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 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, Doug Pray's Scratch), 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. Another claim credits DJ Supreme, 1991 World Supremacy Champion and DJ for Lauryn Hill. 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:
So by the mid to late 1990s the terms turntablism and turntablist had become established and accepted to define 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.
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.
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, DJ Q-Bert, DJ Quest, DJ Krush, A-Trak, Ricci Rucker, Mike Boo, Prime Cuts) and crews (Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters, Beat Junkies, The Allies, X-Ecutioners), record labels (Asphodel), DJ Battles (DMC, ITF) and the evolution of scratching and other turntablism 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 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 turntablism (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 tools for most hip hop DJs. White's study suggests the proficient hip hop DJ must possess similar kinds of skills as those required by trained musicians, not limited to a sense of timing, hand-eye coordination, technical competence and musical creativity.
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.
New DJs, turntablists and crews owe a distinct debt to old-school DJs like Kool DJ Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Afrika Bambaataa and other 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 a jazz setting. Mix Master Mike was a founding member of the influential turntablist group Invisibl Skratch Piklz and currently DJs for the Beastie Boys. Cut Chemist, DJ Nu-Mark, Leroy "Knuckles" Dickerson, Kid Koala are also known as virtuosi of the turntables.
Photograph Details: Nikon D40, focal length 55mm, ISO-200, exp: 1/6sec, f-stop 5.6