The Science of the Scratch

February 02nd, 2014 | Category: Reviews

Long before hip-hop went digital, mixtapes, those floppy discs of the boombox and car stereo, facilitated the spread of choice beats and rhymes. But the rhythms encoded in those messages started as grooves in records. Manually manipulating moment-events, DJs hacked the whole of recorded music, datamining dusty crates of vinyl for just the right beats, breaks, and blasts. Bruce Sterling (1986) writes, “Scratch music, whose ghetto innovators turn the phonograph itself into an instrument, producing an archetypal Eighties music where funk meets Burroughs’ cut-up method” (p. xii). Kodwo Eshun (1998) goes further: “…the science of the scratch is massively difficult, demanding intense rehearsal. Far from being something anyone can do, scratching is intimidatingly elitist… As it currently exists, 20th C[entury] art can barely grasp the tonal history of turntablization” (p. 035).


In Hip-Hop Turntablism, Creativity, and Collaboration (Ashgate, 2013), technology researcher Sophy Smith sets out to grasp the history of the turntablism. Including everything from the archeology of the breakbeat to different musical notation and transcription techniques, Smith mainly focuses on the ways in which creativity and collaboration have informed the form. It’s an angle that’s been largely left out of previous studies of turntablism.

Hip-hop Turntablism, Creativity, and CollaborationWhile hip-hop is largely a battle-borne culture, the competition has always been tempered by cooperation and collaboration (Chang, 2006). Where emcees, DJs, breakers, or graffiti writers compete for dominance and braggin’ rights, they also share techniques, tools, and work together in crews and teams. Smith uses Michael Farrell’s stages of group development to analyze three DJ crews. She writes,

Circles progress from friendships based on artistic similarities and gradually develop in importance, from playing a minor part in the creative work of the individual members to being a major focus. Through discussions, members cultivate and clarify and artistic standpoint, developing common attitudes and language and through skill sharing, share and expand new techniques (p. 52).

Competition fuels creativity, but collaboration fosters and forges it.

Scratch notation

Scratch notation (Carluccio, Imboden, and Pirtle’s version is pictured above) seems silly out of context or if you’ve ever seen anyone rip up a record live. After seeing it mentioned in Doug Pray’s DJ documentary Scratch (2002), I asked renowned turntablist Rob Swift if they actually use it to map scratches, and he assured me that it works. Smith spends a whole chapter on them, which is one more chapter than any other book I’ve read on the topic.

There are lots of people writing about hip-hop and DJing, but none analyze turntablism as a practice from so many angles as Sophy Smith does in this book.


Chang, Jeff. (2006). Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-hop. New York: Basic Civitas.

Eshun, Kodwo. (1998). More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books.

Smith, Sophy. (2013). Hip-Hop Turntablism, Creativity, and Collaboration. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Sterling, Bruce. (1986). Preface. In B. Sterling (Ed.), Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Westminster, MD: Arbor House, pp. ix-xv.

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