Scratch and the Hip-Hop Book of Grand Mixer DXT

By Randy Alberts

"Aided and abetted by the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, DXT's work showed that a turntable can be a tool of unrestrained virtuosity capable of anarchic bursts of noise and melodic content all at once in the hands of the right man. Their performances that night simply must be heard to be believed."
— Allmusic.com review of Praxis' Transmutation Live from Zurich, Switzerland in 1997.

   

DXT (second from left) with Boo-ski, Shahiem,
and Amen Rah of Infinity Squad.
(Cover and all photos courtesy Be Scott)

"Myself, I'm never going to scratch CDs," says DJ, drummer, and producer Grand Mixer DXT, formerly known as Grand Mixer D.St. and recognized as the first to ever rhythmically scratch a record on a turntable — the alpha turntablist. "It's [as] if a guitar's strings were replaced with touch-sensitive lines down the neck, it's just soul-less. I see the turntable as an instrument because there's this whole magic of putting vinyl down on a turntable. Once you're looking at it as playing an instrument and you can fully appreciate it that way, then you can say, 'I can actually play a turntable.'"

Profiled in the new turntablism documentary Scratch alongside other legacy hip-hop names like GrandMaster Flash, GrandWizard Theodore, and Jazzy Jay, DXT is still pushing the envelope harder than ever. Today's top scratchers like Mix Master Mike, X-Cutioners, and Grand Mixer Qbert — the latter whom DXT officially knighted — are also featured in the film, but many watching it may not know the full DXT story. How are Material (Bill Laswell and Henry Kaiser) and Herbie Hancock's Rockit Band in the early '80s, Headhunters II with Herbie and Michael Brecker in the late '80s, and Praxis in the '90s with Brain and Buckethead for starters?

DXT's fascinating description of the birth of scratching, hip-hop, and turntablism follow below and with a book ("Mad Science: The Hip-Hop Book of Wisdom") and album projects (Grand Mixer DXT's Incredible Turntable Band, Infinity Squad, Damita Miles) in the works, it looks like he's really just getting started.

The Tech of Old and Nu School Scratch
DXT started out as Grand Mixer D.St. (as in Delancey Street in Manhattan) after being inspired by what he credits as the "Tri-Force" of hip-hop turntable culture: DJs Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and GrandMaster Flash. Picture a hot, late '70s summer afternoon in a tiny apartment in the Edenwald Projects of northeast Bronx where he was "inspired to be a technician and to always have the best sound system." He discovered rhythmic scratching on a turntable as his own musical, personal instrument of expression in an emerging sound and culture. Like all instrumentalists, DXT was blessed with a "beautiful accident" while DJ-ing for friends in his house one day and nothing's really been the same ever since.

DXT vocal session w/Infinity Squad

   

The turntablist in Herbie Hancock's seminal 1984 Rockit video, DXT embraces the sound and technology of Digidesign's Pro Tools|HD system as much today as he did more than 25 years ago with his first cassette player in recording what turned out to be the first turntable riffs and remixes.

"Now, most of my friends are using Digi 001s and the Mbox; those are both good ways to walk through the Digidesign door," says the Harlem-based DXT on the phone during a break at his Pro Tools lab in West Orange, New Jersey. He's producing a live tabla session for his new album and using Beat Detective in some creative ways. "They send me files they've recorded at home, and now I'm going to switch from my MIX3 system to a Pro Tools|HD 3 system, two 192 I/Os, and one SYNC I/O box when I'm working with them. HD is new, it is obviously the future, and 192 [kHz sampling rate] makes a big difference. 192 [kHz] will become the standard."

The Birth of Hip-Hop
DigiZine: You've been very technically inclined since your first turntable and before that as a drummer.

DXT: Even back when I played in Herbie's Rockit band I ran my turntables through an Ibanez guitar rig, just like a rock guitarist! [laughs] People were lookin' at me like 'what the hell?'. There were seven pedals and a Cry Baby wah-wah; now that's very expressive for scratching.

DZ: Were there or are there now other scratchers running their turntables through effects and plug-ins?

DXT: I don't know. I did then so people could see it and pick it up and run with it. It's weird for me because for almost ten years we were inventing things and scratching long before anyone, including myself, actually even realized what we were doing. It was the strangest thing. Turntablism is just now becoming huge but that was over 25 years ago, and even Rockit didn't happen until 1984.

DZ: You were a Sound Tools user long ago. How have you been using Pro Tools since to merge your analog turntables with the digital world?

DXT: Pro Tools is a way of storing the data from that performance. I look at it as a tape recorder because I still have to play the instrument. Every once in a while I sample certain kicks and snares and I'll pop those into Pro Tools' Grid system just to play along in time, but that [instance] and once in a while [when] using Beat Detective are the only times I use Pro Tools as a music programming device. When I'm using the Grid to fly in and import a kick or a snare or things from a sound CD, I can work in this way to generate new beats. I've done that before, but that is rare.

DZ: You were a musician before you discovered rhythmic scratching, right?

DXT: Yes, I'm a drummer so I've always preferred to play everything live. If I have to use a sampler, I would definitely use something like an MPC 3000 [Akai] because I just want to feel it out live instead of placing events where they're supposed to go.

DZ: I understand you're using Serato's Scratch plug-in these days. Is it helping you create a bridge among your vinyl collection, turntables, and Pro Tools?

DXT: I'm actually writing new concepts based on using Scratch, new songs that are centered around manipulating vocals and other instruments as if they're already on vinyl. I build vocal choruses with it and within the chorus I'll manipulate certain notes with the turntable. If I have a four-part harmony, for example, I'll take two of those notes and scratch them within the harmony. This opens up all sorts of creative things I can do. You still have to be a DJ to use Scratch to its fullest; it doesn't make you one and you still have to have skills with a mixer and vinyl. But Scratch is great for creating new music, and it's amazing when it comes to doing remixes.

