One day last spring, I was standing in a storefront classroom in West Los Angeles under the baleful gaze of a Mary J. Blige poster, being bombarded by background music going thunka thunka thunka thunka. Directly in front of me, perched ghettoliciously on two empty 55-gallon oil drums, was a complex, exotic-looking entertainment delivery system. Amazingly, I was one of very few of the 20-odd students who understood both its original purpose and function. Question: Did that make me: 1. Almost impossibly cool, or 2. Totally, incredibly out of it? (Hint: Try not to get your hopes up as high as mine were.)
"This is a needle," said our instructor. "This is a stylus. This is a cartridge. And this is a headshell. The whole thing goes into the tone arm. And the little stylus is really what does all the work."
Most of my classmates, some almost half my age, blinked in noncomprehension. Our instructor, DJ Hapa--that's his DJ name--went on to explain some intriguing buttons marked 33 and 45 on our twin Stanton T.120 turntables.
"Has anybody ever seen any 78s?" asked Hapa, who chooses not to reveal his real name in devotion to his art form. I was one of two or three who eagerly stuck up their hands.
"Well," said Hapa, "we won't worry about those."
And that was the end of my head start to hipness.
I have lived long enough to have heard CSN&Y--look; it up, kid--sing "Marrakesh Express" in four-part harmony. Live. But, improbably, I was attending the first session of a six-week, nine-hour, $300 course at the Scratch DJ Academy, a 1 1/2-year-old school that teaches the craft and art of scratching and mixing. DJ 101, the class I was taking, was nothing less than an accelerated introduction to turntablism.
Say what, Dog?
Before I take a stab at explaining all this, I'll stand on firmer ground and tell you why: Because I'm old. At 53, and a quarter-century removed from anything resembling the cutting edge of modern popular music, I realized I was in big trouble. For the last couple of years I'd been running on cruise control while nodding to the smooth sounds of KKGO-AM (1260), the now-defunct Southern California home of the Great American Songbook.
Although Peggy and Frank and Nat and Ella were indeed great artists to whom I can listen practically night and day, the fact is that they're all extremely dead. I had the hopeful feeling that the longer I soaked up their virtuosic output, the closer I, too, could get to immortality. But when Wagnerian opera and Sandy Wood, the hypnotic hostess of the daily astronomical bulletin "StarDate," started sounding good, I realized that the Lennon Sisters and maybe even Paul Harvey were lurking dangerously over my horizon. Drastic action was needed to head off premature geezerism, so I kept forcing myself to hit the "seek" button.
Hence, I discovered what all those "dope" and "bad" young people are listening to--hip-hop.
Scratch DJing is an essential component of this form of mass entertainment. Most noticeably, the scratch DJ manipulates archaic vinyl records on his turntables to provide a rhythmic complement to the recorded music's beat. He does this wherever he performs, sometimes behind live rappers--also known as MCs--but usually without.
Even more important, the DJ has the solemn responsibility of assessing new music and deftly concocting impromptu and/or seriously pre-calculated mixes, be it in the dance hall, radio station or on underground mix tapes. These are new works of musical art consisting of seamlessly connected songs from different artists, records and even genres. When done correctly and artfully, it's almost impossible to tell where one song ends and the next one begins. The DJ's scratching becomes an integral part of the musical mix.
"The turntable is the ultimate instrument," said DJ Hapa, a rail-thin, much-tattooed 26-year-old of part-Hawaiian ancestry. "And the DJ is the musician."
This was after he delivered a fascinating half-hour history of hip-hop music and scratch DJing far too lengthy to go into here. But the ultrashort impress-your-friends-at-a-cocktail-party version is this: "1983 Grammys telecast. Grand Mixer DXT backing up Herbie Hancock on 'Rockit.'" Trust me. Try it and report back.
After that we got to choose our DJ names. The young lawyer next to me was DJ French. The younger woman on my other side was DJ 9-1-1. The middle-school math teacher from Huntington Park became DJ Surge. The blond starlet on the other side of the room, who happened to be the youngest granddaughter of William Lear, the inventor of the Lear Jet and the eight-track cassette player, was DJ Miss L. The wholesome-looking young woman on my left with braces on her teeth said, "I'm from the Midwest. My name is Pauline. So I guess I'm DJ Pauline."
