Needle's Eye

Scratch reveals the power of two turntables, minus the microphone

May 8, 2002 at 4:00 am
Here we have an intuitive, polyrhythmic art form bridging cultures and titillating the young at heart. This definition could easily apply to babymaking or gangbanging, but in Doug Pray's trenchant documentary Scratch, it's "turntablism" distracting the passionate kids from reproducing and/or mowing each other down. Immersing us in the endlessly inventive, fiercely competitive world of hip-hop DJs, the project is sensational and revelatory, even if all that scratching makes you itch.

Much like the particulars of taking a little circle of plastic and rubbing it back and forth, Scratch is a free-form adventure, but its delivery isn't the least bit sloppy. To borrow a quote from the funk-core combo Fishbone regarding their own, more traditional musical entertainments, this movie is "as tight as a mosquito's ass." By teaming up with the creatively titled "story structure writer" Brad Blondheim, director Pray (who helmed the grunge doc Hype! and edited American Pimp) breaks down cinematographer Robert Bennett's 40-plus hours of scintillating 16mm footage into digestible chapters, highlighting the history, methods and energetic performances of the DJs. Enhanced by sound designer David Bartlett's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, these countless little flicks of the wrist mercilessly attack the cochleas but admittedly sound very, um, fresh.

The miracle here is not so much that Pray captures the DJs in peak form but that he comprehensively captures so many of them. Just listing their names would fill this page -- and with monikers such as DJ Swamp, Dot a Rock and the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters, it'd be a Clip 'n' Save -- but let's zoom in on the Invisibl Skratch Picklz and go from there. A now-defunct Bay Area alliance comprising turntable superheroes DJ Qbert, Mix Master Mike and, variously, DJ Apollo and DJ Shortkut, the California Picklz (along with DJ Shadow) represent the epic flowering of the movement on the West Coast. They also provide some of the movie's most memorable character studies. For instance, Mix Master Mike's nimble fingers appear to be quite unsullied by library cards, but he provides one hell of a demonstration of his craft, allowing that "scratching is, to me, like, another kind of intelligence." He always was the brainy Beastie Boy.

Starting off as a sort of a protégé to Mike, emulating the Master's techniques with the Technics (a proud DJ's turntable of choice), DJ Qbert swiftly evolved into a stylus star in his own right, as per the raves of a fellow DJ, Babu. Here the boyish yet formidable Qbert -- a self-described "D-minus student" -- is showcased scratching in his basement and with the Picklz at their final jam at San Francisco's Fillmore in 2000 (and there's not a dry eye in the house). "It's kind of like talking," he explains of his art. "Each technique is a word, so the larger your vocabulary, the more articulate you can speak." (Gimme a call, Q, and I'll introduce you to one of my favorite breaks, the adverb.)

Scratch could have ended up a pale imitation of documentarian John Carluccio's massive turntablist project, Battle Sounds, but instead it charts its own course, even including a very funny segment of Carluccio lecturing about musical turntablist transcriptions. There's plenty of history and charm here as well, from coast to coast, as we sift through the enormous record collection of New York's Jazzy Jay (right down to the Chuck Berry boxed set), or DJ Shadow raiding the musty basement stacks of his favorite record store. "Digging" is how he defines his endless quest for ultimate grooves, and as the camera passes a Barry Manilow album -- twice -- one shivers at the scratch potential of "L-l-looks Like We M-m-made It.'

Throughout his multitiered extravaganza, Pray shows us what's new while reminding us of turntablism's two decades of evolution -- an eternity in pop-culture history. We get great chuckles with Miami's DJ Craze and Atlanta's female DJ Shortee (whose father has penned commercial jingles, another Manilow connection), plus Eastern grooves from Tokyo's DJ Krush and homestyle scratching from Harlem's Steve Dee and the Queens-based X-ecutioners. Also serving as editor, Pray plays a lot, sampling dialogue and image to transform his subjects into Max Headroom types, but the portraits are clear and lasting.

Especially poignant are this phenomenon's roots and resonances. Spending quality time with scratch pioneer Grand Wizard Theodore and Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa, Pray illuminates hip-hop's electric sense of community (see also the after-school DJ camp for kids and the music convention with the jealous acoustic retailers). And then there's the ultimate, the touchstone for turntablists ranging from Cut Chemist to DJ Premier: jazz legend Herbie Hancock's 1984 single "Rockit," featuring Grandmixer D.ST. When this song hit MTV and the Grammies, you were either there or you weren't. If you were, the shwah-shwah and zicka-zicka-zicka are, and ever shall be, a part of your nervous system, just like these intrepid turntablists. In theory, their feverish desire for empowerment by raiding and recycling record racks may seem a little silly, but Scratch presents it as a fine alternative to both rap and Ritalin.