An Itch to Scratch

Any healthy music scene thrives on competition, but only in the world of hip-hop do performers duke it out in elaborate contests and wear the victory crown as if they were prizefighters. For 14 years the Technics DMC World Champion-ships, sponsored by the British organization Disco Mix Club, have offered DJs a highly charged proving ground, as turntablists from all over the world go head-to-head for cuttin’, scratchin’, beat jugglin’ supremacy. Some of the music’s greatest talents–Cash Money, Aladdin, Roc Raida, Q-Bert, Swamp, and Craze, Miami’s two-time defending champion–became DMC champs well before their reputations spread to the average hip-hop head. Thanks to the efforts of veteran DJ and local DMC promoter Jesse de la Peña, Chicagoans will get the chance to listen to the next wave battle it out when the finals come to Metro on Sunday night.

De la Pena attended his first DMC event in 1989, when the U.S. finals were held here at the Riviera and DJ Aladdin took home the title. The experience inspired de la Peña to take his craft more seriously. Although he’d been spinning since 1985, he mostly worked at underground parties. The acrobatic, technically rigorous performances he saw at the DMC competition enlarged his sense of the possibilities inherent in a pair of turntables. “It inspired me to go home and practice, just working with two records for hours,” he says. He incorporated the cutting and scratching techniques into Liquid Soul, the popular acid jazz group he used to perform with. The DMC finals returned to Chicago in 1991, and in 1998, WBMX DJ Jumpin’ Julian promoted a semifinal at the Odeum in Villa Park. But for most of the decade the event was absent from the city.

De la Pena admits that even he lost interest in the DMC during the early 90s, convinced that the art form was stagnating. Videotapes of the previous championships were circulating, and de la Pena thinks that young DJs simply copied the shtick of their old favorites. (Nearly three dozen heats are now offered on the DMC Web site, Radical innovators like San Francisco’s Invisibl Skratch Piklz and New York’s X-ecutioners have since revitalized the DJ world, elevating the turn-table to a full-fledged instrument and taking solos on the decks like jazz musicians. But according to de la Peña, virtuosity has its downside: many new turntablists can pull off all sorts of complicated tricks but can’t do something as simple as mix records like a party DJ. De la Peña says the crowds usually filter out the show-offs: “When someone gets up there and does something funky you can hear the crowd connecting. A lot of guys do routines that aren’t very musical, but for those 15 or 20 seconds that they break it down and make a funky beat, people will scream.”

More than 40 people have registered for Sunday’s competition, including newcomers from Schiller Park, Waukegan, Peoria, and Lombard. Anyone is eligible, though de la Peña will hold a preliminary competition to narrow the field before the doors open. Sixteen finalists will strut their two-minute sets for the crowd and a panel of six judges, who will choose the six best. Those DJs will then give six-minute performances, with the winner heading to the U.S. finals in New York this August; the world championship takes place in London this September. The competition at Metro will be hosted by Kool DJ Red Alert, the legendary New York radio DJ, and will feature performances by local MCs the Pacifics and J.U.I.C.E., and turntablists Spictakular and Slyce, who took the U.S. title in 1997.

Calling All Turntablists

Music lost two of its greatest performers last Wednesday, May 31: Latin bandleader Tito Puente, 77, and southern soul singer Johnnie Taylor, 62. Their best work was well behind them, but both artists remained solid, dynamic entertainers with busy performance schedules; both were slated to play in the Chicago area this month. Puente’s big band was booked at Ravinia on June 17, although the organizers had already announced that pianist Eddie Palmieri and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez would be filling in for the ailing percussionist. Taylor was set to close out the Chicago Blues Festival on Sunday night; now the other acts booked that night–Artie “Blues Boy” White, the Curtis Mayfield tribute, and Zora Young–will extend their sets. Fest programmer Barry Dolins hopes to organize an impromptu salute to Taylor at some point during the evening.


Scott Faingold earns his living managing Dr. Wax Records on Clark Street, but he recently published his first novel, Kennel Cough (Post-Traumatic Press), which loosely fictionalizes his adventures in Springfield in the late 80s as a music critic and a singer for the experimental rock band Backwards Day–called Desperate Living in the book. In a town dominated by cover bands, Desperate Living struggles to find an audience by playing open mikes; the novel makes the creation of experimental rock music in our state’s capital seem like a bleak, ultimately fruitless proposition. Faingold will read selections from the book at Quimby’s Bookstore, 1854 W. North, both on his own and in collaboration with the experimental group Paul Fox’s Prompt, on Friday at 8 PM.

Kelly Hogan will provide the live music component for Chris and Heather’s Lil’ 16mm Film Jamboree at the Record Roundup, 2034 W. Montrose, this Saturday at 8 and 10:30 PM. The program will feature rarely screened performance footage of Ray Price, Webb Pierce, Jean Shepard, Red Sovine, and others.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.