Master of the Universe
"I like trying to remain mysterious," says Michael Schwartz, whose turntablist nom de plume is Mix Master Mike. "It's like hitting and running -- hit the spot, then go home and work on the formula until my next call comes, and I get a chance to show people real hip-hop on the turntables. And then I disappear again."
If remaining in the shadows is Mike's goal, he's been shining a bit too brightly as of late. As one of the men behind the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, as well as the spinner who accompanied the Beastie Boys on their pleasure-packed 1998 disc Hello Nasty and the global tour that followed its release, the Masterful one is arguably the most renowned turntable jockey on this or any other planet, and perhaps the most gifted.
Although the term "turntablist" is a fairly new one -- Rich "QBert" Quitevis, Mike's Skratch Piklz mate, is generally credited with coining it -- the phenomenon of DJs dragging toned arms across slabs o' wax goes back at least as far as the birth of rap music in the '70s. However, it's only been in the past decade or so that these artists have been regularly accorded headlining status -- and too many of them still treat this opportunity as a rationale for self-indulgence and showboating that recalls rock-concert drum solos at their most stereotypical. But while Mike is capable of manhandling turntables with the best in the business, he also has a sense of structure that helps transform his formidable technique into something that's all too rare: good tunes. As he puts it, "A lot of DJs, their stuff doesn't go anywhere. They just grab a noise and start scratching, and that's all it is. It's just scratching; there's no reason for it. But I compose each scratch -- put them where they're supposed to go. And I do that throughout the whole song.
"I've always wanted to be kind of like the Mozart or the Beethoven of scratching," he adds. "You know -- like a one-man scratch orchestra."
A native of San Francisco, the capital of the turntablist nation, Mike was exposed to loads of music during his formative years, from a slew of different genres: "Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, all the Motown stuff, the Meters, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash and lots of other stuff," he notes. Then, at 14, his mind was blown by hip-hop -- and unlike a lot of his peers, who only wanted to spit out rhymes and spin on their backs like funky robots, he soon became obsessed with learning the science behind the beats. At first, he used a couple of his uncle's old tape decks, merging different tunes by repeatedly punching the pause buttons. But shortly thereafter, he got a load of Grandmixer DST, whose skills burst into the mainstream thanks to "Rockit," a Herbie Hancock hit from the album Future Shock (just reissued by Legacy/Epic along with several other Hancock opuses from the period). And a new fixation was born.
Before long, Mike was playing house parties as part of a mobile-DJ crew -- and at one such bash, he met Quitevis. The teen who would be QBert had zero experience with scratching, but after getting an eyeful of Mike, he knew he had to find out more. The next day, Mike began schooling QBert in the skill, spawning a rivalry that would eventually grow into a partnership. By 1991, QBert was good enough with a stylus to win the U.S. DMC (Disco Mixing Club) crown at a competition in Chicago, an accomplishment that Mike more than exceeded the following year when he claimed victory at the so-called Supermen Battle for World Supremacy in New York, which established him as the globe's DJ supreme -- the first West Coaster to be so recognized.
He and QBert, accompanied by a buddy known as Apollo, also took the top prize at 1992's DMC World Championship, and when the Mike-QBert tandem repeated the feat in 1993 and 1994, the folks at DMC did the logical thing: They put the duo in the DMC hall of fame and forbade them from competing in the future, to give someone else a chance.
Mike has no complaints about being banned. "For me, winning the three world titles was kind of like Game of Death with Bruce Lee," he says. "You work your way up through the levels in a turntable fight. And once I got through all the levels, it opened me up to different battles: battling on vinyl, battling the industry to put the music out, battling other types of music."
The war thus far has been waged on several fronts. In 1996, Mike released his first disc, the currently unavailable Michristmasterpiece Muzik's Worst Nightmare, on the tiny Down to Earth imprint. The next year, the Skratch Piklz -- Mike, QBert, Shortkut (J. Cruz), D-Styles (Dave Cuasito) and Yoga Frog (Ritchie Desuasido, who replaced Lou Quintanilla, nicknamed DJ Disk) -- bowed with Invisibl Skratch Piklz vs. Da Klamz Uv Deth, an EP on Asphodel. Since then, they've put out five volumes of scratching on the indie Hip Hop Slam under the umbrella title The Shiggar Fraggar Show.
