Could it be that the unfathomable techniques of today’s scratch DJs are honing alien signals from distant galaxies? That may be a stretch, but if you’ve ever heard the sounds that emulate from the fingertips of some turntabalists, they can inspire an extra terrestrial presence. The advent of turntable as instrument is a musical monument of the 20th century and the documentary Scratch pays homage to the innovators of the craft.
The original documentary Scratch premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and made it’s way across the country in theaters with guest appearances by the world’s top turntablists. A follow up film premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2005 showcasing the Los Angeles stop on the tour. The Tour film drifts from the feel of tribute Scratch had, instead revealing the raw energy of the stage presence DJs have achieved outside the booth.
After DJ Jazzy Jay laid his foundation for the camera, he sets off the L.A tour with a taste of a Bronx block-party circa 1982. All these years and Jazzy Jay is probably one of the few DJs who can say, “keepin it real” without sounding phony. As he rightfully claims, his DJ sets reach back to the grooves of soulful bands, Zulu Nation style. He makes no pretension that the push-button rock of beat machines is a lesser art, just that he stays true to his preference of the live sound.
Electronics aside, this is a film about the men behind the machines, the sweat drenched performances of a life force that dominates the boxes and wires. The tour film follows the progression of the show putting DJ Z-Trip at the helm who’s journey takes the audience from the likes of hard-hip hop beats to Led Zeppelin and Rage Against the Machine riffs. He tops it off with his trademark scratch duet to Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall Of The Mountain King, somewhat of a theme for the Scratch tour as it appeared in the first film.
Z-Trip can get the blood running in your veins by dropping wax from a memory box, but the DVD’s next performance by the X-ecutioners stimulates all the senses. These showmen are a triumvirate of scratch symphonies, swapping beats and rhythms like the Harlem Globe trotters pass the ball. When you think your ears have heard the ultimate synchronized set, your eyes behold their spectacular choreography gliding, bobbing and spinning from one turntable to the next.
There is no question of the music, but the way the X-ecutioners re-imagine it can only be matched by the mind splitting sets of Mix-Master Mike. Rightfully a Master, this DJ is to the turntable what John Coltrane was to the saxophone, creating licks foreign and beautiful at once. If this wave of sets that exploded the L.A tour stop was not enough for your viewing experience, they’ve added a bonus All-star jam in the extras. 12 Turntables, 6 DJs including the immaculate DJ Q-Bert and a beat-boxer. One word: Raw.
The original Scratch producers, Brad Blondheim and Ernest Meza thought up the idea of the documentary over lunch at Sundance in 2001. Soon after they taped the talents of filmmaker Doug Pray who documented the Seattle Grunge scene in Hype, to direct and edit Scratch. With sublime results, he interviewed the old school DJs who planted the seeds of Hip Hop along with the DJs taking the music to another dimension of turntabalism. It’s 90 minutes of beat-funked reels are crafted with slick technique and weaves a vibrant history straight from the minds of the DJs that scratched it.
Doug Pray made the film with little knowledge of the evolution of turntabalism and that offers a good perspective. It stimulates an appreciation for the music even if you’re not tuned into the scene. Pray is experienced in the ways of sound as he got his start editing music videos for the likes of rapper Eazy E and rocker John Fogerty. His offering in both Scratch documentaries is a fresh look into those who are the backbone of Hip Hop, the DJs.
Like knights of the mixing table, DJs have formed their own secret society in which they honor each other with titles like Grand Wizard and Grand Master. Grand Wizard Theodore is documented as the pioneer of the scratch and if it could have been patented he’d own it. In an interviews in the first film he says, ” I should get a dollar every time someone scratches a record onto another record.” Maybe so, but if there is one thing that Scratch highlights its that every Grand Master Wizard has made a contribution to the realization of the turntable as instrument. The birth of Hip Hop music was no tango collaboration, but truly a collective mob-on-the-dance-floor experience.
Whether it was DJ Kool Herc, mixing at house parties in the Bronx or turntable orchestras like the Invisbl Skratch Piklz from San Francisco, these are the musicians who capture the live energy that sprouted Hip Hop’s roots and propel it’s future. The film proves that this is a musical environment in which anything goes and the DJ is as much a dominant personality of the 20th century as they are musician. Not since John Carluccio released the film Battle Sounds, has the turntablist gotten the royal treatment seen in Scratch and Scratch: All the Way Live.
As much as the first film tells the relatively modern history of Hip Hop DJs, it portrays the progressive nature of the music, constantly pushing new limits. This is where the alien signals start to blend in, when DJs like Q-Bert and Mixmaster Mike start tweaking records. As founders of the Invisbl Skratch Piklz their live performances epitomize the improvisational language of scratching. Artists like Q-Bert or DJ Craze can fire up a crowd into frenzy and that is the essence of what Hip Hop was and is. It was a music that thrived in a local sense, but with Global appeal that anyone could get in on it and almost everyone did.
In 1984, when Grand Mixer DXT scratched the infamous “Fresh” cut for Herbie Hancock to his hit song ‘Rock It’ at the Grammy Awards it inspired a nation. Thousands of kids ran to their parent’s turntables and stared scratching their old Funk, Jazz and Disco records. In the interviews every DJ claims that moment to be the one that established the stage presence of DJ history. It made scratching your vinyl to legit to quit.
The tour documentary is an experience unto itself and really captures the extent of DJ showmanship, but Pray’s first Scratch is something to cherish. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow, Rob Swift and the X-ecutioners, DJ Premier of Gang Starr, DJ Krush from Japan, Cut Chemist and DJ Numark from Jurassic Five, DJ Jazzy Jay and Dilated Peoples all feed a soundtrack that will bob your noggin through the whole movie.