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.

Rating the Grammys’ Album of the Year Awards

1959-1966: Skipping ahead. The Grammys did not acknowledge the rock ‘n’ soul era during these years. The Beatles were nominated for Help! in 1966.
1967: Frank Sinatra, A Man and His Music <<<<< The Beatles, Revolver
1968: The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1969: Glen Campbell, By the Time I Get to Phoenix (shrugs)
1970: Blood Sweat & Tears, Blood Sweat and Tears <<<<< The Beatles, Abbey Road
1971: Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water
1972: Carole King, Tapestry = Isaac Hayes, Shaft
1973: The Concert for Bangladesh <<<<< Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson
1974: Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
1975: Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingess’ First Finale = Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark
1976: Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years (shrugs)
1977: Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life
1978: Fleetwood Mac, Rumours = Steely Dan, Aja = The Eagles, Hotel California
1979: Saturday Night Fever
1980: Billy Joel, 52nd Street (shrugs)
1981: Christopher Cross, Christopher Cross (shrugs)
1982: John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (shrugs — but fuck, this was two years after John Lennon was assassinated, so it gets a pass)
1983: Toto, Toto IV (shrugs)
1984: Michael Jackson, Thriller
1985: Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down <<<<< Prince, Purple Rain; Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.
1986: Phil Collins, No Jacket Required (shrugs)
1987: Paul Simon, Graceland <<<<< Janet Jackson, Control; Peter Gabriel, So
1988: U2, The Joshua Tree = Prince, Sign O’ The Times
1989: George Michael, Faith
1990: Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time (shrugs)
1991: Quincy Jones, Back on the Block (shrugs)
1992: Natalie Cole, Unforgettable…With Love <<<<< R.E.M., Out of Time
1993: Eric Clapton, Unplugged <<<<< U2, Achtung Baby
1994: The Bodyguard soundtrack (shrugs)
1995: Tony Bennett, MTV Unplugged (shrugs)
1996: Alanis Morrissette, Jagged Little Pill
1997: Celine Dion, Falling Into You <<<<< Beck, Odelay; Fugees, The Score
1998: Bob Dylan, Time out of Mind <<<<< Radiohead, OK Computer (but hey, it’s Bob Dylan)
1999: Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
2000: Santana, Supernatural (shrugs)
2001: Steely Dan, Two Against Nature <<<<< Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP; Radiohead, Kid A
2002: O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack = OutKast, Stankonia (being generous here)
2003: Norah Jones, Come Away With Me = Eminem, The Eminem Show
2004: OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below = The White Stripes, Elephant = Missy Elliott, Under Construction
2005: Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company <<<<< Green Day, American Idiot; Usher, Confessions
2006: U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb <<<<< Mariah Carey, The Emancipation of Mimi; Kanye West, Late Registration
2007: Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way <<<<< Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds
2008: Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters <<<<< Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
2009: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand <<<<< Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
2010: Taylor Swift, Fearless = Lady Gaga, The Fame = Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
2011: Arcade Fire, The Suburbs 
2012: Adele, 21
2013: Mumford & Suns, Babel <<<<< Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
2014: Daft Punk, Random Access Memories = Kendrick Lamar, good kid, MAAD city
2015: Beck, Morning Phase <<<<< Beyonce, Beyonce
2016: Taylor Swift, 1989 <<<<< Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
2017: Adele, 25 <<<<< Beyonce, Lemonade

(shrugs): Underwhelming slate of candidates. Next year, do better.
=: Other candidates were as equally deserving as the winner.
<<<<<: Shouldn’t have won.

Love/Hate: J Cole