Scratch Obsession

by Dan Leach


Scratch Obsession

by Dan Leach

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“F**k knows!” laughs DJ Woody when asked how many hours he has spent practising since he first began learning to scratch. He’s just finished a video shoot for Macho Zapp. A few minutes of freestyle scratching was the request but instead, such is the man, he gives us a whole routine. His hands flash over the mixer's faders and turntable platter - one moment gently pulling the record back and letting it go, the next rapidly jerking the vinyl with his hand and then fingers. It all combines to produce a performance that is at once visually and sonically striking. This is the art of scratching demonstrated by one of its finest exponents - held in such high esteem he is asked to judge world DJ tournaments.



When Woody finishes, the camera crew smile in pleasure and awe at the sheer dexterity combined with musicality. This is the effect of the scratch DJ. Go to any club and you will see the hypnotic spell he casts over the audience. Unlike the regular DJ, whose power is in the tracks he selects and mixes and the triumphant climaxes he creates for the dancefloor, the turntablist’s magnetic attraction often doesn’t demand dancing - too much movement feels like it would disrupt the aesthetic of the performance and break the spell. Even people who know nothing about the artform admit to standing transfixed by a demonstration.

But why is this?

In this feature we seek to understand the fascination of scratching, for the DJ and the audience. In doing so, we examine the precise and almost balletic movement of the hands and throw in some statistical analysis to uncover what exactly is happening during a performance. In short, we peel back the layers of the artform to examine the mechanics and the motivation so that, by the end, you may be surprised at just how deep the layers go.




If a turntablist's performance looks complicated - that's because it is. In DJ Woody’s 1m 41 secs of scratching there were 485 individual movements of the crossfader and 333 movements of the vinyl. Trust us - we counted!

This orchestration of hands, vinyl and mixer forged countless rhythms, all perfectly in time with the 152bpm. At the fastest cut, during the ‘crab’ scratch, Woody’s fingers transported the crossfader at 20 movements per second (one movement being defined as a single opening or closing of the crossfader).

So exactly how fast is this? Can we find something comparable? Appropriately enough, an actual woodpecker is said to produce 20 'pecks' per second, which might seem identical to DJ Woody’s ‘crab’. If only that were the case! If we are comparing the two, 20 ‘pecks’ would add up to 40 movements (one peck being equivalent to one movement forward, and one back). So a woodpecker is approximately double the speed of DJ Woody. (Sorry Woody!)

To give you an idea of the kind of ballpark we’re in, a hummingbird beats its wings at 50 beats per second (100 individual movements) and Muhammad Ali was said to be able to throw five punches per second (10 individual movements). Of course, comparing boxers to turntablists isn’t an altogether serious attempt to classify the turntablist, but it does give us an idea of the kind of speeds we’re talking about.

So we've worked out the number of movements per second, but at what speed did Woody move the crossfader and how far did it travel?

During the routine the crossfader, at its fastest, moved at a speed of 0.45mph, travelling a total distance of approximately 7.5 metres - about the length of a bus. This might seem slow but it is really the oscillation that makes it appear fast - the fader is only covering approximately 20cm per second.

Scratching is such a blur of movement with so much effort channelled into the crossfader, we wondered if we could work out the physical energy created, known in physics as kinetic energy?

In theory this was a simple sum once we had the approximate speed and weight of the crossfader. So we asked Macho Zapp’s R&D department to look at the question. Only in terms of movement of the crossfader, Woody's collection of crabs, flares, chirps, stabs, babies (and more) produced 0.0485 Joules of kinetic energy.

When we think of the effort required on the part of the DJ, this seems less than impressive, especially when a female jogger creates around 400 Joules over three miles. However, we can put this low figure down to the lightness of the crossfader, since the greater the mass being moved, the more energy that is created. Note, however, that this does not take into account the sonic energy created.




Scratching fascinates. In years gone by, students of the craft would wear out video tapes of DJ battles while trying to work out how they did that scratch. Now there are online forums, YouTube videos and Facebook pages dedicated solely to scratching, websites offering equipment reviews, as well as a number of online DJ schools where students can exchange videos and receive tips.

DJs spend hours and years of their lives pushing and pulling the famous “ahh” sample and cutting the sound in and out in attempts to perfect various complicated manoeuvres at breakneck speed.

DJ Jon 1st’s life changed forever when he became DMC Online World Champion in 2013. He’s since recorded guest mixes for Ninja Tune, Foreign Beggars, and Vice's Noisey website among others. He has gigged across europe and is now a resident DJ for Soundcrash in London.

