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A Cut Above 

It took a move from New York for Vinroc to become a world champion DJ

Wednesday, Dec 2 1998
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Vinroc, the two-time world champion DJ, is reclining in an old chair at Daly City's hip-hop record store, Cue's Records, where he works as a buyer. Wearing his trademark New York Yankees cap and a wry smile, he's basking in the adulation he's earned with yet another victory: The 21-year-old recently won his second title belt -- and there actually is a belt -- by taking the Advancement Class award, the best-all-around title, at the 1998 International Turntablist Federation (ITF) World Championships in Amsterdam, Holland. To triumph, Vinroc bested nine other regional finalists from around the world.

The resulting acclaim was the result of a lot of hard work, but perhaps the most important moment in Vinroc's career was a year ago, when he packed up his Technics 1200 turntables and relocated from New York to the Bay Area, arguably the heart of turntablism in the United States.

Born Vincent Punsalan in the Philippines and raised in the East Bay as a toddler, Vinroc grew up in Queens, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J. -- right on Manhattan's doorstep. "That's kind of how I get a lot of my personality," he says. Although his calm demeanor may dupe opponents, he's channeled an intense spirit into a passion for DJing.

In fact, he's been practicing his craft since age 10. "It was just what I wanted to do," he recalls. "You go to fifth-grade parties and play Spin the Bottle and there's a DJ there. I was just drawn to it. In a couple of months I just saved my allowance and bought a Radio Shack mixer."

After perfecting his mixing skills at events from clubs to birthday parties, Vinroc scratched his way into the 5th Platoon, a Queens-based crew known for its ferocious DJ battling style. (The group was recently featured on Bay Area label Om Records' Deeper Concentration compilation, although their cut is available only on the vinyl version, due to clearance problems.)

In 1996, the other members of the 5th Platoon encouraged Vinroc to enter the inaugural ITF contest taking place in New York City. The San Francisco-based ITF offered an alternative to the popular DMC (formerly Disco Mix Club) competitions sponsored by Technics, which are less respected by turntablists than the ITF. (They're also considered more conservative; the DMC's reaction to local legends Invisibl Skratch Piklz winning multiple world titles was to simply ask that they bow out of future competitions.)

While hesitant about his scratching ability on an international level, Vinroc entered the 1996 ITF contest and performed well, making the final eight. "They were like 'Just do it' and I fared much better than I thought," he says.

Realizing that New York was just "not his thing," he did what many have done when faced with the prospect of a lifetime in Gotham: He moved. Although he had become a moderately successful battle and club DJ around New York, it wasn't until he reached San Francisco that he was able to take his skills to astounding new levels as his scratching and timing further improved. At the same time, his beat-juggling ability (switching back and forth between two records to maintain, or "juggle," various beats, while creating new patterns), something he'd learned only a year earlier, was showing him to be a world-class talent.

While New York, hip hop's birthplace, has always taken care of and nurtured young hip-hop DJs, the style itself didn't truly mature until it arrived on the West Coast. In the early '90s, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the subsequent releases of the Return of the DJ collections on Noe Valley's Bomb Records brought back the notion of the DJ as artist. Meanwhile, in New York, two DJs who rarely scratch or even mix songs -- Funkmaster Flex and DJ Clue -- were considered the most talented in the scene.

While New York can be unforgiving and restrictive, the Bay Area offers young DJs a bohemian setting and relaxed atmosphere, allowing hip hop to expand its boundaries without fear of retribution from so-called "hard-core" fans. "Living in New York is very different. I guess it affects a lot of your mentality. So I had to get out of there. No dis to New York, but there's too much negativity there for me."

Arriving in San Francisco in early 1997, Vinroc became a graphic design major at the Academy of Art while bunking illegally with a friend in a University of San Francisco dormitory, bouncing around town onto different futons, sofas, and air mattresses, and living on financial aid. But he has no regrets. "I feel a vibe coming from the city. It drew me to it," he says.

Shortly after the move, Vinroc competed in the second ITF Championships, held at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater last September, where he took the title of All Around Champion through scratching and beat juggling. After he'd defeated contestants from Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, the final round ironically brought Vinroc up against his friend and fellow 5th Platoon member Do Boy. And when the turntable slicing and dicing came to a close, a victorious Vinroc found the judges' final word difficult to swallow. "It felt good that I won, but it also hurt," he reveals. "It was an iffy situation. I just gave my man a hug, you know? He's a friend of mine. At least the point is it's all in the group. We're all champions."

The performance was enough to shock ITF founder and president Alex Aquino, a former manager of the Piklz. "From '96 to '97 was night and day for Vin," he says. "Maybe you have to move to San Francisco to be a champion."

The reigning champion's past year has been a hectic one. He's spent lots of time recording, supplying cuts on Rasco's debut album for Stones Throw, performing on a track from the compilation Cue's Hip-Hop Shop Volume 1 (Dogday), and beat juggling on Q-Bert's first full-length release, Wave Twisters (Galactic Butt Hair). And he's also been in the studio learning how to produce. He's quick to add that this is a skill that many of his fellow turntablists have yet to learn. "I use strictly turntables in production. Mix it down into a little computer. That's the thing about turntablists: When they're done, are they capable of doing production? Because they don't always have a knowledge of the music and records," he says.

Vinroc is concerned by some of his peers' lack of musical knowledge. This was made clear, he says, during a recent Oakland performance at which the pioneering Grandmaster Flash, though lacking some of today's turntable techniques, stole the spotlight from several recent champions. "That's what the difference is with a DJ like Grandmaster Flash. He would just play records and there was like 3,000 people with their hands in the air. He's not technically as advanced -- he's an old-school DJ, we give him respect for that. But he had the knowledge of the music that the younger kids are missing." He cautiously adds, "There's a lot of young kids now who can just watch the Turntable Wizardry videos and get a couple of Skratch Pikl scratch tapes and next year win a world championship."

Both Aquino and former Skratch Pikl and 1992 DMC world champion DJ Apollo say Vinroc's well-rounded DJ skills are what set him apart; as adept at keeping a crowd moving through popular jams at a club as he is at waxing the competition at various turntable battles, Vinroc knows music and doesn't hide his fondness for mixing in social settings. A fan of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, he's also never been one to limit his tastes in music, and doesn't understand why so many turntablists thumb their noses at the club mixologist. "I guess they find it boring," he says of mixing records. "It's very challenging, though. You have to know what to play for them. You have to know when to play it. You can control their vibe. You are like the witch doctor of the night. It's just as hard as being a turntablist probably. Maybe not as technical, but you really have to think."

While defending his title in Amsterdam, Vinroc had an opportunity to use one of his opponent's names in a dis -- a familiar tactic utilized by battle DJs who also are known to flip the bird or moon a competitor. But he changed his mind prior to his set, instead performing a virtually flawless routine in which funk and rhythm triumphed over braggadocio. The former New Yorker faced current Big Apple resident DJ Infamous in the final round after all the international competitors had been eliminated; DJ Apollo, who was one of the judges, likens the battle to a prizefight. "The final round is like a boxing match. If the champ doesn't move or budge, then the champ's still the champ. Infamous didn't beat Vin. Vin just exploded on him."

Having won world championships and conquered the uncertainty that comes with moving out on your own, Vinroc has become a vital part of San Francisco's musical culture. Even his parents are beginning to come around. "I guess if you see your son in Rolling Stone," says Vinroc, "it's all right."

Vinroc appears every Tuesday at the "Beat Lounge" at Club Deco, 510 Larkin (at Turk), S.F. Call 441-4007.

About The Author

Craig Smith

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