Turning the tables on music
'Scratching' records to create new sounds has become wildly popular. But are scratchers really musicians?
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Although "scratching" is rooted in African-American "hip hop" music, today's turntablists are multicultural. The Invisibl Skratch Piklz, a disbanded Bay Area collective that remains highly respected as the nation's top scratch performers and instructors, are Filipino. The Automator is JapaneseAmerican. The SoleSides Crew consists of Puerto Rican, Anglo, African-American, and JapaneseAmerican players.Skip to next paragraph
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Geoff Abramczy, who is studying music synthesis at Berklee in Boston, made the switch from guitar to turntables two years ago. His most recent project is "Pastiche," a band comprising three scratchers, three violinists, and a cellist.
"Scratching is an instrument that needs to be studied and physically mastered, as it demands hours of intensive practice for muscle memorization," Mr. Abramczy says. "I've been known to go without eating for days in order to buy records" for scratching.
In 2000, Mr. Webber, who gushes over Abramczy's technical and performance abilities, published the genre's first how-to book, "Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ." The manual immediately topped the Berklee Press bestsellers list.
"If we're calling this an instrument, let's talk about hand position, technique, making a tone," Webber says. "I approached it like Suzuki [Method], but it's hipper."
A small circle of musicians, Webber included, has developed a method of notation for turntablists. Jason Bellmont, better known as DJ Radar, drew on his experience as a classical pianist and computer programmer to create a set of symbols called "articulations," each documenting the placement of a DJ's hands throughout a musical score.
He's now on tour with the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra, performing "Concerto for Turntables #1," something that would have been an impossible endeavor without the use of musical notation.
"This piece is ... meant to showcase how the turntable is an actual instrument and a valid art form ... more respectable [than] the dominant culture can relate to," Bellmont says. "There is still a huge mass of people that knows nothing about the capabilities of the turntable other than what they see through music videos, movies, weddings, school dances, ... etc. But it's not just something that goes 'wikki wikki' with hand motions."
Despite resounding endorsements by musicians and audiences nationwide, and the many CDs by scratchers sold online and in music stores, scratching has yet to be taken seriously at prestigious institutions. A nationwide survey conducted by the Higher Education Arts Data Services in Reston, Va., doesn't even mention turntables in its tracking of musical performance majors. And only a few colleges like Berkeley are beginning to offer classes on turntable techniques.
Since the invention of the turntable, DJs have been spinning records. Two turntables allow them to fade one song out while bringing in another, creating smooth transitions.
The ingredients for "scratching" records are simple: two turntables with a mixing board in the middle. But the moves are increasingly complex.
"Scratchers" push these records with their fingers, moving the vinyl back and forth so that the needle reads the same bit of sound backward and forward, or reads the record normally when the fingers pause.
Meanwhile, scratchers can either play a second record in the background or "scratch" both records at the same time, maintaining multiple rhythms, lyrics, and harmonies simultaneously. Some even scratch with an arm beneath their leg or behind their back. Some other moves include:
"Cutting," repeating a beat or phrase to a certain rhythm.
"Mixing," in which the DJ to maintain a steady beat during multiple record switches.
"Beat-juggling," manipulating the crossfader or upfader on the mixing board to add or subtract beats at random.
And, of course, scratchers are always inventing new moves, too.