Turntablism

Hip-hop’s four fundamental elements might wax and wane in popularity — the MC will always be in the spotlight, the dances have drastically evolved from the breakers’ maneuvers of the ’70s and ’80s, and the graffiti-art scene has been subsubmed by dozens of other street-fashion and visual-design movements — but the DJ will always be central to the very nature of the genre. Yet at some point in the mid ’90s — barely a dozen years removed from “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” and only a short time after Ernest Dickerson’s ’92 classic movie Juice centered its crime story around a young protagonist with dreams of tearing up the ones and twos — the role of the DJ had begun to recede. 

Cut-and-scratch routines, which made for entertaining diversions on golden era ’80s LPs like Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full ("Chinese Arithmetic"), Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back ("Terminator X to the Edge of Panic"), and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper ("DJ on the Wheels"), were rapidly disappearing from mainstream hip-hop albums. Some artists opted to use DAT tapes to provide their backing beats during live performances and cut the DJ out of the process entirely. And while the art form was still acknowledged as the Golden Era weathered its Coast Wars-wracked conclusion — Jay-Z's "D’Evils" and OutKast's "Wheelz of Steel,” wouldn’t sound the same without DJ Premier or Mr. DJ chopping it up on the track — it wasn’t uncommon for five-mic classic albums to drop from any region while relying more on digital sampling and even live-band session musicians than live DJs.

So while DJs weren’t entirely an endangered species in the mid ’90s, they were at least threatened — and that threat was met with an underground movement of such relentless drive, creativity, and absurdity that it wound up coining an entirely new name for the art form’s advanced state. The actual phrase-coiner of the term “turntablism” is still debated — though DJ Babu, from the Orange County-based crew Beat Junkies, had a big hand in spreading it, going so far as to adopt “The Turntablist” as his alias for his 1996 beat record Super Duck Breaks… the Saga Begins. But by the mid-late ’90s, the associations were well-known: if the DJ in the popular imagination was someone who spun and scratched records, the turntablist was someone who made a big pyrotechnic show out of it, foregrounding the star-power appeal to the role by leaning hard into the spectacular, quick-fingered virtuoso-performance aspects of DJing. 

But whether they were cartoonish surrealists like Invisibl Skratch Piklz or bound to honor tradition by building cathedrals on it like X-ecutioners, there was always more to the best turntablist albums than just the skill-flaunting battle techniques that the DMC World DJ Championships helped make subculturally popular. A DJ’s only worth what they can pull out of their crates, and whether they’re creating their own tracks or making immaculate blends of classic material, the choicest cuts on these albums and mixtapes all rely on a deep knowledge of hip-hop’s funk-break fundamentals and how they can be reshaped while retaining their original weight. It’s no surprise that turntablism’s relevance peaked somewhere between the buzz around trip-hop in the early ’90s and the emergence of underground hip-hop’s new class in the late ’90s: it was in keeping with the moment’s ambivalence about hip-hop’s future, and how it related to both its own history and its potential to cross over into new forms. And well into the Serato-driven 2020s, this music still has the shock of the weird, the sound of a fundamental medium being warped and sculpted into a wild fusion of rhythm and noise.

Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik cover

What happens when one of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz gets ahold of a bunch of dawn-of-hip-hop breaks and makes a mix out of them? Here’s the dizzying answer: this 1994 mixtape from Q-bert, which takes the classic early ’80s Zulu Beat Show/Steinski-style mixture of hip-hop breaks and cartoon/cult film clips into the outskirts of absurdism. What makes Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik so wild isn’t its iconoclasm, but its reverence — at least, the kind of reverence towards classic breaks like Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” ESG’s “U.F.O.,” and the Headhunters’ “God Make Me Funky” that frees him up to find new angles to their well-known presence in every old-school DJ’s crates. The early drop of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” is a good sign of what you’re in for — that legendary descending synth hit dropping concurrent with a bombastic kiddie-record introduction of Spider-Man, then getting put through the wringer with a succession of back-and-forth loops until he pulls it apart and squishes it around like Silly Putty. Additional gags include his decision to let the funky bell-rocking opening break to Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” play out into the significantly less hardcore chirpy mellowness of the song’s remainder as he hammers in some brisk percussive scratches, a run-through of “Theme from S.W.A.T.” overlaid with dialogue from Bugs Bunny’s pseudo-Edward G. Robinson gangster foil Rocky, and some of the damnedest scratched manipulations of the titular vocal from the Mohawks’ “Champ” you’ll ever hear. But beneath all the comedic punch-ins and the wrist-snapping scratch techniques shown off here, Q-bert lays out an itinerary that sounds like the ultimate culmination of Ultimate Breaks and Beats — the building blocks of early-stage hip-hop craftily stitched into giddy mass-media overstimulation.

