Doug Pray’s movie Scratch opens Friday at the Mayan in Denver. In a way, it’s a homecoming for Pray, who was born in Littleton. Having lived the first part of his life here, and having come back to attend Colorado College, he still thinks of Colorado as his home state.
Scratch is Pray’s second film. His first, Hype!, from 1996, is about the grunge music scene in Seattle. Scratch follows musicians of another genre, the underground hip-hop DJs whose instrument is the turntable.
When he was first approached, Pray didn’t know much about hip-hop DJs. He decided to make the movie after meeting Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys fame.
Eloquent, Articulate“Mix Master Mike I met really early on. When I met him I knew embarrassingly little about turntablism. I really didn’t have much to say to him ‘except hey, how are you, let’s talk about filmmaking.’ We had a great conversation, and he was really warm, really friendly.”
Pray was impressed, not just with Mix Master Mike, but with nearly every hip-hop DJ he met.
“There’s a ridiculous stereotype that hip-hop equals mainstream rap. The country generally thinks that — unless you happen to be in underground hip-hop. And as soon as you open the door to underground hip-hop, everything changes. “The people were really just a wonderful surprise, how outspoken and eloquent and profound they were. I’m so used to the jaded, cynical stars. These guys were just nothing to do with that. The DJs are articulate. They’re very proud about what they’re doing and they’re into sharing that. Whatever (audiences) are thinking about hip-hop, it might be a little bit different.”
Indeed one of the most prevalent stereotypes of hip-hop is proven completely wrong by Scratch. Most of us think of hip-hop as a mostly black form of expression, but among DJs, race hardly seems to be an issue.
”[Scratch] is the most diverse film I’ve ever seen. And as the director I did nothing to make it so. That’s one difference between underground hip-hop and mainstream rap. It wasn’t about East Coast versus West Coast, it wasn’t about black vs. white.
“The only thing that I felt a little bad about was that there weren’t that many women. Females are just beginning to find their voice in hip-hop because it has not exactly been the most inviting culture over the last ten or fifteen years. But even then I feel positive. I think that’s changing. I think it’s wide open now for women. I wish there were more women [in hip-hop], but [Scratch] reflected what we saw out there.”
It may come as a surprise to some that hip-hop has been around for as long as it has. Scratch all the way back to the beginning and before, into the 1970s when the first DJs were experimenting with mixing and scratching.
“That is one of the major themes, this idea of passing the baton. That’s the secret link to the movie. That’s what unlocks the whole structure of the film. You have DJs in the early to mid ’70s. Afrika Bambaataa passed that skill on to Jazzy Jay, who tells the story of getting to DJ for him. And then you have these Zulu Nation DJs and one of them happens to do the record Rockit with Herbie Hancock. And then that inspires a whole new generation.”
We Are MusicansAnd yet, even with more than twenty years of history, scratching doesn’t always earn the respect it deserves. But as Scratch shows, DJs have as much talent, drive, and creative energy as any other musician.
“They were proud of what they’d done. They’d spent 10 or 15 years in their bedroom practicing,” says Pray.
“Rob Swift said ‘We are musicians.’ You could almost argue that it’s harder to do what they’re doing than to take a guitar and play a cover. I’ve been in so many rock bands, I can tell you this with authority. How can you claim that being in a band and playing a cover, or even playing your own compositions, again and again and again, is any more or less creative than a DJ who takes a drum beat from James Brown and then takes a horn solo from Miles Davis and puts them together in a way they’ve never been married, and plays it backwards and forwards so that it’s actually a new melody?”
But what about the toughest critic of all? What does Doug Pray’s mom (a former piano teacher) think?
“You know what? She understood. She’s 83 now, she’s a musician too, she just looked at me at the end of it and she said ‘they’re percussionists.’ Her way into the movie was seeing them as percussionists. And that’s fine with me. I think that’s a great way to look at it.”
The Kids Are Alright
But regardless of what mainstream America thinks, regardless of what mom thinks, turntablism is here to stay. One man interviewed on-camera said that in England, turntables were outselling electric guitars. Pray confirmed that, and added that it’s not just in England anymore, it’s also in the United States.
Pray told of an ad he saw in L.A. this past Christmas for a store called The Guitar Center. “Their ad didn’t have any guitars! It was all turntables and DJ equipment.”
“The quote [from the movie] I love is the guy who says ‘the same way kids were buying electric guitars in the seventies — and I was one of those kids — is the same way they’re buying turntables.’ There aren’t a lot of kids going to the store — they don’t give a damn about electric guitars.”
“So many people still are afraid or misinformed [about hip-hop], but it’s out there. It’s everywhere. It is definitely the worldwide music right now, whether you like it or not.
“I’m just encouraged by the turntablist scene because what it’s going to do is take that popularity of that mainstream hip-hop and just keep on infusing it with more creativity, better rap, better everything.”
If the DJs featured in Scratch are any indication, Pray is undoubtedly right. Underground hip-hop DJs are the lifeblood of cutting edge music. Not only are they talented and dedicated, they are a great group of people too. Scratch captures their early years on film not just for fans but for future musical scholars as well. Get used to it, because they’re here for good.