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DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore removes his sunglasses and clips them to a gold chain dangling from his neck, then glances down at a pair of Technics 1200 turntables. A few feet away, Waterbed Kevie Kev schools the crowd with a few morsels of hiphop history. Theodore looks oblivious to the impromptu classroom session. He flips a pair of headphones over his Yankees baseball cap and takes the A train to 1979. In those days, almost every MC christened his crew with outlandish adjectives. For Theodore, it was his Fantastic Five MCsa name now embedded in the minds of only the most die-hard of hiphop heads. Only a handful remember Theodore’s group, but almost any pop music fan knows the scratching technique he conjured up as a 12-year-old sonic whiz kid.
But this is a new year, and Theodore doesn’t compare to the typical DJ of ’98 the way he did to the DJ of ’78. The things kids can do with the tables now make even the grumpiest old-schoolers take notice. Theodore’s invention has been perfected beyond his grasp. But this is a small thing. After all, having authored hiphop music’s most recognizable sound, Theodore knows, as does the whole audience, that even if every bone in both his hands were broken, he’d still be entitled to bless the tables.
The 40-odd DJs in the audience are hoping that Theodore has blessed them with scores to qualify for the final round of the DMC DJ Competition. The annual competition brings together some of the country’s illest turntablists to battle for sonic supremacy. And for the first time, the regional contest is being held in D.C. (last Saturday at the Black Cat). “A lot of guys can’t travel to New York,” says Noodles, the competition’s local organizer. “D.C. gets to be the middle man.”
Theodore and a contingent of his old-school cohorts have come down to judge and host Washington’s heat. All of them are hiphop pioneers, but like much of the art of DJ-ing, they’ve fallen victims to rapdom’s fast-food mind-set and been banished to the back room. Among the competing DJs, only a select few recognize the old-schoolers before they’re formally introduced. But now, with the contestants’ fortunes hanging in their predecessors’ hands, the old-schoolers loom large.
During the nervous intermission, no hush quiets the crowd of social rejects from George Washington University and dreadlocked buppies-in-denial. Instead, when Theodore takes the stage, cats mill aimlessly about, some walking to the back of the Black Cat’s performance area, others copping a squat at the bar, drowning the wait in Heineken.
The first round has been nothing spectacular. Despite 10 or so serious forays, most of the contestants have come unprepared. They either don’t understand the nature of a DJ battle or they’re just artistically lazy, but a herd of them have given forgettable performances. It’s not surprising, given the size of the lineup. More than a few competitors, leaving complex scratching and beat juggling to the hotshots, simply take the stage and play a few records that they think the crowd will like. The mediocrity of the masses highlights the ingenuity of the truly possessed. When female DJ Cuttin Candya regional DMC winner who isn’t even in the contestoffers a quick demo during intermission, the horror of elimination dawns on the unprepared.
Dirty Handz, who’s made a name in D.C.’s underground, deftly strings together riffs from Jeru the Damaja and KRS-One to make the turntables recite his moniker. Baltimore’s DJ Technics cuts LL Cool J’s intro to “Rock the Bells” into a hundred different tonal pieces.
But right now, the gladiators have forgotten their performancesno matter how excruciating or enticingand are simply waiting for the tally from Theodore and his fellow judges.
Accompanying Theodore on his return from hiphop Valhalla are the Cold Crush Brothers’ Grandmaster Caz, the aforementioned Kevie Kev, and the Funky Four Plus One’s Jazzy Jeff. Caz is often cited as an influence by MCs such as Rakim. Jazzy Jeff bears the distinction of having placed his stamp on one of hiphop’s first classics”It’s the Joint.” Yet for all their mammoth contributions, all of them were forgotten by the audience within a decade of hiphop’s first record releasevictims of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately worldview. With the exiles went every element of hiphop, except the culture’s musical manifestationrap.
DJ-ing, an element of hiphop that predates rap, was once at its forefront. In the ’70s, when hiphop culture was coalescing, the whole point of an MC was to help the DJ rock the party. The MC existed as an extension of the DJit was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, not the other way around. Even as MCs moved into the limelight, they continued to make records in praise of the DJ. From Dimples D’s sparse “Sucker DJs” down to Public Enemy’s classic “Terminator X on the Edge of Panic,” the DJ was always given props. Artists like PE and Rakim even had instrumental cuts where their DJs flexed on the 1 and 2.
But by the ’90s, the art of DJ-ing had been drowned out by rap. Slowly, instrumental DJ tracks disappeared, and MCs no longer talked about how vicious their DJ cut the record, if only because many didn’t have records. Since then, DJ-ing has become the property of ardent hiphop enthusiasts and alternative rock bands. So it’s poetic to see Theodore and his crew of neglected geniuses hosting an exhibition of a forgotten art.
DJ-ing wasn’t doomed to its second-class citizenship by any lack of artistic merit. Unlike much of rap’s production, a good DJ routine is anything but repetitive. A tight DJ, brandishing a blizzard of scratches, can pull an infinite number of sounds from his mixer and turntables. The best of them can create entirely different percussion patterns from two records, making the turntables into virtual drums.
The art’s potential is borne out in the six finalists. Only one, the unremarkable DJ Spin, seems misplaced. But the other five are bona fide pros, though not all of their routines reflect it. Finalists Dirty Handz and Madness are sabotaged by faulty needles. Daddy Dog rocks the crowd with his interpolation of “Kick in the Door.” But the belt appears to have only two real contendersTechnics and Mysterio. Technics wows everyone with a reworking of “Run’s House,” but Mysterio’s routine is otherworldly. He taps the turntable’s tone arm, causing it to skip the grooves of Gang Starr’s “Mass Appeal” in perfect time, while gradually speeding up the record with his free hand. The result is an entirely different song, highlighted by a warped slur.
Mysterio holds the jewels and is headed for the national championship in New York. But even in this victory there is tragedy. Unlike an MC who makes a name for himself, Mysterio will get no record contract. The DJ will remain hiphop’s forgotten parent until he proves commercially viable. While alternative music has opened doors for some DJs such as Goldie, those who choose to keep hiphop at their center have a hard way to go. There’ll be no bright lights or packed venues. Even the Black Cat is only halfway full. And perhaps it’s better that wayDJs worshipping at the altar of 1200s, instead of the altar of the latest fad. Who really wants a DJ equivalent of Foxy Brown, anyway? CP