Update: a month or so after writing this I went and did a piece for FACT on both ‘Sketchbook’ and ‘Phantazmagorea’ which takes most of what I’d discussed here and refines it a bit more. Read it here.
So in 2002/3 an album came out titled Sketchbook: An Introduction to Scratch Music. Released by the Sound In Color label, their first LP in fact, it made somewhat of a big impact on what was then a musical niche within a musical niche, the scratch scene.
By the late 90s turntablism had caught somewhat of a wave of attention. The musical practice had been born during the 90s from the hip hop practice of scratching, which by the early 90s had started to fade out of the increasingly industry-dominated music. Sure guys like Premier and a few others were still keeping it real but by and large the early to mid 90s is remembered as the DAT era for many, when DJs were pushed out of hip hop because the MC was being groomed as the face of the music, and what sold units. Not some dude rocking doubles of Funky Drummer or killing it with a nice transform during the chorus.
And so scratching went underground. In 94 (if memory serves), DJ Babu – of the Beat Junkies – coined the term turntablist to describe someone who approaches and uses the turntable as an instrument, not unlike the way you could do describe a producer as someone who uses the MPC, or SP or any other sampler as an instrument. By 1999/2000 turntablism had made somewhat of a splash on the indie hip hop world, even creeping into the mainstream side of things in the early 00s via the likes of A-Trak, Craze and others. There was the documentary Scratch, message boards, releases, etc… turntablism was in. And while one side of the artform focused on that age old hip hop practice of battling (see DMC, ITF et al) another side increasingly took hold in the late 90s and early 00s: the idea that turntablism could also be a music genre/style in its own right. Enter scratch music.
Scratch music and turntablism is how I got my foot into the door of the music world and music journalism. I will never forget that and will always cherish those years and everything I learnt during that time. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve also come to the realisation that while scratch music was a fascinating microcosm of musical ideas and innovation, it was also a musical dead end. Why bother composing everything with a turntable and some records (and other things like loop pedals, digital editors, samplers) when you could use MIDI keyboards and the increasingly accepted bedroom studio components that were taking hold at the time?
Still scratch music, and turntablism, was a hip hop rite of passage for many. B+ put it to me that if breakdancing was a common rite of passage in the 80s for many producers, MCs and even DJs, then turntablism and scratching could be seen as the standard rite of passage for many who grew up in the 90s. One look at today’s producer scene, the focus of this book, and B’s idea is certainly validated: A-Trak, Hudson Mohawke, Gaslamp Killer, D-Styles, Nosaj Thing, Take, 2tall/Om Unit and countless others have all indulged in the teenage and early 20s practice of spending their whole time in the bedroom cutting shit up and learning how to be funky. Jim Om Unit put it to me in a recent chat that the scratch days he was a part of – during that 2000s period I’m sorta dealing with here – was like jazz school. And he’s right.
Ever since I decided to write this book and began this project I always felt that scratch music was a key part of the equation that was too often ignored when talking about the history of how the producer as an artist rose within hip hop, or even how hip hop’s production evolved to the sound it has today. Scratching and making music with turntables was a rite of passage, but it was also a way for a lot of young kids to learn how to make music with next to no rules or boundaries. It was an incredibly free approach to making music, one that drew from hip hop, jazz and electronic stylings and aesthetics. It was heavy on the improvisation, especially when it came to scratch solos which were the equivalent of a jazz musician getting loose, improvising and bringing that funk that can’t be copied, can’t easily be described but can definitely be felt.
Scratching and scratch music changed a lot of things. Additionally it was also a fervent ground for people to experiment with basic beat productions, scratch loops, which people would use to cut over and practice. A lot of the scratch beats and productions from the early to mid 2000s include aesthetic elements that have now become popular and de rigeur. From the trap explosion of recent years to the grime and dubstep explosion of the mid 2000s. When I first went to DMZ at Third Base in Brixton I met up with a chunk of people I knew from the scratch scene. Everyone was there because the early dubstep releases essentially resembled scratch beats, but built for a sound system and without the sometimes redundant, endless cutting on top (this is something D-Styles also told me, how he would get those early DMZ releases and just use them for scratch practice). And likewise a lot of early grime echoed some of the ideas that were found in the scratch beats of the time, while dirty south production no doubt had a heavy hand in influencing what would become scratch beats – early Memphis productions from circa 94 basically sound like scratch beats and the electro sound of the 80s was a key component of the turntablist scene in its beginnings.
