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Turntablism’s Mightiest Heroes: The Legacy, Impact and Aesthetics of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz

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The Invisibl Skratch Piklz’ cultural impact over the past 40 years has been felt around the globe. The crew is pictured here backstage in San Francisco in 2017. (Courtesy Shortkut)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s story series on Bay Area hip-hop history.

On an overcast November day in Oakland, DJ Shortkut – a member of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz DJ crew – was the featured performer on a boat cruise, as part of the DMC World DJ Finals festivities. The weather didn’t get too rough during the two-hour tour, which meandered out to the Bay Bridge and back to port at Jack London Square. The worst was some mildly choppy squalls into fierce headwinds. Because this wasn’t your average boat cruise – its attendees mainly consisted of DJs from all over the world in town for the DMC battle – the ship’s crew circled around Treasure Island for a bit, instead of heading further out into the open sea.

The calmer waters allowed Shortkut, who had been playing a vibrant set of mostly classic midtempo hip-hop, to show off his mixing and scratching skills a bit. As the boat headed back toward its East Bay dock, Shortkut unleashed an impressive display of scratching skills that lasted for a good five minutes. As the boat neared its mooring, the DJ called his peers to the turntables. What followed was an unforgettable, and super-fun, display of global turntablism at its best, as each DJ in succession laid down a wicked scratch segment.

A person with a shaved head stands at a table as a screen behind them shows the images of several people.
Shortkut performs with Invisibl Skratch Piklz during the DMC World DJ Finals at The Midway in San Francisco, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It seemed appropriate for Shortkut to be leading the activities. Once a battle entrant in the DMCs himself and understudy to fellow Piklz Qbert, Apollo, and Mix Master Mike, Shortkut has become an accomplished master in his own right – most recently playing an opening set on LL Cool J’s star-studded Hip Hop 50 tour. The message to the younger DJs on the boat was clear: keep developing your skills and be a balanced DJ who can rise to any occasion – scratching and beat-juggling skills are nice, but rocking a party with impeccable selection while displaying your skills is even better.

Perfecting – and Teaching – the Art

The Piklz first rose to prominence during the ’90s, winning multiple world DJ battle titles as a crew and individually while displaying innovative new techniques that elevated turntablism to unprecedented heights. After revolutionizing the artform and birthing scratch music as a genre, by the decade’s end, they had left an indelible mark on DJ culture and furthered its global reach.

The Invisibl Skratch Piklz in Japan in 1993. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Christie Zee, the organizer for 2023’s DMC World Battle, held in San Francisco, has worked off and on for the London-based organization since 1998. She first became aware of the Piklz from an old boyfriend’s copy of DJ Qbert’s Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik mixtape – “It just had so much scratching and it was so fun,” she says. She recalls meeting the crew for the first time in 1999, at the DMC World Finals.

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“I’m really delicate, really careful about (saying) pioneer versus legend, but I do think they were pioneering, because of things they’ve innovated and presented and invented,” she says. “They didn’t invent the scratch, but they just progressed the hell out of it.”

“Obviously they have titles under their belts,” says Rob Swift, a founding member of the X-Men/X-Ecutioners, the New York turntablists who famously battled the Piklz in 1996. “But for me, I would say their most pivotal contribution to DJing is teaching the art. Before the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, nobody was teaching. DJing was a secret art.”

Invisibl Skratch Piklz with Japanese fans, 1993. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Swift – who’s been teaching a DJ course at the New School for Liberal Arts in New York since 2014 – speaks from experience. Within months of Qbert developing the crab scratch, Swift was using the technique in battles. He cites the instructional Turntable TV series of video tutorials as not only an inspiration for the X-Men, but also for other DJs and even corporate entities. As a result, more people started DJing and the culture grew.

“Before the Piklz, all of us had our own personal terminology for DJing. But the Piklz started (creating) terms that globally started to become accepted and become the consensus terms… Q started giving individual techniques specific names. In doing so, it made the art teachable, because you can’t teach someone by saying, yo, make it go wigga wigga wigga wigga.

“Now these guys are selling videos to kids in Japan, kids in Canada, kids across the country, kids in Europe that had no clue how to do this shit… Myself, (Roc) Raida, Mista Sinista, (Total) Eclipse, we were inspired by Q, and we started teaching how to juggle, and we made videotapes just like them.” Without the Picklz, he says, there wouldn’t be “the ripple effects of what we see now, of all these DJ schools, all of these people teaching on YouTube, all these online tutorials, all these companies designing gear with all these effects.”

