Like a Record, Baby
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."
The Piklz' brand of turntable free jazz has led them to international prominence: They recently performed at the Vestax DJ World Championships in Japan, where they also hooked up with the X-Men. And last year they lectured at the Red Bull Music Academy in Berlin, where they gave two fourteen-day seminars on turntablism to 25 participants selected from more than 800 applicants. But one of their greatest accomplishments came this past June, when A. Magazine cited the largely Filipino group as a member of its "A-100" list, a roster of the 100 most influential Asian-Americans of the past decade. QBert's influence has in no small part helped raise the profile of Asian-American DJs. "They've been in it since day one with the b-boying, emceeing and graffiti, but I've noticed a lot of Asians now more than ever that skratch," he states proudly.
Although they're still touring, the Piklz are taking time off from recording to concentrate on solo projects. QBert is working on the full-length movie Wave Twisters, an animated companion piece to his seminal 1998 skratch concept album of the same name. The story takes place in inner space, inside the diamond of a record needle, and involves a dentist and a b-boy grandpa and their friends, Rubbish and Honey. "It's in a galaxy where all the music is controlled by this one guy, and it's like some wack-ass music," says QBert. "It's kind of like our society here, where our music on the radio is all that you hear. We're being controlled by that. [In the film], there are these people called the Wave Twisters who go around and try to teach people about the four lost elements of hip-hop: b-boying, emceeing, deejaying and [graffiti] writers," explains QBert, who promises a new platter of blazing remixes of the original album to accompany the film.
The movie features the artistic talents of Dug-One, Syd Garon, Eric Henry and Trish Golubev, who have shown short films in festivals around the country and who have also worked on commercials for Adidas and Blockbuster Video. This animation team has accepted the considerable challenge of visually representing every skratch and sound on QBert's disc -- no small feat, considering the mélange of cacophonous alien terrorist soundblasts that make up the Wave Twisters album. This isn't QBert's first foray into the film world: In 1998 he was prominently featured in the movie Modulations, a documentary of electronic music that was shown at the Sundance Festival, and in Hang the DJ, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Wave Twisters will make its debut on July 1 in San Francisco at Skratchcon 2000, an event QBert eagerly anticipates. "It's going to be the first convention for skratching, kind of like a comic-book convention or the one they have for breakdancers, the B-Boy Summit," he says. "It's pretty much the mecca for skratch DJs."
QBert admits that the resurgence of the DJ, which these films chronicle, has surprised him. "It is pretty amazing that it's getting the response that it is," he says, adding, "It's pretty ridiculous."
Turntablism's popularity has truly become a global thing, a fact the DJ notices firsthand every time he visits Japan. "In Japan, the turntable outsells the guitar," he says. "Everyone loves the skratching, and more and more people come to the shows every time I go there. It seems like it doubles every year."
Compared to more traditional forms of music, though, skratching -- at least the QBert variety -- is still in its infant stages. But QBert feels confident that it's not at risk of a premature death. "Turntablism can only get better," he says. "There is no peak. It will keep evolving, just like the electric guitar." As for his own development as an artist, QBert says he has reached a new plateau. "I've just invented a new style," he says. "I really felt like I was lacking for all the years I've been deejaying, but I've really pinpointed this sort of formula. I've become more lyrical. I used to be lyrical before on accident, but since I've pinpointed this formula, I totally feel confident now every time I skratch.
"My goal is the same goal that I will have the rest of my life, which is the continual elevation of skratching."
As he skratches his way into the new century, QBert has every reason to feel confident -- and he's strong enough to stick by his steadfast refusal to conform to any trendy dictates of the hip-hop and DJ worlds.
"I'm just trying to be in my own world," he says.
When you're a DJ seemingly from another planet, that's the only path worth taking.
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