The D.J. Battle for World Supremacy

(This article appeared in The Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker in the August 9, 1993 issue)

The hip-hop nation was in the house and was chilling patiently, even though the New Music Seminar’s D.J. Battle for World Supremacy was very late in starting. The delay probably had something to do the slow rate of ingress at the door of the Sheraton New York’s Imperial Ballroom, where extremely large young men in black T-shìrts were checking the credentials of arriving audience members and frisking them for weapons. Fear was not palpable: the attitude of security men and crowd alike was more genial, stylized bellìgerence than genuine menace.

The Imperial Ballroom was packed, and a standìng-room-only crowd of music-industry entrepreneurs and aspirants lined the back and sides of the auditorium. The profusion of sartorial hip-hop styles was well represented by athletic shoes (Adidas, Champion, Nike, Reebok, Puma), headgear (kerchiefs and baseball caps worn backward, sidewise, and regulation), and T-shirts with slogans (“Legalize It,” “Bungee Frogs,” “Kill ’em All,” “Triggers Got No Heart,” “Recycling the Unsalvageable,” ‘Tm Living Fat”).

The D.J. Battle finally got under way when the creator and promoter of the event, D.J. Clark Kent (of Supermen Producńons), appeared onstage and took the microphone. After some prelirnìnary comments (“Will you turn that spotlight shit off?”), he went over the ground rules of the contest. He was flanked by two tables, each with two large Technics SL/1210MK2 turntables, where the hip-hop d.j.s were going to spin their disks. Behind him, seated at a dais draped with red cloth, were the five judges, all of them d.j.s themselves, and all of them glowerìng under the bills of their baseball caps as they slumped low in their chairs. A sixty-second countdown clock stood in front of the dais; sixteen d.j. finalists faced a four-round elimination.

“As you know,” DJ. Kent told the crowd, “d.j.s don’t get no kind of recognition.” Rap artists, he explained, were stars, while the brilliant d.j.s who sampled and mixed the beats and the music that accompanied the rappers were the anonymous rhythm sections of the hip-hop sound. In a world gone digital, they were arcane masters of the lost art of analogue record-spinning, scratching, and disk-juggling. “Hey yo, this is a message to the contestants,” he concluded. “The first two rounds, you only get to spin once, so y’all got to flip your best shit.” Then he turned the mike over to Kid Capri and Red Alert, two New York radio d.j.s.

The first round begun with DJ. Supreme, from Washington, going head-to-head against JMD, of the Bronx. Supreme’s minute in the spotlight was a nimble ballet of record-swìtchíng, tonearm cuing, and fingertip manipulation of his twelve-ìnch singles. His efforts produced an artful cacophony of scratches, squeaks, heavy-metal guitar chords, booming bass boats, and crashing percussion. Hc was rewarded with a big round of applause. His opponent was not so fortunate. JMD, a young man with a shaved head, sunglasses, and a Phillies Blunt cigar in his teeth, played a more restrained set that was loudly booed. Supreme won.

The first-round winners included Tone B Nìmble (from Illinois), Mr. Sinister (Queens), 8-Ball (San Francisco), Yoshi (Japan), and Rectangle (San Diego). The audience was enthusiastic and intent but highly discriminating. A d.j. whose set seemed spectacular to the uninitiated would receive polite applause, but other d.j.s were able to tap a mysterious current of excitement in the crowd, and hundreds of baseball caps would begin nodding t0 the beat, uplifted arms would begin waving, and hundreds of people would leap to their feet and cheer wildly.

The high point of the scmifinal round was 8-Ball’s battle with Rectangle. 8-Ball, a slight twenty-onc-year-old Filipino-American who wore a black Kangol hat, amazed the audience with a set that ended with a repeating sound-splice dìssing of his opponent: “Rectangle … fucked it up … Rectangle … fucked it up.” Kid Capri was incredulous. “How did he do that shit?” he asked. “He went out and recorded a record?”

