Not all new musical instruments gain wide acceptance. Many can’t even find a home on novelty CDs. The pyrophone, for example, proved impossible to record.
But one new instrument has been growing in popularity for twenty years, and according to one interviewee, is now outselling the electric guitar in some parts of the world. It’s something you can find in your parents’ house. It’s the turntable.
All that Scratching is Making Me Itch
R for language
Everyone recognizes the “wick wick woo,” of a record being scratched – being played forward and backwards by hand, but who’d’a thunk there’d be so much to it?
Scratch shows the history of playing the turntables, from the seventies to the present. From Grandwizzard Theodore, who claims to have invented scratching (while his mom was telling him to turn down the music), to the kids of today who attend after-school classes in scratching.
The structure of this film is impeccable, which lends greatly to the quality of this (or any) documentary. Director/editor Doug Pray follows the baton as it is passes from the original DJs of the seventies, to the breakdance DJs of the eighties, through the mainstream acceptance of Herbie Hancock’s Rockit, all the way to present-day DJs who compete in now-worldwide contests. The young punks who hung around the grand masters grew up to become the new grand masters, and the cycle continues.
Personalities that Pop
Without exception, all the DJs interviewed in Scratch are intelligent, talented, articulate, and dedicated. The stereotype of the egotistical, materialistic hip hop star seems not to apply to DJs.
DJ Qbert gives us a quick lesson in scratching, and his candor is appealing. Two turntables are used together. Between them is a fader that lets the DJ control whether the left turntable, the right one, or both, play through the speakers. You push the record forward and backward to make different, rhythmic sounds. Anyone can do it, we just don’t know we can. Qbert shows the camera that it is not magic, just talent and intuition.
Afrika Bambaataa explains that one trick is to take two copies of the same record, one on each turntable. Put the needles in the same spot on both records, and go back and forth between the two. With this technique, you can stretch out a really cool rhythm that only lasts a few seconds on the record into a five-minute solo.
Many of the DJs recall their childhood attempts at turntabling. Parents often didn’t understand what they were doing, and often didn’t approve. Rob Swift tells how his dad would lock the needles to his record player away, and how Rob knew how to get at them anyway. Another DJ champ got his start by locking himself in his room for a year and practicing all day, every day. Only his mama’s authority could make him stop when it was time for bed.
Most of the interviewed DJs credit their scratch epiphanies to the Grammy performance of Rockit by Herbie Hancock. Grand Mixer DXT scratched for him on the Grammy telecast, and he reached just about every kid who is now a modern DJ legend.
Scratch makes it clear that these kids are alright. Maybe they do play their music too loud, but they’re creating, inventing, and innovating. Scratch makes one wonder if Beethoven’s mother didn’t tell him to keep it down when he was growing up.
There has always been some level of competition between DJs. Turntabling, in some sense, is an outgrowth of playing the dozens. It has sort of a testosterone, chest-thumping tinge to it. The great DJs have now outgrown the competition and just enjoy practicing their art. But to become great, most of them competed in some way or another.
This obsession with competition makes scratching seem like a men-only club, and I began to wonder if there were any women scratchers. Just when I asked that question, Scratch introduces us to DJ Shortee. She is a trained musician who plays several instruments and can read music.
She thought very little of scratching at first, looking down her nose at it. Anyone can do that, she thought… until she met her current boyfriend who showed her just how involved it really was. Now they perform together at shows and parties.
The music in Scratch is interesting, both to fans and newcomers alike. Fans will enjoy seeing so many big names (Mixmaster Mike, DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist) all in one place, and non-fans will inevitably gain some appreciation into this new form of art and music.
Scratch is an eye-opener, not just on how prevalent scratching is but how musical and talented its practitioners must be in order to make a name for themselves. Even (or should I say “especially”) someone like my mother, a retired music teacher, could like and appreciate Scratch.
So even if you don’t think you’ll enjoy a movie about scratching, even if you find yourself agreeing with the accordion salesman who calls scratching “unpleasant to the ears,” give Scratch a chance. If you remain unconvinced that scratching is music, you can enjoy this well-made documentary about the birth of a new musical instrument.