Scratching, in the physical sense, is the act of moving a vinyl record against a needle to create the familiar whizzing, dipping, bending sounds that infiltrate every form of entertainment these days. In a larger, more cosmic sense, scratching is the sound of a new form of expression, or so the world’s DJs firmly believe.
Makers of films and commercials use the basic scratch sound to alert their audiences to abrupt changes or important points in their stories. Likewise, many young and talented musicians see scratching—or “turntablism,” as all of scratching’s various forms are called—as nothing less than a harbinger of a new musical era.
If this is strange, confusing stuff to you, you’re the target audience for Scratch, a fascinating documentary made by Mike Pray, who celebrated grunge music while simultaneously sounding its death knell in 1996’s Hype! In an up-tempo, comprehensive 102 minutes, Pray outlines the roots of scratching, profiles many of the most talented DJs ever to touch a record, and takes us inside the labyrinthine subculture of a still-nascent musical form.
Everybody knows what scratching sounds like, but did you know that a really strange guy called Grand Wizzard Theodore is generally considered the first person ever to do it on purpose? Then there’s Grandmixer DXT, whose scratching on Herbie Hancock’s 1983 pop hit “Rockit” inspired a generation of underground turntablists—a term invented by DJ Babu. It’s almost worth the price of admission to watch the artists’ names roll across the screen. (How is it possible to doubt the artistic sincerity of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters?)
What’s more, most of the DJs and aficionados interviewed by Pray are genuinely likable guys, and their unconditional love of their art is simply infectious. From its humble underground roots, scratching has spread across the nation, with many of its most accomplished artists working in the Bay Area and New York City. We learn that twin turntables and faders outsell guitars at some music stores, and we watch teenagers embracing an art their parents know nothing about. They’re maniacally dedicated (DJ Shadow’s search for records suitable for scratching is an urban Easter-egg hunt) and consumed by their art in recordings, performances and lively competitions between rival DJs.
Pray attempts a filmic interpretation of scratching by assembling his documentary with frantic, jumpy editing, and sound designer David Bartlett’s Dolby Digital 5.1 mix keeps it real on the audio tracks. Everything is designed to pull us further into the thick atmosphere of dim-lit clubs, ferocious bass and smoking vinyl. Pray’s film is an outstanding primer for those with no background in this world, but it’s lively and sophisticated enough to entertain those who make it their business to know about counterculture cool long before it’s covered in a wide-release documentary.
More than anything, we come away from Scratch heartened by the thought that someone still may save hip-hop, the only form of music that still has the power to spark denunciation from old people. The DJ movement itself seems to be the building block of a new expression form for hip-hop artists unobsessed by bitches and money. Pray doesn’t flinch from the eccentricity of this art, but he has an abiding affinity with the dedicated oddballs who live to dig through old record bins and turn their findings into something new.
The Piklz’ final jam, at San Francisco’s Fillmore in 2000, is recalled in surprisingly touching detail as a fitting capstone to what’s essentially a love letter to artistic passion. Scratching isn’t as easy as it looks, but after watching Scratch, it’s much easier to appreciate.