Interview: DJ Woody makes something dope
Scratch DJing is having something of a renaissance at the moment with online competitions and loads of video routines. DJ Woody has been there from the start and has honed his skills and techniques over the past 25 years and is still innovating. He took some time out of his busy schedule to chat to 25ThC about his roots, his videos and his forthcoming album:
You have been DJing and scratching for many years now. How did you first get into DJing and which DJs in particular influenced you at the start of your career?
It all stems from getting really into hip hop and rap as a kid in the 80’s, RUN DMC were massive for me, I saw Jam Master Jay and decided that’s what I wanted to do. This was around 1985 I was about eight so scratching 7″s on my mums hifi was my only option at that point but like many kids of that generation I also tried rapping and graf etc. When I was 14 my friend got some technics so I started messing with those and then a year later I got some cheap belt drives of my own, this was 1992.
I loved the DJs who were on the records I listened to so JMJ, Terminator X (though I found out later it was Jonny Juice), DJ Scratch and battle guys like Aladdin and Cash Money. By 1992 I was also heavily into UK rap so UK DJs like DJ Supreme, Undercover, Mada, Renegade, White Child Rix, Devastate, Pogo, Marga and Biznizz. Also around this time Qbert and the The Rock Steady DJs (Q, Apollo and Mix Master Mike) entered the world stage and totally destroyed the scene opening our eyes to what could be done collaboratively. Two other very influential DJs to me were Mr.Tickle and Filthy Rich, the guys I teamed up with when I started, both had been cutting for some years already so naturally became my mentors.
You are always digging for records to scratch with. Is there any holy grail records that you are still searching for?
What I love about about the art of flipping records is the skill of taking something, anything, be it completely wack and making something dope with it. That’s the very essence of turntablism for me, manipulating sound in unexpected ways, thats the magic for me and makes this art form unique, interesting and exciting. I’m always on the look out for old library records (KPM, De Wolfe and Bruton etc) or other things with solo instrument sounds or cool vocals on, but I wouldn’t say there’s any particular holy grail records as far as stuff to scratch with.
One of the things I most like about your videos is your experimentation. One video recently featured you drilling a hole in a record off-centre and scratching with that. How did come up with that idea and what did you achieve with it?
That ‘wonky’ hole thing is nothing new really, anyone who’s put a 45 on the platter off centre knows what it does to the sound, it’s just nobody has really messed with it in recent years. Qbert did something with an off centre hole in his ’91 DMC set but I thought the idea could be explored a little more now with the advent of DVS Serato and the like, so i thought it was worth another look. The Serato cue points make the technique interesting as you can change where in the record’s rotation you place your sample. With an off-centre hole the further away the needle is from the platter spindle the higher the pitch of the sample, so the off centre hole almost gives you an automated scale to work with. It was fun to mess with, that’s what I love about this art form, the turntable is such a new instrument in the grand scheme of things so as long as you are exploring and looking for new ways to use it then you’ll find them.
Scratch records, like vinyl itself, seem to be having a resurgence with a number of releases in 12″ and 7″ format from people like Cut and Paste Records and Ritchie Ruftone. What is it that makes a scratch record useful, unique or a classic must have?
I’m currently designing a scratch record, so this is definitely something I’ve been thinking about recently. Different eras in scratching have had different styles of scratch tool depending on what’s been going on within the scene and its needs. You could class the Ultimate Break records as DJ tools as they gave a wider audience much easier access to the foundation records that created the hip hop scratch DJ. The Simon Harris, Breaks, Beats and Scratches records were also massive at the time, having all those classic scratch sounds on one piece of vinyl, the Dirt Styles records took that even further. As beat juggling progressed records came out with more progressive combinations of vocal phrase, drums and noises to fit the techniques that were being pioneered. Then came scratch tools with a heavier focus on instrument solos for the turntablists who were more interested in the musical application of scratching. Then things like skip proof and ultrapitch phrases came out allowing for even more innovations in technique.
I think records become classics when they are in sync with where the scene is currently and where it needs to go, for me the best records are those that open up new creative avenues whilst also functioning as work horse jamming tools. It’s perhaps different now due to DVS and the ability to design and scratch your own phrases instantly, but there’s no denying that most scratch cats still definitely prefer the feel of real vinyl.
You have collaborated with Boca 45 on a new record. Can you tell us how this collaboration came about and what you have in store with the record?
Myself and Scott (Boca 45) met really randomly in an airport in Romania, I can’t remember how we got chatting but I suspect it was because we’d noticed each other’s record bags. Completely by coincidence, on our next two flights to England we were seated next to each other so that’s where it all began. We kept in touch and later decided to try making some music together. It was a really organic process, we just worked to our strengths and had fun with it. The result is a six track EP that ranges from Bboy breaks, scratched up funk, Electro and even a turntablised Eastern soundtrack. It’s broad musically but also definitely has its own distinct sound I think.
The collaboration is called BocaWoody and the EP is called NW/SW as a nod to our respective localities. We just released a limited edition package which sold out within a week which included a 7″, CD of the full EP, digi download, an exclusive one-hour DJ mix and an art print of the amazing artwork Mike Winnard did for us. It’s gone down brilliantly so we’ve just ordered a repress. We’re also going to be doing some shows together to celebrate the release which will be back to back all vinyl all 45s. I can’t wait for these, I know Scott only plays vinyl out but due to the fact the many of my shows are my audio-video sets it’s not often I get to cut up my 45s out live.
You have a solo album coming out later in the year, can you tell me about it?
