Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I know John Robie pretty well by now, I think. He's been a regular spy for AICN for the last few years, and The John Robie Cathouse is the stuff of legends, decadent and sleazy and cool all at the same time. I like to take Robie on various spy missions, and from time to time, he turns in the kind of review he did tonight, something that's not just worth putting on the page, but that is a genuine pleasure. I know that SCRATCH really kicked my ass, and I'm still thinking about the film days after seeing it. It's one of those films that you know you need to see again soon because you can't get it out of your head. Well, it seems to have inspired Robie to one of the best things he's ever turned in to the site. Check it out...
You put the needle on the record and watch the record spin and you listen to the sounds coming out of the speakers. And the sounds can make you dance, they can make you cheer, they can make you weep, they can make you remember things both sad and wonderful, they can make you hope for things, they can make all the dreams feel possible and they can shut out all the world’s nay sayers. They can do these things because they are the closest we will ever get to true magic wrought by human hands. They are, when you boil it all down, beeps and clicks and hums and tone shifts. They’re just sounds, and they are the vessels through which hearts can be made or broken. They’re just sounds.
They can make you do these things because they hold a power over you, and that power is the essence of music. It’s not about how fast the hands glide across the guitar and it’s not about the range of a voice. It’s the gut feeling that sounds can bring you. From Beethoven to Beck, it’s all just sounds. And that’s why any kind of sound, in any sort of medium, that touches you any sort of way, is music.
Scratch is a movie that documents the rise of the DJ. Turntablist is the more accurate term. Violinists play the violin, guitarists play the guitar and turntablists work with the turntables. It’s easy enough to discount them because they’re working simple mechanical devices whose sole purpose – upon their development – was the playing of music. The playing of music.
If some of this seems confrontational, well, it’s supposed to. If there ever were an art form that demanded to be understood in this day and age it’s hip hop and Dj-ing, and to a large degree that’s hip hop and rap’s own fault. Nonstop we’re bombarded with images of assholes in flashy clothes that talk about all the cars they drove or the bitches they fucked or the bitches they fucked in the cars they drove and is that all a part of hip hop? Yes, yes it is. Should that be all that hip hop is about? No, it shouldn’t. That’s the image the music has so happily painted of itself and really, can we blame it? Which flies easier; a man that sings about shooting and killing and fucking because, all right, we’ll just write it off as another guy talking about his life or a quiet guy that lives and breathes by the scratches on a turntable, that can make soul killing or soul living music by moving his hands at lightning speed and changing records into something we never thought they could be? Which one is the more sellable idea? Which one can be summarized, digested, and easily spit out by the mass populace? Of course hip hop is going to be perceived as bad boys with their bad toys raising hell. That’s easy to sum up, and it’s easier to dismiss. It’s a lot tougher trying to sell a neophyte on the idea of a man sitting behind two turntables – two things that aren’t even supposed to be instruments – and changing lives by mere beats and scratches. Sounds. It’s too flighty to digest.
But you watch Scratch and you have to digest it, even if you don’t like the music. You want to know where I come from? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I fucking love punk rock. That’s a big part of my life, that’s what makes the heart beat fast and the skin goose bump and the eyes dilate. So by the rules I shouldn’t like Dj-ing. I should be able to dismiss it as simply a bunch of kids in a club dancing.
And then I realize that it’s all the same. No matter what the music there’s the one thing that hits you, that’s universal. How can that be because, really, I hate all this and I hate all that and I can’t stand rap and I can’t stand country and the litany of things I can’t stand? How can one type of music have meaning for people that aren’t even fans of that type of music?
Because there are things you have in your life, things you cherish and things you hold. And sometimes those things are as simple as a painting or a picture or a little trinket that reminds you of something you once did or someone you once knew. Sometimes these things are people, and you pull them closer each day because, my God, you can’t believe you were ever lucky enough to find them. And then sometimes, sometimes, these things that are so important are no more than ideas. Loves. Things you think about incessantly and things that make your whole world seem worth living, and you know these things are true. And it’s loves like this that lead to dedication, and it’s dedication that can lead to true art and sometimes, if we’re lucky enough, that art becomes something that all of us can hold close to our hearts and call our own. And that’s why Scratch, a movie about this art, about this love, about holding onto the idea of doing something and loving it and working it and believing in it, that’s why the movie borders on the magical. Because finally, finally, we get to see this type of music – this type of art – as pure and perfect and entrenched in history and respect and as a real living, breathing part of the musical spectrum.
You know, it’s almost like I’m killing a part of myself by writing this. A bad part of myself. The part that says that this whole DJ-ing culture is lame, that it’s not cool, that it’s the antithesis of what I’m supposed to care and love about and fight for as a punk rock kid. Well fuck that. Fuck the small mindedness, and fuck the narrow view of the world. I don’t care. I love seeing the hands move across the turntables. I love seeing the tired yet loving look in DJ Qbert’s eyes as he explains what he does. I love seeing Mix Master Mike act like a giddy school kid as he shows us different beats and things he’s come up with. I love seeing DJ Shadow look at ten thousand records stacked high and deep in a dirty, dirty basement and be so moved by the fact that that most of these artists never made it, and that he too will join their ranks one day. I love these things because they’re true and unfiltered, because we’re seeing these people’s souls and loves right up there on the screen, and I challenge anyone who would say that this type of examination isn’t worthwhile. This is the stuff wonderful and honest documentaries are made of, and it’s the kind of thing that can kick a door of understanding open in the mind of even the most jaded and off put.
Scratch is like having a camera there when Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads. It’s like having a camera there when BB or Miles played their first show. It’s a record of living history – a very important history and don’t let anyone, anyone, tell you otherwise. Because the second we discount this music because it’s just a needle scratching back and forth is the second we discount what it means to truly love and be moved by music. After all, it’s just a bunch of sounds, right? So why is this any different? The fingers are placed on the guitar in certain places and at certain times and there has to be soul behind it for it to have real meaning. The fingers are placed on the piano in certain places and at certain times and there has to be soul behind it for it to have real meaning. And the fingers are placed on the turntables at certain places and at certain times and there has to be soul behind it for it to have real meaning.
Most hip hop is utterly hollow and shameless. And really, is that always such a bad thing? Of course it isn’t. Of course we just want to hear some ridiculous boasts sometimes, of course it’s funny to listen to these people from a different world talk about things because c’mon, it can’t really be like this, right? Not for me listening in my room on my headphones in my house. Most hip hop nowadays is like an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” except the wha-whaa of Robin Leach has been supplanted by shouts and angry howls and chest-thumping boasts. And there’s an appeal in that…in doses. You know there’s no soul or heart behind it – it’s like watching Dr. Dre ad nauseum talk about how makin’ music is all about “getting’ paid” – but it’s still fun because it’s a goofy little look into a different world. Every once in a while there’s a descent or even a deep observance of life in that world, of some kind of pain or loss, but for the most part it’s just quick, flashy, loud looks. And it’s fun.
And it’s fleeting. And that’s why Scratch is so strong, because it’s not fleeting. Because really, it’s timeless music. It’s timeless because it’s not hindered by references to time or place, it’s not held back because of what it is and where it came from. It’s just sounds, beeping and scratching and bellowing out, and it’s impossible to deny that they have an effect. It’s like the saying; there’s good jazz and there’s bad jazz and you can always tell the difference. Even if you’ve only listened to a little jazz – hell , even if you’ve never listened to any at all – you know that’s true. It’s the same thing here. There’re good Turtablists and there’re bad Turtablists and man. Scratch deals with the good ones. The great ones. And even if you hate the music, even if you hate the art, even if you can discount all of the sounds and all of the energy and all of the passion because it simply doesn’t move you, you must acknowledge the fact that this does move some people, that it is important to some people, that some people love it for all the right reasons and that, God in heaven thanks a ton, Scratch preserves at least some of it for all time. That’s the job of a documentary, and Scratch delivers in spades.
Are there a few problems? Sure, a few. There should have been a little more insight and investigation into early DJ-ing, and some of the DJ’s are so damn interesting that they demand to be looked at a little more. Then again, maybe that’s just the work of a good documentary. It makes us want to learn more, makes us want to investigate this scene and makes us want to be the fount of knowledge that informs all our friends. Scratch does this because, in its best parts, it’s beautiful and utterly, knowingly true. And that’s about the most impossible thing to do on-screen.