S-Ball, whose real name is Cesar Aldea, Jr., and who learned to mix records when he was eight years old, faced Mr. Sinister in the final round. The judges and the audience were clearly in love with 8-Ball. He won the championship jacket and gold ring with another remarkable performance—one that featured his ability to play melodies (“Yankee Doodle,” “Frère Jacques”) by manipulating the speed of a hearing-test recording of a single long tone. 8-Ball posed for a group photograph with the other contestants, all of whom adopted prìzeñghter glares for the camera. When the photographer ñnished, 8-Ball’s expression reverted to the dazzled smile of joy and disbelief of a beauty-pageant winner. He was mobbed by admirers and record-company scouts as a security man with a bullhorn ordered the crowd t0 clear the room.

— HAL ESPEN

February 22, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Writer’s choice 373: Master and Commander

“I frankly don’t think that Master and Commander is by any measure the best novel in Patrick O’Brian’s sprawling 20-volume series, published between 1969 and 1999, chronicling the exploits of Lucky Jack Aubrey and his particular friend Dr Stephen Maturin of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. It is, however, the first, and it’s a thrilling introduction to what is really a single epic work, a continuously unfolding adventure that has given me more pleasure in reading and re-reading than almost anything else I’ve encountered between covers.”

—from my tribute to O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels at Normblog

February 5, 2013 at 11:39 am

✰ Normblog

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[If you’re coming to Stone Turntable via my Writer’s Choice post about Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander — welcome.]

I’m honored to have been invited to contribute to a venerable series at a blog I deeply admire and enjoy, and so it seemed like the proper moment to launch my own series of recommendations and encomiums for websites, blogs, and online resources that I’ve found particularly valuable.

Normblog: The Weblog of Norman Geras is a long-running site (its archives stretch back to 2003) by a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manchester who now lives in Cambridge, England. Professor Geras has written books on Rosa Luxemburg, Marxism, political philosophy, the Holocaust, and the emergence of the concept of crimes against humanity. He has also written two books on the sport of cricket.

On the companionably named Normblog, he often posts on issues of the day, politics, history, international affairs, and various public controversies and debates that reflect the preoccupations of his distinguished academic career. (Around the time of the Normblog’s birth, Professor Geras played a conspicuous role in the U.K. debate over the war in Iraq, arguing from the left in favor of military intervention.) Recently, for example, he has been posting brief and shattering vignettes and anecdotes of the Holocaust under the rubric Figures From a Dark Time. But to cite only his online writing on serious and consequential matters would drastically misrepresent the wide-ranging appeal, the humane glow, the sly charm of his blog. To be sure, even when weighing in on the most wrenching and controversial topics, Professor Geras is plain-spoken and articulate, deeply informed and impeccably civil. But a high-falutin’ stuffed shirt he is not.

The secret of his blogging recipe — the magic behind the quintessential Norm-ness that is the Normblog — seems to be some ineffable balance between the above-mentioned topical posts, reflecting his role as a public intellectual; the personal posts that convey his sundry and sometimes zany enthusiasms; and the numerous posts that have transcended the solipsism of blogging by spotlighting the work of other bloggers and writers. In the case of those enthusiasms, Norm’s fandom encompasses fiction, cricket, music (Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and songs that reference geographical place names are among his faves), and Wife Of Norm (or WoN, the author Adèle Geras). Also, inexplicably and deliriously, Norm really, really loves soap.

In the third category, Norm’s generous and welcoming interest in other voices and writers have produced Normblog’s splendid Writer’s Choice series (contributors have included Christopher Hitchens, Val McDermid, Alain de Botton, and Walter Laqueur) and the Normblog profile series of questionnaire posts featuring a panoply of other bloggers.  (Here’s a time-capsule snapshot of then-rookie Andrew Sullivan answering the call in 2004.)

Normblog, then, is my principal inspiration for this Net Stars series (I considered naming these posts, in the spirit of emulation, “I Wanna Be Your Blog”), and for evincing a beau idéal of blogging mind, heart, and soul, is the first recommended site on my list.

February 5, 2013 at 2:24 am

All Yesterday’s Tomorrows

Last weekend I biked to the main library in downtown Santa Fe to return Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace1 and David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, and to pick up a few books I’d reserved (Philip Kerr’s latest thriller, Prague Fatale, Christopher Hayes’s The Twilight of the Elites, and Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel, The Two Faces of January2).

Near the front door the library has a large wooden magazine rack where patrons can discard their used magazines or peruse and “recycle” these throwaway copies by taking them home and reading them. On my way out I grabbed a copy of the August 2011 issue of Macworld. I’ve subscribed on and off over the years and admire Macworld‘s stylish product reviews and how-to stories. That night I browsed through the issue, not even a year and a half old, and experienced a sharp and familiar but unnameable sensation. In the world of this “recent” issue, Steve Jobs was still alive, Siri was not yet born, the iPad 3 and 4 didn’t exist, and OS X Lion and the iCloud syncing service (the cover story) had not yet been released.

The magazine’s shiny, cutting-edge future is now practically ancient, its cheery futurity slightly forlorn. Jobs (born just a few weeks before me) is gone, Siri’s Star Trek charms are now quotidian and familiar, the iPad 3 had its turn in the spotlight and made way for the iPad 4 and iPad Mini, and iCloud’s still-superior rival, Dropbox, itself just a few years old , recently passed 100 million users.

Even new issues of monthly magazines sometimes seem supperannuated now, and newsweeklies (and Newsweek the printed product) are doomed unless they’re called the Economist.

Life is a jet plane; it moves too fast. Sure, these observations are commonplace, but thinking about my castoff Macworld from the dog days of 2011, I wish there was a word to describe the almost recent past, that shadowy canyon where everything’s outdated and previous-gen and about to be unsupported, like my 2008 MacBook that can never be upgraded to Mountain Lion or whatever feline version of OS X obsoletes the insanely great puma. It’s a place too new to earn the cool patina of Retro, too distant to possess the uncanny that-just-happened vividness of deja vu.

David Foster Wallace deeply distrusted the Web and had no affection for digital wonders. Maybe he and Steve Job are stolling through the twilit groves of some limbo or afterlife, giving each other shit and enjoying a long break from, respectively, the unbearable onrush of self-consciousness and the relentlessly temporary shock of the new.


  1. I worked with DFW only once, during my brief tenure as a fiction editor at The New Yorker between the departure of Daniel Menaker, who’d previously arranged to excerpt a chunk of the unexcerptable Infinite Jest in the magazine, and the arrival of Tina Brown’s Falstaffian fiction honcho, Bill Buford. I can’t exactly say I “edited” the excerpt (“An Interval,” which ran in the January 30, 1995 issue) because the writing was faultless and fact-checking unearthed exactly nothing wrong with the story. My job amounted to negotiating an uneasy truce between David’s vehement stylistic convictions and the copy editors’ fitful attempts to enforce the house rules in a scattering of instances. I met him face to face a year later, at the infamous (to DFW) publishing party for Infinite Jest at the Tenth Street Lounge. (The “packed and scary” scene is described in Every Love Story.) I arrived early and found David leaning against a wall looking wan and miserable. We had a conversation that I kept short because schmoozing was clearly torture to him, but I asked him to keep in touch and left as the place started getting crowded. He later submitted a very short story titled “Think” (it eventually ran in Conjunctions) and in his cover note recalled “that Boschian scene” where we’d met. (For another example of DFW’s correspondance, see this recent Guernica post unearthing a kind postcard to an aspiring novelist.) When I started working at Outside I tried to get him to write a feature on the X Games in San Diego, and nearly got him to do it. The second and last time I saw him in person was at a Lannan Foundation event in Santa Fe in December 2000. This footnote is dedicated to his memory.
  2. Here’s why I’m reading this.

November 16, 2012 at 7:58 pm

General Fail

As someone who recently published a confessional essay titled “How I Enabled the Cult of Lance Armstrong,” I was immediately drawn to Spencer Ackerman’s confessional post, “How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus,” published over the weekend on Wired’s website.

Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus. Yes, Paula Broadwell wrote the ultimate Petraeus hagiography, the now-unfortunately titled All In. But she was hardly alone. (Except maybe for the sleeping-with-Petraeus part.) The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman. I have some insight into how that machine worked.

It’s a bracingly self-critical and comprehensive survey of how Ackerman, an immensely talented and hyper-skeptical security journalist, became susceptible to the Petraeus aura and the great man’s highly efficient technique for disarming and co-opting people who might affect his reputation and public image.

