Hip-Hop for Nerds 

Turntablism never set the world on fire, but the art still burns underground.

Do ya still like scratchin'? Seven years ago, when the pioneering turntablist compilations Return of the DJ and Deep Concentration first surfaced, they were hailed as the harbingers of a new golden age of music, led by turntable Mozarts composing scratch symphonies on the fly with a flick of the wrist too quick for the eye to see. Critics coast to coast crowned the DJ as the new rock star, and Technics 1200 decks the new Stratocaster.

Scratching was supposed to be the Next Big Thing. But it didn't quite happen that way.

The advent of turntablism -- a hip-hop subgenre, emerging out of the battle DJ scene of the late '80s and early '90s, based around techniques called beat-juggles, crab scratches, orbits, flares, and wipes -- pulled the DJ back into the limelight after being overshadowed by the more commercially acceptable MC. Swift scratch surgeons became iconic figures, while international DJ competitions like the ITF and the DMC provided a global forum for emerging turntablists. Bomb Records, the label behind Return of the DJ, was named one of the "Fifteen Labels That Matter" in Spin. Q-Bert scored a Source profile. Rob Swift of the X-ecutioners appeared in a Gap ad. The Invisibl Skratch Picklz headlined more than one blowout warehouse party during the dot-com daze. And most prominently, no self-respecting rap-metal outfit left the house without a DJ manning the ones and twos.

The dawn of the turntablist era generated considerable -- and perhaps justified -- hype. A slew of indie turntablist albums from the likes of Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, Kid Koala, and the X-ecutioners followed closely behind Return of the DJ and Deep Con. SF avant-jazz trio Live Human, featuring the nimble-fingered DJ Quest, signed to Matador. DJ Shadow could well have been Rachmaninoff for all the praise his debut album Endtroducing... accumulated.

The art form soon crossed over to other underground subcultures: Hip-hop pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash started playing raves and house clubs, while Future Primitive Sound Session blurred the lines further with culture-clashing events featuring live painting by B-boy legend Doze and well-rounded DJs like Z-Trip, who layered hard-rock hits over hip-hop breaks.

By 1999 or so, turntablism was poised as a bridge between all forms of electronic music, forging a common link between genres that often commanded separate fanbases. The Scratchcon convention held in SF in 2000 elevated scratch music to an academic level, complete with an innovative system of transcribing turntable maneuvers into musical notation. Meanwhile, DJ-oriented movies such as Groove, Battle Sounds, Wave Twisters, and Scratch jolted the awareness of turntable culture among above-ground audiences. But through it all, it became fairly obvious that few mall rats were gonna trade Britney Spears for DJ Swamp.

Except for the most fanatic and understanding of fans, scratch music became the equivalent of a Yngwie Malmsteen record: an overindulgent, masturbatory affair that quickly turned repetitious and boring. Anyone who's ever attended a DJ battle can attest to the fact that not only is the audience 98.3 percent nerdy guys just standing around watching different DJs do the same damn scratches for four hours, but it's also hard to dance to a beat-juggle, no matter how technically stunning.

The simple fact is that turntablism may be a worldwide phenomenon, but it's still an underground art form. Its grassroots network may extend globally, but you can't honestly expect an audience weaned on catchy, overproduced pop-radio hits to gravitate toward music that sounds like something between Martian jazz and Armageddon itself.

Nor was turntablism's rise an entirely positive phenomenon: As a result, mix tapes also became elevated to a supercommercial, über-mainstream level, which is sorta wack. A cultural phenomenon once symbolized by Afrika Bambaataa's breakbeat treasure trove "Death Mix," mix tapes have since devolved into major label-sponsored corporate affairs featuring music industry tastemakers (Funkmaster Flex, DJ Clue, Kay Slay) who often indulge in more self-reverential yelling than actual mixing. You know it's gotten bad when the DJ says his own name 47 times before the song's first verse ends, and the tune then abruptly crashes into the next track without anything resembling a segue.

As corporations have co-opted the mix tape scene, it's become less of a forum for unsigned artists and more of a preview for upcoming major-label releases. And while scratch DJs occasionally show up in TV commercials, innovators such as Grand Wizard Theodore, who invented scratching back in 1975 at the tender age of thirteen, are hardly ever in them.

Even so, the DJ art form continues to flourish under the mainstream radar, particularly in the Bay Area, where you still can't swing a dead cat without hitting someone carrying a record bag and headphones, claiming to be DJ So-and-So. At this point, the Bay Area turntablist scene encompasses three main stylistic directions: hardcore, battle-derived scratch music; more slickly produced tracks, often paired with rap vocals; and turntable jazz-fusion, presenting the DJ as instrumentalist in an experimental context.

Judging from some recent local releases, there's still plenty reason to check for the DJ in 2003, even if the buzz on turntablism isn't quite as deafening as it was. The fifth volume in the Return of the DJ series sticks to purist scratch music but pushes the envelope by including artists from literally all over the map, including Japan, Italy, the UK, and Germany. Meanwhile, Om's Deep Concentration 4 tries a slightly different tactic, moving beyond cut-and-mix pastiches of action movie dialogue and into club-oriented indie hip-hop with a strong DJ element.

By far the most interesting and innovative new turntablist-oriented record around these parts, however, is Wide Hive Remixed, a collection of new interpretations of the SF future-jazz label's collective output, held together by producer/remixer DJ Zeph.

Wide Hive Remixed touches on a lot of eclectic bases -- underground hip-hop, house, dub reggae, progressive jazz, two-step -- but ties everything together like, well, a DJ set. The juxtapositions are indeed def, from Djini Brown's remix of jazzman Calvin Keys' "Tierra Naranja" to DJ Design's re-fix of DJ Zeph's "Mirrors on Sand" (featuring Express contributor Azeem) to Dissent's "Bleeding Together," with deep house textures supplied by Kaskade. You won't find three thousand variations on the "f-f-fresh" scratch here, but more importantly, you won't see anyone just standing around when this eminently danceable album hits the decks. Because if you can't dance to it, what's the point of the revolution?


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