THE NOISE of a record deck being manhandled, the abrasive sound of music disrupted by sleight of hand, the stuttering rhythm of phonetic repetition... It was 16 years ago that an unsuspecting public was first exposed to scratch mixing through Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Girls" and "D'You Like Scratchin'?". For many, it represented little more than a disposable gimmick. However, for the nation's nascent b- boys, this was a skill to be acquired; for DJs everywhere, it was an injunction to "K- k-k-keep scratchin'".
Just as the previous generation had marvelled at the fret-work of Jimi Hendrix, the 1980s hip-hop generation came to idolise the dexterity of the scratch mixer, embracing the apparently new musical form as part of the hip-hop lifestyle. It's an obsession that has developed into a global phenomenon today, with scratch crews emerging everywhere, and the influence of the scratch mix is now widespread.
However, the concept of the scratch as artform antedates hip-hop by some 40 years with the works of avant-garde classical composer John Cage. His Imaginary Landscape No 1 (1937) manipulated turntables to create a rhythmic texture, while Cartridge Music (1938) found him rubbing a stylus against various inappropriate objects. These were the basics of what has become known as "turntablism". In Cage's work lies the fundamental ideology behind hip-hop: the subversion of standard hardware usage and the destruction of musical tradition. Put simply, the scratch involves reducing the record to an unidentifiable frequency through the misuse of a Technics SL 1200 record deck. It is, as Kudwo Eshun suggests in his book More Brilliant than the Sun, "a violence against vinyl rather than respect due to the greats". Mixmaster Mike (the Beastie Boys' DJ, and part of San Francisco- based crew Invisbl Skratch Piklz) says: "Scratch mixers can take any piece of music and manipulate it into something which is unrecognisable and then use it to create a bass and snare, or simply scratch a drum. It's all part of the skill." The most common misunderstanding surrounding turntablism is that scratching is simply about moving a record backwards and forwards under an amplified cartridge. In fact, it's a skill that involves tremendous dexterity. As one hand manipulates the vinyl, the other works the mixers' cross-faders, phase switches, volume slides and EQs at lightning speed, occasionally adjusting the pitch control for added effect. Throughout, records are replaced and needles placed on the required groove with precision. The intensity of this kind of performance can occasionally echo the self-indulgence of a guitar solo. DJ Shadow, whose recent production work on the Unkle album explored many of the techniques of scratching, calls this "the Van Halen effect, where those really long scratch solos - which are as boring as an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo - bore an entire audience except for the two or three other DJs who appreciate his highly evolved wrist action". This type of show-off activity is, however, at the very heart of b-boy culture. Where rappers challenge one another to freestyle sessions, the scratch DJ goes in for the deck dual. From the days of Grandmaster Flash working his infamous wheels of steel in competition with Grand Wizard Theodor (reputedly hip-hop's first scratch mixer at the age of 11), and other notable showdowns like those between Scott La Rock and Marley Marl, the battle is essential to the development of the art. Indeed, since 1985 the leading DJs have been involved in the highly organised annual DMC Championships, a battleground where scratching techniques are premiered. Far from being a specialist style with a limited audience, scratch mixing has proven to be exceptionally influential. Turntablism informs the work of artists as disparate as Portishead, Goldie and The Prodigy - the latter's cut-and-paste ethic echoing the scratch in its most basic form. …