The Journeys and Meditations of DJ QBert
Finding inspiration in jazz masters and meditation, QBert readies the release of two new albums while looking for something more spiritual in scratching.
Words and Photos: Kevin Lee / January 30, 2014
Scratching, if you really get down to it, is a strange sound. A hand atop of a record while a needle is in the groove can directly manipulate sound waves even if sound is supposedly intangible. Not only is it held, it’s tossed back and forth and chopped it into digestible and rhythmic pieces with flicks of a crossfader, like how a chef chops a cucumber. It sounds like nothing else in the world, no whir of machinery or call of nature can match. It is inherently weird and unique.
For practitioners of the craft, a bit of weirdness is inevitable. For DJ QBert, it is his foundation. “To me its obvious to just make something different”, he answered when asked if he’s concerned about being too out there. “Maybe people are afraid to make something different. I guess from a young age I was taught, ’Hey man, just make up your own thing. Be original.’”
The now 44 year-old turntablist from San Francisco made his mark in the late 80’s and early 90’s, during a time of great experimentation, as DJs took the scratch (Grand Wizzard Theodore’s happy accident) and greatly expanded its vocabulary to crabs, transformers, chirps, flares and scribbles, elevating the craft into a bona fide art form. Ever since he established himself as one of the art’s preeminent performers, with four straight DMC World Championships earned from 1991 to 1994 as a solo performer and with members of his crew, the Invisibl Skratch Picklz, he has positioned himself in the vanguard of the movement—as a performer, recording artist, role model, preservationist, and entrepreneur.
“I want to bring it all the way back to music again. That was one of the biggest things…the music thing can be more fulfilling.”
QBert released his first album Wave Twisters in 1998, a showcase of scratches over steady drums and chopped dialogue from old-timey science fiction radio dramas. Between then and now, he has toured extensively and composed material for his live shows and for projects like the soundtrack to Tony Hawk skateboarding video games. Besides performing, he is equally as much an entrepreneur, releasing his own line of instructional DVDs, pressing records made specifically for scratching, and creating his own, personally-branded, deejaying equipment. Whereas the industry as a whole is retreating from vinyl recordings (the iconic Technics SL-1200 turntables, once considered the essential DJ turntable, was discontinued in 2010), QBert is picking up the slack, working with manufacturers to create specially-designed equipment like mixers, turntables, and needles. He and his merchandising company, Thud Rumble, has even released a smartphone app, Warflex Gold (for iOS and Android), that helps developing scratchers practice their skills.
So after all this time doing a little bit of everything, now what? Well, why not start from (ahem, sorry) scratch?
“I want to bring it all the way back to music again”, he explains as he goes into the reasoning for returning to recorded music. “That was one of the biggest things…the music thing can be more fulfilling.”
It has been sixteen years between Wave Twisters and now, a stretch without an full-length album from Qbert, back when the format of the album seemed natural and obvious. That album featured the turntable’s natural strength to cut and slice audio and repurpose it into a new narrative. At the time it seemed the highest purpose of hip-hop, with is emphasis on sampling and remixing, was the creation of art created from the bits and pieces of prior creations.
Listen to “She Throws the Beat Down” (feat. Dana Leong) from Extraterrestria
QBert’s inspiration for his new project goes a bit further than simply trying to compose music on a turntable.
“I’ve always thought of Sun Ra or of weird jazz artists that are totally going against the grain and make something that’s not there”, he explains as he delves into his current inspirations. “I tend to go back to the 50’s with Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Pee Wee Russell. I love going back to those guys. They’re so advanced they might as well be from the future.”
The search for this timeless futureness has lead to Extraterrestia, the first of two albums that he has worked on in the last eight years that he intends to release soon. Like the jazz greats that he cites as his greatest inspiration, he has a wealth of technical ability to draw upon for the project, but there is also a different kind of element at work, something more spiritual.
“You know MMA fighters like Anderson Silva”, he further explains with a different sort of metaphor, “what they always say is that they just practice every single thing they can when they’re in training. Every single thing. And on the day of the fight, its up to God to pick which thing—which device to use to win. I try to do that as much as I can, practice as much as I can. Because, like the MMA fighter, you never know when you need to use certain skills.”
He picked an unusual but fitting venue to unveil his latest work. At the California Academy of Sciences, the largest natural history museum in San Francisco, complete with an indoor rainforest, aquarium and planetarium, QBert held his record prerelease party, which marked the official launch of his Kickstarter project to raise money that will go into marketing and packaging the album as well as the creation of a new live show to accompany the new material, with projected visuals that they hope (as noted by hypeman-for-the-night YogaFrog) could fill the planetarium upstairs one day.
Photos from QBert’s record release party at the California Academy of Sciences
This show was unlike his other shows, where he was usually lit up well in the front, often with a camera trained on his fingers. Instead, he was draped in a near darkness with nothing but a starfield backdrop behind him. Perhaps this was a cue to forego what is usually a key appeal of turntablism—the visual spectacle of twitchy fingers performing so many little manipulations of records, dials and sliders, and the resulting rhythmic output that seems so incongruous. Actually, closing your eyes might be the way to get a better handle of the sounds—an ambient, a moody but somewhat featureless melody with a drum track that happens to be directly under QBert’s thumb (and fingers).
Subtly, he scratched in the drums, not missing a beat but definitely varying the way they sound as they come in ever so slightly. He would go further along as he progressed, deliberately altering the tempo of the drums so that they seem like they were coming in waves. With closed eyes, I could imagine the heat distorted images you could see on a roadway on a hot summer day—try imagining that in music form. If the drums are, for much of music, the bedrock of reality that all the other elements of a song must adhere to and base their tempo, rhythm, and timing, their reality in essence, then this was a song of an altered reality.
“A lot of things are kinda noisy nowadays, so I don’t want to be so noisy”, QBert explains.
To get the sound that he wants, QBert tried some unconventional methods as well, with meditation a key component of the process. In his older shows, he used crystals as a decorative feature onstage, but his use of crystals didn’t end there.
“Crystals can tune into different frequencies, supposedly”, QBert explains. “They use it in radios and watches, into certain radio transmissions or whatever. But other crystals and different types of crystals could tune into different frequencies out there…I’d go to sleep, meditate and dream about outer space, and I’d wake up and make stuff on the turntables.”
And while the word was repeated to the point of cliche, meditation is what best explains what QBert is trying to accomplish, and seems to be the natural culmination of his identity as a different kind of jazz musician. Just as artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane wondered what ends their wealth of technical prowess would lead to, QBert is on his own but similar journey.
That’s not to say QBert has reached a new plane of existence quite yet. The flip side of his two-pronged project is called Galaxxxian, which moves in the opposite direction. Whereas in Extraterrestria, he tried to replicate what he imagined is hip-hop from other worlds, Galaxxxian will feature an honest expression of hip-hop as it exists on Earth. To aid in that effort, he’s enlisted an all-star cast of underground emcees, including Mr Lif, Kool Keith, DZK, Madchild, Rasco, Soul Khan, Del, and Bambu. He also worked with other beatmakers and musicians, including El-P (who assisted with a beat rather than a verse) and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes. While QBert didn’t promise much else for this second album other than dope rhymes and ill scratches, he insisted there’s a core to his creativity that starts with technique and ends within the spirit.
“That’s my root of everything as a whole. Free spirit improvisational musician—you know, the dance of the sound that you can swim through that ocean of anything. It’s definitely playing from the soul and the heart and connecting with the God-force in that zone. It’s the most wonderful thing. It’s a meditation.”