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<nettime> The Turntable
Paul D. Miller on Mon, 28 Apr 2003 13:27:44 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> The Turntable



well... another round bringin the noise the theory scene...

Paul


_____________________________________________________________________
   CTHEORY          THEORY, TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE       VOL 26, NOS 1-2
          *** Visit CTHEORY Online: http://www.ctheory.net ***

   Article 126    03/04/24     Editors: Arthur and Marilouise Kroker
   _____________________________________________________________________


   The Turntable
   ==========================================================


   ~Charles Mudede~



        Common talk deserves a walk, the situation's changed/
        everything said from now on has to be rearranged.

                                           -- T La Rock

        The hiphop DJ is a meta-musician, an author, a programmer, an
        organizer of recorded fragments and a builder of databases
        whose talents are uniquely suited to survival and meaningful
        cultural production in our emerging era of total digital
        cross-reference.

                                           -- David Goldberg

        At the dead center of the spiraling galaxy of hiphop culture is
        the turntable. This is where everything starts: on the grooved
        surface of a record spinning on the wheels of steel. All truth
        is here, all meaning -- everything that is hiphop...Indeed, an
        act of pure hiphop devotion might be to let a record play from
        start to end on a turntable...

                                           -- DJ Dusk


   Scratch 1
   ---------
   The line between electronic and live music is unbroken. The forms may
   appear impressively distinct but they are organized around the same
   act: playing a musical instrument (a keyboard, drum pads, so on). In
   electronic music -- which finds its most popular moment in the '70s,
   German band Kraftwerk -- a musician plays a musical instrument and is
   concerned about, for instance, the key he/she is playing in. This is
   not the case with hiphop. Hiphop is organized around the act of
   replaying music; and it is this act, replaying, that marks the real
   rupture in the mode or method of production.


   Scratch 2
   ---------
   There are no musical instruments in hiphop  (or proper hiphop, and
   there is such a thing as proper -- or closer yet, real -- hiphop).
   This is a truth many critics and hiphop lovers find hard to accept.
   They instead force matters by placing the idea or image of a guitar
   or a drum next to that of a turntable, as in the case of the liner
   notes for the compilation CD _Altered Beats_ by Bill Murphy and
   Rammellzee: "The turntable is more like a drum than anything else.
   Aside from the obvious physical resemblance of the circular platter
   to the typical drum head, the turntable/mixer system is in effect
   'played' with hands, the black wax rhythmically manipulated by the
   fingers, just as the tightly wound skin of a congo or West African
   tribal drum is coaxed into sonic nuances with open-handed slaps." But
   in fact the African tribal drum is a musical instrument; the
   turntable is not. Even the West Indian steel drum (closer to the
   turntable in the sense that it is repurposed -- more on this later),
   is still very far from what the turntable is and what it produces,
   which is not even real music but meta-music (again, more on this in a
   moment).


   Scratch 3
   ---------
   In Tone-Loc's 1989 video for his wildly popular single "Wild Thing,"
   his DJ (or the actor who pretends to be his DJ) plays something that
   is half a guitar and half a turntable. There are two reasons for this
   monstrosity. One, "Wild Thing" sampled Van Halen's "Jamie's Cryin'"
   (without permission), and so the guitar/turntable contraption
   functions as a symbol for this gimmick: hiphop sampling rock.
   Furthermore, this symbol (hiphop sampling rock) is held (or played,
   or closer yet, replayed) by another symbol, that of the DJ, who in
   the video is a code for what sampling is: an advanced digital form of
   the initial and manual DJ practice/science of scratching and
   connecting breaks into a sonic series.

   The second reason has to do with the turntable's relative newness.
   Even in 1989, long after its departure from the actual production of
   hiphop music (the turntable was at the this point, like a DJ in the
   video, nothing more than a reference to the essence of hiphop), there
   was still some confusion as to what exactly it was -- meaning, what
   does it resemble? Which family does the turntable belong to? What is
   it actually doing? Making music? The contraption in the video asserts
   that it is not very different than a guitar. Indeed, the "Wild Thing"
   video says, if you were to hold a turntable flat against your stomach
   and attach a neck to it (no strings or keys -- so it is a pure neck),
   then this fact would be apparent. The turntable is a musical
   instrument.


