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Turning the tables on music

'Scratching' records to create new sounds has become wildly popular. But are scratchers really musicians?

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It's just minutes after 8 a.m. on Sunday, May 19, and the leading edge of a throng of 75,000 runners in San Francisco's annual 12K footrace, the Bay to Breakers, is panting its way up the steep incline of Hayes Street Hill.

Near the crest, a man on his porch hovers over two turntables and a box of records. The familiar voice of Michael Jackson fills the morning air, but in altered form: The man's right hand is on the record, his left fiddles with an audio mixer. The resulting sound is a series of distorted lyrics played backward and forward with a rhythm so funky some of the runners find themselves shifting their pace to try to match it.

The front-porch DJ's ability to excite a crowd is commonplace among those who "scratch" records. For two decades or more, the "zigga zigga" of scratching records – pushing them back and forth by hand to create new rhythms and sounds – has garnered a frenzied following. A subculture of "turntablists" has grown up – "scratchers" invest hundreds of dollars and hours of time hovering over two turntables and a mixer, their fast-moving hands furiously scratching up records and wearing down needles. They're found onstage at nightclubs, in the corner at house parties, and even alongside the conductor at symphony concerts.

But are they simply disc jockeys? Or are they true musical artists?

On the one hand, scratchers might be seen as distorters of music, relying on the recordings of others to produce the desired effect. On the other, they might in fact be composers, drawing upon various recordings to create new works of their own.

Many academics hesitate to call turntables "musical instruments."

"I am bothered by the fact that with vinyl, the pitch and duration of sound are inextricably mixed," says David Wessel, a music professor at the University of California at Berkeley who runs the computer music center there. "If the turntable is slowed down, the pitch goes down. When speeded up, the pitch goes up. Hence, the performer loses independent control of the pitch material, and harmony for the most part is thrown out."


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