Thursday August 17, 2017

The Wire: How the turntable created new ways of thinking about music


Listen to Full Episode 53:59

A century of tinkering with speeds, mechanisms and materials changed the gramophone incrementally into the turntable. But over the last 50 years – from the early experiments of composer John Cage to the scratching innovations of today's superstar DJs – the turntable has become the nexus for whole new ways of thinking about music. The turntable is explained by the turntablists: musicians who play a turntable like a pianist plays a piano.

The Wire: The Impact of Electricity on Music first aired on CBC Radio in 2005. Each episode tells the story of how electricity changed music in the 20th century, focusing on a particular new technology. On Episode 7, it's the turntable. The series was a 2005 Peabody Award winner.

The Wire is presented by Jowi Taylor.

**Note: this series is not available for download and is available for listening in Canada only due to music copyright restrictions. 

The Art of Turntablism
"I have a taxonomic problem. I'm getting more and more music by DJs. Do I put it all in one section? Or do I put Amon Tobin in Ambient, DJ Shadow in Pop and DJ Spooky in 20th Century composers? It sort of begs the question: what is it, exactly, that a DJ does? Sure, they're from different parts of the world and they have different cultural and musical leanings – and they have an almost scary knowledge of beats and phrases and melodies and how to mix and match them, but essentially they're still playing other people's records, right? Back in 1969, Clyde Stubblefield laid down the drum track for James Brown's song "Funky Drummer". There's a part where all the other instruments pull up and the drummer completes the phrase solo. It's called a breakbeat. I don't know who the very first was to do it – maybe DJ Kool Herc – but if you get two turntables going, both with that breakbeat so that one starts when the other one ends and you keep fading them back and forth and putting the needle on the record back – you can build this rhythm loop. Clyde Stubblefield's breakbeat from "Funky Drummer" has been looped like that by hundreds and hundreds of DJs. I guess that's why we now have this term 'turntablist'. It's like, the mechanism of a Player Piano plays the piano. But a it's like, a person who brings their own artistry and interpretation to the keyboard is a pianist. Someone who mixes one record after another is a DJ. Someone who brings an archive of records to life with loops and breaks and mixes and creates something new, is a turntablist." – Jowi Taylor

Guests in this episode: 

  • Eric San, a.k.a. Kid Koala, is a Canadian turntablist, DJ and musician widely considered to be one of the most influential and virtuosic turntablists of all time.
  • Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, is an American electronic music producer and experimental hip hop musician as well as a turntablist, philosopher, author and university professor.
  • Denise Benson is a Toronto-based DJ, journalist and author of Then & Now: Toronto Nightlife History.
  • Amon Tobin is a renowned Brazilian electronic musician and music producer.
  • DJ Leanne is a Vancouver-based DJ and electronic music promoter who created The Rhythm Institute, the first DJ school in Western Canada. 
  • Michael Henry, a.k.a. DJ Marvel, is a Vancouver-based turntablist and DJ.
  • Gordon Monahan is a Canadian composer, multi-media artist and artistic director of the Electric Eclectics Festival.
  • Janek Schaefer is an English sound artist, composer and experimental turntablist.
  • Mira Sundara Rajan is a Professor of Intellectual Property Law at Glasgow University Law School (and formerly a law professor at the University of British Columbia.)

Also heard in this episode on archival recordings:

  • John Cage (1912-1992) was an American composer and a leading figure of the avant-garde in the 20th century. He's perhaps most famous for his composition 4'33" - four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

The following tracks were used in this episode:

  • Kid Koala - Skanky Panky - Some of my best friends are DJs (2003)
  • James Brown/Clyde Stubblefield - Funky Drummer - single (1969)
  • Malcolm McLaren - Do You Like Scratchin'? (1982)
  • DJ Spooky - Stellar (1,2,3, Remix) - Celestial Mechanix: The Blue Series Master Mix (2004)
  • DJ Spooky - Rapper's Relight - Subliminal Minded EP (1999)
  • Hugh Le Caine - This thing called key - Compositions Demonstrations 1946-1974
  • De La Soul featuring A Tribe Called Quest - Buddy (12" Remix) - 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
  • Gang Starr - DJ Premier in Deep Concentration - No More Mr Nice Guy (1989)
  • Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five - The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (1981)
  • John Cage - Imaginary Landscapes (1939) - Early Modulations: Vintage Volts
  • Kid Koala - Strat Hear - Some of my best friends are DJs (2003)
  • Kid Koala - Basin Street Blues - Some of my best friends are DJs (2003)
  • Kid Koala - Drunk Trumpet - Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000)
  • Kid Koala - excerpts from Scratchcratchratchatch (1996)
  • Janek Schaefer - His Masters Voices (1997)
  • Janek Schaefer & Philip Jeck - Istanbul Drift - Songs for Europe (2004)
  • Amon Tobin - Slowly - Supermodified (2000)
  • DJ Shadow - Stem/Long Stem - Endtroducing... (1996)

The Wire Episode 7 Remix was produced by Janek Schaefer. The series is produced by Chris BrookesPaolo Pietropaolo and Jowi Taylor. It originally aired March 21, 2005 on CBC Radio 1.