The DJ is the custodian of aural history.
—Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky
The turntables first captured my attention while I was a graduate student in composition, after a frustrating period of experimentation with music software. The studio methods that I had been taught seemed disconnected from any direct physical interaction with the sounds. I had a hunger for a more hands-on relationship with my music in performance, and I was tired of only sitting in the audience when my compositions were played. Above all, I was assimilating many new musical interests, including underground hip-hop, dub reggae, African drumming, and sample-based electronica. My composition teacher at the time, Mario Davidovsky, opposed the use of “trance-inducing rhythm” on ideological grounds. In these circumstances, my development proceeded independently through listening sessions and political conversations with a non-musician friend who exposed me to hip-hop DJing and encouraged me to channel my musical background into new forms. My last compositions as a graduate student gradually synthesized my developing interests, as I began to sample my acoustic compositions in new rhythmic frameworks, creating hybrid hip-hop instrumentals and practicing in my bedroom on a Gemini DJ-in-a-Box set of turntables. A few months after completing my dissertation, I composed the first piece in which I was able to perform with the turntables onstage, scratching sounds that I myself had recorded. There has been no turning back.
While turntablism and its impact on the growth of hip-hop is well documented and recognized within popular culture, the turntables have not received much notice in musical academia. Composers trained in music programs since the 1990s are likely to view the turntables as musical exoticism: an instrument that is not really “of” the musical culture in which they are writing, but possibly available for flirtation within a composition or two. Through this article, I hope to introduce my fellow composers and other students of music to an instrument with great expressive potential and a history of innovation.
The main historical perspective that I will be sharing is that of turntablism as it has evolved within hip-hop. The techniques and history of the turntables in techno and other forms of electronic dance music will not be explored here, as their performance practices are more particular to the demands of the dance floor. In techno and related genres of dance music, the turntables are used primarily as mixing tools, usually focusing on smooth transitions, gradual timbre changes, and shaping a long development of musical energy through the layering of various loops in the same tempo. By contrast, turntablism will be defined here as synonymous with “scratch DJing”: viewing the turntables as an instrument to create new sounds, rhythmically defined by the performer, often transforming the source samples beyond recognition. Scratching can create an instrumental voice capable of adapting to a wide variety of musical environments. Open to any type of sound material, and containing infinite rhythmic possibilities, turntablist techniques should be of interest to composers in many different styles beyond hip-hop.
Beyond providing a basic grounding in turntablist history, this article aims to give composers an overview of musically relevant features found on the turntable and mixer. Common scratch techniques will be described, along with some extended possibilities connected with digital DJ technology. I will discuss a few approaches to notation for turntables, and finally leave you with some listening suggestions and a mix of some of my favorite artists.