While every turntablist has their own individual story of exactly how he/she became a hip-hop scratch DJ musician, most seem to share a somewhat similar history. Typically this starts out with them first becoming bedroom DJs, practicing their mixing, cutting, scratching, and beat-juggling, etc., skills for hours on end to prepare them for the typical next step, becoming battle DJs, entering contests and going head to head with other aspiring scratch DJs.
Baltimore, MD area turntablist DJ ALF took a slightly different path, having never entered a DJ battle in his life. A self-taught DJ and producer who is currently putting the finishing touches on his debut album This Way Or That Way, ALF developed his scratching musical path while simultaneously serving as a member of the US armed forces.
In fact, practicing hip-hop scratch music while a member of the US Air Force (which he is no longer a member of) helped maintain ALF's sanity, especially while stationed overseas. He would "scratch away" his "pressures," as he reveals in the interview that follows.
Amoeblog: Pre DJing, did you ever learn to play any musical instruments? If so, how has that influenced your approach to DJing?
DJ ALF: I used to play the clarinet from 4th grade to the 12th grade. I remember some basic music theory, which has helped me some in my DJ career. Since I used to play in a marching band, concert band, and orchestra, I must say that alone has helped me easily figure what fits in terms of doing freestyle turntable orchestration with others.
Amoeblog: When/where was the first time you ever scratched?
DJ ALF: I must say I first scratched on my mom's turntable back when Herbie Hancock's "Rock-It" came out during the early 80's.
Amoeblog: What was the exact moment that you decided you wanted to become a turntablist?
DJ ALF: I was helping Ronnie Darko record his first Mix CD in '99. I was just the guy who simply pressed "record" and did all the editing on a PC. After just watching him do his thing on the tables, I gave it a whirl a few times and have been hooked ever since.
Amoeblog: How did your career and subsequent lifestyle -- being a full time member of the Air Force -- affect you in your development as far as becoming a turntablist?
DJ ALF: Well, I was in the Air Force for 6 years and my first duty station was in Las Vegas, NV. During that one year I was there, I did not worry about getting deployed or working long hours on a frequent basis. I was mainly practicing mixing and scratching to breakbeats while I was there. It wasn't until I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan when pretty much I was constantly under pressure in balancing my Air Force Career with my DJ career. I worked roughly 72 - 80 hours a week at my old squadron. There were times when my plans to DJ at my weekly spot were cancelled because the squadron would tell me the day before that I had weekend duty. Sometimes I lost money because of it. So from there, I had to make sacrifices if I wanted to become a turntablist. After working 12 - 13 hour shifts at times, I used to practice for at least 4 hours. This process happened throughout the 3 years I was stationed in Japan. At one time I developed a small case of insomnia.
Amoeblog: How do you think having scratching and hip-hop music as an outlet helped you deal with the pressures of being in the Air Force, compared to some of your associates who did not have such an outlet?
DJ ALF: That's a very good question. Using scratching as an outlet in the military was very helpful in dealing with the many pressures in the military. I could not openly say how much I hated my Commander in Chief (Bush) during the time I was in the service. I tried to figure out a way to express the thoughts that were going through my head at the time. So, I pretty much made one of my first political scratch songs entitled "The Political Mind," which was focusing on the time when the Bush Administration was playing dumb and saying they had no hand in the events prior to and on September 11th. A lot of my other buddies who were fellow DJ's in the service drank their pressures away. Some people were on the brink of suicide. I scratched my pressures away. There were plenty of times while I was at work waiting on a part or whatever when I used to sit and contemplate ways [to] enhance my DJ skills. That was the motivation to practice when I got home from working 12 to 14 hours. I wonder what I would have done if I had to deploy somewhere? I think my skills would have went to the pooper if I deployed. I don't think I would have been able to take a portable turntable with me on the deployments. You had to pack as light as possible. I would have at least brought an IPod with me on deployments to keep my sanity.
Amoeblog: How, since leaving the Air Force, has your creativity and musical life changed, if at all?
DJ ALF: Honestly, the Air Force helped me shape a great work ethic in terms of creativity. While I was in the Air Force, I used to work on F-15's, and being an Avionics Technician you have to be confident in completing your tasks, keeping in mind that someone's life is in your hands. Now, in terms of how that affected my musical life, it made me become aware that you have to triple check everything in terms of making a song. I just don't have roughly 60 to 100 people in an Air Force squadron watching me, there are millions of people who are now watching/listening to me.
Amoeblog: Is the album concept coming from your own experiences?
DJ ALF: Some of the songs, like "The Deployment II" and "One More Drink," for instance, were from real life experiences. Although the song takes place at a U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp, I try to paint a general picture of boot camp in general. "One More Drink" shows a typical club scene I saw week in and week out over in Okinawa, Japan. I just recalled one of the times I was DJing in Okinawa when some drunk ass guy bumped the needle on my turntable and all I'm going to say is that the devilish horns instantly grew out of my head. Overall, the album displays various types of songs that artists make. There's a couple that are political, one about judging an artist because he or she chooses to pursue a matter that the majority of people no longer do, another one about the mass amounts of negativity and lies we currently see on television. In some form or another I see the songs on the album parallel to what the artist may see or hear in [his or her] surroundings. They may tend to ask themselves if they want to approach the subject this way or that way.
Amoeblog: What components (equipment, recording techniques, computer programs, etc.) went into making this album?
DJ ALF: I used the following equipment to produce the album: Vestax Controller 1 turntable, Vestax PDX 2000 turntable, Vestax PMC-08 and PMC-05 Pro III mixer, Propellerhead's Reason program, and Pro Tools LE.
Amoeblog: Did you do all your scratch parts off of vinyl (no Serato), and if so, why?
DJ ALF: I used vinyl for all my scratch parts on the album. I have no need for Serato or any other digital turntable interface to this day. I may invest in it in the near future if by chance I start doing a lot of traveling to shows.
Amoeblog: How happy were you with the contributions from guest artists in what they brought to the (turn)table?
DJ ALF: I'm very pleased [with] the contributions the guest artists brought to the table. I'm honored to present some of Europe's finest DJ's on my album. A lot of those guys from Europe are slept on DJ's. I tried to present them with songs that pretty much fit their current style of turntablism, from jazzy/funk "Sculpted Music" presented to Skizo and DJ 2p of Alien Army to "The Galway Formula" (Streptomisen Remix) presented to Jimmy Penguin of Vince Mack Mahon. Also, I was very pleased with the contributions the three emcees, Skahlah, Dunn-D, and Nations brought to the table.