The Art of the Turntablist Page 3

Hoping that a fitter turntable will survive, Vestax recently tried to circumvent this problem. Since skating forces arise from offset headshell angles, they're making a 'table with a straight tonearm and headshell—no offset angle. This reduces skating forces and allows tracking weights to be smaller. The price of this, of course, is that the cartridge will no longer be at the optimal tangential angle to the record's grooves—but that's an audiophile thing, not a turntablist thing. Asking a turntablist whether his table is a "high-fidelity" component is as silly as asking a violinist if she plays an "audiophile" violin. Optimal groove/stylus geometry just doesn't matter.

Still, the evolution metaphor goes only so far. It doesn't show how the cultural and economic roles that turntables play have changed drastically and abruptly. As high-fidelity components, they ushered in the commodification of music and culture. From the 1950s through the early '80s, record companies got large and rich by selling us LPs that brought everyone from Miles Davis to Lenny Bruce to the Boston Symphony into our living rooms. We paid for LPs, turntables, and phono cartridges, but we were ultimately buying music, entertainment, and art.

Turntablists buy LPs and turntables, too. But they don't buy music—they make their own. Though I'm an outsider—not because of my Dockers, but because my hands would physically refuse to rock a platter back and forth under a delicate cantilever—it's clear that turntablists are proud to have invented a music that is new and all their own. They did it, moreover, using the goods (ie, turntables and LPs) of an altogether different economic and musical paradigm—one in which a performer's image and the marketing muscle behind it have more influence on success than creativity and talent. Even within hip-hop, turntablists struggle against the commercialism of mainstream artists, especially gangsta rap. The creative flame, they say, is turntablism, and they proudly keep it burning. This is not to say that they don't make and sell recordings—they do. The best turntablists are also employed by name artists like Beck and the Beastie Boys. But in its pure form—public, spontaneous, and competitive—this music can't be bought or sold. You have to be there.

They may have found a new life in hip-hop, but the fact remains that turntables are nearing extinction in the world of high-end audio. I've said my goodbyes and wiped a tear from my eye. (It's okay. I'm over it now, thank you.) But it's nice to know that something remains the same, that the crowds and bombast of turntablist competitions are still connected with—indeed, grew out of—the audiophile's more tranquil reveries of yore. Having glimpsed the energy and enthusiasm of the turntablist scene, I'm sure there are countless 12-year-olds, forbidden to touch their older brothers' SL-1200s, who look at those gleaming tonearms with the same fascination I had for that old Marantz 'table. I became an audiophile. Maybe they'll become scratchers and beat jugglers. The allure of turntables hasn't changed much.