The turntable has been used as a musical instrument since the 1940s and 1950s when experimental composers began sampling and creating music entirely produced by the turntable. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the term ‘turntablism’ was coined.

This definition marked a significant transformation in the role of the disk jockey (DJ), which had been evolving since the 1970s. Traditionally the role of the DJ was to play records on the turntable, mixing in one track after the other.

The emergence of a new music genre, hip hop, produced DJs who were significantly more skilled. These DJs – or turntablists, as they came to be known – were performers and musical artists in their own right who moved records whilst playing on the turntable to manipulate the sound and create original compositions.

For many hip hop connoisseurs, DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa are turntablism forefathers. Through practice they developed extremely high levels of hand eye coordination and an uncanny ability to find precise points in a song by dropping the needle on a record.

Inspired by Herc, Bambaataa expanded awareness of break-beat deejaying through his famous street parties.

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It was a protégé of Grandmaster Flash, the Grand Wizard Theodore, who created ‘scratching’ – the sound made when the record is rubbed back and forth. He discovered the technique by accident as he stopped the record with his hand to hear what his mother was shouting out to him.

In the 1980s scratching was one of the main features of the emerging turntablist artform and a staple of hip hop music. Herbie Hancock’s 1983 single “Rockit” is perhaps the most influential record of the period because its use of scratching established the DJ as one of the key pillars of the song.

Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating new music, sound effects, mixes and other creative sounds and beats, by using two or more turntables and a crossfader-equipped DJ mixer.

The mixer is plugged into a PA system for live events and/or broadcasting equipment (if the DJ is performing on radio, TV or Internet radio).

Turntablists manipulate records on a turntable by moving the record with their hand to cue the stylus to exact points on a record, and by touching or moving the platter or record to stop, slow down, speed up or, spin the record backwards, or moving the turntable platter back and forth (the popular rhythmic scratching effect which is a key part of hip hop music), all while using a DJ mixer crossfader control and the mixer’s gain and equalization controls to adjust the sound and level of each turntable.

Turntablists typically use two or more turntables and headphones to cue up desired start points on different records.

Turntablists DJs generally prefer direct-drive turntables over belt-driven or other types, because the belt could be damaged by scratching. The word turntablist was originated by Luis DJ Disk Quintanilla (Primus, Herbie Hancock, Invisibl Skratch Piklz).

After a phone conversation with Disk, it was later popularised in 1995 by DJ Babu To describe the difference between a DJ who simply plays and mixes records and one who performs by physically manipulating the records, stylus, turntables, turntable speed controls and mixer to produce new sounds. The new term coincided with the resurgence of hip-hop DJing in the 1990s.

Different techniques used by DJ’s on a turntable

Chopped and screwed : This technique became popular in the Southern United States between the 1990s to 2000s. Turntablists used vinyl emulation software rather than normal turntables. The technique got its name when the DJ’s Screw of Texas slowed the pitch and tempo (screwing) and syncopated beat skipping (chopping), among other added effects of sound manipulation , replaying original contemporary hit records in the chopped n screwed art form.

This technique is usually used prior studio recordings (in the form of custom mixtapes) and is not prominent as a feature of live performances, de-emphasizes the role of the rapper, singer or other vocalist by distorting the vocalist’s voice along with the rest of the recording.

Transform: A transform is a type of scratch used by turntablists made from a combination of moving the record on the turntable by hand and repeated movement of the crossfader. The origin of the name has been associated with DJ Jazzy Jeff due its similarity to the sound made by The Transformers, a 1980s cartoon show.

Tear: A tear is a type of scratch used by turntablists made from moving the record on the turntable by hands only. The tear is similar to baby scratch so the DJ does not need a fader to perform it. So when the DJ pulls the record back he pauses his hand for a split second in the middle of the stroke. The result is one forward sound and two distinct backward sounds.

This scratch can also be performed by moving the disk in the opposite and placing the pause on the forward stroke instead. A basic tear is usually performed with the crossfader open the entire time, and can be combined with other scratches such as flares for example by doing tears with the record hand and cutting the sound in and out with the fader hand.