The Shiggar Fraggar Show! Vol. 5 cover

Bay Area weirdos Invisibl Skratch Piklz introduced more new ideas and techniques to DJing than anyone this side of Grand Wizzard Theodore. And after dominating so many DJ competitions that the governing body of the Disco Mix Club nudged them out so other participants could stand a chance of winning, their rep for flashy yet irreverent scratch routines demanded a wider audience. This was borne out over a number of appearances on Oakland’s Hip Hop Slam radio show, circa 1995-96, that would be preserved for posterity as the Shiggar Fraggar Show! series. And it’s Volume 5 that captures the Skratch Piklz at the height of their power, when their crew included the turntablist equivalent of the ’92 Dream Team — Q-bert, DJ Disk, Mix Master Mike, Shortkut, and Apollo. As a performance, it’s best in video form — part of the thrill is in watching them pull it all off, where the four-deck setup allows multiple DJs to riff off each others’ routines and the improvisational, interpersonally communicative potential of turntablism is shown off to its fullest. It takes a bit to get going as pure audio — you have to really love turntablism to click with the early stretch that includes minimal-beat/maximal-scratch showcases “Insect Mind Numb” and “Ah One, Two, Three, Cut” — but if you don’t really love turntablism after listening to this, it’s probably more a you problem anyways. For the rest of us, the big rewards come in the show’s back half, where wild gear shifts like the uptempo electro sequence of “Damn You Skratchy” and “All the Way from Frisco” melts into the swampy serrations of “Makin’ Me Itch” and a Mike-helmed two-fer of pure rhythm-violating assault (“Battle for the Mind”/"Hardcore Man from the Underland”) that leaves scrapes on your brain. Stick around for the 16-plus-minute bonus cut “West Coast Rock Steady Groove,” a self-contained mix that shows Disk, Q-bert and Shortkut wreaking welcome havoc over beats from hip-hop’s 808-heavy ’80s before concluding with a largely undisturbed selection of cuts from the Wild Style soundtrack — the past refracted into a supercharged version of itself.

My Vinyl Weighs a Ton cover

DJs are curators as much as they’re soundsystem-dominating performers — maybe moreso — so it’s understandable if Peanut Butter Wolf’s discography leans far more towards compilations and mixtapes than self-made personal statements. Still, being a turntablist in the late ’90s meant you were practically obligated to put out a scratch record with a whole bunch of your DJ and rapper friends, and My Vinyl Weighs a Ton stands as both a solid self-contained entry into the field and a glimpse at the Stones Throw stylistic philosophy. It’s heavy on wide-underground-appeal headnod rap cuts (Planet Asia, Lootpack, and an unearthed Charizma collab deliver high points), but the all-star scratch summit centerpiece “Tale of Five Cities” — with Wolf joined by an eleven-man-strong who’s-who assemblage of battle DJs — is the berserk peak.

Brainfreeze cover

Decades after its limited-release, heavily-bootlegged 1999 drop date, the legend of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s two-sided/two-halved Brainfreeze mix still looms large. But it’s not just because they have Good Taste in old vinyl — or because their choice to use nothing but 45s, a tricky feat considering how difficult they are to DJ with, added an extra dimension of challenge to their scratch routines. It’s because Shadow and Chemist have that beathead obsession with making the pieces fit together in funny and surprising ways. It might be a simple-seeming trick to juxtapose a sample source with a song that samples it, but the segue from Albert King’s “Cold Feet” into Ultimate Force’s “I’m Not Playing” (and back) is pulled off with the kind of exquisite timing that makes it feel less like an elbow-meets-ribs nudge than a natural blend. They consistently pull off this careful balance of “hey, get it?" referentiality and comedic side-routes, like the absolutely preposterous namesake-inspiring 1967 7-Eleven tie-in single “Dance the Slurp” — which they blend into Kraftwerk’s “Numbers,” for god’s sake, and from there into both Shadow’s “The Number Song” and Cut Chemist’s remix thereof. But it’s all to acknowledge that funk’s supposed to be a good time. There’s a lot of upbeat dance-craze cheer to the selections on display, from a handful of New Orleans cult favorite Eddie Bo’s deepest grooves to a slew of hopelessly obscure bands (The Showmen Inc., The Nu People, The Soul Lifters) who released one fire 7” and nothing else. Brainfreeze stands out a bit more for its curatorial oddities and the light heart/heavy beat vibe than it does for any scratch pyrotechnics (even if they can’t resist at least building a couple flashy centerpieces around Rufus Thomas’s “Itch and Scratch” and Clifton Chenier and Grandma Gee Gee’s “Just Keep On Scratching,” among others). But the fingerprints of both DJs are still left all over the wax here, figuratively speaking — all they need are a few well-timed rewinds and transitional cuts to segue masterfully from one moment to the next, and maybe a bit of self-referential commentary throughout — hey, aren’t those the songs Chemist flipped for Jurassic 5’s “Jayou” and Shadow for “Organ Donor”? Turns out even mixtapes can contain lore.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome cover

