In The Cut: A Composer’s Guide To The Turntables

In The Cut: A Composer’s Guide To The Turntables

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph back in 1877, all of his proposed uses for the technology focused on the preservation of sounds for future playback. He was not particularly interested in its potential to record music, emphasizing its usefulness as a tool for verbal dictation. Nevertheless, within Edison’s lifetime, phonograph recordings would become the most common way that people would listen to music. As the technology shifted from wax cylinders to discs, a recording industry sprouted up—mass-producing records for enjoyment in every home. The radio and the record player, or turntable, battled over the consuming public for the bulk of the 20th century.

The idea of using the turntable as a musical instrument to create new sounds would first emerge in the late 1930s with experiments by composers such as John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer. Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) included two parts for variable-speed turntables playing test-tone recordings, shifting the speed between 33-1/3 and 78 RPM to create sliding tones. Schaeffer used a combination of turntables and electromagnetic tape in the studio, playing recorded sounds forward and backward at different speeds, to produce some of the first works of musique concrète. Apart from isolated experimental uses like these, turntables were considered only a playback tool until the 1970s.

Technics SL-1200

In 1972, the Japanese electronics manufacturer Matsushita, under the brand name of Technics, released the first direct drive turntable, which would become the industry standard for disc jockeys, the Technics SL-1200. Direct drive turntables improve on the design of belt drive turntables by connecting the motor directly to the record platter, for a much higher torque— allowing a faster acceleration to normal playing speed when the record is started or restarted. This feature quickly made the turntable popular with emerging disco DJs on account of its capacity for cueing records and beat-matching. Variable pitch (speed) control with a slider allowed for additional control over tempo. Smooth transitions between songs became the order of the day.

It was also in 1972 that the Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc developed a turntable technique that established the musical foundations of hip-hop. Hosting large parties in the projects of the Bronx, Kool Herc noticed that his dancers would wait for a particular part of the funk records that he was playing, a part when the vocals and most of the instruments would drop out and shift the musical interest to the drums. Herc extended this part, known as the break, by shifting between two copies of the same record. These high-energy drum loops kept the dancers, called B-Boys and B-Girls, challenging each other on the floor for longer periods of time, developing ever more amazing moves.

Grandmaster Flash

The syncopated snares, bass drums, and cymbals of funk drum breaks became the staple sounds of the new hip-hop culture, the defining rhythm that simultaneously gave birth to break-dancing and rap. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Herc’s looping techniques were developed further by the young Grandmaster Flash. Grandmaster Flash invented a technique called cutting, through adept use of a mixer to cue particular moments on a record to be released, cued back, and quickly re-released, thus creating new rhythmic patterns.

The role of the DJ was elevated to a new level, one of the founding 4 elements of hip-hop alongside the MC (rapper), B-Boy (break-dancer), and Graffiti Writer. Beatboxing (mouth percussion) and Street Fashion also took their place in the hip-hop pantheon of expression. All of these inter-related artistic elements emerged together in inner-city New York, using the limited materials at hand: vinyl records, spray paint, a mat of cardboard, and the human voice, to make a new creative movement that would soon become global.


Turntablism’s apocryphal creation story relates that some time around 1977, a 14-year-old Grand Wizard Theodore accidentally discovered a sound that became the new mark of a generation. As he tells it, his mother interrupted his practicing to yell at him over the volume of his music. As his mother stood in the doorway, he held his record in place with his hand and moved it forward and backward. Intrigued with the sound, Theodore experimented further after his mother left, and eventually wove it into his next set at a large Bronx party. This was the birth of the scratch, a sound previously heard only in the DJ’s headphones while back-cueing a record—a natural outgrowth of Grandmaster Flash’s cutting technique. Within a short time, many other DJs adopted the technique and introduced their own signature variations. Whether or not Grand Wizard Theodore was in fact the first DJ to make use of the sound, it quickly made sense to a large number of people—a musical symbol of recorded media being manipulated.