One last point then I get back to the actual focus of this post. One of the key ideas for the book’s narrative is this: if you accept that DJs birthed hip hop, which is the standard inception story for the music and culture, then we can see that by the late 80s and early 90s as the music and culture becomes co-opted by the music industry the MC is being put forward as the face of the music. By then the producer has also slid into place as the music maker, a mainly faceless one and one who at the beginning also gets a fair amount of help from an even more faceless character, the engineer (shouts to Paul C). By the early 90s the DJ is arguably pushed out of hip hop’s mainstream machine. Cue the DAT era, the lack of any decent cuts on a lot of stuff and a growing sentiment that shit is no longer real. So the DJs goes underground, turntablism is born and by the late 90s the DJ comes back on the scene and goes ‘fuck MCs, fuck producers I’m the artist.’ Granted that’s somewhat of a broad generalisation but I think it holds up. This is the late 90s/early 00s turntablist bubble, which takes us into the scratch music scene for another few years, dying roughly in the mid to late 00s even if there are of course still people holding it down on that front and doing interesting things (shouts to the Community Scratch Games crew). By the late 90s/early 00s is when we also start to see the beginnings of the idea of the producer as an artist emerge. There’s the likes of Dilla, Madlib, El-P and more on the underground, and there’s also the first signs of the superstar producer on the mainstream, with Neptunes and Timbaland, soon followed by Just Blaze. For most of the 90s the producer only really got shine if he was also an MC or had an MC directly attached to him (Premier is one of the rare exceptions, but then he was also a DJ). Anothe decade rolls through and by the end of the 00s we have the emergence of the so-called beat scene and the solidification of the producer as an artist within hip hop. Kids are rocking stages with the laptops and controllers. ‘Fuck the MCs, fuck the DJs, I’m the artist.’ Cycles.
This is an idea I’ve discussed with pretty much everyone I’ve interviewed for the book, and so it’s something that I’ve been digesting for a while now. I keep going back to the question: “and so what?” Well on one hand there are clear parallels between turntablism/scratch music and the rise of the producer as an artist and the idea of the beat scene. Not just that the two things are intrinsically linked as touched on above. Alternative/leftfield/instrumental hip hop and turnablism were conjoined, they fed off each other and in a way the beat scene could be seen as the logical evolution of scratch music. What’s more we’re now at a stage where hip hop is 40 years old and every key character in the music – MC, DJ, producer – has had its time to shine in the light. Arguably the MC more than the other two, but still we’re now at a stage where it’s essentially a more even playing field. Will we go towards another cycle where someone dominates? Or will we go towards something new because everyone’s had their time in the limelight and so things will coalesce into a new that no one can predict. This idea is likely to be central to how the book ends.
Right then, 1500 words and I’ve still not told you about Sketchbook. Well that album, which someone kindly uploaded to Mixcloud so you can listen to it above while reading this, is a key piece of this puzzle. That album revolutionised the idea of what scratch music could be. The only other album to have that much impact was D-Styles’ own debut, Phantazmagorea, and the two are somewhat related – but that’s a story for another time. Ricci and Mike were, and still are, two geniuses of the turntable. They were like the jazz greats, people who mastered their instrument and could make it do things that most people could barely comprehend at the time. And the thing is the music has aged remarkably well. Listening to it today you can hear a lot of what was to come in the ideas, styles and aesthetics that make up the bulk of the album. It was a set of cues as to where hip hop was going, as to where the idea of making beats without MCs could become valid in its own right.
There are a few other releases from that era that are equally key to how we got to where we are today. One is Ricci’s Dirty Soap EP, originally released on his own EoF label and I think licensed to Sound in Color for a proper release later on. We included some of that EP in the original ABBC mix, because some of the beats on there are absolutely ridiculous. They were absolutely ridiculous when they dropped but in hindsight they’re even more crazy.
Ricci, Mike, D-Styles, 2tall, Lorn, Teeko, Woody and others were pioneers. And they’ve been largely written out of the history of the so-called beat scene. As I’ve explained, I fully intend to include scratching as a key component of the greater story I’m telling, and I’ve been collecting some fascinating info and stories about just that, including from some people you’d never even think of. Some of this has already been published in the interviews I’ve put out there.
Those that know me personally, know my history and know the history of some of those mentioned in this post will likely have a smile on their face by this point. I’m writing this because it needs to be said. History isn’t an opinion, it’s not something you can claim to own the right version of. There is no absolute truth, but as I said before I’ve come to realise that among the myriad personal stories I’m collecting for this book, somewhere in the middle of them all lies some sort of truth.
To be continued. For now enjoy a classic album.