The Phonograph Turntable and
Performance Practice in Hip Hop Music

Miles White



The popularization and globalization of Hip Hop music and culture over the past twenty or so years has provided new and refreshing areas of inquiry and research across a number of academic disciplines and critical approaches. The scholarly work on Rap, a term sometimes interchangeable with Hip Hop, or a subcategory of Hip Hop culture (see White 1996), since the late 1980s, as Cheryl Keyes has recently written, has been critical in comprehending Hip Hop and Rap as a form of resistance and contestation, thus mollifying its somewhat ominous appeal in the popular media. Keyes further observes that the growing body of scholarly work on Rap to date has primarily drawn from analyses of lyrics rather than ethnographic inquiry and has tended to emphasize socio-cultural influences while other factors such as musical change have not been as intensely studied (Keyes 1996).

Another area which has been underexamined in the extant literature on Rap concerns the transformation of the high-fidelity phonograph from a music-playback system to an expressive, interpretive music-making instrument. This transformation has been concurrent with the invention by the Hip Hop DJ of a new technical vocabulary and set of manual skills for manipulating and expanding the performative capabilities of the phonograph, a process which is ongoing.
An Organological Approach

My work with the phonograph turntable began with an interest in how it should be classified as a musical instrument, which in turn led to questions concerning performance practice. In setting up an investigatory model to answer my questions I owe a debt to Sue Carole DeVale (1990), who suggests a three-dimensional approach to organological research which begins with the sound instrument but which works through a systemic network involving three major branches of inquiry: the Classificatory, which attends to the categorization of sound instruments and to classification systems; the Analytic, which answers specific questions about instruments or the discipline of organology itself; and the Applied, which addresses the creation, use and adaptation of instruments for practical, scientific, artistic or educational purposes. My immediate concerns were of an analytic nature but pertained to applied practices on the part of the DJ. Classification would be determined by the data supplied by the first two areas of inquiry.

The Audio-Mixer
and Cross-Fader

The transformation of the turntable began in the 1970s with the advent of Disco as a popular music and dance genre. The Disco era provided for people who primarily played records rather than formal music-making instruments, a commercially viable context in which to perform and to experiment. Disco clubs, house parties and street jams became the laboratories in which the expressive parameters of the turntable were redefined as part of the process of musical change which synthesized the rhythmic inventions of funk and the technological innovations of disco into a new American musical genre.

I discovered that a number of modifications had been made to the phonograph, the most critical of which involves the addition of a peripheral unit called an audio-mixer. The audio-mixer unit sits in front of the performer and is wired to two turntables by separate channels. The audio mixer has an on-board cross-fader component, a horizontal sliding lever which allows the performer to effect certain techniques on a single disc or to move easily back and forth between two turntables when working with multiple discs.

The concept of the modern audio-mixer was developed primarily from the work of two New York City club DJs--Cool Herc and Grandmaster Flash--in the 1970s. Without the development of the audio mixer, turntable practice could not have developed as it has. As an example, before the cross- fader, moving sound between turntables was done with the use of the volume control, requiring both hands to be occupied at some point in this process. However, with the cross-fader, only one hand is required, leaving one hand free at all times to manipulate the phonograph disc. The cross-fader is also essential in any number of performance techniques.

Performance Techniques

The technique known as scratching is the most instantly recognizable sound associated with the turntable and with Rap music in general, but in the hands of skilled turntablist (the term many competition DJs now use to define themselves) there are numerous techniques which can be done on single or multiple turntables. In Seattle I set up a laboratory with a local turntablist in which I could observe and elicit detailed responses to my inquiries about specific performance practice techniques, hoping to gain a better understanding of what turntablists do and how they do it. I needed to know what performance strategies had developed in the crucible of nightly experimentation at dance parties; I wanted to find out whether the basic turntable system had been in any way modified from a technical perspective, and I wanted to know how new discoveries became dispersed to other practicing turntablists.

In working with my consultant who goes by the name B-Mello, I identify six techniques which I consider basic to the turntable performance repertoire although B-Mello had mastery of more than a dozen turntable techniques, many of his own creation. The basic repertoire I identify consist of the turntable techniques called backspinning, cutting, scratching, mixing, blending and punch-phrasing.

I have divided the six techniques into those that can be done on a single turntable and those that require at least two turntables, although no single technique exists in isolation and in actual practice several techniques are usually used at once.

Description of Techniques

The first, backspinning, is fundamental to most of the other techniques. Its description is simple: backspinning (or backcueing) is simply the rotation of the phonograph disc counter-clockwise on the turntable platter. This in turn produces the characteristic scratching sound; but scratching can also be done in clockwise rotation by applying a slight pressure with the hand to the disc. Since the scratch can be executed on both sides of the hand stroke, syncopated rhythms become possible. Cutting involves the reconfiguration of a textual or musical segment using repetition and selective editing.

Mixing takes place in a general sense any time multiple discs are involved. A turntablist may plan a selected section of a disc on one turntable and replace it while his alternate turntable is playing. The new disc he selects must be matched to the disc already playing by adjusting the bpms (beats per minute). This is done by manually slowing down or speeding up the new disc until both discs are revolving at the same speed. Using the cross-fader, the new disc can then be shifted into the musical mix.

It is important to note here that the beginning of a musical or vocal phrase is often located in relation to a mark made by the performer on the record label, and by reading the label like a clock, the turntablist is able to return to any given point in the phrase with precise accuracy. The turntablist can also cue the beginning of a segment by using a set of headphones plugged into the audio mixer or by tactile sensation, placing the hand directly on the disc. B-Mello is able to determine in this way whether he is touching a textual segment or an instrumental section and where the segment begins.

