Why Your Ears Might be Failing You

Listening is one of the most crucial skills you can develop as a scratch dj. So why is it that people rarely, if ever, address it? After all, music is an art form for the ears. You’d be surprised how often you’re not really listening and just going through the motions. Yet, if you’re not truly listening to the musical elements you’re scratching over, you will not be nearly as effective as you would be otherwise.

Ineffective Communication

What do you typically do during a conversation? Listen to what the other person is saying, then respond in a way that correlates well with what they just said? Or do you spend more time thinking about what you want to say while the other person is talking, potentially missing key details that they’re trying to convey to you? Often times we do the latter. You can imagine how much potential trouble this can cause. Especially if the topic at hand is very important to the other person involved. By not listening properly and responding appropriately, you’re likely to upset or even offend the other person.

Self Absorption

When we scratch, we tend to be really caught up in everything we know. From all the scratch techniques we have under our belt, to the patterns we have come to depend on. However, a lot of those things may not be effective for the musical situation you’re in. Remember, scratching is not about showing off everything you know within a minute’s time. It’s about expressing yourself in a way that makes sense for the music you’ve chosen to be a part of.

Going back to the previous example of the conversation, you wouldn’t blurt out every word in your vocabulary just for the sake of doing so would you? So why should you be compelled to do what’s basically the equivalent when scratching? This is why many of your listeners will not be impressed or even remotely enjoy what you’re doing. It’s because your communication style has become ineffective due to lack of listening.

A Solid Approach

Let’s say you’re scratching over a typical beat that you would scratch to. You may think you’ve really been listening before, but I challenge you to actually stop scratching and just listen to the beat. Think about what kinds of techniques and patterns would really sound good over it. Take note of how the beat progresses. Is it steady throughout? Does it build up over time or does it mellow out? Is there a melody or is it just a simple drum beat? If it does have a melody, is there a way you can match what the melody is doing rhythmically? These are all just a sample of many questions you can ask yourself to determine what kind of flow will be best suited for the music.

Additional Challenges

Don’t get discouraged about your scratching if you have established patterns you’d like to use that don’t seem to work. This is actually a good thing because often times, simply making minor adjustments in rhythm and pitch can make the difference. Do you need to increase or lower the speed or pitch? Do you need to use less or more notes? Take time to think these kinds of things through more often and it will start to become second nature. The best part is making these kinds of adjustments will actually increase your scratch vocabulary and give you more options for other situations you come across.

You may even be making appropriate choices already, but it’s easy to get lost along the way. You could choose a series of patterns that all seem to make sense for the part of the music you started to do them, but along the way the music pulled a 180 and you were so caught up in what you were already doing, that you missed the change. However, the audience won’t miss it because it’s the overall music that makes more sense to them. That’s why it’s crucial that you listen constantly and listen well so that you can avoid sounding like you don’t fit in.

Silence as a Reset Button

In the earlier stages of your listening skills development, it will often times be easier to simply take many moments of silence in your scratching, so that you can better assess what’s happening with the music and establish consistent, quality musical choices. As time goes on you will instinctively know what works well and what doesn’t, but there will always be new listening challenges ahead so don’t think it’ll be okay to give your ears a rest. Keep them active!

If You Don’t Breathe You May Choke – The Benefits Of Silence

Good phrasing in scratching is a lot like writing a good sentence. If done well it will contain all the necessary punctuation to get your point across. If you have a lot to say in one sentence, it helps to break things up by adding commas (or even parenthesis). Sometimes you may need to blatantly pause… for effect. All of these elements create a conversational tone to what you are writing.

If you choose to ignore punctuation in your phrasing, at best you are most likely irritating the listener. It is very typical for a lot of scratch dj's to do this. They go and go, yet rarely stop to see if the listener is still paying attention. When that happens the listener will usually tune out due to overwhelm. Fortunately enough for us, this issue can be remedied.

Are Your Ears On Break?

It may seem obvious that there are countless ways to use silence in scratching. In all honesty though, there are a lot of ways that I was unaware of. One of the key ways is to become a better listener when scratching. Even in a conversation, if you’re the dominant speaker, it helps to give the person you’re speaking to the chance to acknowledge what you’re saying. This can come in the form of words like: okay, yes, right I see.

When this concept is used in a scratch solo, the other person becomes the beat you are scratching over. If you never pause to hear the beat, it can be difficult to know if your scratching is really meshing well. In fact, if you really aren’t paying attention you can really start to clash rhythmically. This is similar to when someone is ready to respond to what you’ve said and they do, but you don’t notice because you’re still talking. It can be a total train wreck!

Picking Up The Pieces

Clearly, unless you enjoy embarrassing moments, avoiding the above scenario is desirable. So let’s define your goal. You want to captivate people with your scratching and give them an enjoyable and memorable experience. If they really enjoy what you do, they’ll likely be back for more.

Pausing regularly, even for brief moments, is a great way to keep track of where you are in the beat and stay in sync with the rhythm. When this happens you will flow more smoothly. You’ll be more at one with the beat and the listener WILL notice. Even if they aren’t really into scratching, you have a better chance of capturing their interest. If they enjoy the beat you’re scratching over, they’ll likely be more into you, simply because you’re blending in with the beat more successfully.

