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Working From Scratch

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

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."

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."

The score for "Antimatter" was actually written before it was recorded; while tracking Radar simply played off of his sheet music.

In his notes to the record, Radar explains that his effort to establish scratch music through a written medium is motivated by a desire to eliminate the lingering doubts as to whether turntablists are genuine artists. But his ultimate goal is much loftier. "I want to be able to teach a class on it someday," he says. "I think it's a great tool to learn. When you learn any instrument, you're supposed to learn to sight read it first, and I think if you learn to sight read it, you can take your art a lot farther. You can take things so much further by writing them down and actually visualizing your art instead of hearing it all the time. The brain can only remember so much, but if you can see and write down what you remember, you can take it that much farther."

Radar says he'll continue scoring the tracks he creates, and surprisingly, he adds that he could transcribe other DJs' scratch tracks simply by hearing them. "From my drumming background, ever since I started I've heard eighth notes, 16th notes, triplets; that's how I hear it, and it always makes sense to me like that. That's how I was trained; my teacher would play something and I'd have to transcribe it."

While this scoring innovation establishes Radar as a pioneer in his field, it's not the only thing that separates him from his peers. As mentioned earlier, the majority of hip-hop DJs use a standard two-turntable/two-record setup. Radar prefers using a single unit and a custom-built sampler he created himself. "I think it's just more bold," he says. "It just makes it more apparent that you don't need other people's music to rock a crowd. I can rock a crowd with one turntable, that's my whole thing behind it. I'm trying to just push it as an instrument and I want to make it apparent that it's an instrument, that's my whole motivation." With the modified sampler, Radar's able to loop his own scratches, beats and bass lines, therefore eliminating the need for another artist's backing track.

At the very least, Radar's efforts seem ambitious, even backed by an intellect that's staggering for a 22-year-old. It's become less surprising when you learn that Radar is a double major in music and computer science at ASU, and studies astrophysics for fun ("I'd have made it my major, but there's not much money in it when you graduate"). As his partner Emile puts it in the July/August issue of URB magazine -- which contains a two-page spread on the Bombshelter DJs -- Radar is "the Stephen Hawking of turntables."

Bring up the subject of turntablism with orthodox composers or classical instrumentalists, and chances are you'll get quizzical, if not condescending, looks in response. Scratch music has, to this point, never melded with the musical establishment (we don't consider Limp Bizkit and Korn part of the "establishment"; we're talking about musicians with IQs above 40). At the moment, DJs are waging an uphill battle to get the music community at large to recognize their genre as a legitimate art form. "But scratching is just moving a record back and forth to make funny screeching sounds, right?" Don't tell that to DJ Radar.

Playing With Our Balls: A couple weeks back, the Sprawl had the opportunity to go bowling with Z-Trip and inimitable hip-hop DJ Peanut Butter Wolf, he of the landmark My Vinyl Weighs a Ton LP and head honcho of Stones Throw Records. Wolf was passing through Phoenix on a coast-to-coast tour of bowling alleys (not performing, just bowling) with Stones Throw cohort Eothan. Though PBW thoroughly schooled the three of us, the Sprawl threw a respectable 127 in the final game, shaming Z-Trip and his puny score of 113. Look for info and photos of the Phoenix stop, as well as the other cities on the tour, at www.stonesthrow.com.

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