Published Jun 01, 2004In 1997, Montreal DJ A-Trak participated in the DMC World Championships for the first time. He was crowned World Champion, and in that instant, he changed the face of turnablism in Canada. He was 15 years old. "There's something about [ground-breaking X-Executioners DJ] Roc Raida or [three-time world champion] Craze that doesn't allow you to put yourself in their shoes," A-Trak says now. "I was this 15-year-old kid people saw me and thought If he can do it, I can do it.' I hope I helped people realise that you don't have to be from this crew or that city to win."
In the years that followed, Canadians have found themselves in the top ten of turntablists in the world regularly in the top three. At last year's competition alone, Toronto's DJ Dopey won the World Championship and M-Rock placed second in the Supremacy (head to head) battle and, with his T-dot crew the Funky Teknicianz, placed third in team competition.
The art of the scratch DJ an integral element of hip-hop culture has come into its own since the DMC organisation first started hosting battles in 1986. No longer a showcase for the most elaborate scratching and attention-grabbing body tricks, turntablism has evolved into a musical art form that happens to spring from two turntables and a mixer.
"There's more flow today," says Chris Kendall, DMC Canada's Branch Manager, who helps organise 15 different elimination heats across Canada to determine a line-up for the national finals (more than any other country). "In the old days, you would have a routine that would compartmentalise your skills scratching or beat juggling or whatever. Now it's more much more musical. DJs are using their six minutes to create a song."
While there are still DJs world-wide who make a good living showcasing their turntable trickery, now more than ever, battles are a transition into a broader life in music. A-Trak, who no longer competes, is now working as a hip-hop producer, while Canada's most famous turntable artist, Kid Koala, has evolved his routines into an artful mash of scratch-based production. Even last year's big success stories, like Dopey or M-Rock, have their eye on collaborations or studio-based productions.
The showcase provided by the DMC Championships (and others like them world-wide) gives these artists their first taste of a larger music community a fundamental motivation for DMC's Chris Kendall. "I'm trying to find that kid with a set-up in his bedroom who's never been heard. There's another 14-year-old A-Trak out there we just have to find them."
Each DJ profiled here brings his own take on the scene the wisdom of A-Trak, the showmanship of Skratch Bastid or the ambition of Buddhakutz. Their different perspectives highlight the diversity of the Canadian scene, but also its health as A-Trak inspired Dopey, so will another bedroom scratcher picture himself taking the stage at a future international DMC competition and walking off as Canada's latest World Champion.
The Elder Statesman
To call DJ A-Trak the old man of the Canadian DJ battle scene seems absurd at his age, but this Montreal DJ, only now in his early 20s, set the bar in his mid-teens. A scratch DJ since 1995, he won the DMC World Championship in 1997, announcing a new presence on the Canadian scene. But his impact has been felt internationally as well he's the only DJ to ever win all three major DJ battle titles: in addition to the DMC Worlds, he was crowned ITF Advancement World Champion in 1999 and 2000; and the Vestax Extravaganza World Championship in 1999 as well. He's learned to share as a member of Montreal up-and-comers Obscure Disorder and the turntablism crew the Allies, and he also helps run hip-hop label Audio Research.
What major changes have you noticed in the scene?
In the mid-90s it was kind of gimmicky and simple very quick. Somebody would kind of grab doubles of a certain record and bring it back fast and do certain body tricks, and one or two scratches. It was kind of fast-paced with not that much substance or structure. You had the odd guy here and there who had structure right from the start, but one thing that really changed during the last few years is people actually started structuring routines. There also started being certain standard tricks that everybody had to do to show they were up to par which was kind of a blessing and a nightmare. People started putting a lot more work into their orchestration, but at the same time, the emergence of certain standard tricks has made it very hard to sit through a whole battle you feel like you are watching Attack of the Clones. Everybody is doing the exact same thing.
What are you looking for when putting together one of your routines?
I just look for something that'll sound different compared to what I've already got, and something that will move a crowd. When I was battling, especially the first couple of years, it was all about "Is it technical enough?" But then I started realising that sometimes the crowd won't even realise that it's technical, and it became more like "Does it sound impressive?" Now that I'm not building these routines specifically for battles anymore, I'm not constrained to a two-minute set, for example, so I can stretch them out a bit more.
Where is turntablism closest to achieving its potential?