Every instrument eventually gets the comedy vehicle it deserves, and Montreal-via-Vancouver DJ Kid Koala christened the new millennium with a turntablist showcase that could make you cry laughing when you weren’t busy marveling over his technique. He takes supreme advantage of the inherent humor in messing with cartoon voices, juxtaposing bizarre cut-up conversations, and concocting “but it is a real instrument” rebuttals like future live-gig highlight and profound jazz goofaround “Drunk Trumpet” and meta-scratch DJ deconstruction “A Night at the Nufonia."

Birdy Nam Nam cover

French DJ crew Birdy Nam Nam might’ve broken out long after the initial ’90s establishment of turntablism as its own novel take on DJ culture; if you’ve heard of them before, it’s probably thanks to a very 2010s co-sign from none other than Skrillex and a subsequent appearance on A$AP Rocky’s “Wild for the Night.” But back in 2005, when trendhoppers were more infatuated with seamless mash-ups than complex turntablist routines, Birdy Nam Nam’s self-titled debut built off their tight DJ-crew interplay to create an album where it felt like every last bit of turntablism’s percussive qualities was put to work building a new form of ensemble music. Each member gets a specific “instrument” to work with for each track — one works the rhythms, others tweak assorted melodies — and while the styles they screw around in might be familiar, they lean into the uncanny side of things. The lounge-jazz goof “Kind of Laid Back” has all the tongue-in-cheek chirpiness of a parody — complete with an interlude featuring the sound of someone taking a piss — but its silliness is at least somewhat offset by its ingenuity in the way it sneakily resembles an actual jazz combo, only to deliberately let some of the cut-and-scratch seams show for emphasis. Their music takes advantage of its unreal-seeming loop-grafting structure to add some heightened strangeness to already-weird sounds: the suspenseful nerviness outweighs any kitsch in the VHS thriller score tropes of “Escape,” the squelching synths of “Too Much Skunk Tonight” combine the analog queasiness of Quentin Dupieux’s recordings as Mr. Oizo with a high-impact low-end that makes your stomach lurch, and the uptempo tension of late-album highlight “Abbesses” soaks in a roiling slow-boil that evokes a ruminative strain of post-rock but pulls it taut enough to let its rhythms sink in deep. And sometimes it gets really moody — the sludgy, vertigo-inducing atmospherics of “Il y a un cauchemard dans mon placard” makes for a sinister dark-side-of-acid-jazz exploration worthy of Amon Tobin.

X-Pressions cover

Rob Swift, Mista Sinista, Total Eclipse, and the late Roc Raida were arguably the greatest DJ crew to ever come out of New York — assuming you can find anyone willing to argue that point. As a group that emerged in the midst of rap’s early ’90s golden era and started to peak once that era was on the wane, the X-ecutioners fit well into late ’90s underground hip-hop’s preservationist-yet-progressive dichotomy. And while their act was always more impressive live than in the studio, it still packs a punch on their first full-length. There are a few rap cuts scattered amongst the scratch exhibitions — primarily in the service of rescuscitating the old-school hierarchy where MCs serve the role as the DJs’ hypemen — but those are just the more accessible inroads into a more uncompromising dive into hardcore turntablism. And even then, the highlights often come in less flashy, more fundamental forms — the circa-’88 808s and James Brown horn stabs on “Get Started,” the constantly mutating kick-snare emphases on the restlessly morphing “Beat Treats,” and the pitch-heightening sleigh-bell boom bap of “Solve For X” are less invested in reinventing the wheels of steel than they are in honing the classic methods to immaculate perfection. In relying on well-timed transitions and seamless cuts just as much as they do on transformative scratching, the X-ecutioners maintain this consistent feeling of almost contemplative heaviness, where even the downtempo stuff bristles with the promise of new rhythmic angles. And when it comes time to just let it all get turned loose, they find some unconventional settings to do it in — check out “The Turntablist Anthem,” where Rob Swift goes rapidfire on the decks over the backdrop of a mellow trip-hop/neo-soul jazz piano flip, or group exhibition “The Countdown,” where the DJs take a languid bass-heavy groove as thick and slow as molasses and vigorously scrape all the veneer off until the track’s thoroughly weather-beaten and grimy.

