Scratch

As mainstream hip-hop succumbed to the worst excesses of both gangsta rap and music-biz hype, something interesting was happening in the late '80s/early '90s underground: Groups like the Bay Area's Invisibl Skratch Piklz and New York City's X-ecutioners were spearheading a return to the fundamentals of old-school hip-hop, looking back to a time before the...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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As mainstream hip-hop succumbed to the worst excesses of both gangsta rap and music-biz hype, something interesting was happening in the late '80s/early '90s underground: Groups like the Bay Area's Invisibl Skratch Piklz and New York City's X-ecutioners were spearheading a return to the fundamentals of old-school hip-hop, looking back to a time before the ascendancy of the mic-wielding MC, when the real star of the show was the record-spinning DJ. Innovators such as DJ Kool Herc, who created the concept of the breakbeat by isolating and extending the instrumental break of a particular track, and Grandwizzard Theodore, who's credited with first using "scratching" as a percussive element, transformed the turntable into a remarkably flexible creative tool. Doug Pray's excellent and highly informative documentary (he previously covered the boom and bust of the 1990s Seattle music scene in HYPE!) traces the history of turntable artistry — or "turntablism" — from its early beginnings to the recent wave of hip-hop artists who have taken scratching and beat juggling to extraordinary levels. Pray outlines the origins with fascinating footage from the early days (some taken from that essential old-school artifact, WILD STYLE), as well as interviews with a few of the major players, including Theodore, "Godfather of Hip-Hop" Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Mixer DXT, whose scratching on Herbie Hancock's seminal "Rockit" inspired a generation of DJs. The film then turns its attention to the leading lights of the current turntablist movement, including DJ Qbert and Mix Master Mike of the late, lamented Piklz, and the DJ battles where reputations are won and up-and-comers receive exposure they wouldn't otherwise get. Also on hand is San Francisco's renowned DJ Shadow, who discusses "digging" for forgotten beats from the basement of his favorite record store, where he's surrounded by countless LPs consigned to obscurity's dustbins. (A humbling sight for any musician, Shadow muses.) The film comes full circle with a thought-provoking prognosis for turntablism's future in which Harlem's Steve Dee stresses the importance of reintegrating the DJ into a larger unit in order to avoid the kind of creative solipsism the movement originally sought to avoid. Throughout, the notion that hip-hop is much more than rapping is a persistent theme, and anyone seeking a solid introduction — or re-introduction — to that ever vibrant culture shouldn't miss it.

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