Tag Archives | music

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

Circumnavigating Neil Young

Alec Wilkinson has a post up on The New Yorker site about reading Neil Young’s new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, and about interviewing Young a few years ago:

Young’s book…is a strange, rambling, cramped, sometimes goofy, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes moving document. It consists mainly of talk about cars and advanced audio equipment, episodes of his childhood and life as a young man, a couple of medical emergencies, his working practices, and recollections of people he knew, some of whom he has outlived.

My longest encounter with Young was several years ago, when I wrote about him for another magazine. I had read “Shakey,” the fanatically specific biography of him written by Jimmy McDonough, and had encountered the remark made to McDonough by Young’s manager when McDonough had asked to spend time with Young. Neil doesn’t hang, McDonough was told. The magazine I was writing for had arranged for me to receive the engagement Young offers to journalists. A driver delivers you to the parking lot of a restaurant in the hills south of San Francisco. (The restaurant, when I arrived, was closed for the season.) Redwoods surround the parking lot and tower over the restaurant. Shafts of light come through the tops of the trees, and the trees are so tall that the scale of what you can see seems altered, so that you feel the disproportion of size that a child feels in a room where a table, occupied by adults, seems to loom above him or her. Eventually an old jalopy shows up with Young, who collects and restores old cars, especially cars from the period of his childhood, at the wheel. Over the course of about two hours, he drives you in a circle that goes down to the Pacific and along it, through a couple of small towns and back up into the hills, past the house where Ken Kesey lived in La Honda and the early acid tests were held and the sixties began, and a bar where Young used to play with his band Crazy Horse, where he would announce to friends in the afternoon that they would play that evening, and the place would fill up mostly with people the band knew. What Young is doing is driving you around the borders of his ranch, which run from the redwoods down toward the water.

On the ride Young told me that he didn’t read, but I might have guessed anyway. He was a reserved and slightly grave figure, and talking with him was like being trapped with someone whose mind had no reach.

He goes on to portray Neil as an incurious, narcissistic, extremely limited idiot savant. Which feels partially true — this is a rock star we’re talking about, and a famously ruthless egotist — but also like an exaggerated literary conceit  and something akin to  a strange act of psychological projection by a journalist who succeeded only in getting Neil’s interview schtick in a two-hour encounter. But still a fascinating review/essay.

Photo by Henry Diltz


Update 10-24-2012:

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October 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Riding the Groove

My all-time favorite explanatory passage from the literature of hi-fi appears in Laura Dearborn’s sadly out-of-print 1987 guide to audio, Good Sound. In it, she contrives to describe what’s happening when a turntable cartridge’s stylus rides an LP groove, and she pulls it off in a way that makes it sound like a marvel akin to a Star Wars jump into Hyperspace. Now and then, when I’m playing a great-sounding record via my trusty Ortofon Kontrapunkt A cartridge I remember Deaborn’s thrilling explication.

So let’s cue up Good Sound:

Visualize the fineness of a record groove, and then consider that it combines two distinct channels of information, each with completely different modulations. Some of the signal modulations in the groove are on the same order of size as a wavelength of light, which means the stylus has to “read” a signal as small as a millionth of an inch…

For the half a mile or so of record groove per LP side, the stylus must precisely trace abrupt changes in the direction of the undulating groove, sometimes traveling at speeds several times the acceleration of gravity, without ever losing contact with either wall or blurring together the modulations.

Groove friction heats the stylus up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and the groove vinyl momentarily liquefies each time the stylus passes over it. (This is why one should let a record rest for at least 30 minutes before replaying it, and preferably for 24 hours.)

Even though the cartridge tracking weight is commonly set at only about 1.5 grams, the entire weight is supported on the minute edges of the stylus. As a result, the downforce applied to the groove on a per-square-inch basis is several TONS.

Combine these extreme conditions of weight, heat, speed, and need for exquisite maneuverability, then add in the scale of environmental vibrations that interfere with the stylus as it retrieves the music from the groove, and it’s extraordinary that ANY music (as opposed to noise) is heard through an audio system.

For the grand finale of her bravura account of LP playback, Dearborn gets all Brobdingnagian, blowing up the stylus-and-groove action to outsized gynormousness. Technology as minute as an LP record groove is typically measured in microns. One micron equals 0.0039 inch. Dearborn walks us through what would happen if you could convert the micron scale upward to inches, borrowing a thought-experiment originally devised by the Boston Audio Society’s magazine, The Speaker.

Using the inch scale, a stylus is 30 feet long, affixed to a cantilever 50 feet thick and 275 feet long, which extends from a cartridge body 2,000 feet long, sitting 80 feet above the record. The tonearm, 450 feet in diameter, crosses 1,500 feet above the record from its pivot point four miles away… The stylus downforce temporarily deforms the vinyl by as much as an inch (20 times the size of a violin harmonic), leaving a stylus footprint on the groove wall measuring 10 inches long and 4 inches wide. A typical midrange signal demands that the stylus move 16 inches from peak to peak of the wave form. A deep bass note 10 dB louder requires the stylus to move 10 feet 6 inches whereas for a high-frequency harmonic at a very low sound level , the stylus must move only 0.68 inch. Even the simplest piece of music is likely to contain, at any one time, enormous numbers of frequencies at different levels.

The next time you hear someone try to dismiss vinyl as a primitive, antiquarian, and thoroughly Luddite approach to sound reproduction, just remember that analog vinyl sound reproduction is, and always will be, miraculous. Perfect Sound Forever, suckas!

Electron microscope photograph by Chris Supranowitz / Institute of Optics, University of Rochester

October 27, 2010 at 6:56 pm

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