By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
There's a big difference.
"I'm not about knocking other DJs for what they do but to me it's two different worlds," says the Frisco turntablist. "What I do and what someone like a trance or techno DJ does are definitely not the same."
It's been a steady struggle for any type of DJ to get respect and recognition, but it's been a lot harder since the advent of the "superstar" spinner, the ego-tripper who plays someone else's record and stands back all impressed like he actually created the music. Such grandiose displays of self-absorbed performance naturally antagonized musicians the world over who found the DJ phenomenon to be nothing but club drugs and hype. For Mix Master Mike, though, this won't be a problem.
"I feel like myself and other scratch artists are paving the way for an entirely new type of music, you know," he says from a hotel room in Minnesota without the slightest hint of conceit. "Nothing like this has been done before, and I'm very excited with what's going on right now. I do what a band would do and that's create music."
Music is a loose description of the sounds Mike's been buzz-sawing from his turntables. A good way to describe his method is to compare it with what literary gangster William Burroughs did to writing back in the late 1950s, which is to say take the basics and then tear them apart the way a Doberman rips through raw meat. Mike is a self-described "scratch traffic coordinator," a pioneer for the turntable movement in which DJs like himself and fellow Bay Area resident Q-Bert deconstruct vinyl until what was becomes something else entirely. Pop lingo calls it turntablism, but the sound invokes nothing less than DJ guerrilla warfare.
Mike grew up in San Francisco, and along with access to an uncle's extensive record collection he was directly influenced by the cut-up style of DJing that was all the rage at California house parties. Mike and Q-Bert went on to do battle in the prestigious DMC contests, a Darwin-like DJ spin-off where only the strong survive. The two won so often they were asked to step down since no one came close to matching their skills.
"I work mostly with elements," the Mix Master says of his mind-bending compositions, which often take the shifting shape of sci-fi drum and bass on amphetamines. "I use some old vintage breaks and other base material but then I slaughter it. It's not without some structure, a lot of this shit is strategically tied together, believe it or not."
Believe it. While the type of music Mike makes may never be ready for commercial airplay, it did attract the attention of the Beastie Boys -- who recruited Mike to DJ on their 1998 release, Hello Nasty -- and recently grabbed the attention of Guns N' Roses, who asked Mike to help open their current North American tour.
It wasn't too long ago when Mike was still trekking relatively anonymously through the underground club scene with a turntable crew known as Invisibl Skratch Piklz (ISP), a now-defunct clan that elevated scratching to its highest level of popularity. Along with the aforementioned Q-Bert, D-Styles, and various wax mercenaries, the ISP became a subterranean SWAT team forging wax mutilation into a very abstract form of modern art.
"What I like to think I'm doing is using the art of scratching and making the turntable an instrument. A lot of it has to do with manipulating the sounds we're given and to make a new sound from that. Personally I like to make mine more spaced-out and fucked-up in a psychedelic kind of way."
Proof of his ever-expanding finger-stroking can be found all over his latest solo release, Return of the Eye of the Cyklops (Moonshine), a watershed album for the scratch kind in that it was broken up into classical movements and shows how knowledgeable DJs like Mike are becoming.
"This music is starting to grow," he explains. "More crews are starting up, and not just out West either. It's really low-key but I like it that way cause it's still our own type of music."
Scratching is nothing new. Ever since the invention of the turntable, disc, and needle, the ability to stutter-start and stop the spinning vinyl by hand has created sounds never before heard. The technique became a necessary accompaniment to an emcee's verbal flow and thus took the scratching style along for the ride to the top of pop culture. But now comes the true test. As DJs inch closer to headlining their own tours, the pressure is on; critics are waiting with expected skepticism to see whether the scratch thing can equal the rap thing.
"I'm getting much more funky with my sound," Mike says. "Scratching is just something I've always been doing. If people want to come along and label it, fine. But I'll still keep doing it the way I want. I can say this much, my music will always be interesting."
After his work with the Beastie Boys, Mike went off to create Anti-Theft Device in 1999, the EP Eye of the Cyklops in 2000, and his first-ever mix compilation in 2001 called Spin Psycle. All contained his signature slice-and-dice style, but each was rooted deeply in hip-hop. With his new CD the wax-assassin desperately wanted to open new doors.
"The stuff I'm doing now is more out there, much more hypnotic than before. I'm very influenced by those real cheesy Seventies sci-fi flicks. Stuff like Thunderbird  and Ultraman, that kind of weird shit."
Cyklops is about as weird as shit gets. Imagine Captain Beefheart on turntables and you get an idea. The ravaged tracks warp, loop, freak, spill, and splatter across jazz riffs, hip-hop raps, B-movie outtakes, and the strange but true language of Mike's fingers manhandling the vinyl. It's a wacked-out soundtrack for a yet unwritten film and will have even his hard-core fans scratching their heads at times.
Asked how he thinks such "fourth dimension" music will be received, he answers matter-of-factly. "Oh, my friends think I've lost my mind," he laughs, "but that only inspires me more."
Also egging him on are the thousands of metal heads who are taking surprisingly well to his unorthodox way of jump-starting a GNR show. Granted it's still early in the tour, but Mike has yet to encounter the stone-faced, arms-folded reaction of the confused and unimpressed that has greeted some DJs who try the crossover.
"It's been great so far," he says of his odd inclusion among the metal icons. "It's a big-ass fucking party with 20,000 people every night. I get to go berserk off one table and then start cutting up drums on another. I get almost an hour to mash everything together so I really don't have time to build up or nothing. I just come out and hit them in the face."
Such aggressive behavior fits right in with the arenas full of fans who yearn to hear Axl and Slash rip through "Welcome to the Jungle" one more time. But before hitting that Eighties climax the slashers are getting a quick hit off Mike's own outer-limit sonic atmosphere. Scratch music may never be the same.
"I definitely wanted to do this," he says of the tour opportunity. "I was never a big fan of Guns N' Roses but a lot of people are, and for me to be able to bring my music to such a mass audience was just too good to pass up."