Common talk deserves a walk, the situation’s changed/ everything said from now on has to be rearranged.
— T La Rock
The hiphop DJ is a meta-musician, an author, a programmer, an organizer of recorded fragments and a builder of databases whose talents are uniquely suited to survival and meaningful cultural production in our emerging era of total digital cross-reference.
— David Goldberg
At the dead center of the spiraling galaxy of hiphop culture is the turntable. This is where everything starts: on the grooved surface of a record spinning on the wheels of steel. All truth is here, all meaning — everything that is hiphop…Indeed, an act of pure hiphop devotion might be to let a record play from start to end on a turntable…
— DJ Dusk
The line between electronic and live music is unbroken. The forms may appear impressively distinct but they are organized around the same act: playing a musical instrument (a keyboard, drum pads, so on). In electronic music — which finds its most popular moment in the ’70s, German band Kraftwerk — a musician plays a musical instrument and is concerned about, for instance, the key he/she is playing in. This is not the case with hiphop. Hiphop is organized around the act of replaying music; and it is this act, replaying, that marks the real rupture in the mode or method of production.
There are no musical instruments in hiphop (or proper hiphop, and there is such a thing as proper — or closer yet, real — hiphop). This is a truth many critics and hiphop lovers find hard to accept. They instead force matters by placing the idea or image of a guitar or a drum next to that of a turntable, as in the case of the liner notes for the compilation CD Altered Beats by Bill Murphy and Rammellzee: “The turntable is more like a drum than anything else. Aside from the obvious physical resemblance of the circular platter to the typical drum head, the turntable/mixer system is in effect ‘played’ with hands, the black wax rhythmically manipulated by the fingers, just as the tightly wound skin of a congo or West African tribal drum is coaxed into sonic nuances with open-handed slaps.” But in fact the African tribal drum is a musical instrument; the turntable is not. Even the West Indian steel drum (closer to the turntable in the sense that it is repurposed — more on this later), is still very far from what the turntable is and what it produces, which is not even real music but meta-music (again, more on this in a moment).
In Tone-Loc’s 1989 video for his wildly popular single “Wild Thing,” his DJ (or the actor who pretends to be his DJ) plays something that is half a guitar and half a turntable. There are two reasons for this monstrosity. One, “Wild Thing” sampled Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin'” (without permission), and so the guitar/turntable contraption functions as a symbol for this gimmick: hiphop sampling rock. Furthermore, this symbol (hiphop sampling rock) is held (or played, or closer yet, replayed) by another symbol, that of the DJ, who in the video is a code for what sampling is: an advanced digital form of the initial and manual DJ practice/science of scratching and connecting breaks into a sonic series.
The second reason has to do with the turntable’s relative newness. Even in 1989, long after its departure from the actual production of hiphop music (the turntable was at the this point, like a DJ in the video, nothing more than a reference to the essence of hiphop), there was still some confusion as to what exactly it was — meaning, what does it resemble? Which family does the turntable belong to? What is it actually doing? Making music? The contraption in the video asserts that it is not very different than a guitar. Indeed, the “Wild Thing” video says, if you were to hold a turntable flat against your stomach and attach a neck to it (no strings or keys — so it is a pure neck), then this fact would be apparent. The turntable is a musical instrument.
The “Wild Thing” video seems silly — and at the level of promoting a silly pop rap song it is. But on another level, the level of its relationship with other music videos and music forms, it is dead serious. The video attempts to explain to rock and soul skeptics what this new thing, which is used in a particular/peculiar way by the hiphop DJ, is. The “Wild Thing” video assumes that due to the turntable’s shape, traditional musicians are unable to recognize it as an instrument. In a pure instance Platonizing the reality of an image, the video invents this thing, this useless contraption (which is not a guitar, nor a turntable — you can’t scratch that way without the record falling off) that has the form of an electric guitar so that the skeptics can finally recognize the turntable’s essential sameness with other, traditional instruments.
