Scratch DJing for Beginners
Unit One: An Introduction to Turntablism
by Kenichi Thomas
This unit (1 of 3), Scratch DJing for Beginners, includes the history and evolution of DJing and DJing tools of the trade.
The art of DJing has evolved over the years since its inception over 100 years ago. From the ﬁrst music radio broadcasts in the early 20th century, to the seamless mixes which can be heard over the streaming service of choice today, the many ways music can be shared with one another has expanded as spectacularly as the Big Bang. Along with expansion comes growth, where new ideas form to give life to new concepts. The humble beginnings of simply selecting a song for playback has evolved into manipulating those records to create new sounds. What it means to be a disc jockey (DJ) or even a musician, can be something unique that ﬁts each individual’s personality. The digital age has only deepened our ability to express ourselves.
History: Disc Jockey to Turntablist
To truly understand the place DJing has in the world today, you must understand its origins. DJing, as a concept can be traced back as early as the 1930’s when radio announcers began playing popular tunes over the airwaves. A decade later, a more modern resemblance came to be with the integration of twin turntables for playing songs back to back. Not long after this, a rise in DJing at live events aided in putting clubs and discos on the map. This started to shape the dance scene in communities around the globe. But the real roots of what we are delving into, turntablism and sound manipulation with records, stem from a more recent time period.
The electronics company Technics had a ﬁrm hand in deﬁning an era for DJs trying to push the envelope from curating a selection of songs to something much more. Up until 1969, record players mainly utilized a belt drive motor, where the record platter was driven by a rubber belt to make the records spin and play. During that year, Technics released the ﬁrst direct drive turntable to the market, which gave vinyl records a much more stable platform. In 1971 came the follow-up model, the SL-1100, which was quickly adopted by the early pioneers of hip-hop music. The direct drive allowed DJs to touch the record without the platter stopping. This pivotal change opened up DJs to manipulate tracks in a way they had never done before.
Beginning of an era
A year later in 1972, the now infamous Technics SL-1200 model was released. The SL-1200 was the ﬁrst high ﬁdelity turntable which included a pitch adjustment dial. It was speciﬁcally targeting DJs by including the ability to adjust the speed of the platter. It instantly became the standard turntable adopted by clubs and professional DJs throughout the world. It allowed the seamless transitions of songs by “beatmatching”, syncing tempos of music, to string together an entire playlist continuously as if it were one track. Subsequent models turned this dial into a sliding fader starting with the SL-1200MK2. This single feature elevated the functionality of a simple device like the record player into a professional piece of equipment used by professional DJs for years to come. It has been the DJ industry’s turntable of choice for nearly half a century.
Sedgewick & Cedar
The “Founders of Hip Hop” had humble beginnings in the ’70s. With their Technics in tow, the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Grand Master Flash, and Grandwizard Theodore started by setting up parties at parks and rec centers. By using 2 turntables and 2 copies of the same song, they developed a technique of live looping breaks, the drum solos, and highlights within the songs, and extending them for people to dance to, later dubbed as “breakbeats”. These early parties took place in New York City’s Bronx neighborhood on Sedgewick Ave then later at Cedar Park. What their ingenuity had created by keeping the party going actually sparked an entire culture of music and lifestyle.
During these early years of hip hop music, Grandwizard Theodore discovered another inﬂuential technique. When he accidentally moved the record back and forth in the same position by attempting to grab the record to stop the music, he took a liking to the new sound that was created. After some trial and error and further experimenting, scratching was born. The manipulation of the record creates a new sound.
These techniques from the early beginnings of hip hop would evolve into the scratching and beat juggling techniques of DJing today. With the progressive advancement of technology over the decades, it birthed the art of scratch DJing or turntablism. DJs have continued to advance the art forward by pushing manufacturers to innovate along with them. One of the crucial pieces for this advancement was the inclusion of the crossfader on DJ mixers. It allowed the DJ to fade in and out of the source of the music. By combing the crossfader and scratch movements together, scratch DJs started to develop a new language of sound that would come to deﬁne hip hop music.
DJing in the New Millenium
When the MP3 ﬁle format was introduced to the world in 1995, no DJ could have imagined how much of an impact this would have on them. Computers were now in the internet age and music was being digitized. As the processing power grew with each new update, it expanded the limits of what computer software could do.
