Breakin’ In Space #2 – Techno Scratch: The Knights Of The Turntables
There are many parallels to be drawn between electro and punk. Both had a raw, DIY feel and the music could easily be made by anyone, even if you lacked technical proficiency. You didn’t have to be a musical genius to make electro music – it could be done on rudimentary equipment and because it was a new form, there were no rules. The Knights of the Turntables (they took their name from the Cameo album, Knights of the Soundtable) were part of the LA electro scene in the early-1980s who started experimenting with making electro in its rawest, most basic form. A DJ collective hailing from Carson, California, located 13 miles south of downtown LA, the Knights were based around a core trio of DJs – Gerard “Lil Rockin’ G” Burton, Curtis “C-Brez” Harvey Jr and Mad Mixer RMG.
They came together in 1983 and set up a mobile disco service, playing at clubs, parties, graduations and high school dances in the LA area. Despite the “mobile disco” tag, they weren’t humping around a dodgy tricolour light box, glitter ball and collection of Black Lace 7s. These dudes were bang on the money, serving up scratching and mixing across four or sometimes even six turntables, playing the freshest electro cuts that Lil Rockin’ G would procure from record buying trips all over America. They were joined by MC’s including Chilly G and, as time went on, they started to introduce drum machines and samplers into their set-up. Everyone would come down to watch the DJs scratch and mix, and there would be breakdancing contests and MC battles. There would also be battles against rival DJ crews and, more often than not, the Knights emerged triumphant. Their main hang out was the Radio Club, a venue made famous as the location for the dance scenes in Breakdance the Movie, where Chris “The Glove” Taylor scratches and Ice T raps as the rival dance crew’s face off. Apparently, this was a pretty authentic representation of how things went down in LA clubs in 1984.
The Knights of the Turntables never really planned to make their own tracks, but C-Brez worked in the stockroom for JDC Records, a disco/funk label whose owner, Jim Callon, was interested in putting out some electro tracks. He asked C-Brez if he knew anyone who might be up for it, and C-Brez put himself and Lil Rockin’ G forward. Callon invited them down to the JDC warehouse, where he introduced them to his friend, Charles Lamont. Lamont had a Prophet 5, a pedal reverb unit and a drumulator. G and C-Brez had brought along an 808, their turntables and a mixer. They recorded the basic rhythm track for Techno Scratch to a two-track reel-to-reel recorder in one continuous 15 minute take, right there in the middle of the warehouse! The original version was over 15-minutes long, but this got chopped down to 12 minutes and finally, Callon edited it down to the 3-minute version that became one of the most influential records in the history of electro music. I first came across it on Electro 5 and it made an immediate impression. That was probably due to the novelty cut-up of Woody Woodpecker’s demented laugh (I was only 11 at the time), but the combination of sparse drum programming, Lamont’s alien synths and G and C-Brez’s rhythmic scratching made it a killer track. They weren’t sure what to do with it, but decided to cut an acetate so they would have some beats to play at jams that other DJs didn’t have. Eventually, Callon made the edit and released the record on JDC.
The Knights returned to the studio later on that year, joined by Cooley D and Snowman, and recorded Fresh Mess (Jam… Your Radio), which followed a similar blueprint to Techno Scratch. It’s not as immediate as its predecessor, lacking a real hook, but I actually prefer it. The scratching flows so intuitively with the beats, which makes you realise what incredible deck technicians the Knights were. Plus I love that bassline. It all sounds pretty basic, but the impact it had on me far outweighs the rudimentary nature of the composition.
To give you an example of what the Knights live sets sounded like, check out the Dub mix of Fresh Mess, catchily subtitled The Knights Fly to Mars and Venus, With Their Dog, Woodpecker, and Cat! The synths are a bit out of tune in places, but this adds rather than detracts, making it sound authentic and live. The signature Woody Woodpecker scratch makes another appearance, along with cut-ups of dogs and cats, and plenty of cowbell. The Fresh Mess sessions also yielded the one and only vocal track they recorded, We Are the Knights, which featured Chilly G on a vocodered rap. This also represented the last music the Knights committed to wax.