The landmark turntablism documentary Scratch (1999), directed by Doug Pray, features interviews with some of the most influential DJs who grew up on hip-hop in the 1980s. Most of these DJs cite a single musical moment that defined what they wanted to do with the turntables: in 1983, a DJ by the name of Grand Mixer DXT was featured in Herbie Hancock’s hit “Rockit“. DXT was given a significant role within the band, and spotlighted in a scratching solo. This performance, featured in a popular video on early MTV, signaled that the turntables could be treated as a musical instrument like a trumpet or a guitar. It also became the first scratching routine to be practiced by DJs around the world, akin to a common audition excerpt for orchestral musicians.

A basic sound vocabulary for scratching began to emerge in the 1980s, featuring samples such as snares, bass drums, non-pitched vocal sounds, and horn stabs. A DJ’s skills began to be measured by their sense of timing and rhythmic creativity while performing with this common pool of sounds, as well as by their ability to mix pieces of different records together. As hip-hop DJs sought to outdo one another, other techniques emerged as well. Building on Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash’s techniques involving two copies of the same record, Steve Dee created an athletic mixing style known as beat juggling as a solo performance on the turntables, featuring frequent shifts of the downbeat while quickly alternating between the records. With beat juggling came the emergence of DJ battles, showcases for competitive skill centered on clever manipulation of rhythmic expectations, the use of rare musical samples, as well as the integration of known samples in a new way.

Roc Raida

The concept of the DJ battle was innate to the competitive spirit of hip-hop, which also found expression in rap battles, B-Boy battles, and graffiti tag wars. In this culture of battling, DJs sought to develop distinct personal styles that were defined by both virtuosic technique and originality in their choice of samples. To prevent other DJs from copying (or “biting”) their personal sound, labels on records would often be covered up to disguise the sample sources. In order to win battles, one had to be original. Great battle DJs such as Rob Swift and Roc Raida led the way in developing an increasingly experimental approach to rhythm, pitch changes, and theatrical body movement infused into beat juggling. The DMC World DJ Championships became the first international competition for hip-hop DJs in 1986, spurring new levels of virtuosity and adventurousness.

While DJs came into their own as soloists in the battle setting, the musical phenomenon of rap became big business in the United States and across the world. By the end of the 1980s, commercial interests had diminished the role of the DJ in the music of hip-hop, choosing to focus instead on the promotion of rappers. DAT tapes with drum machine loops and sequenced samples replaced the interactive mixing of a DJ on a rap song. The occasional use of scratching in a song was generally as a background element, mostly used for a basic fill here and there.

Mixmaster Mike

Advanced turntable technique flourished as a sub-culture within hip-hop in the 1990s. DJ crews such as the X-Ecutioners in New York, the Beat Junkies and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz in the San Francisco Bay Area gave scratching a wider range of musical expression in an ensemble setting. The Bay Area became a major center for innovation, fueled by a tight-knit community of battle DJs and crews who began to share their techniques more openly than before. Before forming the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, DJ Qbert and Mixmaster Mike (later to become a member of The Beastie Boys) ended a rivalry by practicing together and developing extended “question and answer” sessions where the two exchanged scratch phrases for hours. These two artists in particular played a key role in exposing a new sonic vocabulary for scratching, often influenced by their shared interest in extra-terrestrial intelligence. Qbert led the way in teaching other DJs about the scratch techniques that he had inherited and developed, eventually releasing instructional videos and participating in educational outreach programs for youth.

Another California native, DJ Babu, of the Beat Junkies, is usually credited as being the first to use the term “turntablist” to describe his role as a performer. Babu introduced it as part of a moniker to make his mix tapes stand out. Other DJs soon saw the term as a useful way to distinguish themselves as artists using the turntables as an instrument to create new sounds. With the release of “Super Duck Breaks” in 1995, Babu also pioneered the development of “battle records”—LPs of rare samples designed for scratching. It thus became easier to reproduce particular scratches heard in the cuts of famous DJs such as Qbert and Rob Swift. The secrecy of sample sources was no longer an issue for a new generation of battle DJs across the globe, as turntablism became closely aligned with skateboarding culture as a type of musical sport. Originality became less valued than technical prowess with a handful of well-worn battle records. Kids in Japan began to buy more turntables than electric guitars. It looked so easy, and there was nothing cooler.

