Turntables of Doom
At the MF Doom gig on Friday 1st April, DJ Sheep led a turntablist battle revival in Brisbane. Prior to this gig, there’d been words – DJ Butcher had posted “dude.. u know i’ll beat you on the decks.. ur an idiot..” on OzHipHop.com (24/03/2011). DJ Sheep, following the hip hop code he lives by, raised a challenge to battle on the decks. Unfortunately the challenge was turned down, so spectators only saw one side of the battle, but they left charged. I wasn’t there to see it in person, but I saw the video and on Sunday morning, DJ Sheep said on Ozhiphop.com, “I’ve never felt better in years after a gig, i got so many daps, and props from people, it felt like the old days again for once…”, so it sounded like it was a night to remember. The only way I could imagine it being better (in my head), is if there *had* been a battle, or if there had been two sounds (sound systems) on opposite sides of a fenced off outdoor basketball court or a Jamaican dance hall like back in the early days of hip hop DJ battles.
Kodwo Eshun, in his book “More Brilliant Than The Sun”, coined the term “Sonic Fiction” when writing about one of the pioneers of hip hop DJing, Grandmaster Flash, and his album “The Amazing Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”. I suggest that the turntablist battles could also be thought of as Sonic Fiction on multiple levels – in the sounds produced and performances of the actual turntablist set, and also in the stories behind the battles – in some case they’re personal, in other cases they’re for competition and showcase. In all cases, they are related to the DJs career and reputation. DJ Battles are the opposite of “Fight Club” – everybody (in the DJ community) talks about the battle, and the rules are set. DJ Sheep commented, “the hip-hop code is that when you call someone out or get called out, you either step up or admit defeat. if you say you’re better and back out, you’re reputation goes down the drain, that’s hip-hop. It’s been like that since the inception”.
Now back to the set – in traditional style, Sheep gave props to the fallen, shouting out RIP to Angus, Jeeps (750) and Sabre (BWP) before he started. Then he got down to business with his message explaining to the crowd that DJs used real records. “In the history of beef, it’s usually the Butcher that slaughters the Sheep, but today we’re going to see the Sheep slaughter the mutherfuckin’ Butcher”. Sheep then launched into his set – beat juggling, chirps, transform moves such as flares and orbits, and the crab. From the video, you can see a brick and sandbag on the table – DJ Sheep and Brisbane beat-maker Tigermoth highlighted the large springs in place of the table legs which caused the table to move around, and some skipping of the needles during Sheep’s set. I think the crowd probably wouldn’t have noticed this had it not be pointed out. In any case, Sheep took advantage of the moments and paused, giving space to his set and acknowledging the crowd. They gave him plenty of love in return.
It’s plain to see the passion with which Sheep performed his set, and from his practice set video recorded at home prior to the gig, you can see the ease at which he performs – it’s second nature to him – he has mastered the turntable as his instrument of choice, and can meld it into the sounds he wants to create. His work on the decks personifies the “conceptechnics” as coined by Eshun – “the decks have become a state of mind for the dj.”… “the turntable becomes a machine for building and melding mindstates from your record collection”. Sheep’s been DJing for the past 16 years or so, and has won multiple Qld DJ championships in the past (3xDMC, Technics Ultimate DJ Showdown, Stanton / Central Station DJ Competition) – his bio on djsheep.com is impressive. He’s regularly traveling and playing to large crowds overseas, and is likely Brisbane’s only “International DJ” now that Kazu Kimura has moved overseas (or “one of” at the very least.. I am not sure of the DJing passport statuses of Freestyle and Matt Kitshon these days..).
Sheep has also kept the digging tradition alive by finding records to sell for his business. As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton mention in their book “Last night a DJ Save my life” on the history of the DJ, “digging goes back to the noble role of the DJ as a record promoter and musical evangelist, rescuing forgotten songs by never-heard artists or long-forgotten producers”. DJ Shadow considers digging an “urban archaeology”. It is crucial for the DJ and turntablist to find the records and breaks that will give them the edge over the other DJs. It seems easier these days with the rise of the mp3 and internet search engine – almost anyone can do it, and the factors of time and place have almost been removed. This makes the traditional vinyl junkie getting “dusty in the crates” a rare and special creature – the limitations of place and availability of suitable records in nearby record stores and fairs means they need to be more creative, and knowledgeable with their selections than the modern internet digger who has website curators and search engines to help find and filter their music.
There are also comparisons to the “slow movement” with digging in the crates – giving time and personal energy to the exploration of sounds, and allowing synchronicity and the wonder and pleasure of physical discovery to come through and be acted upon. Digging on the internet can be more efficient time-wise for the busy post-modern hip hop DJ, who is, according to Brewster and Broughton, both “consumer and producer”. It can assist with researching artists and music, but it doesn’t allow for the “spaces between thoughts” and contemplation that physicality adds to the process. I think a combination of the two methods makes for a well rounded DJ these days. Following the search for sounds, DJs can add textures to the music in their sets and leave the crowds in awe, trainspotting to work out where that sound came from.
Brisbane’s been known for DJ battles in the past, with two other legends, DJ Angus/Bribe and The Masta often battling each other on the decks at various turntablist competitions in Brisbane in the 1990s and early 2000s. Turntablism seems to have waned a bit since the mid 2000s, which I for one think is a shame. The technology has changed – there’s now serato and similar DVS technologies being used in the clubs and even in the online DMC competition started in early 2011. So, there seems to be two camps – the ones who’d like to keep the craft pure and use vinyl-only for DJ battles, showcases and competitions, and others who are OK with allowing the new technology to be used. It will be interesting to see how things pan out. Eventually, every system has to evolve in order to continue – “life” being one example. But there’s also the revivalist movements who bring back the original skills and systems and continue the original craft.
As Hip Hop, and rap specifically, moved from the dancefloor and the streets, to the stadiums in the USA, some countries, such as Australia maintained the street feel with an Australian flavour. In a way, this was a revivalist movement of ‘keeping it real” and pure. The original heads started pure, and remained pure. As new generations merge in, some stay true to the roots of the culture, others change things and take advantage of new technologies. Perhaps it’s time for the local turntablists to hit the decks again and start practicing their skills with records – we might see some more local battles in the future, albeit vegetarian style, with less beef. We may even see some innovation creeping in again, with the combination of the two styles. From all reports, the crowds are definitely keen to see some battles. There was a lot of talk about this gig leading up to it. Brisbane’s DJ Kieron C said, “Looking forward to Doom & an old school battle royale tonight! Why can’t we have more battles at Hip Hop gigs?” which led to much agreement. It would be great to see a new batch of DJs learning from the original crews. Let’s see where this leads…
–-- by Kath O’Donnell / AliaK
April 5 2011
DJ Masta is up next