.
Steinski AKA Steve Stein, half of the creative duo Double D & Steinski, isn't really a scratch DJ, and he admits it himself. But as a producer who pieced together hundreds of vinyl sources in groundbreaking mid-'80s recordings for Tommy Boy such as "Lesson 3 (the history of hip-hop)" and "The Motorcade Sped On" (about the JFK assassination), he was an inspiration for many of today's DJ's (including Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow).
The turntable began evolving into an instrument and continues to do so with the introduction of CD mixers. While djs could still piece together music and ideas from existing albums on the turntable they can also add in CD mixers to expand their ability. Many began to realize the full potential of the turntable. Music could not only be played from the turntable, but also composed and performed on at the same time. Unlike a traditional instrument like a drum, piano or guitar, the turntable offered almost limitless playing possibilities. While the scratch remains the definitive sound, the turntable and record can emulate any other instrument that has ever been recorded. A turntablist can take an existing sound like a trumpet blast and invent an entire solo out of it. Kid Koala is famous for doing just that in his Drunk Trumpet arrangements. Other DJs began experimenting with percussive sounds by creating beats on a turntable instead of a drum machine and then layering the music with solo scratches over the beats.
At the basic level the dj is an entertainer. From dances and clubs, it is the job of the dj to entertain the crowd through music. However early in hip-hop talented djs began battling to see who was the most talented dj around. At school dances two djs would mix songs to try and get the biggest crowd reaction. Sometimes the djs would use tricks and scratches to wow the crowd. There are many types of concerts and contests in which turntablists compete. The oldest of the competitive styles being body tricks and beat juggling. Technical skratching is relatively new in the history of the turntable.
Contests organized by the I.T.F.(International Turntable Federation) or D.M.C. (Disco Mix Club) are the platforms by which djs are judged.. Body tricks describe what they sound like. A dj plays a set while at the same time operating the turntable, crossfader and upfader in a number of odd and unique positions. I.E. the dj shows off by playing behind his back, with a nose, elbow or other body part. Keeping the music flowing on a turntable is difficult enough with two free hands. Being able to do the same while spinning, reaching under your legs or with anything but your hands is really a trick.
Beat juggling is what djs of all styles (dance, electronica, techno, club and hip-hop) are best known for. Whether its dancing or simply nodding your head along to the music, it is the beat, rhythm and root-level of the song that gets you interested. Good djs know how to recognize tempos, mix songs that keep a pace and keep the body moving. Great djs can compose entirely new music out of pre-existing albums in such a way as the original recorded song cannot be recognized.
In contests and at shows turntable djs have to create matching rhythms, breaks and beats using two or more turntables. At a dance concert this might sound easy. A dj could simply cue up a record well beforehand and keep the music going. However in turntable competitions, beats and breaks come in rapid succession. It is not out of the ordinary to have a dj switch more than seven records in a minute all without the loss of tempo. Great turntablists can needle drop sections of a record just to pull a single line or beat out of the record. This is a highly developed visual cue that djs develop when working with their records. Kid Koala keeps journals hundreds of pages long filled with cues to his records. For example he will write that a certain album has a specific sentence 2.25-cm from the edge of the record. Being able to beat juggle and needle drop in rapid succession on a turntable is a highly developed musical skill.
DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies coined the word Turntablism. Babu was one of the first to realize the limitless potential of the turntable as an instrument. Babu is versed in the arts of scratching and beat juggling. His compositions rival the best of any other dj in the world. The technical scratch competition has surpassed body tricks and beat juggling in terms of popularity. However scratching also uses elements of beat juggling and scratch arrangements can vary from dj to dj.
The contrast with techno djs and turntablists is the approach to the music and musical ideas. The general public is drawn to what is easiest to identify in any art. Pop music is popular because recognizing and following the beats in that type of music is the easiest musical idea to understand. The same rule applies to many popular techno, house and rave music. It is that beat, that rhythm that is most easy to identify because it is constant and unchanging. It is not to say that just because it is popular it is in fact good music. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera are two very popular vocalists, does this mean they contribute more to music than artists like Alanis Morisette or Janis Joplin?
