While turntablism is no longer "the next big thing," it has managed to maintain its revolutionary spirit. In the past year, DJs have crossed over from
pop music's margins to its mainstream (e.g., Billy Ray Cyrus' DJ Spinbad or
Mixmaster Mike of the Beastie Boys), yet turntablists have remained
Om Records' Deep Concentration (1997) was one of the first major
compilations of turntablism, and the fact that it's only a year old suggests
how new this hip-hop offshoot is on the musical map. Building on this
foundation, Om now gives us the sequel, Deeper Concentration. While
MCs have their moments in the spotlight on this album, it's the hands
working the turntables that get top billing -- and for good reason.
Deeper Concentration offers a peek into several schools of
turntabling, each with its own technique and aesthetic.
One of the most creative and entertaining is composed by found-sound hounds
-- DJs who scour dusty bins of vinyl for soundbites and samples to
throw into their mix. For example, Sole & JC start off the compilation
with "What It Is," in which they adapt an old "Alice In Wonderland" storybook
record as the screenplay for their four-minute sonic short. To the
eccentricity of Lewis Carroll's original story, Sole & JC add their own
touch of eclecticism, scoring the narrative with scattered drum-breaks and
quirky sound-splices. Like the White Rabbit bounding through Wonderland,
Sole & JC create a song full of elusive musical moments that jump in and
out in the blink of an ear. And they do so to rapturous effect.
Rob Swift composes "The Age of Television" -- a
50-year retrospective on the ubiquity of television in our lives. Using
samples from the past half-century of television, he juxtaposes bits from
JFK's speeches alongside banter from "The Howdy Doody Show." Swift isn't
just a casual practitioner of pastiche, however -- he chooses some of the
most memorable and dramatic moments in television history in order to jog
listeners' visual memories as well as their sonic ones.
What these songs -- and many more from Deeper Concentration --
suggest is that the technological revolution might actually be
reversing itself when it comes to turntablism. In contrast to the
sampling fetishes that folks like DJ Shadow and Spooky indulge in, these
DJs have rejected the automation of samplers for the manual simplicity of
turntables. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the increasing
sophistication of orchestrated scratch routines. The Scratch Perverts'
"Course of Action" and the Beat Junkies' "They Don't Understand" are both
superior examples of how to write and arrange songs through scratching
Particularly on "They Don't Understand," DJs Babu and J-Rocc make
their four hands sound like 12 in transforming old soul records and other
assorted vinyl into drum tracks, brass sections and vocals. The two
build tension throughout the song with precision cutting and repeated
scratch phrases, only to explode on the choruses and then break it all back
down during the bridge.
These are songs, not just beats with scratching
over them. With just their hand-play, the Beat Junkies make a strong
statement that, even in our digital age, analog isn't obsolete.