Music News

Scratch Fever

On March 7, 2001, Valley virtuosos DJ Radar and Raul Yanez pulled off one of Arizona's few great historical events in music history, the performance of the first movement of their classical composition Concerto for Turntable. On the stage at ASU's Gammage Auditorium and accompanied by ASU's symphony orchestra, Radar wove his turntable trickery in and around the dramatic strings, soaring horns and tinkling chimes, using his pitch control to imitate the violins' melody and scratching his way through intricate rhythms born of his on-the-fly looping (on his custom-built sampler). Music academia paid attention; the marriage of classical composition with an instrument as unconventional as the turntable was unheard of, but it made complete sense. It was a triumph for turntablism as a form of music, a validation of the machine's artistic merit. For Radar and Yanez, it was the realization of countless hours, weeks and months of determined work, predicated on their insistence on removing barriers between musical genres.

Now, some 18 months later, the two are reemerging to destroy even more notions about where types of music divide, performing for the first time as a jazz duo (on turntable and keys) at the Rhythm Room.

The two auteurs hail from seemingly different backgrounds. Yanez fronts a jazz trio as well as the Chicano Power Revival, a massive band (usually 10-plus musicians) that blends Latin American influences with jazz, whipping up a maelstrom of stylistics, all bonded by the group's overwhelming energy. CPR released its eponymous debut album earlier this year and is gearing up for a Christmas show on December 7 at the Red River Music Hall. "We're just gonna go ahead and arrange Christmas songs, but with the fire that CPR has," Yanez says.

Yanez is close to finishing his MFA from ASU's jazz department, but he recently took a hiatus from higher academics to teach band to elementary and middle-school students in the Tempe School District. For the last three years, Yanez has taught jazz classes at ASU, but he abandoned them this year in favor of younger blood.

"By the time [the ASU students] get to college, most of them have already made their mind up," Yanez explains. "If they're not really into jazz, I feel like I'm wasting my time. I feel like I can make more of a difference at the elementary level. With kids, they're completely open to everything -- you just have to make the right analogy." In that spirit, he's introducing his students to their instruments via contemporary music rather than classical standards. "I showed up with a sampler and played some hip-hop stuff, playing live with kick-bass and some key overloops I have, and the kids went crazy."

Radar's musical career is peppered with academia and theory as well, but his forte is in hip-hop and turntablism. With former partners Z-Trip and Emile (collectively known as Bombshelter DJs), he built a worldwide reputation as a premier scratch DJ -- his album with Z-Trip, Live at the Future Primitive, is considered a scratch standard. Radar also has studied classical music for nearly half of his years, so when his obsessions collided, a colleague steered him to Yanez to collaborate. Their mission: to rework the classical staff system so that scratching could be scored and, conversely, composed on paper.

The result was Radar's 12-inch vinyl single Antimatter, which came with a booklet containing the complete score of the song. To prepare himself for scoring Antimatter, Yanez transcribed the work of several other scratch artists, "to get a feel for what this whole phenomenon is," he says. Once the scoring process was refined, the pair then sought to prove its worth by composing Concerto for Turntable, the first classical work to feature a turntable strictly as an instrument. One turntable, no mixing -- just pitch manipulation, live looping and scratch virtuosity.

Concerto's debut is now a thing of legend and, while its evolution is far from complete, Radar and Yanez are shifting their focus to a new offshoot of the project. "We just realized [while composing the Concerto] that we were mostly getting together and jamming, and we just decided we should just do it live," Yanez says.

"It's something that we'd been talking about for a long time," Radar adds. "Finally, we just started rehearsing. There's a lot of improv stuff, but there's written compositions as well -- a lot of different things."

Though it's a direct result of their excursion into classical territory, the jazz-duo project requires a completely different approach to welding their respective talents. "For me, in the orchestra project, I spent a lot of time listening and talking to Radar; then I started writing a composition around those techniques," Yanez explains. "What's different about this is now we're taking turns -- when I talk to Radar for this project, I'm talking to him as if he was a jazz drummer, that's how we're working at it."

For his part, Radar plays off of Yanez's keyboard antics as if he were another scratch artist on a separate set of decks, as he has often done with DJs such as Z-Trip and Q-Bert. "I'm making him be a turntablist, or think like a turntablist," Radar says of Yanez. "We're trading positions in a sense; it's like a perfect circle -- we're switching roles. I'm entering the jazz world, and he's entering the turntablist world."

"At first we thought this would be easy," Yanez says. "We'd just sequence a lot of stuff. But I was like, You know what? That's not the way the jazz I like is,' and when I hear all the turntable stuff that Radar's been exposing me to, that stuff is live also. We're entering a new world, creating a new world, and a lot of this is still kind of rough at the edges."

"It's live, rough and raw," Radar interjects.

Yanez continues, "I've been studying jazz for, shit, I don't even know how long now, and that's really where I come from. It's just cool to get out of that whole scene and view music in a whole new other way. It breaks a lot of monotonies for me, a lot of jazz clichés."

"This is complete freedom; there's no standard," Radar concludes.

While discovering themselves anew in their fresh montage of styles, Radar and Yanez continue to work on Concerto, which has two movements yet to be unveiled. They recently finished work on a studio recording of the first movement, enlisting some of the Valley's most accomplished musicians. They're also busy adapting the arrangements for ensembles other than the orchestra, such as brass bands and concert bands.

"We're just trying to reach out to other genres and pull from them and make the exchange again," Radar says. Concerto is also being adapted for performance by an all-turntable ensemble, and Radar says that the CD will contain several different remixes of the first movement.

Together Radar and Yanez have succeeded in completely defying labels, creating hybrids far more innovative and interesting than rote combinations like record-scratching in rock songs.

"I'm trying to push turntablism into a different realm, experimenting with the acoustic world, and I think that's the next step. It's acoustic projects like these that are gonna take it to other places," Radar asserts. "[The Concerto project] has been well-received by all my peers; it's a great feeling for something I've been working on for so long to be accepted by the academia world and the turntablist world. It's a balance between trying to stay true to both of those."

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Brendan Joel Kelley