All That Scratchings Making Me Bitch

Scratch barely scratches the surface

Scratch answers one burning pop-trivia question: Which Herbie Hancock sideman launched a musical movement? Give up? It was none other than Grandmixer DXT. When he dropped the zigga-zigga-zigga scratching noise in Hancock's 1984 hit "Rockit," hundreds of kids across the world rushed out, bought turntables and built the alternative to mainstream rap: turntablism.

Turntablism, with all apologies to the Minutemen, is scientist rock. It's a nation of extra-nerdy guys, most packing all the fashion sense of flabby video-game addicts, who caressed and throttled turntables until they turned into musical instruments. Their new sounds helped create an anti-star scene with its own dense aesthetics, politics and spirituality.

Since it's too geeky and artsy for MTV, turntablism should easily be condemned to obscurity—which is exactly what most of these DJs and their obsessive fans desire, better to keep the tourists out. Scratchwon't bust this music out of the underground, but it gives it an accessibility and a dignity that folks boogying down to Ja Rule and Eminem didn't see the first time around.

Like many documentaries, there are a lot of talking heads ruminating, but Scratch injects flavor into the interviews by occasionally slowing and speeding the film, a visual take on the music's scratching. At first novel and then annoying, it's a good segue into the scene's origins, the hip-hop culture of the Bronx, where such DJs as Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay once held the same marquee value as MCs.

These veterans, like Bambaataa clad in Sun Ra garb, point to a betrayal early in the music's history. As hip-hop became more popular, record companies and fans put MCs front and center, and DJs were given a choice: support the rapper or make your own music in your bedroom.

Fortunately, many DJs told the rappers to fuck off and created a sound that fans would contend has all the artistic intent of bebop jazz and detractors would say is as boring as any pyrotechnic wank of an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo.

While the history lesson takes place in NYC, most of the DJs interviewed work on the West Coast, where the music isn't entirely a ghetto or even a black art form. It's a multiracial scene existing in a solidly middle-class and bohemian milieu.

The suburban, West Coast backdrop could have been a big yawner if it weren't for the mad skills and the imagination these cats bring to the music. Q-Bert, the acknowledged master of this world, handles the turntables with the fury and grace of Bruce Lee. DJ Shadow makes contagious the nirvana DJs feel digging through stacks of vinyl. Mix Master Mike demonstrates turntablist techniques on a Robert Johnson record and creates a completely new sonic world in the grooves of an old blues song.

The intensity and talent these DJs bring to their art is often like a mutant version of young classical musicians vying for a spot in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. While the DJs are saved by their funky sense of humor and sheer inventiveness, the movie stumbles by avoiding some of the tough questions. Is turntablism obsessive wankdom? Is it condemned to remain obscure? The answers are, respectively, sometimes and perhaps. The DJs most likely would have given great answers to these questions. Too bad the filmmakers didn't give them the chance.

Scratch was directed and edited by Doug Pray; produced by Brad Blondheim and Ernest Meza. Now playing at the Landmark Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379; the Scratch Tour featuring Dilated Peoples, Mix Master Mike, The Original Jazzy Jay, Grand Wizard Theodore and Z-Trip at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Thurs., March 7, 7:30 p.m. $29. All ages; 16 and under must be accompanied by an adult 18+.

 
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