Scratch It Up

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.

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."

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."

Other artists who have benefited from successes at the DMC include Mix Master Mike (world co-champion, 1992 and 1993), who is now DJ for the Beastie Boys ("Master of the Universe," March 23, 2000); DJ Swamp (U.S. champion, 1996), who now tours with Beck; DJ Apollo, who has toured with Branford Marsalis; and Tony Vegas (United Kingdom champion, 1999) and Prime Cuts (United Kingdom champion, 1998), who have recently been opening for Fatboy Slim. Also, perhaps unheard of a decade ago, winning DJs such as Swift, QBert and Mix Master Mike have all released solo discs in addition to albums released with their respective groups: the X-ecutioners (composed of Swift, Roc Raida, Mista Sinista and Total Eclipse) and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (which includes QBert, Apollo, Shortkut and Mix Master Mike).

Along with promoting younger DJs, the organizers of the DMC decided in 1998 to honor some of the legendary pioneering DJs by establishing a DJ Hall of Fame. The first inductees were Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmixer DXT, Charlie Chase, Afrika Islam, Kool DJ Red Alert and Grandmaster Caz. This year the DMC plans to induct Marley Marl, DJ Jazzy Jeff, MixMaster Ice and DJ Jazzy Jay at the U.S. finals.

Though battles sponsored by the International Turntablist Federation (ITF) have recently challenged the DMC's dominance and a number of other imitators have popped up, no DJ contest can claim the history or the legitimacy that belong to the DMC. "There is no competition," Z-Pabon states confidently. "DMC always knew that hip-hop DJ battles were hype, but this year, suddenly everyone and their mother wanted to put on a battle. Unfortunately for them, DMC has fourteen years of experience over them, plus a list of DJ world champions that no one can match."

Z-Pabon has witnessed some DMC moments that definitely back up her assertions.

"My most memorable [moments] are the bugged-out things the DJs did, like Swamp licking the needles [East Coast regional, 1995] or trying to cut his chest with them [world competition, 1996]. The 1996 U.S. set was my all-time favorite. Pam the Funkstress [who also deejays with the Coup] using her breasts instead of hands in the '94 West Coast comp. The Rock Steady Djs [Invisibl Skratch Piklz] winning in the 1993 world comp, using DJ Apollo's concept of band deejaying. And Craze winning in '98 and '99 made me so happy. He won the first DMC battle I ever did, in Miami in 1998 -- won both world championships since I've been at DMC, so he is pretty special to me with regard to my experience at DMC."

To hear Z-Pabon recall specific championships is not unlike listening to a sports fan reminisce about great games he's seen. No surprise, considering the championship is set up like a sports tournament. In order to qualify for the regionals, a DJ must pass the preliminaries, where he or she must perform at least one or two minutes of a routine. (This portion of the proceedings is closed to the public and judged by the guest judges.) Since deejaying has become so popular, Z-Pabon says that the "prelims have been more necessary this year than ever due to the fact more DJs than ever are entering in 2000." The regionals, or elimination rounds, follow the preliminaries and consist of approximately 26 DJs. The six judges each pick their favorite six DJs, who then each perform a six-minute routine. Out of this six, the judges pick the top three, and the winner will go onto the U.S. finals.

This year the DMC has chosen to go with well-known DJs to both judge and perform, and the roster of participants is probably reason enough for local hip-hop heads to check out the tournament. In Boulder, the host will be Maseo from De La Soul, and the judges will be Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, Skratch from the Roots, Shortkut of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Swift, and the Rock Steady Crew featuring Crazy Legs. There is no defined criteria for how the judges will evaluate the competition, although Z-Pabon is quick to offer a pointer to those who aspire to the throne: "A DJ has to do more than just scratch or beat juggle to make it in the DMC," she says. "The best DJs know how to do everything."  

As a judge, Swift says he'll "try to look at originality, creativity, difficulty level, showmanship. It's one thing if you're doing the most technical beat juggles; it's another thing if you're making it look interesting as well, and whether or not you incorporate body tricks to what you do. All those things I'll look for."

For those who think DJs walk into a DMC competition and dominate without any preparation, think again. Even seasoned vets like Swift need to practice. "I would take like a whole year and practice. If I knew the 2001 DMC was in June, I'd start practicing now for it, and I'd try to get as much information on all the DJs on the scene at the time," he says. "I'd do my homework -- see who would probably enter, see what their styles were, what their weaknesses were, and how I compared to those DJs -- in order to assess what I needed to practice on in order to compete and win."

This was a lesson learned by many aspiring participants at last year's regionals, also held in Boulder. "Last year helped put it in perspective," says Baptiste. "Kids were coming up to me and saying, 'I know what I have to do to be better next year. I'm going to go back to the lab and get my practice on.' The contest is a way for Denver to catch up with what's going on around the country. Once they get together with DJs nationally, locally and from other states, they really get an opportunity to see what level they're at."

According to Baptiste, this year's contest drew more than forty entries from California, Puerto Rico, Texas, Kansas and Colorado. "This event is just going to grow," he adds. "My goal is to get the U.S. finals here in a couple of years."

Tight shot of Costas, straightening his tie. "Boulder, Colorado," he concludes. "Scratch capital of the world."

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