Break Science

What does DJ Marz do as a turntablist? Everything. All the time.

To understand how DJ Marz approaches the turntables today, at 22, it helps to understand how he approached lollipops as an adolescent. "I was always making my way selling something," says the Millbrae-based DJ. "I used to sell candy in middle school: 25 cents for a sucker or five for a dollar."

Marz -- or Miracle Marz as he prefers to be called these days -- is shrewd, but not crass, about the fact that the art of being a turntablist is also a business. An enormous business, actually: Sales of the Technics 1200 line, the granddaddy of turntables, have skyrocketed; one model of Vestax mixers saw a sales jump of 166 percent between 1997 and 1998.

Four months ago, Marz got a mixer sponsorship, but that's only a small part of the reason he sees the turntablist boom as a godsend. "Last year was the first year where there was really just an explosion," he says. "Now the needles just fucking grab and the mixers, you can beat the shit out of them and they're not going to break. That's really cool compared to five, 10 years ago. Those mixers, you'd have to open them up every damn week, and everybody had had alterations they had to do, sticking tape over the faders to make them not so wide."

The upshot of this is that Marz now has more time to concentrate on making music. Brain Language, a compilation of tracks culled mainly from a series of mix tapes he began putting out in 1996, was released on local label Hip Hop Slam last month and showcases the growth and inventiveness of one of the Bay Area's most eclectic and compositional turntablists. If esteemed DJs like QBert and Quest are sheets-of-sound Coltrane, putting their scratch skills at the forefront, Marz is myself-when-I-am-real Mingus, melding old-school hip hop, new wave synth sounds, clarion-call guitars, laid-back L.A. B-3 organ jazz, Detroit electro, and more. And while that's not terribly different from the bag of tricks most DJs use, Marz is more successful than many at merging the manipulations into a seamless whole -- into song. "[He] has his own style and his own way of doing things," says DJ Cue of the Space Travelers, which includes Marz, DJs Eddie Def and Quest, and MC Eddie K. "He's the younger generation of what we were. If we're a family, he's the rebellious, teenage kid, and we're the conservative older relatives." MC Luke Sick of South Bay hip hop act Sacred Hoop explains that "the thing everybody says is that he has no predecessor to his style. He's brand new. It's almost like he doesn't listen to other DJs."

But if Marz isn't a strict traditionalist, his heart is certainly in early hip hop: No. 1 on his list of 10 favorite tracks, listed in the Brain Language liner notes, is Newcleus' "Jam on It," the "Go and Tell Aunt Rhody" of rap. "I try to spread it around -- whatever I can get my hands on," says Marz. "I like old-school hip hop material. You have to be very selective these days when you're buying music. You're spending all this money buying the freshest shit and a few months later it's not really. Gems are rare these days, or underground classics, compared to classics from the '70s or '80s. Any music that has survived to be here today is pretty good."

As the first wave of hip hop was ending, Marz was getting started on his mixing career, making pause tapes off whatever he heard on the radio. At 12, he got his first turntable and mixer and was able to mesh those tapes together. "It was just noises over beats," he recalls. "The sounds -- not everything's on beat, it's just kind of there. So I was timing things so they could fit into four-bar, eight-bar sequences." At 14 Marz was seeing Cue and Quest -- then members of the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters -- at DJ battles, and eventually took a job at Cue's Hip Hop Shop. After honing his skills further, Marz competed in the '94 and '95 DMC battles, but gave up on being a battle DJ soon after. Today he writes it off as paying his dues. "I'd rather play for an audience for half an hour," he says. "Battling, you have to know everything, and I don't give a fuck about knowing all the different styles."

As the youngest member of the Space Travelers, Marz is aware he approaches the turntables differently. "I grew up in a whole different generation than Eddie Def," he says. "Kids these days are a lot different than five years ago, or even three. [Cue] is four years older than me, and in four years there's been the whole electronic music thing. That's my generation."

In 1996 Marz released his first tapes. Most of the songs, as re-compiled for Brain Language, are fairly typical scratches over breaks and beats, but the two most striking moments are "Mixing Extravaganza" and "Wake Up 2 Break Up," epic panoramas over 18 minutes long. "Both of those mixes started out as a fluke," Marz says. "The three-minute ones I could see out the whole way -- I could pretty much plan out what I was going to do. But sometimes I can start something out and not know where it's going to go, and it ends up being 20 minutes."

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