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Back in the day, I regularly watched DJ Radar perform with his Bombshelter DJs crew at Nita's Hideaway and, later, the Green Room. The scratch virtuoso and I became friends, and I rarely missed one of his sets, even if it was at a rave where he was the only hip-hop DJ in the house.
On March 7, 2001, the definition of DJ changed forever as several hundred of us watched as Radar, sporting a tuxedo, took the stage at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe with Arizona State University's symphony orchestra. With one turntable and a custom-pressed record, he and the musicians launched into the first movement of Concerto for Turntable, the classical composition he'd collaborated on with multi-instrumentalist and fellow Phoenician Raul Yañez for the previous year.
It was instant alchemy; using the pitch control, Radar weaved a string-sounding melody amongst horns and tinkling chimes. His scratching battled the bass drums, until it escalated into breakbeats and the symphony faded for his solo. He filleted breaks and scratched like a man possessed, until the symphony rushed back in and the cacophony built to a dramatic finale.
Finally, I thought, the turntable will be recognized as a genuine instrument.
Apparently so. Now the world -- or, at least, a hunk of New York City -- will be treated to the same (okay, even better) when Radar takes the stage on Sunday, October 2, at Carnegie Hall. He'll be accompanied by an orchestra consisting of the most promising collegiate classical musicians from around the world, to perform the full three movements of Yañez's Concerto for the first time ever.
The full Concerto is the main event of what's being called Artsehcro by its sponsor, Red Bull (spell "orchestra" backward -- silly, but that was Red Bull's call). Artsehcro will also feature Yañez's Suite for Strings and Turntable, Radar's composition From Scratch, a freestyle jazz session with Yañez on a Hammond B3 and Radar on turntable, and a Latin piece, Ciempies, that Yañez wrote for his band, the Chicano Power Revival, to play with Radar. The preliminary pieces are intended to be an aural representation of Radar and Yañez's collaborative process.
"That's when we're really free," Radar says of the planned opening performances. "It's not limiting, but it's disciplined. Scratching and jazz are freeform arts; it's a good balance. I'll be doing the looping stuff first, then we'll do the jazz duo so the audience can visualize the story, the worlds we come from and how we collaborate. It's very humbling . . . unbelievable."
The Concerto will be conducted by maestro Constantine Kitsopoulos, whose credentials are impeccable, including being music director and principal conductor of Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Bohème, and a season as music director of Les Misrableson Broadway. The student orchestra was culled from six months of auditions and more than 300 applicants to get the 60-plus classical musicians from universities worldwide.
It's a massive undertaking, especially when you consider that each of the collegiate musicians had to audition as well as write an essay about why they should be included in the orchestra. "When I got the [essays] back, I was like, 'Damn, man, these guys are really taking this serious,'" Yañez says.
In the initial days after the Gammage performance in 2001, Yañez wasn't even sure this would happen. "I really didn't think so," he tells me. "Red Bull was pushing me for all three [movements]; the first one took a year. The whole thing was written in 2001, but I just didn't orchestrate the other two movements -- it's a lot of work. I just never saw it being performed so soon."
The key to the Concerto for Turntable's execution was Radar's invention of a method for transcribing scratch music using the classical staff system, implementing a set of symbols he calls articulations. Radar debuted this with his Antimatter 12-inch single back in 2000, which came with the score inserted into the sleeve. "I'm trying to merge two scenes together: the younger hip-hop, urban scratch scene with the older, classical conservative scene," he says.
Shortly after Antimatter, Radar and Yañez began working on the Concerto. Until the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, its first movement has been debuted three times: at Gammage, at New York University with its symphony orchestra, and most recently, with a student orchestra in Riga, Latvia.
The Latvia show, this past April, was a pinnacle for Radar. "After Gammage I didn't think it could get much better. But I was totally blown away in Latvia. They don't understand hip-hop culture, but they totally embraced it. There were four standing ovations, and I just froze up; it was so loud, they wouldn't stop. I couldn't even do an encore. I froze up, just enjoying the moment, in shock."
Still, it pales when compared to the formidable and fabled Carnegie Hall.
The Carnegie Hall concert never would have happened without Red Bull's support as the sponsor. This understandably has raised questions about the megalith company's intentions. Will the Concerto pop up in Red Bull commercials? When the subject comes up with Yañez, he says Red Bull has been nothing but supportive of the duo's creative energies. He says that, when talking to a local reporter, "He was trying to get me to say something negative about working for Red Bull, that they'd start trying to manipulate it into a commercial. The truth is, it's all on us."
"Red Bull isn't about branding," Radar tells me. "They're cutting-edge, they want something off the main path. I was really hesitant about 'Red Bull presents . . . ,' but they made my dream happen. No record label could have afforded this." He puts the figure at around a half-million dollars for the entire production. "They've done more than any record label ever would."
The Carnegie Hall world première of Concerto for Turntable isn't where the saga ends, though. There will be a DVD, a scratch notation book, a solo album, and yes, another classical composition. "The second one will be that much better," Radar says. "It's been such a learning experience; Raul and I have grown so much as musicians."
He also hopes to return to teaching turntablism at Scottsdale Community College in the near future, where he wants to merge Yañez's talents with his curriculum, adding composing techniques to the syllabus.
Yet Yañez, who teaches music at an elementary school, hasn't lost his humility. He points out that, thus far, the full three movements have never been performed (the orchestra will rehearse for the three days preceding the show). "It's all theoretical at this point. We've got to pray it's going to work." Then he laughs. "You've gotta understand my insecurity; it's the most prestigious hall in the world."