Mix Master of Puppets: A quick lesson in turntablism proves that Mix Master Mike really does have the skills to pay the bills.
by Summer Burkes
“Dilettante” column originally published twenty years ago on 09.01.1998 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro September 2018 here.
Back before the days of disco, in New York neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Queens, disc jockeys used to throw daytime dance parties in housing project parks. Eager to emulate the thriving club scene in Manhattan, yet economically unable to live the same high life, the DJs sometimes saved money on equipment by jerry-rigging electric cables to overhead power lines to fuel their sound systems.
Like the Manhattan jocks, they used two turntables instead of one to seamlessly segue songs together for a continuous funk or reggae beat. Since song “breaks” (minimal drum ‘n’ bass breakdowns in between verses) seemed to get the crowds jumping, someone got the idea to play the same song on both turntables and alternately recue the breaks for extended jams.
(The term B-Boy actually stands for “Break Boy,” a member of any of several dance crews who did dance routines and break-danced eventually for the crowds.)
As they spun, the DJs pumped the crowd by giving shout-outs on the microphone, and this gave rise to one of the most formidable music genres of the decade.
Kool Herc, a famous New York DJ, coined the term hip-hop. Grand Wizard Theodore supposedly invented the scratch, and acrtists like Grandmaster Flash helped make it famous.
Today, as gangsta rap becomes blander and the majority of hip-hop stands around shrugging its shoulders, the refreshing, surprisingly complicated art of turntablism is plowing ahead.
As I found out on Sunday, you’ve got to be a born musician to master the medium, and new Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike and his group the Invisibl Skratch Piklz have skills bordering on the virtuosic.
Local hip-hop stylist and aficionado DJ Rakus gave me a bief lesson on the mechanics of turntablism before the big Invisibl Skratch Piklz – Beastie Boys show at the Oakland Coliseum.
Rakus’s house in El Cerrito is crammed with hundreds of records; almost every sleeve holds vinyl twins. (“It can get expensive,” he says.) He gingerly produces two record needles from a satin-lined box and cues up two copies of a generic instrumental hip-hop record. The turntables have volume faders (for loud and quiet) and line switches (for stopping noise altogether), one cross fader allows the amplified sound to switch from one record to the other. The beginning beat of each song is marked with a sticker to make for easier cueing.
Rakus starts the turntables with hands hovering over each, as one spins for four beats; he holds the other one lightly in place. He lets go of one and stops the other, spinning it backwards to the sticker mark and repeating the process, all the while hitting the cross fader to amplify the correct turntable. (That’s the breaks.)
There’s just as much eye-hand coordination involved in turntablism as in playing a drum set, and Rakus has got enough arm motion going on to constitute an aerobic workout.
Rakus then lets one record play. To interrupt it with those wick-wicky-wick sounds, he lightly nudges the stationary record with one hand and jerks the cross fader with the other in the same rhythm.
Wicky-wicks come from guitars and pianos and voices and such, chaka-chaka ones come from a snare-drum sound, and the duck-ducka-duck ones come from a bass drum. Beyond that, I’m lost.
He lets me try, and after half an hour or so my basic sense of rhythm takes over my understandable fear of breaking his equipment. Since I can’t keep a breakbeat going without clumsily bumping the needles off the records, I learn to embellish one record with syncopated drumbeats and scratches from the other. (Barely.)
Now, whereas I’ve previously seen and virtually ignored some great DJs of our time, like Hirracane and Terminator X, tonight I’m prepared to truly listen and give props. DJ Rakus won’t accompany me to the show; he thinks the Beastie Boys are too mainstream. (DJs are like that.)
The Invisibl Skratch Piklz, pride of the local hip-hop scene, look small on the Coliseum stage loaded with shrouded rounds of Beastie equipment. The three members collectively manipulate at least four turntables at a time, one providing the breakbeat and the rest of them improvising around it, doing solos, and breaking into what sound like choruses. In the creative sense it’s closer to jazz than rock, but in the rump-shaking sense, it’s some of the best instrumental hip-hop around.
The Piklz twiddle every knob on the boards in rapid succession; their touch while scratching is so delicate that they might as well by typing. They’ve even hooked a pitch shifter up to the turntables to change the tones of the songs they’re mauling. The Piklz have won some global DJ competitions so many times that they’ve been asked not to return. I’s easy to see why.
Later, self-professed alien Mix Master Mike assumes his position as the fourth and lesser Beastie by preceding the Boys onstage to do a solo. He rips the hell out of the first measure or two of an ominous and bass-heavy track, planets are attacked and intestines gutted, and when he lifts his finger, the record is Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” in the eyes of 20,000 sweaty teenagers, he is God.
For half of the Beasties’ sonsgs, Mike is the band, and rather than just playing out the instrumental track they’re rapping to (a common practice), he switches breakbeats constantly, sneaking in beats by Schooly D, Timbaland, Wild Cherry, Egyptian Lover, and even Gary Numan’s “Cars.”
The Beasties’ ode to him, “Three MCs and One DJ,” makes the crowd heave and boogie. Mix Master Mike just grins sheepishly and flips through his records. Being a turntablist can get expensive, but it can pay off, too.
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