ArtistWorks Blog

What Is Skratch Theory?

skratch theory

We recently went down to the QSU HQ to film a new series of lessons. It had been over two years since the original Lessons for QSU were filmed, and Q wanted to expand the curriculum to address many of the recurring themes he'd been teaching in the video exchanges (aka Master Classes) - a new section that we're calling Skratch Theory. 

In the previous Lessons, Q mainly focused on the breakdown of individual skratches and skratch combos - essential vocabulary for any aspiring skratcher. But skratching is so much more than a series of complicated sound manipulation. Anyone who's witnessed Qbert skratch can attest to the fact that the turntable truly can be an instrument - but only if one has the music ability to play it as an instrument. Anyone can put on a record. Anyone can learn the basics of skratching. But can they create something beautiful with it? Can they express themselves musically like a jazz musician? Not unless they understand some fundamental things about music. For an example of this level of musicianship, check out one of my all-time favorite videos from QSU Blackbelt DJ Claim:

This is the goal of the skratch DJ: to master the turntables as you would any instrument, to express yourself musically through skratching. This is what Skratch Theory is about. A new way of thinking about skratching.

Basically, it's a way of putting music theory in terms of skratching. It's a way for DJs not familiar with traditional music theory to start thinking more musically about skratching. I am grateful that I come from a traditional music background. Just as Cut Chemist revealed in the documentary Scratch, I also played clarinet in the 4th grade. In fact, I was pretty good! I continued to play in the school band through 8th grade and was known for the having the best tone (at least I always thought so). I always have loved the clean sound of the clarinet. I still play occasionally, and have always wanted to incorporate it more with my music (stay tuned for the ADA Clarinet Experiment!)

I learned a lot by playing in the school band - breath control, scales, counting bars, reading music… it was all really good foundation that has served me to this day. The music theory I learned early on helped me progress in other areas such as guitar and percussion, and ultimately skratching. But enough about me.

Q is a notorious night owl, and having recently got back from India, he was still on Mumbai time. When we got to the Octagon around 5pm, Q was just starting his day. El Dawg was there of course, and the Infamous Toadman too. El was busy finishing the uploading of some recent Master Classes. He looked concerned.

"Who touched the computer?" he looked over at Ted.

"I don't think anyone did."

"Someone closed iChat. I had Q's text responses for all the Master Classes open from our chat earlier. He had it all typed out and now it's gone. Was it Toadman?"

"I didn't know Toadman knew how to use a computer."

"Are you serious? Toadman's smart."

After an unsuccessful attempt to recover the iChat history, Q sat with El to redo the text responses. We never learned the truth behind the mystery of Who Touched The Computer, but I did get to see how much care and thought goes into each of Q's responses. Knowing he still needed to warm up and meditate, we set up the cameras and headed out with Ted to get something to eat. When we got back, I noticed a familiar looking hand puppet laying on the counter.

Skratchy Seal! I had to ask, so Q told me about Skratchy's history and how he first found him in Japan around 1993 and that they don't make them any more. After I'd learned all I could about the celebrity seal, (Skratchy has a twin brother?!!) it was around 7:30 and time to start filming. We started with some fundamentals: Counting Beats. Such an important concept for any musician, but especially for DJs. You need to know how to count beats in order to stay on beat, and also how to come in and out on beat. Q broke down the traditional 4/4 beat, and explained the different ways of counting (whole notes, 8th notes, 16th notes, etc.).

Even though these are basic concepts, I realized that many DJs learning probably have not heard it explained in terms of skratching before. Q is a great teacher, using a whiteboard and diagrams to visually explain the concepts, while at the same time constantly entertaining with jokes, dancing, and his incredible positive energy. Watching him teach is like watching a boxer in the ring. If only all learning could be this fun!

Next we filmed an extensive lesson on Skratch Drumming (over 30 minutes, one take!). This is of particular interest to me because of my percussion background. Q goes through the history of drumming, from the early days of Jazzy Jay to the funky boomerang patterns innovated by D-Styles, and breaks down each drumming style with intense attention to detail. I'm still trying to master my own drumming, so I will be studying these in the coming months!

Other concepts on the slate that night were more advanced: Flow, Rhyming (Poetry in Skratching), Rhythms, and Swing. Q had a general idea of what he wanted to say, but spontaneously improvised his way through each lesson - incorporating math, poetry, and personality. Q kept it fun yet instructional, and filmed each lesson in just one take (it was very impressive).

After the filming Q signed some more memorabilia for me including my VHS copy of Wave Twisters.

 

Watch Qbert's Free DJ Lessons

This is an important moment for QSU, because now the focus moves beyond the individual skratches and into the theories and musicality behind the skratching. We are training skratch musicians. These lessons will be revealed very soon, as well as the footage from the Yoshi's show and The Low End Theory (it will be worth the wait).

Until next time...

- ADA

 

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