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Doug Pray's 'Scratch' Documents DJ Scene

When director Doug Pray, best known for "Hype!," his acclaimed documentary on the early-'90s Seattle scene and the birth of "grunge," was approached about making a film on the history of the DJ, three things sold him on the idea: the DJs, the music and the need to document the history of an important cultural movement. "The DJs themselves were just really cool people," Pray said during a recent interview. "You had the sense that these were people who had been spending 15 or 20 years of their lives in their bedrooms practicing. They're people who hadn't had their coming-out party yet."

With "Scratch"(2001), Pray has lovingly constructed a stage for these performers to tell their stories — through their words and their music — while helping them get the exposure he thinks they deserve. The film features a diverse and talented group of DJs candidly assessing their art. Pray looks back, with Afrika Bambaataa and GrandWizzard Theodore (the inventor of the "scratch"), and looks ahead with those, like DJ Shadow and Z-Trip, who are on the forefront. "Scratch" is now out on DVD and video, and Pray hopes it can reach an audience beyond the festival and art-house circuit where it was enthusiastically received during its brief theatrical run.

After completing "Hype!" (1996), Pray switched gears and immersed himself in hip-hop. "On the pure musical level it was something that required a lot of listening to appreciate, but after a while I definitely became, to some extent, born again on hip-hop," Pray said. "The fact that I hadn't followed it almost made it newer to me and more interesting. I was so mad at myself and my friends for being so out of it for so many years. How could we have ignored all of this incredible music? I was pissed off, so I wanted to make a movie that communicated to non hip-hop fans that hip-hop is amazing. That it is the new jazz, and that it really is something to just throw your other opinions away and open up to."

For Pray, the third reason for making "Scratch" had to do with history. "I'd met the DJs, I was getting into the music, but I really learned that very basic thing that DJs had invented hip-hop," he said. "And that they were there in the beginning and that the godfather of hip-hop, Kool Herc, was a DJ. He wasn't an MC and he wasn't a dancer and he wasn't a graffiti artist. He was a DJ. And that Afrika Bambaataa, who, I think, is responsible for the cultural legacy of hip-hop, he was a DJ. Grandmaster Flash pioneered so much stuff, and he was a DJ.

"When that finally kicks you in the head, if you're as stupid as I was about hip-hop, when you finally go, 'wait a minute, DJs invented hip-hop,' then it really becomes an underdog movie," he continued. "It's a movie about people who have invented the most powerful art form of the last 20 years. And these guys never really got their due. And that was the clincher for me, because I didn't know how hip-hop was born. We have that whole section at the beginning that's saying to people, look, hip-hop is bigger than you think it is.

"To me it was just these links," Pray continued. "Kool Herc invented hip-hop, Bam invented the culture of hip-hop, his disciples or protégés, like Jazzy Jay and DXT, went out and took it to another level. And then you had something like [Herbie Hancock's 1983 hit] 'Rockit,' and then that inspired this crazy group of the next generation, DJs like Mix Master Mike and Q-Bert, and it was just like passing the baton."

Asked whether he saw a correlation, at least in spirit, between the performers profiled in "Hype!" and those in "Scratch," Pray said he did. "It's funny, because everybody thinks they're totally different and I'm just like, what do you mean? They're the same people," he exclaimed. "In both cases you have groups of musicians who are just dedicated to making music for themselves and for their friends and for the pure joy of making music.

"So the same exact thing that makes a DJ sit there in his bedroom practicing and having his mom yell at him to turn it down for eight years straight is the same exact energy that has groups up in the rainy, foggy, miserable Northwest, sitting in garages just coming up with stupid rock. It's the same exact impulse."

There were a few differences. Laughing, Pray noted that "DJs have shorter hair and they like disco. Whereas all rock people have been trained since birth to hate disco, and that's their fucking problem."

Though he anticipated coming up against certain obstacles while making the film, they never materialized. "I thought it would be hard to make performances dynamic, with a person essentially standing in front of two turntables," Pray said. "That went away really fast."

But there were some challenges. "I thought it would be really easy to sync the music to the picture, and it was incredibly difficult. And it had to be perfect, otherwise you could tell. I thought, if their hands are just on the vinyl nobody will know — and that became a real chore in the editing room."

As with most documentary filmmaking, Pray said that the real difficulties lay in post-production. "The shooting is never the challenge," he said. "It's always editing in documentaries. The shoots are just like what you do. It's like you're going to make a big dinner and you go out shopping to buy the food first. That's the shoot. The real thing is sitting in the editing room night after night, day after day and trying to figure out 'what the fuck is this movie?' That's a real common part of documentary filmmaking that a lot of people don't understand. It's not like you just knew what you were doing and you just cut it."

Taking over 20 years of dense musical history — spanning the birth of the "scratch" to the continuously evolving "turntablist" subculture — and compressing it into an hour and a half proved to be a hurdle that took months to overcome. But with Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," Pray (or more specifically Pray's producer Brad Blondheim), found a compelling narrative line. Throughout the film, almost every DJ interviewed cites the live performance of "Rockit" on the 1984 Grammy Awards show as a turning point in their musical lives. Seeing Grand Mixer DXT and his scratching was, according to this community of prominent DJs, the moment that altered their trajectories. "It was Brad," Pray said. "He was just like, 'you know what, "Rockit," "Rockit" is the key.' And it became a kind of common thread in the movie. It made sense. It was the one thing that linked the old school to the newer generation."

As for the newer generation, Pray has high hopes, mentioning that Mix Master Mike (Beastie Boys) or DJ Q-Bert could be the next "guitar god" and that "some of these guys are that close to that kind of fame."

No matter where the future takes them, it seems that the DJs, as well as Pray, always kept an ear out for music's past. "Anytime the DJs would flip stuff that seemed out of context was when I'd get really excited," Pray said. "Like that Robert Johnson thing," he continued, noting a moment toward the end of the film. "He [Mix Master Mike] dug into his records and he pulled out some funny kids' records, and then he just pulled out Robert Johnson and also did that, and that just became, you know, it's just a really seminal moment in the movie where he just rips into it. Lovingly rips into it. I love it." — Jesse Zeifman [Monday, Oct. 28, 2002]

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