WITH COMMUNISM DEAD and capitalism caught in a dot-com tailspin, it may well be that the only "ism" we can still trust is turntablism, the hip-hop-inspired art of DJ composition. Making its way to the front of the pack is a team of local DJs known collectively—and appropriately—as the Spinnovators.
Although competitive DJing has always been at the heart of hip-hop, the last decade has seen the emergence of creative crews with strange names (such as the Invisibl Scratch Picklz, the Beat Junkies, and the X-Men, now known as the X-ecutioners after a run-in with Marvel Comics) who followed a new vision for the use of record players as musical instruments, a bizarre evolution for a household appliance. While the world continues to await the birth of "dishwasherism" and "George Foreman Grill-ism," the turntablists have been busy collecting the techniques of hip-hop DJing and expanding them. By scratching, mixing, blending, and just plain having fun, they have created an arsenal of gestures, each of which breaks down and rebuilds recorded music in a slightly different way. This approach, while never losing sight of the value of a dancing crowd, has become a new form of creative expression. Many say it has become an art.
And so the tables turn to Seattle, to the Spinnovators, composed of DJs E-Rok, DV-One, and Ace. Although they take pride in their ability to rock a crowd at the drop of a needle, their long-term goals are more far-reaching. As DV-One says, "The name, 'Spinnovators,' I want to do something with that, you know? I really want to innovate. I really want to get out there and do something that hasn't been done. We can do shit that Seattle really hasn't seen." Specifically, they want to emphasize "the whole turntablist element, as musicians. Scratching. Using the turntable as a drum set. Using it as whatever instrument—or whatever sound—we choose to scratch with."
As E-Rok explains, these individual efforts are woven into multilayered compositions. "A turntable composition," he says, "is where you're basically making music out of the turntables, where somebody is manually doing the drumming with individual sounds from a record, rather than just letting the record play. So one person would create the drums by manipulating one turntable, one person would do like a horn hit on the other turntable, and one guy would do a bass line on the other turntable. So there are no records just playing—everything's being scratched to make music."
"Any of us can do those differing roles," adds DJ Ace. "It depends on what ideas we come up with and the logistics of it: which record has what, who's skilled at this or that, and the sequence of things. The key is to always keep the music going."
KEEPING THE MUSIC GOING is nothing new for any Spinnovator—they have over 30 years of combined experience in the Seattle hip-hop scene. DJ Ace is a regional turntable champion and founding member of one of Seattle's most prominent hip-hop crews of the mid-'90s, Prose and Concepts. DJ E-Rok is the founder of the Tech Styles DJ battles and the star of the Experience Music Project's DJ tutorial video (he also helped design the equipment that EMP uses to teach beginning scratch techniques). DV-One is also a DJ champion, mix-tape creator, and educator, who was among the first DJs in America to give formal lessons in the art.
The birth of the Spinnovators was relatively painless, according to E-Rok. "I mean, we all knew we had skills, right? But we had never collaborated on a really sophisticated, complicated, intricate turntable routine," he says, suggesting—in true turntablist fashion—that such a thing was inevitable. "So we got together and started practicing, and things just started going together very smoothly. I think one reason is because we were friends, so it was easier to work with each other. . . . We all hang out after practice, we talk about things that are going on in each other's lives."
For all three members, though, practicing, composing, and performing are serious business. And they're passing that attitude on to others through their shows and educational pursuits. As DJ E-Rok notes, "Every time we do classes at EMP, there's always people like, 'Wow, I've never seen that.' And it's usually, like, tourists from Wyoming. Which is kinda good, 'cause they get a better appreciation. They might not understand what a three-click orbit is"—a kind of scratch—"but they get a better appreciation that, when they see someone scratching in a commercial for Cocoa Pebbles, it's not like that's what DJing is. It's a serious thing."
Right now they're serious about preparing for their upcoming performance at Folklife. What can the prospective audience member expect? "You're gonna hear hip-hop, funky beats, DJs getting down. The truth, I swear!" proclaims DV-One. It's all part of the Spinnovators' master plan, which he proceeds to set forth: "We definitely want to continue to educate, continue to put on shows, continue to perform, and let fools know that this is a legitimate art form."
The Spinnovators appear at Northwest Folklife Festival's hip-hop showcase, 6-9 p.m., Sat., May 26, at the Mural Amphitheater in Seattle Center. For more information on Folklife, go to nwfolklife.org or call 684-7300.