Battle Tested

Though he no longer competes professionally, famed turntablist Qbert still spars with convention.

Qbert: These days, he's his own best competition.
Qbert: These days, he's his own best competition.
DJs can never get comfortable. Like a speed skater whose record-setting time is broken in the next heat, a turntablist can throw down the slickest, most innovative trick he knows, only to see the next DJ get up on the decks and perform the same trick, add his or her own twist, and take the whole exercise up a notch. San Francisco's DJ Qbert has been a part of this dog-eat-dog scene for over 15 years, and in many ways, it's shaped his outlook on life.

Consider the evidence: The 31-year-old Qbert (his real name is Richard Quitevis) was a co-founder of the most famous turntablist crew ever, the Invisible Skratch Piklz, which included DJs D-Styles, Shortkut, and Mixmaster Mike (who now performs as the Beastie Boys' concert DJ and has an active solo career). Qbert is also a three-time international champion of the Technics DMC DJ competition, and over the course of his career, he has invented hundreds of scratch patterns (the number varies, depending on the authority you consult). But despite these accomplishments and a host of others, he won't stop training.

Qbert has outfitted his home, which he calls the "Lair of the Octagon," with a professional studio/practice space containing 16 Vestax turntables, four pairs of which are set up on a riser in the center of the studio, all facing inward, so that he and three fellow DJs can have interactive and simultaneous turntable workouts. And, aside from the occasional hiatus that burnout necessitates, he practices every day. In 2001, he went into several periods of seclusion -- along with DJs Flare, D-Styles, and Yogafrog -- in order to study the techniques of a 30-year veteran DJ, whose name they will not disclose.

"I still practice all the time," Qbert writes in an e-mail exchange, "and when we have jam sessions at the Octagon, it's like a battle. Only now, with all the DJs being incredibly skilled, we think of it as a melding of minds -- not competing, but taking from one another and giving it back in our own styles. Kind of like when someone tells you a story, then you say it back in your own way."

Qbert's intensive practice schedule might seem overzealous, especially considering that he no longer "battles" in the conventional sense. The last time he took part in an actual competition was when he and the rest of the Skratch Piklz took on the New York-based X-Ecutioners at the 1996 DMC Championships. (The Piklz officially disbanded in 1999, due to the increasing demands of Mixmaster Mike's and Shortkut's outside endeavors.) So why does he feel the need to keep his skills sharp?

"I love scratching and working to better myself in the areas that I love," Qbert explains. "I'm always doing shows and performing, so in a sense, that's like battling. I always want to be better than the last performance. I guess I'm battling myself to get better."

Besides, Qbert has found other outlets for his talents. In 1999, he released his first solo album, the epic Wave Twisters. The disc, which he intended to use as a soundtrack to a Wave Twisters animated movie, tells the story of an eclectic squad of hip-hop devotees, traveling through inner space disguised as dentists in order to spread knowledge of the lost art of scratching.

Going from battling to producing and recording presented a unique challenge for Qbert. Battle DJs often rely on "body tricks" and a variety of scratching techniques that look impressive in competition, but lose most of their impact when translated to an audio recording.

"Learning how to take my onstage skills to the studio and incorporate them into making music, then later into scoring video -- I learned so much about atmosphere in music, rather than just skills in a battle," Qbert says. "The energy in seeing or actually being there is a very special thing, but listening also has its advantages, with all the concentration pinpointed into just the sound. A blind man can hear more things than we could by not being distracted from his sense of sight. I sometimes close my eyes when I record."

A quick listen to the Wave Twisters album shows that the strategy, though simple, can be quite effective. The rhythmic and tonal diversity that Qbert has infused in the scratching, which makes up the dialogue and sound effects of the Wave Twisters story, blows away the masturbatory repetition that most battle DJs end up with when they attempt artist albums.

"Music to me is like language," Qbert says. "I hear something I like, then translate that into scratching. I'll hear, for instance, the way a girl sings, then take the aspects of that and lay that into my scratching. Let's say she sang very soft and gracefully. I'll go to the tables and get a kind of soft, girlish-sounding voice, scratch it, and make sure it's soft and graceful."

Qbert has a sense of humility that sets him apart from a lot of other DJs. It's an especially surprising trait, given the usual braggadocio that dominates hip-hop and rap culture. Qbert is, after all, the Michael Jordan of turntablism, an inspiration to thousands of aspiring young DJs around the world.

"I do love to give advice to people who want to learn from the things I know, since I've been doing it for a pretty long while," he says. "But I love to learn from them equally. I don't feel above anyone, because we all know something more than the next guy. It's those things that I'm a student of."