Scratchin’ the Surface
Kickin’ it old-school at a new school for turntablism
Derrick Brown, DJ Russell, Zack Johnson
"Dude. You’re a natural!” Zack Johnson is smiling ear to ear as my first awkward, arrhythmic scratches emanate from an old pair of Technics turntables. Wanting desperately to believe him, and unable to contain the boyish grin creeping over my face, I nod and unleash another torrent of heavy-handed but slightly more convincing “baby scratches” over a Dilated Peoples instrumental track.
“Sick!” exclaims Johnson, a.k.a. DJ ZJ. “Word,” I reply, only semi-ironically, while bobbing my head, intently focused on the beat and the next flourish of “brilliance” sure to flow from my novice fingertips. This. Is. Awesome, I think, then lay my hand a bit too hard into the record and promptly skip the needle.
I am at the helm of one of the most influential pieces of equipment in the history of modern music: the DJ turntable. Like the electric guitar before it, the turntable revolutionized the making of popular music, spawning entirely new genres and, arguably, serving as the backbone of hip-hop culture. “It all started with the DJ,” proclaims Johnson, referring to the “birth” of hip-hop.
Johnson, 25, is co-owner and co-founder of The Lab, a school for turntablism and hip-hop music production that operates out of a small office at the top of Church Street in Burlington. I heard rumors of the school’s existence for months before finally working up the nerve to approach the veteran DJ about lessons.
A relative newcomer to hip-hop in general, I figured I might offer a unique challenge: Teach a dude who’s a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll to put the needle on the record and scratch the hell out of it. My musical experimentation had never ventured off the well-worn paths of guitars and a beat-up drum kit. Could I actually learn to “kill it like Q-Bert”? If the diploma now hanging on my office wall says anything, the answer is yes.
The Lab Turntablism and Urban Music Production Center’s DJ 101 class is a six-week crash course in the essence of turntablism — or rather, the art and history of DJing and the fundamental techniques and concepts needed to pursue the trade. Popular in major urban areas, such as New York City and Miami, this type of school is new to Vermont. The Lab offers anyone interested in hip-hop culture — specifically, DJing and beat production — a unique opportunity to learn in an “academic” setting. Says Johnson, “It took me three years of watching videos and holing myself up in my bedroom with my turntables to learn what the beginner classes learn in six weeks.”
My first class takes place on a Tuesday afternoon in October. After a brief overview of the equipment, Johnson and I get down to business. “The most basic skill you’ll learn here is also the most important,” he says, adding, “If you can’t mix beats, you can’t DJ.”
Mixing beats is exactly what it sounds like. Take a song from the record on one turntable and blend it with a track from the other. Sounds simple enough, right? Being relatively musically capable, I confidently stride toward the tables, rolling up my shirtsleeves. Twenty minutes later, I still can’t mix Afro-Ra’s “Equality” single into an Atmosphere instrumental track.
Humbled, I glance sheepishly at ZJ. “Help,” I mouth, as a cacophony of cymbal and drum hits bleats from the speakers, sounding like someone just drove a forklift through the percussion section of a grade-school stage band. Grinning through his tousled mop of black hair, Johnson calmly returns.
“OK,” he says, stopping the turntables. “Start at the beginning. Did you start the tempos at zero?” he asks, pointing toward the pitch-control sliders that manipulate each turntable’s speed. I nod. “Have you been changing the pitch slowly?” he asks. I nod again. “What about dropping on the one? That’s key,” Johnson says. Comprehension slowly creeps across my puzzled face. “I thought I had, but . . .”
I fire up each turntable, speed up the Atmosphere track a hair, and with my right hand steady the awaiting record. The plate charges eagerly underneath it like a thoroughbred at the gates. “Wait. Wait,” cautions ZJ. “Count it out loud. One, two, three, four. One, two . . .” he says, nodding his head to the beat. Nodding my own, I join in:
“. . . three, four. One.” I let go of the record.
And I’m instantly reminded of a classic scene in the 1980 flick The Karate Kid. The story’s awkwardly charming protagonist, Daniel LaRusso, frustrated by weeks of seemingly unrelated chores masquerading as martial-arts training, throws up his hands in exasperation and asks his mentor, Mr. Miyagi, “When am I gonna learn how to punch?” Steadying his feet and casting a steely-eyed glare at his protégé, Miyagi bellows, “Show me wax on!” and fires a punch at Daniel-san’s chest. Instinctively, LaRusso blocks the blow. When the ensuing flurry of waxing on and off, painting the fence, painting the house and sanding the floors is over, the Karate Kid offers a bewildered bow to his sensei.
My drop is perfect. The two songs become one. Maybe it’s just that these particular records happen to sound great together, or maybe it’s the wonderment of my “first time,” but I’m stunned. Taking a dazed step back, I murmur, “I think I got it.”
“I think you did,” chirps ZJ, snapping me out of my trance. “See you next week,” he says, clapping me on the back and concluding the lesson. I turn toward him and bow, ever so slightly.
Over the remaining five classes, I learn new techniques, each time building on previous lessons. Starting with the “baby” scratch, the most basic and fundamental, we move on to increasingly complex moves. The Transformer. The Crab. The Fade-Drop. The Helicopter. Chirps. Flares. The names sound like dances. And, given the digital dexterity required to pull off the scratches effectively and in rhythm, that’s more than appropriate.