While most mainstream rap continued to ignore the talents of DJs, underground hip-hop groups such as Gang Starr, Dilated Peoples, and Jurassic 5 gave their DJs a central role as both beat-makers and scratch soloists. DJ Premiere, of Gang Starr, brought his sharp skills as a turntablist DJ to define his production technique: highlighting the crackling timbres of rare vinyl samples within his heavy-hitting and richly layered textures, saving certain sounds to scratch at key structural moments in a track. DJ Premiere has created a signature style of beats that has trickled into the musical mainstream, through collaboration with artists such as Janet Jackson, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, and the Black Eyed Peas. DJ Babu’s role in Dilated Peoples, and that of Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist in Jurassic 5, is representative of a global musical faction that wishes to stay true to the essence of hip-hop and its union of elements. In their music, a deep knowledge of drum breaks and vintage samples is coupled with jazz-influenced scratch soloing in a role equal to that of an MC.

Hip-hop, while rooted in the urban African-American community, has always contained a current within it seeking to cross racial and cultural boundaries while asserting a particular identity. The fact that Qbert and Babu are Filipino-American, that Mixmaster Mike and Cut Chemist are hipster-Causasian, and that one of the most respected innovators in the field of hip-hop instrumentals is Japanese turntablist DJ Krush, reveals that the culture around the music has both shifted and expanded at the global level. In the era of free trade, local varieties of hip-hop can now be found in nearly every country, often introducing unique samples and lyrical themes to mark their own identities.

Turntablism, rooted in hip-hop, is even more mutable in its cultural references. Alternative rock acts such as Beck, the UK trip-hop group Portishead, and jazz groups such as Medeski, Martin & Wood, have brought turntablism into their own styles of music to great acclaim. Turntablists such as DJ Shadow, RJD2, and DJ Spooky have branched out from a foundation in hip-hop to create expansive soundscapes that bring together many musical traditions. These artists represent a type of “post-battle” DJ, who is most interested in creating layered and developmental compositions for close listening, rather than only showcasing their scratching technique.

A few artists completely outside of hip-hop have used the turntables in experimental improvisations that comment on the phenomenon of recorded media. The first of these artists is Christian Marclay, who began using turntables in the early 1970s. His performances and installations have often used “composite records”—self-created records made by glueing together various LPs that have been carefully cut into pieces. Other artists who have long been using the turntables in experimental improvisation include Otomo Yoshihide from Japan and Erik M from France. Both of these musicians use the turntables as one sound source among others such as electric guitars and laptops.

DJ Shortee

The scarcity of women in the field of turntablism is troubling, yet not entirely surprising when considering the gender dynamics of the hip-hop culture that gave it birth. For whatever reason, even within hip-hop there are still far more female rappers than there are female turntablists or producers. These gender dynamics are slowly beginning to change, thanks to the pioneering efforts of artists such as DJ Shortee, who has won the respect of the DJ world with her impeccable beat-juggling and creative mixing. DJ Shortee’s official bio markets her as the “1st & only female to produce a turntablist album,” “1st female to produce a battle record,” “1st female DJ endorsed by Shure,” and so on, descriptions that underscore her extreme minority position. In the area of experimental music, New York turntablist Marina Rosenfeld stands out as one of the only females using the turntables as a primary instrument in her genre. Rosenfeld has her own vinyl pressed with sounds that she has created in the studio, mixing and manipulating these sounds in live performance. Performing solo, or with self-created ensembles of unconventional instruments, she uses the turntables in a manner similar to Christian Marclay or Erik M, creating abstract textures rather than focusing on soloistic scratching. The work of female turntablists such as DJ Shortee and Marina Rosenfeld will hopefully open the door for younger generations of female artists to see the turntables as a viable musical path.

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