Boffins and Eggheads

I was once at a club in London where the Philadelphian rapper Schoolly D was performing. It was a tense affair: Schoolly was notorious at the time for his super-vicious raps, and the English crowd -- lost in a thin, fuming rancor that seemed to find its outlet when one concertgoer doused another with lighter fluid and tried to ignite him -- was suffering acutely with feelings of inferiority and inauthenticity. Midway through Schoolly's set, the rapper stepped demurely into the wings and allowed his DJ, Code Money, a few moments of naked self-advertisement. Alone on the stage, Code Money scratched and span, flickering between his two turntables as if strobe-lit. The sounds he made were purely novel; his dexterity, preposterous. After five minutes or so, Schoolly D strode back on, exhorting our applause, and the rapping resumed.

That was in the late 1980s, and it constituted -- as I learned from Doug Pray's lively new documentary Scratch -- a particular moment in the evolution of hip-hop.

MCs had not always ceded the spotlight to their DJs, nor would they do so for much longer. Within a few years the image of the rap artist, the mighty egoist and cash cow, all but obliterated the priestly, dedicated figure of the DJ. Scratching and rapping parted ways. Rap became commercially monstrous, louder every day. And scratching span off into pure technique, pure science -- wordless, obsessive, and self-propelling. It became, to its devotees, the art of "turntablism."

This is the narrative of Scratch; and Pray, who previously made the Seattle grunge documentary Hype!, follows it wholeheartedly. Taking care to prepare his ground with interviews from the originators of hip-hop -- men like Grand Wizzard Theodore, who claims to be the first DJ ever to spin vinyl backwards -- Pray then jumps feet-first into the culture of contemporary scratching, into the coterie of boffins, eggheads, and nutty professors who are today's turntable heroes. The diminutive Qbert, bug-eyed with inspiration, flicks and dabs at his decks as if they are red-hot. MixMaster Mike, a Beastie Boys collaborator, ventures the thought that "scratching is another kind of intelligence" and wonders whether it was his own scratch experiments that summoned the three hovering lights he saw from his bedroom window. From DJ battles to jam sessions, to a Japanese club where the ringed, venous hand of DJ Krush pours on the bass, Scratch chases the story. The first act of creation is mischief: The DJ lays his hand upon the moving record and -- behold! -- an entire universe of error, pristine and ecstatic, comes whooping and barking through the eye of the needle. Neurological misfires, bursting valves, gremlins spinning on toe-point -- you can hear it all, beautifully.

Immersed as it is, sunk into the lore, Scratch could hardly avoid the odd moment of insularity; in the talk of some of the turntablists, and in their eyes, is the airless gleam of the hobbyist, the nerd, the monomaniac. The fact that the first scratchers were all black and the current practitioners (and audiences) are largely white or Asian goes unmentioned. It seems a pointed omission, as if there is a fantasy of selflessness in scratching that might extend to racelessness.

And then there's the practice called "digging" -- poring over old records in search of the ideal sound, the snatch of fl├╝gelhorn or fifties radio-talk or whatever it is. Scratch accompanies DJ Shadow on a necrophilic trawl through somebody's basement, under pipes and around corners; pale and forlornly behatted, Shadow sits among teetering stacks of dusty vinyl and muses on the "big pile of broken dreams" that surrounds him. You can smell the chaos, the redundancy, the partially digested art. You want to take him out for a walk. Later, at an awards ceremony, veteran DJ Grandmixer DXT introduces Qbert by saying, "It's very obvious that this brother has been indoors for a long time."

But enthusiasm carries the day. Doug Pray clearly had a lot of fun making Scratch, and fun is an easily communicated virtue. The scratch sound itself, the vigorous pathology of it, is a stimulant: DJ Steinski describes running down the stairs into a club so fast that his girlfriend was "flying behind me like a flag." The whole enterprise is clearly addictive -- "All that scratching is making me itch!" -- and, for the artists, inexhaustible. After a particularly furious bout of deck-to-deck smelting, MixMaster Mike looks up at the camera with the sweaty glare of pride, stepping neatly back from his turntables like a boxer after a knockout. Vinyl has yielded its secrets to him. He's found the spark of light in the flattened matter. He's cracked the code.