   Scratch 4
   ---------
   The "Wild Thing" video seems silly -- and at the level of promoting a
   silly pop rap song it is. But on another level, the level of its
   relationship with other music videos and music forms, it is dead
   serious. The video attempts to explain to rock and soul skeptics what
   this new thing, which is used in a particular/peculiar way by the
   hiphop DJ, is. The "Wild Thing" video assumes that due to the
   turntable's shape, traditional musicians are unable to recognize it
   as an instrument. In a pure instance Platonizing the reality of an
   image, the video invents this thing, this useless contraption (which
   is not a guitar, nor a turntable -- you can't scratch that way
   without the record falling off) that has the form of an electric
   guitar so that the skeptics can finally recognize the turntable's
   essential sameness with other, traditional instruments.


   Scratch 5
   ---------
   To replay a record with your hands is different from playing an
   instrument with your hands. The one object (the turntable) says to
   the hand, "Don't touch me, for I'm must complete my cycle and fulfill
   that which is recorded on the 12inch"; the other (the musical
   instrument) says to the hand, "If you don't touch me, if you don't
   pull my strings or strike my keys, I'm nothing, I'm a useless
   object." The turntable is always wrenched out of sleep by the hand
   that wants to loop a break or to scratch a phrase. In a word, the
   turntable is awakened by the DJ who wants to make (or, closer yet,
   remake), music (or, closer yet, meta-music); whereas the instrument
   always sleeps when it is used to make real music. Indeed, even during
   the performance of the loudest rock song, the instrument is fast
   asleep in the hands of the long-haired thrasher.


   Scratch 6
   ---------
   The turntable is a repurposed object. It is robbed of its initial
   essence. But the void is soon refilled by a new essence which finds
   it meaning, its place in the hiphop universe, in the service of the
   DJ.


   Scratch 7
   ---------
   A thing (Kant) or implement (Heidegger) or commodity (Marx) that is
   repurposed does what it is not supposed to. It is made by the hands
   of a manufacturer (Kant), an artisan (Heidegger), a laborer (Marx) to
   perform (and literally disappears into) a specific task, but the
   repurposed object ends up doing something else. Think, if you will,
   of a film projector, which is used to show a movie. That is its
   purpose: to show a movie, not to make a movie -- a filmmaker uses a
   camera for that. And yet this is what a turntable is forced to do; to
   make meta-music (music about music) instead of playing previously
   recorded music.


   Scratch 8
   ---------
   Hiphop is less "music," per se, and more "about music" -- so radical
   is its difference from previous methods or modes of music production.
   Hiphop doesn't so much make music the way, say, The Average White
   Band, or James Brown, or The Police made music; it instead makes
   music out of and about real music -- meaning, it makes music its
   subject. "Punk, rock, new wave and soul" (G.L.O.B.E) are subjected to
   the reproductive logic of hiphop. In this respect, hiphop is, as
   Afro-futurist/culture critic David Goldberg points out in his essay
   "Put The Needle On The Record," meta-music -- music made out of and
   about other music.


   Scratch 9
   ---------
   Real Hiphop does not sample real sounds, like the toilet flushing in
   Art of Noise's "Close (To the Edit)" (1984), but samples copyrighted
   music. The hiphop DJ does not shape raw sound into a form recognized
   as music, but shapes information into a sonic form recognized as
   meta-music.


   Scratch 10
   ---------
   I borrow the term "repurpose" from David Goldberg, who in his short
   essay "Put The Needle On The Record" used it, as I do here, to
   explain what exactly happens when a hiphop DJ handles (or mishandles,
   or best yet, manhandles) a turntable. Goldberg writes: "The scratch
   explodes all previous relationships to sound by completely
   repurposing the turntable, and by bringing a real-time interactivity
   to the manipulation of what was originally intended to be a permanent
   archival medium. Because the scratch is based on a recording, it
   becomes the manipulation of information and not just the vibrational
   properties of air."


