Armchair Cinephile

As loud and energetic as the music it presents, Scratch (Palm Pictures) documents the current crop of hip-hop DJs with a vibrancy rarely seen in the documentary world. Director Doug Pray punctuates interview footage with edits that mimic the back-and-forth of a turntable — occasionally even running the picture backward — and includes copious footage of the subjects doing their thing, both in clubs and at home.

The film is broken into chunks that examine different aspects of the DJ life (like "digging," the obsessive collection of obscure LPs in search of a new breakbeat), as told by the DJs themselves. Most of today's innovative turntablists are interviewed, with screen time especially devoted to DJ Q-bert, who's so good he was banned from DJ contests to give others a chance to win.

Focusing on interviews with current artists ensures that Scratch's history only goes back so far: Grand Mixer D.St, who scratched on Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," is the touchstone for almost all of the film's young subjects. While hip-hop fans might like more background on the old school (and it is touched on briefly), the tradeoff is that today's scene is covered in depth.

One insight resulting from the number of interviews is the racial diversity of the scene. Unlike MCs (rappers), who are predominantly black (Eminem notwithstanding), DJs are as likely to be white, Japanese, or, in the case of Q-bert, Filipino. (Someone in the film points out that Q-bert is one of very few Filipino "role models" to be seen in the media.)

This diversity is encouraged by the nature of the activity: While a rapper needs an audience for feedback, scratching is learned in lonely basements over countless hours of playing with records and figuring out how they work. White kids who might be too intimidated to get behind a mike onstage can emerge from those basements, set up in the dark corner of a club, and devastate a crowd without saying a word.

In addition to giving these silent types a chance to speak, Scratch affords the music's fans an opportunity to see how those incredible sounds are made. In that way, it surpasses even the experience of seeing these performers live — the turntablist's art is not one that's easy for observers to grasp — and how many music films can make that claim?

Pray, a recent but passionate convert to the turntablist's art, talked with me about his movie:

John DeFore: The music sounds great in the film.

Doug Pray: The music is great.

JD: I mean the way it actually sounds in the film, big and exciting.

DP: It has to be! If you're making a movie, showing it on a big 50-foot screen, showing it three times a day, asking 300 hundred people, "come into this room and listen" — if the music sounds lame, what's the point? I hate going to a music documentary and it's just `sits with a blank look on his face` — I mean, what's the point? It should be huge, like you're right there. That's why I love it when our camera guy is moving in on the DJ's fingers, and you can actually watch the needle bouncing on the record. That's a movie. Sitting in the back of a club with a video camera is not a movie.

JD: The camera pays a lot of attention to hands even during interviews

DP: Well, look at him. `Points to DJ Q-bert, who's sitting nearby fiddling absent-mindedly with a fader switch.` Eyes are the most expressive part of the body. You can tell the most about a person from his eyes — but the hands are the rest. It was later in the editing — when I was using these hand shots as cutaways for dialogue editing — that I realized I'd shot everybody's hands, and that that was what the film was about.

JD: Did you ever consider delving further into scratching's history?

DP: It's hard when you have 90 minutes to tell a story. There was a point in editing when I had an old-skool section that was like 40 minutes long, but it wasn't working, because we didn't really have room to show the new generation of these guys. We're not doing, you know, the eight-part series history of DJ-ing. Instead I decided, "Okay, I'm going to take you on a little journey where you're going to meet some — not all, but some — of the greatest DJs out there. And to make that journey fun, I'm going to need to give you some background information. So in all these fast-edits, you do get some info about a breakbeat. You do hear the name Kool Herc, because he is the godfather. But I could've done a whole movie on old-skool — and this film's about a scene that's totally alive right now.