Scratch DJ Pioneer DJ QBert on the Art of Turntablism

From the DJ History archives: one of the founding members of Inivisbl Skratch Piklz on the history of DJ techniques and the competitive nature of the art form

QBert courtesy of Thud Rumble LTD

Richard Quitevis, also known as DJ QBert, looms large over the past three decades of turntablism history. Born and raised in San Francisco, Quitevis began DJing at the age of 15. He met Mix Master Mike at a DJ battle in their high school cafeteria; in 1989, the pair of them formed a DJ crew called Invisibl Skratch Piklz, along with DJ Apollo. They were the first to operate as a turntablism band, with each member separately layering drums, vocals and basslines.

Quitevis dominated the competitive DJ scene in the early ’90s. He, Apollo and Mike won the Disco Mix Club (DMC) World Championships in 1992 under the name Rocksteady DJs; he won again in ’94, this time as part of the duo Dream Team with Mike. Over the latter half of the ’90s, Qbert released numerous influential mixtapes, including the highly regarded 1999 album Wave Twisters, which was later turned into an animated film. He continues to tour around the world.

DJ History

In this 1999 interview with Frank Broughton, Quitevis goes into detail about the roots of turntablism, his role in the competitive scene and where he thinks it’s going next.

Do you think it’s true to say that turntablism kept the old school alive, with battles and everything?

It is part of hip-hop, and it’s very overlooked, just like beatboxing is overlooked, b-boying and graffiti. It’s always been there, but I guess you can say it’s been overlooked.

When hip-hop started it was all about the DJ, then it was the MC. Do you think turntablism was the DJ’s revenge?

I wouldn’t say revenge. I would say it was more of an evolution. I always listened to the scratching more than I would the MC. I would always search for that. As far as everyone else, I don’t know. I think it’s much easier to MC than it is to scratch. There’s less of it, and it takes more time to evolve, than actual poetry. Poetry’s been around for millions of years, but scratching just started in the late ’70s, so it’s still a brand new thing. It does take time to develop. But it’s coming to the point where it’s getting pretty developed, and people can view it as a musical instrument. The piano and the guitar have been around for so long, people recognize that as a musical instrument. But like I said, the turntable has been around for not so long. It takes time to develop it into [people] knowing that it is a musical instrument.

Why do you think there’s a sudden resurgence of interest?

Because, like I said, [there are] so many weird things you can do with it, and it’s so interesting that it is a musical instrument. It’s so strange. Kids today, instead of wanting to learn to play guitar or piano, they want to take up a turntable and scratch.

In the US, maybe only big cities know about scratching. But in Japan, it’s so tight; because of their togetherness and knowledge of what’s around them, the turntable outsells the electric guitar.

I think that’s true in the UK, too. People are also making turntable albums now. Why do you think so many people are getting into it?

It just started off with a couple of scratches here and there, and you didn’t have a wide range of techniques to do, at the time. You couldn’t make a whole album. You could probably make a few songs. But then you’d probably repeat the same scratch over and over again. But now it’s maturing. It’s almost, I guess, about 20. In America, the legal age to drink is 21. It’s becoming of legal age, it’s becoming mature now. So there’s a lot more intelligence put into it, a lot of maturity. It’s got much more of an intellectual life to it, now. It can express itself in many ways. Before, when it was just a baby, it couldn’t. It couldn’t have an album of just the same baby talk, the whole time.

It’s an infinite amount of sound. Any sound that’s recorded, you can scratch.

Where do you think it’s gonna go next?

It can go in many directions. Look at the electric guitar: you’ve got flamenco guitar, country guitar, punk rock, rock, thrash, metal, jazz guitar. You name it.

So you think it’s going to be as versatile as that?

It’s gonna be an infinite versatility. It’s gonna keep expanding forever. ‘Cause there’s so many sounds you can use. It’s an infinite amount of sound. Any sound that’s recorded, you can scratch. Or make use out of. It’s totally ridiculous.

Who were the first DJs to start playing in ensembles?

We started that in ’89 or ’88, when Mixmaster Mike and Apollo got together and made the first turntable band, where everything was scratched, as opposed to a whole bunch of DJs mixing together on turntables. They were the first to make it a band. One would play drums, one would play vocals, scratch guitar riffs and stuff. Experiment with different ways of composing stuff as an orchestra.

So you guys were the first?

I haven’t seen anyone else do that before we did. [The way] it started off, I was drumming a beat, I was scratching a drum beat, and Mixmaster Mike walks into the room and starts scratching to it. And Apollo said, “Aw, that sounds cool.” And he starts throwing in his sound.

So it just happened by accident.

Totally. Totally by accident.

Where did you take it from there?

From there we just kept playing with it, and we had fun, and then all these sounds were coming out, and we were freestyling, and changing records, and trying all these different combinations. We were supposed to do a mix show, but instead of doing a mix show, it was half mix show, half turntable band.

Will you guys be working with traditional instruments?

Well, we’ve done that in the past, but we want to focus on what you can do with just turntables. Because that’s our focus. Strictly turntables. Because each turntable can emulate a band member, so instead of playing with other bands, we want to focus on something that hasn’t been really tapped into. Pure turntables.

DJ Qbert & Mix Master Mike AKA Dream Team at the DMC World Championship 1993

How important were Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money and the Philly DJs to it all?

Extremely, extremely important. They were the first ones to bring out transforming, and bringing chirps to another level. Just bringing all these weird styles, and ways of scratching, that have never been done before. Before that it was just forward scratches, the stabs. They brought all these new techniques, and not just bringing them out, but developing them. They marinated those styles for so long, and it remained unseen by the public for a long time. It gave them time to develop those styles. And when they did come out with it, it was new styles, new techniques, original patterns, and they just flipped the whole scratching world around.

Was there a scene there? Was there a guy named Spinbad?

I heard he made up the transformer, but it was a really slow thing. And then Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff saw it, and because they’re so good, they just took it back home and tore that style right up.

And Cash Money was the one who did it in the DMC.

Yeah. Jazzy Jeff was the first to do it on record, and I think Cash Money is the one who named it.

Do you know what record that was?

The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff by Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.

So transforming was the key to it all?

It wasn’t the key to it all, it was one of their techniques. I think the key to it all was, because they were Philly’s two best, they would always try to outdo each other. So what happened is, because they’re trying to outdo each other, the techniques became so high level, that when they finally came out to the public, it was like, “Wow, what the hell is this shit?” I think the competition between the two was what made it.

And then beat-juggling…

Grandmaster Flash was the first one, and then different people were doing it, like Cash Money. Cash Money was beat-juggling in like ’87. And then Steve D took that style and made all these other things out of it.

So it was very much based on what Flash had done originally, with the spinbacks?

Yeah, just bringing the beats back and forth. That’s the basis of it. Grandmaster Flash, he was the first one to cut on-beat. That totally was the first beat-juggler right there.

Which New Music Seminar was it where Steve D introduced it?

1990, DMC USA.

And he won that?

No. He should have won that, but he didn’t. It’s just that the judges were not aware of how good he was. At that time, body tricks were really powerful. At the time, [the judges] were blinded by the glamour of the body tricks.

DJ QBert – Cosmic Assassins

And that’s died out now?

It’s still there, but the majority of it now is pure technique and sound. Musicianship.

And they banned you from competing? What’s the actual story?

Everyone twists this. The actual story is that Tony Prince and his wife said, “Why don’t you guys just judge this year?” and we thought, “Yeah, we’ll judge.” They wanted us to do a showcase instead of competing, and just judge, and have a good time. And so we did that instead.

This interview was conducted in 1999. © DJ History

By Frank Broughton on January 30, 2019

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