   Scratch 11
   ---------
   In an article I wrote for _The Stranger_ in the fall of 2000 about a
   bridge in Seattle that is used as a self-willed exit from this world
   as reliably as it used by cars to cross a body of water, I explained
   repurposing in this way:

        The German philosopher Heidegger once wrote that the essence of
        a tool (like a hammer) is only noticed when it is broken. If a
        hammer works, then it is nothing more than an extension of your
        hand, but if it breaks, you notice its 'hammerness.' This is
        close to what I mean by repurposing; the added and unexpected
        uses of the Aurora Bridge (e.g., the way it has been used to
        express political and environmental concerns, as in 1997 when
        Greenpeace protesters hung from it by huge ropes and prevented
        two American fishing trawlers from heading to the Bering Sea)
        knocked it out of the slumber of its primary function, and it
        is now wide-awake, alert, alive. Indeed, like Heidegger's
        broken hammer brings out the hammer's hammerness, repurposing
        brings out the 'bridgeness' of the Aurora Bridge.

   A repurposed turntable brings out a turntables's turtableness.


   Scratch 12
   ---------
   Because it is doing what it is supposed to be doing, a musical
   instrument is fast sleep when in the process of making music (Indeed,
   the very fact of this may explain why Jimi Hendrix frequently lit his
   electric guitar on fire or played it with his teeth -- anything to
   wake the damn thing up!). Turntables, on the other hand, are always
   wide awake or "enstranged." This is why the beloved heavy metal
   practice of smashing a guitar or kicking over a drum set at the end
   of a show cannot be translated into hiphop terms; how can a DJ break
   something that is essentially broken when serving his/her hiphop
   needs? To smash a turntable after it has been man/mishandled by a
   hiphop DJ seems like a terribly cruel thing to do.


   Scratch 13
   ---------
   Enstranged, not estranged. Enstranged is a neologism that
   approximates the Russian word "ostranenie," which means "making it
   strange," or to defamiliarize something that has been smothered by
   habit. The Russian Formalist,  and Victor Shklovsky specifically,
   argued that enstrangement is what distinguished poetic language from
   everyday language.


   Scratch 14
   ---------
   During the heyday of European ethnic gangsters in North American
   cities, violin cases were famously repurposed for gangland wars.
   These cases which carried Tommy guns were wide-awake when in the
   hands of the gangsters and fast asleep when in the hands of
   classically trained musicians.


   Scratch 15
   ---------
   A musician's case contains an instrument; a DJ's case contains
   information.


   Scratch 16
   ---------
   Marx, like Heidegger, recognized the significance of enstranging an
   object. For Heidegger, a broken object exposes its thingness; for
   Marx, it exposes its source, the laborer, the one who has transferred
   his/her body's energy into the substance of the object. In _Capital_,
   _Volume One_, Marx writes: "[I]t is generally by their imperfection
   as products, that means of production in any process assert
   themselves in the character of products. A blunt knife or weak thread
   forcibly remind us of Mr. A., the cutler, Mr. B, the spinner. In the
   finished product the labour by means of which it has acquired its
   useful qualities is not palpable, has apparently vanished." A broken
   object is also wide awake or enstranged. Indeed, a broken hiphop
   turntable is a bizarre (if not the most bizarre) thing. When it's
   actually broken it can't be repurposed (or broken) by the
   (re)creative hands of the DJ.


   Scratch 17
   ---------
   The production of one form (replayed music) occurs outside of the
   text/recording; the other (played music) within -- if it is recorded
   at all. Indeed, hiphop doesn't really "vanish into thin air" in the
   manner evoked by jazz genius Eric Dolphy, but returns into the album
   sleeve to be replayed on another day.


   Scratch 18
   ---------
   In the notes for "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
   Reproduction" (which is the most important essay of the 20th
   century), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) offers this quote from Leonardo
   da Vinci (1452-1519) which echoes the words of Eric Dolphy
   (1928-1964), which in 1996 were sampled by Parisian DJ, DJ Cam
   (1973-), on his CD _Mad Blunted Jazz_. da Vinci writes: "Painting is
   superior to music because, unlike unfortunate music, it does not have
   to die as soon as it is born...Music which is consumed in the every
   act of its birth is inferior to painting which the use of varnish has
   rendered eternal."


