The trailer for Doug Pray’s turntablism documentary Scratch opens with the statement that “The turntable is now outselling guitars,” which may seem obvious now that we’re well into the vinyl boom, but here it implies a different sort of sea change. The turntables that they’re talking about aren’t meant to simply play those records inherited from mom and pop stores and stockpiled from dollar bins. Instead these are top of the line Technics 1200s intended to trick out the sounds coming from those dusty grooves, repurposing them in service to one of the five pillars of hip-hop: the DJ. While the film is an essential entry point into the history of the art form and culture that has grown up around it (maintaining a sterling 93% on Rotten Tomatoes), but with the advent of software like Serato and Traktor it serves as a fascinating time capsule for the arguably-bygone era when these guys were literally forced to schlep stacks of wax around to every gig.
So, let’s start with a small personal note: This is one of the most important documentaries to play a role in my own musical development. When I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on hip hop, I sat with this and a few other films for hours transcribing quotes that would eventually end up earning me a solid B minus or some such equally average grade for my efforts. I had initially chosen the topic of hip hop not out of any pre-established passion, but more from legit ignorance and a desire to break that blind spot and learn more about the history of a genre that had eluded me for so long. So, yeah, aside from being a flat out great film, this is one that has some extra resonance and takes me back to a more innocent time. I’m really excited to share this with you since it does a great job, at least slightly better than any of the other hip hop docs I’ve seen, at portraying the real innovators that live out on the fringes of DJ culture.
Regular readers will know that we’ve already handled a film or two about those early days of hip hop, when DJ Kool Herc broke his first breakbeat, and Pray gets that bit of business out of the way quickly enough. Herc might be the genesis for everything that was to come for hip hop, but the one consistent historical moment that this film makes sure to point out over and over is Herbie Hancock’s objectively bonkers performance, backed by the scratchy stylings of DJ Grand Mixer D.ST, of the song “Rockit” at the 1983 Grammy Awards. The next step for the filmmakers is to let DJ Qbert, far and away one of the most skilled DJs to ever lay hands on a tone arm, walk you through the basics of scratching before moving on to the advanced techniques of beat juggling, using the turntables and mixer to manually construct something new from the rhythms and melodies laid down by others. Elsewhere in the film Mixmaster Mike memorably illustrates the concept by chopping up some Robert Johnson over the instrumental for Dead Prez’s Hip Hop. It’s wild to watch all the subtle tweaks and slight adjustments he pulls off with ease that really hammers home how the degree to which DJs are actually misunderstood craftsmen.
The musicians on screen are some of the most interesting and idiosyncratic characters you’re gonna come across in the music industry. Just about every one of them is an honest to god weirdo with more than one repping a story about communications with aliens. DJing is a solitary pursuit and Scratch does an excellent job implying that the medium attracts the sort of introspective nerd who can commit to the long hours of practice and antique store scouring that go into crossing the rubicon between amateur and professional. There’s a certain soulfulness that’s on display as well, from the way that, say, DJ Shortee switches back and forth like a zen master mixing from one record to another, to the most legendary aspect of the film, DJ Shadow’s musings from his record store basement inner sanctum. If this doesn’t sell you on investing the hour and a half it takes to go end to end on Scratch, nothing will:
Rewatching the film a decade and then some since I first saw it, the new insight I got was just how innovative the major players on the scene were. The whole section of the film dedicated to DJs pressing up their own battle records might seem quaint in this era of vinyl emulation software, but Jurassic 5’s DJ Numark making beats by plucking a rubber band strung between his cartridge and a knob on the mixer? That will forever hit me as ingenious. Based on the performance that won last year’s DMC it seems like there’s still a lot of innovation happening in the world of competitive DJ sets, but it’s as much about a breadth of musicality as it is technical prowess. There are elements in Pray’s film that might not have aged perfectly, and clearly the participants didn’t see the changes that computers were going to bring their way, but it’s a perfect document of the most advanced level of record nerd and any music lover worth their salt needs to check it out.