Turntablists are often full of bravado on the ‘battle’ stage but, outside this esoteric world, rarely are they as outspoken as Ruckazoid. Then again, rarely do we find them charging $20,000 for an original vinyl pressing. More than anything this signals the breadth of ambition of the newest signee to DJ Shadow’s Liquid Amber imprint. He wants to overturn our conception of music and its value. He wants to change culture itself.
These might be dismissed as PR sound-bites were it not for the impressive credentials: he enjoys the backing of the universally respected DJ Shadow; he has worked in the business for 15 years as producer and vocalist with other artists such as Ed Banger on his hits ‘Fantasy’ and ‘You Should Know’, Salva, and Theophilius London; he has designed his own turntable with Vestax and, most of all, his music is damn good.
Espousing scratching as “the true test of creativity” his Scratchgod1 EP is the first record to have a vocal performance with the music recorded live entirely from a turntable using the ‘Controller One’. Buttons along the side allow the DJ more accurate control over the pitch – in essence it is closer to an actual instrument. It is interesting to note that his process is entirely DJ-centric, even learning to program beats via scratching them.
The EP is Ruckazoid’s response to his frustration at artists that have fallen into “dogma” and the “routine-based thinking” of many turntablists. He is shoving it in front of our faces, forcing us make a judgement and you sense this is what he wants, to cause a stir, to shake things up and piss-off a few people.
This is part interview, part polemic, part metaphorical map. Meet the Scratchgod…
Why did you decide to make records using live scratching?
It's how I started making music. Every record I make, whether it's focused on the turntable or otherwise, incorporates the turntable somehow. 10 years ago I designed the first musical turntable for Vestax which I called the Controller One. It lets the user play records like notes by translating pitch to corresponding notes. Only 100 turntables were manufactured and this record can only be produced on this turntable.
Did you feel you were taking a risk?
Scratching is my comfort zone. I usually feel like I take risks when I work outside of my comfort zone. Ironically I've had more commercial success outside of my comfort zone.
Where do your beat-making skills come from?
I first learned how to drum program by phrasing kicks and snares. Phrasing is when you play sounds from a record on a turntable, then mute the back scrape sound with the mixer. Phrasing drum sounds makes it sound like a drum machine. When I started producing, I was trying to emulate my scratch drums. Everything else came naturally.
How much input has DJ Shadow had on your music and how valuable is it to have him involved?
I created the record before we met but after we talked we decided to do a three-part series, so maybe I can incorporate some sounds from his older records into these future records. Having Shadow involved is amazing, he's literally one of the few artists I followed when I first started. Aside from that we share a lot of the same views in music, from how it's created to the business side. He has a heart of gold and I only work with people like that.
How did the DJ Shadow connection come about in the first place?
I did a record with an amazing producer named Salva, we did a record called ‘Freaky Dancing’. Shadow was digging it so I sent him a link to the SCRATCHGOD project that I thought he would appreciate and he thought more people should hear it.
What first made you want to be a scratch DJ?
My friend had all these DMC battle VHS tapes and left them at my house. I started watching them and was mesmerized by how the turntables looked. They were like space-age instruments and every DJ had all their own colourful methods of making different sounds. I noticed there were no rules and that really intrigued me.
DJ Qbert has said the art of scratching is in its infancy - how far do you think it can go?
Everything is in its infancy. The only time things don't seem to be is when dogma sets in. Dogma usually sets precedents after it's generated a significant revenue. Once dogma prevails people become stagnant and things appear to age. The reality is anything can be reinvented, the problem is humans still follow the ideology of money which is the plague of our world. This is why I love scratching, because the learning curve is so high it's very difficult to establish dogma. It's a true test of your creativity.
I think scratching has gone really far and I think this SCRATCHGOD series is setting the precedence at this point. I say that with respect to my own due diligence and understanding of what's come before me and what's happening now. I keep up with everything and I find most of the technically proficient DJs today are still confined to routine-based thinking. They have lots of muscle memory skill but can't break out of the box. Everything I do is improvised. All of the songs on this record were performed live. I place much of my focus on musicality, style, technicality, creativity and inventiveness. The next records I'm doing for the SCRATCHGOD series are aiming for radio. I think it's a great challenge for myself and would be cool to get a really creative record to the masses.
What would be your dream DJ gig?
That everyone is absolutely silent through my whole set. Then I stop and look at them. They're all still quiet, staring at me. Then I leave the stage and the entire building erupts with applause. And then a tear rolls down my cheek while I look at the SCRATCHGOD record. And then the movie credits roll.
$20,000 for the original vinyl pressing of a record seems pricey - why the price tag?
Value is always measured to understanding. It's impossible for others to value this record until people are skilled enough to actually comprehend the level of what's being done. It's not uncommon for DJs to get $20,000 to mix songs for an hour which is rudimentary in comparison to this record. I think it's great to get paid $20,000 to mix records because there's value in the experience but it's certainly not the upper echelon of the art form. If an accepted price for an experience is $20,000, what's the cost to own the first original copy of a new genre?
I was recently given the opportunity to make $40,000 for a 90 second movie trailer. The work I did didn't change anything culturally so compared to that how much does it cost to own the first original copy of a new genre? How much does it cost to own the record that was created with a one of kind musical turntable that cost $250,000 to manufacture? Securing that asking price might come down to the commercial success of my other ventures. I'm in Silicon Valley, I'm building real infrastructure, and when I calculate the value I'm generating in commercial music and tech, then add these artworks into the fold, the value of this record is something I expect to appreciate in time.
I don't believe in selling music digitally but an original physical picture record that represents a future genre that doesn't yet have a scene is an entirely different concept. The record you're referring to is titled 'Love Me Love Me Love Me' and is available on www.scratchgod.com. The asking price is $20,000. It's the first song made on turntables with vocals and it was written to my lover who has loved me more than the world has. The piece currently sits in a frame on my wall that reminds me every day why I do what I do.
I believe real art in the form of music must exist freely in the digital realm but also as original copies in the physical realm of art galleries. Not every musical recording will or should exist in this realm because not every record meets a noteworthy artistic criteria. As we enter an apex of information overload, traditional online streaming platforms simply aren't the best place for some records to exist.
Art connoisseurs today have the unique opportunity to set precedents by establishing a lane for recorded music in art galleries. This could single-handedly increase the value of music and inspire a generation of artists to strive to make something innovative. The level of execution required to create this level of art is currently only achieved by the most resilient artists because there's typically very little money in it. To survive in music today is to excel at pushing commercialism forward, which is something I do well too. For this piece though it was important that one original copy was made of this work to signify its value and to stand parallel to the noise. If curators open their doors to recorded art something culturally amazing can happen. It could change culture as we know it and I felt compelled to make a record that has all the qualities to help usher in this movement. That was my vision for this record.
After 15 years in the music business is there one lesson you have learnt that you can share?
Follow the signs. Own your work. Wait for nobody. Do it yourself as long as you possibly can. Build a great team. Put your head down until the job is done. Treat people fairly. Listen to the details. Relationships > money. Make love to your lover like it's your last time. Most information that reaches you was paid for. Be real to attract real. Stress nothing. Life is a series of never ending problems, make most of them good ones. Free music is the future.