Author Mark Katz Discusses "Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ"

Posted by Billyjam, August 8, 2012 03:08am | Post a Comment
There's already quite a number of books out there on the subject of DJs and/or DJing but Mark Katz's recently published Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ is a most welcome addition to the book shelf of any fan or student, or practitioner of the art of the hip-hop DJ. The 333 page Oxford University Press published  book exhaustively explores every aspect of the hip-hop DJ from an academic perspective with an emphasis on the history and development of scratch music - delving into technical & cultural areas.

In the book the Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a DJ himself, goes all the way back to chronicle in detail hip-hop's beginnings in the Bronx from hip-hop godfather DJ Kool Herc through Grand WIzzard Theodore (creator of the scratch) and all the way up through the years of this (relatively) new art form to the present. He spends a lot of time on DJ battles and includes interviews with countless DJs and folks affiliated (myself included) with his subject along the way. 

Recently I caught up with Katz to talk about his book that no doubt will be required reading for a long time to come for students of the modern musician that is the DJ

Amoeblog: What was your personal initial introduction to turntablism and when?

Mark Katz: I first encountered turntablism in 1983 when I heard Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” with Grandmixer D.ST on the decks. I was 13 at the time and that wicki-wicki scratching sound just blew my mind. As I learned when I wrote Groove Music, some of the greatest DJs of all time—Rob Swift and Qbert, to name just two—had that exact experience at about the same age. Now if I could only scratch like they can.

Amoeblog: What first prompted you to write this book?

Mark Katz: Before I wrote Groove Music I wrote a book called Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. One of the chapters was about DJ battles and I talked about these amazing competitions in which DJs were musicians and turntables were musical instruments. I wrote the book for a general audience and wanted to introduce them to this incredible art and culture and demonstrate a fascinating example of the way in which technology has influenced music. I had put about four years of research into that one chapter and knew that there was much more to say and much more I could learn. So when I started contemplating my next project I couldn’t think of anything more interesting and appealing to me than a book about turntablism.

Amoeblog:  Many people still do not consider scratching an art - just a noise - so how did you convince Oxford University Press to publish a book like this? Was that a task in itself?

Mark Katz:
I’m happy to say that it was an easy sell, and for that I have to give credit to my editor Suzanne Ryan. I introduced myself to her at a conference in 2005 and made my pitch. After I told her about these DJs called turntablists, etc., I asked her, “So, do you think you might be interested?” I think her actual response was, “Uh, yeah.” Oxford University Press is one of the most prestigious publishers in the world. They’ve been in business since 1586; their headquarters in England looks like a palace. On the other hand, Oxford University Press isn’t known as the hippest publisher in the world, and I think they were looking for something fresh. It’s worked out really well—they’ve shown a lot of respect for hip-hop and turntablism and have been very supportive of the book.

Amoeblog: It is painstakingly detailed so I am imagining it must have taken a lot of time to write and edit. Did it and what was the process like?

Mark Katz: Yes! I spent years researching this book—interviewing DJs, going to showcases and battles, reading books and articles, watching turntablist videos, listening to records, and so on. Just to give you a sense of it, I have 249 single-spaced pages of interview transcripts—and that’s not even complete. I loved the research, but synthesizing all that material was a challenge, and the writing process was just painful. I revised every chapter dozens of times, and for long stretches I would get up at four every morning so I could squeeze in as much writing/revising time as possible. 

What information did you uncover in your research that you did not expect to find?

Mark Katz: Well, this is trivial, but here’s a fun fact: Qbert first thought scratching was done by moving the needle across the grooves. I found it comforting that one of the greatest turntablists of all time started out as clueless as everyone else. Also, the whole story of the “ah” and “fresh” sounds that all DJs know was really a surprise to me. I’ll just leave that as a teaser …

Amoeblog: On a personal level what new knowledge did you come away with after writing this book?

Mark Katz: I learned so much in the process of researching and writing Groove Music it’s hard to know how to respond. Aside from absorbing a good amount of history, I came away with a deep appreciation of the artistry, creativity, ingenuity, intelligence, and musical knowledge of the best DJs. I also came away from the experience even more strongly convinced that the turntable is a musical instrument. In fact, I learned the basics of scratching and mixing as I was working on the book, and that kind of physical, tactile knowledge was hugely important to me.

