The hip-hop DJ who truly knows his shit is an endangered species, a victim of his medium‘s success. Your dot-com done got gone? Grab a crate of records and become a DJ. Downsized out of a job? Had your novel rejected for the millionth time? Been told by your club-crawling boo that you’re no longer her plus-one? Become a DJ. Everyone and his deluded mother suffers from the notion that they can cold rock a party, that the spirit and vibes of legendary mix-master Kool Herc -- considered by many to be the godfather of hip-hop -- are carried through them. DJ . . . it‘s become the cool gig, the hipster’s latest art-fagculture-vulture pose, with modulated b-boy machismo as its foundation. At best, this flocking to the wheels of steel has resulted in a crop of uninspired, blandly proficient turntablists -- hip-hop‘s equivalent of the progeny of former MIT rock-god Yngwie Malmsteen. At worst, however, it means that a lot of weak-ass dilettantes are fucking up the groove for everyone, not so much lowering as shattering the bar.
In Scratch, Doug Pray’s follow-up to Hype!, his 1996 documentary on Seattle‘s grunge scene and the way it briefly reconfigured American rock, the director turns his subculture-savvy camera onto the hip-hop DJ -- his past, present and to-be-determined future -- to try, in part, to figure out how he became MVP after so many years on the bench. (Press notes for the film, which make it clear what the parameters of Pray’s survey are, read, “For the record, this is not a film about radio deejays, wedding DJs, or technohouserave DJs . . . it‘s about vinyl-scratching hip-hop DJs who do it live.”) The movie’s marketplace timing is perfect. DJ culture, well over two decades old, is poised to go bust even as it‘s gone pop. Talented DJs dumb down their gifts in order to blow up (i.e., Funkmaster Flex); no-talent hacks become standard-bearers (c.f., DJ Clue); and every other mediocre tattooed-suburban-white-boy-angst band is accessorized with two turntables and a mic.
But Pray’s film isn‘t really about any of that. It’s also not about the Benjamins, MTV rap stars and their tacky cribs, or (except in brilliantly underplayed subtext) East CoastWest Coast rivalries. What it‘s about is a pointed alternative to bling! bling! contrivance in both rap and hip-hop; it’s a thrilling celebration of art over commerce.
The needle drops first on New York--based scratch pioneer Grand Wizard Theodore, who gives a refresher course on the distinction between hip-hop (it‘s a culture) and rap (an element of said culture). Then, in quick succession, we’re introduced to other elder statesmen of hip-hop: Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Mixer DXT (whose performance on Herbie Hancock‘s “Rockit” is repeatedly cited as the cornerstone of modern deejaying), and Kool Herc, the original turntable anarchist who -- in his quest to find the fiercest breakdown -- eschewed the popular convention of spinning radio hits at parties in order to search out lesser-known album tracks. As Bambaataa explains, “The breakbeat is that part that you look for in a record that lets your God-self just get wild.” It’s here that Pray reveals himself to be an adroit mixer in his own right, cutting smoothly back and forth between talking heads, letting lines of dialogue from various speakers connect and build on a single thought, having DXT and Theodore muse in tandem on the evolving roles of the DJ and the MC, then letting old-school head Almighty K.G. spit a rhyme to illustrate the point.
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Faintly strumming long-standing tensions, Scratch‘s great revelation -- and it’s been a predictably sore spot for a lot of East Coast critics and heads -- is in locating the Left Coast as the place for artistic freedom, inspiration and innovation. While Rob Swift and the X-ecutioners more than represent here for the East Coast, Qbert, the Beat Junkies, MixMasterMike, and the rap collectives Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples are positioned as saviors of hip-hop, feeding -- not just feeding off -- the culture by returning to basic beats, rhymes and skills. They‘re about elevating the art. Qbert takes great pains to show love to the East Coast, but says (and repeatedly illustrates) that he’s less about trying to be ghetto fabulous than he is about trying to master the space where muscular craft meets divine inspiration. Performance footage of Dilated Peoples on a small stage before an ecstatic crowd features no designer costumes, video screens or pyrotechnics, save what they generate in their interaction with the audience. MixMasterMike beams as he pulls out an old Robert Johnson blues record that he nimbly manipulates on his turntable, linking one era‘s outsider art to another’s. Finally, there‘s a hypnotic scene of West Coast DJs (including the iconic Shadow) jamming at Qbert’s home, for which Pray wisely keeps the camera movement subtle and the edits soft. As the guys build a heady groove, all conversation ceases; the moment is absolutely mesmerizing.
What makes Scratch both riveting and a vital document of the anti-pop strata of hip-hop is not just that it captures its subject matter so well, but that it becomes hip-hop in the process. It‘s all about freestyling and improvisation, style born of substance. When a talking head is being interviewed on the street and a scraping sound suddenly appears in the background, Pray slowly pans camera left to see what’s making the noise; having spotted a sanitary worker dragging a garbage can across the pavement, he slowly returns to the speaker. It‘s a droll, witty bit. Later, a lone yellow page from the telephone book is caught slowly drifting down a sidewalk, poetically illustrating a verbal point that was scored moments earlier. Images are “scratched” in the editing room so that they skip, shudder and repeat in sync with the soundtrack.
Without belaboring it, Pray underscores the fact that hip-hop and its various elements (graffiti, break-dancing, etc.) are about the construction of identity, and that discussions of race are central to that process. Early in the film, Afrika Bambaataa speaks of the mainstream’s (i.e., white folks‘) early fears that rap and hip-hop would incite harm to whites; the film itself documents a culture that has been embraced all over the world, by every hue and accent. Indeed, watching the archival footage Pray has collected of shows and parties from hip-hop’s early days in Brooklyn and the Bronx, when the crowd (to say nothing of the turntablists) was overwhelmingly black with a thick Puerto Rican swirl, and then seeing how the contemporary audience for the medium has become overwhelmingly white, is to be reminded that the most challenging aspects of hip-hop -- as with the blues and jazz before it -- are being all but abandoned by the folk who created it, handed off to everyone else in the world for less than a song.
There‘s no single point to be taken from Scratch, which is simultaneously hilarious and deeply informative thanks to the vibrant personalities at its center. History lesson, cultural critique, love letter to those who keep it real by keeping it artful -- it’s too wide and deep to be collapsed into a one-note thesis. A certain theme, though, does resonate powerfully throughout, echoed by representatives from either coast. Both Afrika Bambaataa and MixMasterMike reference intergalactic travel and space aliens as sources of inspiration. That‘s nothing new, of course, and countless others, from Sun Ra forward, have done the same thing. Still, as these two tell us how they’re trying to send and receive messages to and from the great beyond, the metaphor unveils itself. They‘re really speaking of the courage and willingness to travel deep within yourself, to listen to your muse -- to find the inner breakbeat that makes your God-self go wild.