Talking Turntablism with DJ Kanganade

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DJ Kanganade has quietly evolved into a pillar of the BTV hip hop scene. A steady presence at events like the Yo! BTV Raps series and the legendary 3rd Thursdays shows at The Monkey House, he really came into his own with “Corduroy Caviar & The Whiskey Pillow,” a solo turntablism feature off the debut Self Portrait LP, Primal Union. He’s been racking up more album credits these days — most recently on MavStar & ILLu’s Gangsta Trail Mix and an upcoming EP project with producer / engineer / multi-instrumentalist SkySplitterInk.

While I’d intended to talk more about his career, his sheer enthusiasm for what he loves turned this into a clinic on turntablism history, technique and technology. Enjoy the meal.

VTHH: Back when I interviewed Self Portrait, in their origin story you just sort of show up, guns blazing, already a keen disciple of the cut. When did you actually start getting into turntablism?

Kanga: I started getting into DJing when I was about 14. So what was that, ‘02-‘03?  I had been saving up all summer by mowing lawns to buy an “all-in-one” kit from Gemini.  It came with two direct drive turntables, a slim “battle” style mixer (they don’t even make ones like it anymore), and some cheapo headphones and some actually halfway decent monitors.  All for 500 bucks, quite the deal back in the day, but still the most money I had ever spent at the time.

I remember I was at a gymnastics camp, cross training for breaking (what got me into hip hop in the first place) and I got a call from my mom that this huge, heavy package arrived.  I was so excited that even though the camp was all the way in the islands and I lived in Shelburne, I still made my mom come get me. I had already raided my dad’s record collection and was gracefully given a dope starter set of hip hop singles and LPs from an upperclassman at my high school.

I didn’t know what I was doing for quite some time, just experimenting and trying to emulate the things I was listening to.  My background in percussion helped me recognize rhythms, both in the beats and in scratches. I don’t know when I actually found out about “turntablism” specifically, but I know that when I did it gave me a sense of purpose with my DJing art.  

I never got into it to spin parties or to make money, but just because I was fascinated with how the whole scratching thing worked. So I studied it, all the time. I read articles, watched what little videos there were at the time (YouTube was still a ways away) and listened intently to any scratch CDs or mix tapes I could get my hands on.  Any time I could actually scratch with another DJ, which was rare in BTV, I would study the cuts the other DJ was doing and try to emulate and assimilate their style into my own. Over the years it all developed into my own style, and it’s something I’m still working on to this day.

VTHH: Who were your biggest influences early on?

Kanga: Like most kids growing up, I started out listening to the music my parents listened to.  The only rap CD my dad has ever owned was Tone Loc’s debut album, “Gettin Loc’d After Dark,” and that is my first memory of hip hop. My pops is into jazz, blues and rock, but for some reason he had this one rap record. I think he liked Tone Loc’s voice, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?

Through the years I dabbled into hip hop.  I picked up Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” the week it dropped and was promptly never allowed to listen to it again after my parents heard a skit track titled “Fuk Coolio”.  After that, the ‘rents were a little tight on rap music. For example, I was able to get the Beastie BoysHello Nasty” because it was sans parental advisory and had to buy Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “E. Eternal 1999” at Walmart because they edited their CDs and it didn’t have the advisory.

Around this time, my dad came home with a CD called “Make Some Noise” by a Chicago funk group Liquid Soul.  It was the stuff I was used to from my Pops expect for one thing, this group had a DJ and they actually heavily featured him as a part of the band.  That was the first time I can remember hearing a DJ not just adding something to a song, but he was an integral part of the band. You could say it was my version of “Rockit”.  

After that, it was all about trying to find different DJs who scratched.  I stumbled upon Rawkus’s “Soundbombing Vol. II” fairly early thanks to one of my younger cousins.  That was my first introduction to the Beat Junkies, which I attribute a lot of my style to. Their DJs like Babu, Rhettmatic, J-Rocc and D-Styles were not only super dope at scratching but could also mix and juggle and do everything else there was with the turntables.  I soon found all the “The World Famous Beat Junkies” mix tapes and Babu’s “Duck Season”. DJ Revolution was the first DJ I ever heard make a complete scratch track, with scratching courses and verses and then incorporate it into his mixes.