Amoeblog: How important do you think are DJ battles to the evolution of this art form?

Mark Katz: DJ battles are incredibly important. I would compare them to the Olympics. In the Olympics every sport gets pushed to its limits—new techniques are introduced and older ones are refined, the latest technology gets tested, and legends are born. Battles work the same way, and even though most DJs don’t compete (just as, say, most gymnasts aren’t Olympians), what happens in these battles affects all DJs and deeply influences the art. 

Amoeblog: Are DJ crews, ones that utilize orchestration approach of playing together, as popular now as a few years ago do you think?

Mark Katz: I’d say probably not. People still talk about the epic 1996 battle between the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the X-Men, and that was also the age of the Beat Junkies and other great crews. In the years that followed, groups like Birdy Nam Nam, C2C, and Kireek got into the game, and they created some astonishing music. But I get the sense that today there isn’t that same level of excitement from the public. I’m not sure why that is.

Amoeblog: During the period between when you first started the book and now have attitudes towards digital tools like Serato altered much?

Mark Katz: Attitudes about digital DJing have changed a drastically. I first heard about Final Scratch, one of the first digital vinyl systems, at a DMC battle in 2002. The poor DJ who demonstrated it practically got heckled off the stage for daring to plug a computer into his mixer. But as the technology improved DJs started to accept Serato, Traktor and other digital systems more readily. Even vinyl legends like Afrika Bambaataa now use Serato, and most have see technology as a legitimate part of turntablism. But plenty of DJs still like the old analog ways, or like to use both traditional and newer technologies. I belong to a Facebook Group called “1200s and Vinyl DJs Only”—there are more than 1,000 members, if that tells you anything.

Amoeblog: How did you come up with your discography sections?

Mark Katz: There are two sections in the book that list recordings. One is the reference list that cites all the recordings I discuss in the book—and there are more than 150 of them. And then there’s Appendix 2, where I have various lists: “20 Classic Breaks,” “12 Classic Solo DJ Tracks,” “16 MC Odes to their DJs,” “25 Turntablist Albums,” and so on. I was inspired in part by Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, but you, Billy Jam, may have planted the idea. I remember when I interviewed you in New York you encouraged me to list various battle winners in the book (which I did), and the other lists grew out of that idea.

Amoeblog: It seems to me that turntablism now in 2012 is enjoying an upswing in popularity and interest - a sort of renaissance. Do you think this is true or false? And why?

Mark Katz: DJing in general is huge right now. Every week I see another article in a mainstream magazine or newspaper proclaiming the DJ as the new rock star. But these are mostly electronic dance music DJs like Afrojack, deadmau5, Skrillex, and Tiesto, who are not turntablists. (And some people say that they’re really not even DJs. I won’t go there, but I have to give former battle champion A-Trak a lot of credit for speaking out against the “button pushers” who make DJing look like it’s nothing more pumping your fist while standing behind a sound system.) But turntablism has enjoyed some of the spotlight, too. DJ schools are doing well, the battle scene is more exciting now than it has been in several years, and even Prince Charles has gotten into the game—he did a photo op in Toronto in May 2012 that showed him learning to scratch and mix. 

Amoeblog: What do you see as the future of scratch/skratch music?

Mark Katz: I’m always leery of predicting the future, but one trend that I see developing even further in coming years is expansion of DJ technology and the continued rise of controllerism. The DJ’s instrument is no longer strictly a pair of analog turntables and a mixer. Today you could line up ten different DJs and you could have ten radically different set-ups. This trend is both exciting and worrisome: exciting because the possibilities of turntablism will keep expanding and worrisome because turntablism may lose its identity. Can turntablism survive without turntables? It’s a heavy, existential question.

Amoeblog: Anything to add?

Mark Katz: Just my thanks to you for giving me this opportunity and to all the DJs who created and continue to cultivate this amazingly rich art form.

For more on Mark Katz's book visit the Groove Music companion site to the book.

Relevant Tags

Scratch Music (2), Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (1), Turntablism (44), Dj (37), Groove Music The Art And Culture Of The Hip Hop Dj (1), Mark Katz (2)