Invisibl Skratch Piklz at Vestax headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, to preview their signature mixer. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Signature Models and Scratch Technique

The Piklz also served as consultants to audio companies like Vestax and Ortofon to develop ISP-branded mixers and needles; more recently, Shortkut served as a brand ambassador for Serato’s vinyl emulation software. In a 2022 video tutorial for Wired, the master turntablist demonstrates 15 levels of scratching, from the basic “baby scratch” to complex combos, rhythm and drum scratches, and the beat-juggle.

According to Shortkut, beat-juggling is “live manual remixing, basically, with two turntables and a mixer” utilizing two copies of the same record, or two different records. When done properly, the technique creates an entirely new beat using existing sounds.

Mix Master Mike estimates that he and Qbert have named hundreds of specific scratches. Among his original contributions is the “Tweaker,” which was developed accidentally, due to a power outage. “When you cut a turntable off, the sound still comes out of it” when the needle is left on the record. “You got to manually move the belt with your hand, which (makes) a totally way-out, dragging sound from the record.”

Invisibl Skratch Piklz, mid-routine in Seattle, 1994. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

In live shows, Mike deploys an arsenal of sound banks with trees of various audio samples for different instruments. He often improvises his sets – rarely playing the same scratch solo twice. With all the scratches he’s invented, “If I’m performing live, it’s all about if I can remember it on the spot.”

Qbert’s most ubiquitous scratch may be the crab, which uses the crossfader to chop the audio signal, similar to the transformer scratch. Unlike the transformer – performed with just thumb and forefinger – the crab utilizes a rapid tapping motion with the other three fingers, resulting in finer chops, like a triplet of 1/16th notes instead of quarter-notes. The crab can then be combined with other techniques like the stab, the tear, or the orbit to create an infinite number of scratch patterns.

Q says the crab has nothing to do with crustaceans, actually. It was originally called the crepe, based off a food order he’d made in Lebanon. Except no one could pronounce the rolled r’s of a Lebanese accent correctly. Among the other scratches he’s named personally, “there’s like the hydro, the laser, the phaser, the swipe, oh man, let’s see, there’s the clover tear, the prism scratch. … there’s so many.”

A Vestax advertisement for the Invisibl Skratch Piklz’ signature mixer. (Courtesy Shortkut)

100mph Backsliding Turkey Kuts

The Piklz began developing tools for DJs with the original Battle Breaks vinyl record, which resampled various sound effects and verbal phrases, making them more scratch-friendly and accessible. Their imprint Dirt Style has released dozens of such records over the decades with names like Bionic Booger Breaks, Buttcrack Breaks, or Scratch Fetishes of the Third Kind. These records are sometimes credited to DJ Qbert, DJ Flare or Mix Master Mike, and sometimes credited to aliases like the Psychedelic Scratch Bastards, The Wax Fondler and Darth Fader.

Battle Breaks led to another innovation: the Scratchy Seal series of skipless records. As Qbert explains, there’s a science behind this. “If you look at the turntable, it spins at 33 ⅓ — 33.33333 (revolutions) per minute. If you just make the BPM of the sound effect 33-point-dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee, the magic number, it’s all going to be repetitive. No matter where the needle jumps, it’s going to land on the same sound again.”

Qbert and Mix Master Mike backstage at the 2023 DMC championships in San Francisco. (Jeff Straw)

How the Piklz scratched also made a difference. According to crew member D-Styles, prior to the Piklz, “a lot of the scratch styles were straight ahead. It was very on the beat. ” He likens the Piklz’ approach to Bird and Dizzy’s excursions in the bebop era – “being ahead of the beat, or behind the beat, being more free with it, not so (much) in the line.”

While there were other DJ crews before the Piklz, Swift says, the idea of a turntable orchestra was uncharted territory. “One guy would take a horn hit, another guy would take drums, the other guy would take vocals. Nobody was doing that before the Piklz.” This became a common practice, and led to the introduction of team routines in major battles. Qbert remarks that he and the other Piklz have been doing synchronized routines for so long, the communication between them has become telepathic. “It’s just kind of like walking in step.”

