by Jeela Ongley
There was a time when vinyl records were handled with the utmost care: You’d delicately slide the platter from its sleeve (avoiding the etched surfaces at all costs), secure it on the spindle, then balance the stylus on its smooth lip. The telltale "ssssshht" sound marked the moment the needle slid into the groove, where it stayed until the A-side finished, and it was time to turn the record over. Back in those days, before baby boomers abandoned vinyl, a record collection didn’t travel far from the home entertainment system, and children were not trusted to put their grubby little fingers on the hi-fi.
DJ QBert sends sound
spaceward from a rooftop
in Honolulu's Chinatown.
photo: V. Violet
Fast forward to the present. Vinyl records are tools in the hands of sonic architects who literally "scratch" discs by moving them back and forth while the turntable spins. Records are marked and manhandled, and the needle touches down only at the break or sound that the DJ chooses. The art of scratching grew out of the culture of hip-hop, and now it’s got its own branch on the musical tree; the debate over whether a turntable can be used as a musical instrument is passé—the answer, explains internationally known DJ QBert, is a very definite yes.
QBert is one of the world’s most influential and innovative scratch DJs. He carries himself like a Zen master, with an ever-present air of calm. On stage, he has an explosive energy as his hands execute lightening-fast maneuvers, flying over his instruments—turntables, a mixer—as he builds a musical collage with layers of beats, scratches and samples. He makes it look easy and natural but still remembers his initial astonishment when, as a teenager living in Northern California, he saw DJ Grandmaster DST performing with Herbie Hancock on a mid-’80s television special; they were doing Rockit, the hit that popularized scratching, and DST was manipulating a turntable to get sounds that QBert had never heard before. "I was like, what is that?" he says. "It was so futuristic."
Within a year, QBert was scratching along to the radio using an Egyptian Lover album on an old console stereo his father had given him. Though he started "just for fun," his competitive spirit quickly emerged and found an outlet in the burgeoning Bay Area DJ scene. "It became like a sport, I guess," he explains, "to meet up with all these DJs and try to have better ideas than them."
On the scene, QBert met DJ Yoga Frog, who is today his artistic and business partner. Together, they now run Thud Rumble, one of the most original and important DJ-centric enterprises on the planet—one that operates, in part, out of Honolulu.