Scratching in Hip Hop


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Acid Pix.

In the introduction of journalist Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop; A History of the Hip Hop Generation, DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) recalled “when I started DJing back in the ‘70s, it was just something that we were doing for fun.” Humble Bronx beginnings though he had, Campbell and a handful of like-minded others gave power to a marginalized generation when they laid the foundation for the music that was its voice: hip hop.

Campbell himself is credited with the invention of “breakbeat,” a technique where a DJ indefinitely extends the “break” of a song. A break is that few seconds that diverges from the core (like a mini-interlude) and, in hip hop, is usually characterized by a drum solo. By playing two identical records next to each other and looping the break, you can extend it for as long as you want–for the purposes of, say, a block party that lasts until the cops shut you down.

If you’re an auditory learner (or just want to hear some awesome music) breakbeat is demonstrated in the video below.

Between Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, the role of the DJ as principal instrumentalist in hip hop was solidified, with overlaid vocals from the MC in the form of a spoken “rap.” Suddenly, DJs were no longer mere “disc jockeys” who played one song after another at weddings and prom, but artists with an entirely unique set of skills that mixed sounds together when performing live. DJing became an event in and of itself.

Apart from DJing, three other key defining characteristics informed the hip hop culture as it grew: MCing, graffiti art, as well as breakdancing/b-boys and b-girls. BTR’s own DJ Latola, taste master behind In The Den, The Synapse, Dapper Fitting Drinking Hour, and two others, says that through the decades, those three elements have remained relatively the same, but DJing has changed drastically.

“DJing has changed the most because of computers,” he explains. “You don’t need turntables to be a DJ anymore. Maybe that’s why the term “producer” is so much more common.”

Originally, DJ was synonymous with “turntablist,” an artist who manipulated records on a turntable to create new music. In 1981, Grandmaster Flash released the single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”, which showcased all the trademark techniques of turntabling, including breakbeat and its counterpart, “scratching.”

Invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore, an apprentice of Flash, scratching is when the DJ moves a vinyl record back and forth to produce a distinct sound, as seen in the video below.

Scratching and turntabling are so integral to the development of hip hop that Cornell University purchased Afrika Bambaataa’s entire early record collection for posterity (the “Holy Grail” of ‘70s hip hop).

But as vinyl faded in the early 2000s, scratching did too. Both became a novelty rather than the status quo. Even turntables themselves started to disappear as the once big name brands who produced them went under. For a moment, it looked like turntabling would go extinct.

Then a vinyl re-emergence began in 2012, as sales in the US jumped to 17.7 percent. Turntable brands who’d survived the crunch, like the New Jersey-based VPI Industries, grew exponentially as a vintage craze swept the music industry. VP of VPI Matt Weisfeld told Digital Trends in a 2013 interview that he believed the return to vinyl was more than just a fad, it was his generation finally realizing that MP3s aren’t the best way to listen to music. Turntable sales grew 32 percent last year, so it would appear Weisfield was right (for now).

Yet scratching did not experience the same revival, and BTR’s own DJ Wayne Ski says its because there are other forces at work besides new technology.

“The problem goes as far as the DJ not being included with the artist anymore. The DJ is the centerpiece of all activity. Without the DJ there’s no music, [but] the focus has become more on the MC.”

Hope Easterbrook, dancer and dance instructor at The School at Steps in New York City, agrees with Wayne Ski and also points out that DJing for hip hop is just a fraction of a larger artistic spectrum.

“Once all the EDM electronic music became popular, scratching ceased to exist,” she tells BTR. Easterbrook says as a dancer she doesn’t really care one way or another what’s in or out of style, good music is good music, but notes that EDM DJs are a different breed.

In 2012, EDM artist Deadmau5 caused a media storm when he wrote on his blog that anyone with even a little bit of knowledge about music production software or otter music technology would be able to put on a show.

He goes on to conclude the real artistry is in the production studio, harkening back to Latola. Where EDM and dubstep DJs can embrace new technology and adapt to it, turntablists are, by definition, excluded from it. Thus, Digital DJ Tips predicts that eventually young DJs will “stop aspiring to one day play on decks,” because, when it comes down to it, that’s a regression to which other DJs are not going to comply.

If you’re a hip hop purist, don’t despair. Scratching isn’t gone yet. More importantly, remember that as a genre hip hop shuns convention, pushes the envelope, and is locked in perpetual motion. Innovation is at its heart, and it’s what makes it so damn irresistible. If scratching gets left behind, new techniques will no doubt take its place, and you might wind up loving them even more.

Besides, there will always be holdouts.

“For me,” DJ Wayne Ski says, “I still scratch during my shows. Just listen!”

For further discussion of scratching in hip hop between DJs Lahtola and Wayne Ski tune in to today’s In the Den.