But to date, the finest recorded evidence of Mike's expertise can be found on 1998's fabulous Anti-Theft Device, an Asphodel effort that bubbles over with inventiveness and humor. "Ultra Intro" kicks off the proceedings with a sci-fi fanfare that leads directly into the slamming hip-hop of "Ill Shit" and the cheeky "Unidentified," in which an announcer intones, "Attention everyone: This is an emergency broadcast. The unpleasant noise you are about to hear coming from your radio is not a mistake. Please do not turn off your radio, but turn up the volume on your receiver as high as it can go, so that you can make the sound we broadcast as loud as possible." (An instant later, the disc pumps out a space burble overmodulated enough to blow any speaker available -- but what a way to go.) Other highlights include "Billie Klubb," in which Mike's scratching seems to duel with a wonderfully dorky guitar figure; the ultra-aggressive yet consistently witty "Can of Kick Ass;" and "Black Level Clearance," with its "Walk This Way" beat and creative deconstruction of a certain slang term for coitus.
"Mixing things up like that is totally what I try to achieve," Mike says. "Like I take something from left field to right field, something from right field to left field, and something from right field to home plate -- trying to blend three entities into one form. But I also want it to hang together. Like sometimes when I'm doing a scratch hook, I'll scratch the same horn over the course of a song, so people can identify it. They'll go, like, 'Yeah, it's that song.'"
This mix of underground sensibilities and commercial savvy makes the Mix Master the ideal DJ for the Beastie Boys. But it took him some lobbying before he won the gig: After meeting Adam Yauch in 1995 and glomming on to his phone number, Mike kept leaving scratched snippets on Yauch's answering machine until he finally caved in. The last message is now preserved as the opening to "Three MCs and One DJ," a highlight of Hello Nasty.
In contrast to the club and theater shows to which he was accustomed, the Beasties dates staged in Nasty's wake generally took place in arenas or stadiums; Mike was thrilled by the chance to spread the turntablist gospel to such throngs. "I was like the messenger," he says. "I'd get on my bike and tell 'em what was going on." But hanging with the masses hasn't caused him to lose his taste for smaller-scale performances where he's completely in charge. "When I do my own show, it's not really planned. It's like I'm going up there trying to come across kind of like John Coltrane playing his horn. You know, free-flowing, kind of feeling the crowd, putting myself in their shoes -- thinking, 'If I came to see this show, what would I want to see? What would flip me out?'"
At the same time, he enjoys the challenge of facing audiences made up mainly of turntablist virgins. On New Year's Eve in Miami, he and Perry Farrell, of Lollapalooza and Jane's Addiction fame, provided the music for a Todd Oldham fashion show attended by patrons who weren't exactly hip-hop regulars -- "but that was the great part about it," he says. "There was this satisfaction knowing that none of these people knew what was about to hit them. It made me try even harder. Like, 'okay, check this out.'"
The Master brings the same attitude to two forthcoming solo recordings for Asphodel. First up is Eye of the Cyclops, an EP due to hit stores within weeks; he calls it "an authentic piece, a scratch painting" that will serve as the perfect introduction to Terror Wrist, a follow-up to Anti-Theft Device set for a September release. The full-length, which will include a guest spot by Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha, whom Mike met during the Beastie Boys' jaunt, is more mature than its predecessor, he says, "and there's a whole lot more action -- action-packed sound coming in from every direction without colliding. I'm like a scratch traffic controller, dealing with things coming from everywhere, and noises coming out of nowhere. There are a lot of really obscure jazz samples on it, and even some accordion samples if you listen closely. And beats, man. Banging beats. Heavy beats."
Should Terror Wrist take off, Mike hopes to use its success as a platform to start a label devoted entirely to turntablism. "I want people to be able to walk into Tower Records someday and in the sections, right by blues and jazz and whatever, there'll be a scratch-music section," he says. "That's what I'm waiting for. I want to build a whole scratch empire."
And there are plenty of kindred spirits just waiting for such a revolution, he believes: "Back in the day, kids would be break dancing and b-boying. But now a lot more kids are staying in their bedrooms, mixing shit. They're becoming hermits."
So parents who want to keep their children out of trouble should encourage them to become DJs?
"Definitely," Mike enthuses. "It'll definitely keep 'em out of trouble."
Mix Master Mike is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, April 5, at Pompeii in Tempe, with Rahzel from the Roots' crew, and Cholair.
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