It’s like rock ‘n’ roll was. You either liked it, appreciated it and bought into it, or you didn’t get it. People looking casually from the outside do not appreciate the musicianship taking place in a six minute set. That six minutes has taken them six years to perfect.
— Tony Prince, founder of the DMC

Although the six minute set took him three months to create, the techniques involved were honed over years. He says he has sometimes spent up to nine hours a day practising his art, but he’s never seen this as a sacrifice: “I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't want to be doing it, you know? It's not impossible to be dedicated to something and have an active social life, you just have to manage your time well and be selective. I still see my friends and go to check out gigs etc.”

DJ Chile began scratching 11 years ago and in 2011 took the WTK World Freestyle title. He confesses to having been “a little bit obsessed” in the past, practising for up to 14 hours a day. This led to a severe injury, forcing him to take a break for two years.

“The specialist confirmed that the tendon swelling over the MCP (metacarpophalangeal) joint of my thumb, index and middle finger was a build-up of scar tissue on the tendon, caused by micro-tears to the tissue from overuse.

“Back when I was first going to the doctors I tried to continue to scratch even though they advised against it. My hand was already in bad shape, and that made things a lot worse. I guess that’s the maladaptive side of obsession.”

Despite this setback, he has since become a leading contributor to the scratch DJ community through his prolific YouTube channel and his incredibly detailed theories on rhythmical combinations, not to mention his masterly beat productions.

So how can we define scratching? Tony Prince, creator of the world's foremost DJ competition - the DMC, has seen some of the greatest turntablist performances for the last 30 years. He describes it as a “percussive sound effect, the different scratches are like the strings on a guitar or the pistons on a trumpet each creating differing sounds.”

The complicated rhythms would suggest it has most in common with percussion, but in fact it is capable of far more variations of sound than a typical percussion instrument. Categorisation attempts get even more confusing when the DJ manipulates vocals, actual instruments and drums as part of the scratch. It’s not some mongrel rip-off of an instrument or vocal, rather it’s taking one sound and, with the most precise and rapid (or slow) movements, manipulating that sound into different pitches and rhythms to create an entirely new sound.

Well, its a very strange musical instrument where you have the power to grab sound and play with it’s time, pitch, move it backwards, etc. Not to mention that it sounds super ridiculously funky and insane and bizarre and groovy all rolled in one, times a zillion other things it can do that are yet undiscovered!
— DJ QBert

The fact that scratching works well accompanying a beat might suggest its role is similar to that of a bongo or backing beat, but it actually works best in a leading role often occupying the mid-frequencies as a vocal. It is closer to a jazz singer scatting, as the legendary scratch DJ, QBert, likes to say, since both have a freedom of improvisation, both mix up rhythm and tone and both provide an excitement.




The motion of a turntablist’s hands is fascinating, sometimes mesmerising. But what exactly are the movements? Can we define them in some way? We asked Anthony Redmond PhD., professor of Clinical Biomechanics at the Leeds (UK) Institute of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Medicine, to help describe DJ Woody’s hand motions. (Note: Woody has the crossfader set up in orthodox mode (not reverse/‘hamster’)).

2-CLICK FLARE or 'ORBIT' - The flare is one of the most essential scratch techniques in turntablism. Here Woody demonstrates the two-click version (aka ‘orbit’) - the two clicks simply mean cutting the sound twice to make three sounds.

To understand what's happening here let's break it into two segments: 1) the crossfader is pushed open by the forefinger (notice how the forefinger thuds down onto the mixer from the top of the fader) and is then closed by the thumb pushing the other way and (2) the thumb and forefinger tighten around the fader to open and close once more.

It’s the transition between (1) and (2) that allows the turntablist to maintain momentum in the scratch without getting tired. It is also where the pinching motion (the signature of the orbit) comes from.

Prof. Redmond confirms this action is controlled by the wrist which “translates (from side to side) minimally. The wrist pronates/supinates to get the hand roughly in the correct position to work the crossfader and then the fingers do most of the fast and complex work.

“This is consistent with two principles: (1) that fast movements require minimisation of inertia and so are done by the smallest segments and (2) that rotation is less susceptible to having to overcome inertia than translation (side to side)".

In other words, the speed is created using the smallest parts of the hand and then maintained by the rotation of the wrist, ahead of side-to-side movement which requires more effort.

CRAB - The most exciting of scratch techniques - the fingers act like drumming on a table to punch the fader open while the thumb pushes it closed each time. A three-fingered crab like this will create four rapid sounds. We can see the tendons flexing underneath the forearm as the fingers drill on the fader.

WOODPECKER - Those with a keen eye will know that DJ Woody’s record control is phenomenal. As demonstrated in his woodpecker and twiddlepecker scratches, along with countless other variations, he can stop, pause and start the record with incredible speed and precision. It allows him more complex control over the pitch of the sound and also lets him create complicated rhythms of punctuation with and without the crossfader. Woody moves the record with his thumb while simultaneously creating a stuttering effect by drumming the fingers against the thumb.