In case you're wondering--and if you are, you're as clueless about hip-hop's hegemony as I used to be--the racial and ethnic mixture of my fellow students roughly mirrored that of young Los Angeles, which is to say all over the map.
After much thought about the infirmities of people my age, and succumbing to my bad habit of covering up insecurity with irony, I became DJ IcyHot.
After Hapa introduced us to the miracle of analog sound, we all placed an instructional LP on the "slip mats" covering our turntables. Track one consisted of a sultry voice intoning "Aaaaaaah!" Then silence. Then "Fr-e-e-e-e-sh!" Then silence. And on and on. Our job was to start the turntable, put our hands on the record, drag it to the silent spot between "Ah" and "Fresh," and hold it there. We then made a scratching noise by pushing and pulling the record into the sound-filled patch of the record up ahead.
While Hapa played a generic backbeat on his turntable, we scratched whole notes (Scritch. Scratch. Scritch. Scratch.) Half notes. (Scritchscratch. Scritchscratch. Scritchscratch. Scritchscratch.) Quarter notes. (Scritchscratchscritchscratchscritchscratchscritchscratchscritchscrat chscritchscratchscritchscratchscritchscratch.) And so on, down to 16th notes, which went by so fast that they sounded like machine gun bullets. That was exciting, but not half as exciting as getting to touch the records with my hands. I'd half suppressed the memory, but much of my university career was spent rooming with cohorts who exhibited flagrant vinyl fetishes. Their LPs were sacred objects never to be touched.
One guy--no names, but Dean Griffler knows who he is--owned one of those ridiculously expensive turntables with such an exquisitely balanced tone arm that it practically compensated for gravitational anomalies and the curvature of the Earth. His records were not to be handled by anyone except him; he held them delicately by their edges, slipped them lightly as a feather onto the platter and then wiped them down with a special antistatic mitt before putting them gently back to bed. But the records still got scratched and worn, even the magnum opi of Jethro Tull, Ten Wheel Drive and Judy Collins.
Now, 35 years later, I was getting my revenge.
I felt so good the next day that while driving to my periodontist I bravely slid eight clicks eastward from KMZT (105.1)--K-Mozart, get it?--to KPWR (105.9), "Where Hip-Hop Lives," and where, incidentally, another Scratch Academy faculty member, Mr. Choc, works as evening drive-time mixmaster DJ.
The first blasts of rap music seemed to me to be an unlistenable, ear-assaulting jumble of sexual braggadocio, obscene threats and unfamiliar slang. There seemed to be a rotation of only about four songs; they all sounded alike and only the periodic ultra-outrageous lyric stood out. (Did I really hear someone say, "I seen more asses than a toilet seat?") I managed to stay tuned only through two commercial breaks. One consolation: At least I was being bombarded with commercials for beer, cars and concerts instead of Wink Martindale-led European canal tours and PSAs for arthritis.org that ran more or less constantly on KKGO.
The next class helped a lot. For one thing, DJ Pauline helped jolt me out of my self-pity by showing up wearing a T-shirt that read, "Pauline, Love Machine." Several of my classmates greeted me with a hearty, "Yo, Icy! Wassup?" After an hour or so of experimental scratching, mixing and matching the different scratches to form two-bar improvs for our classmates' listening pleasure, Hapa went to the whiteboard and began to sketch out the theoretical basics of on-the-fly twin-turntable mixology.
First, the aspiring DJ needs to mentally divide each song into its intro, choruses, verses and bridges. Example: The chorus of one well-known Academy Award-winning song goes like this: "Que sera, sera/Whatever will be, will be/The future's not--" Oops, sorry. I meant: "You know it's hard out here for a pimp/When he tryin' to get this money for the rent/for the Cadillacs and gas money spent/ Because a whole lot of [um, 'females'] talking [uh, 'nonsense'] . . . "
In contrast, the verse moves the plot along, so to speak. Like this: "When I was just a little girl/I asked my mother/What will I--" Damn. Let's try again. "In my eyes I done some crazy thangs in the streets/Gotta couple hoes workin' on the changes for me/But I gotta keep my game tight like Kobe on game night/Like takin' from a ho don't know no better, I know that ain't right." And so on and so forth.