Anti​-​Theft Device cover

The Beastie Boys introduced DJ Mix Master Mike into the fold for Hello Nasty in 1998, and while Invisibl Skratch Piklz fans already knew the score, his showcase “Three MC’s and One DJ” — complete with an intro where Mike demonstrates a wah-wah-pedal-driven, pitch-bending “tweak scratch” via voicemail — absolutely exploded the numbers of his potential fanbase. Good thing Anti-Theft Device came out a week after Hello Nasty — the main course after the appetizer, it’s both overstuffed with beat-juggling, channel-surfing ideas and quick to move on from them before they wear out their welcome. Sometimes all he needs is a powerful speaker-rattler of a beat and a few lightly manipulated clips from sci-fi flicks or hardcore hip-hop shout-outs to get his point across — “Ill Shit,” “Sloh Beat,” and the Portishead-fricassee “Deeportashun” sound damn near minimalist compared to the record’s more frantic moments. But his technique shines throughout: there’s a gripping sense of disorientation to the way the title cut builds a new percussive world from a few familiar bars of John Bonham and a brain-scrambling omnidirectional fusillade of micro-cut sound fragments, while the pacing-in-a-cage bass groove of “Supa Wyde Laces” and the Preemo/DITC-style soul-jazz chops on “Gang Tackle” give him a lot of space to unfurl his flashier tendencies while still offering a fundamental sense of what makes a hip-hop instrumental headnod-worthy. And it’s a jolt when one of his direct-drive-demolishing turns of the wrist sneaks up on you to wrestle something not just virtuosic but truly bizarre from the vinyl. “Jack Knyfe” starts out seething with reverb-heavy Tangerine Dream-esque synth-dread and only gets wilder when he starts scratching out what sounds like early ’80s arcade game laser-blast SFX. And “Suprize Packidge” conjures up a crossfader symphony of Taking of Pelham One Two Three grittiness that it subverts with some emphatically squishy distortions of ’70s funk on the ones and twos.

Return of the DJ, Vol. 1 cover

The first big multi-artist showcase of the turntablism era starts on a sour note: Kool DJ E.Q.’s “Death of Hip-Hop” features a diatribe about how “selfishness and greed has forced some to neglect those on the wheels of steel; MCs engaging in this type of behavior see themselves as gettin’ over, but in reality, they’re contributing to the death of true hip-hop.” But if that opening salvo seems a bit defensive, this comp shows off a lot worth defending, with that first track’s combo of exclamatory DJ Premier-style rapper-soundbite scratches and no-bullshit-all-boom-bap drums providing just one of many routes towards recentering the scratch routine in hip-hop. Invisibl Skratch Piklz earn nods both as a crew (the dubby burble of “Invasion of the Octopus People,” where their scratches mutilate Minimoogs and wah-wah guitars into hot melted gunk) and solo (Mix Master Mike adding some wild popcult pastiche — Bruce Lee and NFL kicker Tom Dempsey, together at last — to the manic culture-jamming “Terrorwrist (Beneath the Under)”). Beat Junkies’ “Scratch Monopoly II” can’t sit still, careening between downtempo MoWax acid-jazz atmosphere and old-school uptempo body-rock breaks while immolating the restless beat with some of the most frantic, fast-paced scratching imaginable; the crew’s own DJ Babu somehow tops it for the crossfader-throttling mania of closer “Suckas (Sucka DJ Dis),” 20 beats’ worth of showmanship crammed into three bewildering minutes. Further highlights include Rob Swift’s disruptive rhythm rearrangements turning the b-boy canon into coleslaw (“Rob Get’s Busy”), Cut Chemist following up on the promise of Steinski’s tape-splicing proto-sampling break studies and doing it all on wax, in real time (“Lesson 4: The Radio”), and Peanut Butter Wolf drawing seismographic lines from the old school to the last years of the Golden Era by compressing a mixtape’s worth of history into a single concentrated dose (“The Chronicles (I Will Always Love H.E.R.)”).

Soulful Fruit cover

Stones Throw was quick to break regional boundaries — it was a Cali label, but that didn’t stop them from releasing an album by X-Ecutioners master turntablist Rob Swift at an early stretch of his long-tail career peak. At least, that’s the name on the cover — but the routines also include appearances from fellow Xers Diamond Jay, Mista Sinista, and Roc Raida. A classic breaks-and-scratches record that features instantly recognizable sample sources amd seamless transitions (David Matthews’ “Sandworms” into Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Superman Lover”!) and then shows what happens when a top-tier DJ gets ahold of them.

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