   Scratch 19
   ---------
   Hiphop is the first musical form to break completely with traditional
   music in terms of production -- how it is made, who makes it, and so
   on. Even dub, the closest form to hiphop -- which was born in 60s and
   employed dub plates in ways that are analogous to hiphop's use of
   records -- has vital connections to live musical performance that
   hiphop doesn't. Dub is constituted by two significant practices that
   are not completely separated or in opposition: One, is to make dub
   with live musicians -- a practice that finds its representative in
   Lee "Scratch" Perry and is related in many ways to electronic music,
   like Kraftwerk's; the other is to make a "version" (a remix) of a
   recorded piece of music -- a practice that finds its representative
   in King Tubby and is distantly related to early, early hiphop, like
   Afrika Bambaataa's -- whose "Planet Rock" famously sampled
   Kraftwerk's, "Trans-Europe Express" (sans permission). This is why
   dub presents significant theoretical problems; its mode of production
   is never as clear as hiphop (the total break), but always in a dub
   haze of live instruments and electronic equipment. Nevertheless, dub
   is the only link (or, more closely, a ghost of a link) between hiphop
   meta-music and instrument-based music.


   Scratch 20
   ---------
   The real break began in the mid-70s when New York DJs invented the
   practice/science of looping a break from scratch. What the DJ
   establishes with the back and forth, blend and blur, is a series
   (loop after loop) of repeated information that forms a total sonic
   mix (or matrix) into which the rapper is inserted. The rapper does
   not perform _with_ a band but _within_ the meta-music.


   Scratch 21
   ---------
   Started in the 70s, the looping of the break anticipated the sampler.
   The sampler digitally assembles multiple parts into a master mix.
   With the arrival of the sampler in the early 80s, the DJ abandons
   real turntables (at the club or in the park or the radio station) for
   the mixing-board.


   Scratch 22
   ---------
   If you open up and then fold the note sleeves for the soundtrack to
   _What's The Worst That Could Happen_? (2001) in a certain way, the
   image of Eric Sermon on the mixing boards will be faced with the
   image of Marvin Gaye on the keyboards. Unlike the folding of the new
   $20 bills to produce what looks like the burning Twin Towers, the
   matching of Eric Sermon's method of producing music with Marvin
   Gaye's method of producing music is not accidental.

        Image 1. [image available in on-line version: www.ctheory.net]


   Scratch 23
   ---------
   Similar to the guitar/turntable contraption in the "Wild Thing"
   video, the matched images attempt to explain what is not yet fully
   understood or realized by making it correspond to something that is
   familiar. Meaning, the mixing-board is the hiphop version of the
   piano: The piano has keys, the soundboard has knobs; both have wide
   surfaces; both require that the pianist or mixing-boardist sit down
   and use the tips of their fingers -- therefore: both are instruments.
   But these parallels are only visual not factual. The mixing-board is
   not an instrument, that is not its essential purpose. The
   mixing-board was made, designed, installed in a soundproof basement
   to record instruments. It is repurposed by the hiphop DJ who, now a
   producer, concentrates both the recording and production of music
   within the mixing-board.

   If rearranged in such way that the living hiphop producer Eric Sermon
   is on top and the ghost of Marvin Gaye is on the bottom looking up,
   we would have a better representation of what is actually taking
   place in the production of hiphop music. The phantom of the musician
   exists within the electronic depths of the soundboard. The musician
   is the subject of the hiphop producer.

        Image 2. [available in on-line version: www.ctheory.net]


   But even this is not close enough. A more precise representation of
   modern hiphop production should look  something like this.

        Image 3. [image available in on-line version: www.ctheory.net]


   The modern mixing-board replacing the DJ who repurposed the LP that
   was produced by a live musician.


   Scratch 24
   ---------
   The early practice of manually running or matching records on
   turntables, anticipated the current, virtual production of hiphop on
   mixing-boards in the way that dadaist practices at the end of the
   19th century anticipated cinema. Here, of course, I'm referring to a
   passage in Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of
   Mechanical Reproduction," which argues that "one of the foremost
   tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be
   fully satisfied only later." Benjamin writes: "The history of every
   art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to
   effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical
   standard...The extravagances and crudities of art which thus appear,
   particularly in the so-called decadent epochs, actually arise from
   the nucleus of its richest historical energies. In recent years, such
   barbarisms were abundant in dadaism. It is only now that its impulse
   becomes discernible: Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial -- and
   literary -- means the effects which the public today seeks in the
   film."