DZ: GrandWizard Theodore is credited as the first to rub two records with a stylus, but you're known as the first to ever do it rhythmically and approach the turntable as an instrument.

DXT: Yes. I started drumming when I was nine and my sister, Cynthia, was a dancer and my mother was a singer, so music was a big part of my household. That made a big difference in how I approached the turntable. I started out being a traditional musician and ended up still being a musician as it turns out, except [that] I'm using a turntable as a whole new instrument.

DZ: Wow, what were your earliest experiments like?

DXT: If you listen to my scratching on Rockit, I'm playing triplets with the turntable and thinking of drum rhythms and beats. I would try to play certain drum patterns with my turntable, like "One, two, three, four" [counts off like a metronome] or just go back and forth like [GrandMaster] Flash did. Even though my brother, GrandWizard Theodore, is credited with inventing scratching, if you study what everyone was doing at that time you'll clearly see that there were totally different concepts going on.

DZ: Different turntable concepts?

DXT: Yes. For instance, Theodore and Flash and most others who followed would go "chig, chi-chig chi-chig," stuff like that, just one-two, back-and-forth, one-two. That's just so you can hear that they're rubbing a record over something. I thought to myself back then, "OK, I'm a drummer so I'm going to play a triplet in 4/4 with the beat or play a sixteenth note over that," that's how I was thinking. So I would go, "dihhhh, di-di-di, di-di-di, dihhhh" and such and then improvise and let it all linger a little bit. Then if I did that faster, I noticed the pitch went higher; if I did it slower, the pitch went lower. So I started thinking that I could play a note with the turntable and that I could actually bend a note on a record depending on how much velocity I used! I know, man, that was sick.

DigiZine: This is great, keep going.

DXT: Well, I started doing this, you know, "dih-duhhhh, did-did-did-did-did-did, dih-duhhhh, did-duhhhh" [pitches up on the "-duhhhhs"], and it was like "Oh, my God!" I was in my mother's house and was just messin' around with this and some members of my group were there. Some of the scratches were at first just beautiful accidents and then some were premeditated, and they were all like "Yo, do that again!" I don't usually because I'm so critical of my music, but even I thought to myself at that time, "Whoa, that sounds bad." That's how music happens all the time, man. It's something you don't exactly know how you were supposed to do it but it sounds good. So I tried that some more and I just kept doing it and I was constantly thinking about it all the time from then on.

DigiZine: From that first moment, how long did it take for bending notes on a turntable to really feel natural for you, to feel truly instrumental for you?

DXT: I started practicing eight hours a day, but of course I still didn't realize what I was doing, I just did it. In fact, there was a long time where I would just stare at my turntable at home before I even put a record on it. I would sit there and just stare at it for like hours. When I bought my first turntable, a [Technics] SL210, I had it for six months without a mixer or anything and I would just take it out of the box, hook it up, turn it on with no record on it and just watch it spin and think, think, think. I would think for hours like that. Then I'd disconnect everything and put it all back in the box, you know, literally all back into the plastic and foam and into the box and the closet 'til the next day!

DigiZine: That's interesting, what was going on for you?

DXT: That [process] took a year, though I was DJ-ing on other people's turntables at parties in the meantime. But at home I was just thinking about what I was going to do with it — I've got a really far-out mind, I guess. [laughs] I'd just sit and think about the turntable and that's when some of these ideas about scratching started to come around for me. I'd think about whether or not I'd be able to actually push the record forward and stop it so it's still on beat, but each time I let it go it's actually running at twice the speed of the actual record so I'm sort of manually pitch shifting it and doing time correction at the same time. I was thinking about how I could make a record go faster and keep stopping it on the same beat as the other record I'm playing — ultimately performing time correction and pitch shifting in real-time in the late 1970s.

DigiZine: Was that part of the birth of hip-hop, too?

DXT: Well, long before Rockit in 1984, there was a whole hip-hop culture that was solely in this one tiny area of the Bronx, just a few blocks wide. We had been developing there for 10 years before the Sugar Hill Gang released Rapper's Delight and hip-hop took off. Truth is that once Kool Herc opened the door long before, it was off. The main three cats were Kool Herc, Bam [Afrika Bambaataa] and [GrandMaster] Flash. Those three inspired a very small group of guys from all over the Bronx, people like Afrika Islam, Jazzy Jay, Imperial JC, GrandWizard Theodore, DJ Breakout and Baron, DJ Charlie Chase and Tony Tone, Cool DJ AJ, Lil' Quik, and myself — no more than seven or eight guys. We were the first real hip-hop DJs. In fact, because Lil' Quik just passed away recently, I'd like to dedicate this DigiZine story to his family. He was one of the four best needle-droppers, the ultimate hip-hop DJ skill.

DigiZine: What types of records were you spinning and scratching back then?

DXT: Kool Herc was the one blessed with which records to play and we all learned from him and took it from there. Old jazz records and obscure records with drum beats and breaks that you couldn't find nowhere and you had to search really hard to find. You had to build your understanding of musicians on records and create a whole different way of looking for records because you certainly couldn't wait for something to make it to the radio. You had to look for records with Idris Muhammad playing drums because you know how he plays beats. I'm talking about looking through classical, country western, mambo, and we had jazz, pop, rock, even Stockhausen for sounds and sound effects back then, too.

DigiZine: Stockhausen?

DXT: A true hip-hop DJ's knowledge of music is vast because of his relentless quest for beats no matter where it leads him. If you don't have knowledge, you won't go further than where you already are.

— See the turntablism documentary Scratch at select theaters nationwide through 2002.