To replay a record with your hands is different from playing an instrument with your hands. The one object (the turntable) says to the hand, “Don’t touch me, for I’m must complete my cycle and fulfill that which is recorded on the 12inch”; the other (the musical instrument) says to the hand, “If you don’t touch me, if you don’t pull my strings or strike my keys, I’m nothing, I’m a useless object.” The turntable is always wrenched out of sleep by the hand that wants to loop a break or to scratch a phrase. In a word, the turntable is awakened by the DJ who wants to make (or, closer yet, remake), music (or, closer yet, meta-music); whereas the instrument always sleeps when it is used to make real music. Indeed, even during the performance of the loudest rock song, the instrument is fast asleep in the hands of the long-haired thrasher.
The turntable is a repurposed object. It is robbed of its initial essence. But the void is soon refilled by a new essence which finds it meaning, its place in the hiphop universe, in the service of the DJ.
A thing (Kant) or implement (Heidegger) or commodity (Marx) that is repurposed does what it is not supposed to. It is made by the hands of a manufacturer (Kant), an artisan (Heidegger), a laborer (Marx) to perform (and literally disappears into) a specific task, but the repurposed object ends up doing something else. Think, if you will, of a film projector, which is used to show a movie. That is its purpose: to show a movie, not to make a movie — a filmmaker uses a camera for that. And yet this is what a turntable is forced to do; to make meta-music (music about music) instead of playing previously recorded music.
Hiphop is less “music,” per se, and more “about music” — so radical is its difference from previous methods or modes of music production. Hiphop doesn’t so much make music the way, say, The Average White Band, or James Brown, or The Police made music; it instead makes music out of and about real music — meaning, it makes music its subject. “Punk, rock, new wave and soul” (G.L.O.B.E) are subjected to the reproductive logic of hiphop. In this respect, hiphop is, as Afro-futurist/culture critic David Goldberg points out in his essay “Put The Needle On The Record,” meta-music — music made out of and about other music.
Real Hiphop does not sample real sounds, like the toilet flushing in Art of Noise’s “Close (To the Edit)” (1984), but samples copyrighted music. The hiphop DJ does not shape raw sound into a form recognized as music, but shapes information into a sonic form recognized as meta-music.
I borrow the term “repurpose” from David Goldberg, who in his short essay “Put The Needle On The Record” used it, as I do here, to explain what exactly happens when a hiphop DJ handles (or mishandles, or best yet, manhandles) a turntable. Goldberg writes: “The scratch explodes all previous relationships to sound by completely repurposing the turntable, and by bringing a real-time interactivity to the manipulation of what was originally intended to be a permanent archival medium. Because the scratch is based on a recording, it becomes the manipulation of information and not just the vibrational properties of air.”
In an article I wrote for The Stranger in the fall of 2000 about a bridge in Seattle that is used as a self-willed exit from this world as reliably as it used by cars to cross a body of water, I explained repurposing in this way:
The German philosopher Heidegger once wrote that the essence of a tool (like a hammer) is only noticed when it is broken. If a hammer works, then it is nothing more than an extension of your hand, but if it breaks, you notice its ‘hammerness.’ This is close to what I mean by repurposing; the added and unexpected uses of the Aurora Bridge (e.g., the way it has been used to express political and environmental concerns, as in 1997 when Greenpeace protesters hung from it by huge ropes and prevented two American fishing trawlers from heading to the Bering Sea) knocked it out of the slumber of its primary function, and it is now wide-awake, alert, alive. Indeed, like Heidegger’s broken hammer brings out the hammer’s hammerness, repurposing brings out the ‘bridgeness’ of the Aurora Bridge.
A repurposed turntable brings out a turntables’s turtableness.
Because it is doing what it is supposed to be doing, a musical instrument is fast sleep when in the process of making music (Indeed, the very fact of this may explain why Jimi Hendrix frequently lit his electric guitar on fire or played it with his teeth — anything to wake the damn thing up!). Turntables, on the other hand, are always wide awake or “enstranged.” This is why the beloved heavy metal practice of smashing a guitar or kicking over a drum set at the end of a show cannot be translated into hiphop terms; how can a DJ break something that is essentially broken when serving his/her hiphop needs? To smash a turntable after it has been man/mishandled by a hiphop DJ seems like a terribly cruel thing to do.
Enstranged, not estranged. Enstranged is a neologism that approximates the Russian word “ostranenie,” which means “making it strange,” or to defamiliarize something that has been smothered by habit. The Russian Formalist, and Victor Shklovsky specifically, argued that enstrangement is what distinguished poetic language from everyday language.