   Scratch 25
   ---------
   The sampler is not a musical instrumental (in the traditional sense
   of a musical instrument), it is instead repurposed to turn one DJ
   repurposing two turntables into a thousand mini DJs repurposing two
   thousand virtual, mini turntables.


   Scratch 26
   ---------
   "One Day in '81 or '82 we was doin' this remix," says DJ Marley Marl
   in Tricia Rose's book _Black Noise_ (1994), "I wanted to sample a
   voice from off this song with an Emulator and accidentally, a snare
   went through. At first I was like 'That's the wrong thing,' but then
   it was soundin' good. I kept running back and hitting the Emulator.
   Then I looked at the engineer and said. 'You know what this means?! I
   could take any drum sound from an old record, put it in here and get
   the old drummer sound on some shit. No more of that dull DMX shit.'
   That day I went out and bought a sampler." The drum machine, which is
   an instrument, is "dull...shit" to the DJ, what is desired is a
   machine that does what a DJ essentially does when running LPs or
   singles on the turntables: remixing, replaying "old records."


   Scratch 27
   ---------
   The following passage from a wonderful article, published in _The
   Face_  (December, 1997), describes an encounter between Staten
   Island's Wu-Tang Clan and the Scottish pop band Texas in an NY
   recording studio. It not only makes abundantly clear the difference
   between the production of modern hiphop (which has its essence in the
   turntable) and the production of pop or proper music (which has its
   essence in the musical instrument) but also how hiphop is made
   nowadays -- not with turntables but mixing boards and samplers that
   emulate turntables:

        RZA goes to work, feeding a succession of sample-laden discs
        into a sampler. He has a diffident, genius-at-work charisma
        about him as he sits with his back to the room, keyboard at
        side. With a flick of his prodigiously ringed hand he reaches
        out and conjures up a brutal bassline. The speakers pulse
        violently. RZA takes a sip of Hennessy. 'Record this, right
        here!' he tells the bewildered-looking engineer.

        RZA has decided to dispense with the original master tapes,
        shipped over from Britain. He wants a completely new version,
        recorded rough-and-ready without the standard safety net of a
        time-code. This convention-trashing, wildstyle approach to
        recording elicits some consternation from the studio's
        engineer, a central-casting white guy who warns RZA: 'You won't
        be able to synch to this, you know.' RZA waves him away and
        turns to [Texas' Bassist and leader] Johnny McElhone.

        'This riff is in E,' McElhone tells RZA. 'Maybe we should try
        it in the original key, D.'

        'What are you saying? I understand no keys,' says RZA.


   Scratch 28
   ---------
   The real turntable has been dead for many years now; it's no longer
   used to reproduce music. The sampler has replaced it in studio and
   the DAT machine at live shows. (Indeed, when the Anti-Pop Consortium
   performs a live show they often say, "Let's give it up to our DAT
   machine" instead of "Let's give it up to our DJ.") The turntable is
   now a ghost machine within the complex circuitry of the mixing
   machine. When we see a DJ at a nightclub scratching records and
   reproducing music on the turntables -- which by the way have not
   progressed or significantly improved in over 20 years; what was used
   to scratch records in the early 80s, if not earlier, are essentially
   the same Technics that are used today -- we are watching something
   from the past, and, because of this, something that is almost
   ritualistic.

   Like the saint he or she is, the 21st century DJ who cuts and runs
   the break of our favorite song is not innovative, they are not
   looking forward but backward, giving praise thanks to his/her great
   and departed ancestors -- Jam Master Jay and DJ Scott La Rock -- on
   what is now the altar of hiphop: the two turntables.


   --------------------

   Originally from Zimbabwe, Charles Tonderai Mudede is the book
   editor for _The Stranger_, an alternative Seattle weekly. An
   adjunct professor at Pacific Lutheran University, Mudede is also
   a founding member of the Seattle Research Institute
   (www.seattleresearchinstitute.org).


   _____________________________________________________________________

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