Music Inspired By the Film Scratch
US release date: 12 February 2002
All This Scratching is Making Me Itch (For More)
Chances are, wherever you turn today you’ll find either a strand or the whole addictive yarn of hip-hop snaking its way through commercials, films, television shows, computer apps, clothing styles, ad infinitum. And although it may have started out as a DJ-centered party movement, hip-hop has expanded—sometimes unfairly—almost into a generalization; that is, now anyone who happens to be rapping or anyone who happens to be playing music with a rap in it can be called hip-hop; this is often to the overall exclusion of the DJs who have spent the entirety of postmodernism scratching, cutting, freaking, and combining everything from records to found noise into complex, multi-layered compositions that give their sometimes inferior rapping counterparts ground to show and prove on.
Which is somewhat lamentable considering, as was noted in a recent NPR segment, that not too many kids coming up these days—who probably listen to hip-hop jams more than they listen to their parents—have any idea where that actual scratch sound comes from. Unfortunately, the evolution from records to compact discs has taken the material out of the message for many music fans, who think that vinyl is only something that Sunset Boulevard nightclub dresses are made out of.
Enter Scratch the Experience, as I like to call it: a hip-hop sensorium consisting of a Doug Pray-directed film, a scratch-and-jam-packed CD, and an once-in-a-lifetime concert featuring some of the most innovative and influential figures in turntable history that may be making its head-bobbing way to your respective towns, if you’re lucky.
Like I was.
That is, only after I got past the lame-ass security/box office contingent and inside Hollywood’s legendary nightclub, the Palace, which was hosting the Scratch concert, featuring a lineup—including Mixmaster Mike, Grand Wizard Theodore, the Original Jazzy Jay, Z-Trip and Dilated Peoples, among others—that would make even the most seasoned DJs blink. A heady cast, indeed, but first you had to get in, and that meant dealing with security who more or less treated the concertgoers like cattle: first, by herding them out in the rain for no apparent reason, then by shouting them down during body searches for everything from the obvious (drugs and paraphernalia) to the obscure (bubble gum). Don’t they know by now that the kids are alright? Guess not.
Having arrived at the Scratch concert on time, I still barely managed to get in early enough to hear the last notes and shout outs from Jazzy Jay who, as a member of Afrika Bambaataa’s notorious Soulsonic Force, was one of old-school hip-hop’s masters of wax. Which is a bummer because had I not the experience of hearing both Jay and Grand Wizard Theodore—who is more or less considered by those in the know to be the inventor of the scratch itself—as a young Long Beach head hooked on ‘80s hip-hop and KDAY, I would have missed a history lesson worth having. I know for sure that others missed out on that opportunity at the Palace, and to that I can only say, “Head to the nearest record store and do your research.”
But luckily, I was herded inside in time to catch the beginning of the strange and eclectic Z-Trip’s set, and what a set it was. For those of you who aren’t familiar with turntablism’s multifaceted makeup, Z-Trip is the movement’s master of crossover pastiche, who effortlessly combines stoney FM radio classics (such as Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”) with new millennium hip-hop standards (such as DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)” and the Beastie Boys’ “Pass the Mic”). While Z-Trip keeps his scratching to a minimum compared to figures like the frenetic Mixmaster Mike, you can still feel the power of his mixes, whether he’s freaking Shostakovich over “Alphabet Aerobics”—Cut Chemist’s incredible collaboration with Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab—or just throwing Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” into the pile to keep the crowd moshing and jumping. Indeed, part of what makes this kind of music so special is that, above all else, it is fully interactive: the intensity and even sometimes the rotation within a performance by Z-Trip, Mike, et.al. is in direct proportion to the amount of enthusiasm and energy the crowd emanates, something Z-Trip talked about after concluding his sweat-soaked set while he implored heads in the crowd to jump out and support Scratch, the film.
And if you’re talking about emanating energy, look no further than MixMaster Mike—a founding member of turntablism’s legendary Invisibl Skratch Piklz—who simply put is a musical visionary along the lines of Coltrane, Pete Townshend, and whoever else you might feel belongs in your pantheon. As the segment from Scratch (the film, directed by Doug Pray and produced by the Hughes Brothers) that introduced him to the stage attests, Mike earned his name at an early age—grafting found sounds onto a dual cassette recorder and mixing them together with the pause and record buttons to form his own unique hip-hop mixing aesthetic before he had ever put two hands to his turntables. And those years of experience and enthusiasm are evident on his strained face as his lightning-quick hands jerk everything on his deck in any direction it can go. At first, I thought the nearly silent crowd might not exactly get Mike—except to remember that he was the DJ tapped by the Beastie Boys for their hip-hop comeback album, Hello Nasty—but in fact, most were simply rapt with either disbelief or incredulity, watching him slice-and-dice vinyl, fader, and groove like the Iron Chef slices seafood. In short, Mixmaster Mike is not to be missed and is very hard to forget, whether you’re catching him on the Scratch tour or elsewhere.
