Ever since DJ QBert blew away the judges at the 1991 USA Disco Mix Club (DMC) finals with his mind-warping scratching skills, the art of turntablism has never been the same. Whether working solo or as part of the revolving Bay Area turntablist collective known as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz (ISP currently consists of QBert, D-Styles, MixMaster Mike, Shortkut, and Yogafrog), QBert has raised the standards for scratch DJing several notches by innovating and perfecting techniques such as the Crab and the Twiddle. His skills are so formidable that after winning the World DMC Champion title three times in a row from 1992 through 1994, he was named a judge by the DMC so other contenders could have a fair shot at the top honors. In 1998 the DMC's DJ Hall of Fame inducted him.
Having conquered the competitive world of scratch mixing battles, QBert (known to his mom as Richard Quitevis) has turned his attention to a new challenge: making studio recordings. After guesting on Dr. Octagon's Instrumentalyst album (Uni/Dreamworks, 1997), remixing tracks for Coldcut and DJ Shadow, and making the Invisibl Skratch Piklz Vs. Da Klamz Uv Deth EP (Asphodel, 1996) with his ISP cohorts, he recorded his debut effort, Wave Twisters-Episode 7 Million: Sonic Wars Within the Protons (Galactic Butt Hair, 1998), the first full-length, all-scratch studio album. Wave Twisters is a showcase of QBert's talents as a musician and artist, displaying how turntables deserve as much credit for their musical potential as guitars, keyboards, or drums.
"The turntable is a musical instrument," says QBert. "I make my own music on it, and the sounds I make with it are just like notes. There's a whole universe of sounds you can explore with turntables. A lot of people are experimenting, and we are only beginning to discover the possibilities. As with any form of music, the more that people come in contact with it, the more it advances the art." QBert is so dedicated to advancing the art of turntablism that he invites Remix readers to contact him at email@example.com with their questions and advice, as well as visit the Web sites www.skratchpiklz.com and www.skratch.org.
Unlike many other scratch-oriented records, Wave Twisters is not just a collection of impressive turntable tricks. The album features an ambitious concept structure: each song is a separate chapter in a story about a civilization residing within the diamond of a record needle. The story revolves around several characters-such as the Dentist, Rubbish, Honey, and B-Boy Grandpa-whose mission is to spread the four lost elements of hip-hop (scratching, rapping, break dancing, and graffiti) throughout inner space. The album has inspired the creation of an animated video depicting its heroes' adventures; the video is scheduled to debut on July 1 at Skratchcon 2000, an ISP event in San Francisco.
With influences that include Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Thelonious Monk, and Les Paul, QBert has taken turntablism beyond its hip-hop roots and into a world all its own. We caught up with QBert at his studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he gave us insight into the challenges of recording a scratch-oriented album.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO RECORD A STUDIO ALBUM?I had to do it in order to progress. Fans of guitar music can buy albums that feature only guitars. I know there are people who just want to hear scratching, so I figured, why not record an all-scratch album? I knew it would work. I was trying to educate people, and I was doing it for the love of the music.
BEFORE ENTERING THE STUDIO, DID YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WANTED WAVE TWISTERS TO BE, OR DID IT EVOLVE THROUGH THE RECORDING PROCESS?At first I just thought I was going to make a scratch album with scratch songs on it. When DJ Disk, Shortkut, and I recorded "Invasion of the Octopus People" in 1995, it was the very first scratch song where everything was scratched-but it was just blatant scratching with no purpose, no direction. Then I did "I Miss You Blobula" on Coldcut's More Beats & Pieces remix EP [Ninja Tune, 1997]. It had a little story, and I liked that, so I started making all my songs like that. As I was recording all these songs for the album, I thought I could chain them together and create a story.
DID YOU RECORD THE ALBUM IN ONE BIG BLITZ OF RECORDING SESSIONS, OR WAS IT A SLOWER PROCESS, RECORDING THE TRACKS HERE AND THERE?The whole project took about ten months. I recorded the way I felt: maybe I'll record a bit of this today, or maybe I'll record that for a couple of hours. I'd work on something for a week or I'd go fishing to see if I could get any inspiration. That's why it took so long. I just let it come.
HOW DID GOING FISHING INSPIRE YOU?It inspired some new scratching techniques. Listening to the waves go from left to right made me think about panning. So I thought, why don't I pan on the scratches? That inspired us to invent a mixer for Vestax with panning on the faders-the Vestax PMC-05 Pro Limited.
HOW DOES RECORDING IN THE STUDIO DIFFER FROM A LIVE PERFORMANCE?It takes the same energy, but you project it through a different door. In the studio, you can do lots of takes until you get it perfect. However, I prefer live performance. When a musician makes mistakes, you hear how the musician recovers from them and makes it sound funky. It's much better to run through the whole thing. If you are really good, you can do it in one take. Thelonious Monk said, "Record only the first or second take, because on the third take it starts to diminish." I like that concept.
