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First Bi-Annual Midwest Turntablist Competition

at the Laboratory, October 9

By Scott Rosenberg

The one fan in the room shorted out long ago, and bodies are pressed together in the saunalike heat. It's a little after nine at night and people--a hundred or so young men and a handful of young women, black, white, and brown, mostly in loose clothing and sneakers--have been standing for well over two hours. The air is filled with chatter, bad jokes, and a faint but disturbing odor. Yet despite the sweat and the smell and some technical difficulties (a wobbly table, a busted microphone), the crowd at the First Bi-Annual Midwest Turntablist Competition, held in a hip-hop shop and art gallery called the Laboratory, at 1513 W. Fullerton, is focused intently forward.

A DJ mounts the stage, in front of the storefront window, and drops his cumbersome bag of tricks to the floor. While another guy is finishing his two-minute routine on one of two sets of Technics SL-1200s, he attaches his own needle cartridges to the sleek tonearms of the other set and lays his own felt slip mats on the platters. He then produces two records and cues them up according to colored tape that marks selected grooves. The other guy has finished. The new contestant whips his hands around, sending blood to his fingers; he runs a few test scratches, getting a feel for the rig and showing off a little, like a rock guitarist riffing between songs. Then he smiles sheepishly. The three judges--DJs Skooly and Spryte 1 of the local Platter Pirates crew and Presyce, who spins behind the rap group Rubberoom and has won several regional contests over the past couple years--stand looking over his shoulders, and a video camera is pointed directly at his hands. Someone counts down from five to one, and he comes in somewhere around three with a crescendoing intro.

Over the course of the evening, this opening ritual is repeated almost 40 times in nearly identical fashion. But the actual routines vary wildly. There's a lot of scratching in the first round, some DJs creating almost beboppish lines with their frenetic gestures, volume modulations, and dramatic pauses. Others try to pack as many different moves and styles into their allotted time as possible, and some of these get flustered while switching records, their fingers shaking too much to properly place the needle. They lose time while some monotonous beat chugs along, a sound track to their imminent elimination. Sometimes audiences at battles are harsh and will boo a fumbler, but tonight they show sympathy with applause.

Listening, it's immediately evident what separates turntablists from the wider DJ culture. It's not just tricks--the myriad scratches, like the crab and the stab, or the precision techniques, like beat juggling (switching back and forth between two copies of the same record to create new beat patterns) and drumming (scratching on a single sound to make a rhythm)--but the creation of original music, using other music as raw material, via the phonograph. Often the sources will be rendered unrecognizable, serving an entirely different function in the newly created piece: a human voice can become a backbeat; a single note, sped up and slowed down, can become a full melody.

Grrrrrr chkchkchkchik skkkkskkkkskkkk grrrrrr chkkkkk skrskrskrskr chkgrrchkgrr tsktsktsktsktsk.

It's a week and a half before the competition and Spryte 1, a 20-year-old Columbia College junior whose real name is Chris Roberts, is demonstrating the lexicon of scratches at his mom's house in Schiller Park, where he lives with his girlfriend.

"That was an orbit with chirps and tears. This is a one-click flurry," he says, cranking a record with his left hand and jerking it back and forth while fluttering a fader with his right. It goes chikachikachikachika, like a steam train on speed.

Spryte 1 and Skooly, aka 19-year-old Dustin Marshall from Madison, are only two of the Platter Pirates. The third is Intel, a 21-year-old Columbia College film major whose real name is Jason Deuchler. Spryte 1 and Intel used to DJ for a local breakdancing crew, and spun off to start the Platter Pirates; Spryte 1 met Skooly at a party in Milwaukee and brought him in. They perform at parties about three times a month and occasionally in showcases at places like Metro or Planet Mars, an 18-and-over club on South Halsted. About a month and a half ago, the three of them decided to organize this competition because they were putting together a video of midwestern turntablists and wanted some more exciting footage than they were getting at smaller events. But, as Spryte 1 explains in his bedroom, which is wallpapered with DJ-event flyers, they were also disillusioned with the way other local competitions were run. "They're usually poorly organized," he says, "or judged by house DJs who often aren't well versed in turntablist music or techniques."

Though Chicago has a healthy house and rave scene, hip-hop turntablists aren't in high demand. It's a new form here, and many think it is catching on, but presently "hip-hop parties aren't as focused on the DJ, unlike house parties or raves," says Intel. Rappers no longer rely exclusively on DJs to back them: "When you have a DAT from the studio there's less room for human error or a skipping record."

"I've battled here for the last five years in almost every [competition] that's been in Chicago, and there's only been a few that have ever been really well put together and judged right," Spryte 1 says. "And those are usually the ones that come from other places."

But many national traveling competitions skip the midwest altogether. So the promotion of local DJs via video is as much about self-preservation as anything else. "We just want to get the kids out. A lot of [them] are really dope...but they can't get heard," says Spryte 1.

"Chicago gets overlooked. People think we're only about Michael Jordan or Al Capone," adds Intel. "Not many guys [from here] make it to the DMC." DMC stands for Disco Mix Club, an international DJ organization that, along with Technics, puts on the U.S. national championships, held annually since 1986. No Chicago turntablist has ever won.

