FEED Magazine
The DJ's New Lexicon
Skratch, a newly legit musical genre, is getting its own notational system. Franklin Bruno looks at two bids to put flares, orbits, and crabs down on paper.

The hip-hop rank-and-file's introduction to the notion of skratch notation -- a written system to represent turntable-based music -- came last July at Skratchcon 2000, a one-day conclave held in San Francisco as a last act of community-building by the respected DJ team Invisible Skratch Picklz, just before their official breakup. (Skratch is the accepted spelling within the subculture; I'll adopt it here, at the risk of sounding like Mr. Kotter trying to "relate.") In the middle of a long afternoon of polite Q&A and virtuosic demos, two DJs took their turns behind a long row of direct-drive Technics 1200s and accompanying DMT mixers to hold forth on their respective -- and perhaps competing -- systems. First, Montreal's A-Trak talked through a series of hand-drawn overhead transparencies that resembled the output of a particularly busy seismograph, occasionally (and nimbly) translating an inscription into sound on the instruments in front of him. Next, Phoenix, Arizona's Radar delivered a sober lecture favoring the use of established Western notation, plus a few extra symbols, illustrated by sections of a thoroughly professional-looking score.
Both presentations, archived at www.skratch.com, were received with obvious interest, as well as some skepticism. (Radar, in particular, didn't score any points with such pronouncements as "This is music, and this is how it's done.") But the fact that they took place not in the context of musicological study, but among actual practitioners, marks this as an important moment in the development of skratch music or, more pretentiously, turntablism. It's not that the genre needs notation for individual practitioners to reach some arbitrary standard of maturity or complexity; a cursory listen to the technical mastery of X-Ecutioners' Rob Swift or the Picklz' own Q-Bert and Flare should convince even the classically-prejudiced that there's something going on here, whether or not it's amenable to being written down. It's far too early to predict how the development of skratch notation will affect the music, but the fact that DJs are willing to take the concept seriously marks a shift in how the community sees itself, and how it wants to be seen.
Despite a few avant-classical precursors (Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage both experimented with variable turntable speeds in compositions from the thirties and forties), the current use of the instrument as an instrument dates from the mid-seventies, when South Bronx club spinners began to develop more elaborate ways of keeping a party going by segueing between the most danceable portions of successive twelve-inches. (One origin story is even humbler, claiming that the first skratch occurred when Grand Wizard Theodore's mother told him to shut off his record player.) Paralleling the rise of the MC, the DJ's role quickly grew from a functional one to that of primary accompanist, with such eighties pioneers as DMT (of "Rockit" fame) and Barry B becoming as notorious as anyone they backed.
Contemporary turntablism is still tied to its roots by tradition and fashion-sense, though the sounds you'll hear behind most current commercial rap are more likely to be produced by a combination of samples, loops, and "real" instrumentation. As if in response, skratch music has become a world unto itself; its leading figures stand as recording and performing artists in their own right, while up-and-comers fight for supremacy in "battles" somewhere between a bebop cutting contest and a gymnastic heat. There's an irony here: The phonograph, which brought the reproduction of musical sound within reach of the musically maladroit, has entered the new century as the chosen tool of a new crop of virtuosos, as prone to the pitfalls of empty technique as any piano prodigy or fusion wonk.
It's this emphasis on speed and skill that has made the move to notation almost inevitable. As the skratch repertoire has expanded, so has the nomenclature that practitioners use to communicate with one another. There are "chirps," the high, birdlike skratches pioneered by Will Smith's pre-Hollywood partner DJ Jazzy Jeff; "flares" (named for their inventor) and "orbits," sub-categorized by number of quick cross-fader cuts or "clicks" per push or drag of the record; "crabs," Q-Bert's secret weapon, involving a many-fingered fader movement -- to say nothing of "tears," "transforms," "combos" of all of the above, and two-handed techniques ("phasers," "lasers," "hydroplane"), successively more difficult both to execute, to describe in prose or conversation. Which is where we came in.

