Let's take a brief departure from the norm here in digital-DJ land and look at a very talented turntablist and a few of the techniques that make him great. The man I want to reintroduce to you is DJ Kentaro. Earning one of the highest scores in DMC history, Kentaro stole the show in 2002 with a creative musical take on turntablism. The previous year's third-place performance included a trademark routine he calls “Jah-Jaka,” which can almost be described as heavy-metal turntablism. Creative use of tape to add rhythm to tone, meaty filter tricks with EQs and guitar riff-like playing of the record all contributed to a compelling musical performance that we will break down.
After bringing the DMC championship to Japan for the first time ever, Kentaro toured around Japan with various acts, including Pharcyde and The Roots. This year, he released his new album, Enter (Ninja Tune). The ambitious venture marks the transportation of his DJ mentality — “No walls between the music,” he says — into the producer seat. Like his DJ sets, the album touches on a broad range of genres, including B-more, jungle, downtempo and reggae. Not all of it is executed as flawlessly as his live routines, but one of his standard turntablist routines — which he turned into the instrumental hip-hop track “One Hand Blizzard” — really grabs your attention.
Let's take an in-depth look at that Jah-Jaka routine. First, so we are all on the same page, you need to do some quick homework. Do a search for “Kentaro” on MySpace video or YouTube and take a look at the clip with gold turntables and mirrors in the background. This lovely little piece of cinematography, a promo clip for an MTV-style station in Japan called “Space Shower TV,” features Kentaro effortlessly executing the technique. Understandably intimidating, it's actually more of a brilliant combination of 12-inch record tricks and creative preparation than sheer turntablist talent, giving you a fighting chance at re-creating it yourself.
Take a look at the beat playing on the right side. Kentaro seems to effortlessly pick up the needle and drop it back in time on two different beats. No, he is not using the Force; he is performing an old record trick used as far back as Brian Eno in 1974, underground techno artists in the '90s and, more recently, “skipless” breaks albums for turntablists. The beats have been recorded and sequenced to match the rotation speed of the record, so the snares are always in the same place. In his case, the snare is premarked with a piece of white tape, making it easier to follow and keep in time without headphones. “For the Jah-Jaka routine, I paste loads of stickers on the vinyl to create noises when the needle goes over the stickers,” Kentaro says.
He does the same sticker treatment with the guitar sounds, too. Kentaro has a tool record containing long guitar tones moving up a scale toward the inside of the record, and he spices it up with pieces of tape placed in groups. “We place the stickers in quarter- and eighth-note intervals so that noise comes [at least] four times in one round,” Kentaro says. “So it makes the proper four- or eight-beat rhythm as the needle passes over each piece of tape.” The white-noise intro — created by playing the needle on the record label — is also broken up by the tape. Because both records are playing at the same speed, the rhythm of the tape always matches the opposing beat.
While cutting the beat in and out with the mixer and switching between two breaks, Kentaro starts to play the tone record by moving the needle in a sequence of notes. No superhuman, stand-up bass-style musical skills are required here, either. Rather than spending years training for the impossible, you could simply premark where the notes sit using the lines of tape. If you want to be really good, though, figure out a melody line with a keyboard and then find the right notes on the record using a guitar tuner as a reference (by running the output of the turntable through a DJ mixer and playing the record all the way through).
Finally, mark the line using an easy number sequence. Kentaro spices up the entire package with some nice filter builds using the high and mid EQ. He does that a lot in his sets, and they always seem to have the same appealing chunky sound, leading one to ask what mixer he is using. “I've been using Technics SH1200EX,” Kentaro says. “The EQs have a great thickness, and I really like the fader. I also use the Pioneer DJM-909. I like the effects on it.”
Although Kentaro has been a vinyl supporter, he's also in tune with the DJ equipment of today and tomorrow. Recently, he has been kicking off his shows with a Pioneer DVJ-1000 DVD turntable, cutting up visuals and videos created by his visual crew VJ Gec in Tokyo. “They make animations; I make sound for it,” he explains. He has got a bit of the digital bug, but what about the digital vinyl control craze? “I use Serato [Scratch Live] in my studio when I make battle records,” he says. “Serato is good to try out the placement of the beats; however, it never goes outside of my studio. I love records; I bring 200 records to the states if I need them…even though it costs for the excess weight.”
But Kentaro still believes that DVJ technology is the wave of the future. “DVJ and turntablism plus visuals equals neo-turntablism,” Kentaro says. “This could be a next thing, I think, but you need to have a good creator to create visuals that make sense. Just mixing and scratching movies is not turntablism; the visuals need to take a step up. This will be some homework for contemporary turntablists, for sure.” There you have it kids, you better save up for a pair of DVJs and start practicing for DMC 2012!