Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating music using phonograph turntables and a DJ mixer. The word was coined circa 1994 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 nineties.
John Oswald described the art thusly: "A phonograph in the hands of a 'hiphop/scratch' artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced -- the record player becomes a musical instrument."
Hip-hop turntablist DJs use turntable techniques like beat mixing/matching, scratching, and beat juggling. Turntablism is generally focused more on turntable technique and less on mixing. Some turntablists seek to have themselves recognized as legitimate musicians capable of interacting and improvising with other performers.
Even earlier, Edgard Varèse experimented with turntables in 1930, though he never formally produced any works using them. This school of thought and practice is not directly linked to the current definition of hip hop-related turntablism, though it has had an influence on modern experimental sound artists such as Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck and Janek Schaefer. These artists are the direct descendants of people like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer and are often credited as a variant to the modern turntablist DJ and producer.
Examples of turntable effects can also be found on popular records produced in the 1960s and 1970's. Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1968 self-titled debut album features a backspin effect in the song Walk on the Water. However, turntablism as we know it now did not surface until the introduction of hip hop in the late 1970s.
Turntablism as a modern art form and musical practice has its roots within hip hop and hip hop culture of the early 1970s. It stems from one of the culture's "four pillars" - DJing (see "four elements," Hip Hop Culture). Scratching was already widespread within hip hop by DJs and producers by the time turntablists started to appear.
Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash are widely credited for having cemented the now established role of DJ as hip hop's foremost instrumentalist (and historically the genre's only 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. To understand the significance of this achievement, it is important to first define the "break." Briefly, 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 its finale (usually a return to the main chorus). 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: e.g., 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.
Kool Herc's revolutionary technique set the course for the development of turntablism as an art form in significant ways. Most important, however, he develops a new form of DJing that does not consist of playing and mixing records one after the other (incidentally, the type of DJ that specializes in mixing is well-respected for his own set of unique skills, but this is still DJing in the traditional sense). Rather, Kool Herc originates the idea of creating a sequence for his own purposes, introducing the idea of the DJ as the "feature" of parties, whose performance on any given night would be examined critically by the crowd.
However it was 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 on 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."
These early pioneers cemented the fundamental practice that would later become one of the pillars of the emerging turntablist artform. Scratching would during the 1980s become a staple of hip hop music, being used by producers and DJs on records and in live shows. By the end of the 1980s it was very common to hear scratching on a record, generally as part of the chorus of a track or within its production. On stage the DJ would provide the music for the MCs to rhyme to, scratching records during the performance and showcasing his skills alongside the verbal skills of the MC. The most well known example of this 'equation' of MCs and DJ is probably Run DMC who were composed of two MCs and one DJ. The DJ, the late Jam Master Jay, was an integral part of the group since his turntablism was critical to Run DMC's productions and performances.
While Flash and Bambaataa were using the turntable to explore repetition, alter rhythm and create the instrumental stabs and punch phrasing that would come to characterize the sound of hip hop, Grandmaster D.ST was busy cutting "real" musicians on their own turf. His scratching on Herbie Hancock's 1983 single, "Rockit", makes it perhaps the most influential DJ track of them all - even more than (Grandmaster Flash's) "Wheels of Steel", it established the DJ as the star of the record, even if he wasn't the frontman. Compared to "Rockit", West Street Mob's "Break Dancin' - Electric Boogie" (1983) was punk negation. Only DJ Code Money's brutal mangling of Schooly D's early records can match the cheese-grater note-shredding of "Break Dancin'". As great as Break Dancin' was, though, it highlighted the limited tonal range of scratching, which was in danger of becoming a short-lived fad like human beat-boxing until the emergence of Code Money's DJ Brethern from Philadelphia in the mid-'80s.
Despite New York's continued pre-eminence in the hip hop world, scratch DJing was modernized less than 100 miles down the road in Philadelphia. Denizens of the City of Brotherly Love were creating the climate for the return of the DJ by inventing transformer scratching. Developed by DJs Spinbad, DJ Cash money and DJ Jazzy Jeff, transforming was basically clicking the fader on and off while moving a block of sound (a riff or a short verbal phrase) across the stylus. Expanding the tonal as well as rhythmic possibilities of scratching, the transformer scratch epitomized the chopped-up aesthetic of hip hop culture. Hip hop was starting to become big money and the cult of personality started to take over. Hip hop became very much at the service of the rapper and Cash Money and DJ Jazzy Jeff, saddled with B-list rappers like Marvelous and the Fresh Prince, were accorded maybe one track on an album. For example, tracks like DJ Jazzy Jeff's "A Touch of Jazz" (1987) and "Jazzy's in the House" (1988) and Cash Money's "The Music Maker" (1988). Other crucial DJ tracks from this period include Tuff Crew's DJ Too Tuff's "Behold the Detonator" "Soul Food" (both 1989)," and Gang Starrs "Dj Premier in Deep Concentration" (1990).
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. The most valid claims credit 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:
"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."
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.
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, 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 for example 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.
This form of turntablism, which is usually applied to prior studio recordings (in the form of custom mixtapes) and is not prominent as a feature of live performances, de-emphasizes the role of the rapper, singer or other vocalist by distorting the vocalist's voice along with the rest of the recording. Arguably, this combination of distortion and audial effects against the original recording grants greater freedom of improvisation to the DJ than did the previous forms of turntablism. "Chopped and screwed" has also been applied to other genres of music such as R&B and rock music, thus transcending its roots within the hip-hop genre.
Battling involves each turntablist performing a routine (A combination of various technical scratches, beat juggles, and other elements, including body tricks) within a limited time period, after which the routine is judged by a panel of experts. The winner is selected based upon score. These organized competitions evolved from actual old school "battles" where DJs challenged each other at parties, and the "judge" was usually the audience, who would indicate their collective will by cheering louder for the DJ they thought performed better. Often, the winner kept the loser's equipment and/or records.
One of the biggest and most prestigious DJ battles in the world is the DMC World DJ Championships. It has been hosted for 22 years. There are separate competitions for solo DJs and DJ teams, the title of World Champion being bestowed on the winners of each. With such turntablists as Roc Raida, Cutmaster Swift, DJ Craze and the Scratch Perverts on their list of Champions, the DMC battles are one of the major yearly events that keep turntablism competitive. They also maintain a turntablism hall of fame with members such as Jam Master Jay, Jazzy Joyce, Afrika Islam, and DJ Red Alert.