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“I never just play a record onstage. I play the turntable or, as I call it, the turnfiddle,” says GrandMixer DXT, the renowned hip-hop pioneer, producer, and recording artist. “From day one, I’ve approached the turntable as an instrument with the influences of Ella Fitzgerald’s scats and my own drumming in mind.” Today, using Serato Software’s Scratch Studio plug-in with Digidesign Pro Tools, DXT can creatively manipulate audio files on his hard drive in ways no one imagined in the ’70s, when he was witnessing the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx.
An accomplished drummer, DXT is credited as the first musician to scratch a needle rhythmically over a vinyl record. The year was 1976, long before the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” widely recognized as the first hip-hop song. Later, DXT drew fame for scratching on Herbie Hancock’s huge 1984 hit “Rockit.” He also played in Praxis (with Brain and Buckethead), Bill Laswell’s Material, and Hancock’s second incarnation of the Headhunters band with Michael Brecker.
Like Ella’s scats, Miles Davis’s muted horns, or Eddie Van Halen’s hammering fingertaps, DXT’s scratching of Fab 5 Freddy’s “Change the Beat” defined an entire instrumental genre—turntablism. His sound has been imitated by every turntablist, DJ, and $99 keyboard since. But these days, DXT will just as likely scratch a rare ambient Stockhausen sound, Idris Mohammed drum fill, or four-part chorus recorded into Pro Tools.
“I’m creating the dots so that today’s guys and girls can make the connections between technology, musicianship, and success,” says DXT. “Technology enhances the craft, but it doesn’t make them musicians. And if they’re not careful, it can actually stop them from becoming good musicians. Whether it’s playing a guitar or keyboard or approaching a turntable as the instrument it truly is, what matters most is always the craft of making good music.”
DXT’s recent projects include recording and mixing Infinity Squad, Damita Miles, and Fonda Rae, and he’ll be scratching on a new Herbie Hancock solo album leading up to the highly anticipated Rockit Band reunion. He’s also been providing sound edits, music beds, and incidental emotional cues for The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, producer Keith Beauchamp’s vital documentary about the infamous 1955 Chicago murder case that helped spark the civil rights movement. Soon, DXT will also be providing tracks, scratches, consultation, and narration for a new film called Love & Hip-Hop as well. I caught up with him between a Pro Tools session in New York and a turnfiddle gig for the B-Boys Summit in Sweden.
Tell me more about your instrumental approach to the turntable.
When I first started playing the turntable, I was thinking of Ella’s improvisational scats. Rhythmically, though, my feel as a drummer was the real key. When I’m scratching, I’m thinking as a percussionist about time and hitting all the pockets between the notes of a song. I can make complete phrases and speak with it. I can actually say something with a turnfiddle and make phrases and articulate it within a song.
Who influenced you as a drummer?
I was self-taught and played along with various records, on many of which I had no idea who the drummers were. As I got more into it, there were many who influenced my style: Billy Cobham, Louis Belson, Idris Mohammed, Omar Hakim, and also the drummer for the original Jackson 5—their cousin. Buddy Rich was always a favorite of mine, too. There’s a little bit of everybody in my drumming DNA.
People who grew up knowing you as a turntablist must be surprised when they find out you’re also a good drummer and keyboardist.
[Laughs.] Yeah, when they walk in to my studio between sessions and see me playing a kit, they go, “Whoa. You play?” There was this time with Invisbl Skratch Piklz in Switzerland when I was touring with Praxis. Brain was playing, but during the encore he let me get up on the drum kit. I did a solo with the Piklz [playing] on turntables and they were all, “Wow! We didn’t know that you played drums!” QBert said now that he’d seen me play a kit, he could see why my turnfiddle timing is so tight.
You were vital in the definition of Bronx hip-hop in the '70s, you still record and tour a lot, and you've supported and produced a lot of new hip-hop and rap groups along the way. Do you see your role as being a bridge for the newer groups?
Bridge is a good choice of words, but I’m more of a connector. I’m trying to make dots so that they can connect the dots.
But you’re also involved with Love & Hip-Hop, the new movie about hip-hop culture. How do you make dots between your personal values and the sometimes-misogynistic themes of hip-hop lyrics and videos?
The movie is about how men and women relate in the culture, including the whole misogynistic thing that sometimes goes on with making those sorts of videos. It’s unfortunate that we live in a time when people don’t talk to one another as much as we used to. A lot of folks now are “educated” via media and television where everything they see is about acquiring more material things. It’s also suggesting to kids that the only way they’ll get that success to escape the ghetto is to become a rapper. Not even a musician, just be a rapper and you’ll get those things.
