Classes that teach scratching
DJ Chi bobs his head to the rhythm as his fingers play over the record in front of him, one hand on the fader switch and the other skipping over the vinyl, while Possum, Raydar, Moses and the other DJs in the room listen to his beat. This is not a DJ battle or a rave, but a “turntable technique” class at Berklee College of Music. Berklee claims to be the first music school in the country to offer such a class as part of its general curriculum. Turntablism is an essential part of hip-hop, the urban music and culture that’s grown up around DJs — shorthand for disc jockeys — manipulating records to create sound combinations.
Scratching, or moving a record rhythmically forward and backward under the needle, is a core skill of turntable artists. Rapping is another. After several years of fits and starts for the class, Berklee allowed turntablism for students who want to learn to spin tracks and beat match, twiddle and tear.
Samuel Hope, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Music, said he has not heard of another such class. “Doing something of this kind is certainly within the grand tradition of innovation, which is part of the arts,” he said. “Only time will tell if this is a fad or not.” The school’s decision to add the class to its curriculum is one milestone in the evolution of hip-hop music and culture, which originated in the 1970s in poor urban neighbourhoods and has since exploded into a lucrative segment of the music and entertainment industry.
School administrators eventually decided it was valid, as the school had done with other music forms that moved from the margins to the mainstream, said Gary Burton, Berklee’s executive vice president who led the study group for Webber’s class proposal. “We’re dealing with popular music, jazz music, contemporary music of today, and we’re constantly looking to young artists and our students to see where it’s going,” he said. During a recent class, the students — four women and four men — line up in two rows, facing each other across their turntables.
After Webber greets the students, they start with “beat matching,” making the rhythms from their turntables correspond exactly to Webber’s — a necessary skill for DJs, who assemble beats by carefully weaving music from one record with another. After that, the students practice different techniques of scratching, such as scribbles, stabs and lasers, using tracks of white noise and Cajun music from Webber’s practice album. The tracks include samples of Richard Nixon proclaiming, “I am not a crook!” “Even when jazz came out in he ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, our parents’ parents were looking at it like a racket and all that kind of stuff, and it would never be a form of music,” says DJ Raydar, aka 21-year-old Brian W Ellis. “It’s only natural that a musical form gets shunned first, then accepted, then embraced, then taught.”