Turntablism 101

Up on a raised booth in his Eagles jersey, black hat and glasses, DJ Jazzy Jeff spins records at Fluid Nightclub in Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 28, 2002 AP

Among the many sounds at Boston's renowned Berklee College of Music, where the only music on the curriculum is contemporary, one could say its latest is a sort of throwback to the past

Today, the turntable is no longer just for playing music, but making music. At Berklee, the turntable is the instrument.

"The turntable is so physical. I don't think anybody realizes how much of that aspect is in it," says Aubrey Webber.

"I would say the frustration sort of adds to the fun," says student Corey. "Just because you're like, 'I got to figure this out. I got to figure this out.'"

Stephen Webber, a classically trained guitarist, says, "When I tell people, friends of mine, 'I'm playing the turntable,' most of the time they just look at me like, 'What are you talking about?'"

Webber is Berklee's professor of "Turntable Technique."

"It's DJ-ing, first and foremost," explains Webber. "But there is a subset of DJs that play the turntable as a musical instrument, and you would call those 'turntablists.' And the colloquial term that is used for the act of playing the turntable as a musical instrument is 'turntablism.'"

But it's the turntable's least melodic sound that's earned it a more familiar nickname -- "scratch."

"The first scratch is just a basic scratch, which is just back and forth," explains Webber. "But that's just the beginning. If you start going faster, if you get up into like eighth notes, sixteenth notes, you call that a 'scribble.' And then you can get even faster, which is called an 'uzi, ' where you're actually just doing a muscle spasm more or less."

Along with scratch technique are the records, where beats, notes, lyrics -- in fact anything -- are used to make music.

For the casual listener, it can be enough to make your head spin, and some may wonder why the turntable is considered a musical instrument.

"There are many percussion instruments that are also double as other things, like baskets or kitchen utensils, for instance," says Webber. "But if you intend to use them as a musical instrument, they become a musical instrument. Now that's setting the bar pretty low. But I think the turntable has the potential, in the hands of a master, of being a very sophisticated musical instrument."

And there are masters out there, turntablists such as Radar, The Executioners or QBert, who are building the repertoire of turntable music.

"I wasn't in favor of it, and I'm very skeptical even now," says Gary Burton, executive vice president of Berklee. "It just seems to lack a lot of the musical elements that are important to me. You know, rich variety and harmony. Varied dynamics and more interesting rhythm combinations. Now that doesn't mean that I can just dismiss it just because I don't happen to feel much connection to it."

Burton says he was willing to give turntablism a chance, partly, because of the students' interest in the music.

And at Berklee, student interest is off the scale. "Turntable Technique" has the longest waiting-list on campus. Its coursebook is one of Berklee Press' best-selling of all time. And there's even a budding turntablists' club -- with guest DJs, who draw a crowd.

The tradition of turntablism grew out of the streets of the Bronx, N.Y., in the mid-1970s -- when turntable pioneers, Grandmaster Flash and, later, Grand Wizzard Theodore were just teenagers providing the music for neighborhood block parties. It was the early days of hip hop and the goal was simple: Keep the crowds seamlessly dancing.

"What I had to come up with was a way to take -- whether it was rock, jazz, blues, funk, pop, R&B -- take those tracks and make them one big song," says Grandmaster Flash.

The pioneer says, when he first DJed, he didn't think he was creating art.

"I did it in frustration … because the best part of your record was the get-down part," says Grandmaster Flash. "So I was saying to myself, 'How can I, in this little, teeny, tiny part, make this song?'"

And an idea emerged. He manually edited the record to rewrite the song. The rest is now turntablism history.

With grassroots classes sprouting up across the country, there's no denying what started out in the Bronx has had its impact on the musical landscape.

That impact is a reality Berklee's Gary Burton accepts.

"If you get an end result that connects with people and communicates, then you've achieved it," says Burton. "Art always is reinvents itself and the way it's made."

Turntables may be the only instrument that requires other music to make music.

Burton response: "In the art world, that would be, 'So what? We've been doing that for decades now. We cut up things and paste them together [like] Warhol and Matisse and so on. We were doing things decades ago like this.' To us, this is pretty radical."

And the boundaries continue to be pushed. Today, a new generation of artists ponder new sounds, from Boston band Mystiq (where turntablists meet electric strings). For members of Gunkhole, the beats go to the drummer, while "scratch musicians" search for new sounds.

And now the turntable has its first concerto -- performed by Radar.

"I'm trying to make it appealing to -- not only to the -- the younger generation, but to the older generation," he says.
The "sound" of the turntable is only just beginning to emerge.
  • Rome Neal

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