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 Scratch and Battle Sounds found 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.
“All the really good DJs were moving into a more musical aspect of scratching,” Qbert recalls. “You can't really put all of your ideas into a five-minute [trick] set. It's like how Miles [Davis] used space and time in his music; that's not something that you could really incorporate into a battle.”
In 1994, Qbert released the seminal underground mix tape Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik. The work culled many of the old-school funk and soul records that comprised hip hop's nucleus and applied to them the turntablism techniques that Qbert had developed. The result was an uncanny reimagining of hip hop's genesis that was widely acclaimed and is still regarded as a crowning achievement of the turntablist movement.
After gaining notoriety from his near-constant live shows and the Dr. Octagon project (his collaboration with MC Kool Keith and producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura), Qbert released his first full-length of all original compositions, 1998's Wave Twisters. It was a concept album that envisioned an extraterrestrial world inhabited by creatures that communicated only via turntable scratches. With Qbert's jittery, layered rhythms and flawless scratching, the record became an immediate cult classic and even went on to spawn a corresponding film in 2000. But just when it seemed as though Qbert and his peers were on the brink of taking turntablism to a whole new level, consumer interest waned, audiences thinned out, and the vinyl boom fizzled. Later in 2000, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz broke up.
Today, turntablism is about as relevant as psychedelic trance and electroclash. Even Qbert admits to not knowing who won the last few DMCs. The demise of the genre has left a notable hole in the local music community. Where the Bay Area hip hop scene was once a hotbed of up-and-comers, it is now struggling to regroup and redefine itself. Qbert's move to Hawaii in 2001 was disturbingly symbolic. The good news, however, is that, in relocating to Oahu, Qbert hasn't abandoned the music he helped pioneer. Rather, he's been hard at work these last few years trying to reinvigorate it, and some of his latest innovations may alter how turntablism is both mentally approached as well as physically played.
For starters, there's Qbert's belief that aesthetic breakthroughs are linked to technological advancements, and toward that end he has designed a new turntable/mixer hybrid appropriately called the QFO. With its octagon shape and assortment of buttons, knobs, and faders, the QFO looks like a gizmo designed by NASA. It's made for portability — its inventor oftentimes uses his while at Hawaii's various beaches and mountains — and can run off either solar power or a car lighter.
Then there's the music itself. Taking a cue from other marquee turntablists such as DJ Shadow, Arizona's Radar, and the legendary NYC crew the X-ecutioners, Qbert is looking to expand the boundaries of the genre by moving the turntable beyond the confines of hip hop, which has largely turned its back on the instrument. In our recent conversation, he spoke of composing a country music scratch song.
And it makes sense that turntablists are looking for other genres to reimagine. At the very least, Qbert's most lasting accomplishment was to help establish that a record player can be a viable musical instrument, and not inherently tied to any particular genre. After all, has the electric guitar only been used for rock?