What is Turntablism? - Definition & History

Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating music using phonograph turntables and an audio mixer. The term was created in 1994 by DJ Supreme to describe the difference between a DJ who just plays records, and one who actually performs, by touching and moving the records to manipulate sound. The word was never meant to be the actual title of the art form. It was regularly stated as an example, while explaining the need for a new word to describe a newly emerging and totally unique instrumental artform. The intention was for the original creators of the artform to confer, and decide on a title. While the idea of the need for a new word spread, some DJs just began to use the example word "turntablist" before the originators had a chance to proclaim an actual title.

DJ Babu has defined a turntablist as "One who has the ability to improvise on a phonograph turntable. One who uses the turntable in the spirit of a musical instrument;" while the Battlesounds documentary film suggests a definition of :"A musician, a hip-hop disc jockey who in a live/spontaneous situation can manipulate or restructure an existing phonograph recording (in combination with an audio mixer) to produce or express a new composition that is unrecognisable from its original ingredients."

Turntablist DJs use turntable techniques like scratching or beat juggling in the composition of original musical works. Turntablism is generally focused more on turntable technique and less on mixing. Some turntablists seek to have themselves recognized as legitimate musicians capable of interacting and improvising with other performers.

The history of the turntable being used as a musical instrument has its roots dating back to the 1940s and 1950s when musique concrète and other experimental composers (such as John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer), used them in a manner similar to that of today's producers and DJs, by essentially sampling and creating music that was entirely produced by the turntable.

Even earlier, Edgard Varèse experimented with turntables in 1930, though he never formally produced any works using them. This school of thought and practice is not directly linked to the current definition of hip hop-related turntablism, though it has had an influence on modern experimental sound artists such as Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck and Janek Schaefer. These artists are the direct descendants of people like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer and are often credited as a variant to the modern turntablist DJ and producer.

Turntablism as a modern art form and musical practice has its roots within hip hop and Hip Hop culture of the early 1970s. It stems from one of the culture's "four pillars" - DJing (see "four elements," Hip Hop Culture). Scratching was already widely spread within Hip Hop by DJs and producers by the time turntablists started to appear.

Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash are widely credited for having cemented the now established role of DJ as Hip Hop's foremost instrumentalist (and historically the genre's only instrumentalist). Kool Herc's invention of break-beat deejaying is generally regarded as the foundational development in Hip Hop history, as it gave rise to all other elements of the genre. His influence on the of concept of "DJ as turntablist" is equally profound. To understand the significance of this achievement, it is important to first define the "break." Briefly, the "break" of a song is a musical fragment only seconds in length, which typically takes the form of an "interlude" in which all or most of the music stops except for the percussion. The break is roughly equivalent to the song's "climax," as it is meant to be the most exciting part of a song before returning once more to its finale (usually a return to the main chorus). In addition to raising the audience's adrenaline level, the percussion-heavy nature of the break makes it the most danceable as well, if only for seconds at a time. Kool Herc introduces the break-beat technique as a way of extending the break indefinitely. This is done by buying two of the same record and switching from one to the other on the DJ mixer: e.g., as record A plays, the DJ quickly backtracks to the same break on record B, which will again take the place of A at a specific moment in which the audience will not notice that the DJ has switched records.

Kool Herc's revolutionary technique set the course for the development of turntablism as an art form in significant ways. Most important, however, he develops a new form of deejaying that does not consist of playing and mixing records one after the other (incidentally, the type of DJ that specializes in mixing is well-respected for his own set of unique skills, but this is still deejaying in the traditional sense). Rather, Kool Herc originates the idea of creating a sequence for his own purposes, introducing the idea tof the DJ as the "feature" of parties, whose performance on any given night would be examined critically by the crowd.

However it was Grand Wizard Theodore, an apprentice of Flash, who accidentally isolated the single most important technique in turntablism: scratching. He put his hand on a record one day, to silence the music on the turntable while his mother was calling out to him and thus accidentally discovered the sound of scratching by moving the record back and forth under the stylus. Though Theodore discovered scratching, it was Flash who helped push the early concept and showcase it to the public, in his live shows and on recordings.

DJ Grand Mixer DXT is also credited with furthering the concept of scratching by practicing the rhythmic scratching of a record on one or more (usually two) turntables abd using different velocities to alter the pitch of the note or sound on the recording (Alberts 2002). DXT appeared ( as DST ) on Herbie Hancock's hit song "Rockit."