Blending involves the combination of music from two different discs to create a "new" piece of music. For example, the rhythm track from one song may be matched up with the vocal track from another song, so that what is then heard a new composition using samples from both songs. When songs are not exactly in tune with each other, the pitch control lever on the turntable can be adjusted so that the key centers match.

In Punch-phrasing, the cross-fader is used to insert a short musical segment from one song into another song being played on the opposite turntable. A musical segment which is "punched" into another song can be as short as one beat or can last longer.

Cutting:Transcription with Audio and Video Examples

The short audio segment which follows gives a brief example of the cutting technique. I have used standard Western notation and transcription as one way to musically and visually represent what is transpiring on the turntable in cutting, although there is a lot which this kind of transcription does not tell us. The sample is from the song "My Adidas" by the rap group RUN-DMC from their 1986 album Raising Hell on Profile Records (ASCAP). This is our sample, transcribed here as Example 1. I have only transcribed the vocal line.

Audio sample:
72k .au

In the cutting of this sample, Example 2, the pick-up beats which occur as quarter notes on three and four in Example 1 are suspended and extended as the word "my" and the syllable "Ah" are rhythmically varied. The two pick-up beats are thus stretched out into two bars of improvised musical material, building up a rhythmic tension by the repetition of the "Ah" syllable which is released in the third bar when he lets the turntable go to sound "-didas."

Audio example 2
72k .au

In the physical motion of cutting the turntablist must release the turntable so that each word is rhythmically in time. He keeps on pulse by an implied backbeat on two and four, which corresponds with the drum track in the original segment. After the word or syllable has been pronounced, he must stop and pull it back, effecting a slight backspin. The backspin noise, however, is cut out of the mix by the cross-fader moving towards the turntable during the sounding of the phrase and away from it during the backspin.

As he moves through each word or syllable of the lyric, the phonograph gradually progresses around the turntable in precise gradations of spatial intervals. Where the disc is in relation to the lyric is visually tracked by its orientation to the mark the performer has made on the label. The motion of the one hand on the cross-fader and the other on the phonograph disc must be perfectly synchronized and occur as a single motion.
In the variation in Example 3, he begins with virtually the same cutting pattern as in Example 2, but this time he extends the phrase by letting the turntable platter revolve forward to the word--"walk"--cutting the word over the next four beats. He then lets the platter revolve forward at normal speed through the remainder of Bar Four and the line "walk through concert doors and...".
Audio example 3

Video samples corresponding to the words...
"My adidas" 1.8 MB QuickTime
"walk" 368k QuickTime
"roam" 545k QuickTime

In the next bar, however (m. 5), he stops the platter again in order to isolate and cut the word "roam." Here again he cuts the word over four beats using quarter note triplets, and on the first beat of m. 6, uses the scratching technique for one beat of an eighth note triplet figure--applying downward pressure on the disc and using three short movements in succession so that the word is literally scratched out.

QuickTime thumbnail
800k QuickTime
By releasing the pressure on the disc he continues to cut the word "roam" over several more beats and lets the platter go exactly where he needs to in order to pick up the remaining lyric "all over coliseum floors" with no break in the pulse, or what DJs and rappers call the "flow." In this video segment, B-Mello will cut a portion of the original audio sample, transcribed as Example 2.

There is still much an investigation of the turntable can tell us, not only about this genre of music but about how musical knowledge gets transmitted and how new instruments get learned. It will also be interesting to see how new technologies determine fundamental changes in musical practice in this and other popular genres.

The manufacturers of the Technics SL1200 (the preferred turntable among professionals) have been working on a compact disc which would allow the scratching technique to be duplicated. I think such technology may find experimenters, but I do not expect the CD to supplant the vinyl disc as the preferred music-storage system among turntablists.It is simply not as easy to manipulate a compact disc as it is to work with a vinyl disc and needle. The precision, control and nuance which the turntablist brings to the turntables especially in live situations, cannot be duplicated with a CD without a great sacrifice of creativity and individuality and a retrogression to 1970s techno-beat, which Hip Hop was a reaction against in the first place.

It is more likely that DAT technology and studio sampling will pose the greatest threats to the performing turntablists. It is easier to bring a digital audio tape than to bring a DJ and crates of albums when on tour, and the DAT will never miss a beat. Likely too, that the combination of industry resources to produce DAT and CD products will continual to erode the market demand for vinyl discs, which are now produced almost exclusively for the Hip Hop market. If this happens, the Hip Hop turntablist will become the relic which the 45 rpm jukebox is quickly becoming.

I concluded from this research that the phonograph turntable might best be described as a manual analog sampler--521.21 in the GAMES (Generators and Modifiers of Electronic Sound) system, which extends the Sachs-Hornbostel classification system to include electronic sound instruments (Bakan et al 1990).

References Bakan, Michael et al. 1990 "Demystifying and Classifying Electronic Music Instruments," Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology Vol. 8. Ethnomusicology Publications. UCLA. Back

De Vale, Sue Carole 1990 "Organizing Organology" in Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology Vol. 8. Ethnomusicology Publications. UCLA. Back

Keyes, Cheryl 1996 "Rap Music and Its African Nexus," Ethnomusicology Spring/Summer. Back

White, Miles. 1996 "The High Fidelity Turntable System
and the Creation of Hip Hop Music: An Organological Inquiry." (M.A. Thesis, University of Washington). Back

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