Orbit: An orbit is a type of scratch used by turntablists that incorporates both a forward and backward movement, of the record in sequence. Developed by DJ Disk, who incorporated the flare technique after being shown by DJ Q-Bert. Orbits can be performed once as a single orbit move, or sequenced to produce a cyclical never ending type of orbit sound.

Flare: Flare, invented by its namesake, DJ Flare in 1987, is a type of scratch made from a combination of moving the record on the turntable by hand and quick movement of the crossfader. This technique is similar to the transform technique in some ways.

Instead of starting with the sound that is cutting up off, the DJ starts with the sound on and concentrate on cutting the sound into pieces by bouncing the fader off the cut out side of the fader slot to make the sound cut out and then back in a split second. So each time the DJ bounces the fader off the side slot, it makes a distinct clicking noise.

Chirp: The chirp technique was invented by DJ Jazzy Jeff, is made with a mix of moving the record and incorporating movement with the crossfader mixer. It. The scratch is somewhat difficult to perform because it takes a good amount of coordination.

The scratch starts out with the crossfader open. The DJ then moves the record forward while simultaneously closing the previously opened channel ending the first sound. Then, in a reverse fashion, the DJ opens the channel while moving the record backwards creating a more controlled sounding baby scratch. Done in quick succession it sounds as though a chirp sound is being produced.

Stab: A stab is quite similar to the Chirp technique but requires the crossfade mixer to be closed. The stab requires the user to push the record forward and back quickly and moving the crossfader mixer with your thumb pressed against it, which results in minimal sound coming out, producing a sharp stabbing noise.

Crab: A crab is a type of scratch used by turntablists. It was invented by DJ Qbert. It is one of the most difficult scratch techniques to master. The crab is done by pushing the record forward and back while pushing the crossfader mixer open or closed through a quick succession of 4 movements with your fingers.

Variations can also include 3 or 2 fingers, and generally it is recommended for beginners to start with 2 fingers and work their way to 4. It is a difficult move to master but also versatile and quite rewarding if done right.

John Oswald described the art: A phonograph in the hands of a ‘hip hop/scratch’ artist who plays a record like an electric washboard with a phonograph needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced—the record player becomes a musical instrument.2 Some turntablists use turntable techniques like beat mixing/matching, scratching, and beat juggling. Some turntablists seek to have themselves recognized as traditional musicians capable of interacting and improvising with other performers.

Depending on the records and tracks selected by the DJ and his/her turntablist style (e.g., hip hop music), a turntablist can create rhythmic accompaniment, percussion breaks, basslines or beat loops, atmospheric pads, stabs of sudden chords or interwoven melodic lines–Visual turntablism is a more recent phenomenon in which visual turntablists, or VJs, incorporate pictures, video, and computer generated effects into their live performances utilizing a separate video mixer in combination with their turntablist equipment.

It can contain visuals without the audio being necessarily directly associated or synchronized. Since video mixing became incorporated into DJ hardware from Pioneer, and DJ software such as Scratch Live, visual turntablism have moved from being a DJ with a VJ, to being solely the DJ mixing music videos much the same way as music was mixed before.

In 2005 the International Turntablist Federation World final introduced the ‘Experimental’ category, Australian DJ/VJ ‘DJ J-red’ took first place, becoming the first Australian to win a World DJ competition championship title as well as becoming a pioneer of the Visual Turntablist movement.

In 2005 the International Turntablist Federation World final introduced the ‘Experimental’ category, Australian DJ/VJ ‘DJ J-red’ took first place, becoming the first Australian to win a World DJ competition championship title as well as becoming a pioneer of the Visual Turntablist movement.

With the rise of hip hop the DJ had undergone a dramatic transformation – from a player of records, to a composer of new, exciting music and a chain in the creation of an entirely new artform.

Turntablism continues to evolve, with artists innovating to be the fastest, most creative players of their instrument – the once humble turntable.

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