Together these early pioneers cemented the fundamental practice that would later become one of the pillars of the emerging turntablist artform. Scratching would during the 1980s become a staple of hip hop music, being used by producers and DJs on records and in live shows. By the end of the 1980s it was very common to hear scratching on a record, generally as part of the chorus of a track or within its production. On stage the DJ would provide the music for the MCs to rhyme to, scratching records during the performance and showcasing his skills alongside the verbal skills of the MC. The most well known example of this 'equation' of MCs and DJ is probably Run DMC who were composed of two MCs and one DJ. The DJ, Jam Master Jay (RIP), was an integral part of the group and his scratching an integral part of their productions and performances.

The appearance of turntablists and the birth of Turntablism was prompted by one major factor - the disappearance of the DJ in hip hop groups, on records and in live shows at the turn of the 1990s. This disappearance has been widely documented in books and documentaries (such as Black Noise and Scratch The Movie), and was linked to the increased use of DAT tapes and other studio techniques that would ultimately push the DJ further away from the original hip hop equation of the MC as the vocalist and the DJ as the music provider alongside the producer. This push and disappearance of the DJ meant that the practices of the DJ, such as scratching, went back underground and were cultivated and built upon by a generation of people who grew up with hip hop, DJs and scratching. By the mid-90s the disappearance of the DJ in hip hop had created a sub-culture which would come to be known as Turntablism and which focused entirely on the DJ utilising his turntables and a mixer to manipulate sounds and create music. By pushing the practice of DJing away, hip hop created the grounds for this sub-culture to be birthed and evolve.

The origin of the terms Turntablist and Turntablism are widely contested and argued about, though over the years some facts have been established by various documentaries (Battlesounds, Scratch The Movie), books (DJ Culture), conferences (Skratchcon 2000) and interviews in online and printed magazines. These facts are that the origins of the words most likely lay with practitioners on the US West Coast, centered around the San Francisco Bay Area. Some claim that DJ Disk, a member of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, was the first to coin the term, others claim that DJ Babu, a member of the Beat Junkies, was responsible for coining and spreading the term Turntablist after inscribing it on his mixtapes and passing them around. Additional claims credit DJ Supreme, a UK DJ and producer for the group Hijack, though the claims that the terms were birthed in the Bay Area are the most widely acknowledged and established ones. The truth most likely lies somewhere in between all these facts.

In an interview with the Spin Science online resource in 2005, DJ Babu added the following comments about the birth and spread of the term:

Spin Science: First thing was about your role in the spread of the word turntablist. I'm sure you must have spoken on it many times, but I was wondering if you could give us some details about how it all came about, as you're widely credited for birthing the term in a way. DJ Babu: Well I humbly accept the position I've now been given for this whole thing, but I want to stress that I was just part of a whole load of DJs who really made this whole thing happen. People like DST are in a way those who really deserve the credit for it all because they gave the bug to scratch to our whole generation, he started it by being part of the Herbie Hancock band and doing his thing on 'Rockit'. Without him and the other pioneers, probably none of us would have got into this thing. After that well... It was around 95, I was heavily into the whole battling thing, working on the tables constantly, mastering new techniques and scratches, and all the while working in a gas station and spending my spare time concentrating on all these things. One day I made this mixtape called 'Comprehension', and on there was a track called 'Turntablism' which featured Melo-D and D-Styles. And this is part of where this whole thing about turntablist came from. This was a time where all these new techniques were coming out, like flares and stuff, and there were probably 20 people or so, in around California between Frisco and LA, who knew about these. So we worked on them, talked about it and kicked about the ideas that these techniques and new ways of scratching gave us. And what I would do is write 'Babu the Turntablist' on tapes I was making at the time, and somehow it got out a bit, the media got hold of it and it blew into this whole thing we now know. But it was really nothing to start with. We'd all talk about these new scratches and how they really started to allow us to use the turntable in a more musical way, how it allowed us to do more musical compositions, tracks, etc. and then we'd think about how people who play the piano are pianists, and so we thought "we're turntablists in a way, because we play the turntable like these people do the piano or any other instrument". Beyond that, it was just me writing 'Babu the Turntablist', because it was something I did to make my tapes stand out. I'd just get my marker pen out and write it on there.

So by the mid to late 1990s the terms Turntablism and Turntablist had become established and accepted as defining the practice, and practitioner, of using turntables and a mixer to create or manipulate sounds and music. This could be done by scratching a record or manipulating the rhythms on the record either by drumming, looping or beat juggling.

The decade of the 1990s is also important in shaping the Turntablist artform and culture as it saw the emergence of pioneering artists (D-Styles, Q-Bert, A-Trak, Ricci Rucker, Mike Boo, Tony Vegas, Prime Cuts) and crews (Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters, Beat Junkies, The Allies, The Scratch Perverts, X-Ecutioners), record labels (Bomb Hip Hop, Asphodel, Tableturns), DJ Battles (DMC, ITF) and the evolution of scratching and other turntablist practices.

