UK Hip-Hop Heritage: The Scratch

Ever since 1985 and the very first DMC World Mixing Championships, the UK has been at the forefront of DJing, showcasing skills that rival anywhere in the world. Although it is fair to see Hip-Hop as a genre that originated in American ghettos, it was quickly adopted worldwide as an expression of urban youth culture and the UK was one of the earliest to attune to the new phenomenon of making music with turntables, mixers and samplers. It is one of the foundations of Hip-Hop itself, taking segments of old recordings and making them into something new, a fusion between the funk and soul heritage of dance music and the modern drum machine and sample programming enabled by technology. Unfortunately for us all, copyright law and legal cases have made sampling a very expensive business ever since the early 90s and as a result much of the production styles have adapted over the decades since. For me, there is still nothing quite like the sounds that can be produced by mixing record samples with scratching.

From the outset of the DMC Championships (which originated in London), UK DJs have been winners or runners up for a majority of over three decades, from the very first winner Roger Johnson scratching with his hands, head and knees to the multiple wins for Cut Master Swift and the Scratch Perverts. The skills on show are always at the very highest level and demonstrate the deep commitment to Hip-Hop culture that has long been a part of the UK music scene. British DJ history goes right back to the early 1980s and the warehouse rave scene. Mixing records into a seamless stream of music to keep dancefloors filled all night has been a cornerstone of our musical heritage and in all the electronic dance genres UK DJs are always among the top class.

Hip-Hop history books have been written for decades now, mainly focusing on the origins in New York and how the very first DJs like Kool Herc and Grand Master Flash started mixing break beats at block parties using two turntables. Although that goes back even further to the disco days of the 1970s, it was a radical change to use two copies of the same record, quick-mixing between them to extend instrumental breaks from old funk records in a technique now known as ‘The Merry-Go-Round'. That first simple trick led to a plethora of DJ skills being developed as players worked up ever more complex routines, but none more important or impactful than the scratch. These same history books will often attribute the very first performed scratch to DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, an apprentice of Grand Master Flash (although other reports can vary).

Theodore recalls that the scratch originated from the DJ cueing up the next record to play; while playing a record on one turntable the DJ listens to another on the second turntable through headphones and in order to beat match tempos will find the start of the track by spinning the vinyl and then catching it with the needle poised on the first beat, most often then moving the needle back and forth over that beat to count in 1,2,3,4 before releasing the record to begin matching tempo using the pitch controls. It’s an inherently musical and rhythmical skill, everything has to move in time and match the speed of whatever other record is playing. It’s also an extremely difficult one to master, listening to two musical sources playing together and matching them together. Most musicians abhor the sound of clashing tempos and out of time rhythms and will find it challenging to match them, and if you have ever been in a club and heard a DJ slip up on beat matching you will instantly recognise the sound of clashing tempos as being a very disturbing experience!

Really, every DJ has to do some scratching, even if it is just in the headphones and never heard by the dancefloor. It’s an essential part of cueing up the next track and an essential part of mixing. But some realised the potential for creating new sounds, new ways to perform rhythmic percussion and demonstrate skill on the decks. Hip-Hop has long been a demonstration of skill: as with nearly all musical genres, audiences respond to performances and appreciate the work it takes to develop musical dexterity. When it is done at a high level the technical prowess itself creates excitement that makes people respond energetically. When it is done to a dancefloor, it tends to make people go fucking crazy! British DJs have always had an appreciation of how to move a dancefloor, how to showcase skills and make people react. It’s a Hip-Hop cultural trope that we adopted early, and really developed it in some ways beyond what the American originators did. Again, looking at the DMC Championships, it was the UK that set the pace in the early days and although one would expect Americans to dominate anything Hip-Hop related, it was them playing catch up to us for the early years.

Of course, by now DJs from many countries have taken the DMC title, but the UK is almost always up there with recent years featuring wins and runner up prizes for JFB, Ritchie Ruftone and El Statiko. These British DJs always have something different to offer, with a slant very much leaning towards the UK Bass scene, the sounds of Grime, Garage, DnB all present in the mix. Heavy filtered basslines and the often slow tempo heavy break beats that can easily be beat-matched with super up-tempo Jungle or DnB breaks. These are things that the UK has always done differently. There is a dirtiness to our preferred beats, a heavy, aggressive depth to the booming kicks and gritty snares. When it comes to beat production, the UK knows how to deliver it hard and heavy, dark and brooding. Maybe it’s the weather? Maybe it’s the grey skies and dirty brown post-industrial wastelands that surround many of our towns and cities? Maybe it’s the looming monochrome tower blocks? Maybe it’s just because we’re hardcore and we know it??

In these days of all the focus being on rappers and lyrics it’s important to remember that Hip-Hop has always been based on the fusion of DJs and MCs, of producers and rappers. As with all musical genres much of the attention is paid to the person with the microphone in t