When white musicians took up the blues in the 1960s, they focused on the guitar, not on the singing that was the heart of both Delta and Chicago blues. A previously unknown phenomenon emerged--the guitar hero, who was half musical guru and half gymnast. I well remember people elbowing me aside to get a better look at the fingers of Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana.
Today guitar heroes are, give or take an Eddie Van Halen, out of the spotlight, shunted to the subgenre status of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. But musicians still have a need to show off, and music fans still want to be dazzled by technique. This helps to explain the resurgence of hip-hop DJs, whose fingers fly as fast as any guitarist as they coax a universe of sounds out of two turntables and a mixer. DJs now operate mostly in groups, like the guys from the Invisible Scratch Pickles out of the San Francisco Bay area.
On Transmutation Live, DJs Qbert, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, and Disk joined Bill Laswell’s noise-rock band Praxis for a 1996 show that’s a dazzling exhibition of turntable skill. On top of and alongside basic scratching (the hip-hop equivalent of a guitarist’s power chord) they spew forth a torrent of sounds, everything from movie bad-guy lines to slices of jazz to bleeps and blasts created by manipulation of turntable and mixer.
Technically it’s as impressive as hearing Clapton at maximum riffage. It flows like water, is musical as hell, and at times achieves a Hendrixian intensity. Praxis is a match for the DJs, with Bill Laswell’s swooping bass lines flying in and around the Scratch Pickles, while guitarist Buckethead ups the ante with monstrous chords and frenzied leads.
The proof that DJs like the Invisible Scratch Pickles are the new guitar heroes can be found at the shows, where everyone crams toward the front for a better view of their fingers. Watch out for those elbows!
Miami New Times / 1997