During each class, we talk about the history of DJing and the stories behind the techniques. Who invented this scratch? How did it happen? An appreciation of the art form’s lineage is paramount at The Lab. “Understanding where DJing comes from is the heart of turntablism,” says Johnson more than once.
I practice each new trick as part of a larger routine with various instrumental tracks and “battle records” — that is, records consisting entirely of samples for scratching. Baby scratch for eight beats, Transformer for eight beats, Crab for eight beats, and so on. All the while, ZJ stands watchfully by, offering words of encouragement (“That was sick!”) or amusement at my novice foibles (“Maybe you should try that again”).
Slowly but surely, my skills improve, to the point where I’d almost feel comfortable scratching for an audience larger than me, ZJ and the local DJs who frequent the studio to borrow records, practice, or just shoot the breeze. Almost.
By the time I drop my last needle and juggle my last beat at The Lab, my skills are evident, but still raw. Though I’m slow to grasp certain concepts, Johnson’s tolerance never wavers. “Patience. That’s the hardest thing,” he says. “You can see when someone is really getting it, and, as a teacher, it makes me that much more excited for the next step. He adds, “But you have to take it slow. One step at a time.”
Since it opened in May 2007, The Lab has become a vital part of Vermont’s hip-hop community. Operating under the umbrella of Lotus Entertainment, a DJ services and promotion company owned and operated by Johnson and fellow DJ Randy Russell (a.k.a. DJ Russell), the school is a valuable resource and meeting place for local turntablists.
Self-taught through years of watching beat-up instructional VHS tapes, Johnson has a pedigree that includes nearly a decade of experience, mainly spinning at area clubs such as Plan B, Red Square and The Green Room. That resume is highlighted by his recent turn as KRS One’s DJ for a local performance.
As an instructor, the Vermont native got his feet wet as a DJ for Urban Dance Complex, a hip-hop dance studio based in Williston. After a recital at Burlington’s FlynnSpace, the parents of a dancer approached Johnson about offering private DJ lessons. He hesitantly agreed and began teaching classes at UDC.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” recalls Johnson. “There’s so much to DJing and turntablism; I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I had no idea.” But the success of those early classes inspired Johnson to investigate other DJ schools, specifically New York City’s Scratch Academy and SoulMech’s DJ School in Montréal. Convinced the concept could work in Burlington, he partnered with Burlington-based producer Derrick Brown, 24, and The Lab was born.
The Lab’s teaching roster reads like a Who’s Who of local talent: All the school’s instructors are well-established performers in Vermont and beyond. The DJ instructors are Andy Williams — better known as DJ A-Dog, and widely regarded as one of the best scratch DJs in the area — and Brad Piersons, or DJ Anubus. Headed by Brown, the school’s music-production classes feature instruction from J.J. Vezina (J2) and Mike Porrata (Future Methods).
The Lab currently has about 12 students, ranging in age from grade-schoolers to middle-aged professionals. “When we started, I assumed it would mostly be high school and college kids,” says Johnson, “but we have a wide variety of people taking classes, and asking about classes, which is really cool.”
I catch up with three intermediate students during a recent DJ 102 session focusing on beat juggling and scratching in a group setting. Trading vicious cuts and scratches well beyond my humble abilities, Chris Shapiro, 18, Travis Milford, 17, and Jason Baron, 21, have obviously been paying attention in class. Occasionally a scratch is out of rhythm, or a new beat doesn’t quite sync up to the previous song. But for the most part, it’s an impressive display.
The three young men feed off one another’s playful energy, as well as Johnson’s good-natured ribbing. The setting is hardly what you’d call academic, but it’s a productive learning environment nonetheless.
“The connection you get just being around all these people in the Burlington hip-hop community is great,” says Shapiro, who lives in Montpelier. “We never even knew the names of all these scratches, and now it’s all right in front of us.”
Milford, also of Montpelier, agrees: “You feel pretty spiffy when you can say, ‘Hey, that’s a Transformer, that’s a Crab,’ and actually know what you’re talking about.”
Johnson’s students are serious about learning their craft. Their attitude speaks not only to his skill and enthusiasm as an instructor but to the underlying — and easily overlooked — principle that The Lab is, in fact, a school. Its students are learning a trade. “I want to make money,” says Baron bluntly. “I have a job, but the things I’m learning here, I want to take with me for my career.”
True skill in any field requires natural talent — you can teach goodness, but you can’t teach greatness. Will I ever be a great DJ? Not likely. But that has more to do with my career choices than with The Lab’s ability to turn out pro turntablists and producers. Just like playing guitar, writing a novel or driving a car, turntablism is a skill — and, for some, a calling. For elite DJs, it’s a way of life.
No one will ever confuse me, DJ Daniel-san (my actual DJ name is a work in progress) with Q-Bert, DJ Jazzy Jeff or Mix Master Mike. But the next time I hear a Transformer or a Crab scratch spilling from a nightclub speaker, you can be sure I’ll know it. As Lab student Travis Milford might say, that’s pretty spiffy.