Working From Scratch

DJ Radar offers a different read of turntable music with the score to 'Antimatter'

Radar, one-third of the Valley's most acclaimed turntable crew, the Bombshelter DJs (hailed by Spin magazine as the ninth best in the world), has been studying music formally since the age of 9, and he's helping lead the charge of turntablists into the well-guarded strata of classical composers. At Scratchcon 2000, the first multinational conference for hip-hop turntablists, held in San Francisco two months ago ("the biggest thing that's happened to this art," according to Radar), he lectured on a revolutionary method for transcribing turntable-based music.

With his newly released 12-inch single, "Antimatter," Radar has included a written score for the song, using a slightly adapted version of the classical staff system. The score is broken into nine tracks; each was recorded separately onto a multitrack recorder after being composed. The individual notes on the staffs represent where the crossfader is switched to the "on" position (it should be noted that Radar uses one turntable -- with two turntables, the crossfader switches which turntable is being heard; with one turntable, it's basically an "on/off" switch.)

"Each note represents what you're hearing, which is why I like the classical system," explains Radar. "All the other systems I've seen use a visual; it shows what you're doing, it's not an audio representation of what's going on."

Write on: DJ Radar puts a new spin on classical composition.
Paolo Vescia
Write on: DJ Radar puts a new spin on classical composition.

Radar's modifications to the system include an additional group of symbols set above the staff -- an "O" means that your hand should be off the record and the rhythm continues until another change is notated; "+" means the hand should be pushing the record a little faster than normal; "--" is the opposite, the hand should slightly drag the record; "=" is the back-queue articulation, pulling the record backward; "((r))" represents repetition of the hand movement until an articulation change.

"[Those are] the only things I created. The [basis for this] system is hundreds of years old. People say, 'Oh, you created a system.' It's like, 'No, I just adapted the staff system to turntables.'" He says that he's been forced to add several new representations since "Antimatter" was composed, because "there's so many new techniques all the time, like Q-Bert comes up with a lot of new stuff all the time."

The composition and transcription of "Antimatter" is truly a landmark in the art of turntablism. The implications of this sort of "official" documentation may help solidify scratch music's place in the world of legitimate composition. "There's been no written history of this art at all," Radar says. "It's all been audio recordings -- compilations, albums. I wanted to establish it in a written medium, like a score."

Having established this new method, Radar's intentions are to blend both of his musical loves, classical and turntablism. "It's like a culture clash thing for me; I go to symphonies, I listen to classical music all the time, and I'm trying to merge two scenes together -- the younger hip-hop, urban scratch scene with the older, classical, conservative scene. I'm trying to make it relatable from an urban perspective, and then vice versa, make the older conservative crowd recognize the younger generation of music and new instruments."

Is it working? As a longtime student of classical music, Radar is in constant contact with the classical establishment, and thus has the advantage of receiving direct response from composers and instrumentalists unfamiliar with the electronic milieu. "Anyone I talk to on a musical level, it just makes sense [to them]. And that's why I wanted to do this; it makes musical sense, and I wanted to be able to relate to these people and communicate with people that don't understand turntables. A written medium is the only way you can bridge the two genres."

He compares the struggles of turntablists today to those of jazz musicians decades ago. In the accompanying introduction to "Antimatter," Radar writes, "I used the lessons of jazz in its early days of conception to guide me through this developing process. Like jazz, it took many artists who helped to create and influence the creation of this entirely new form of music. . . . Like many musical innovators before them, the challenges for establishing this new form of music was still the same. Primarily, they had to establish that they were credible musicians, with knowledge and mastery in their fields, and secondly, they had the burden of proving that this was a true form of music that required a separate classification from anything else musically known."

When examining the score to "Antimatter," one would assume that it was a long, arduous process to translate the complexities of the style into conventional sheet music. But for Radar, it boiled down to a week's worth of work, though for the complex notations he enlisted Raul Yanez of the Chicano Power Revival Orchestra to assist in transcribing. "I've always had the idea of doing it. When I'm in school, you write songs out first, like on a piano, and I had the same idea for this. I knew what sounds I wanted, I kind of knew what it would sound like just from practicing. I wrote it out bar by bar, sound by sound, then went back and put it in the computer."

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