“Everyone can have fun being a DJ,” DJ Qbert says. “But it still takes a lot more to be a scratch musician.”
The San Francisco native has carved out his own spot on the list of legendary turntablists, beginning with his involvement in FM20 with Mix Master Mike (of Beastie Boy fame) and DJ Apollo in the early ‘90s.
“We were really into Public Enemy and Slayer,” he recalls. “Our goal at that time was to take hip-hop and fuse it with the crazy musical progression ideas of Slayer. They would love to change time signatures and go half time, then double time in many of their tracks. We were doing that with a B-Boy ingredient of three DJs, as well as having two skilled rappers. Today my goal is kind of similar; pushing myself to go into different territories of music with scratching and discovering all the cool things you can do with no rules. It’s a beautiful thing to bring my dreams and music I hear in my head into reality. Then again, it only happens when it wants to [laughs].”
Since the birth of turntablism, or DJing, the art has gone through an incredible transformation. Pioneers such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash turned the record player into an integral instrument of hip-hop. These days, with the right toys, essentially anyone can be a DJ. As Qbert pointed out, however, there’s immense skill needed to properly use the turntable, a skill he’s perfected over the years. Around the early ‘90s, Qbert was playing a show in New York and Crazy Legs of the legendary Rock Steady Crew saw FM20 perform. He immediately asked them to join the crew. Billed as the Rock Steady DJs, they went on to win the 1992 DMC (Disco Mix Club) Championship, a coveted title in the world of turntablism. From there, he went on to form the Invisbl Skratch Picklz with fellow turntablists DJ Disk, Shortkut, DJ Flare, Yogafrog, A-Trak, Mix Master Mike, DJ Apollo, and longtime friend D-Styles.
“We both were in the Bay Area battle scene and we always liked to hook up and practice together,” he says of D-Styles. “It kind of goes the same for the rest of the crew. As we traveled to the next neighboring big city in California, Los Angeles, it was there that we met the Beat Junkies in more battle arenas. I guess scratch nerds just love to hang out with each other [laughs].”
If it’s true that scratch nerds flock together, then it makes sense his affiliation with several members of the World Famous Beat Junkies and the X-ecutioners have made him a better DJ, however, he always keeps it fresh with his own innovative style.
“Sometimes I try and copy other artists, but it always ends up returning back to my world,” he explains. “But I like it like that. I feel the more original I am, the happier and more satisfied I am so if I do copy an idea, I’ll do my best to switch it up and make it sound like it was never theirs to begin with—at least that’s what I think I’m doing. The goal has still never changed for me. It’s always been to grow as a musician and never stop learning and continue to make things that are different and unique every time. Now if I can only start to do that [laughs].”
Believe it or not, many people doubted his ability to make a living as a DJ, but that just made him work harder.
“Lots of people, even to this day, doubt it,” he admits. “It actually makes me want to prove them wrong, but then, some days, when I’m making terrible stuff, I’m like, ‘I think they’re right [laughs].’ But no matter what, I am just here to be me and create stuff that I only know how to do.”
As a three-time DMC World Champion, an inductee of the DMC Hall of Fame, proprietor of an online scratching university (Qbert Skratch University), and an impressive catalog, including the 1998 groundbreaking album, Wave Twisters, it’s safe to say he’s definitely proved anyone that’s ever doubted him wrong. Now at the age of 45 (although he looks 25), Qbert has embraced a healthier lifestyle, eating mostly vegan and consistently exercising.
“For the most part I am vegan, but I tend to go back on a paleo diet once in a while because I love fish,” he says. “In some places, there’s nothing to eat so I’ll have to get an organic free range sustainable chicken salad or one of those lesser evils. I used to be a raw vegan and I loved that, too. It almost seems like it could quite possibly be all in our heads. From what the monks tell me, all you need to do when you eat anything is to have god bless it and it all becomes good. That sounded like the best ingredient right there.”
He’s also drug and alcohol free, which is (sadly) surprising considering the industry he’s in. Drugs and alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand with the music world, especially with EDM.
“I used to drink when I was younger and I can totally see how kids gotta go through that phase because their homies are doing it, or it’s just the code in the hood or whatever,” he explains. “Then later in life, you have a choice to stick with drinking and poisoning your body or becoming more spiritual and cleansing your body; you can get away from the negative friends that just do that or stay stuck with them. It really is up to the individual and where their true path lies.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered many truths about how alcohol makes your body very acidic and causes you to become sick,” he continues. “Ever since I’ve stopped drinking, over 10 years ago now, I don’t remember the last time I got sick. Especially since I’m traveling a lot, I can’t afford to be sick ever. But for me now, it’s simple. I actually learned that around 8 hours of sleep a day, plenty of glasses of bottled spring water, and a good diet along with exercise and meditation can make you a superhero without drugs.”