DJ Scratch Interview: Cuttin’ Up The Game

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by Alex Shtaerman

As the DJ for legendary rap group EPMD, DJ Scratch has just about seen it all in an illustrious career that has spanned over two decades. Originally tutored by none other than Run DMC’s iconic DJ, Jam Master Jay (R.I.P), Scratch would soon hone his skills as one of Hip-Hop’s premier and most enduring turntable assassins, regularly rocking shows from NYC to Japan. Famed for his antics behind the decks, the prolific DJ has been enlisted to liven up stage shows for everyone from Jay-Z to 50 Cent on down. As a producer, DJ Scratch has cut tracks with EPMD, LL Cool J, 50 Cent, Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, DMX and the list goes on… Despite his busy schedule we were recently able to catch up with Scratch for an interview and talk some Hip-Hop.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You’ve been in the game for two decades – in your view, what’s the number one key to longevity in Hip-Hop? People used to always say that Hip-Hop artists can’t have long careers, but now we are clearly seeing that not to be the case.

DJ SCRATCH: The number one key [to longevity] is changing with the times and being able to adapt with the times. But also remain yourself, don’t change because things change. Be able to adapt and keep the same hunger you had before the success. Those are the main keys.

RIOTSOUND.COM: What would you say is harder, adapting or keeping the hunger?

DJ SCRATCH: I don’t think [either] is hard. It was never hard to me. I would say none of it’s hard, I would say just basically be true to yourself. Stay the same but adapt to the times and keep your own identity in this game.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Prior to becoming EPMD’s DJ, you went on tour with Run DMC and got at chance to build with Jam Master Jay. What was that period like for you, as far as being indoctrinated into Hip-Hop, so to speak? What were some of the main insights that Jay blessed you with during that time?

DJ SCRATCH: I was a young kid and that was one of the greatest times in my life actually and also one of the greatest times in my career – ‘cause, you know, it’s Run DMC! Who ever thought I’d be out there, who’d ever think I would be out of the country, first of all, and then opening up for the greatest rap group of all time!

Jam Master Jay, he basically converted me from a raw battle DJ, ‘cause he seen the skills I had on the turntables, and he taught me how to take those DJ battle routines and incorporate them into shows in towns where people have never even seen a DJ do tricks on the turntables. He told me to just adapt to each city [I go to], do something that a person that’s never seen a DJ do tricks before can relate to. So I took that advice, for example, “Friday The 13th / I’ma play Jason”, [the lyric] from Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin”, everybody knows who Jason is from the [Friday The 13th] horror movies. So I incorporated those two elements together. I’d cut up “Friday The 13th / I’ma play Jason” [on the turntables] and then I’d go under the turntables and come back up with the Jason mask on! So even if you’ve never seen a DJ do tricks you’d be able to relate to that and that’s [one of the things] Jam Master Jay taught me.

So I just took that [element] and I incorporated that into all my routines. If I’m DJing in Nashville, Tennessee in front of a country crowd, which I’ve done, I’ll do a routine where I’m [still] being true to myself, I’m still being DJ Scratch but I’m doing something that ya’ll can relate to also. So [what I did was] cut up “Achy Breaky Heart” when that record was out and popular. I played the record and then I started cutting it and bringing it back and I started acting like I was having a heart attack like Fred Sanford [used to do] on the Sanford And Son [show]. So I combined the theatrics of that with “Achy Breaky Heart” and the crowd went crazy.

RIOTSOUND.COM: How would you approach it if you were touring overseas in a country where you weren’t very familiar with the local customs or if they didn’t even speak English; what kind of routines would you have to come up with in that kind of situation?

DJ SCRATCH: I don’t know, I just have a vivid imagination and I was like that since I was a child. In Japan [for example] I do a routine where they have certain battle breaks that they use with excerpts from old karate and kung fu movies. So I did a routine where I play some of the vinyl where the guys are fighting karate with all the punching and kicking sound effects. So I go back and forth with the punching and kicking effects and [on stage] I’m [acting] like I’m fighting karate and I’m cutting at the same time.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Speaking as a DJ, what are some of the most important things in rocking a stage show? You’ve been enlisted by the likes of Jay-Z and 50 Cent to improve their routines on stage – a lot of the times nowadays, a DJ is more in the background, so with that kind of situation, what does a DJ need to do in order to add to the overall feel and quality of a rapper’s performance?

