More Than Just A DJ

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

When is a DJ not a DJ?  When he’s a turntablist.  Confused?  You won’t be if you go to see Mixmaster Mike at the Catalyst this Saturday.  You’ll get a chance to see one of the country’s top exponents of the turntablist’s art in action first hand.

Turntablism, as it is called, evolved from the work of the discotheque DJs in the 1970s.  Using a set of two turntables, the DJ would traditionally have a song playing on one turntable while they prepared the next song on the other.  To add interest and variety to the music, some DJs began playing records on both turntables simultaneously and mixing sounds from each.  Others began “scratching”, using a hand to move the turntable back and forth to produce percussion-type sounds and create looping effects.  In the 1980s, Herbie Hancock’s song “Rockit” brought scratching into the mainstream.

Scratching and mixing were embraced enthusiastically by hip-hop artists in the 1980s, and soon a whole musical style was evolving with a wide range of techniques.  The turntable was no longer just a means of listening to music – it was becoming a musical instrument in its own right.  Today, turntablists are often as well-respected as other instrumentalists, and in the UK they are currently battling to be allowed to join the Musicians’ Union.

 Mixmaster Mike (born Michael Schwartz) grew up in San Francisco during the age of the vinyl record, just as DJ-ing was about to take off. “I grew up listening to a wide variety of different types of music thanks to my uncles, who collected vinyl,” he said.  At age 14, he discovered hip-hop through the emerging break-dance scene.  This new style of music with all its freshness and energy captured his imagination and he knew he wanted to be involved.  He grabbed two of his uncle’s old tape decks and a pair of speakers and began his own experiments with mixing. 

A little later, seeing Herbie Hancock playing live on TV with   Grandmixer DST proved to be a life-changing experience for Mike.  “This guy DST wasn’t a singer, and he didn’t play any instruments like an average musician would play.  Instead he had a turntable, and using his thumb, he was moving the record back and forth against the needle.  It was my first introduction to … scratching.  And from then on, all I ever wanted to be was a scratch DJ.”

Mike soon began working as a DJ, playing at house parties, weddings and other events, and eventually left home to join a group of DJs in Sacramento.  He began competing in DJ competitions around the country, first as the rival and then the partner of Richard Quitevis, aka DJ Q-Bert, another DJ he had met on the San Francisco scene.  He toured with the Beastie Boys as their resident DJ and has even opened for rockers Guns N’ Roses.  Mixmaster Mike has the record for holding three world DJ titles, and has retired from competitive DJ-ing.  He and DJ Q-Bert now act as judges for the major DJ competitions.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, March 25, 2004

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