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Zen and the Art of Turntablism

In Music
Dharma DJ: Though he cut his teeth cutting up beats on actual vinyl, master turntablist 
DJ Qbert has embraced the minimalism of computer-assisted DJ-ing.

Dharma DJ: Though he cut his teeth cutting up beats on actual vinyl, master turntablist DJ Qbert has embraced the minimalism of computer-assisted DJ-ing.

Cutting against the grain has pretty much always been Rich Quitevis’ thing. The San Francisco-born Quitevis, better known as DJ Qbert, just prefers zagging where others zig. “You ever see schools of fish at the aquarium?” he asks. “They’re all swimming in the same direction but there’s one that’s swimming backwards the other way? That’s kind of who I am.”

It would seem his contrarian strategy has paid off. Over the course of his decades-long career, Q has collected a legion of loyal fans, been praised by fellow DJs, from A-Track to Z-Trip, and proven himself again and again in competitions: he was named the United States’ top DJ at the 1991 DMC World DJ Championship and was voted No. 1 in the America’s Best DJ competition in 2010.

Since he began working the decks in the mid-1980s, Quitevis has sought to push the boundaries of his artform. With his crew, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, he pioneered the art of the turntable ensemble. Working in unison, the Piklz trio painstakingly mixed up drums, bass, guitars and other sounds from a variety of different records to create an entirely new song.

It’s an impressive feat, which clearly required both patience and dedication to the craft of turntablism to perfect. And yet, while one might presume an old-school DJ hero like Qbert to be a staunch traditionalist, Quitevis says he isn’t married to the analog techniques he worked so hard to master. In fact, he seems to welcome the computer-assisted DJ-ing revolution and is currently working with Intel to help DJs shrink their rigs even further by creating a mixer with a built-in computer.

“When we were DJing before, we had to bring a bunch of records and equipment along,” he says, explaining his appreciation of technologically assisted spinning. “Laptops replaced lugging around heavy vinyl.”

The new product Qbert is working on with Intel would allow DJs to ditch their laptops for a microcomputer-powered mixer.

“Some people like to bring a gang of equipment,” he laughs. “I just need a mixer and computer and I’m happy. Now, everything is literally on one screen on top of your mixer. It helps me keep a sort of Zen mentality.”

In addition to the Intel project, Quitevis is also preparing a new release with his avant-garde collective, Invisibl Skratch Piklz. The current incarnation of the crew features the San Francisco-based DJ Shortkut and one-time San Jose resident, D-Styles. The new record, 13th Floor, is due out this year.

“It was an experience,” he says of the album, recorded during a marathon session at the Red Bull Music Academy’s studios in Tokyo. “Those guys choose the illest sounds and that’s why we all vibe as a crew.” Specifically, Q notes, the process of tracking 13th Floor was a learning experience, which is something he is always happy to encounter.

“I learned a lot while making the new album,” he says. “I’m learning as I’m speaking to you right now. Learning is never ending. There’s all this knowledge from music theory that all these geniuses came up with hundreds of years ago that we’re just starting to apply to what we’re doing. … There’s so much more we can do.”

Qbert says he looks forward to showing San Jose what he’s learned how to do recently at The Ritz this weekend. Presented by Needle to the Groove as part of their “Cosmic Slap” series, the show will also feature live performances by San Francisco future-funk producer and turntablist, Teeko, as well as producer Diamond Ortiz. Local rap hero Rey Resurreccion will host the evening—adding a special live set with Squareweezy from San Jose-based DJ and production crew, The Bangerz.

“I can tell you that I’ll be playing heavy, abstract tracks,” he says. “It’ll be interesting. I practice all kinds of scratches and have lots of new tricks. I love performing, especially when I catch a vibe; it feels like meditation.”

Nick Veronin contributed to this story.

DJ Qbert plays on Mar 26, 8pm, $25-$30 at The Ritz, San Jose.

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