Turntables of Doom
At an MF Doom gig on Friday, 1st April 2011, DJ Sheep led a turntablist battle revival in Brisbane. Prior to this gig, there’d been words exchanged—DJBUTCHER had posted “dude… u know i’ll beat you on the decks… ur an idiot… [sic]” on Oz Hip Hop (2011). DJ Sheep, following the hip hop code he lives by, issued a challenge to battle on the decks at the next gig he was playing at. The challenge was turned down as Butcher didn’t attend the gig, so spectators only saw one side of the battle, but they left charged. I wasn’t there to see it in person, but I saw the video the following day. Three days later, DJ Sheep wrote on Ozhiphop.com, “I’ve never felt better in years after a gig, i [sic] got so many daps, and props from people, it felt like the old days again for once” (2011), so it sounds like it was a night to remember. The only way I can imagine it being better (in my head), is if there had been a battle, or if there had been two sounds (sound systems) on opposite sides of a fenced off outdoor basketball court or a Jamaican dance hall, like back in the early days of hip hop DJ battles.
In his book More Brilliant Than The Sun, Kodwo Eshun coined the term “sonic fiction” when writing about one of the pioneers of hip hop DJing, Grandmaster Flash, and his album The Amazing Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (1998: 14). I suggest that turntablist battles could also be thought of as sonic fiction on multiple levels—in the sounds produced and performances of the actual turntablist set, for example, as well as in the stories behind the battles; in some case they’re personal and in other cases they’re for competition and showcase. In all cases, they are related to the DJ’s career and reputation. The rules of DJ Battles are the opposite to Rule One and Rule Two of Fight Club (Fincher 1999) since everybody in the DJ community talks about the battle before and afterwards. As DJ Sheep commented, “the hip–hop code is that when you call someone out, or get called out, you either step up or admit defeat. If you say you’re better and back out, you’re [sic] reputation goes down the drain, that’s hip–hop. It’s been like that since the inception”.[I]
Now, back to the set—in traditional style, Sheep gave props to the fallen, shouting out RIP–s to Angus, Jeeps (750 crew) and Sabre (BWP crew) before he started. Then he got down to business with his message, explaining to the crowd that DJs use real records. “In the history of beef, it’s usually the Butcher that slaughters the Sheep, but today we’re going to see the Sheep slaughter the mutherfuckin’ Butcher” (DJBUTCHER 2011). Sheep then launched into his set, which featured beat juggling, chirps, transform moves such as flares and orbits, and the crab. From the video, you can see a brick and a sandbag on the table—DJ Sheep and Brisbane beat–maker Tigermoth pointed out the large springs on the legs of the table which caused the needles to skip during Sheep’s set as the table swayed. I think the crowd probably wouldn’t have noticed this had it not been pointed out to them. In any case, Sheep took advantage of the moments and paused, giving space to his set and acknowledging the crowd. They gave him plenty of love in return.
It’s plain to see the passion with which Sheep performed his set, and from his practice set video—recorded at home prior to the gig (2011)—you can see the ease with which he performs; it’s second nature to him. He has mastered the decks—that is, two turntables and a DJ mixer—as his instrument of choice and can manipulate them to create the sounds he wants. His work on the decks personifies what is called “conceptechnics”, a term coined by Eshun, who writes that “the decks have become a state of mind for the dj… The turntable becomes a machine for building and melding mindstates from your record collection” (1999:14). Sheep’s been DJing for the past 16 years or so and has won multiple Queensland State DJ championships in the past (specifically, the DMC three times, the Technics Ultimate DJ Showdown, and the Stanton and Central Station DJ Competition). His bio on djsheep.com is impressive. He travels regularly and plays to large crowds outside Australia, and is likely Brisbane’s only “International DJ” now that Kazu Kimura has moved overseas (or “one of” at the very least… I am not sure of the DJing passport statuses of Freestyle and Matt Kitshon these days).
Sheep has also kept the tradition of digging alive by finding records to sell for his vinyl sales business. As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton mention in their book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, “digging goes back to the noble role of the DJ as a record promoter and musical evangelist, rescuing forgotten songs by never–heard artists or long–forgotten producers” (2006: 285). DJ Shadow considers digging an “urban archaeology” (Brewster and Broughton 2006: 286). It is crucial for the DJ and turntablist to find the records and breaks that will give them an edge over other DJs. Digging seems easier these days with the rise of MP3s and internet search engines—almost anyone can do it, and the factors of time and place have been almost completely removed. This makes the traditional vinyl junkie getting “dusty in the crates” a rare and special creature—the limitations of place and availability of suitable records in nearby record stores and fairs means they need to be more creative with and knowledgeable about their selections than the modern internet digger, who has website curators and search engines to help find and filter their music.