Along with displaying the obvious virtues of honesty and transparency, Ackerman’s move is also a prudent one — a tactic akin to the Watergate era’s “modified limited hangout,” in which the guilty party can preemptively do damage control and proactively calibrate the terms and the extent of the salutary mea culpa. (I should know.) The efficacy of this approach depends, of course, on how guilty you really are and how willing your enemies and critics are to let you leave it at that. I suspect that Ackerman will be getting off scot free, as he should, now that he’s given himself a few stinging lashes.

Beyond the soap-opera lubriciousness and a journalist’s hangover, however, there’s something powerfully uncanny about the fall of David Patraeus — the perfect name for a gladiator of national security — in part because it came so suddenly on the heels of the sacrificial frenzies of the presidential leadership contest, in part because the idea of Patraeus had been so overburdened with martial virtue and soldier-scholar brilliance, and in part because the civic worship of Patraeus had so usefully served as a tribal shield to deflect the unacknowledged failures of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the moment it’s hard to see anything but a banana-republic floridness in the medals and commendations the general routinely wore, like twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest.

And Petraesus losing his job at the CIA over an extramarital affair seems even stranger in light of the military historian Thomas E. Ricks’s recent argument that the quality of leadership in the U.S. military has been seriously degraded by a culture of automatic promotion where nobody ever gets fired for screwing up — an argument that Spencer Ackerman irreverently highlighted in a recent interview with Ricks (“Your Favorite Army General Actually Sucks”).


Update 11-15-2012:

William Pfaff writes:

As a former serviceman, I have been long bemused by the proliferation of ribbons and other decorations on the chests of today’s high-ranking army officers. Petraeus, who left the military academy in 1974, now is entitled to wear 45 ribbons and 10 metal ornaments on his military blouse (other than unit patches, and parachute and similar badges). He has seen active combat only as commander of the 101st Airborne in the Gulf War. His only combat decoration is the Bronze Star with V (for valor). He wears the prized expert infantry badge, but without the wreath indicating participation in infantry combat.

And Andrew Sullivan published this image, with a note from a reader that Ike “typically wore only three or four [medals] at a time”:

November 12, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Apple Boxes

Preparting for a trip to San Francisco next week, I’ve just ordered a new case for my iPad 3 (no longer the “new” model), and I fell asleep last night listening to a podcast discussion of iPad keyboards and the inadvisability of traveling with an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard that’s unprotected. The podcaster, David Sparks of Mac Power Users, recommended the $29.95 Incase Origami Workstation as an essential road-warrior shield for the keyboard.

Instead, for my trip I plan to repurpose the beautiful, compact, and chastely white little box that the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard was packaged inside when I bought it. It’s only an inch or two wider than the admirably diminutive keyboard itself. Most Apple products arrive in containers every bit as minimal and elegant as the devices themselves. I can never bear to throw these boxes away, even though I’ve rarely repacked and sold a used Apple product before breaking it or wearing it out. In this case, the fetish will serve me well.

November 11, 2012 at 8:05 pm

On Lance Armstrong and Me

“Together with almost everyone who had been a fan and admirer of Armstrong’s achievements, both athletic and philanthropic, I’ve been wrestling with painful, complicated feelings of anger, sorrow, and disillusionment as the totality of his disgrace sinks in. But as a magazine journalist once deeply invested in covering the Armstrong era in cycling, I also feel a shock of self-recrimination as I struggle to reconcile my part in lionizing a man who, in hindsight, was almost certainly a cheat and a liar of breathtaking audacity and shamelessness.”

I’ve got an essay posted at TheAtlantic.com about covering Lance when he was riding high and watching his downfall with regret and chagrin.

November 2, 2012 at 7:56 am

“Death Mettle”

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Howard Hampton’s review of Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is pretty great, as this sample demonstrates:

The importance of friendship for the man who wrote and personified “The Loner” can’t be overstated. Many chapters are really extended thank-you notes, or heartbroken goodbyes to so many comrades in arms who have died. Mortality hangs over the happy wanderings and family gatherings, which is nothing new. Even when he was in his 20s, a refugee from both Canada and Buffalo Springfield, death loomed in his music like a silent partner. It might be the catalyst behind his long, off-and-on collaboration with Crazy Horse, the source of the band’s gravedigger doggedness, burrowing into the earth with single-minded, liberating purpose. With Young, Crazy Horse amounts to an ancient-modern tradition unto themselves: death mettle.

October 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Canvas by Woothemes