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Palm Pictures // R // September 17, 2002
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted September 3, 2002 | E-mail the Author

The history of hip-hop has largely played out in public, with rapping growing into a huge boom business and self-parody. For all the video mugging done by rappers, however, there are other facets to hip-hop than just rapping. Originally hip-hop culture contained four equally important elements: Rapping, graffiti, breakdancing, and DJing. Doug Pray's Scratch is an excellent look at the DJ branch, both from an historical perspective and as a primer for the diverse directions it is currently going in.

DJing is basically the art of manipulating records in a way that creates entertainment. The basic skill is mixing, which is simply segueing seamlessly from one song to the next. Other techniques detailed in the film include beat juggling (mixing up the drum hits on the record to create a new beat), blending (remixing two songs simultaneously in real time) and scratching (the wicky-wicky). The film spends time discussing these techniques and shows terrific examples of DJs in action. In one segment DJ Rob Swift takes a straightforward beak beat on a Nas record and shuffles it around turning it into a stuttering dancehall reggae jam, something completely awe-inspiring to the novice. One of the most mind-blowing bit of techniques on display features a DJ literally rearranging the lyrics of a song from "So step up if you wanna get hurt" to "If you step up you get hurt" without losing the beat. This sort of devilish trickery can make the brain spin.

The skills on display are ultra-impressive but even more entertaining are the personalities of the DJs. Pray has an ability to get his subjects to loosen up on camera (his Seattle grunge documentary Hype! was similarly successful in that) and his subjects here are camera-ready and silly. There's Mixmaster Mike of the Beastie Boys who's convinced that his scratching may have extraterrestrial abilities. There's GrandWizzard Theodore who considers himself the inventor of the scratch - and feels he deserves his royalties. There's Yoga Frog who takes to punching out a cardboard cut-out. And there's DJ Shadow, sitting in the basement of a record store surrounded by ceiling-high stacks of forgotten records, digging for the perfect sample.

These guys are all extremely talented (Mixmaster Mike turns Robert Johnson's classic blues song "Ramblin' on my Mind" into a convincing rap jam) and they're mostly very funny and relaxed subjects. Their love of the music is evident. The X-Ecutioners DJ squad practice in their socks while a bunch of the top DJs gather at DJ Qbert's San Francisco house for a jam session. There's a brotherhood here of sorts which helps given the current climate of inclusiveness. One DJ points out that in the old days DJs would cover up the labels on their records so no one would be able to steal their samples but today DJs gladly share techniques and secrets.

But Scratch has a serious soft-spot for the old days. The film begins in the Bronx River Housing Project with Africa Bambaataa. He's the father of hip-hop and he's standing in the birthplace of the music. The film also spends significant amounts of time with early pioneers like Jazzy Jay, Theodore and Grand Mixer DXT whose scratching on Herbie Hancock's 1984 song "Rockit" is cited by almost everyone in the film as the most important influence on their lives.

The film shoots to be as complete as possible, including lots of competition from the DMC DJ Championship, footage from seminal hip-hop flick Wild Style and wonderful footage of vinyl records being pressed, a touch that shows that Pray is really interested in getting all the way inside his subject. There are omissions, of course, most egregious to me Jam Master Jay, the dynamic DJ from Run DMC whose scratching on "Peter Piper" is one of the most imitated styles around, but the film is dense with content and entertainment.

Shot on film, Scratch has a graininess that separates it from the smooth, bland video documentaries that people are growing accustomed to. Pray and his crew have created a truly beautiful film filled with interesting images and edits. The anamorphic widescreen video mostly looks good with a few instances of compression visible.

The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1. The 2.0 sounds fine but the 5.1 really communicates the groove and move of the music.

This is one two-disc set with an impressive amount of indispensable material. First, the commentary from director Doug Pray and producer Brad Blondheim provides a tremendous amount of insight into the world of DJing. They discuss the people being interviewed, their histories, what it took to track them down, the process of making the film and what was left on the cutting room floor.

The disc also includes a tremendous amount of additional interviews, many edited into rough cut form with additional performances, including one of a DJ practicing with headphones on, so all you hear is the clicking of the crossfader. The added interviews cover subjects like sampling and feature interviews with DJs not in the finished film like DJ Jazzy Jeff (of Fresh Prince fame), plus more with Bambaataa, Shadow, and Premier.

Possibly the best extra feature on the disc is "How to Rock a Party with DJ Ztrip," one of the funnier DJs in the film. This 25 minute instructional video shot by Doug Pray makes a great primer on becoming a DJ yourself. Truthfully, this segment alone would be worth paying for.

A shorter "how to" segment features DJ Qbert offering some tips. This segment is basically a sample from one of his own instructional DVDs but it is laid out like its own DVD with a menu and credits. It also features multiple angles and soundtracks do you can isolate the left or right turntable or listen to the mix. Plus, you can get various close-ups of his hands at work.

There's also a turntablist transcription demo with DJ Rob Swift which is sort of like a bouncing-ball demo showing how DJ transcription, covered briefly in the film, works.

A generous number of sequences from a video documentary on DJs called Battle Sounds is also included, as is a nice sequence from DJ Qbert's excellent animated film Wavetwisters and a nice selection of trailers for Scratch and other films.

Scratch is an excellent documentary on a fascinating topic and this DVD is virtually the best presentation imaginable. By giving it DVDTalk's highest possible rating I'm not suggesting that every man, woman and child run out and buy it, sight unseen. Rather, this is such an exemplary instance of a filmmaker taking the message to the people that anyone with any interest in hip-hop or DJing at all should seek it out immediately.

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]

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