Where is the new turntablism?

Last weekend, I went to Skratch Bastid’s BBQ afternoon party at the Phoenix Hotel. It was fun, if not as decadent and raunchy (or “messy,” as my friend put it) as past bacchanals at a San Francisco hotel that encourages guests to “rock out.” Cosmo Baker spun a pleasing array of 90s and 00s chestnuts along with some vintage P-Funk. Skratch Bastid peppered his set with rhythmic scratching of the kind rarely heard since Serato and other digital setups conquered the professional DJ world. And Just Blaze’s set elicited a rousing, drunken (at least among many in the audience) singalong of the best of 00s radio rap.

In short, it was a joyful anachronism. Most of the music played were tried-and-true classics. The only contemporary rap voices I heard was a little bit of Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People,” Vince Staples’ “Big Fish,” and YG’s de rigueur “FDT.” There was nothing that would surprise, upset or challenge a “real hip-hop” fan.

Skratch Bastid is part of a younger generation of hip-hop DJs keeping the spirit of turntablism alive. (I haven’t listened to his mixtapes yet.) But as entertaining as his set that afternoon was, it also illustrated why the form hasn’t evolved since the late 90s, when the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Triple Threat and the Beat Junkies mounted a valiant stand against the lamestream’s formulaic DAT tape antics.  These days, DJs with cutting-and-scratching skills seem reluctant to engage with new rap beyond obvious “conscious” folks like Kendrick. Instead, they drift into other, less culturally-fraught styles, whether it’s Jake One blending 80s boogie-funk curios, A-Trak pumping up radio hits by Lil Uzi Vert and Kanye West with EDM, or the LA beat scene blurring together grime, house and footwork. Some of it could be classified as hip-hop DJ’ing, but it’s often too diffuse to qualify as such.

I know that many of those beat scene folks fuck with rap in the 10s, too. When I saw Flying Lotus perform three years ago, he gleefully used Waka Flocka Flame “Hard in Da Paint” to pound the audience into a frenzy. But he’s a laptop wizard, and doesn’t use the kind of cutting techniques that pioneers like Q-Bert employ. Where are the jocks beat juggling the sepulchral opening tones of Future’s “Mask Off,” or chopping up Playboi Carti’s “milly rock” hook on “Magnolia”? Where are the DJs mounting a movement as aesthetically relevant as turntablism once was? If it’s out there, I haven’t heard it yet. I’m waiting, and I’m all ears.

“Take off that Onyx T-shirt”

This is a screen cap of Eminem during his interview in the forthcoming HBO documentary The Defiant Ones. When I saw it, I thought about two things:

*In 1994, I witnessed KRS-One give an incredible performance in San Francisco. This was when he was at the height of his powers, and often mentioned as one of the best rappers alive, if not ever. But what I remember most is how he’d frequently stop mid-song and dive right into off-the-dome freestyles, riffing extemporaneously and lodging random disses. One of his unexpected targets was Onyx; he turned to one of his hypemen and said, “You should take off that Onyx T-shirt.”

I don’t know whether he had “beef” with Onyx, or if he just didn’t like their music at the time. Much like the subliminals at rival rappers that Kool Keith lodged during his Ultramagnetic years, Kris’ remark may have been the kind of unfiltered opinion you can rarely get away with nowadays, not with Complex and other trendspotting sites ready to pump up any lyrical remark into a controversial “stray shot,” and not with audiences filming every performance with their phones for social media dispersal.

Having said that, when I saw Chance the Rapper perform at the Greek Theatre last year, he said something to the effect of, “Are you ready for the blessings? Not the fake blessings you hear about…but the real blessings.” It was clearly aimed at Big Sean’s “Blessed,” and how the Detroit rapper equated material success with being in God’s grace. However, Chance’s critique went unmentioned on the Internets.

*Did you notice that Eminem is developing a bit of a widow’s peak in the photo? It looks like he’s starting to lose his hair.

Spotlight On: 2Pac

(Note: These pieces were originally written in July 2011.)

This year, 2Pac would have turned 40 years old if he were alive. But his birthday did not go unnoticed. Members of the Shakur family, event promoters and fans held honorary parties across the country on June 16. Meanwhile, Meek Mill’s “Tupac Back,” the lead single from Ross’ Maybach Music Group compilation Self-Made, briefly lit up the Internet. A day before 2Pac’s birthday, a man serving life in prison, Dexter Isaac, told allhiphop.com he was paid by former record executive Jimmy “The Henchman” Rosemond to rob 2Pac at the infamous 1994 Quad Studios shooting. Taken together, it all amounted to the most discussion about 2Pac in years.

Perhaps that prompted Universal Music Group to digitally re-release 2Pac’s early Interscope recordings in June. There isn’t much left to say about a virtually mythological figure that generates conspiracy theories, academic books, and a cottage industry of bootlegs. But his first three albums, along with the Thug Life compilation and the post-mortem collection R U Still Down? (Remember Me?), deserve new scrutiny. This era is often summarized as 2Pac’s “conscious” period before he “signed a deal with devil” at Death Row (as his mother Afeni Shakur once put it), but the recordings themselves aren’t as straightforward.

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