As one of the five members of San Francisco's mind-blowing Invisibl Skratch Piklz crew, DJ QBert has been leading a turntable revolution. Making music with little more than records, samplers, and mixers, QBert (whose real name is Richard Quitevis) and his turntablist compatriots have taken scratching to a new level of intricacy, virtuosity, musicality, and creativity. QBert has lent his playing to the already-classic Dr. Octagon record (Dr. Octagonecologyst), and his work has been featured on the two Bomb Records-sanctioned Return Of the DJ compilations, as well as his recent solo disc, Wave Twisters. The Onion recently spoke with QBert, a man so adept at what he does that he's been banned from several international DJ competitions, about his craft, his genre's growth, his obsession with aliens, and his open-minded fans.
The Onion: Do you notice people responding to your music differently when you play outside the Bay Area?
DJ QBert: No, not really. There's always a scene in every city, and everywhere you go, there are DJs who are into scratch music. It's pretty much all love and stuff, everywhere you go.
O: Do you use touring as a chance to check out all the different record stores around the world?
QB: Actually, I haven't really had a chance to go record-shopping. I like to stay home a lot. I'm a homebody. So in between shows and stuff, I'm mostly at home.
O: So, for you, it's not really about looking for new records to use in your sets?
QB: I guess in 'Frisco there's a lot of the stuff that I need. I'm not much of a mix DJ. I just look for beats and cool sounds, but no songs or anything. I try to play my own music.
O: You always hear stories about DJ Shadow or DJ Spooky spending all their time in record stores.
QB: I guess I'm just different. We've got tools and stuff, and we just use what we have. For me, like I said, I just get some beats and stuff, get home, get on the computer, loop it, and cut to it. The main thing is just cutting, so it doesn't really matter.
O: How much do you think computers have changed the way people are making turntable music?
QB: It's cool, you know? It helps you out if, say, the band's not there, so you can loop a beat and practice to that.
O: Do you think one of the reasons popular rap music seems to have abandoned the DJ is because it's now easier to pre-program everything?
QB: Yeah, you know, they don't want to have to bring all the turntables there and set them up. All they have to do is bring a DAT. It's much easier. You don't have to worry about the other guy. The MC can just bring the DAT and play the tape.
O: Is that why so much rap sucks right now?
QB: Yeah, definitely. For me, I would never go to a rap show. It's just totally wack. I'd rather go see a live band perform, because you see the drummer, you see the horns, you see the guitarist and the bass player. They're all going off. It's more interesting because there's more variety. I like a lot of things to trip out on. I get bored very fast.
O: Have you ever performed with an MC?
QB: A long time ago, we used to do stuff with MCs, but right now we're just concentrating on the turntable "band" type of deal.
O: Why do you think groups like Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the X-ecutioners have suddenly gotten so much attention? Was a lot of it the Dr. Octagon record and the Return Of The DJ compilations?
QB: That and the fact that the turntable, because it's a musical instrument, is just developing to a higher level. It's like, "Wow, look at this stuff." It's pretty ridiculous. People are just flipping out on it: All the possibilities and sounds you can do with turntables are just so unique and interesting.
O: Has it made a big difference that many young people, since they don't remember a time before hip hop, are picking up turntables right from the start instead of, say, guitars?
QB: Sure, definitely. Totally. I remember that when I first wanted to learn a musical instrument, I was lucky enough to be exposed to a Herbie Hancock show, where D.ST. was scratching. I was like, "Whoa, I want to learn that!" At the time, I was really into music, but I didn't know what I wanted to play. When I saw that, it was like, "That's it!" I'm sure that kids today, because of all the videos and all the articles on scratching, are like, "Yo, I want to do that."
O: Though it was sort of dismissed as a novelty at the time, a lot of people say that "Rockit" was their main turntable inspiration.
QB: Yeah, that's a very big thing. Without that, people would never have seen it. I never would have seen it. I would have still been in the dark. That's very, very important.
O: I learned from your website [www.skratchpiklz.com] that Terminator X didn't scratch on the first couple of Public Enemy records.
QB: That's true.
O: Why was that?
QB: Well, Terminator X couldn't do the scratches. Chuck D had a radio show before Public Enemy with this guy named Juice. He was the DJ and Chuck was the radio announcer. Chuck always knew that Juice could cut, so when he formed the band with Terminator X and Flavor Flav, he would just have Juice go off. Juice was Puerto Rican, so he, um, couldn't do it. I mean, you can figure it out.
O: Have you noticed that turntable music seems to attracts fans of all races and nationalities? Black, white, Puerto Rican, Asian...
QB: Well, it's just music, and music is for everyone. It doesn't matter what nationality you are; music is the universal language. An alien could hear it and trip out.
O: Yeah, what's with all the alien stuff with guys like you and Kool Keith?
QB: I think this world is pretty primitive, so I always look toward futuristic things like alien technologyhow they're so advanced, and we're just kept in the dark on Earth, and everything out there is just crazy. All the space travel and stuff. We can't do that here, and that kind of sucks.
O: Scratching is 100% modern; you couldn't do it 100 years ago. Is turntablism going to keep building and building, or do you think the advances will eventually level off?