"I'm not creating anything new, I'm merely adapting the turntables to the scoring of instruments known within the 'Western standard' of music," insists DJ Radar (aka Jason Grossfeld) in the course of an email interview. A twenty-six-year-old rooted in the unlikely but vital Phoenix skratch scene, he traces his project to his training as a classical percussionist, which preceded his career behind the wheels of steel. "When I was learning to skratch, I found it easier to catch on because of my musical training. If I heard a complex skratch I couldn't do, I would write it out rhythmically just as I had when I played snare drum in junior symphony. That was one of the ways we learned."
The most visible fruit of his labors is "Anti-Matter," a 12-inch released in 1998 along with a fourteen-page score-plus-explanation that documents every note heard in the song's three minutes and twenty-six seconds. As with most studio-generated skratch music, its constituent sounds are all generated from pre-existing vinyl, transformed by mixing, overdubbing, and the DJ's hands. Entirely written out before recording began, the disc's raison d'être is to show the feasibility of fully-notated turntable composition. In this, "Anti-Matter" is heir to the techno-polemical tradition of Bach's [The] Well-Tempered Clavier, composed to prove that the system of just-intonation could render keyboard instruments playable in every key signature. Radar's heated accompanying manifesto makes his intent clear: "It is now possible with this score to show other musicians exactly how a turntable is actually an analog percussion instrument."


The score lives up to its author's billing of conventionality, complete with bar lines and standard note- and rest-values. Groups of staves represent, respectively, a kick and snare pattern that could appear in a Modern Drummer transcription, a hi-hat overdubbed from a second disc, and various bass and vocal ornaments (such as the phrase "Life support systems functional" recited in a calm female voice) with all unpitched percussion sounds resting in the middle of the staff, an octave above middle C. The real action is on a staff marked "wha skratch," which notates the song's turntable "solo." After pages of measure-long rests, the score (and record) erupts with a barrage of thirty-second note triplets. Translated back into DJ-speak, this is the rhythmic profile of a long series of crabs. All the major skratches and combos can be represented in some similar manner; a two-click flare turns out to look and sound like the snare drum rudiment known as a flamm tap.
Additionally, an extra line of symbols above the staff represents articulations, the movements of the hand, which actually produce the skratch. These could also be thought of as changes in the unimpeded motion of the record. "Anti-Matter" uses four main markings: "+" for a forward cue (pushing the record slightly faster than normal); "-" for a drag cue (slowing the record down slightly), "=" for a back-cue (dragging the record backwards), and "o" for passages where the DJ's hand should be off the record. With an "r" indicating a repeating pattern, these cover the basic moves from which skratches are built, though Radar freely admits that numerous symbols could be added to cover advanced and two-handed techniques, just as the conventions covering more established instruments have resources to notate accents, glissandos, and trills.
In contrast to Radar's notation, which builds on several centuries of Western tradition, A-Trak developed his -- forgive me -- from scratch. At 18, the former Alain Macklovitch has spun with both the Picklz and Canadian-American crew The Allies, as well as winning two prestigious International Turntable Federation (ITF) solo championships. The impetus behind his first forays into notation was purely practical. Preparing for a studio session with Montreal rap group Obscure Disorder, he says, "I wanted to remember some patterns, and for lack of any system, I just kind of drew those skratches the first time. I wasn't aware of any other notation. Later on, talking to the Picklz, they were impressed at hearing that I had a system -- that's when I realized I should put some work into it. I'd been using it a lot to do sessions, and keeping an inventory of all my patterns, but I never put the whole theory down on paper."
The central idea behind A-Trak's system is remarkably elegant. Imagine a graph with its horizontal (x) axis representing the regular forward motion of a record over time, and its vertical (y) axis representing the particular stretch of vinyl to be skratched. On this "staff," each record movement appears as an angled line, with a positive or negative slope representing, respectively, a push forwards or a drag backwards. Thus, a baby skratch (forward, back, forward, back at regular intervals) looks like a large capital "M." The speed and distance covered by each skratch is conveyed by the marks' height and steepness. As A-Track explains, "In general, everything is relative to what's around it. If you see that most of the skratches reach a certain height and then you have one that goes further vertically, you know that's a skratch that covers more of the record."
These variations in height do double duty by giving an admittedly imprecise picture of the pitches created. "There's a direct link between the portion of the record that you're covering and the sound of the skratch. If you're barely moving the record back and forth on a very small portion, you'll get a low-pitched skratch, but if you do the same motions in the same rhythm but covering a larger portion of the record, you'll get a higher-pitched skratch." Hence, the taller the line, the higher the sound, though A-Trak adds, "It would be irrelevant to get into more details with pitch. When you get on the table, the first skratch you do won't be exactly the pitch you want, and you have to play around until you get it." (Both DJs agree that there is little point in notating specific pitches unless you already know the pitch of the sound source. Since a given pattern can be executed on any record, both systems treat the turntable as, in Radar's words, "a percussion instrument with some control over pitch," not unlike a tympani.)
Fader "clicks," which add rhythmic nuance, appear as cross-hatches on the lines representing record-movement, while a double-slash, like Radar's "o," indicates that the record is to be released. Within this basic vocabulary certain techniques are represented much differently than their rhythmic profile would suggest. One example: The difference between a one-click orbit and a crab lies not in the motion of the record, but in how the fader is manipulated, which leads to a clever notational solution. Instead of Radar's daunting 32nd-note triplets, A-Trak writes out the simpler pattern, accompanied by a tiny drawing of -- what else? -- a crab.
As it stands, this system is intriguing but loose -- but then so are many features of Western notation. For its most obvious uses as a short-term mnemonic, or for jotting down patterns when there's no turntable handy, A-Trak rarely bothers drawing in the guiding axes. "Right now I'm pretty ghetto with it. I've been using it for my own purposes, I haven't really been worrying about presentation." Hence the absence of visual examples in this article; during our interview, A-Trak discussed plans to pursue a patent and to post a version of the system on The Allies' website. (A third, somewhat similar, project can be found at www.battlesounds.net. A-Trak says that he and designer John Carluccio traded ideas about three years ago but arrived at the basic principles independently.)
One difference between Radar and A-Trak's systems bears emphasis: Unlike Western conventions for scoring rhythm, what a particular group of marks represents in a graphically-based system depends on how much space it occupies. Four quarter notes are four quarter notes wherever they're placed in a measure. But scrunched together or spread out, A-Trak's slashes will notate different rhythms. Taking a distinction from philosopher Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art (a lively examination of the various ways that representational codes operate), Radar's traditionally-based notation can be thought of as "digital," dividing time into discrete units, while A-Trak's is "analog," as ultra-discriminating (and potentially vague) as the sweep second-hand of a wristwatch.


Still, both systems make possible transcription and reproduction of complicated, formerly nameless patterns, and both are an improvement over a mere lexicon of techniques. The most telling differences lie in what and whom they're for. Though Radar states that his main aim is "to communicate with other musicians," legitimacy is a concern as well. "The bottom line is that people, including musicians, don't think of the turntable as a legitimate instrument. Personally, I'm tired of people asking me, 'How do you make that wicki-wicki sound -- doesn't it hurt the record? So I've decided to use a system of theirs for them to better understand what we do." An artist's desire to be recognized beyond his or her immediate community is understandable, but wider acceptance might have institutional advantages as well. For their part, DJs "haven't thought about the benefits, which this Western classical system has to offer. Do people in the skratch community understand that you can get scholarships and grants for playing a harmonica? Why not a turntable?"
Radar may be getting somewhere: Soon after our interview, an emailed press release announced an Arizona State University performance of the first movement of a concerto for turntable and orchestra written in collaboration with composer Raul Yanez. But most collisions between hip-hop and concert hall lie firmly in the avant-garde tradition of Cage and Schaffer. A recent Lincoln Center program paired Cage's early tape piece "Imaginary Landscapes No. 1," rearranged for turntables, with a new "commissioned work" by The X-Ecutioners -- essentially, a DJ crew show under a classier name. In this context, a new-looking notation such as A-Trak's may get greater play than Radar's more assimilationist project. After all, the expansion and abandonment of traditional notation is a key chapter in twentieth-century serious music, from Stockhausen's maddening attempts to micromanage every aspect of sound to the aleatory scores of Cage, Feldman, and Browne.
For his part, A-Trak voices complaints similar to Radar's about how skratch musicians are perceived, though he uses "digga-digga" in place of "wicki-wicki," but expresses far more suspicion about the instrument's growing institutional prospects. "The way I am, I probably wouldn't have shown [the system] to people. It puts me in an awkward position because I'm not fully for DJ schools. It's subtle, because I think it's good for one DJ to be able explain a skratch to another, but there's a difference between that and having DJs who learn all their skratches that way." There's something of the magician's unwillingness to reveal secrets to a lay public to this, as well as the fear of respectability common to every subculture, but there's a legitimate concern here as well. Turntablism may not be in its infancy, but it's still an awkward adolescent, despite its recent growth spurts. The premature adoption of a given notation could stifle further creativity, especially if the patterns it's best suited to representing become standard while those it doesn't are marginalized; think of the difficulty "serious" musicians and educators have had in validating the skills common to jazz players (from the use of bent pitches to improvisation itself). A-Trak shows little interest in creating an industry standard, grants and orchestras be damned: "I'm not trying to impose this on anybody. If people don't believe in using notation, then they won't use it. But if someone's actually willing to find a use for it in their DJing, the same way that I have uses for it in my world, then it's there."

Franklin Bruno writes about music for CMJ Monthly, Time Out New York, and other publications. He plays and records his own songs under his own name and as one-third of Nothing Painted Blue. He lives in Los Angeles.

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