"We would never get on the mike and start saying a rhyme," says pioneer hip-hop DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore. "The only time we would pick up the microphone is when we would say, 'If you own a green truck outside, please move it,' or 'Jerry, your mother's at the door.'"
Echoing that theme, Grand Mixer DXT declares, "It was the DJ who had to give the rites of passage to the MC to even pick up a mike at his set."
Yet once the money men discovered this dynamic urban subculture, "hip-hop" became "rap" and DJs were relegated to sidekicks or dismissed altogether. So goes the backstory for filmmaker Doug Pray's Scratch, an illuminating examination of the original hip-hop spirit and the recent development of an underground movement dedicated to restoring the DJ's position as cornerstone of hip-hop innovation.
"My film documents the connection between the old school and the birth of hip-hop and this new wave of DJs who came out in the mid-'90s," says Pray. "Those are the guys who started calling themselves turntablists and really taking scratching into a different world."
Scratch, opening Friday, June 21, at Hilldale Theatre, is Pray's second full-length documentary feature. The 41-year-old UCLA film school grad, who grew up on Madison's west side, debuted in 1996 with Hype!, a highly acclaimed look at the rapid rise and fall of Seattle's alternative rock scene. Pray admits he knew very little about the history and culture of hip-hop when he signed on to make this picture. But he's clearly been indoctrinated.
"I really didn't know ' I think a lot of people don't know ' that the DJ was absolutely central to the birth of hip-hop," Pray says. "To some people, this is common knowledge, but there's a huge majority out there who have no idea. They just hear the word 'hip-hop' and they think just rap, like Puffy.
"I didn't appreciate the artistry of the DJ and how they literally invented hip-hop."
Scratch begins ' where else? ' at the beginning: New York City in the 1970s. It was here that DJ Cool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and others laid the foundations of hip-hop culture and the art of the DJ, which initially involved manipulating two copies of the same record to extend the "break" of a song, creating a stripped-down rhythm that added an extra element of excitement to a party.
Later on, Theodore happened upon the concept of scratching ' the back-and-forth rubbing of a record across a needle to extract new and unusual sounds ' and the art of DJing took on a whole new form.
The scratch's first mainstream exposure came in the '80s with Grand Mixer DXT's groundbreaking work on Herbie Hancock's surprise hit "Rockit." Pray plays up this fact by including testimonials from several of today's leading DJ artists, who credit this monumental track for sparking their own interest in scratching.
The bulk of the film examines the modern era ' the "turntablist" era ' in which scratching has evolved into an art form of mind-boggling complexity. Musical magicians like DJ Craze and Mix Master Mike reign over a subculture that has elevated its game to encompass international competitions and albums composed entirely of scratches.
"There's a real bias toward looking at DJs and saying, 'How the hell can they call themselves musicians?'" says Pray. "But these guys like Babu and Qbert, they are really taking it way beyond. It's so unbelievably hard to do, and then to take it to where you're just composing and creating totally different drum patterns from an existing drum recording...I'll never go back to thinking what I originally thought."
The film is visually arresting and laced with an arsenal of intergalactic beats. Pray takes us into the home studios of the genre's most notorious hotshots, where we're treated to private demos and telling insights. We hear DJ Qbert compare his craft to human speech: "Each technique is a word, and so the larger your vocabulary, the more articulate you can speak." And, in the film's most memorable segment, we enter the cavernous basement of the used record store where DJ Shadow ' the acknowledged master of sonic archeology ' goes crate-digging through hundreds of thousands of old LPs.
Scratch may be a tad longer than most casual viewers would require. But that doesn't dampen the passion that pours out of the film's every frame. After witnessing these virtuosic performances, only the most narrow-minded among us would fail to embrace the participants' rampant enthusiasm for this music.
And that, of course, is the mark of a great documentary.