QB: No, it'll keep going forever. It's just like a guitar. I mean, how many songs can you make with a guitar or a piano? Turntables are just another instrument.
O: How can you tell all the different scratches apart?
QB: Oh, there are different techniques, and when you combine them with other techniques, you make a new technique. The more you do it... It's like a language: The more you practice, the more vocabulary you have. And the more vocabulary you have, the better you can express yourself.
O: So when you talk about the techniques, like your "crab" scratch, everybody knows what you're talking about?
QB: Oh, yeah, sure. DJs, we have our own terminology and language. There's this video called Turntable Mechanics Workshop, and that movie defines a lot of the basic scratches. Through that, DJs can get a vocabulary going.
O: Are there a lot of secrets kept from other DJs? Things you don't want to give away?
QB: A lot of people may want to hold secrets back and not let people know, but that's kind of greedy. We like to let everyone know and spread the knowledge. It lets the art form grow. You give and you receive. It's kind of cool to just help people out.
O: So, when you come up with something new, are you excited to show it to friends and other turntablists?
QB: Yeah, sure. Sometimes we'll show it to the crew, then develop it for a while, and then show it to everyone else.
O: Do you think some people who might not be into hip hop are getting back into it because of what the turntable guys are doing?
QB: I've been hearing about that. A lot of [turntablists] say, "Oh, I started doing this because I was sick of hip hop." There are people who dig that aspect of ityou know, something different.
O: Have you ever gotten into trouble for the samples you use?
QB: The stuff I use on the album and stuff is just too obscure. There's nothing on there that would get... If they do, it's pretty sad to bother with that stuff. It's so minute. I mean, come on, this is the future. It's so greedy to do that.
O: Do any turntablists end up having problems with their wrists, like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
QB: It's just like piano players: You never want to immerse your hands in cold water. That's very bad. Keep your hands warm all the time, and massage your hands. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome happens to people who are typing all day. They hate their job, and they're just sending negative vibes through themselves. They just hate it. But people who love what they're doing seem to be okay. They're sending positive vibes through themselves. You love what you do, so there's no problem.
O: Do you have a strict regimen to adhere to, the way a piano player has to warm up?
QB: Oh, yeah, sure. An hour warm-up before you start getting really intricate. You start off playing slow and then work your speed up. Don't start out fast right away.
O: It sounds like a sport.
QB: Totally. It's definitely physical.
O: Are you ever worried that some young guy is going to come out of nowhere and just blow you away?
QB: There are so many DJs out there who are not recognized yet. People think I'm real good, but there are a lot of DJs I've seen that are totally mind-blowing already. I'm just lucky enough to have my little spotlight. But there are a lot of DJs who haven't even competed. They're called bedroom DJs, and they just stay home and practice all day. Those guys are really, really good. There are tons of good DJs that you might never know.
O: There are turntablists all over the world, from San Francisco to Canada to Tokyo. Is there a real sense of community?
QB: Yeah, a lot has to do with the Internet. A lot of DJs can now get instant information. If there's a new trick out, the whole world knows about it though the Internet. It's really tight. I remember, before the Internet, we'd go to another country and the DJs would be a little bit behind, doing some old stuff. But now, you go to another country and everyone's doing the same stuff. It's really connected right now.
O: Because it's moving so fast, do you feel more pressure to come up with new tricks?
QB: I always feel that I should come up with something new all the time, regardless. That's normal for me, I guess.
O: Do you ever get any girls attending your shows?
QB: It's both now. Before, it was just all guys.
O: How about old people? You see a lot of young people at your shows.
QB: Yeah, there's this 67-year-old gray-haired guy who always watches us. There are a lot of open-minded people who are into new music who watch.
O: Is it cool that you've gotten to the point where microphones, mixers, and needles are sponsoring you?
QB: Yeah, it's real cool. We just got a sponsorship deal with ProTools [a computer recording program], which is, like, "Whoa!"
O: Do you ever scratch in your sleep? Do you dream of scratching?
QB: All the time! It's like a chess player who plays chess all day. He goes to sleep and sees a chess board in his dreams. Same thing. Dreams are a reflection of your daily life, so if your daily life is scratching, you're going to dream about that. Of course.
O: Wave Twisters is a concept album, but what exactly is the concept? It takes some time to let it sink in.
QB: Well, it's not done yet. It's a soundtrack to a movie. These graffiti artists are animating it right now. The whole album is a story, and each song is a chapter in the story. What it is is a television show about these people who live in innerspace, in each atom, you know? Each molecule, neutron, proton, or whatever is like a different planet or galaxy. And these people have a big, gigantic spaceship, and they're disguised like dentists aboard there. The ship is traveling to different planetsit's like a mining shipand at every planet they go to, they want to spread the lost arts of hip hop. Because this one guy who's ruling the whole cosmos of atoms is only letting those people hear his own music. It's kind of parallel to the commercialism of nowadays, and the underground hip hop that no one ever hears in the regular world. And they're fighting to try to teach these people about hip hop. It's pretty cool. It should be done by the end of '99. It's out there.