"They don't know the DJ's that deep. They think he's just some knucklehead spinning the record."—Prince Paul
There are so many reasons why it's a great joy and wonder to live in the good ole United States of America. Today, I want to take a moment to remind everyone of one of those overlooked reasons: diversity. I'm not referring to the "Great Melting Pot" axiom, but I am referring to the simple fact that there is an untold variety of people, places, cultures, activities, and entertainment to be found in this great country of ours. Specifically, it's the multitude of "sub-cultures" that exist that is honestly quite astonishing, when you take a minute to stop and think about it. Every one of us is a person comprised of numerous passions. Faithful readers of this site might recall that I am quite the Trekkie and Whovian, yet that is the barest fraction of who I am. Further, the reason you might know about those two is that they are far more mainstream than some of my other interests. Just take a moment to consider all of the things you enjoy and get into, then realize how many of those things aren't necessarily in the mainstream of society. Sub-cultures abound in every nook and cranny: button collectors, Beanie Baby enthusiasts, spoon collectors, and so on forever plus one. I'd be willing to bet that everything has a following, in some fashion or other.
Many, many weeks ago, I received a screener in the mail. It was a two-disc set in a quite-the-lovely-shade-of-green Amaray case, and it was called Scratch. Par for the course, most of the discs we get at The Verdict are ones you've never heard of, and this one was no exception. After doing some perusing, I was intrigued by the idea of the movie but thought nothing of it. In fact, this is one of those discs that kept falling to the bottom of my review pile. Well, it's time has finally come, and I am thoroughly surprised by how I was immediately pulled into this sub-culture, and how I found myself watching every minute of its cornucopia of bonus features.
Then again, maybe there is a huge Beanie Baby group in Afghanistan or Cuba or…
Facts of the Case
Scratch is a surprisingly entertaining and informative documentary that highlights the world of the DJ. Now this isn't the "typical" DJ you might be imagining. We're not talking about the guy you hire for a wedding, sets up his little table in the corner, and plays lame CDs of bad music. No. The DJ we learn about in this film is a guy (or gal, as in the case of DJ Shortee) who uses multiple turntables to rock a party. He's the guy you should imagine when you hear someone taking a record and "scratching" it. Remember DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince? DJ Jazzy Jeff is the guy who made many of the breaking sounds back in those old days. Do you remember those different tunes back in the early '80s like "Rockit" by Herbie Hancock? Well, it was Grandmaster DXT that produced most of the cutting-edge sounds in that breakthrough hit. There are many groups and songs today that employ a DJ to enhance their music, but for the most part, DJing is something that most of us do not recognize or know much about.
Mixing. Scratching. Transforming. Blending. Body Tricks. Digging. Graffiti.
DJs. Turntablists. Beat Boxers.
The sub-culture of the DJ is far more intricate and complicated than I would have ever imagined. As I watched Scratch, I realized that while I was learning quite a bit about this topic, I was still as lost as Hansel and Gretel in the forest. I had no trail of breadcrumbs to follow as the movie went from point A to B to C. The general flow of the film is hard for newbies to interpret, yet it is still a well-crafted piece that will entertain and enlighten you for an hour and a half.
Scratch begins with the genesis of the movement: Who were the initial people breaking the barriers in the '80s? What did they do that was so unique? How did it grow and evolve over time? During the history lesson, we are introduced to literally dozens of influential DJs and Grandmasters from the entire span of the movement. As we progress through the film, there are numerous opportunities to learn about these people and their influence on the genre as we watch them at home and at contests: Skratchcon, DMC, and the like. Fortunately the topic lends itself to a very vibrant and exciting historical narration. At no time will you be bored, for the people you meet are quite entertaining in their passion for the movement. But beyond a simple historical analysis, the movie often goes off on related tangents about some of the more important aspects of DJing: digging, mixing, contests, and so forth. Scratch takes the time to try and teach the newbie some of the more important aspects of the culture so you can learn and follow along. With each segment, the movie often focuses on one key individual who is exceptionally avid about that facet of the culture and let's them take off and run with the topic. The digging segment personally fascinated me, and I think many of your jaws will drop if you have a chance to watch this film.
