How long does it take for a new art form to be embraced as legitimate by the music-listening public, a group that, as any modern radio programmer can tell you, is generally wary of change?
Judging by the recent surge in the popularity of turntablism, about 25 years. Ever since hip-hop began its slow spread from inner-city neighborhoods in New York and Philadelphia in the mid-'70s, when breakdancers and battle rappers laid the templates for what would ultimately become a billion-dollar branch of the music industry, young men who like to play with vinyl have been refining the art of the scratch. Originally celebrated in subterranean circles, perhaps even more so than their MC counterparts, early DJs cut up the samples, beds, breaks and loops that defined the rhythms of the newly annexed hip-hop nation. Grandmaster Flash, for example, was perhaps the first celebrity spinner and always received top billing over the Furious Five. But when the genre came aboveground, most DJs were pushed into the tall shadows of their rapping counterparts, who grabbed not only the microphone, but most of the limelight.
Today turntablists are again claiming their due, thanks in part to breakthrough work by DJ collectives including Dilated Peoples and the Beat Junkies, in addition to a couple of rogue scratch artists like Craze and QBert; last year, QBert toured behind a solo album as well as Wave Twisters, a feature-length film about the wheels of steel. Further evidence: Turntablism can be found within the 2002 course catalogue of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where high-paying students may now add scratching alongside classical theory in their class schedules. You've come a long way, Mr. DJ.
Locally, turntablism has received a low-watt boost from the hip-hop-obsessed staff behind Basementalism, a specialty show that airs on KVCU/Radio 1190 from 4-7 p.m. on Saturdays. In addition to playlists that span everything from Afrika Bambaataa to Atmosphere, the Basement heads dedicate airtime to teaching listeners about hip-hop's history and fundamentals, with a heavy emphasis on scratching.
"Most people who know about the art of hip-hop know that DJs are really the backbone," says KVCU hip-hop director Mike Merriman, better known to Basementalism audiences as Adict. "But for a while, they've always been in the back, because the egoism of MCs is so large. Now, a lot of these guys realize that turntablism can be a start for their own career, that they can have some of their own egoism and come to the front. Some of them have realized that they don't even need an MC."
Though it's likely to be a while before turntablism completes its ascension into mainstream acceptance, the genre has picked up plenty of followers along the way. Merriman estimates that there are about 150 spinners active in Colorado, a group bound by more than a love of collecting records and making them produce weird sounds.
"You have to be obsessive-compulsive if you want to be a turntablist," he says. "All the turntablists I know wash their hands eighty times a day and also scratch for eight hours a day. When it comes to hip-hop, DJs put in the most work, and they have to perfect what they do. If you are going to be a DJ, you can't have a 'that's good enough' attitude. Your goal is to be the best in the world."
On Saturday, February 9, Merriman and the rest of the Basementalism crew will host an event in Boulder that will help determine, at the very least, who may be the best DJs in Colorado. Following a qualifying round at Bart's CD Cellar at noon, the Bart's DJ Battle will take place at 8 p.m. in Boulder's Trilogy Lounge, where a group of finalists will compete for a panel of judges that includes Spryte One and Kico from Chicago's Platter Pirates crew. (The pair will also perform during the event, as will local DJs Chonz and Vajra of the Procussions.) Colorado has seen its share of DJ battles in the past -- Francois Baptiste of 3 Deep Productions brought the DMC Championships to town in the '90s -- but Saturday's event is the first time that such a competition has centered on homegrown talent. (Interested jocks can contact email@example.com for information on entering.) And while the idea of competition sometimes seems antithetical to artistic expression, Merriman is confident that local spinners are up for the challenge.
"The turntable has really become a percussive instrument, and with that, like African drums or tap dancing or dueling banjos, it kind of inspires people to want to use it competitively," he says. "It's the kind of music that you can pack a lot of intensity into in a very short time, so you can challenge other people with your own skills. I think it makes everyone learn more and see more. Ultimately, these competitions just help hip-hop to grow."
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Aspiring young Grandmasters, get ready to make a break for Boulder.
This year's Mardi Gras Festival in LoDo (Friday, February 8, and Saturday, February 9, in the 1900 block of Blake Street) should be enough to fatten you up for this Lent and the next five to follow it. Organized by Performance International, the same group responsible for the Denver Blues & Bones Festival and the LoDo Music Festival, the two-day fete will feature the same kind of carnival environment, this time with a decidedly hedonistic bend. But unlike the company's other events, where out-of-town acts play the big stages while locals toil in a corner near the Porta-Johns, Denver area acts will provide all of the festival's music. Friday's schedule includes Yo, Flaco!, Marty Jones & the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys, Reverend Leon's Revival and the Crispy Critters; Terrence Simien, Djate, Chris Daniels & the Kings, New Orleans-style funk band Gris Gris, Zeut and Rainville dominate the schedule on Saturday. As you wander around the faux-Bourbon Street bazaar, look out for the O-Tones, a bona fide marching brass band that will be weaving in and out of the outdoor festivities as well as nearby restaurants and bars. The roving troupe will play jazz standards and other Big Easy fare. Be sure they show you their hits.