Furthermore the popular djs in dance, techno and electronica have taken similar approaches in achieving fame. There is an abandonment of their roots and history in order to achieve mass appeal. Dance djs might claim to be connected to true hip-hop, but similar to the rapper, have achieved fame by putting themselves over their musical counterparts. This is opposed to the hip-hop culture where no one element is more important than the other.
Turntablists on the other hand are grounded in hip-hop culture.. They can adapt to the environment. The turntablist as an entertainer can always get the crowd moving and respond to audience feedback. Be it in the dance hall or DMC competition a good turntablist knows what to mix and when to use beat juggling and scratches to entertain the crowd.
I will admit, some electronic djs have roots in traditional dj work. People like Fatboy Slim, Moby, the Chemical Brothers, the Propellerheads and Daft Punk are as well versed in the turntable as they are with computers. And perhaps this is why the aforementioned names are the most popular electronic artists around. They understand the musical ideas of hip-hop and the turntable; they have adapted those techniques into their compositions.. And should the need arise they can also spin some great mixes using turntables.
With that said then why do I hate, or say I hate, techno? To do that we have to get to the musical styles the pop dj and turntablist convey. The turntablist is the most highly skilled of the djs. They create rhythms, songs and musical ideas using only a turntable. The idea of recycling music or making new sounds out of old music might be something to look at. The arrangements that turntablists put together are much more than recycled music. The original musical idea from the record is usually gone when the turntablist starts making his own music with the record. You have to take many things into consideration when trying to listen to or understand turntablism.
There are both simple and complex patterns of rhythm and sound established in turntablism. These patters are then layered by a dj, or in some cases by a crew of djs. The musical ideas conveyed by turntablists are very similar in form and structure to jazz. In fact I would go out on a limb to call hip-hop a modern contemporary of jazz.
In some circles I would be called a heretic for even suggesting that hip-hop and jazz are even similar. Or to equate turntablists like Qbert or Babu as having the same musical qualities of say Duke Ellington or Louis Satchmo Armstrong. But lets take a look at both musical movements and see the similarities.
It is written that jazz is the only original artistic and musical movement ever invented in the United States. It would be false to assume that rock and roll, soul, r and hip-hop are just fads and musically present nothing new. On the contrary I see a lot of similarities between jazz and hip-hop.
As far as art is concerned the Harlem renaissance produced its fair share of artists, graphic designers, dancers and poets. Many inspired by the sounds of jazz and in turn inspired the musicians with their arts. Many of these movements emanated from the East Coast. During the late 30s and 40s there was no aspect in American culture that was not in one way or another touched by jazz music. From movies to radio programs, fashion to pop culture, jazz dictated the direction of American culture and not solely musical standards. The sounds of jazz spread throughout Europe and soon became an acceptable music standard all over the world.
The sounds of jazz could not be defined to one specific idea. Syncopation as well as improvisation helped make jazz sound like jazz. But jazz spawned its own musical children. Be-bop and swing are very closely tied into jazz roots. As are rock and roll and pop music. Dance was also inspired by jazz, swing dancing became hugely popular and to this day continues to come and go at concerts.
In the late 70s through the 80s hip-hop influenced its fair share of American and now world culture. Graphic artists began to emulate the style and bold use of colors and lettering of graffiti artists. Art directors in magazines and on the web are also inspired by the designs of graffiti artists. In fact, today many of the most popular artists are graffiti artists. This mirrors the way the jazz movement inspired print and poster artists more than a half century ago.
Similarly to jazz, hip-hop has spawned different musical styles. From rap to electronica, techno and house all have roots in hip-hop. What about dance? What self-respecting b-boy or b-girl would abandon the importance of breakdancing to modern club and pop dances? Like swing, breakdancing is not as prevalent today as it was when it first started. But both dance styles still maintain their presence all over the world.
With those similarities noted what about the music? Should I be saying that hip-hop, true hip-hop music is like jazz? Absolutely. Not that the rapper or emcee is the most influential musical idea in hip-hop. Rather it would be the instrumentalist. Like the horn instrument helped define the sound of jazz so does the turntable define the sound of hip-hop. What about syncopation and improvisation? Both exist in the turntablist realm. There are melodies, counter melodies, ideas and development in some arrangements of turntablist music. Good turntablists can improvise lines as easily as they can compose structured music using a classical formula. Depending on the performer you might get a mix of rock, hip-hop, R, soul, funk or strictly scratching. This is because the turntablist is only limited by his imagination and record collection. And like the Duke or Satchmo, Qbert and Babu can compose complex melodic lines or improvise arrangements off the top of their head.