DJ SCRATCH: I feel that a DJ is not supposed to be a prop. Most of the time the DJ is just a prop on stage and especially nowadays as far as concerts are concerned; there’s no DJs anymore on stage, it’s just your homeboy pressing the button on the instant replay. So it’s all about giving a good show and it’s not about me getting mine’s off on stage, it’s just all about the show. So if I can bring something to the show that will make the show 50% better, that’s what we should do. And just me myself, I do shows by myself without [even having] a rapper. So if I can do that and incorporate it with an artist, it makes the artist look better. It sells his or her records.

When you go to a show, a lot of artists don’t think about the fans. You gotta think about the mothers, the guys that go out and spend $20 for a haircut and $300 for an outfit and they go to the carwash and get they cars washed before they go to the show, then they gotta pay $30 for parking! So they done spent like $400 [already] and they just spent 50-$150 dollars to buy tickets for your show. The least you can do is give a good show and a lot of artists don’t think about that. They just think it’s the money for the ticket that the [fans] spend to come see them, when [in reality] it’s like four times that amount of money. You gotta think about the girls that come to the show; they’re not just paying for the ticket, they paying for the babysitter, they paying to get their hair done, they paying to get their nails done, they paying to get an outfit and shoes. So they spent about $500 to come see you. The least an artist can do on stage is to give a good show.

RIOTSOUND.COM: EPMD has recently reunited and ya’ll have been doing some shows. I know the fans are ecstatic about it; how did it finally happen?

DJ SCRATCH: With the reunion, I brought them together actually. I told Erick [Sermon] and I told Parish [Smith], even if we don’t do a new album, we need to be out there. Hip-Hop is in a state of emergency right now and we need to bring that good golden era music back, we need to bring them good shows back. Everybody’s too serious now, you can’t even battle somebody now without them wanting to get they crew and you get your crew, they get they gun, you get your gun. It used to never be like that. If cats like us from the golden era don’t step in and direct these younger artists, who else is going to do it?

RIOTSOUND.COM: Why do you think Hip-Hop sometimes has such a short memory when it comes to some of the truly great artists?

DJ SCRATCH: It’s just all about knowledge. Like there could be an artist right now, let’s say Young Dro, for example, he might be in his early ‘20’s, so he hasn’t seen anything from the golden era. When EPMD was out he was in public school, so he doesn’t have that knowledge so you can’t expect him to really appreciate what was going on with artists before his time. But they do have to appreciate the artists before they time because there’s a difference between a hit record and classic. A hit record lasts for six months, if that, a classic lasts forever.

So that’s why these artists from the golden era or before then are getting they praise now from these [new] artists because the songs that we was doing, they being redone already. EPMD is the most sampled rap group in the history of Hip-Hop. Our songs have been sampled by R&B groups and Hip-Hop groups all over, from Biggie to Jodeci and on and on. And new artists, they don’t know that, they might think “Ain’t No Nigga” by Jay-Z is a Jay-Z song and not an EPMD remake. So for a young kid, they might hear EPMD “It’s My Thing” and think we bit Jay-Z’s beat.

RIOTSOUND.COM: They gotta realize the EPMD joint is the older one though, right?

DJ SCRATCH: Well, you might not know it’s older because you’re not seeing the year on the song, so you might not know. So it’s up to cats to teach the young basically.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You are the featured DJ on Hip-Hop Holdem, the new Hip-Hop poker show that’s out now. What’s that like and how would you describe the atmosphere on the set?

DJ SCRATCH: Well, it’s like, imagine five people playing Spades in the crib with money on the table, that’s the atmosphere. It’s all in fun and for charity – whoever wins donates $10,000 to the charity of their choice. The atmosphere can get from funny to downright serious where people are really trying to win. But there’s a lot of trash talking [laughs]. Nobody wants to lose so there’s a lot trash talking and a lot of testosterone going on.

RIOTSOUND.COM: What should the fans be looking out for as far as DJ Scratch goes?

DJ SCRATCH: A lot more hit records are coming in the future because I’m a producer as well.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Who have you been working with on the production end of things?

DJ SCRATCH: I was working with LL Cool J; he’s working on his next album. Also working with Raekwon on Cuban Linx II, those are two major projects that I’m working on. And I’m working on a documentary also, it’s called, “So What You Sayin?” It’s just celebrating and documenting 20 years in the game. There’s interviews from almost everybody I’ve worked with, production wise and cats that I’ve DJed for through the years. And also there’s going to be a lot of never before seen footage.

For more info on DJ Scratch as well as Hip-Hop Holdem visit MySpace.com/DJScratch