TWIDDLEPECKER - Similar to the Woodpecker scratch but this time the first two fingers tap on the thumb to create the stutter effect.




Can psychology reveal anything about scratch DJing and its effects on the brain? Dr. Lauren Stewart, of London's Goldsmiths University, says the precise rhythmical relationship between the hands of a turntablist might physically change the brain itself. She says: “There have been studies looking at classical musicians and documenting structural changes to the corpus callosum, which joins the two hemispheres together and allows for cross-talk between the motor systems, among other things.”

The way our senses combine to allow us to appreciate a musical performance, according to Stewart, plays a large role in our obsession with it. Do you ever get that buzz of excitement when you go to see a live band? It's the same with a scratch DJ. Woody's woodpecker and twiddlepecker scratch techniques have very similar sonic effects, but visually they add variety to the performance. Psychological studies support this idea - showing that vision enhances sound, not just the other way round.


Acoustic Phenomena


But our scratching fascination may have deeper foundations than purely sight meeting sound. QBert describes scratching as being able “to grab sound and play with its time, pitch, move it backwards”. That idea of being able to physically touch the movement of sound over time is an interesting one and unique to DJs.

Alex Sonnenfeld is not only a prominent Berlin scratch DJ (under the name Hix Boson) but is the developer of S-Notation - a system of symbols to represent the turntablist's "notes". His 14-year analysis even found him working with the late Karlheinz Stockausen - one of the most important music scientists of the 20th century.

He expands on QBert's point, introducing the abstract concept “sound-time”. He says DJs can not only move sound forwards and backwards but can dip into an audio sample at any point in the waveform. “No other instrument can generate this type of acoustic phenomena which has a psychological effect of reverse time-travelling.

“While moving the record forward and backward you can wander through this space and every part of the sample is linked with a slightly different acoustical result depending on the structure of the waveform (which can be built-up by different characteristics of frequencies, dynamic or on/off-sets.

“On a traditional instrument you can’t jump into or outside these areas and this is, in my opinion, a new acoustical input which makes scratching unique.”

Whether it’s Levon Vincent’s powerful techno or a Mozart symphony, a record generally has a sequence of events designed to absorb the listener into that piece of music. When a scratch DJ manipulates and disrupts that order, it’s a challenge to our whole tradition of musical storytelling.

But it’s not just the order that is interesting, says Sonnenfeld, it is the new sounds that are created. “The high velocity of the record, the fast cuts on the fader and the unstable pitch while scratching are responsible for a sound characteristic which seems to be tricky to the listener and differs from common patterns or given melodies in music.”

He also points out how strange and ethereal the sound of a record in reverse is - this sound is again unique to DJs - providing a sense of intrigue for the listener. Just as it misuses the original purpose of the turntable, scratching subverts the normal rules of musical composition.

“Especially the association of scratching with typical emotions in music (for example romantic or happy melodies) is not so easy and gives an interesting input to the appreciation on "how music has to sound". So scratching breaks new ground in awareness of sound.”




So what does the DJ actually get out of it? DJ Chile points to the sense of reward you get from learning a new skill, the limitless branches of rhythmical combinations you can create, and the plain and simple fun of it. The relative youth of the musical artform is also attractive because “there are lots of areas that haven’t been clearly defined and mapped, which lends wonder and mystery to the whole process”.

Most interestingly, he sees the artform as a type of meditative learning process that can teach the soul how to grow. “If you really think about it, we’re actually learning to exploit our own body and mind in new ways under the pretence of learning an instrument, since the instrument’s function is only really involved in converting our motor motions into sound, which have in turn been guided by what’s going on inside our heads.

“I think this process is what the Greek philosopher Plato referred to when he stated: 'I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.'

"It seems to feed into the drive to continue practising, because you’re discovering new things about yourself and learning to break through your limits.”

It appears undeniable that scratching and turntablism is much more than just manipulating samples. In the decades since Grand Wizard Theodore's epiphany, it has evolved into an incredibly complex artform, physically and mentally, that has the power to captivate those it touches. Even today, DJs such as Chile and QBert believe it is still in its infancy and talk with excitement about the creative possibilities ahead.

Perhaps this is the secret to the fascination of scratching - it is the spirit of invention crystallised into two turntables and a mixer.


(1) (Tsay, C. (2013). Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(36), 14580-14585.)


Macho Zapp would like to thank:

DJ Woody

DJ Chile

Jon 1st

Thirsty Ear

Professor Anthony Redmond

Adam Butler and QSU

DJ Qbert

Tony Prince

Alex Sonnenfeld

Dr Lauren Stewart