Director: Doug Pray
Released on: Palm Pictures
Year of Theatrical Release : 2001
Year of VHS/DVD Releases: 2002
Much respect to director Doug Pray and producer Brad Blondheim for the extensive work put into this documentary. Everything that Pray learned filming his Seattle rock scene documentary Hype! and editing American Pimp for the Hughes Brothers (who in turn executive produced Scratch) comes to full fruition for this epic. Making an accurate film about hip-hop DJs is a pretty daunting task, especially if you happen to be outside of the scene. But Pray tackles the subject wholeheartedly, treating it with respect and reverence, which is evident from the gorgeous performance shots and insightful interview footage.
Scratch tells several tales of the hip-hop DJ, many of them subplots to the main theme. We first encounter Grand Wizard Theodore speaking on how he invented the scratch. We learn of the influence of Grand Mixer DXT appearing with Herbie Hancock on the 1984 Grammy Awards, adding turntable techniques to “Rockit.” We learn about how the DJs originally gave access to the MCs to rock the mic and how, in the early 1980s, hip-hoppers and punk rockers could be found partying alongside each other. It isn’t before long that events fast forward and we find ourselves in the Bay Area, surrounded by Piklz of all different names: Mix Master Mike, Yoga Frog, and Q-Bert. The Invisible Skratch Piklz remain at the center of this film (particularly Q-Bert) along with DXT, representing the next wave and the original innovators, respectively.
Like a DJ creating a diverse mix, Scratch bounces around between subjects and personalities, eager to tell as much of the story as possible, but bound to miss something in its excitement. Still, its dogged attempt to cram so much into 90 minutes is admirable. Throughout the documentary, we are reminded of the irreverent characters that DJs truly are. Examine Jazzy Jay speaking of the good ol’ days of runnin’ with Africa Bambaataa, Red Alert, and the Zulu Nation. Witness Cut Chemist talking about digging for beats and a friend of his who rips out pages in the “R” section of phone books in hotels...just to find out where the record stores are in town. The interview footage featuring the Bulletproof Space Travelers is absolutely hysterical; it’s obvious that they could care less about being in the film and are probably wondering why a documentary needs to be made in the first place. It’s within moments of differing opinions and opposite views that things get really interesting. Steve Dee, a early beat-juggling champion who went on to perform with numerous rap groups, questions those DJs that want to win turntablist championships, but don’t want to go any further than that. The NAMM Music Convention footage is chock full of opposition. Musicians well versed in theory bitch about DJs “coming in and scratching up the place.” Still others complain about the sound being unpleasant and not very musical. However, the footage of the turntable manipulations of Rob Swift, Shortee, and Mix Master Mike can prove otherwise.
The documentary does not come without its share of criticism. Some have debated the amount of time spent on Bay Area DJs. Many have asked why Philadelphia legends like Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff aren’t included in the final cut. (Thankfully, their interviews are part of the DVD bonus material.) And there are still others who insist that Doug Pray tried to tell too much of the story at once. They’ve got a point. Each section (elements, DJs with MCs, digging, etc.) could be its own documentary. What Ken Burns did for jazz could also be done for hip-hop – this documentary proves that. Nevertheless, Scratch is great for what it is, and the DVD edition makes it even better. Can you say over four hours worth of bonus material? Perhaps a bit gluttonous, but totally worth your time and money, particularly Z-Trip’s short on “How To Rock A Party.”