Scratch Attack

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

Over time Jam began mixing in raspy old country music and blues tunes, as well as rap, which he'd first heard in New York. In 1986 Jam organized the Hip Hop Slam contest for local rappers, soliciting hundreds of tapes by offering a chance to cut a record at nearby Fantasy Studios. And while most of the artists who flooded Jam's mailbox with cassettes and 12-inches never found fame and fortune, one fellow volunteer did. Davey D, a Cal student whom Jam invited to help judge the entries, went on to host his own shows on KALX and on commercial hip hop station KMEL-FM (106.1), eventually becoming one of the nation's best-known hip hop scholars.

Although many people didn't know what to make of the irrepressible Irishman initially, Jam's street cred grew through his tireless promotion of local hip hop artists. He and Davey D became mentors for a new generation of KALX volunteers, opening the doors for Asian, Latino, and female DJs and helping break acts like Digital Underground, E-40, and Paris. Jam hosted live phone-in rap contests and interviewed hundreds of musicians on the air, while also writing articles for The Source, URB, and other publications.

As hip hop hit the mainstream, Jam found himself having to defend his commitment to a jarring new style of urban music -- gangsta rap. "Davey would say, "I refuse to play NWA or any of this gangster; it's too negative and it's detrimental to my community,'" recalls Jam. "And I was like, "Y'know what? I'll play anything. I'll play gangsta rap, and I'll play gay rap or female rap to balance it out.' ... I just felt it was important to play everything, because I fucking hate censorship."

Billy Jam.
Timi D
Billy Jam.

Details

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

346-6000

KPFA-FM (94.1)

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Unfortunately, in the late '80s the government cracked down on "obscene" material in the broadcast industry, forcing many stations to tighten their policies on supposedly objectionable music. Jam was a frequent target of the new rules. Growing tired of warnings and suspensions, he left KALX for KUSF-FM (90.3) in 1991; three years later, he was thrown off the air for playing Public Enemy's Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Agein its entirety. The pattern repeated itself on public-access TV, where he was chastened for broadcasting videos that contained too much "guns, dope, and booty."

In defiance, Jam started his own unlicensed microstation, characteristically naming it Pirate Fucking Radio. Ironically enough, after getting blacklisted for defending "obscene" music, Jam's interest in gangsta rap and hip hop started to wane.

"In many ways gangsta rap was the downfall of the art form," Jam says. "For many people it just became a hustle. They were like, "OK, I can put together a compilation and I can make fifty thousand dollars, if I can sell so many units.' The worst thing is generic punk rock or generic gangsta rap."

Jam's attentions turned to the growing contingent of local scratch DJs, who viewed themselves as refugees from the commercial hip hop scene. Like the old jazz instrumentalists who were sidelined by the rise of pop vocalists in the '40s, the turntablists found themselves crowded offstage by music industry executives who focused attention on the MCs. Like the DJs, Jam saw this trend as a travesty.

"When you go back and listen to all those old records from the '80s -- even NWA or Too Short -- you hear the wicky-wicky, there's the scratching in the background," says Jam. "Then, thanks to MTV and videos, [the DJs] got pushed back. For touring, they said, "There's too many people onstage; can't you just bring a DAT?' So again, the major labels and the big financial interests quietly smothered the DJ thing. But in the Bay Area, all of these younger guys like Q-Bert and Eddie Def sort of went, "Hey, let's just do it.' So in their garages and living rooms and bedrooms they started developing this art form that became a separate thing. I love it -- it's like the new jazz."

Often broadcasting from his own living room, Jam's Pirate Fucking Radio became a meeting ground for local turntable icons such as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, DJ Marz, and Mixmaster Mike (later a member of the Beastie Boys). Inspired by the legendary punk radio show Maximumrocknroll, Jam sent out cassette copies of some of the scratch sessions to other pirate stations, in case anyone else wanted to broadcast them. Surprised by the strong response, Jam decided to put out his own independently produced CDs and videotapes, documenting as much of the local scene as he could. To date, Jam's Hip Hop Slam label has released 30 CDs, including the Shiggar Fraggar Showand Turntables by the Bay series and albums by Cat Five, DJ Quest, and Eddie Def.

Naturally, when filmmaker Doug Pray started work on his turntablist documentary, Scratch, all roads led him to Jam's door. "When everyone says, "You gotta talk to Billy Jam,' then at some point you gotta talk to Billy Jam," says the filmmaker from his Los Angeles home. "He's just incredibly energetic. It's like you have all these clichéd hip hop images. You hear about somebody who's in charge of a label called Hip Hop Slam, you have a certain image of what that person might be like. Then all of a sudden, here's this completely friendly Irish guy who's like, "Hey, what are you doing? Let's do this!'"

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