As instrumentalists turntablists have an unfair advantage. The turntable is capable of re-creating any recorded sound. As I stated before, from trumpet to human voice, if its ever been recorded then chances are it can become a musical element. In fact new sounds are always being created out of existing sounds. A musical idea that may never have existed in nature is as simple as a scratch away.
Like jazz the sounds that the turntablist creates are unique and complex. Jazz introduced a clash of dominant and minor chords as well as odd tempos, time signatures and rhythmic ideas into popular music. All of those elements are in turntablism as well. Beats and patterns can be both complex and simple in a turntablist arrangement. The melody as opposed to what a horn player would do is contrasted in a scratch. While at first the general high-pitched scratch might be abrasive to the untrained ear, the musical element remains. If you listen enough to turntablism you begin to hear musical ideas.
At times the musical idea sounds simple, as if the turntablist is doing nothing new to a preexisting record. Some djs can enhance and bring out new musical ideas in existing songs. DJ Shadow is a prime example of this type of turntablist as with most of his album Entroducing. However if you listen carefully you will notice that the songs are arranged and performed exclusively on turntables. The drum and organ solos from the album are cut on the turntable so precisely that you cannot hear the difference between the turntable and the original solo. Remember that I said the musical idea sounds simple. But being able to manipulate a turntable to the degree where the music comes alive without you ever hearing the turntable takes extraordinary skill and composing ability.
Some djs play with the original musical ideas in a record and use abstract breaks in rhythm and words to create a musical picture. Canadas Kid Koala excels at doing this. While he can play a turntable in the traditional way of a turntablist; beat juggling, body tricks and skratching. His musical arrangements can range from the abstract to the heavily structured. In his song Fender Bender from the album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Kid Koala creates a musical story of a traffic accident. He includes sounds of police officers deciding whom to give tickets to, speeding motorists, and a car crash followed by an argument between the motorists. The story behind Fender Bender unfolds with the use of imagination inspired by musical cues. There is no narrator and the beats, rhythm and sounds of the natural world are controlled by modest tempo changes on the turntable. Kid Koalas skilled, ambidextrous, hands are also best exhibited in a live DMC performance from 2000. DJ P-Love and Kid Koala played a jazz inspired set where DJ P-Love handled the sounds of a drum set and Koala interceded with a pitch-perfect Miles Davis-inspired solo. The trumpet range and sound reproduced recreated and enhanced on turntable with a decidedly Kid Koala style.
It takes a certain level of skill and awareness of composition to be as good a dj as either DJ Shadow or Kid Koala. However their exploits are not widely known outside of the dj world. At least their names are not as popular as most dance and techno djs. This is where I begin to take exception to the group of popular composers and maestros of dance megamixes.
The redundant drum and beat pattern in most techno music shows little composing ability and more programming ability. Being able to program a drum machine and simply matching beats for dances and raves is not nearly as hard to do as becoming a proficient turntablist. While scratching may sound chaotic (and a few songs are chaotic) the complexity of the music or instrument might not be relevant to those unwilling to listen. It is easier for listeners to dance to the music of popular composers and understand the limited rhythmic vocabulary of pop, dance and techno djs.
Turntablists persevere regardless of who or what is popular. One of the most recent things added to the musical vocabulary of the turntablist is the appearance of scratch-only albums. Albums where each instrument is layered on the turntable. The drum track, horn, voice, guitar or other instruments are laid down by hand on a turntable and all solos are scratched. In some cases the original instrument has been replaced by a scratch and the turntable itself reproduces the rhythms that were once reserved for drummers or drum machines.
DJ Qbert is widely considered the most technically skilled DJ in existence, a role that makes him a bit uncomfortable, but also feeds his imagination and innovation. A two-time DMC world champion, Qbert is a founding member of the renowned Bay Area crew, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (originally formed with Mix Master Mike and DJ Apollo). In 1999 he released Wave Twisters, a full-length solo concept album that inspired an animated film of the same title (also appearing at Sundance Film Festival 2001 and now available on DVD).
