Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating music using phonograph turntables and a DJ mixer. The word ‘turntablist’ was coined in 1995 by DJ Babu to describe the difference between a DJ who just plays records, and one who performs by touching and moving the records, stylus and mixer to manipulate sound. The new term co-occurred with a resurgence of the art of hip-hop style DJing in the 1990s.
Hip-hop turntablist DJs use turntable techniques like beat mixing/matching, scratching, and beat juggling. Some turntablists seek to have themselves recognized as traditional musicians capable of interacting and improvising with other performers. Some people focus on turntable technique while others craft intricate compositions by focusing on mixing. Turntablism as a modern art form and musical practice has its roots within hip-hop culture going back to the early 1970s. Scratching was already widespread within hip-hop by DJs and producers by the time turntablists started to appear. The Turntable Slip Mat has always been an instrumental tool within these styles, allowing BPM adjustment, back-queuing and scrachin.
The Originators: DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash are widely credited for having cemented the now established role of DJ as hip-hop’s foremost instrumentalist. Kool Herc’s invention of break-beat DJing 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 concept of “DJ as turntablist” is equally profound. 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 the main groove. 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 – 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. Early pioneers made their own Slipmats from felt, record sleeves, fabric and combination’s of experimental materials.
Grand Wizard Theodore, an apprentice of Flash, who accidentally isolated the most recognizable technique of 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 studio 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, 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”.
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