There are also comparisons to the slow movement with digging in the crates—giving time and personal energy to the exploration of sounds, and allowing synchronicity and the wonder and pleasure of physical discovery to come through and be acted upon. Digging on the internet can be more efficient, time–wise, for the busy post–modern hip hop DJ, who is, according to Brewster and Broughton, both “consumer and producer” (2006: 23). The internet can assist in researching artists and music, but it doesn’t allow for the spaces between thoughts and contemplation that the physicality of digging adds to the process. I think a combination of the two methods makes for a well–rounded DJ these days. Following the search for sounds, DJs can add textures to the music in their sets and leave the crowds in awe, trainspotting to work out where that sound came from.
Brisbane’s been known for DJ battles in the past, with two other legends, DJ Angus/Bribe and The Master (The Masta), often battling each other on the decks at various turntablist competitions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Turntablism seems to have waned a bit since the mid 2000s, which I, for one, think is a shame. The technology has changed—there’s now Serato and similar digital djing technologies being used in the clubs, and even in the online DMC turntablist competition started in early 2011. So, there seems to be two camps: the ones who’d like to keep the craft pure and use vinyl–only for DJ battles, showcases and competitions, and others who are OK with allowing the new technology to be used. It will be interesting to see how things pan out. Eventually, every system has to evolve in order to continue—life being one example. But there’s also the revivalist movements that bring back the original skills and systems and continue the original craft.
As hip hop, and rap specifically, moved from the dance floor and the streets to stadiums in the USA, some countries, such as Australia, have maintained the street feel with a regional flavour. In a way, this was a revivalist movement of “keeping it real” and pure. The original heads started pure and remained pure. As new generations join the hip hop community, some stay true to the roots of the culture—learning from their elders and maintaining the same ideals and methods—while others change things and take advantage of new technologies. Perhaps it’s time for the local turntablists to hit the decks again and start practising their skills with records—we might see some more local battles in the future, albeit vegetarian style, with less beef. We may even see some innovation creeping in again, with the combination of the two styles of performance. From all reports, the crowds are definitely keen to see some battles. There was a lot of talk about the proposed battle leading up to it. Brisbane’s DJ Kieron C said, “Looking forward to Doom & an old school battle royale tonight! Why can’t we have more battles at Hip Hop gigs?” which led to much agreement (2011). It would be great to see a new batch of DJs learning from the original crews. Let’s see where this leads...
Kath O’Donnell is usually known as AliaK when online. In her spare time she works on an archive of Brisbane dance parties, hip hop and sound art communities (1987–2001). This article was also published as part of the #turntabletag—<http://turntabletag.com>—project documenting the current state of play of Australian turntablism.
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. 2006. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline Book Publishing.
DJBUTCHER. 2011. “MF DOOM // LAZY GREY ft. JAKE BIZ // DJ SHEEP // TIGERMOTH! APRIL FOOLS DAY!”. OzHipHop. 24 March. <http://ozhiphop.com/forum/viewthread.php?tid=121359> (accessed 24 March 2011).
djsheep. 2011. “MF DOOM // LAZY GREY ft. JAKE BIZ // DJ SHEEP // TIGERMOTH! APRIL FOOLS DAY!”. OzHipHop. 4 April. <http://ozhiphop.com/forum/viewthread.php?tid=121359&page=2> (accessed 4 April 2011).
DJ Kieron C. 2011. “Facebook status message, 1 April 16:40”. <https://www.facebook.com/kieronsee/posts/10150144482316836>. (accessed 5 April 2011).
Eshun, Kodwo. 1998. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books Limited.
djsheep. 2011. “MF DOOM – DJ SHEEP VS. DJ BUTCHER / SHOWCASE – APRIL 1ST, 2011 (BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA).” 1 April. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wU3G9gKWdo> (accessed 4 April 2011).
———. 2011. “PRACTICE FOR DOOM SHOW”, 28 March. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ly1J2WKPM> (accessed 4 April 2011).
Fincher, David. 1999. Fight Club. FOX 2000 Pictures and Regency Enterprises. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0137523/>.
[I] DJ Sheep, email to the author, 5 April 2011. <http://djsheep.com>