Turning the tables on music
'Scratching' records to create new sounds has become wildly popular. But are scratchers really musicians?
It's just minutes after 8 a.m. on Sunday, May 19, and the leading edge of a throng of 75,000 runners in San Francisco's annual 12K footrace, the Bay to Breakers, is panting its way up the steep incline of Hayes Street Hill.Skip to next paragraph
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Near the crest, a man on his porch hovers over two turntables and a box of records. The familiar voice of Michael Jackson fills the morning air, but in altered form: The man's right hand is on the record, his left fiddles with an audio mixer. The resulting sound is a series of distorted lyrics played backward and forward with a rhythm so funky some of the runners find themselves shifting their pace to try to match it.
The front-porch DJ's ability to excite a crowd is commonplace among those who "scratch" records. For two decades or more, the "zigga zigga" of scratching records pushing them back and forth by hand to create new rhythms and sounds has garnered a frenzied following. A subculture of "turntablists" has grown up "scratchers" invest hundreds of dollars and hours of time hovering over two turntables and a mixer, their fast-moving hands furiously scratching up records and wearing down needles. They're found onstage at nightclubs, in the corner at house parties, and even alongside the conductor at symphony concerts.
But are they simply disc jockeys? Or are they true musical artists?
On the one hand, scratchers might be seen as distorters of music, relying on the recordings of others to produce the desired effect. On the other, they might in fact be composers, drawing upon various recordings to create new works of their own.
Many academics hesitate to call turntables "musical instruments."
"I am bothered by the fact that with vinyl, the pitch and duration of sound are inextricably mixed," says David Wessel, a music professor at the University of California at Berkeley who runs the computer music center there. "If the turntable is slowed down, the pitch goes down. When speeded up, the pitch goes up. Hence, the performer loses independent control of the pitch material, and harmony for the most part is thrown out."
But Stephen Webber, who teaches music production at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and has played classical and jazz guitar, as well as piano, for years, has a different perspective.
"When I was a kid, we spent our time trying to cop [Jimi] Hendrix solos note for note," he says. "It tickles me that people in my generation playing cover tunes are dissing the DJs because they use prerecorded material."
"A scratcher is reinterpreting and recontextualizing snippets of music, much as a jazz player reinterprets a standard 'head' by improvising around it," says Virgil Moorefield, a guitarist who teaches a course on The Producer as Composer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "Good scratching is as difficult to master as any other instrument. It takes time, practice, dedication, and talent."
DJ Enki, a scratcher in Oakland, Calif., famous for his work in the Citizenz Crew with DJ Faust and Shortee, says "the hardest part of it is simply getting the hand-eye coordination down.
"Scratching requires a lot of quick but small hand movements, and has a very small margin of error. Some of the motions are akin to rubbing your belly and patting your head. While your hands move in time with one another on most scratches, the flare sort of requires one hand to be syncopated with the other to get the sound right."
However the debate resolves, this much is certain: DJ schools have been popping up across the country, churning out young performers by the thousands. International competitions bring together these hopefuls, most of whom spend more time at their turntables than college kids spend in class.