UC Berkeley Mixes Turntablism Into Its Curriculum

Pass/fail course in art of disc jockey sound manipulation led by two students who also work as DJs.

BERKELEY, Calif. -- First, young DJs began scratching records out in the streets for fun and as a form of expression.

From there, they took their vinyl into the recording studio, to the dance halls, and even set up competitions to see who was the best in the world at making music by syncopating scratches and beats.

Now, two young DJs who want to share their talent with aspiring disc jockeys have brought the art of spinning records into the college classroom. From the famous University of California at Berkeley -- which brought you last year's class on the poetry of slain gangsta-rapper Tupac Shakur -- comes a pass/fail course on turntablism: the art of disc jockey sound-sculpture.

"It was basically a very introductory class on the theory behind mixing and concepts," said course co-founder Rodney Sino-Cruz -- a 20-year-old political science major from Los Angeles who spins records under the name DJ Icewater.

Entitled simply "Turntablism," the two-unit course, which meets once a week for two hours, recently wrapped its first semester at the famous San Francisco Bay Area university that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement of the '60s. The course was spearheaded by two third-year students who are also DJs. Their stated mission was to instruct budding mixers in the finer points of turntable manipulation.

Sino-Cruz and the course's co-creator -- 20-year-old Micah Muroaka, a.k.a. DJ Mpact -- said that the aim was to teach young DJs fundamentals, such as mixing two different records and synching up the crucial BPMs (beats per minute) of unrelated songs. "We saw a lot of DJs trying to do tricks right away and ignoring the fundamentals," Sino-Cruz explained, "and Micah and I saw that as a problem."

The 20-student class, organized through the university's music school, was part of a program at UC Berkeley that allows students to teach courses based on their interests. The DECAL (Democratic Education at CAL) program has included such offbeat offerings as: "Mafia: An American Obsession," "The Simpsons: Satire of Postmodern Life and Culture" and "Appreciation of Cult Rock and Roll."

In September, 20-year old molecular- and cell-biology major Arvand Elihu launched a two-credit course entitled "History 98: the Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur." It drew an overflow crowd of students eager to study the written works of the popular gangsta rapper, who was gunned down in an unsolved murder in 1996.

As with all classes in the program, Sino-Cruz and Muroaka had to find a faculty advisor and convince the head of DECAL that their course had academic merit. Despite other DECAL courses as unusual as theirs, Sino-Cruz said he and Muroaka had a difficult time getting approval from the head of the program. "We were unofficial for the first five weeks," Sino-Cruz recalled. "We were basically doing it for fun until we got our [faculty sponsor] to explain it to the DECAL board."

Surprisingly, Sino-Cruz said the DECAL board didn't think the course was progressive enough. "It's not like you can open a phone book and take a DJ class," joked Sino-Cruz, who is affiliated with the Los Angeles-based DJ crew the Motivators.

The San Francisco Bay Area has been significant in the growth and nurturing of turntablist culture. The region is recognized for spawning globally recognized DJs, including two-time world champion DJ Vinroc (born Vincent Punsalan), Peanut Butter Wolf (born Chris Manak) and the Invisbl Skratch Piklz turntablist crew. The latter have given voice to DJ culture with such songs as "Damn You Skratchy" (RealAudio excerpt).

"There was never any problem with the 'conventionality' of the turntable class," wrote DECAL director Murray Powers in an e-mail. "Diverse and unconventional is what we do. It was, in fact, a rather pedestrian offering in terms of subject."

Considering that the birth of turntable culture began in the late '70s/early '80s, the course was far from controversial, according to Powers. The problem, he said, was that the pair had not submitted a syllabus or a course description in time. "Now ... they are about as unconventional as a Big Mac," Powers said.

Once they hatched the idea for the class, Sino-Cruz and Muroaka solicited reaction on the Internet from hip-hop fans. "A bunch of people said they thought it was unethical to teach DJing," Sino-Cruz said, "like, 'You need to pay your dues -- no one taught [pioneering hip-hop disc jockey] Grandmaster Flash how to DJ.' Or, 'Why do you want to teach rich university kids how to DJ?' "

But there were supportive voices, too. They heard encouraging words from a DJ who has been running a similar, but more advanced course for two years at Vassar College in upstate New York.

So, Sino-Cruz said, he and Muroaka have decided to continue the course for as long as they are at UC Berkeley.

"Our only problem is that we only have two sets of turntables," Sino-Cruz lamented. "So a lot of the students have the concepts down, but they can't really practice that much."