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Very rarely does a musician, in his or her experiments with new sounds, come along and flip the script in a way that helps create a whole new genre of music. QBert, the Bay Area-based super DJ, is an artist who has done just that. Drawing from the rudimentary scratch techniques of DJs from rap's golden era, like Grand Wizard Theodore, Cash Money and Grandmaster Flash, QBert has helped define and write the code for the language of turntablism.
Known as a "skratch" DJ, QBert has pioneered many of the style's techniques, among them his trademark "crab skratch," so named because of the way his fingers mimic a crab as they skillfully manipulate the tools of the trade -- vinyl itself, and the turntable's many knobs and controls. "They're just different techniques," he offers modestly over the phone from San Francisco. "Kind of like a piano player who would do something weird with his fingers." Unlike conventional hip-hop or electronic dance DJs, skratch artists eschew samplers and rarely work with MCs unless they can find one capable of lyrically matching the otherworldliness of their music. The unwieldy Dr. Octagon, aka Kool Keith, with whom QBert collaborated on Dr. Octagonecologyst, is an exception to QBert's no-MC rule. "I like to listen to his lyrics," QBert says of Keith. "They make me laugh." For beats, QBert has been known to make eclectic choices ranging from Rush's "Tom Sawyer" to the records off the Dirtstyle imprint -- but whatever he selects, the beats are always his eventually, always manipulated manually, and never preprogrammed or ordered up.
With their turntable and mixing skills, QBert and his crew, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, as well as others like the New York-based X-ecutioners and Los Angeles's World Famous Beat Junkies, have helped create a new art form that references hip-hop but is something else altogether. "Eighty percent of it is hip-hop-based, but sometimes we'll just go off in another world," explains QBert. Think of Sun Ra and his space explorations with the Arkestra, or Jimi Hendrix's electric torching of the blues at Monterey: This is the stratospheric realm that QBert and his peers inhabit. Yet out of all of the artists considered pioneers of skratch, probably none have garnered the respect that QBert has. Recently named by Spin magazine as the world's best turntablist, his dominance is unprecedented. In 1995, the world-renowned Disco Mixing Club asked QBert (along with fellow Piklz Mixmaster Mike and honorary member Apollo) not to compete in its annual championship contests -- not because of any flaw in their performance, but because they toppled the competition year after year. The three obliged, and they now proudly sit in the DMC Hall of Fame.
Born Richard Quitevis in 1970, QBert grew up in a Filipino neighborhood in southern San Francisco. He first became drawn to the turntables after hearing the new sounds and beats created by some of the legendary Bronx DJs in the early '80s -- artists who laid the foundation for rap music. "The whole sound was just weird to me, and I loved music as a kid," he says of his first realization that the turntable could be played as a legitimate instrument. "The whole scratching thing was just so strange and different, and I love strange and different music. With the mixers you have control of volume, and with turntables you have control of speed and movements going forward and reverse. Those in conjunction with each other make for it to be the weirdest musical instrument ever."
QBert first approached the wheels of steel in much the same way a kid might teach himself to play his first guitar: He learned from the masters. He picked up records like Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock and tried to mimic the DJ's breaks note for note. "I would emulate the other DJs and copy their styles and put my ideas on top of it," he says. "I'd come up with new ideas."
In 1985, QBert first began to build his reputation in San Francisco. Watching local Bay Area legends like Apollo and Mixmaster Mike helped motivate the young upstart to rise to the level of the competition. "I met Mike in 1985, and I started a month later," he says. Eventually, QBert was equipped to battle Mixmaster Mike, who at the time was known for deconstructing the Herbie Hancock classic "Rockit" like an avant-garde jazz musician bending the form of an old standard. He recalls meeting Apollo "after he came to a battle where me and Mixmaster Mike were battling. He saw us, and then we hooked up." In the early '90s, QBert began to expand his technique by drawing inspiration from musicians in other genres. "I started listening to musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis, anybody who was good," recalls the DJ. It was listening to these artists that led QBert to become one of the first DJs to utilize a wah-wah pedal in his arsenal.
As QBert rose in the city's burgeoning hip-hop community, he sold videotapes of local competitions to other DJs who represented various crews in the area. A number of these artists would eventually end up in the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. Formed in 1997, the Piklz grew out of this loose coalition of Bay Area DJs. Currently the group consists of Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, D-Styles and Yogafrog, who took over management and whom QBert credits with "bringing us bigger into the mainstream." The Piklz' recorded output includes cuts on the Shiggar Fraggar volumes, taken from a Free Radio Berkeley radio show, and an EP titled The Invisibl Skratch Piklz vs. Da Klams uv Deth, which is considered a must-have among DJ aficionados. But it was in the live arena that the group helped raise the bar for DJs -- mixing, scratching and playing off one another like a jazz combo. "When you're with a crew you can feed off each other like some kind of jazz musician," QBert says, "like how one trumpet player will play one way, and the next guy who hears it -- say, like the saxophone player -- he'll take that style and flip it to his own style."