During the preliminary rounds at the Laboratory, DJs take wild risks with their routines: one tries laying a beat against Mozart's 40th Symphony, and another accompanies a Steve Martin line ("In each show I like to do something impossible") with a warbling manipulated sine wave. As the eliminations progress, however, the sets are choreographed down to the second, any unusual flights elaborately worked out ahead of time.

After the 26 entrants, who are all male and have come from Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin as well as Illinois, have each taken a turn, the three judges call a ten-minute break and hustle out to the sidewalk to select eight quarterfinalists. They evaluate the DJs on technical skills, musicality, showmanship, beat juggling, scratching, and phrasing and wording (using words and phrases off recordings). Their notebooks contain a few explicit notes--Presyce has written a handful, like "clean," "both hands," and "dope scratching"--but mostly there are just concise lists of names followed by single-digit numbers. They are able to select five by consensus, and then lapse into debate over the last three.

"I wasn't feeling that shit, but the crowd was into him."

"His routine was going somewhere, but it wasn't clean."

"He wasn't perfect up there, but I know he's got better shit."

"People are coming up with so much [unique] stuff that it's hard to judge one style against a completely different style," Skooly complains, but the clock is ticking. The entire event must be wrapped up by ten sharp, when the Laboratory closes. The judges hurry through these last deliberations and return to the stage to announce the finalists. In the remaining rounds, the DJs will be pitted against each other in pairs. These head-to-head eliminations are more conducive to theatrics. The routines are tighter: most start with a minute of beat juggling, then shift to displays of scratching prowess or the development of some unusual technique. There's usually a flurry of action right at the end, and the DJ often cues up some kind of final verbal dis. For instance, DJ Stizo, who works with Presyce in Rubberoom, brings in the sound track to Annie Get Your Gun, running the line "Anything you can do, I can do better" at double speed as he points to his opponent.

It quickly becomes clear who should advance. It only takes a minute or two for the judges to choose four semifinalists, and there is no discussion.

Stalling as the survivors pair off again and prepare to battle, Intel works the crowd. "Who owns Rawkus Records?" he shouts, balling up a Rawkus T-shirt to throw to whoever can answer correctly. Intel has spent many hours over the past weeks organizing sponsorship for the event from companies like the Triple Five Soul clothing company, Barbara's Bookstore (where he works), and Shure, whose needle cartridges are endorsed by famous DJ crews like the X-ecutioners and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz.

The sponsors are not essential to the event, but they do add an element of prestige, and for a small battle like this, they mean better prizes--gift certificates, equipment, clothes, and so forth. In return, all that's expected are token gestures, like a banner or a company name on the flyer. "Of course," says Greg Riggs, aka Greg Needlz, a marketing specialist for phonograph products at Shure, "the more prestigious the event, the more we'll want out of it."

Someone shouts out "Rupert Murdoch," whose son James owns Rawkus. The shirt flies into the crowd.

Zero, a smooth-faced 17-year-old from North Chicago (not to be confused with Vanilla Ice's DJ Zero), steps up to the turntables following a harsh phrase from his opponent, DJ Is-Real: "Why mess with a brother who once slept with your girl?" The countdown starts, and he cranks up a wall of distortion. He instantly begins to modulate it, using the speed controls on the turntable, and etches out the melody to "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," filling the spaces between notes with scratched rhythms from his left hand. He appears to have at least three arms. The crowd flips out. Zero finishes his routine smiling, and even Is-Real nods respectfully.

Turntablism can be more like classical music than jazz, even though it's largely improvised, in that there are things that can go wrong which can't be recovered from, and which can ruin the performance. This is what happens to Toadstyle, who loses a coin toss and goes first in the penultimate DJ battle. His pacing is off from the start, and at the end of his time he throws his hands in the air in surrender. His opponent, Kico, a 22-year-old from West Chicago, shows no mercy, at one point putting his own hands in the air to let both records play a split second apart from each other in perfectly alternating beats. He ends his performance with a ferocious drum 'n' bass flourish.

The treatises hailing sampling as the musical medium for the next century have already have been written, consumed, and left behind by the arbiters of taste, and those who wet their pants over fads like acid jazz are already hiding the stain. But turntablism--whose forefathers include John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer as well as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash--persists, perhaps because its only limitation is the use of the turntable as an instrument. This allows for as much stylistic deviation as the use of guitar, if not more. But it's not clear how, say, Canadian scrape-and-skronk master Martin Tetreault or Japanese sound artist Otomo Yoshihide would have fared in the First Bi-Annual Midwest Turntablist Competition, where the overwhelming aesthetic is still hip-hop, and stunts like Zero's "Old MacDonald" goof are big crowd pleasers.

In the finals, Kico is up first, but it appears he's already peaked. He delivers a less than stunning performance with only a couple of brief highlights, and as Zero cues up his final records with surgical precision, the crowd is already on his side. He takes the gleaming purple first-place trophy with a flawless set that transcends last round's potboiler. This time he concentrates on his unbelievably fast and irregular scratching; his scrambling of beats and phrases reaches psychedelic proportions but remains funky and stylish, never dwindling into a bland technical display. The kid is making music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.

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