A Strong Accent

There are defining moments in a beat that you should definitely pay attention to. You can save yourself a lot of trouble by taking advantage of this. One such typical way is to pause at the end of a loud snare drum. If one particular snare drum is louder(more dynamic) than the rest, try pausing as soon as it ends. This will naturally bring out more strength in that part of the beat and your solo.

I get an image of a drumhead being punctured or a speaker popping. It’s also similar to adding multiple exclamation points to your sentence!!! Be wary not to overuse this idea as it can become too predictable, but when used in moderation it can really catch your listener off guard. As we all know, being too predictable equals boredom. The opposite is also true. When no one knows what to expect it makes for VERY interesting scratching.

No Need For Crutches

So as you can see, boredom is not a friend of ours. We need to take extra caution to make sure that we’re not over dependent on silence in our scratch solos. The saying, “all good things in moderation, including moderation”, applies here.

There are times when silence can actually be detrimental to what you’re trying to express. You may have a whirlwind of fast, crazy emotion to unload on the listener. If you were to use silence throughout that part of your solo, much of the impact would be lost. By waiting to add silence after you’ve expressed those emotions, you not only get the full idea out properly but you add extra impact by ending in an abrupt manner.

The Balancing Act

Ultimately we want to control silence. Not let it control us. You do this by developing a great sense of when to use it and how much of it to use. Experimentation during scratch practice is a great way to further improve upon this skill. I highly recommend recording and reviewing your scratching to hear if you are violating or emulating the principles laid out in this article.

It may be painful at times to hear mistakes you are making. However, awareness of one’s faults is extremely vital to effectively improving as a scratch dj. You may not even catch all of your mistakes. If you are new to this concept it can be tough to perceive what is right or wrong. That is okay. Going through the process of thinking things through on your own, will do wonders for your awareness. Thus, you’ll find that you’re increased awareness will lead to improvement in many other areas of your scratching.

Expect the Unexpected

Great thriller movies contain lots of surprising moments, elements of calm and extreme excitement. When you watch a truly good thriller, you are likely on the edge of your seat for a good chunk of the movie. No matter how much you want to believe you won’t get thrown off guard, you always do.

Likewise a bad thriller just comes off cheesy because of the severe predictability of it all. It can potentially become comical because there is virtually no suspense and you have to laugh just to deal with the writer’s lack of imagination. The same can be said for scratching.

Clearly, sounding cheesy and boring are not goals of the vast majority of us. A great way to avoid putting people to sleep is to use a rhythmic technique called rubato. For those unacquainted with the term, the definition of rubato is as follows: The temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening. Or in more simple terms, not playing in strict time.

Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

It is a mistake to think that just because you’re scratching over a steady rhythm that you are chained to scratching steady too. If you lock into a groove and spit out a constant stream of 8th notes, it won’t matter how cool your mixture of scratch techniques or pitches are. People will disregard that because they’ll be fixated with your lack of rhythmic variety.

When you use rubato, each note now has its own personality. It’s similar to being at a party and not knowing who’s going to arrive next. All kinds of different people will show up randomly. Although some may be similar, none will possess exactly the same traits. Furthermore, you’ll have no expectation of who each person will be until they show up.

Don’t Beat Your Audience Over The Head

Being constantly unpredictable can be exhausting. If every moment of your solo was wildly random, you would begin to suffer from the very problem you were trying to avoid in the first place. A calm between storms gives the listener a chance to catch their breath and recuperate. Your job as the soloist is to know when the audience is close to full recuperation and then hit them again. You NEVER want them to completely recover.

When you spend more concentrated effort on rubato you may likely run into another issue. Your rubato could become formulaic. Meaning, every time you decide to break out rubato, you get stuck scratching the same way. What you must recognize with rubato and pretty much everything else, is there are always going to be alternate ways to do things. Thus, it’s important that you continually work out several ways of executing the rubato technique.

Tears, Flares And Tear Flares

There are a variety of scratches that are well suited to rubato. Take a tear scratch for example. You can do a two forward, one back tear scratch all in the same rhythmic division or you could break things up a bit. For example, the first motion of the tear could be one long, sustained note, while the second and third motion could be really rapid sounding.

You could also do a 2 click flare, where the first 2 clicks on the forward stroke of the record are quick, but you let the record
continue moving forward and then slowly pullback the record and click towards the end of the reverse motion. This would make for a highly unpredictable 2 click flare.

You could also take the first example of the tear scratch and add any number of flare combos and timing of the flares to it. Now imagine you combine all three of these examples into a string of phrases. By now it should be clear how entertaining your scratching will become with a large vocabulary of rubato at your disposal.

Outside The Scratch World

Rubato is quite an old concept and yet it is so under used amongst many musicians. The most notorious musician and master of rubato is none other than Chopin. While masterful, instrumental piano work from the Romantic Era is a far cry from modern day turntablism, it would do you a world of good to familiarize yourself with Chopin’s works. See a performance of Opus 28 here: Chopin
24 Preludes Op. 28

I’m sure if you take the time to listen, you will hear plenty of great rubato exhibited. A special thanks goes out to my music mentor Tom
Hess
, who has helped me to intellectualize the concept of rubato and recommended Chopin as well. I developed my rubato unconsciously as many musicians have. However, once you become conscious of such things as rubato, your level of development will thrive because you now have clearer focus on what to work towards. Not to mention, motivation because of the value that goes along with it.