Through my experience teaching at the Norcal DJ and Music Production Academy (norcalDJMPA), I've been asked many questions about scratching. Students continually ask how to develop a scratching style or improve their style beyond the techniques that they have mastered. Just like technique, style can be developed through practice.
CHANGE THE BEAT
An immediate way to freshen (scratch pun intended) your style is by changing up your rhythm. Like a rapper who uses the same flow with every verse, a DJ who always scratches to the same rhythm can sound stagnant. When you listen to an advanced scratcher, like D-Styles of the scratch band Gunkhole, you'll notice that his scratch patterns seem to change rhythm constantly. Knowing some basic music theory can help you incorporate rhythmic variation in your scratching.
Most music that DJs spin is in 4/4 time. The basic division of music in 4/4 time is the quarter note. If you're familiar with beat matching, then you should be familiar with counting the quarter note in 4/4 time. The most familiar example of this is the four-to-the-floor rhythm in a lot of dance music — each kick drum is a quarter note, and the kick drum can be counted in groups of four quarter notes. You can count quarter-note groups in the following way: “One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four.”
But you don't have to stop there; you can further divide rhythm. Half of a quarter note is an eighth note, counted “one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and.” Dividing a quarter note in four gives you 16th notes, counted “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a, three-e-and-a, four-e-and-a.” Hi-hats often follow the 16th note. An interesting division is the eighth-note triplet, or the quarter note divided in three. You can count eighth-note triplets like this: “one-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-and-a.” Following a triplet rhythm when scratching is described by some as sounding offbeat and on-beat at the same time.
To get conscious of rhythm, try a simple scratch technique, such as the baby scratch, to some music, and scratch to a constant rhythm, such as the quarter note. Then, try varying the rhythm you scratch to — for example, first scratch to quarter notes, then to 16th notes, then back to quarter notes. Once you master varying the rhythm of your baby scratch, try it with more advanced scratch techniques.
GIMME A (PLATTER) HAND
There are two main points of control in scratching. The first is platter-hand movement, the movement of the record back and forth to produce sound. The second is fader-hand movement, the movement of the crossfader to turn the sound off and on. The current emphasis in scratch technique is on fader-hand movement. Thus, an overlooked way to add variation to scratches is by use of platter-hand movement.
While designing scratching courses at the norcalDJMPA, my colleague Jay Slim found that a major component of platter-hand movement is velocity, or the speed at which you move the record. You can change the sound of a scratch technique simply by varying the velocity. Begin experimenting by using varying velocities with the baby scratch. Try the baby scratch to eighth notes with a slow record velocity and then try scratching to the same rhythm with a fast velocity. Next, scratch to the same rhythm with in-between velocities. You'll find that you get a surprising array of sounds from the simple baby scratch. By varying the platter-hand velocity when executing your scratch techniques, you can add more flavor to your style.
Many people practice scratching by noodling away. However, performance reflects what you do in practice, so if you want to vary your style, it helps to focus on making changes to your style in practice. One method that can help you diversify your style is to force yourself to practice a single technique. For example, one day, just practice the baby scratch, nothing else. Working within those seemingly limited parameters, you can explore the full possibilities of a technique by experimenting with nontechnical factors, such as platter-hand velocity and rhythm, to expand what you can do with a single technique. Remember any interesting riffs, patterns or sounds that you create so that you can incorporate them within your performances later.
Also, try scratching to music from genres that are unfamiliar to you. For example, scratch to house if you usually practice scratching to hip-hop. Also, try scratching to music that goes beyond the standard 4/4 time signature — Outkast's “Hey Ya” is a good example. You will likely have to make adjustments to your scratching to fit the music, which can provide you with novel insights to developing your style.
You can learn a lot from listening to DJs, but try to go beyond what the crowd is listening to. Much of the DJ world's attention is focused on contemporary scratch virtuosos like DJ QBert, but there are a variety of DJs to derive ideas and inspiration from, such as past greats like DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Cash Money, DJ Magic Mike and even producers like DJ Premier and Marley Marl. Furthermore, as QBert noted in the '90s, listening to great instrumental soloists is a fantastic source of inspiration, as musical riffs are universal and can be applied to the way you scratch. Jazz — with soloists like Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Miles Davis — is the obvious example, but looking to other genres, you have musicians like Jimi Hendrix.
FROM THE HEART
Although these practice techniques are intended to help you develop your scratch style, ultimately, scratching should come from the heart. Therefore, even though these tips are good for practice, ideally, you shouldn't be thinking of them when you are performing. However, as I tell my students at the norcalDJMPA, developing your personal style can take years — don't feel discouraged if you don't sense any changes right away. Although a student can learn scratch techniques quickly with practice, developing style takes much more time.
For more about Professor Pone and norcalDJMPA, check outwww.norcaldjmpa.com.