Revolutions

Once upon a time, DJ Qbert helped define and deify turntablism. That time is over. So what's next?

In the hyperkinetic world of hip hop, fortunes are won and lost, trends rise and fall, and careers wax and wane in what seems like the blink of an eye. Five years is a lifetime, and it's been nearly that long since the demise of what we once called turntablism -- today the term is passé, taboo, a cliché that most DJs would rather distance themselves from.

But for a time -- the late '90s until the turn of the millennium, approximately -- it seemed as though hip hop's past, which hoisted the DJ upon its collective shoulder, would become the genre's future: Documentaries such as Scratchand Battle Soundsfound an eager audience; the battle circuit, where DJs tested their skills against one another, thrived; and thanks in no small part to a blossoming Internet culture, turntablists like DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist and crews like the Beat Junkies and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (ISP) became household names.

Ground zero for what some were calling a movement was the Bay Area. And no performer personified turntable culture better than the Skratch Piklz's Richard Quitevis, or DJ Qbert as he's known to the world. With a dizzying array of scratches and a preternatural talent for deconstructing and recontextualizing rhythms at the drop of a hat, Qbert earned the tag "world's greatest DJ" from a broad array of magazines, competitions, and peers. He was featured in an Apple TV spot, toured the world many times over, and was a role model to both Filipino-Americans and fellow turntablists.

Then, suddenly, almost as quickly as it arrived, the vinyl bubble burst. DJ battles disappeared, turntablism exhibitions stopped drawing the huge crowds they once did, and there arose a chorus of fans, critics, and even practitioners who declared that the genre had driven into a creative cul-de-sac. Many felt that too much emphasis had been placed on technical nuance, and not enough on actually producing good, or even listenable, music.

After the crash, Qbert retreated to Oahu, Hawaii. While he still tours occasionally and releases instructional DVDs, he's far from the ubiquitous figure he once was. But that isn't to say he's slowed down -- far from it. He's been busy planning his next attack, and what he has in store -- a mixture of technological advancement, aesthetic rebuilding, and philosophical refinement -- could very well reinvigorate the sagging genre.


Qbert first picked up the instrument that he would eventually revolutionize in 1985. As a teenager living in mundane anonymity in Daly City, his original intent was innocent enough.

"At first, I was scratching for fun and because I thought it sounded good," he says, speaking by phone from Hawaii. "But a couple of months later, I realized that [the turntables] were a musical instrument, and my techniques were evolving every day, like a kung fu fighter or jazz artists."

Spinning quickly turned into an obsession for the budding DJ. Over the next few years, he went from battling friends in his home to playing house parties and talent shows. It didn't hurt that his close friends during this formative time included soon-to-be-famous turntablists Mixmaster Mike, Apollo, and Yogafrog.

At this point in time -- the late '80s -- the DJ was still front and center in hip hop. Seminal groups such as Run-D.M.C., Stetsasonic, and Eric B. & Rakim all prominently featured theirs, whereas today's acts rarely give more than a token acknowledgment to these architects of hip hop culture.

"The difference between hip hop now and in 1985 is that now the producer has assumed the role of the DJ," Qbert notes. "It's up to the producer to determine the sound of the music, and not the DJ."

In 1991, Qbert became the West Coast and U.S. champion of the Disco Music Conference (aka the DMC), which was then the highest honor a DJ could hold. During the early '90s, Qbert continued to dominate the competition, sharing the world title with future ISP members Mixmaster Mike and Apollo from 1991 to 1994. By 1995, the DMC officials sought to give the rest of the world's DJs a chance and declared the boys ineligible, although they did allow them to judge the competition. After a long but loose affiliation, Qbert, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, D-styles, Disk, and Yogafrog formed ISP in 1996.

During this time, the crew helped transform turntablism from an idiosyncratic kind of vinyl gymnastics, in which DJs would hop, jump, and tumble from turntable to turntable, into a subgenre that, while owing much to hip hop, had its own unique sound and culture. One of ISP's primary contributions is that the crew performed as a fully integrated band, with one member laying down the rhythm section as the others took turns soloing. It was a frantic, jagged sound in which rhythms were stripped, flipped, and slipped beneath a steady procession of scratches.

Having thoroughly proven himself to be one of the best live DJs in the world (at one time he commanded as much as $10,000 per set) Qbert next set his sights on channeling the raw energy of his live sets into more conceptual, album-oriented fare.

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