The tables have turned: A history of turntablism | Features | MN2S

Turntablism is an art form and style of performance used by DJs who use turntables and a cross-fading mixer to create innovative sounds and inventive musical techniques.

In the right hands, the turntable is an instrument. In this article, we take a look back at the history of turntablism.

Every DJ uses a turntable in their own way. For some, it’s a tool to cue up and play music. These DJs pay more attention to the tracklists and transitions of their sets than to stretching their turntables to their limits. For others, though, being a DJ is all about chopping up beats, remixing, mixing, rewinding, winding, scratching, juggling and switching tempos. Such techniques have come a long way from their origins at house parties and rap battles to become the worldwide phenomenon that is turntablism. 

What is turntablism?

The term “turntablism” refers to a set of techniques and practices that utilise turntables as a musical instrument, as opposed to their originally intended use of playing recorded music. Turntablists manipulate one or more turntables and a DJ mixer using a variety of methods to produce a range of sounds that can either accompany recorded music or be used to create entirely new ones.

Techniques such as scratching and beat-juggling can be used to add sounds on top of existing recordings or combine two (or more) vinyl records in unexpected or creative ways. These are skills that are beyond your average DJ, who blends two or more existing tracks seamlessly – the turntablist instead treats the record decks like an instrument, using them to create new sounds and generate new ideas.

“A phonograph in the hands of a “hip-hop/scratch” artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced – the record player becomes a musical instrument.”

John Oswald

The most famous names in turntablism – who are the most famous turntablists & scratch artists?

Before we look at the history and development of turntablism, we should establish exactly what it is. If you’ve ever seen DJ Jazzy Jeff perform, you’ve witnessed one of the all time great turntablists in action. His ‘Peter Piper’ routine is a great example turntablism. Using two turntables and two copies of Run DMC’s ‘Peter Piper’ on 12” vinyl, DJ Jazzy Jeff crafts an all-new edit by re-cuing the records to chop up the beat.



Skratch Bastid is another master turntablist. His 2016 tribute mixes to David Bowie and Prince went viral on Facebook, introducing many music fans to the true power of turntablism for the first time.



We’ve shown you some examples, but we still haven’t told you exactly what turntablism is. Red Bull 3Style (formerly known as Red Bull Thr3estyle) is one of the biggest events in the DJ/turntablist calendar. Every year, unknown or up and coming DJs from around the world enter the competition, and they are each given 15 minutes to prove their worth. In those 15 minutes, elements that are judged under the ‘Skills’ criteria include mixing; live editing such as beat juggling, scratching and the musical use of cue points; reading the crowd, and combining all of these things into one cohesive package. While all of these skills are important to a turntablist, it is the live editing that is the essence of turntablism.

As the 3style guidelines state, “one of the great abilities of a DJ is to take a song, add a personal touch to it, and create a new experience with it.” Nothing does this better than turntablism.


Where did turntablism come from?


A lot of the history of electronic music is the history of innovators taking electronic instruments and using them in ways their designers never dreamed of. Musicians tinkering with the Roland TB-303’s filter function managed to kickstart the entire genre of Acid House in the late 80s and early 90s. With turntablism, we have exactly the same thing. Turntables were only built to play music. You didn’t even need to be a DJ to use them.

But some DJs, simply playing music wasn’t enough. They tested the machines’ capabilities and discovered scratching, which had long been seen as an accident to be avoided, sounded brilliant, and opened up new musical possibilities. Moving the record backwards and forwards rhythmically created never-before-heard percussive sounds that could make even the most familiar tracks sound exciting again. Like many DJ techniques, turntablism originated in the clubs of Jamaica in the 1960s. Jamaican immigrants to the USA brought early turntablism, and their innovative way of looking at turntables and sound systems in general, with them.

It was the first direct drive turntables, released by Panasonic (then known as Matsushi) in the 1970s. These turntables bore the name Technics, and the Technics line has gone on to be one of the most respected in music. Hip Hop musicians in New York picked up these turntables, flexed their scratching muscles, and turntablism as we know it today was born. The first to do it were the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizzard Theodore, and DJ Kool Herc. Grandmaster Flash’s landmark release ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ featured scratching throughout, along with stop-start techniques and other turntablism. This track helped shape the direction of recorded hip-hop music, and as a result, scratching was found throughout “golden age” hip-hop


Though scratching eventually fell out of fashion in hip-hop, production, it never left the club scene, as the likes of DJ Jazzy Jeff kept developing new ways to make a turntable shine. Now, the next generation of turntablists, including Skratch Bastid and all the up-and-comers entering Red Bull 3style each year, are proving that turntablism still has legs.

DJ Jazzy Jeff or Skratch Bastid now to bring turntablism masters to your venue.

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