Scratch It Up

The steel wheels keep turning in the DMC turntable battles.

You can almost picture Bob Costas, Bill Walton and even the late Harry Caray crammed into a wide-angle camera frame, microphones in hand, attempting to provide the commentary for a Technics World DJ Championship competition.

"DJ Sadboy cuts to the left by using his thumb on table one, adjusting his headphones and breaking in with a fly old-school beat that reminds me of the grand legend Afrika Bambaataa," Costas might say in that smarmy, I've got a photographic memory and you don't voice. Walton would cut in with some verbal clutter about "grooves" and "vibrations," while Caray would crack a cold one and simply say what was on everyone's mind: Holy cow!

In the course of the past fifteen or so years, deejaying has risen to the level of sport, a game with its own superstars and faceoffs more intense than the final 1:20 in a Lakers/Pacers playoff game. In 1984, the Disco Mix Club began placing DJs in competitive settings; today, DMC events are full turntable battles that seek to determine just who are the most deft manipulators of the steel wheels. This year, the Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfields of the DJ world will once again duke it out in regional competitions in twelve cities around the country, including Boulder. According to Francois Baptiste, a local hip-hop promoter who operates 3Deep Productions and works for House of Blues Concerts, this is a rare opportunity for local hip-hop heads to shine in a national light. "This is really an important event for Colorado," Baptiste says. "We're on posters all around the country; we're getting national exposure. This is a chance for the hip-hop community to show the country what we have to offer."

Scratch 'em if you got 'em:  DJ Rob Swift of the X-ecutioners (shown here at past events) is one of the judges in this year's DMC turntable competition.
Scratch 'em if you got 'em: DJ Rob Swift of the X-ecutioners (shown here at past events) is one of the judges in this year's DMC turntable competition.

Like prizefighters, the turntablists in the battles will try to manipulate the tools of their trade in an effort to eradicate their competition. The winner from each city hosting a regional heat will earn the right to compete in the U.S. finals in New York City in August; the winner of that bout will perform at the world championship on September 24 in London. "Outside of the sports world, there are few world championships and none whatsoever that embrace popular music, with the exception of the Technics/DMC World Championships," says Christie Z-Pabon, coordinator of the U.S. DMC events. "To the DJs throughout the world, being the DMC world champion is the equivalent of having the world heavyweight boxing title and trophy belt. It is the official seal of approval. It is proof that you battled the best DJs from around the world and won." The recognition is also matched by a sweet prize: The world champion will win a set of Gold Technics 1200 turntables with a matching mixer.

Started by DMC Ltd., the world championships have been supported and sponsored by Technics Panasonic for the last fourteen years. The Technics alliance is a perfect fit because of the popularity of the Technics 1200 turntable with many prominent DJs. "Technics turntables have been the weapon of choice for DJ battles," says Z-Pabon. "The fact that hip-hop pioneers have used them made every other aspiring DJ want to use them. The Technics 1200s have long been considered the ultimate turntable for deejaying, and no other company has been able to build a turntable that can quite match it."

The championship initially started out as a battle between house-music DJs and primarily involved mix music (hence the name Disco Mixing Club). This all changed when DJ Cheese won in 1986 -- a victory that pushed the competitions in a decidedly more hip-hop direction. Since then, the DMC has seen the best beat jugglers, scratch junkies and cut masters hit the ones and twos in their efforts to redefine the essence of the hip-hop DJ. Past world champions include DJ Cash Money, Cutmaster Swift, Mix Master Mike, QBert, Apollo, Roc Raida, DJ Craze (winner of the last two world championships) and others who helped create the art of turntablism.

Rob Swift, a charter member of the turntablist crew the X-ecutioners, recalls witnessing the early battles and seeing some of the masters introduce techniques that would become essential elements of the turntablist vocabulary. "I remember seeing Stevie D [a founding member of the X-Men] introduce beat juggling, or, as he termed it, 'the Funk,' to the world. He was taking drums and rearranging them manually on the turntables."

Swift is no stranger to the DMC. He entered his first competition in March 1991, coming in in third place at the Northeast finals in New York. Stevie D came in first that year, but he was so impressed with Swift's performance that he asked him to join the X-Men. The following year, Swift took first place in the same competition. In addition to creating stars, the DMC battles have increased awareness of deejaying worldwide and helped individual DJs meet one another; as a result, the competitions have had a trickle-down effect on the skill level of the craft as a whole. Many DJs, like Swift, credit the DMC with helping bolster their careers.

"It's just amazing -- you go from your bedroom or from your neighborhood to meeting DJs all over the world," Swift says. "The DMC allows you to expose yourself to people and places that never would have heard of you if you were just in your bedroom making little mix tapes. I'm glad I entered those competitions. It allowed me to get on videotapes. Those tapes circulated all over the world. Someone in Zimbabwe could get ahold of that videotape and watch that tape and not even understand English but still understand what you're doing on the turntables. The DMC also allowed me to get better, because you're exposed to other DJs that are maybe doing other things that you don't know how to do, or maybe doing things that you have never seen before. You know, you're allowed to learn by watching other DJs."

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