Qbert onstage with guitarist Buckethead at the Jazznojazz Festival in Zurich, 1995. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Another advancement was the first all-scratching record, i.e. a musical composition consisting entirely of scratched sounds. The scratch music trend resulted in a slew of solo releases — many of them on the now-defunct Bomb Hip Hop label – as well as group albums from the X-Ecutioners, The Allies, and Birdy Nam Nam, and one-offs like El Stew, an alternative supergroup featuring guitarist Buckethead, ISP alumni DJ Disk and producer Eddie Def. After turntablism’s initial wave died down in the early 2000s, the Piklz continued to develop the genre, which Shortkut says has become its own culture.

“It’s a niche market,” Qbert says. “But I’m totally immersed in it.”

Invisibl Skratch Piklz at a Red Bull event. (Courtesy Shortkut)

‘It’s Just Some Human Shit, and It’s a Beautiful Thing’

On his solo albums, Qbert has frequently explored sci-fi themes, beginning with 1998’s Wave Twisters, and continuing with 2014’s Extraterrestria and Galaxxxian, 2020’s Origins (Wave Twisters 0), and 2022’s Next Cosmos. He’s imagined what scratch music from across the galaxy might sound like, evoking starships navigating irradiated asteroid belts, alien creatures scurrying across cratered landscapes, and underwater temples emanating immemorial chants over percussive beats, while turning Rakim and Too Short phrases into Zen mantras. He’s done all this by embracing the musical possibilities of the turntable.

“On what other equipment could you make the sounds go backwards and forwards and just do all these weird things with it? You know, with your hands,” he says. Unlike pressing buttons on a computer, “this is like fucking connected to your soul. It’s not like AI can do it. It’s just some human shit, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Mix Master Mike served as the official DJ for the Beastie Boys from 1998 up until 2012, later joined Cypress Hill, and has toured with arena rock giants Metallica, Guns ‘N’ Roses, and Godsmack, playing to crowds of up to 50,000. His solo catalog has expanded the turntablism field into new arenas – literally. “I’ve always targeted the rock audience,” Mike says. “I’m not just hip-hop. I’m everything around it. The greatness is having to conquer uncharted territories.

“I like to remain mysterious in that sense as far as being a mysterious artist and being unpredictable. I’m the risk taker, right? It’s therapeutic for me at this point, but it’s like I’m just taking it as a mission because nobody’s doing this.”

Mix Master Mike. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

This philosophy extends from live shows to recordings. “Growing up, I was always listening to soundtrack music. Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Ennio Morricone.” His goal in making records is to capture a cinematic sense, to make “a soundtrack that can live forever.”

His newest release, 2023’s Opus X Magnum, is a headphone album with arena sensibilities. Or vice-versa. There’s lots of subtle instrumental and sound effect-y passages, along with chest-pumping drums and serpentine basslines. The quieter moments are few, but precious. MMM’s Pikl heritage is evident in the way horns, keyboards and vocal phrases are scratched vicariously, resulting in twisty turns that keep your ears guessing what’s next. To the artist’s credit, Opus does sound epically cinematic throughout, its constantly changing moods and textures suggesting perpetual motion and a full dose of adrenaline.

D-Styles’ two solo albums, released 17 years apart, illustrate his artistic growth. 2002’s Phantazmagorea delves into dark themes, with vocal phrases seemingly selected for shock value, along with recognizable scratched snippets from KRS-One and Stetsasonic. 2019’s Noises In the Right Order – inspired by a residency at Low End Theory, a club night frequented by lo-fi producers – recalls DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and the trip-hop era, while still using found vocals as documentary. D-Styles says Noises was about being “more musical and less technical.” There’s plenty of scratching, but the emphasis is on overall composition.

Invisibl Skratch Piklz at Hiero Day 2016 in Oakland. (Courtesy Shortkut)

Being a turntable composer, D-Styles maintains, means using scratching’s vocabulary as a musical language. “You look at it like an alphabet. You got chirps, you got flares, you got crabs, you got autobahns, you got Stewie’s, and all of that stuff. You can add swing to it, you could be ahead of the beat. Behind the beat. You can accent. There’s so much that goes into putting these combinations together.”

Many Styles

Apollo and Shortkut, meanwhile, joined forces with former ITF World Champion Vin Roc in 1999 to form Triple Threat, a DJ crew whose mission was to integrate turntablism into party-rocking live sets. “Just coming up as turntablists, we kind of like, created little monsters everywhere,” Apollo says. “All they would do is scratch in their bedrooms.” There’s more to DJing, he says, than just doing tricks and scratching and juggling.

