Scratch Attack

How a white punk from Ireland helped jump-start the Bay Area hip hop and turntablist scenes

It's midnight on a brisk February night, and a large, boisterous group of folks has gathered in the studio of Berkeley radio station KPFA-FM (94.1). Local DJ luminaries Marz, Pone, Flare, and others hover over the state-of-the-art turntables and mixing equipment, taking turns spinning tunes. But where most radio DJs simply put records on and overlap them a bit, these "scratch" DJs grab the discs and manipulate them as if they were instruments. The turntablists flick and jiggle the platters with their fingertips, mashing them with the palms of their hands and producing the whoops, whips, and wick-wick-wacks that are the style's stock in trade.

Throughout the Scratch Attackshow, the atmosphere in the studio is playful and supportive. Everyone's here to have a good time, and no one in the room is having more fun than the host, Bay Area hip hop legend Billy Jam. Jam's enthusiasm shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's been listening to local noncommercial radio over the past 20 years. In fact, the KPFA show is nearly identical to the ones Jam hosted in the '80s, except that his guests have changed from hip hop initiates and local punk bands to turntablists. Jam's no bandwagon-jumper, though; he's the guy who hitches up the horses, tests the brakes, and stops to pick up more passengers. His love of forceful, uncompromising music and alternative media has made him one of the most respected figures in the local hip hop scene, placing him smack-dab in the center of the turntablist world. Not bad for a 44-year-old former punk from Ireland.

Billy Jam.
Timi D
Billy Jam.


Scratch screens March 8-21 at the Lumiere, 1572 California (at Polk), S.F. Call 352-0810 for details.

The film also shows March 8-14 at the Shattuck, 2230 Shattuck (at Kittridge), Berkeley. Call (510) 843-3456.

The Scratch Tour hits town on Tuesday, March 5, at 9 p.m. at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary (at Fillmore), S.F.

Dilated Peoples, Mixmaster Mike, Afrika Bambaataa, and Z-Trip perform

Tickets are $30


KPFA-FM (94.1)

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Billy Jam (né Kiernan) has piercing, flinty eyes and crow's feet indelibly etched from years of smiling broadly. He grew up in Dublin during the '70s, when hard rock, Celtic music, and London-bred reggae and punk coursed through the Irish capital. Jam's exposure to new music was even more intense than that of his friends, since his father spun Beatles singles and Merseybeat cuts at rugby clubs and community events.

"I once interviewed him about it," recalls Jam, speaking in his modest home in North Oakland. "I asked him what kind of mixer he had, and he said, "Mixer? What mixer?' He just had the one turntable and a microphone. But my dad is a great talker -- he's got a million stories -- so when he was going between records, he'd just talk and eyeball the record -- "needle drop,' as they call it now. And he'd say, "Here's the new one from Gerry & the Pacemakers!' and then -- boom! -- drop the needle down."

In his early teens, Jam got rambling fever, hitchhiking first throughout Ireland and then across the rest of Europe, before being lured by the siren song of the United States. One thing that surprised him when he came to America in 1978 was how big punk still was here, whereas in the U.K. it was already considered passé. "To me, it was really funny," he says, "because, by then, back in Ireland we felt that punk was dead, it was over, it was finished with, and now it was on to the new wave.

"Then I discovered KALX, and I was like, "Damn!' I heard the Dead Kennedys and thought, "Wow! This is even more over-the-top than English punk!'"

Drawn like a moth to a flame, Jam tried out for a radio show on KALX-FM (90.7), the UC Berkeley-affiliated volunteer station, in 1982.

"I did a demo tape, and the guy who was the music director told me, "You don't know anything about music!'" Jam says. "So I went off and I started learning more about music. At the time, you could get a used record for a day and then bring it back to the store. They would charge you 50 cents, so basically you were renting it. I went through the whole fucking record store, through blues, classical, jazz, R&B -- there was no rap or hip hop section back then -- all of the different styles."

Jam finally received a regular show on KALX in 1985; soon after, he also nabbed a paying gig at now-defunct KKCY-FM, an eclectic commercial station that featured DJ legends Bonnie Simmons and Sully Roddy. Even though the station's format was diverse by radio industry standards, it felt increasingly stifling to Jam.

"There I was working at KKCY, which was like the last of the free-form stations, but even then, you only got to pick one of three songs," Jam says. "I would go to KALX and I would be so fucking frustrated with a whole week of the Doobie Brothers that I would just go crazy and get deep into the Butthole Surfers and hardcore and industrial. If it still wasn't hard enough, then I would go mix it all together on three turntables -- it was like I was purging all this mellow rock out of my system. I had four hours and I figured, "Y'know what? This is fucking great -- let's do it as if this was the last show ever, like we're all gonna die the next day.'"

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