I think the recording aspect is where it's at right now. I think you could have someone who's jaded about seeing a scratch DJ live, but if you play him [Invisible Skratch Piklz DJ] D-Styles's album and see how good it sounds musically, it'll open a whole new door. That's why I'm so anxious to release my single and then my album, because I want the world to hear my take on this thing.
The Defending Champ
As the reigning DMC World Champion, DJ Dopey has been focused on keeping his battle skills tight, but this Toronto-based DJ and member of the Turntable Monkz has been branching out in the last few years providing percussion on the turns for jazz ensembles, DJing with punk-hop band Dead Celebrity Status (formerly Project Wyze), and contributing to the new album from Frank N Dank. Though there isn't yet a release date for Dopey's first solo joint, DJ Dopey Presents Scratch Works Vol. 1, it's sure to showcase his impressive skills as well as his burgeoning musicality.
How has the scene changed since you started?
It's gotten more complex and it's more about the music. Back when I started [in 1995] it was more about showmanship and body tricks and [pioneers the Invsibl Skratch Picklz] were just getting the musical element out into turntablism.
How does Canada's scene compare with other places in the world?
It has evolved from one or two crews to the whole city. In Toronto, everyone I know is somewhat of a DJ. People have just taken in aspects of both the East coast (beat juggling) and the West coast (scratching). In Canada, we seem to be very well-rounded and to be influenced by more than just, say, the X-Ecutioners and the Piklz people within our own country like Turnstylez, A-Trak and Kid Koala.
How does being a member of the Turntable Munkz influence your creative process?
You need the crew to support you and to allow you to progress at the same time. When you are not in competition with other crews and DJs you are in competition with your own crew and they lead you to progress and get better.
What are your own influences?
My influences are more about musical taste. Although I am influenced by other DJs like [2002 World DMC champ] Kentaro and A-Trak, I try to get outside influences too, so that I am not so turntables-y and I can develop my own style.
Do you feel that Canada is getting respect on an international scale?
I think it always did, with Turnstylez coming out of Toronto and representing Canada. I think they always gained that recognition for Canada and it continued on with myself, and [Funky Teknicianz DJ] Jr-Flo and others. But I always thought that Canada got its props because we always did come kind of different and kind of original.
Many have criticized turntablism for being too repetitive. What is your take on this?
It can be repetitive and it has been, but I think it is getting a little bit better. It is not as redundant as it would be in a competition. People that are out there and competing seem to be doing different things and not straight redundant patterns.
The Team Player
Despite his success at last year's international DMC competition, M-Rock is not competing this year. "After that battle, I felt really satisfied. The whole game isn't as inspiring to me as it was a few years ago." The 25-year-old DJ recognises that turntablism is a young person's game "to be a battle DJ, you have to be at it every day for at least an hour, that's minimal" and is now reassessing his place in a larger music context, including with whom he wants to create. "On stage alone, you're responsible for everything that comes out of the speaker, but when you join a team, like a band, it allows you to show how different styles can create one sound. It's like the Skratch Piklz they're great on their own, but bring them together, and it's one of the best examples of what this scene has to offer." His Funky Teknicianz cohorts are similarly spread out: Biskit is on a hiatus while Jr-Flo butters his bread spinning at large dance clubs in the T-dot.
Do you think Canada is getting the respect it deserves?
I think it gets more respect than we often think. It's hard to judge our reputation while living in Toronto because sometimes our crowds get spoiled by seeing so much talent so frequently. I think Canadians are mainly overlooked because of the industry in Canada for rap.
From a technical standpoint, how have routines evolved through the years?
It hasn't evolved over the years and that's the problem! You could go to a battle in the summer of 99 and notice tremendous improvement on techniques, musicality, etc. only one month later. Today, when you walk into a battle, everyone sounds like a beginner or like someone who just doesn't want to spend time thinking of something creative or original.
Is anything lost when we have faders that ease in process?
Yes! People have gotten less hungry to experiment because the education can be handed down so much easier. I think technology hit a point where DJs could do anything they wanted.
What skills do you find that DJs today do not spend enough time mastering?
All of them mainly beat juggling. I think there is a lack of attention to skill but my main focus would be musicality, performance and originality. I expect a lot from this wicked style of entertainment.
What are you looking for when you are putting together one of your routines?
I try to avoid what other people are doing, such as the easiest ideas to pull-off. I look for records that simply sound good when I mess with them, yet they offer something new to create something with. I also try to think of musical techniques and styles that people haven't fully explored or even thought of at all. I can't forget to mention that my expression is key in the direction in which the routine progresses.
