What Works Together
Scratch starts with an origin story. Grand Wizard Theodore (the “Thomas Edison of the movement”) recalls the day, way back in 1975, when his grandmother told him to turn down the music he was making in front of his Bronx River Houses apartment. In order to hear her, he put his hand on the turntable, holding the record in place. As he moved his hand, slightly, a new sound rose up. And so, he smiles, scratching was born.
The story of scratching involves many such moments—accidents, discoveries, instants of creative inspiration. Then again, it’s not just one story. Part collective history, part social documentary, part personal reflection, and part political rumination, Doug Pray’s film tells multiple stories, intersecting, reverberating, leading in and out of one another. Less weary and ironic in tone than Pray’s Hype! (which looked at grunge and its commodification fallout), Scratch treats its subject and subjects with due respect, as well as good humor and appreciation. In part, this celebratory mood is a function of the movement’s politics and acute self-understanding. Despite the increasing appearance of “decorative” DJs in occasional pop acts (who might remain nameless but they know who they are), for the most part, DJs have held onto their culture, and continue to expand and complicate their art. Thus far, in other words, there’s no mall muzak or Ralph Lauren flannel shirts associated with turntabling.
Still, Scratch has lots of work to do, for even though the movement is young, it has undergone enormous, frequent, ongoing transformations. Beyond this, hip-hop notoriously involves multiple facets. Theodore testifies, “When you say hip-hop, you say graffiti, you say break-dancing, you say DJs, you say MCs, the way you dress, the way you talk. All the elements into one, that’s hip-hop.”
Scratching, like each of these elements, draws from all the others. And, as this vibrant film makes abundantly clear, by definition, scratching does not stand still. As much-respected Steve Dee puts it, “Hip-hop is asking you a question, and that question is, what are you going to do?” And you need to come up with an answer, day after day. Discussing the ways that battling shapes his much-adored art and profession, Steve Dee confesses, “I’m competitive. If it’s drawing a straight line, I wanna draw the straightest line.” Believe it: this guy draws seriously insane straight lines.
This concept of competition, wanting to be “the best,” does not keep turntablists apart (“It ain’t like real beef”). Rather, they make a point of working together, sharing ideas and encouraging one another. They go on “digging” jaunts (DJ Shadow leads the handheld camera through a basement so stuffed with records that he can barely walk through—he calls it “my little nirvana,” then warns the crew: “Careful, I once found a mummified bat under one of the records”), perform together: several of Scratch‘s most exciting scenes involve artists playing with one another—Mix Master Mike (perhaps most famous for his work with the Beastie Boys, and also a member of Invisibl Skratch Piklz) and the popular Filipino DJ Qbert (also of Invisibl Skratch Piklz); or Shadow and Cut Chemist working with Steinski (a.k.a. David Stein), or Jurassic 5 on stage with Cut Chemist and Numark (who says of working with these pioneering MCs, “It’s fun, but it’s always a challenge”).
Such collaborative brilliance is integral to the movement over time, as Scratch lays out. The film traces history, including interviews with Afrika Bambaata (founder of Universal Zulu Nation in the South Bronx, in 1973), Mix Master Mike, Rob Swift, Jazzy J, DJ Premier (now of Gang Starr, with Guru), all discussing their “first exposures” (Kool Herc was “like God”), their efforts to advance the culture, and their dedication to it.
The film also reveals the artists’ diverse approaches. Mix Master Mike jokingly extols his supremacy as a DJ with the Beasties: “I start scratching some roosters for no reason. They have no choice. I’m the maestro and whatever I throw in, they have to rhyme over it.” Self-described “soul searcher” DJ Qbert explains his process like this: “It’s kind of like talking, you know, you just speak what you’re saying. Each technique is a word, so the larger your vocabulary, the more articulate you speak.”
Qbert articulates a lot in the film (and is responsible for the cleverly scratched interviews and introductions, say, of the X-ecutioners). And his knowledge is deep. “Since earth is kind of like a primitive planet,” he thinks out loud, “What about the more advanced civilizations? What would their music be like? I guess that’s how I come up with my ideas.” I guess. Scratching does seem here to be alien, in part because it’s so very smart and strange.
That strangeness—inspired and exhilarating as it is—may have something to do with the rise of the MC, whose language is obviously more accessible to the average listener. Several speakers rue the escalation of the MCs’ role in popular culture: Dot A Rock of Fantastic Freaks asserts of the early days, “The DJ was the backbone and we were the arms and legs and everything else to make him colorful.” Bam adds, “The DJS are the ones that put the MCs out there, but then the MCs became the power; a lot of the MCs got away from the cultural part and got into ‘all about the benjamins,’ and they left the DJs behind.” The film doesn’t fret too much about this turn of events, however, instead focusing on the ways that DJs maintain their own sense of the culture, by sharing their sensibilities and politics.
Indeed, the film’s organization appears to follow the lead of its highly self-aware interviewees, meaning, it feels “organic” and intelligent, rather than imposed, owing to the many hours that Pray and Blondheim spent conjuring this effect in the editing room, even though, as Pray admits, “Documentary editing is basically all lies, you push the envelope to make the thing work.” Pray’s refreshing attitude on the commentary track explains much about how the film’s form came about. At first, he says, he wanted to do a “section” on “Rockit,” Herbie Hancock’s life-changing single that turned so many of today’s artists on to their callings (Mix Master Mike affectionately remembers the “zigga zigga zigga” of that most memorable scratch riff). And then, as Pray tells it, he had his own moment, realizing that “Rockit” is not just a section, but also provides an overarching structure, such that the image and sounds of Hancock’s 1984 Grammy Awards performance with Grand Mixer DXT repeats throughout the film, little reminders that history is important and also, that it keeps changing.
Remarkably, Scratch is that very rare documentary that can make sense for viewers who know nothing and those who have their own sense of the movement’s history. It gives props to the originators, notes films that came before (including Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 Wild Style, which shows, “how it was done”). In a pop culture world, where the latest greatest thing can be over within months (Christina who?), such veneration of the past is not only unusual, but it’s also instructive. Anyone who still thinks “kids” don’t study enough, or don’t appreciate what’s come before, need only take a brief look at scratching culture to get a whole other perspective.
To that end, Palm Pictures’ excellent DVD is like dense-pack of information, offering the film and first-rate extras, on two discs. The first delivers the film proper, with chapters divided according to the film’s own segments (The Scratch, Elements, Wild Style, Rockit, Jamming, Turntablism, Battling, DJs with MCs, Digging, Making Beats, Thud Rumble, Full Circle), as well as perceptive and entertaining commentary by Pray and producer Brad Blondheim. “It’s weird with documentaries,” observes Pray, early on, “that at the end, they all seem like they make sense, but in the beginning, their scenes are all over the place.” This one makes a lot of sense, in various ways—you can use it differently, according to what you want. The second disc contains instruction by DJ Z-Trip (“How to Rock a Party”) and DJ Qbert, a scratch notation demo, and selections from the documentary Battle Sounds, directed by John Carluccio (the very fellow who came up with a scratch notation system).
Even as it pays earnest homage to turntablists and beat jugglers, old schoolers and current innovators, Scratch is great fun, full of the kind of energy it’s documenting. The film represents as well the sense of community that continues to power the movement, and makes it available to everyone, in persuasive digest form. The film doesn’t include everyone, and it doesn’t pretend to tell the whole story; it tells many stories and makes many links. As Pray says on the commentary track, “We’ve taken some shit about not having some great DJs in the film, but the whole thing is that what we try to do while we’re editing, is try to have regard for what works together.”