Did you know that turntables are percussion instruments? Yep. Or that, more and more, dedicated DJs prefer to be called “turntablists”? After all, DJs just spin records. Turntablists spin them backward, forward, slower, faster, often with their eyes closed, and sometimes even with their noses.
But mainstreaming has reduced hiphop culture to its most accessible form. Some elements have been eliminated completely: The last time you heard a DJ cutting on a Jay-Z record it was probably just the “scratch” function on a synthesizer. These days, DJs are fighting to assert not only their existence but also the idea that their part of the art has evolved. You can do so much better with two tables and a mixer than by just blending records together.
Still, there are reasons why Funkmaster Flex and the fellas down at D.C. Live and Republic Gardens prefer to just spin records together. Mixing promotes continuous dancing. Too much cutting, scratching, and, especially, beat juggling discourage almost all audience participation—as evidenced by the two young, untalented b-boys dancing in vain at the rear of Nation last Wednesday night as the X-Ecutioners performed. The boys were dancing, but not on beat; they seemed completely oblivious to the rhythms pounding in the speakers.
The X-Ecutioners—left to right, Mista Sinista, Total Eclipse, Roc Raida, and Rob Swift—launched the show with a barrage of rhythm, all four cutting at once, all eight tables in action. It was loud and angry, like a Public Enemy song, but I really couldn’t tell what the hell was going on. My friend DJ Madness tried explaining it to me: Each X-Ecutioner was controlling one or two elements on a different record to create a single pattern. One of them had the bass line on his turntable; another was backspinning the snares; and so on. The creation was so cohesive that it sounded as if it had been recorded together. It was quite impressive—once you knew what you were looking at, and if you could look at it. I couldn’t help but wonder why DJ exhibitions do not come with those overhead monitors, like cooking shows.
Indeed, for a great deal of the time the audience seemed to be staring up at the X-Ecutioners dumbfounded. The crowd jumped up and down and cheered whenever one of the DJs would throw on a record to begin a new routine, but usually because the record was familiar. Everybody went crazy for Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker M.C.’s” and Rob Base’s “It Takes Two”—but before the DJs had even done anything to them. The excitement died down considerably when the juggling began.
And, oh, a beat juggle is when the DJ uses a record on each table, sometimes two different songs but usually doubles of the same, and creates an entirely different pattern or beat. At the X-Ecutioners’ skill level, this practice can be incredibly complex, with DJs fading rapidly between tables, spinning each record back to multiple points, and even adjusting the pitch control from moment to moment to generate different “tones.” The spontaneous pattern can be maintained only for a short time, and not without flaws, so nodding your head to the rhythm is difficult and dancing is out of the question. A smooth beat juggle is one of the hardest maneuvers a turntablist can pull off, yet the better he does it, the simpler it appears. So most of this subtlety was lost on an audience that only saw a flurry of hands.
After a while, the act settled down a little. The X-Ecutioners took to the stage separately and demonstrated their individual skills and specialties.
“Those are crabs, right?” I asked Madness as Swift launched into some deft, warp-speed scratching.
Madness nodded. I felt rather proud of myself. A “crab” is a particularly fluid way of working the cross-fader on a mixer with all five fingers. The result kind of looks like a crab walking. It was a term that I’d picked up from hanging around these turntable types. You can learn a lot from DJs.
I turned to my friend Steve and asked him how he thought they were doing.
“It’s so hard to tell,” he replied. I’d seen Steve at a battle in Richmond under the name DJ Slipknot, but I much preferred watching him on the turntables in his apartment. Most DJs are better up close.
Turntablism, in its quiet evolution, has become so intricate and specialized that it is difficult to translate—even visually—to an audience that barely even knows how scratching works. With anything hiphop becoming a hot commodity, record labels are starting to look at signing big-name DJ crews, like the X-Ecutioners and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. Once recorded, however, turnablism loses at least half the dynamics it barely manages at shows.
Through experience, Raida, Eclipse, Swift, and Sinista have at least learned to focus the audience’s attention. All throughout the routines they gave direct, though somewhat silly, physical cues such as nodding, smiling broadly, and pointing at themselves and the equipment to let you know that something neat was about to happen.
The X-Ecutioners had also come armed with an arsenal of crowd-pleasing body tricks. First they formed a circle behind the tables as one started a scratch. They then rotated counterclockwise, passing off the tables. As each one stepped up, he added a new detail to the pattern, as if playing a sonic game of telephone. Later on, Sinista was facing away from the tables, leaning backward, working the cross-fader with the small of his back while Swift was standing over him cutting L.L. Cool J’s “Rock the Bells.” And, of course, there was speed. Lightning-fast, hand-over-hand scratching never failed to elicit a respectable number of oohs and ahhs.
Rahzel followed the X-Ecutioners, but it was never quite clear who was headlining. Rahzel’s first mistake was the way he started his set. Instead of coming right out, he let his DJ “warm up” the crowd. In other words, he followed the four-man, world-renowned X-Ecutioners with a lesser man doing more of the same. Rahzel is a marginal rapper at best, forgettable as a solo artist. He is most widely known as the human beatbox for the Roots, devising beats and sound effects with his mouth. On stage, Rahzel’s vocal hi-jinks have a vaudeville quality, almost like parlor tricks. The audience clapped as he mimicked kung-fu-flick scenes and stomped around the stage bleeping and whirring like a Japanimated robot, but by the time he got around to doing aural covers of popular R&B songs, the act was getting tired. CP