Hip-hop sidekicks

A documentary look at the turntablist’s contemporary art.

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In his last documentary, Hype, director Doug Pray traced the rise and fizzle of the Seattle music scene, teeming as it was with rock-star personalities. With Scratch, however, the action is a little harder for Pray to follow. Because, as the movie points out in all its proud, goofy glory, hip-hop DJs are another breed of musician altogether. These are, after all, the guys behind the more outspoken rappers, who avoid the spotlight and spend most of their time looking for records (“digging in the crates”). When they express themselves, they scratch in wicky-wicky Morse code and offer cartoonish theories about aliens and futurism. Compared to fallen grunge idols, these guys are geeks.

It’s in capturing this nerdy, underdog charm that Pray finds his groove. He casts the scratch DJ as a musical outcast — not unlike, say, the indie filmmaker — finding an affability in the culture’s whimsical intensity. In tribute to the turntable art, Pray — who also edited the film — cuts up his dialogue, while his grainy montages echo the DJ’s vinyl obsession in film.

Rap music, we learn from Grandmaster Theodore (the originator of the scratch), is just one part of hip-hop culture, which also includes break dancing, graffiti and DJing. Record companies were more interested in hits and front men, so DJs were often phased out, even though, as one MC puts it, rapping to a prerecorded backing tape instead of a DJ is like “rapping on a flatline instead of a heartbeat.”

Those who did find work found out it didn’t last long. In a scene that plays like Robert Frank directing Wild Style, Stevie Dee, who pioneered “beat juggling” in the ’80s, flips through a stack of laminates from his days touring with long-forgotten R&B groups (Guy, etc.) — from the plastic-covered couch of his mother’s Harlem apartment, where he (tellingly) still lives.

Pray shows DJs flourishing in their own world, battling each other in competitions and collecting records obsessively. Without the rap-sized egos, they are both humble and articulate hip-hop purists. Some, like the scratch band X-ecutioners, make their own albums — literally from scratch. Others, like DJ Babu and Cut Chemist (whose wry wit and wiry hair make him turntablism’s Gene Wilder), have the best of both worlds as members of West Coast hip-hop groups Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5.

Pray’s narrative is scattered between vague, arbitrary technical chapters, but just about everyone he interviews agrees they were first inspired by Grandmaster DST’s zigga-zigga scratching in Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” and took it from there. But just where they took it, Pray doesn’t say.

For instance, Afrika Bambaataa introduces us to the breakbeat — “the part of the record you listen to, to let your God-self get wild.” It’s to hip hop what the electric guitar is to rock, but that’s about all we hear about the evolution of breakbeats — or scratching or performance, for that matter.

Instead we get too much of Bay Area DJs Qbert and the Beastie Boys’ Mixmaster Mike coming off like Trekkies with turntables talking about scratching-as-alien-dialogue. Others are just misused. DJ Swamp, known for setting turntables on fire and smashing records onstage, is relegated to demonstrating a record press.

For every point Pray makes about how turntablism is growing — e.g. an equipment manufacturer’s claim that turntables are outselling guitars in Japan — he also shows it shooting itself in its own shell-toed foot, as DJ Z-Trip, probably the genre’s best showman right now, is quick to admit. In one memorable sequence, the Space Travelers, one of whom wears his laundry on his head like a beret, bitch about the dearth of newcomers on the scratch scene — even though the phenomenon’s popularity occasions the very movie they say this in. Pray skims over DJs-as-producers, and sidesteps the topic of DJs in bands altogether, a glaring omission in an era when Kid Rock began as a scratch DJ and rock groups these days are powered by turntablists.

But at its best, Scratch elicits empathy more than analysis. In his most moving scene, Pray follows DJ Shadow around on a vinyl-buying mission in the catacombslike basement of a used-record store. Like an explorer in a tomb, Shadow is awed and humbled by what he finds: “You’re looking through a big pile of broken dreams,” he says, walking past columns of dust-covered vinyl stacked to the ceiling.

Then he realizes the next generation of crate-diggers may very well find his own records atop the piles. “Ten years down the line you’ll be in here,” he admits humbly.

He’s a world away from hip-hop’s usual boast-and-toast in the one of his own making that Pray lets us into, one scratchy cut of DJ life at a time.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

E-mail Hobey Echlin at [email protected].

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