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The desire for recognition of this artform pre-dates its current relative popularity; Zorlon Vode, writing for turntablism.com, says, "[Reknown avant garde composer] John Cage presented his ideas to the Seattle Arts Society in 1937 with the hope of getting some type of recognition for the turntable."
DJs who manipulate pre-recorded sounds using turntables to a degree that the original material is obscured or unrecognizable are creating new works, according to practitioners and supporters. The term "turntablism" was first used in 1995 by DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies, who states, "My defnition of a Turntablist is a person who uses the turntables not to play music, but to manipulate sound and create music." (interview with Christo Macias, quoted on turntablism.com) Turntablists who perform on the radio are the producers, artists and composers of the newly-created music, qualifying the material as Canadian content in accordance with the CRTC's Radio Regulations MAPL System Fact Sheet, argues the NCRA. Gaining Can-con status for turntablists will facilitate "urban" music programming on campus radio stations, which need to meet a minimum percentage of Canadian material.
The definition of turntablism, as stated in the NCRA's submisison to the CRTC's review of campus radio policy, is: "manipulation of previously recorded track(s) to the extent that they are substantially altered from their original format, and that the continuous or consistent alteration of the previously existing tracks(s) continues for one minute or more." This can be done by, "scratching back and forth on the turntables or beat mixing in another selection within 30 seconds of the original piece," says hip hop promotor Alok Sharma (DJ Kola).
The CRTC-commissioned Music Availability Study describes what turntablism is NOT: "Whereas turntablism modifies existing vinyl recordings sufficiently to be able to speak of the creation of new works of music, DJ mixing is the presentation of existing recorded material in a creative and musically sensitive way. Contrary to turntablists, DJs who practice DJ mixing cannot be said to be composing music or performing material of their own composition".
France is now, reportedly, the first country in the world to have succeeded in having turntablism recognized officially by their communications and broadcasting governmental body. Doing the same here "would revolutionize the way the CRTC and the Canadian public view turntablism," says DJ Kola.
At the 1998 conference of the National Campus/Community Radio Association, in Victoria, The Turnstylez performed for representatives of the CRTC. They demonstrated their skills manipulating sounds with turntables to re-create "traditional" instruments.
In 1998, The Turnstylez won the ITF (International Turntable Federation) North American "Team" category in New York City and continued to the World Finals in Amsterdam. The ITF is one of two major competitions which help to legitimize and advance turntablism worldwide. The 1998 DMC (Disco Mix club) World Champion is A-Trak, a high school student from Montreal. Mark Miller, writing in the Globe and Mail, reviewed an A-Trak performance at the 1999 Montreal Jazz Festival. "If A-Trak and Kid Koala were pianists, there would be every reason to paise their soft hands and nimble fingers, their imagination and their rhythmic conception. The fact that they each manipulate two turntables, rather than a keyboard and three pedals, shouldn't really change the assessment, should it?"
CKDU programmer Jesus Murphy concludes, "Recognizing turntablism as Cancon will not only help tremendously in filling our requirements, it will also lend legitimacy to an artform that has struggled for recognition and respect for two decades now. This will be a victory for radio and for hip-hop as a whole."
I suppose it was just a matter of time before someone added the dreaded “ism” suffix after the word “turntable”. After all, members of the music community’s elite have been routinely dismissing the skills of turntable artists for years now, so maybe the respectable ending will lend it a bit of credence in those circles. “Are they actually creating music,” they snort. “”If they are simply playing other people’s records?”
Good question. Were the Rolling Stones actually creating new music by ripping off old howling wolf songs? Is Puff Daddy making any headway by reworking virtually every top 10 hit from the 80’s? I guess it depends on your perspective.
“The turntable can adapt or mimic the violin, the drum, the guitar, the bass, and any other type of instrument. What you are using is records and records contain all these different instruments. The turntable can almost morph into any instrument” - DJ Ro Swift
Despite the fact that the turntable has been in common public use since the 1920’s, its acceptance as an actual instrument instead of merely a playback device has been fairly recent. as early as 1939, American avant garde composer John Cage was writing compositions that included turntables bearing test-tone records being manipulated, but it wasn’t until the late 70’s, as the influx of Jamaican culture began permeating the boroughs of New York that the concept of the disc jockey as artist began to even be considered.
All it really took was someone with the bright idea of plugging a set of speakers, a mixer, and a couple of turntables into a Bronx lamp pole to create the instant street party. The man was Kool Herc, a Kingston immigrant to the United States and although he was probably just trying to infuse a bit of the culture he grew up with in his new home, he set the standard for hip hop culture that continues and thrives some two decades later.
While most of the innovations in turntablism have occurred within the hip hop community, one cannot ignore the contributions of avant gardists like Otomo Yoshihido or Christian Marclay... the latter of which took the concept of “cutting and scratching” tthe (il)logical extreme by actually sawing several records to pieces and then gluing the bits together to form entirely new pieces of music.
In the mid to late nineties, innovations in turntablism are most commonly found in DJ crews like New York’s X-Ecutioners, the Bay Area’s invisible Skratch Piklz or Toronto’s Turnstylez. These groups (almost always trios or quartets) create entire scores o f music beats, rhythms, melodies, and often three or four part harmonies completely from the sounds of vinyl being manipulated, torn apart , and reorganized.
In 1999 the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, as a part of its proposed new policy for campus radio, is looking at turntablism as a distinct musical genre. The implication is that any DJ on campus/community radio in Canada who creates brand new music by significantly altering existing vinyl sources may be considered Canadian Content. this is a welcome step and puts the CRTC at the forefront of recognizing new music.
Russell Gragg !earshot April 1999
by Meril Rasmussen
I went to Mopa Dean's and Alok Sharma's workshop on Urban Music but I didn't make it to the following discussion of Turntablism, although I talked to people who did. The discussion of Urban Music was imformative and demystifying. Urban music is a catch-all phrase used by the industry to include hip hop, R&B and - especially in Canada - soca, reggae, calypso...Alok suggests that the word has classist, racist undertones but Mopa pointed out that music pundit Chuck D has no problem with the term.
With the possible exception of Virgin, Urban music is under-acknowledged by the big record companies even though it accounts for a hefty percentage of sales. There were various ideas about the reasons for this. Much Music seems to be another ally to Canadian Urban.
Canadian history seems tied in with Maestro Fresh Wes who self-produced and self-videoed his way to stardom a decade ago but didn't succeed then in busting open the Canadian market. The industry at that point wasconfused about how to market Canadian Urban Music and when Maestro's third album flopped, the door closed behind him. Now the Underground has developed in Maestro's vein. Once artists have proved themselves in the DIY Underground they might get picked up. It looks like Cho Clair is now once again poised to open up doors fro Canadian artists with a much stronger foundation in place.
As for Turntabilism: It is obvious that the way some artists work a turntable and other sound equipment that it is a tool - an instrument, if you will. It is only a matter of time before this contribution is recognized and considereed CanCon and the copyright issue sounds like a nightmare. hopefully the CRTC is making open ended policy and the powers that be will nottry to impeded or underappreciate these contributions. That's the best I can do but talk to Mopa or Alok. They know.
from Vox Box, July 18, 1999 NCRC newsletter