Era-defining local legend DJ Qbert scratches out his first album in 16 years, Extraterrestria
That's a long time between official releases, but it wasn't like Qbert had been kidnapped by aliens. Although his live performance schedule was less-than-usual bonkers, he still made regular appearances, by himself or as part of his extended Bay Area scratch crew family. He popularized turntable techniques in a series of instructional videos and launched online educational community Qbert Skratch University, in 2009. He also went all in on the equipment tip, putting out his own brand of turntable cartridges and needles, an Invisibl Skratch Piklz-branded mixer, "and of course our own vinyl to scratch with — which is really vinyl on one side and a digital interface on the other, for use with DJ software like Traktor."
Fifteen years has also seen the rise of social media and a more user-friendly Internet. Has that changed the way he produces beats or performs at all? "Of course it's been great for finding new sounds to use," Qbert said. "If I want to hear, say, a tarantula farting, I can look it up instantly and hear that. On the other hand, most of my old sets are up there now, with all their mistakes, and a lot of times I'm cringing and say in a small voice, 'Please, please let them delete that.' It keeps me on my toes now, knowing everything can be recorded in all its glory. But because I've actually been working on this album for seven years, all that's been incorporated — it's not like a shock. I use what I can use.
"But I try not to be trapped in the present. I often think back to the past, to cats like Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong. That timeless, improvisational jazz feeling where you practice and practice, but when the time comes you're just an instrument connecting with the god-force, channeling the sound through you, swinging through that ocean of feeling. When you're in that zone, that's the most wonderful thing. It's a meditation, a spiritual thing. We're all spirits, so we have to connect to other spirits and the most high, whatever you want to call it — God, Allah — connect to that creator source and use it because it's yours to use. Like how some writers just flow and do that automatic writing, they're just instruments. We're just instruments you know, it all flows through us."
When Qbert, raised in SF's Excelsior neighborhood, astonished the DJ world by winning its spun-out version of the Olympics, the DMC World Championships, not once (solo, 1991) but three more times in a row after that (as part of Rocksteady DJs with Mixmaster Mike and Apollo) it was an unparalleled triumph not just for local scratch and hip-hop community, but for Bay Area Filipino American culture as well.
As music critic and Guardian contributor Oliver Wang details meticulously in his forthcoming book Legions of Boom: Mobility, Identity and Filipino American Disc Jockeys in the San Francisco Bay Area (Duke University Press), a vibrant scene of Filipino mobile DJ crews — independent groups of teenage sound and lighting specialists hired to provide entertainment for weddings, graduations, and parties — thrived here since the 1970s. When hip-hop eclipsed disco on the request lists in the 1980s, the mobile crews defined streetwise Bay Area Filipino youth culture and provided a fertile training ground (and sometimes needed cash) for young DJ up-and-comers.
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