Media in general don’t show actual musicians playing music. You won’t see people like me playing instruments on the television. MTV’s shows are all based on destructive relationships. If you asked any kid glued to those shows, I think they’d tell you that black people don’t play musical instruments. And all the music programs in poor and middle-class neighborhoods have been eradicated for a very long time now.
You must feel like a teacher of life and music around the younger bands.
I feel like a Jedi Knight! There are just a few of us left, you know; it’s like turnfiddlism is already becoming a lost art. Most DJs today, especially the digital-only ones working with files and CDs, know nothing about feeling, seeing, and actually touching the music and beats in the grooves in the records. That’s the whole skill, man, to have the talent to know—from visual input—how to pick up a needle and put it down at exactly the right spot every time. It’s the needle-in-the-haystack thing. Only a true hip-hop DJ can hold a record up to a light to see the grooves and truly find that perfect beat.
You used to run your turntable output through wah-wah, distortion, chorus, and other guitar pedals and rackmount gear. And you’re a longtime Pro Tools and music-software user as well. How are you using digital audio?
I have a Pro Tools|HD 3 system and sometimes record with it set to 192kHz [the maximum sampling rate], which sounds incredible. It is making a big difference for digital recording in terms of sound. Most of my friends are using Digi 002s and Mboxes [lower-end Digidesign audio interfaces] because it’s a great way to walk with your session into the best Pro Tools rooms at most any studio in the world.
I look at digital recording as more a way of storing the performance data, like a tape recorder does, because you still have to play the instrument. Every once in a while, though, I like to sample certain kicks and snares and then pop those into Pro Tools’ Grid or Beat Detective [note quantization and tempo templates] and work those around into new beats.
How do you incorporate your digital tools into your analog world and vice versa?
Beyond using my Akai MPC 3000 and keyboards and synths, I’m also writing new concepts based entirely on Serato Software’s Scratch—new songs that are centered around manipulating vocals and other instruments on the computer as if they’re already on vinyl. I record and layer a multipart vocal chorus in Pro Tools, and within that chorus, then manipulate a few certain notes with the turntable. If I have a four-part harmony, for example, I’ll take two of those notes and scratch them within the harmony and record that onto another track.
Serato opens up all sorts of creative things. But you still have to be a DJ to use Scratch to its fullest; you still have to have skills with a mixer and vinyl. Scratch is great for creating new music, and it’s amazing when it comes to doing remixes. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen for the transition between an analog instrument—that being the turnfiddle—and modern technology while still holding the analog foundation. Within seconds of recording any part—a vocalist singing, for example—I can apply the turnfiddle to it. So I don’t have to wait anymore to print vinyl. I can just jump right on it. And, man, once you’re thinking “turnfiddle,” it’s endless. [See a video of Scratch in action here.]
Here’s an easy but very musically useful tip for picking the best spots to add scratching in a song, and it works for parts like counterpoint guitar solos and secondary vocal lines as well. Using any mixer, simply mute every track in a song except the vocal and basic drum kit elements—kick, snare, and hi-hat.
“Now you can hear and feel the pockets between the lead vocal phrasings,” DXT explains. “That’s where you want to scratch in your accents. Some people want to hear every track on every song as they record special effects and guitars and strings and all that, but this method is much better. If there’s no vocal where you’re recording, then all you need to hear is the drums, bass, and any other percussion parts going on.”
DXT says that isolating the rhythm tracks is also the best way for a turntablist to get a feel for where scratches should begin and end in time. “It’s killer if you can sync with the downbeat of the snare. There’s a very happening thing in there if you can synchronize that. There’s a texture you can hear.”
Ignore the pockets and the snare at your peril. “It just doesn’t feel right,” explains DXT. “It’s like randomly laying down your drums and hi-hat parts over some existing music. If those subtle pockets are filled up with things that are out of sync, it will sound off and flat. And a turnfiddle scratch is like any other percussion instrument or anything you overdub that plays off your snare part. Most percussion instruments play off the snare or ’off the foot.’ You get two totally different vibes playing off the foot and off the snare. For soloing on the turnfiddle, you want to play off of the foot. For using it to accent the vocals, you want to play off the snare. That’s a super tip.”
Here are three excerpts from After Mathematics, DXT’s latest collaboration with Bill Laswell.