The greatest challenge for futurists is figuring out how to stay relevant once the present starts to catch up with their predictions. Scratch virtuoso DJ QBert and his shifting team, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, helped kickstart the 1990s turntablism craze by combining their breathtaking dexterity on the decks with loopy visions of human-machine hybrids that echoed the way that the crew seemed to turn Technics 1200s into extensions of their own bodies. Twenty-odd years later we’re now all walking around with our own personal supercomputers more or less embedded in the palms of our hands, and QBert and company are back with The 13th Floor, a new album that feels right at home in these distinctly sci-fi times.
The day after he performed in New York at the opening party for a new gallery show by twin graffiti artists Os Gêmeos, which attracted celebs from Swizz Beatz to Leonardo DiCaprio, we caught up with Qbert in the lobby of his Chelsea hotel. We talked about the new record, how DJing has changed since ISP first started, and how turntablism is like world-class competitive yoyo-ing.
How did this Invisibl Skratch Piklz comeback come about? Why now?
We were just like, “You know what? Let’s freakin’ make an album!” And that’s it!
After 20 years, it’s that casual?
Yeah. We’ve always been working together and jamming together, and we were like, ”Let’s just put something out, put our heads together and make this.”
How did you end up recording at Red Bull’s Tokyo studios?
They actually came to us and said, “Hey, we want you guys to record something here.” That could have been another reason why we made the album, because they also brought up that idea. I forget how it all came together. We’ve all got so many projects. They wanted us to perform at [the Red Bull Thre3style World Finals in Tokyo] and we were like, “Fuck, let’s use this studio and get this done.” We had five days, so we all kind of put the puzzle pieces together and it all just came out. There was some stuff that we made on the same day, just laughing, like, “That’d be funny if we did this,” and then, “Uh, you know, we could actually use that.”
That seems like a really short time to come up with nine songs. How much of your live routines and what you record in the studio is planned out ahead of time and how much is improvised?
I’d say 50 percent. There’s sketches and stuff, and then at the shows we just fill in the blanks, like, “Alright, you’re going to solo at this section, and he’s going to solo at this section, blah, blah, blah. The solos are pretty much improvised. At every show it’s different.
So kind of like how a jazz band works.
It’s exactly like a jazz band.
Are there any particular breaks that you go back to a lot?
Maybe to practice to, but usually we kind of get bored and want new stuff, so that’s why we’re hunting for new breaks all the time. Maybe “Planet Rock” would be one. It’s something you can always jam out to. Or “Electric Kingdom.” But as far as like b-boy breaks, we’re always hunting for stuff that no one has. We want people to be like, “What the fuck is that?”
When you’re listening to music are you constantly keeping an ear out for stuff you can cut up?
Oh yeah. There’s a percentage of my brain that’s always like, “Alright, what can I learn from this? Is there something here I can use for my stuff? Is that scratchable? Is there a pattern that I can learn from that musician or a technique that this guy is doing that I can translate into scratching?” I try to look at life as teachers. Even this that’s playing right now [indicating the bland trip-hop playing over the hotel lobby’s speakers], it’s like, “Why do people like this?” Maybe there are healing tones in there that are hitting the brain in a certain way.
Do you feel like you’re channeling other musicians when you cut their music up?
There was a point in my life where I was like, “I’m going to close my eyes and try to connect with Miles Davis from the dead and see if he can come into this realm and play through me” and things like that. Then there are these things I read that are like, “Hey man, be careful because you get possessed.” You can get possessed by a demon pretending to be an artist from the other side. The only person I want to get possessed by now is the goodness of God. Sometimes I do that too. I try to channel straight to the source, try to channel God, and let that flow through me. But that takes a lot of practice. Because God isn’t going to channel through you if you haven’t been practicing.
One of the criticisms that I’d see a lot about turntablism is that it’s so technical, where people would compare it to really shreddy guitar players, where the technique is the whole point. But it seems like you’re working on a more spiritual level.
There are days where I’m super technical, and then there’s days that remind me, oh, wait, wait, hey, relax and be more spiritual about it, and let it be very musical. I guess when you’re younger you just want to shred. Look at all these crazy patterns! Then you get older you can bust those out here and there, little bits of technical magic, but you really concentrate on being more of a Zen relaxed flow. The greatest flute player in the world was a monk, and a guy goes, “So if you’re the freaking best, let’s hear you play.” So he played one note and everyone was like, ahhhhhh. There was ecstasy in that one note. It’s like, oh shit, you don’t have to shred and all this stuff. It’s all about shooting love energy through even one note. It’s deeper than all the technical madness.