During the heyday of European ethnic gangsters in North American cities, violin cases were famously repurposed for gangland wars. These cases which carried Tommy guns were wide-awake when in the hands of the gangsters and fast asleep when in the hands of classically trained musicians.
A musician’s case contains an instrument; a DJ’s case contains information.
Marx, like Heidegger, recognized the significance of enstranging an object. For Heidegger, a broken object exposes its thingness; for Marx, it exposes its source, the laborer, the one who has transferred his/her body’s energy into the substance of the object. In Capital, Volume One, Marx writes: “[I]t is generally by their imperfection as products, that means of production in any process assert themselves in the character of products. A blunt knife or weak thread forcibly remind us of Mr. A., the cutler, Mr. B, the spinner. In the finished product the labour by means of which it has acquired its useful qualities is not palpable, has apparently vanished.” A broken object is also wide awake or enstranged. Indeed, a broken hiphop turntable is a bizarre (if not the most bizarre) thing. When it’s actually broken it can’t be repurposed (or broken) by the (re)creative hands of the DJ.
The production of one form (replayed music) occurs outside of the text/recording; the other (played music) within — if it is recorded at all. Indeed, hiphop doesn’t really “vanish into thin air” in the manner evoked by jazz genius Eric Dolphy, but returns into the album sleeve to be replayed on another day.
In the notes for “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which is the most important essay of the 20th century), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) offers this quote from Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) which echoes the words of Eric Dolphy (1928-1964), which in 1996 were sampled by Parisian DJ, DJ Cam (1973-), on his CD Mad Blunted Jazz. da Vinci writes: “Painting is superior to music because, unlike unfortunate music, it does not have to die as soon as it is born…Music which is consumed in the every act of its birth is inferior to painting which the use of varnish has rendered eternal.”
Hiphop is the first musical form to break completely with traditional music in terms of production — how it is made, who makes it, and so on. Even dub, the closest form to hiphop — which was born in 60s and employed dub plates in ways that are analogous to hiphop’s use of records — has vital connections to live musical performance that hiphop doesn’t. Dub is constituted by two significant practices that are not completely separated or in opposition: One, is to make dub with live musicians — a practice that finds its representative in Lee “Scratch” Perry and is related in many ways to electronic music, like Kraftwerk’s; the other is to make a “version” (a remix) of a recorded piece of music — a practice that finds its representative in King Tubby and is distantly related to early, early hiphop, like Afrika Bambaataa’s — whose “Planet Rock” famously sampled Kraftwerk’s, “Trans-Europe Express” (sans permission). This is why dub presents significant theoretical problems; its mode of production is never as clear as hiphop (the total break), but always in a dub haze of live instruments and electronic equipment. Nevertheless, dub is the only link (or, more closely, a ghost of a link) between hiphop meta-music and instrument-based music.
The real break began in the mid-70s when New York DJs invented the practice/science of looping a break from scratch. What the DJ establishes with the back and forth, blend and blur, is a series (loop after loop) of repeated information that forms a total sonic mix (or matrix) into which the rapper is inserted. The rapper does not perform with a band but within the meta-music.
Started in the 70s, the looping of the break anticipated the sampler. The sampler digitally assembles multiple parts into a master mix. With the arrival of the sampler in the early 80s, the DJ abandons real turntables (at the club or in the park or the radio station) for the mixing-board.
If you open up and then fold the note sleeves for the soundtrack to What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (2001) in a certain way, the image of Eric Sermon on the mixing boards will be faced with the image of Marvin Gaye on the keyboards. Unlike the folding of the new $20 bills to produce what looks like the burning Twin Towers, the matching of Eric Sermon’s method of producing music with Marvin Gaye’s method of producing music is not accidental.
Similar to the guitar/turntable contraption in the “Wild Thing” video, the matched images attempt to explain what is not yet fully understood or realized by making it correspond to something that is familiar. Meaning, the mixing-board is the hiphop version of the piano: The piano has keys, the soundboard has knobs; both have wide surfaces; both require that the pianist or mixing-boardist sit down and use the tips of their fingers — therefore: both are instruments. But these parallels are only visual not factual. The mixing-board is not an instrument, that is not its essential purpose. The mixing-board was made, designed, installed in a soundproof basement to record instruments. It is repurposed by the hiphop DJ who, now a producer, concentrates both the recording and production of music within the mixing-board.
