Starting from Scratch

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

C. Matthew Hamby

About 20 years ago, I taught myself how to scratch using a copy of Run-DMC's hit single "Jam Master Jay," one of a handful of songs from the time that acknowledged the DJ's pivotal role in Hip Hop music. You know how the song goes: "K-E-V are the letters of his name. Cuttin' and scratchin' are the aspects of his game."

Yeah, I wish.

Well, last fall I ran into a good friend of mine from college who told me she was getting married (her wedding is in July). Immediately following the hug and well wishes — and before my brain had a chance to catch up with my mouth — I found myself asking her if she needed a DJ for her reception.

"Oh, yeah that's right! You used to do all that DJing stuff," she replied with visible satisfaction, as she mentally checked off another item on the long to-do list all brides-to-be must manage.

What I didn't mention to her at the time was that I had not a single turntable, CD player, amplifier or PA speaker at my disposal. Making matters worse, I'd already sold off most of my vinyl collection (yes, I'm the fool who sold my 12-inch copy of Davy DMX's "One for the Treble" back to a local independent record store) and I'd gotten rid of many of my CDs since converting to an iPod.

And I refuse to DJ with my iPod.

Once the wedding date was finalized came the question that's plagued mankind for, well, at least the last decade or so: CDs or vinyl?

Earlier this year, during DJ Kool Herc's appearance at a local Hip Hop venue, I made the mistake of asking DJ Rare Groove if he ever DJed with CDs. Had this moment been a scene in a movie, you would have heard a needle drag across a record and the music would have come to a screeching halt.

"Nah, man, strictly vinyl for me," he graciously replied. "But music is music. As long as (the crowd) is feeling it, you'll be OK."

I'm eternally indebted to him for not laughing.

I know all too well the romanticism associated with collecting vinyl. There's something about sliding the record out of the sleeve, carefully holding it by the edges, rotating it between your hands and inspecting it for scratches before placing it on the turntable platter that can never be replicated by the relatively sterile, cold plastic feel of a compact disc.

For me, the decision to DJ with CDs was fairly easy because I simply didn't have the time or desire to rebuild my record collection, along with the 10 years' worth of new music that had been released since I stopped collecting. Yet it's virtually impossible to scratch and beat-juggle with CDs unless you have high-end CD turntables (at about $400 or more each, I've opted for a professional dual CD mixer for now).

Fortunately, it's easy to find almost everything I need in the CD format — particularly compilations of old Funk and Soul often sampled by present-day Hip Hop artists (like my copy of Ultimate Beats and Breaks, which contains the source for the intro to Eric B and Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul"). And I can fit my entire collection into a book the size of a large photo album.

Does it sound like I'm still trying to convince myself that DJing with CDs is OK?

Now what to play (and what not to) is an entirely different dilemma, particularly for someone as passionate about Hip Hop music as I am. I've yet to attend a wedding reception (including my own) where a good portion of the party didn't include "old school" music. For most, that represents Top 40, R&B and Hip Hop from the '80s and '90s. Good grooves, minimal profanity ... I've got that covered.

Still, I'm struggling with the current misses, er, hits. I've been tuning into our local FM stations to brush up on what's hot and what's not (most of it's not) and eventually I know I'll have to play "Lean Wit It, Rock With It" by Dem Franchize Boyz. I'll make sure to ask the videographer to point the camera in a different direction so the footage can't be used to incriminate me at a later date.

But in the back of my mind — and I'm sure any good DJ would agree — I have to remember that this isn't about me getting in touch with my inner DJ and playing what I think people want to (or should) hear. It's about getting people to dance and feel free.

So when a guest comes up and asks me to play something by Yung Joc, I'll simply ask myself, "What would Jay do?"

5 on theledge

· "The Manipulator" — Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra Not the best lyrics in the world, but those haunting bell samples have a way of sticking with you for years.

· "2, 3, Break" — The B Boys This ultra-rare 12-inch from the early '80s is rumored to be worth a nice piece of change in collector circles.

· "Al-Naayfish (The Soul)" — Hashim Another early '80s gem, the computerized "It's time" intro has been scratched and sampled hundreds of times.

· "Pump it Up" — Trouble Funk Remember Omar Epps' character GQ backspinning this single in the movie Juice? Washington, D.C. Go-Go music has been an underappreciated source for Hip Hop beats for the last 20 or so years.

· "Change the Beat" — Fab Five Freddy This is the source of the famous "fresh" scratch from the Eric B and Rakim "Paid in Full" single. By the way, I sold this one back, too.

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