There was a real craze for turntablism for a minute back in the ’90s. What was that like from your perspective?
I mean. it was amazing. Especially [since] there was no computers at that time. It was so raw and you heard all the dirt from the records, like you knew a guy was practicing forever on those records, which is so amazing to hear. We kind of keep that alive too. We use vinyl in a lot of parts just to have that [makes static noises with his mouth].
What do you think about the advances in technology that have come into the DJ world since then?
I love it. You don’t have to wait a million years to get your record pressed so you can scratch a certain sound and find out later, shit, some of that was good and some of it wasn’t. Now you can just get busy right away. It’s awesome.
You’re not so much of a purist?
I’m like half and half. It’s like saying, “Do you play piano? What do you think about this new organ stuff?” It’s like, yeah, play it all. Whatever. It’s all good. There are these guys that are like, “Aw man, it’s all about wax, forget all this digital stuff,” and that’s cool too. To each his own. But that’s also saying, “It’s all about cooking on fires, forget these ovens and stuff, motherfuckers using matches and shit.”
It seems like there’s a lot of new gear that’s opening up new ways of manipulating beats.
That’s cool too. All the push-button stuff is cool, but there’s also the element of scratching where it still takes years to get that, so it doesn’t matter what new technology is. Scratching is still scratching. You need to be a samurai artist with that. You’ve gotta train to get to the level to grab a sound and play it like a musical instrument.
It seems like things have swung around a little bit. It makes sense to me that there’s a Skratch Piklz record coming out now because it seems like there’s a little more interest in turntablism in the air at the moment.
I’ve been in this my whole life and I’ve never noticed a change. That’s just our world. So all these people outside the world, they’re like, “It’s coming back now.” It’s never been away from us. We’re always in there being scientists, and now people are kind of seeing it again. Which is cool. But it’s never left us. You ever see the Duncan Yo-Yo Championships? Let’s say they put it on ESPN and everyone’s like, “Are you guys excited for the new craze?” And those guys are like, “We never left. We’ve always been trying to develop new yo-yo tricks.”
Music tends to move in cycles.
Yeah. There’s guys, like AC/DC for instance, people were complaining, “You’re not keeping up with the times.” And the guitarist, Angus Young, goes, “Thanks, that’s what we’re trying to do. We like it like this.” Same with hip-hop. There are guys who are connoisseurs of beats,they don’t care about the new trendy sounds. They’re still trying to make grimy, dirty, ’90s-type of golden age hip-hop. And now kids are discovering, “Hey, wait a minute, forget all these new type of things.” They’re trying to reach back to grab all those old drum machines that give it the dirt and the grit, like the MPC60 and the SP-1200 and ASR-10. They’re tired of the new sound. It’s too clean. They’re like, there’s some soul in these old ’90s type of records.
That’s like where the funk comes from.
Yeah, it’s that b-boy mentality of that rawness. That Ol’ Dirty Bastard vibe.
Working in Ableton and other programs, it’s so easy to lock things to a grid and make everything very precise. You kind of lose something with that.
You lose the humanity. I think Mr. Wiggles said it best, he said it’s pretty much the devil. Quantization is the devil. Sun Ra said, “What are you guys talking about? I want to hear a mistake!” When you hear an MC rapping and you can hear his breath and his snot coming out…the little glitches like that make it interesting.
Do you try and stay up on new hip-hop?
I do a lot of futuristic hip-hop. I’m all about every direction hip-hop’s going through. Some of it sucks, of course, and I won’t really go into that world too much, but I try to keep an ear out. Two percent of one thing is going to be good anyway, so why not listen to the best of the best of whatever that genre is?
So are there going to be more Skratch Piklz records?
Oh yeah, now that we’re all on a little bit of a roll. Also after this, me and Mix Master Mike have a group called Channel Zektar, and that comes out soon. That’s automatically grimy. Sometimes we were recording onto a cassette tape and, oh man, it’s pretty out there. Alchemist, Mix Master Mike, and I have a group called Code Cut Crew. We’ve been putting stuff online. Jason Goldwatch, I think he’s made three videos of our songs so far. That’s super grimy in visuals and music too. It’s way out there. It’s kind of like if you had a whole audience on acid, you’d play that and they’d be very entertained and bugged out.
DJ QBert will return to New York with Invisibl Skratch Picklz on October 3, 2016, for a show at the Highline Ballroom, their first performance in the city in decades.
Gallery photos courtesy of Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
Insvisbl Scratch Piklz photo by Rome Diggs