Hey, DJ: QBert

The longtime DJ talks about 25 years in the game, lessons he's learned from DJ battles, and making music for "outer space star people."

In the 30-plus years since Bay Area icon and turntablism pioneer DJ Qbert began his career, he has racked up a long list of achievements – from getting inducted into the Disco Mix Club’s Hall of Fame and landing features in movies and video games to creating an online school for DJs. Now in 2017, he is revisiting some of his most celebrated projects as he reunites to perform two separate shows with both Dr. Octagon and the revolutionary Invisbl Skratch Piklz crew.

We chatted with the local legend about his most memorable DJ battle, the relationship between turntablism and technology, and a year full of reunions. He plays a rare set with Dan the Automator for Re: Creation this Thursday [5/18] at The Great Northern.

SF Weekly: As a legend and OG in the turntablist game, can you take us back to the first records you ever mixed?
DJ QBert: It had to have been “Egypt Egypt” by Egyptian Lover and “Electric Kingdom” by Twilight 22. I was wearing my fake leather red breaking jacket, a kung-fu bandana, some white sweatbands on my wrists, and parachute pants as well.

SFW: What has been your most memorable DJ battle in your career?
Q: When I took second place in the DMC World Championships. It taught me to always practice, because at the time, I was not humble enough to realize that and I didn’t prepare. Very good lesson! It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but that you hone your skills. When I had that mentality, I always won for some reason. When you get beat, you either go into a depression or you see it as a beautiful class in the school of life. 

SFW: Describe how the definition of “DJ” has changed since you began your musical journey.
Q: There are new branches of DJs. As with all arts, it keeps blossoming into all these new areas. But I still focus on the high art of being a turntable musician. It still is, to me, the most craziest musical instrument. And in that area, there are so many new techniques. I’d need a whole essay to review and nerd out to it all. On the other hand, I also see more non-skilled DJs fist-pumping dildos and shooting confetti into the audience out their ass, and actually I like that, too.

SFW: How has the changing nature of DJ technology affected turntablism?
Q: It makes it a lot easier to scratch stuff ASAP instead of waiting for vinyl to be pressed, and it also takes a load off of carrying all those records. And for the purists, vinyl is still here, just like a classical piano compared to a futuristic midi keyboard. Both are good toys. Not to mention I can DJ while checking auctions on eBay.

SFW: How has it impacted the range of skills necessary to be considered a “real DJ?”
Q: The kind of DJ I look for is one with amazing selections and another kind is an ill DJ that can kill it in scratching, but it’s best when they have both qualities. It just keeps excelling in skills no matter what. But then again, there are so many DJs that can rock a party and have no scratching skills whatsoever. They just play the right stuff at the right time. But that’s a totally different branch of DJing, of course. Some days, all I care about is that. Let’s say I want to hear a classical or jazz DJ on the radio. I’m not caring if he scratches, but I do care if he or she has some interesting sounds.

SFW: You have a few exciting developments, including a QFO turntable and a mixer with a computer built-in. Can you tell us a little more about those?
Q: Even technology continues to blossom. There’s so many things we are getting seen made with all the new advances in our space-age future. You can already see the day, we can scratch anywhere just like how a violinist can play anywhere. No more laptop and computer, just an all-in-one, kind of like the iPhone, Swiss Army knife, or water.

SFW: It seems like 2017 is a year of reunification for you. What spurred this?
Q: It’s just that time, I guess. Like, it was meant to happen in this way. The universe knows what’s best and when. Just so glad I never stopped learning and practicing. Plus, we all got big bills to pay.

SFW: What’s it been like playing shows with Dr. Octagon and the Invisbl Skratch Piklz crew again? Do you see the growth in each of your careers?
Q: Yeah, we’ve all grown and become wiser. Everyone’s skills continue to be honed. I got grandfathers saying they remember our last stuff!

SFW: You’re also coming up on 25 years of Dirtstyle Records. How does it feel to be able to say it’s a quarter-century old?
Q: Those scratch tools have helped a lot of us and I can see more scratch records continue to progress in super fun ways to help all scratchers and listeners out there have lots of fun. I’ve always seen this art to be like how older musicians just keep doing it until they drop. We’ll revisit this interview in another 25 years, and you’ll ask the same question with a number 50 in it.

SFW: Will you be releasing anything special to celebrate?
Q: There’s a limited edition Dirtstyle 25th Anniversary Record already being pressed. It has all the greatest sounds from all the records and even the newer sounds that aren’t released! It’s like a master record or best of vinyl with a gold foil cover. I’m trying to bring it to the shows to have us sign it and then you can put it on eBay. 

SFW: With so much new music coming out daily through various media outlets, how do you pick and choose what to listen to?
Q: I just keep listening and weeding out the bad ones and just keep collecting the good. Also, it helps to stay in touch with all the top DJs, too. “Seek and you will find” is the motto. I’ve found also if the rapper is wearing a dress, it’s usually not good.

SFW: What’s something you’re looking forward to in your rare collaborative set with Dan the Automator next Thursday?
Q: I love the music selection and his ear for good sounds. I love freestyle cutting over any beat he pulls out. And after, he treats us to dinner if we behave!

SFW: As an Asian American, there aren’t many artists to look up to that have truly been able to make music a full-time career. What advice can you offer to those wanting to break into the music game?
Q: Don’t think of it as an Asian thing. We’re here to make the world a better place. The only race is the human one or you can take it several steps further and make art for all the outer space star people, you know? They got art, too, and believe me, they are listening to earthlings!

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