MCs know them as the backbone of their industry. You and I know them as DJs. Our parents refer to them as “the guys who make that ‘wiki-wiki’ sound by scratching records back and forth.” Now simply known as “turntablists”, these men (and women) behind the wheels of steel are the focus of the 2001 documentary titled, simply, Scratch.
DJs have come full circle from the 1970’s, when the documentary begins. In the beginning, DJs provided the beats that kept parties going “on and on ’til the break of dawn,” so to speak. Back then, MCs were just the guys who would introduce the DJs, occasionally shouting things like, “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care” over the DJs beats. Over time, MCs began talking more and more and eventually evolved into rappers, at which point fans began focusing on them instead. DJs were pushed to the back, and were eventually replaced by drum machines, samplers and computers. Despite all of this, the art of DJing has never completely gone away. Kept alive through urban competitions and clubs across America, turntablists such as Mix Master Mike (Beastie Boys) and DJ Q-Bert have become stars in their own right, once again brinigng DJs to the front of the stage.
Scratch is told through a series of interviews. Aforementioned Mix Master Mike and DJ Q-Bert are the two biggest current stars to appear in the film, but old school rap fans will recognize names like Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Krush and Grand Mixer DXT (the DJ from Herbie Hancock’s classic song, “Rockit”).
The documentary covers several facets of turntablism, from competitions to searching record stores for albums with the perfect “break beat”. Break beats, short instrumental sections that appear within songs, are the turntablist’s life blood. These short passages are then looped manually by mixing two records together with two record players and a mixer in a process called beat mixing. It’s fascinating to watch, and appears multiple times throughout the film.
The documentary unfolds logically and covers the highlights without treading in boring details. Those searching for more depth will find it on disc 2, which includes DJ lessons from both DJ Z-Trip and DJ Q-Bert, and music selections that you can listen to (or even theoretically use). As an overweight, white, middle aged, self-proclaimed metal head, I found Scratch both entertaining and informative. Regardless of whether you appreciate turntablists or even this style of music, their appreciation of music, hip hop culture and sheer talent is undeniable.