Such as the revision of Herbie Hancock’s seminal “Rockit”—also featuring Rob Swift, DJ Qbert, GrandMixer DXT, Babu, Faust and Shortee—found on the CD accompanying the film and the tour. Mixmaster Mike and company resurrect Hancock’s groundbreaking jam in “Rockit 2.002,” only to shred and reconfigure it into an entirely new sound collage. Most of Scratch‘s DJs, such as Cut Chemist and Mixmaster Mike, give heavy props to “Rockit”; indeed GrandMixer DXT—the DJ whose scratches laced Hancock’s progressive jazz jam and popcult memory, in general—is both continually feted and featured on the compact disc. As are the Invisibl Skratch Piklz—at one point on the disc, the groundbreaking DJ Shadow explains that the Piklz greatest gift to hip-hop was its honesty: rather than jealously cover their records or 45s, they opened their materials as well as their startling craftsmanship to their listeners and acolytes, a democratic approach intended to grow, not limit or protect, the turntablist methodology and practice.
But though it may be sprinkled with such spoken reminiscences and recollections, the Scratch compact disc is also littered with hard-hitting, tectonic-plate shifting jams—such as the breathless and awesome pounding of Cat Five and Snayk Eyez’s two-gun showdown, “Turntable Transformer”, or DJ Disk and Buckethead’s blunted scratch exploration, “Skin Cracked Hands”. Then there is the aforementioned GrandMixer DXT, who turns in a few turntable jaw-droppers, including “Crazy 2 Crazy” and the stellar “Cut Transmitter”.
Yet—to segue back back to the concert—that was then and this is now, and today’s new school consists of figures like Qbert, Shadow, Cut Chemist, Z-Trip and, most importantly, Mixmaster Mike, who left the crowd breathless, impressed, and maybe even confused. Like most consummate musician/magicians, Mike had everyone wondering how exactly it is that he can do what he does—especially when he’s cutting the nerves out of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song”, a grip-load of tunes from Rage Against the Machine, and more. I mean, half the fun was trying to figure out not only Mike’s formidable dexterity, but how his hands didn’t fall off altogether.
But, by the time De La Soul-disciples Dilated Peoples hopped onstage behind their own legendary DJ—Babu, from the influential hip-hop outfit, the Beat Junkies—the groove settled into a more conventional mode consisting of talented rappers moving the crowd, guest appearances by some heavy figures (in Scratch‘s case, Planet Asia and the endlessly gifted Black Thought from the Roots) and many call-and-response tactics looking to hype the crowd out of their befuddled stoner reverie caused by hours watching DJs work their magic. Not that Iriscience—AKA Rakaa—and Evidence can’t tear it up: in fact, they shredded the stage burning through numbers from both The Platform, and their newest joint, Expansion Team. Whether it was giving props to De La in “Ear Drums Pop”, thundering through “No Retreat”, or taking a hard-hitting look at the root of all hip-hop evil in “Trade Money”, Dilated showed that indeed both the herb-soaked crowd and the DJs were their Peoples (to get tricky with the language).
But if anything, Scratch is about DJs and Dilated Peoples have one of the most notorious in Babu, who along with fellow Beat Junkies Rhettmatic, J-Rocc, and Melo-D got their own chances to turn the tables out. In fact, after Dilated had effortlessly jammed through their finale, “Worst Comes to Worst”, it was the Beat Junkies and Mixmaster Mike—behind the MCing of Grand Wizard Theodore—that shut down the Palace with an impromptu jam session. Like most DJ shows, the party doesn’t officially stop until security kicks out the band as well as the fans, who hang around hungrily for autographs, swag, or just to share tricks of the trade with some of the most esteemed figures in turntable history. So just as some budding breakdancers were getting shoved off the floor by crotchety yellowjackets that wanted them to “get the hell up outta here,” Theodore was onstage getting his mic unplugged by some apologetic tech guy.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that, last year, there were more turntables sold than guitars; in ever increasing numbers, musicians-in-training have set their eyes on hooking onto the next generation of virtuosos who express themselves in strange and intoxicating ways. And one way to jump into the new-school stream of self-expression is to check out the Scratch Experience—whether onscreen, on tour, or on disc—and tune in to turntablism’s mighty magic. That way you can say you were there when the rest of the world finally woke up and gave DJs their props for once and for all.