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.

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.

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 Japanese–American. The SoleSides Crew consists of Puerto Rican, Anglo, African-American, and Japanese–American players.

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.

How to scratch out tunes

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.

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