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 Attack show, 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 (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.'”
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.”
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 Age in 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 Show and 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!'”
“Billy — without being a big money guy or without a big company behind him and without even giving a hint of selling out — completely promotes the hell out of this world,” Pray continues. “It was actually Billy who told me I had to call the movie Scratch. He's like the DJs: He wasn't all cynical and guarded; he was just so into making sure that this really got done right.”
Two decades into his tenure as one of the most indefatigable figures in the Bay Area's alternative music scene, Jam takes his notoriety in stride. Rifling through the 12-inch battle records and MiniDiscs stacked near a beat-up mixing board in his kitchen, Jam shrugs his shoulders.
“From one point of view, you could look at what I do and say I'm a total failure. In 1986 I was on a Top 40 radio station, and 10 years later I was doing pirate radio. Most people would think I should try and be on the biggest fucking station ever, broadcasting to everybody in the world. But I'd rather be heard by a hundred people who really get what I'm doing than by a million people who want me to play something that's completely old and boring. I'm not in it to make a bunch of money; I'm in it because I fucking love music. That's what's important.”