Turntablism is the art of making a record player into a musical instrument. Its needle is to a deck technician what a plectrum is to a guitar player – something capable of producing utterly unique, on-the-fly sounds that exist only in that moment. To master the art is to defy logic, to bedazzle audiences and to do things with sound that most mortals cannot even dream of. It’s something that requires hundreds of hours of practice, and is an art that keeps on evolving with every passing year.
In simple terms, turntablists manipulate records with one hand and drop the needle on specific cue points with the other. By spinning the platter backwards and forwards they can cut up and edit, slow down, speed up or spin back records in an instant, all while flashing the cross-fader back and forth in a blur, tweaking gains and flipping EQ levels to produce improvised sounds and even while new remixes of tunes as they go. The art builds on the traditional beat matching skills of a DJ with scratching and beat juggling to create rhythmic accompaniments, breaks, beat loops, vocal stabs and an infinity of other things besides.
Turntablism was only really made possible with the advent of direct-drive turntables, whose platers are much more immediately responsive to manipulation. The Technics SL-1100 quickly became the industry standard after release in 1971, and was a firm favourite of hip hop artists such as Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa who relied upon it as they developed the earliest scratching techniques, while Kool Here invented break-beat DJing on the same piece of gear.
By 1985, turntablism made its way to the masses thanks to its prevalence in hip hop tracks, videos and live shows and the DMC Championships was born. Designed as a way of celebrating the culture and furthering the art, DMC Founder and Director Tony Prince explains how it came about…
“In 1983 we launched DMC as a club DJ subscription service, sending people pre-produced mixes and remixes and our magazine, Mixmag, then later a weekly Mixmag Update its the all important Buzz Chart. This led to a DMC DJ Convention in London at the newly opened Hippodrome featuring our first DJ contest, which was won by Londoner Roger Johnson.”
He adds that a crucial event that helped shape the now iconic DMC Championships was when a DJ visiting from Sweden asked to demonstrate a sampler and did a live mix of Human League‘s ‘Don’t You Want Me‘. “DJ remixing began from that point, which lead on to scratching and all the other elements and techniques available to DJs. Another highlight that year was a young Whitney Houston making her first live appearance, meaning 1000 DJs went home inspired and wired!”
That first showcase sure captured the imagination and started a fire that still burns bright today. Within three years the DMC Championship was so successful it moved to the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London and saw superstar visitors such as James Brown, Public Enemy, Run DMC and Janet Jackson all coming to see the action for themselves.
1998 World DJ Mixing Championship Finals
James Brown at DMC
Turntable tricks continued to grow ever more expressive and inventive with the emergence of props, body tricks and a variety of scratching techniques – some DJs scratched with bicycles and even kitchen sinks, while Chad Jackson used a billiard cue and an American football to help him become the 1987 Champion. “I will always cherish seeing DJ David from Germany standing a deck on a deck with coke-cans, and then climbing on top, his body spinning round and round like a record to thunderous applause,” remembers Tony.
In the years since, the venues have changed, the crowds have grown, and the skills have got ever more breathtaking. Never more so was that the case than when a young A-Trak won his first Championship aged just 15. It was also the first time he had ever entered a competition, and was only two years after he first ever touched a deck. “I was just listening to hip hop and would hear scratching on records, so I tried it and happened to figure out a lot of tricks by myself,” he remembers of how he started, adding that it was only years later that he realised how much he sacrificed back then to spend time practising.
A-Trak (Canada) – DMC World Champion 1997 – Winning Set
Looking to greats like DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Jazzy Jeff, but also Q-Bert, Roc Raida, Mixmaster Mike, Babu, a young A-Trak practiced many hours per day, every day, all the time, and had supportive parents who travelled with him to Italy for that first ever battle. “I’m still able to do the old routines, I just need to remember them sometimes, but even that comes back to me because it’s mostly muscle memory.”
These days no longer competing but still DJing all around the world – and serving up killer tunes like his new one with Friend Within on Toolroom, A-Trak continues to draw on the skills he perfected all those years ago. “I still scratch at every show and do a lot of tricks,” he says. “But it’s the presentation that is different. Rather than packing six minutes of condensed tricks, I sprinkle them across a set.”
Friend Within & A-Trak – Know Each Other
A-Trak reckons the key to mastering turntablism is a combination of technique, creativity, musicality and funk. “Anyone can practice a lot, it’s necessary, but it’s not what makes someone good. What makes someone good is how they stand out, it’s their signature style. So the part that cannot be learnt isn’t technical ability. I would actually say the part that cannot be taught is style. But it can be developed.”
He also remembers that being part of a community of like-minded nerds is what always appealed to him, though is keen to point out more should be done to get more women involved in competing. “It was always fun to catch up with each other at all these battles every year and see what crazy tricks everyone came up with. We were all pushing each other to get better all the time.”
A more recent superstar in the world of turntablism is France’s DJ Skillz, who has picked up the grand title for the last three years. He started DJing in 2005 after seeing a friend play and took early inspiration from greats like Qbert, D-Styles and Nétik. “I was very determined,” he says. “I would train eight or nine hours a day and was soon playing parties at a pub in Biarritz before making it to the final of the 2008 DMC France competition. Fast forward 10 years and he won his first big title with a mesmerising routine you can find online. Each one takes months of work and practice and sometimes it can take as much as a whole day to get just five seconds of a routine worked out.
“For my routines I’m inspired by a lot of things – the news, old songs, new songs. I don’t have themes or concepts or anything like that, I just do what I feel and each routine is different for me because of the period of my life I made them in. I don’t really get nervous, but waiting for the results is the worst when I’m playing.”
In these most strange times, DJ Skillz has used his deck knowledge to set up a turntablism camp back home with a friend, as well as continuing to make beats. “I’m very happy and very proud to make a threepeat of the DMC World Championship title, but to be honest with the Covid situation and not being on tour, it’s really confusing and weird to have won. I don’t know if I will defend my title again, will see,” he says, saying that right now he is working on his debut album.
The DMC Championships remains a big draw, and even managed to take place during the pandemic with a special online competition, which has now been going for three years and will expand to eight events across 2021. That said, the art of turntablism isn’t as widely spread now as it was during those early hip hop years. Tony has a theory for that. “The rappers took the piss with the DJs becoming the stars and leaving them behind instead of making them a focal part of their live team. A few used one DJ to provide their music track, but it didn’t last or expand as it could have had the rappers stopped being so self-obsessed. Anyone who saw France’s C2C four-ball win four years consecutively saw how a rapper could have created a global phenomenon working a team of DJs into their live tours. Money ruled rappers but there wouldn’t be rap if there weren’t DJs feeding them the beats.”
On the future of the championships and whether anyone as young as A-Trak will ever win again, Tony is confident. “For sure. There’s a 10 year old kid watching our videos right now who will come out fighting. We haven’t met him yet, but he’s eye-balling all the champ’s styles, ready to take on the world.”
For that reason, as well as the continued developments in technology, the DMC Championships will always remain as thrilling as they are relevant.