In the year 2001, electronics company Pioneer Global released the world’s ﬁrst CD turntable. It allowed the user to manipulate the music stored on compact discs as if it were a piece of vinyl. It would soon become Pioneer’s ﬂagship DJ unit. With the addition of their now club standard DJM mixer series, they brought forth the digital age of professional DJing. Within a couple of years, a small Dutch company N2IT introduced the world’s ﬁrst Digital Vinyl System with their vinyl emulation software called “Final Scratch.” This DVS software works by connecting the computer to a DVS interface, which allows special time-coded signals to be sent with vinyl, CD, or hardware controller to fully control the music on the software.
The adoption of DVS catapulted the hip hop DJ’s reach within the global music scene. They were no longer held back by the limitations of analog equipment. You could have both the vinyl record feel but not worry about lugging around crate after crate of music. You were able to instantly have a new song that was just recorded moments before available for playback during a DJ set. It oﬃcially put DJs into the next category of professionalism in the music scene while still sticking to their roots cemented into the concrete jungle ﬂoor three decades earlier.
Equipment: Tools of the Trade
Now we can discuss the diﬀerent setups utilized specifically for scratch DJing and turntablism. Each setup will have certain advantages and disadvantages but personal style and preference will be the primary factor in choosing which will work best for any individual as well as accessibility.
2 Turntables & Mixer
The classic setup is still by far the most popular way scratching is performed by DJs everywhere. Using vinyl records and scratching the audio samples and getting a truly authentic experience of being a DJ. This is the preferred setup for most but it can be quite expensive. There will be a higher learning curve for setting up and plugging in the technical aspects of the gear.
- 2 Turntables
- DJ Mixer
- 2 Headshells with needles
- 2 Slipmats
- Vinyl records
DJ controllers are devices that have all the elements of a traditional DJ setup in an all-in-one package. It is a 2 deck setup with a mixer section in between them. Used in conjunction with a computer and DVS software, they give DJs control over functions that were previously not available. There are dedicated cue point buttons for an instant callback of any point in a track. An eﬀects section also allows the user to add a long list of audio eﬀects such as echo, delay, ﬂanger, etc. Controllers come in various sizes and options. They range from entry-level units to professional-grade machines. Generally, controllers come in at a much lower price point compared to the traditional DJ setup and are more user-friendly for setup.
- DJ Controller
- Computer or Laptop
- DVS Software
- MP3 or WAV audio ﬁles and/ or Music Streaming Service Subscription
Portable Turntables (Portablism)
In recent years, there has been a rise in the DJ subculture with the goal of making turntablism more portable. Usually conﬁned to working with heavy premium equipment that was stuck inside homes and studios, DJs instead began to turn to a more minimal economical setup. It was reduced to the bare essentials so that DJs could travel with it where ever they wanted. It became an inexpensive way to explore turntablism and learn how to scratch. The ability to bring your setup anywhere opened up the DJs to collaborate and share their skills. Portable turntablism, or Portablism, was born.
- Lightweight portable turntable with battery power
- Built-in or external crossfader
- Headphones or small battery-powered speaker
- 7-inch vinyl with audio samples
- 7-inch slipmat
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Meet Kenichi Thomas
Kenichi Thomas (aka DJ Just Nine) has been exploring music without regard for genres from a young age. That expansive taste, plus a desire to perfect the craft of DJing has earned him notable achievements like touring with Rhymesayers Entertainment artist Atmosphere; serving as I Self Devine’s tour DJ for five years; and performing on high-profile stages such as Rock The Bells, SxSW, Low End Theory, Afropunk Festival, 2018’s Super Bowl Live, and numerous Soundset Festivals. Just Nine currently holds down the decks for Minneapolis hip hop artist Greg Grease, countless club nights throughout the Twin Cities, and as a founding member of the future-funk band Astralblak (formerly known as ZULUZULUU). Together with Astralblak, he has released three albums on Sound Vérité Records (2016’s “What’s The Price”, 2018’s “Seeds”, and 2020’s “Space & Time EP”). Kenichi is on MacPhail’s EMRA (Electronic Music Recording Arts) faculty and teaches in our school partnership program. More information on Kenichi and current lessons and classes…
This curriculum is made possible through a MacPhail Center for Music School Partnerships initiative, Project Amplify, a grant-funded, music education initiative focused on strengthening learning opportunities for K-12 Minnesota music students from historically marginalized backgrounds. This effort provides transformational programming that nurtures creativity, honors students’ backgrounds, and provides tools and resources to support K-12 educators.
About MacPhail Center for Music’s School Partnership Program
MacPhail School Partnerships enrich the lives of students by providing unrivaled in-person or live online instruction in tandem with Minnesota schools. Our staff works with schools to develop customized and relevant programming through individual instruction, sectionals, ELL support, residencies, masterclasses, and more.
Visit School Partnerships for more information, or contact Ben Bussey