By Team Backbeat
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"I like trying to remain mysterious," says Michael Schwartz, whose turntablist nom de plume is Mix Master Mike. "It's like hitting and running -- hit the spot, then go home and work on the formula until my next call comes, and I get a chance to show people real hip-hop on the turntables. And then I disappear again."
If remaining in the shadows is Mike's goal, he's been shining a bit too brightly of late. As one of the men behind the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, as well as the spinner who accompanied the Beastie Boys on their pleasure-packed 1998 disc Hello Nasty and the global tour that followed its release, the Masterful one is arguably the most renowned turntable jockey on this or any other planet, and perhaps the most gifted. Although the term "turntablist" is a fairly new one -- Rich "QBert" Quitevis, Mike's Skratch Piklz mate and a recent Westword profile subject ("Like a Record, Baby," January 13), is generally credited with coining it -- the phenomenon of DJs dragging toned arms across slabs o' wax goes back at least as far as the birth of rap music in the '70s. However, it's only been in the past decade or so that these artists have been regularly accorded headlining status -- and too many of them still treat this opportunity as a rationale for self-indulgence and showboating that recalls rock-concert drum solos at their most stereotypical. But while Mike is capable of manhandling turntables with the best in the business, he also has a sense of structure that helps transform his formidable technique into something that's all too rare: good tunes. As he puts it, "A lot of DJs, their stuff doesn't go anywhere. They just grab a noise and start scratching, and that's all it is. It's just scratching; there's no reason for it. But I compose each scratch -- put them where they're supposed to go. And I do that throughout the whole song.
A native of San Francisco, the capitol of the turntablist nation, Mike was exposed to loads of music during his formative years, from a slew of different genres: "Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, all the Motown stuff, the Meters, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and lots of other stuff," he notes. Then, at fourteen, his mind was blown by hip-hop -- and unlike a lot of his peers, who only wanted to spit out rhymes and spin on their backs like funky robots, he soon became obsessed with learning the science behind the beats. At first, he used a couple of his uncle's old tape decks, merging different tunes by repeatedly punching the pause buttons. But shortly thereafter he got a load of Grandmixer DST, whose skills burst into the mainstream thanks to "Rockit," a Herbie Hancock hit from the album Future Shock (just reissued by Legacy/Epic along with several other Hancock opuses from the period). And a new fixation was born.
Before long, Mike was playing house parties as part of a mobile-DJ crew -- and at one such bash, he met Quitevis. The teen who would be QBert had zero experience with scratching, but after getting an eyeful of Mike, he knew he had to find out more. The next day, Mike began schooling QBert in the skill, spawning a rivalry that would eventually grow into a partnership. By 1991, QBert was good enough with a stylus to win the U.S. DMC (Disco Mixing Club) crown at a competition in Chicago, an accomplishment that Mike more than exceeded the following year when he claimed victory at the so-called Supermen Battle for World Supremacy in New York, which established him as the globe's DJ supreme -- the first West Coaster to be so recognized. He and QBert, accompanied by a buddy known as Apollo, also took the top prize at 1992's DMC World Championship, and when the Mike-QBert tandem repeated the feat in 1993 and 1994, the folks at DMC did the logical thing: They put the duo in the DMC hall of fame and forbade them from competing in the future, in order to give someone else a chance.
Mike has no complaints about being banned. "For me, winning the three world titles was kind of like Game of Death with Bruce Lee," he says. "You work your way up through the levels in a turntable fight. And once I got through all the levels, it opened me up to different battles: battling on vinyl, battling the industry to put the music out, battling other types of music."
The war thus far has been waged on several fronts. In 1996, Mike released his first disc, the currently unavailable Michristmasterpiece Muzik's Worst Nightmare, on the tiny Down to Earth imprint. The next year, the Skratch Piklz -- Mike, QBert, Shortkut (J. Cruz), D-Styles (Dave Cuasito) and Yoga Frog (Ritchie Desuasido, who replaced Lou Quintanilla, nicknamed DJ Disk) -- bowed with Invisibl Skratch Piklz Vs. Da Klamz Uv Deth, an EP on Asphodel. Since then, they've put out five volumes of scratching on the indie Hip Hop Slam under the umbrella title The Shiggar Fraggar Show.
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