The best example of this type of composing is reflected in Qberts album Wave Twisters. One track at a time Qbert mixed and composed his own rhythms, melody and counter melody exclusively on a turntable. The entire album is a concept in that it tells the adventures of the Inner Space Dental Commander as he searches to reunite the four pillars of hip-hop; breakdancing, graffiti, emceeing and dj-ing. Some songs on the album tell a definite story, leaving little to the imagination, while others are more abstract and offer different interpretations. As a collection Wave Twisters is unique in proving to the world that the turntable is not only a musical instrument, but as producers, composers and musicians the turntablist is a force to be reckoned with.
Image the level of skill it takes for a turntablist, or a crew of turntablists, to re-create music at a concert or contest. There is no computer, no drum machine, no redundant dance patterns here. A turntablist has to create their own rhythms, solos and musical ideas from scratch (pardon the pun). The ability to do this live should be commended. Sometimes that which seems very simple is actually pretty difficult. And while the turntablist will never be featured on MTV it is all for the better. Hip-hop as a culture cannot exist when the dj tries to get himself over, in the ways of a rapper or electronic dj.
So what more can I say to get you to understand why I like scratch djs? Why I like turntablism and not techno? I admire the energy in the live performances, competition and the culture of true hip-hop. The music is easily the most unique and inspiring style that Ive heard in a long time. I am a classically trained cellist. Although I am only 27-years-old Ive played in orchestras for almost 20 of those years. I know, recognize and understand many music styles. The best turntablists, hip-hop DJs perform and compose at a level reserved for virtuosos in any craft. After listening to the music I cannot deny the ability of DJs like Qbert, Roc Raida and Mixmaster Mike. I know that talent and ability like theirs is the product of countless hours of practicing and experimenting. I have to say that the turntable is a musical instrument that requires as much practice and dedication as any string or wind instrument. Listening, and really getting into the music is one of the best things I could have ever done for my love of music.
But by the same standards I was taught to respect all music. Saying that I hate techno is too strong a word. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us not to use the word hate because it is such a powerful word. So Ill just say that I severely dislike techno and most forms of popular dj music.
I get upset when I see three rows of dance compilations and nameless DJs hogging up space in record stores. I get mad when I see rap artists hogging up another four rows in the same music store. What about the turntablist? The most talented of the hip-hop musician is reduced to a handful of albums scattered here and there between rap and dance. It comes down to respect and I dont see enough respect for the turntablist. The most easily mimicked of hip-hop music style is exploited in commercials for beer, fast food and bubble gum! The message is simple, DJ work is simple and fresh buy our product because were simple and fresh too! Turntablists are dynamic performers. You can hook an audience with a scratch and not a redundant dance beat. But still, I believe there isnt enough respect for the music. Dance DJs go all over the world to critical acclaim but the same cannot be said for dedicated turntablists. Perhaps in a hundred years music historians will trace the roots of dance, club, rap and hip-hop and come to the conclusion that many a turntablist built an empire of music they were often excluded from.
As for all of those electronic composers touting the riches of people like Moby or Fatboy Slim as proof that popularity is all that matters in deciding what is good music. Let me remind you of one thing. Before software by the Propellerheads became available to every wanna-be musician with a computer. The very first album made entirely from sampled sounds wasnt by Fatboy Slim, Moby or Daft Punk. DJ Shadow goes down in the history books to have that distinct accomplishment for the album Entroducing. If you dont believe me go look it up in the Guiness Book of Records. This is proof that the turntablist is usually the genesis of new music formats.
I will concede that some of those electronic musicians are good at their craft. People like Moby and Fatboy Slim get my respect. Dan the Automator understands music, compositions and arrangements and is not solely a programmer. However I cannot hear enough musical ideas in house, techno or dance to keep me stimulated. Sure your senses may be bombarded with a beat and rhythm at a rave. You may be energized to dance for hours with the ear-deafening beat. But my mind is flat when the idea of the composition is the same in the first bar as it is in the 103rd bar of music. Give me some real hip-hop to dance to. Give me some turntablism to get my head nodding any day.
But what do I know? Nothing really. Just listen to what you like and Ill do the same. Music is too big for one style or one favorite.