Hapa told us that these song components usually consisted of eight, 12 or 16 four-beat bars. It was imperative that we know the length of each one on each song, and even more important that we locate "the 1"--meaning the very first beat of each segment, which is always marked by a discernible "kick beat" that stands out from the less emphatic beats around it.
As our homework assignment, Hapa mandated that we listen to the music on the radio with fresh ears, sussing out the intros, verses, choruses and bridges; counting off the bars ("One two three four. Two two three four."); and getting ready every four bars to pinpoint the 1. I spent the next few days, while driving in my car to the powerful sounds of KPWR, nodding vigorously in 4/4 time and smacking my hand on the steering wheel whenever--correctly or incorrectly--I felt that the 1 was coming up. I noticed that older people, staring at me at red lights, frowned and looked at me as if I were crazy. Younger people, in contrast, smiled and looked at me as if I were crazy.
Maybe I was, because after a few more beat-counting journeys to Trader Joe's, Souplantation and the Beverly Hills Public Library, my ears adjusted to all the thumping, and actual melodies and lyrics--could I even say poetry?--began to emerge. For yet another second and a half I envisioned myself as the World's Oldest Hip-Hop DJ.
Then came lesson No. 4.
The key to mixing two records, Hapa said, was a crucial maneuver called "dropping on the 1." In a nutshell, this means synchronizing your two records, one on each turntable. In its most elemental form this involves letting one record play through the speakers on one turntable. As this happens, the DJ searches for the 1, either through his headphones or by feel, on the second record.
One or two bars before the 1 comes around on Record One, he scratches the time away on Record Two, then releases it to play through the speakers exactly as the 1 on Record One sounds. The beats on the two records should then be perfectly matched.
In practice my fingers slipped, my head lost track of the beats and my ears found it hard to determine--amid the cacophony of my classmates' scratching, searching and dropping all around me--whether I'd matched up the beats or not. I figure I succeeded, at best, one time out of five. I couldn't help noticing that DJ Pauline, dancing to the beat as she worked, seemed to be doing a lot better than I was.
And we were just getting started. In real life you don't drop the 1 on two identical records, as we'd just trained to do. You drop from one record at one speed, or beats per minute, to another at a higher or lower bpm. To do this, you first have to time every record in your collection by actually counting beats for exactly one minute and writing down the number. Hapa stressed that a DJ should never exceed 4 bpm, up or down, while going from one record to another. The reason: It's too jarringly un-fresh to segue from too fast to too slow, and vice versa.
That's the easy part. The next step is to micro-synchronize the two records so that they're both bopping at the exact same bpm. You do this, I kid you not, by either giving the turntable under Record Two a little push to get it moving faster, or dragging your finger along the turntable to slow it down. Then you lock in the speed change with a lever called a pitch control, drop the second record on the 1 and listen in your headphones to hear if the beats match.
They probably don't, so you repeat as necessary until your speed tuning is so fine that both records are pulsing at exactly same speed. Then you wait until a natural crossing point comes up, drop Record Two on the 1 and play the two platters together until you switch the speaker output to the second song. Then you start thinking very quickly about your next mix.
I did. Theoretically.
In practice, however, my brain and hands were so slow, and my hairy old ears were so unable to pick up the beats, that during the next weeklong break I sadly consigned Scratch DJing to the long list of desirable skills--flying, piano-bar playing and looking good in expensive designer suits--for which I have the yearning, but not the talent, to achieve. Which doesn't mean I didn't enjoy watching the one, two or three members of our class who had real potential--including DJ Pauline (who renamed herself DJ Passion), a single mom who for the moment was working as a Cingular cellphone salesperson--start to master these essentials and vow to continue on to the more advanced class in the Scratch DJ Academy series. And it doesn't mean I erased KPWR from my FM car radio presets. I consider it a point of pride that I still punch button No. 4 and listen to Mr. Choc & Co. spin hip-hop when I'm caught in traffic.
I defend the music to my credulous peers at barbecues and book-discussion sessions and even tell them I just might try DJing again in 30 years or so. By then I'll be calling myself DJ Assisted Living. Or maybe just chilling.