If rearranged in such way that the living hiphop producer Eric Sermon is on top and the ghost of Marvin Gaye is on the bottom looking up, we would have a better representation of what is actually taking place in the production of hiphop music. The phantom of the musician exists within the electronic depths of the soundboard. The musician is the subject of the hiphop producer.
But even this is not close enough. A more precise representation of modern hiphop production should look something like this.
The modern mixing-board replacing the DJ who repurposed the LP that was produced by a live musician.
The early practice of manually running or matching records on turntables, anticipated the current, virtual production of hiphop on mixing-boards in the way that dadaist practices at the end of the 19th century anticipated cinema. Here, of course, I’m referring to a passage in Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which argues that “one of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” Benjamin writes: “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard…The extravagances and crudities of art which thus appear, particularly in the so-called decadent epochs, actually arise from the nucleus of its richest historical energies. In recent years, such barbarisms were abundant in dadaism. It is only now that its impulse becomes discernible: Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial — and literary — means the effects which the public today seeks in the film.”
The sampler is not a musical instrumental (in the traditional sense of a musical instrument), it is instead repurposed to turn one DJ repurposing two turntables into a thousand mini DJs repurposing two thousand virtual, mini turntables.
“One Day in ’81 or ’82 we was doin’ this remix,” says DJ Marley Marl in Tricia Rose’s book Black Noise (1994), “I wanted to sample a voice from off this song with an Emulator and accidentally, a snare went through. At first I was like ‘That’s the wrong thing,’ but then it was soundin’ good. I kept running back and hitting the Emulator. Then I looked at the engineer and said. ‘You know what this means?! I could take any drum sound from an old record, put it in here and get the old drummer sound on some shit. No more of that dull DMX shit.’ That day I went out and bought a sampler.” The drum machine, which is an instrument, is “dull…shit” to the DJ, what is desired is a machine that does what a DJ essentially does when running LPs or singles on the turntables: remixing, replaying “old records.”
The following passage from a wonderful article, published in The Face (December, 1997), describes an encounter between Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan and the Scottish pop band Texas in an NY recording studio. It not only makes abundantly clear the difference between the production of modern hiphop (which has its essence in the turntable) and the production of pop or proper music (which has its essence in the musical instrument) but also how hiphop is made nowadays — not with turntables but mixing boards and samplers that emulate turntables:
RZA goes to work, feeding a succession of sample-laden discs into a sampler. He has a diffident, genius-at-work charisma about him as he sits with his back to the room, keyboard at side. With a flick of his prodigiously ringed hand he reaches out and conjures up a brutal bassline. The speakers pulse violently. RZA takes a sip of Hennessy. ‘Record this, right here!’ he tells the bewildered-looking engineer.
RZA has decided to dispense with the original master tapes, shipped over from Britain. He wants a completely new version, recorded rough-and-ready without the standard safety net of a time-code. This convention-trashing, wildstyle approach to recording elicits some consternation from the studio’s engineer, a central-casting white guy who warns RZA: ‘You won’t be able to synch to this, you know.’ RZA waves him away and turns to [Texas’ Bassist and leader] Johnny McElhone.
‘This riff is in E,’ McElhone tells RZA. ‘Maybe we should try it in the original key, D.’
‘What are you saying? I understand no keys,’ says RZA.
The real turntable has been dead for many years now; it’s no longer used to reproduce music. The sampler has replaced it in studio and the DAT machine at live shows. (Indeed, when the Anti-Pop Consortium performs a live show they often say, “Let’s give it up to our DAT machine” instead of “Let’s give it up to our DJ.”) The turntable is now a ghost machine within the complex circuitry of the mixing machine. When we see a DJ at a nightclub scratching records and reproducing music on the turntables — which by the way have not progressed or significantly improved in over 20 years; what was used to scratch records in the early 80s, if not earlier, are essentially the same Technics that are used today — we are watching something from the past, and, because of this, something that is almost ritualistic.
Like the saint he or she is, the 21st century DJ who cuts and runs the break of our favorite song is not innovative, they are not looking forward but backward, giving praise thanks to his/her great and departed ancestors — Jam Master Jay and DJ Scott La Rock — on what is now the altar of hiphop: the two turntables.