Crowds are going to eat this up. They’re going to clap along, the oohs and ahhhs are going to ring through the theater at the strongest moments, and there’s going to be a palpable sense of wonder and discovery amongst the audience. Here, finally, is a film that gets the love of music right. That doesn’t deal with the groupies and the perks and a little nudge and wink to the audience because hey, look at all the fame I’ve got! There’s none of that here. Most all the DJ’s are pictures of slight. nervous desperation, a want to be heard and wow, this is the first time anyone has ever listened to me! You know that feeling you get when you’ve got a story or an idea and you really love it and you share it with a person and the person actually gets what you say? That feeling that holy shit, I’m not alone, I’ve got other people around me that think on the same wavelength and appreciate this as much as I do? That’s the feeling you get watching Scratch, and it’s glorious. So wonderful because they all love the music, they’d all kill themselves for it, the dedication is there and, most importantly, the love is there.
You know what I’m listening to right now? The score to fucking Superman. Superman. To some people this score is Mecca. Jesus, if I lived in a high rise I’d be at risk to jumping out of my 80th story window because goddamn, this music is awesome and the bumpada-bumpada and the trumpets and I can fly! Jesus, when I was a little kid I used to tie dish rags around my neck and jump off the nappy orange couch, pretending I could fly! That’s what music does to people, to certain people sometimes – a lot of the times – and who am I to judge that? Who are you or anyone else to judge that? If music makes someone feel a certain way at a gut level then it’s beyond rationalizing. End of discussion. Sounds can make us feel like gods, and that’s where the magic comes in.
I love music. I love it to the deepest depths of my heart. I love what it does to me, and I love what it does to other people. I love how it paints my emotions and yeah, I love how it manipulates me. It’s glorious. And I’ll never question how music does that to other people. Instead I’ll revel in it. I’ll revel in it because it’s the closest some us – a lot of us – will ever come to pure and unbridled happiness, if only for the most fleeting of moments. Because music can take us to that place, and it can embrace us there, and it can put all else in the world on hold, and it can make us strive to be better people and to do better things. And the guys in Scratch understand that and live it, and that’s why I find myself at a loss for applause. I can’t celebrate this film enough.
The movie that comes to mind – as far at music documentaries go – is Another State of Mind. Haven’t seen it? Go hunt it down. It’s a brilliant document of the early 80s punk scene seen through the eyes of a very young Social Distortion and Minor Threat. It’s got the love, it’s got the devotion and it’s got the raw energy that Scratch has. It’s a forgotten film, one written off by many critics, but it’s one that begs to be watched again and again. Any time you document the loves – the lives and hopes – of a group of people, it’s worthwhile. It’s worthwhile because it’s men and women dedicating their lives to expressing a feeling, a beat, that others can relate to, can aspire to, can love and hold. That’s music. It’s not lyrics, and it’s not pretension. It’s the feel, the gut feel from a few chords, from a few beats. Another State of Mind has it. So does Scratch.
One of the most amazing things about Scratch is its honesty. This isn’t all chest boasting. Not even close. By the DJs’ own admittance the art of turntabling has hit a bit of a dead end. No one is quite sure where to go, and while there have been furtive efforts to move things forward no one has really come forth and stood as a bastion of all that is new and inventive. It’s an incredible medium to be sure but it’s one that, truth be told, teeters on the edge of dying, even if that edge is years down the road. You can only go so far, they’ll all say. You can only scratch a record a certain amount of ways they’ll say. It’s a limited art form they’ll say. So maybe, maybe, Scratch serves as something of a time capsule of when this was all fresh and new and real. Maybe things will never be as good as they are now, and maybe we’re looking at the dying, golden age of this art.
Then again, maybe all it will take to move things forward is for one young boy or young girl to walk into this film, to watch it with wide and wondering and amazed eyes, and to let the fire be lit. And maybe, maybe, a few years down the road, that boy or girl will be the person to bring the art of turntabling to a higher level. And the spark – that one thing that changed the kid at his or her very foundations – will have been this film.
I don’t really think that there’s a higher compliment to give.