More sophisticated methods of scratching were developed during that decade, with crews and individual DJs concentrating on the manipulation of the record in time with the manipulation of the cross fader on the mixer to create new rhythms and sonic artefacts with a variety of sounds. The evolution of scratching from a fairly simple sound and simple rhythmic cadences to more complicated sounds and more intricate rhythmical patterns allowed the practitioners to further evolve what could be done with scratching musically. These new ways of scratching were all given names, from flare to crab or orbit, and spread as DJs taught each other, practiced together or just showed off their new techniques to other DJs.

Alongside the evolution of scratching, which deserves an article in itself, other practices such as drumming (or scratch drumming) and beat juggling were also evolved significantly during the 1990s.

Beat Juggling was invented, or discovered if you will, by Steve Dee, a member of the X-Men (later renamed X-Ecutioners) crew. Beat Juggling essentially involves the manipulation of two identical or different drum patterns on two different turntables via the mixer to create a new pattern. A simple example would be for example to use two copies of the same drum pattern to evolve the pattern by doubling the snares, syncopating the drum kick, adding rhythm and variation to the existing pattern. From this concept, which Steve Dee showcased in the early 90s at DJ battles, Beat Juggling evolved throughout the decade to the point where by the end of it, it had become an intricate technique to create entirely new 'beats' and rhythms out of existing, pre-recorded ones. These were now not just limited to using drum patterns, but could also consist of other sounds - the ultimate aim being to create a new rhythm out of the pre-recorded existing ones. While Beat Juggling is not as popular as scratching, due to the more demanding rhythmical knowledge it requires, it has proved popular within DJ Battles and in certain compositional situations.

One of the earliest academic studies of the turntable (White 1996) argued for its designation as a legitimate electronic musical instrument -- a manual analog sampler -- and described turntable techniques such as backspinning, cutting, scratching and blending as basic to the repertoire of the virtuoso hip hop DJ. White demonstrated that the proficient hip hop DJ must possess many of the same skills required by trained musicians, including a keen sense of timing, sharply-developed hand-eye coordination, technical competence and creativity with his material.

By the year 2000 Turntablism and turntablists had become widely publicised and accepted in the mainstream and within hip hop as valid artists. Through this recognition came further evolution.

This evolution took many shapes and forms: some continued to concentrate on the foundations of the artform and its original links to Hip Hop culture, some became producers utilising the skills they'd learnt as turntablists and incorporating those into their productions, some concentrated more on the DJing aspect of the artform by combining turntablist skills with the trademark skills of club DJs, while others explored alternative routes in utilising the turntable as an instrument or production tool solely for the purpose of making music - either by using solely the turntable or by incorporating it into the production process alongside tools such as drum machines, samplers, computer software, and so on.

In the 1990s, turntablism achieved new levels of attention. Dedicated DJs had gradually refined the practice, and it expanded on its own, apart from the MCs who had largely neglected DJing as rap developed.

New DJs/turntablists/crews like DJ Craze, Roc Raida, DJ Focus, DJ Q-Bert, Gunkhole, DJ Woody, A-Trak, Noisy Stylus, D-Styles, Birdy Nam Nam and Kid Koala owe a distinct debt to Old School DJs like DJ Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Cash Money, Afrika Bambaataa and DJs of the golden age of hip hop, who originally developed many of the concepts and techniques that evolved into modern turntablism.

Within the realm of hip hop, notable modern turntablists are the cinematic DJ Shadow, who influenced Diplo and RJD2, among others, and the experimental DJ Spooky, whose Optometry albums showed that the turntablist can perfectly fit within the classic jazz setting.

Jurassic 5 members Cut Chemist (who left the group in 2005 to concentrate on his solo career) and DJ Nu-Mark, Kid Koala, and Mix Master Mike, who collaborated with the Beastie Boys on 1998's Hello Nasty and To The 5 Boroughs in 2004 and was also a founding member the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, are also known as virtuoso of the turntables.

Like many other musical instrumentalists, turntablists compete to see who can develop the fastest, most innovative and most creative approaches to their instrument. The selection of a champion comes from the culmination of battles between turntablists.

Battling involves each turntablist performing a routine (A combination of various technical scratches, beat juggles, and other elements, including body tricks) within a limited time period, after which the routine is judged by a panel of experts. The winner is selected based upon score. These organized competitions evolved from actual old school "battles" where DJs challenged each other at parties, and the "judge" was usually the audience, who would indicate their collective will by cheering louder for the DJ they thought performed better. Often, the winner kept the loser's equipment and/or records.

from wikipedia.org

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