Triple Threat released a well-received 2003 album, Many Styles, which blended turntablist-oriented tracks with emcee features from Planet Asia, Black Thought, Souls of Mischief and Zion-I. The trio toured the United States and Asia regularly, and remained active up until the late 2010s. Apollo – who judged the DMC World Finals last year – still identifies as a Pikl, and says his focus nowadays is on upgrading his studio and reestablishing himself as a producer; he hopes to contribute some tracks to future ISP albums.

Shortkut, at right, on the F.O.R.C.E. Tour with (L–R) DJ Z-Trip, LL Cool J and DJ Jazzy Jeff. (Courtesy Shortkut)

Shortkut’s recorded output mainly consists of DJ mixtapes covering a wide variety of genres, but he did produce 2012’s “Twelve,” a funky, fun track with “Sesame Street”-esque vocal samples, for the Beat Junkies 45 Series, as well as 2017’s “Mini-Wheels,” a 7-inch single for Thud Rumble, and “Short Rugs,” a limited-edition slipmat designed for 45 rpm records and a 7-inch record with three skipless vinyl scratch tracks. He’s been an occasional headliner at DJ Platurn’s 45 Sessions party; playing all-vinyl sets, he says, helps him maintain his sanity.

After a lengthy break following 2000’s “final” performance, Qbert, Shortkut and D-Styles officially reformed as ISP for 2015’s The 13th Floor, their first full-length release. “This was the first time as a scratch artist that I’ve felt able to do shows with the Piklz where people know the songs,” Shortkut says. The album’s moods range from dark to soulful to jazzy, and were intended to be templates for live performances that typically involve improvised scratch soloing over a structured song with defined instrumental parts.

The Invisibl Skratch Piklz in Japan, making their ’13th Floor’ album in 2015. (Courtesy Shortkut)

Many of The 13th Floor’s compositional elements were developed by D-Styles, who went on to become an online instructor at the Beat Junkies Institute of Sound in 2019. He notes the Piklz are more than halfway through their next, as-yet-untitled album — several tracks from which they previewed live during their recent DMC showcase in San Francisco.

“My strength is, I’m always in the studio,” says D-Styles. “I always have these ideas, these sketches that I’ll try at home by myself. But I always have parts in mind, so if i have drums, I’ll be like, this is perfect for Shortkut. And then I have these keyboards, you know, these notes. So I’ll carry that side. And then I’ll give Q this (vocal) phrase. And I know he’ll know what to do with it.”

Aesthetics That ‘Vibrate a Certain Way’

Qbert maintains he’s still a student, trying to learn new things after all these years. He keeps pushing himself to new levels because he doesn’t want to repeat what he’s already done. “You got to come unique and original, or else it’s like, fucking wack. Or it’s, ah… he did the same shit last time, you know? I don’t want to hear that.”

A sample of Qbert’s visual aesthetic from three full-length albums: ‘Extraterrestria,’ ‘Origins Wave Twisters 0,’ and ‘Next Cosmos in 5D.’

The most sublime aspect of the Piklz legacy may be their aesthetic, best described as part kung-fu, part sci-fi, part zany humor, yet firmly grounded in DJ culture and hip-hop expression. This is reflected in Mike and Q’s outsize personalities. “Those two in particular are very much outside of this Earth,” says Christie Z, noting that Mike’s custom Serato vinyl is covered in Zectarian language. (In 2017, Qbert joined Mike for a duo performance of MMM’s alienesque single “Channel Zecktar” live at the NAMM showcase.) Artists are sometimes kooky, she says, but she’s used to it by now. “That’s what they do.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Mike sees himself as a glowing, ultramagnetic, cosmic antenna. “I would say, you know, my brain is like a super cerebral satellite dish that I’m just logging into the channels in my mind, and I call it the access to the interstellar network, my own interstellar network that’s going on in my head.”

As for Qbert, “nowadays I work off of karma,” he says. Though he’s consulted for audio companies before, when he’s asked for input, he doesn’t insist on contractual agreements. “I’ll give you the honest truth.” If a mixer could be sleeker and more ergonomic, he’ll say so. He feels equipment makers could be more visionary and futuristic with their products. “They could put chromatherapy in these things, you know, they vibrate a certain way to make it heal you as a human.”

For all of Qbert’s zany sense of humor and embracing of otherworldliness, he’s remarkably down to earth at times. That is to say, his ideology isn’t illogical at all – just advanced.

“With any art, if you’re deep into it, you’re already touching infinity,” he says. “So you could do so many things in it that you haven’t done. And there’s freakin’ a bag of infinity left — that is never-ending.”

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