DID THE STUDIO SETTING ALLOW YOU TO DO THINGS YOU WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO DO IN A LIVE PERFORMANCE?Well, you can only do multitracking in a studio, because to do that live you'd have to . . .
CLONE YOURSELF?Yeah [laughs]. But like I said, I'd rather do things live.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FORMAL STUDIO TRAINING?I went to Cogswell Polytechnical College in the Bay Area and studied musical engineering there in 1991.
WHY DID YOU BRING DJ DISK, DJ FLARE, VIN ROCK, AND SEVERAL OF YOUR ISP COHORTS ONBOARD FOR THIS ALBUM?They were in my crew, and I wanted to showcase how talented they are. I let them do whatever they wanted and hoped I would be creative enough to integrate it into the album. My album was structured like building blocks. I'd add a piece here, record a piece there, come back and add another piece there, like a collage with a splash of paint here and there. I went back over the songs millions of times-I try to be a perfectionist. If something didn't sound right, I'd ask people what they thought. The honest critics helped the most.
WHAT IS YOUR STUDIO SETUP LIKE?I have Event monitors, an Ensoniq DP/4 effects processor, an Ensoniq EPS sampler and sequencer, a Panasonic DAT, a Panasonic/Ramsa digital and analog mixing console, and an Alesis ADAT recorder. Monster Cable connects all of the equipment. I use Digidesign's Pro Tools audio-editing software and Shure microphones for recording vocals. My mixers include the Vestax PMC-05, PMC-06, and PMC-07 Pro Series as well as the PMC-05 Pro Limited Edition. I have 16 turntables in the studio, including the Vestax PDX-A2S "nonskipping" turntable and Technics 1200s and 1210s. I use Shure M44G or M447 needles on all 16 turntables. I also use a Vestax turntable, the PDX-d3, because the pitch control goes from 0 to -100. It's cool because you can take a really fast jazz record and match it to a slow beat.
OTHER THAN TURNTABLES, DID YOU USE ANY OTHER INSTRUMENTS IN RECORDING THIS ALBUM?The only other instruments featured on the album are guitar and bass, played by Buckethead. He's really psycho crazy. He kept calling me, saying "I want to do something on your album." So I said "Okay," and he came over and played on "Inner Space Dental Commander." He has the weirdest, greatest sound. I wish I could get my scratching to sound like that.
DID YOU DO ANY PRO TOOLS EDITING ON THE ALBUM?I tried not to. I was trying to do things live. I did a little bit of editing with Pro Tools, but I avoid things that make fixing mistakes too easy because then I stop practicing.
HOW DID YOU USE YOUR DP/4?I used it for a little bit of reverb here and there.
HOW WAS THE ALBUM MASTERED?Since I am not good at mastering, I took it to a studio. What I learned is that I should be there next time. I left my music in the hands of these guys, and they tweaked the sound in a way I didn't really like. I thought I was just supposed to give the recordings to them for mastering. When they were done, I was like, "Oh no, it sounds different!" but I couldn't do anything. It was too late. Everyone says good things about the album, but I think it could be better.
I GUESS YOU'LL BE MASTERING THE NEXT ALBUM ON YOUR OWN.Yeah, or at least I'll be there when they do it! The remixes we did for the movie sound a million times better. We're releasing the movie on DVD and releasing a remix CD as the soundtrack. We totally remixed all the songs with new scratching, and we've redone everything I hated on the album.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU LEARNED FROM RECORDING THIS ALBUM?Practice really hard. When you are in the studio, you get relaxed. I think you should balance training with studio work. When I was working on the album, toward the end of it I was doing more studio work than practice.
DO YOU THINK ALBUMS LIKE WAVE TWISTERS ARE HELPING THE TURNTABLE BECOME ACCEPTED AS A TRUE INSTRUMENT?I think so. Videos are really important, too. When people hear scratching, they wonder, "What is he doing?" With videos they can see what you're doing. It's even better when they touch a turntable and say, "Wow, this is really hard to do." [Vestax's Turntable Mechanics Workshop video features QBert demonstrating several of his techniques.]
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TURNTABLISTS WHO WANT TO RECORD THEMSELVES IN THE STUDIO?I would tell them to study as many videos as you can. Also, record yourself in the studio with video. Then you will know how dumb you sound and why. I do scratches all the time and think, "Damn, what's wrong?" I'll listen to it on tape and be like "No wonder . . . I'm so monotonous!"
Robin Smith is a former radio and club DJ. Currently lurking as a bedroom mixer and geek, he is the creator of The Online 1200, the Web version of the Technics SL-1200MK2 operating instructions (www.turntablism.com/online1200). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.