Then, I found out about the Invsbl Scratch Piklz. Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, Apollo and D-Styles were some of the first I had ever heard to do full turntablism production, where they literally built everything from “scratch”.  Q-Bert’s “Wave Twisters” and D-Styles “Phantasmagoria” totally changed the way I looked at turntablism. No longer did I think that I had to be part of a band or group, now I realized that I could produce it all on my own. That’s still something I’m working on.

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VTHH: Where do you personally draw the line with technological advancements past, say, the SL-1200? Is your setup computer-augmented?

Kanga: Technology and I are a fickle thing.  I'm a self proclaimed nerd and I love tech and it's advancements in all aspects of our lives but at the same time, when it comes to DJing I'm a purist.  When I first started DJing, the tech wasn’t as crazy as it is now. In fact, CDJ's that could "scratch" hadn't come around yet, the tech known as "Time Code" (read: Serato/Traktor) was just a glimmer in the eye of companies like Rane and Stanton and “controllers” were still something to be hooked up to your game station.

The Technics SL-1200 was kind of old news when I was getting started, although there were other decks pushing the limits of what you could do with an analog turntable.  The Vestax PDX-2000 could play at +/- 60% pitch, forward or backwards. You could also manually adjust the start and stop times of the super strong motor. Other turntables like the Stanton Str8-150 came with a Pitch Lock function that could keep the pitch of a record the same while adjusting its speed.  Today these features sound trivial at best when compared to the myriad of effects that controllers offer, but back then they were crazy new tools to do new things with.

And I think therein lies how I feel about DJ technology.  It has to be used right. A few years ago I went and saw Questlove DJ a set at Lift after The Roots played the BTV waterfront.  I was stoked because I heard he was actually pretty OG and could mix and scratch. While his set was dope, MJ had just passed so he did a crazy tribute all night, I did notice he used "hot cues" almost to a fault.  When juggling records, a DJ usually has to rewind the record (back cueing) in order to keep the loop they are creating going, but a mixer with assignable hot cues, such as Rane's TTM-68, enable the DJ to simply just press a button to cue the track to wherever they desire.

While convenient, and technically faster, I feel that by doing so the DJ loses a certain amount of integrity.  I'd compare it to a race driver driving a car with a computer controlled gear box as apposed to a manual one.  The computer controlled one comes on all the fancy cars and can technically do a better job than you can, but the old cars take more skill and precision to drive and a lot more time to master and driver ends up having a better understanding of the car. That's not to say you can't do crazy things with these cue buttons, just check out some of DJ Craze's recent routines.

I've had an "augmented setup" (I like your term there) since about '14.  I know, super late to the game. I held out for so long, but an increase in more mainstream gigs and the ability to play any music I wanted basically forced me to evolve.  I had been using digital DJing setups for years, since around '08 when I saw the first Stanton Final Scratch which actually predates Rane's Serato. Over the years I had used controllers as well, ranging from simple midi-assignable button pads like the Akai MPD's, to full blown mock turntable controllers like Numarks' N7.  I've also tried the range of CDJ's from ones that install in a cabinet (think “wedding DJs”) to the Pioneer CDJ 2000's.

Through it all, I always come back to the most simple of setups, just a turntable and a mixer.  Recently, I think the dopest tech coming out is all about making it even more simple. It's something that's been coined "Portablism". Portable scratching has always been a dream for turntablists. So many times, they are relegated to their bedrooms for so long that the idea of scratching outside in the sun almost seems scary.  Though there are portable turntables from the past, like the Crosley Suitcase and the Columbia GP3, none of them could really take the vigor of turntablism. Around '05 Dj Q-Bert and Vestax teamed up to create the "QFO" a rather large, albeit portable turntable mixer hybrid built for serious scratching. However, these were expensive to start out with, $800/$1000 depending on the model, and now that Vestax is defunct you're lucky to find one for under $3000 … and that's if you can find one.

Both Numark and Vestax came out with much more affordable portable listening turntables around '10, the PT-01 and the Handy Trax, respectively.  But again, were not made for turntablists to abuse, they were made to sample records while digging. What those companies didn't know is that eager turntablists were finding ways to use these cheaper, more available portables to scratch with.  Some of the first innovations were an external crossfader so you could cut without a mixer and 7" scratch records. Raiden was one of the first companies to make an external fader that could hook up to any audio source but there were a lot of external cords.  It wasn't until people like Jesse Dean Designs and companies like Audio Innovative started getting into it that things got more integrated.