For a documentary, this is certainly not your typical dry regurgitation of facts and figures. Scratching and DJing certainly are a surprisingly rich topic for a captivating discourse on an off-the-beaten-path topic. With that, director Doug Pray (whose sole focus does seem to be documentaries) is definitely enthused about this topic and that infuses Scratch with a lot of energy that keeps the viewer intrigued and enticed. Because it is a documentary, there is nothing exceptional about the direction of the film; for it is often difficult to make numerous interviews and contests visually exciting. And, occasionally, you'd think these guys went to the Paramount school of filming for they sometimes shoot their interview subjects so closely that you can practically count the pores on their faces. Nonetheless, the mixture of interviews, contest footage, and other archival footage do come together well in this package. There's enough variety to keep the piece from getting dull, yet it really is the "kids" who are interviewed that are the key to the piece. Without the enthusiasm of Pray and those DJs who are interviewed, this would be a very empty and flat piece.
In looking at the transfers, it's quite an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, the video transfer is certainly awful. Practically the entire presentation is littered with an overabundance of grain (often bordering on snow, there's so much); it's also soft with thoroughly subdued colors, weak black definition, and a solid dash of edge enhancement. When you are shown some of the older archival footage—from the early '80s—the picture quality drops even further and borders on vile. I'm not sure why this new film has such a terrible video presentation, and, actually, there isn't an excuse, even for their limited budget. Fortunately the weakness of the video is completely surpassed by the exceptional quality of the audio mix. As this is a music documentary, they wisely made sure that this disc rocks, and it does! The 5.1 Dolby Digital transfer is powerful, loud, crisp, clean, dynamic, and accurate. Every channel is superbly utilized for once, and the dialogue is easily understood and the music simply radiates forth. I normally listen to DVDs at a sound level of "30" on my system, but on Scratch, it was on "24" and was kickin' some serious butt. Just once, out of curiosity, I cranked it up to "30." Oops. The bass literally knocked things off shelves in my apartment, and I'm sure that my entire apartment complex heard me. There's a joke made on the commentary track that they wanted the sound to be awesome. Their litmus was that they wanted their shirts to ruffle from the breeze; they accomplished that. Wow! What an audio track. Thus, I then wonder why the default audio track is the 2.0 Dolby Digital? Most unusual.
This two-disc set is loaded with a ton of informative, entertaining, and engrossing bonus features. Thank goodness I enjoyed the topic, or it really could have been one heck of a chore going through the hours of additional materials. Here's what you'll find:
• Scene specific Audio Commentary with Director Doug Pray and
Producer Brad Blondheim: You first have to mention the enthusiasm these two guys
have about the topic. Their energy and (newfound) love for the culture come
across as they talk about the film they put together. They're always talking and
sharing a wealth of great information about the film, the people, the history,
the troubles, and more. An excellent commentary that really adds to the movie
• "How to Rock a Party" with DJ Z-Trip (27 minutes):
This fun feature has DJ Z-Trip giving you a few helpful pointers on: DJing,
Mixing, Blending, The Break, Marking, Scratching, and The Finale. While it is a
bit complicated for the newbie, and does feel a tad long, it is still quite fun
to watch this segment, and it's was cool to get some of the inside skinny on the
tricks of the trade. Especially funny, though, are the occasional disses Z-Trip
tosses out on mainstream rock bands. I hope no one here is a huge fan of REO
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Noise. It's just some kids taking other people's music and messing it up until it's practically unrecognizable. They don't write music, they don't compose, and they don't do anything original. How hard can it be to scratch a record? Where's the skill? Where's the talent? This just goes to prove that kids today really have too much time on their hands with nothing better to do.
As with all things, some of the music I enjoyed and some I felt was a lot of noise. For me, this culture is best served in small portions. Regardless of that, this is quite an enjoyable movie that goes into fascinating detail on a subject that is certainly on the obscure side of life. It probably isn't something you may want to own, but if you have some time and an interest in a wide range of music, I certainly recommend this one. Enjoy the story, enjoy the killer soundtrack. Be amazed that if you were to take that left turn instead of a right that you might end up in some new place experiencing something you really didn't know existed.
Scratch is sentenced to forty hours of community service for disturbing the peace with all that loud music and partying…though, as an aside, I really wish I could have been there for the fun.
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• Audio Commentary with Director Doug Pray and Producer Brad Blondheim
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