This will be my first solo production LP, despite the fact that I’ve been making beats ever since I got into DJing. The album is called ‘The Point of Contact’. I’m really chuffed with it. I made the decision for it to be instrumental with no vocalists as I wanted this LP to be very much my voice, it’s a concept album essentially as there’s a definite narrative running through the tracks. It features session work from some amazing musicians including Christian Madden of The Earlies (keys), Matthew Halsall (trumpet), Carl Sharrocks of 808 State (drums) and Nick Blacka of GoGo Penguin (double bass) as well as scratches from DJ Dopey and Tigerstyles. Since art and music have always gone hand in hand throughout my life it was also important for me to do the artwork myself for this. It’ll be out on vinyl and digital later in the year. I’d also love to perform this music live so hopefully will be putting a band together to do that.
One of your most famous audio/visual routines is “Hip Hop is 40” which you performed again last year at the IDA DJ World Championships. How long did it take you to first put that routine together and how did you select the tracks that made the cut?
When it comes to my AV shows, I find that it works much better doing everything myself as there’s no disconnect between concept and realisation, I have a background in graphic design so that helps. It takes a lot of time but I’m getting more efficient. My first AV set ‘Turntables In Technicolor’ was one hour long and almost entirely composed of original animation pieces, that one took maybe three or four months of working at it solidly like a 9-5 job. I’d say ‘Hip Hop is 40’ took about two months working on and off. The brief I set myself was to make a set that worked on multiple levels and would appeal to both the hip hop scholar as well as the casual club goer. It had to be historically correct but also rock a dancefloor, this was reflected in the track selection. The challenge was to tell a story by chronologically working through historically important tracks yet make it all work well as a 90 minute mix. People seem to really enjoy it and I certainly enjoy performing it.
I am good friends with Evil Ed and he has done interviews with myself on this very site. You appear on his classic “The Enthusiast” LP. How did you first meet Ed and how did it come about that you appeared on his album?
I remember Ed before he would have known of me, back when he was in Hidden Identity in the early/mid 90’s, I bought the 12″ they released and went to a couple of hip hop nights he did in Manchester around that time. I can’t remember the first time we met but as I remember I think I got involved in the track for his album via my friend Konny Kon who was also on that track, Ed recorded Konny’s vocals in my bathroom the day I recorded the cuts!
You personally own a Vestax Controller One record deck and one recently was auctioned for £3,600. What is it about this deck that makes it so unique and valuable?
I was involved in the design of this turntable along with a handful of turntablists from the States, it came from a movement towards a more musical and melodic approach to turntablism. The art form had developed to a point where the turntable was truly an instrument yet turntable manufacturers were still designing turntables from a pre-turntablism viewpoint using the 30 year old Technics 1210 blueprint. We wanted a complete rethink, a turntable design that reflected the direction and possibilities of this musical movement, a turntable designed as instrument and not simply a record player. The Controller One allows you to play different musical scales by controlling pitch in musical increments, it has eight note buttons and you can set the root note of your scale, it has pitch bend, octave up/octave down, major/minor scales and even midi in. It flips the art form completely on its head. Unfortunately I think this turntable was a little before its time and it never achieved commercial success, only 100 units were ever made hence the crazy online prices we are seeing now.
Your routines combine vinyl and also Serato. What are the pros and cons of the digital software for scratching as opposed to vinyl?
As I mentioned before I think every scratch DJ will tell you that for straight up scratching they still prefer the feel of real vinyl, I certainly do. I love digging for records and I also love the creative process of working with what you have, taking a piece of wax and making something dope with it, limitations breed creativity! Saying that if it wasn’t for Serato it would have never been possible for me to combine my two passions of design and music through my AV shows. I embrace technology but I also try to keep one foot in what I believe the ‘essence’ of turntablism and hip hop culture to be, whilst still trying my hardest to push it forward. I like to make scratch performances where you can clearly see how I’m manipulating the sound live and completely manually. I think it’s easy to lose people with a heavy use of computer and mixer effects and over-edited tracks, I like to keep that side of things simple so that hopefully the musicianship is honest and transparent and it can be appreciated by someone without them needing to know the inner workings of the equipment.
For any budding turntablists out there what advice would you give in terms of honing their skills and keeping them sounding different to everyone else?
Before the internet, scratching was like alchemy, certainly for me there was a mystery behind the techniques. Most things didn’t have universal names and we taught ourselves through whatever material, records, footage we could find. This lent naturally to the development of individual styles, it also made the learning process longer than it is today. People starting now have all the information at their fingertips but this can make skipping fundamentals very tempting as often we want instant gratification when learning something new. A crab scratch for example is much easier to learn than the training it takes to achieve fast consistent transformers. Whilst this allows you to sound impressive relatively quickly, doing so will limit your style enormously. I’d say if you want to know the order in which to learn scratches then study the history of this art form from Theodore onwards. This will not only give you a deeper knowledge and appreciation but also show you how each scratch led to the next. This will serve to give you much more diversity within your style.
As far as originality, some of this comes naturally from your weaknesses and strengths, however I’d say if you want to be different just be yourself, don’t aim to sound like other people. I’ve heard far too many people over the years tell me that ‘everything’s been done already’, which is an absolute nonsense, if you don’t look you won’t find and unfortunately many turntablists stopped looking. Most importantly though have fun, it’s not sport, it’s music, enjoy what you do and make your own path.
You can find out more by following DJ Woody on Facebook.
Interview by 25ThC.