Is competitive turntablism less interesting today?
Unfortunately. It feels like the professionals have all graduated from the circuit, leaving behind people that, by majority, are less familiar with hip-hop music, its connection to other kinds of music and the principles behind battling. The only good thing I could say about turntablism today is that most crowds are peaceful, making it easy to execute without hostility.
If you could change anything, what would it be?
I would encourage people to learn about hip-hop culture, its evolution and relate it to the characteristics of the battle scene circa 1991 to 2001. Watching a battle today makes me feel like most people are ignorant about whether or not they are pushing the art form.
Most DJs come up with mentors, crews, and a scene that's cut a path in the snow ahead, but for Halifax DJ Skratch Bastid, it's been a lonely rise. Not only has he dominated regional competition in the last few years, but he's risen to a position of prominence on the national scene and is ready to step to the next level. He's joined in the 1200 Hobos crew by some notable East coast alums, like Buck 65 and Sixtoo, but he's best known around Hali as the go-to DJ to bring the party vibe. He's delighted as much for his outrageous performance style as his skills on the decks, but the crowd-pleasing showman is heads-down about breaking through in '04.
Can you recall a specific moment that influenced your decision to pick up DJing?
When I saw DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on the Grammys and Jeff was cutting up "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock. Later I saw DJ Scratch of EPMD on BET, doing his "Scenario" routine. As I got more involved I checked out some Invisibl Skratch Piklz videos and from there anything I could get my hands on.
What skills did you find the hardest to learn initially?
Beat juggling. At first you think it's all about scratching, because that is the most visually attractive trick. But you have to take it back to how it all started, with "breaking" records: keeping a certain groove of a record going as long as you want by repeating it on two records over and over again. "Beat juggling" is essentially re-arranging sounds in a song and repeating that re-arrangement in a musical way, so as to sound like you are "breaking" the re-arrangement. Once I learned that it all made sense.
Being a small-market DJ, do you find yourself at a disadvantage?
There are usually fewer DJs around, so there are fewer people to bounce your ideas off of. But lots of things can inspire creativity. Sometimes you are at a disadvantage to competitors from bigger markets because chances are they've been battling amongst each other, but that also gives you the chance to approach the competition from a different angle, rather than a representation of a local pissing contest.
Do you find that the advent of new technology takes anything away from the culture of turntablism?
There is a lot lost when a DJ doesn't learn the basics. I had to go back and learn older styles and it was worth it. I was caught by the "flare" of the crab but then realised that Jazzy Jeff was making less flashy looking cuts sound amazing back in 88, so I had better learn more about that first before learning more advanced cuts. A lot of people take the warp whistle to level 7 before they know if the can beat levels 2 through 6.
The Next Generation
Toronto DJ Buddhakutz hopes to be the next breakthrough DJ on the Canadian scene and he took his first step by winning the elimination round in Thunder Bay last year, repeating the feat this year. (It's an unfortunate glitch in the DMC process that allows DJs to travel to less-competitive cities in order to qualify.) This self-described "scratch nerd" and former member of the SkratchMatikz crew tries to bring an old school hip-hop vibe to his routines.
What skill or skills did you find the hardest to learn initially?
Beat juggling. Scratching came to me quick, mostly because I was chillin' every day with three other DJs that were learning, same as me. We fed off each other and pushed ourselves to be better.
How have routines evolved through the years?
It started off as being real grimy and all about disses and body tricks, and now its more about putting together a real musical set. It's a lot harder to get the audience to go "wow" these days, so DJs have to make routines that, in my opinion, are hard as fuck to pull off. It's all about being creative, so if a DJ finds a new way to get sounds from turntables and a mixer, they will show it off.
Do you find that being in the company of so many turntablists in Toronto helps you?
When I first started, being in Toronto was definitely key. I was always going to shows and battles, learning what I could. Now I don't really follow what others are doing in the scene. I don't wanna sound like them, I wanna sound like me, so I do what I want. I still watch old battle videos, because they remind of why I love turntablism so much, but I don't get that feeling from watching new guys They don't have the magic touch. I wanna bring that back.
Who do you think will be the next Canadian DJs to make noise at the international level?
Tablists like Wundrkut out of BC and DJ Mana from Montreal, or Skratch Bastid from Halifax. They are all real dope DJs. Canada has some great talent, the world just needs to listen.
With additional research by Rehan Mirza