JDD custom makes parts for the portable scene.  Everything from platter stabilizers, to crossfaders, target lights, start/stop button, even super-pitch and upgraded tonearms.  Audio Innovative who makes the ever popular and versatile "Inno-fader"  specifically designed their newest iteration to be used in the Portablist scene.  Dj Q-Bert's Thud Rumble record label puts out 7" scratch wax almost exclusively now because the scene has taken off so much.

I think DJ's will always push the level of tech because, like me, most of them are nerds, which is to say they are very interested and invested in furthering their art.  Though sometimes it can go off in the wrong direction like the now infamous "sync" button or even Pioneer's new "Scratch Pad" I know that people will continue to find things to innovate with.  Hell, maybe someday I'll get the cybernetic implant so I can just flick my wrists in the air and scratch on virtual turntables … we'll just have to wait and see.

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VTHH: Growing up, discovering scratch records and the world of breaks vinyl opened up a whole new Universe for me. Do you have any go-to favorites?

Kanga: It's funny we transition from DJ tech talk to break / scratch records.  While they may not seem related to most, old school DJs consider scratch records some of the most cheater tech there is.  They believe that if you want to use the classic "Ahhhh" and "Fresh" samples, you need to have a copy of Fab Five Freddy's "Change the Beat" single.  I however, was brought up in the age of scratch records and I love them. From the quirky art work and album names to various styles and arrangements, I can't get enough of them.

My first one I can recall was from the upperclassman who gave me a little starter stack of records before I even owned turntables.  It was one of DJ Rectangle's "Ultimate Battle Weapons" but I'll never be able to recall which one.  Back then, I didn't really understand scratching a given sample, I would just scratch whatever the needle happened to land on. So scratch sentences, arrangements of sound of effects put one after the other, were largely lost on me at first.  I have old tape recordings of me just playing scratch sentences in some of my mixes because I thought that what you did with them.

For a long time, I never understood why someone would want doubles.  Most scratch records advertised that you would want two and every now and then a scratch record would come with doubles.  I didn't understand juggling and thought it was a marketing ploy, or they were saying you would use the record so much it would get worn out, hence needing a back up.

Through the years I studied and got learned on how scratch records work and how to utilize them.  One of my most memorable naive young DJ moments was getting the courage to go into Flex Records/L Burners and ask if they had any of the records "with the little marker lines on them" that I had seen scratch DJs using.  Big Dog or C-Low politely replied, "Pretty sure you put those markers on yourself, dude..." I was little embarrassed, but I was stoked to get home and start marking up my records.

Turntablists basically read the record like a clock.  They use marks such as a sticker, marker, or even the label itself to tell where a sound is according to a clock face. For example, a turntablist would know that when the marker got to 12:00 it was going to play a certain sound, "ahhhhh" and when it got to 6:00 it would play "freshhh".

Soon I started buying up all the break records I could.  Some of my early favorites are DJ Babu's "Super Duck Breaks", A-Trak's "Gangsta Breaks" and of course Q-Bert's "Super Seal".  That last record on the list revolutionized scratch records. Q-bert figured out how to make "sealed," loops so that on every revolution the sounds would land in the same places.  So on track one for instance, the sound "Beep, ahhhhh" would play over and over. If a DJ marked the beginning of the "beep" sound at 12:00, they would know every time the mark came to 12 it would play the sound.  This enabled DJs to quickly drop the needle on the desired sound in quick transition mixes. The looped nature of the tracks means that is impossible for the needle to skip a sound because the record plays the same thing in the same position on every rotation.  While some turntablists originally called the skipless tech cheating, most scratch records put out today at least feature one or two such closed loops. The skipless format exploded once portablism took off.

Some of those most interesting scratch records being put out right now don't adhere to this formula at all.  Records like Knick Knack's "Sound Craftsmen" series are set to turn the turntablist world upside down. Though they have been available for quite some time now, turntablists are still figuring out how to use them.  Instead of the classic DJ sounds and cuts, these records feature real instrument sounds. Not only that, they are arranged in correct keys. This allows a turntablist to literally compose music from the ground up. Using something like a Roland RC-50 looping station, a DJ could create like turntable production and actually construct a beat using nothing but scratches.  I think this is pretty much the epitome of where a turntablist could go with scratch records.

Justin Boland