Abilities talks turntablism's bright future
"There's a binary that runs throughout our existence, and scratching represents that really well."
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After a decade as one of the most consistently original groups in the Rhymesayers rap collective, Twin Cities-formed rap duo Eyedea & Abilities (Micheal Larsen and Gregory "Max" Keltgen) went their separate ways following 2004's E&A. MC Eyedea put hip-hop behind to focus on other forms of music, and DJ Abilities moved to Milwaukee to dive deeper into his mastery of the turntable. Unexpectedly, they got back together for the new By The Throat, a streamlined and original mixture of rap, trip-hop, and guitar rock. It's also a showcase for the latest in DJ tech, the Vestax Controller One—a tool that allows Abilities to play turntables like a keyboard (see video below). The A.V. Club spoke to Eyedea and Abilities in separate interviews before their recent tour, which brings them to First Avenue on Sept. 8-9 opening for Atmosphere. Here, Abilities talks about his childhood past with Eyedea, the bright future he sees for turntablism, and the coming new sound of hip-hop. (Read Eyedea's Q&A here.)
A.V. Club: When you scratch now, you seem to have found a new instrument between a saxophone and a guitar. How did you get that sound?
Abilities: We took our break, and I got really into scratching. I just wanted to explore that more and get better. I wanted to do something truly unique. So I went away for a while, and a lot of things started emerging. Mikey [Eyedea] was helpful, in the sense that he played guitar, and some of the stuff I'm scratching is actually guitar notes. Thanks to [DJ software company] Serato, you can take anything and put it on vinyl.
AVC: What about the Vestax Controller One? Did that have a big effect on the record also?
A: Between that and Serato, those two things have really pushed turntablism into a completely undeniable art form. I believe it was anyway, because it was percussive. But when you throw in Serato and the ability to cut your own music, and you throw in the Controller One, where you can change the pitch, it turns it into this wild synthesizer.
The only limitation would be—and this is where you might hear a saxophone—that it's not able to harmonize like a guitar or a piano. There are pluses and minuses to all instruments. With the turntable, the plus is the fact that it goes backwards. In the whole world, nothing [else] does. You have much more range on a turntable—it's just a lot more difficult to control, because the slightest motion yields the biggest sound. I believe with Serato and the Controller you're going to start seeing more DJs making melodic pieces. That's what I hope I've started to do.
AVC: When you were learning to scratch melodically, did you have to overcome physical hurdles with your hands?
A: Oh, yeah. One thing that helped me a lot was scratching vocal samples. I'd break each sentence into syllables. That technique required a lot of hand strength and hand memory, which a lot of DJs don't necessarily do. They do more with the fader, less with the record. It required me to learn a lot of control. Then, in place of syllables, I'd make notes.
With the Controller One, I had to learn how to scratch the record and then change the note with my thumb. So I'd put on records and just do scales, like a sax player. I'd do stabs, flares, all these scratch techniques, but up and down the scale. I'm not where I want to be, but it's getting there.
AVC: So you're scratching and playing notes with the same hand?
A: You scratch with your fingers, and the buttons are positioned for your thumb. I had to learn more hand dexterity. It's not like a keyboard, where you hit the note and then it comes back up, and it ends. Once you hit the note, it's there. It's stuck there until you change the note. So you have to play mind games, in a sense: "I have to hit this note now to prepare for the next note."
AVC: Like pressing the keys on a sax before blowing.
A: It would be like if you had eternal breath. Because if you leave the fader on, it's just on. Which is why scratching is so fast. You wind up cutting sound in half, whereas every other style of music, you have to move your hand to hit a note. That's what makes turntablism sound so wicked, is you get that thing where you're playing the negative space.
AVC: In some ways, scratching is like breathing—inhale, exhale.
A: I would say there's a binary that runs throughout our existence, a duality of the universe, and scratching represents that really well. Backwards, forwards. On, off. It's almost childlike, in a sense.
AVC: Speaking of duality, how did you and Eyedea decide to make music together?
A: We were both kids, going to the same parties, drinking beer, freestyling—I used to freestyle. I was terrible. Mikey was always good. I don't think we ever said, "Let's be a group." We just wound up hanging out a lot, and it just naturally progressed.
AVC: You lived together in St. Paul when you were kids.
A: I didn't have anywhere to live, and his mom had taken in kids before. We didn't ask her, I just moved in. When I moved in the second time, it was mainly a financial thing. I don't think it helped us artistically as much as you'd think, because we never were a group like that. With By The Throat, I laid out every beat by myself, and he did stuff on top of it. For the most part, we don't do the process together.
AVC: You've made this very hook-heavy, song-oriented record using these scratching techniques. Yet both you and Eyedea come from a background that emphasizes skills and improvisation.
A: For me, the problem was getting your chops up. Once you get your chops up, you can do other things. Qbert can take any sound and just shred away, but that's not me. I want to make songs. But then, all songwriting begins in improvisation. I'm more proud of the overall sound. Scratching is kind of like the dessert of our sound, because there's not a lot of it, but it's really good.
A: That's completely a coincidence, but it's interesting you make that connection, because I do as well. I think we could be starting a new genre of hip-hop—people doing rap and rock, but doing it well. You think about Limp Bizkit, it wasn't really a true blend. Where I can see where Stef [Alexander, P.O.S.] comes from, because I remember him being a punk rocker. Rhymesayers Collective did a show at his high school, and his punk-rock band performed. I think that's the reason why it works. Me and Mike grew up listening to metal, and specifically, we're the age where early-'90s music was big for us. So as much as it was Illmatic [by Nas], it was Nirvana and Alice In Chains. Inevitably, that whole era is what shapes the sound, not just one genre.
Eyedea & Abilities perform "Burn Fetish" from By The Throat, live at Intermedia Arts earlier this year:
A look at the Vestax Controller One at a trade show in 2007: