Turntablism: Definition, History, Evolution, Role, Tech, FAQ

Ever wondered how DJs create those cool sounds by spinning records? Turntablism is an art form where DJs use turntables not just to play music but to manipulate it and make something entirely new.

This post will guide you through the world of turntablism, showing you its history, techniques, and cultural impact. Let’s dive in and scratch the surface together!

Key Takeaways

  • Turntablism is an art where DJs manipulate music using turntables to create new sounds, from scratching and beat juggling to mixing tracks in real time.
  • Pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Grand Wizzard Theodore revolutionized the technique by extending breaks in songs and inventing scratching, influencing future generations of hip-hop artists.
  • Key techniques in turntablism include chopping and screwing for hypnotic effects, intricate scratches such as the transforming scratch for rhythmic patterns, beat juggling for live remixes, and the tear method for adding texture to music.
  • Turntablists have contributed to various musical genres beyond hip-hop; they produce original tracks with unique beats, perform at battles for technical supremacy, accompany rappers during shows with instrumental backdrops and even influence film soundtracks.
  • With advancements in technology like CDJs and digital software that emulate vinyl records’ feel, turntablism continues to evolve while maintaining its roots in manipulating physical media.

Definition of turntablism


Turntablism transforms the record player from a simple playback device into an instrument of performance. It’s where DJs take over, bending and shaping sound by manipulating records and mixers in creative ways.

They scratch, slide, and spin vinyl to produce rhythms that pulse through the speakers—sometimes raw and edgy, other times smooth like silk.

Mastering turntable techniques requires skill and rhythm; it’s not just playing music but reinventing it live. Turntablists use their hands as much as their ears, crafting beats that become the lifeblood of hip-hop clubs around the world.

Their tools? A pair of decks—a slang term for turntables—sharp timing and a deep library of scratches from baby scratch transform. These artists don’t just play records; they make them speak in new languages crafted out of tempo changes, cuts, samples, and, above all else, an insatiable desire to innovate sound itself.

History of Turntablism


The roots of turntablism trace back to inventive DJs manipulating vinyl to create entirely new sounds, a craft that has grown into a defining element of hip-hop culture. From the pioneering techniques in the Bronx during the 1970s to today’s digital advancements, this timeline chronicles how turntable wizardry evolved from underground parties to global recognition as an art form.

Early Influencers

DJ Kool Herc stands as a pioneer in turntablism, transplanting techniques from Jamaican dub music into the bustling streets of New York City. His innovation laid the groundwork for what would become a key element of hip-hop culture.

Spinning records at block parties, he manipulated vinyl to create continuous loops and extend breaks, which captivated dancers and set the stage for future DJs to explore.

Grandmaster Flash took these early methods and pushed them further with his quick-mix theory. He developed intricate ways of cutting between tracks, pioneering new scratching techniques that transformed the DJ mixer into an expressive musical instrument.

These trailblazers weren’t just playing music; they were reinventing it—manipulating sound with their hands and igniting a revolution in how we experience hip-hop and beyond.

The Evolution of Turntablism

Turntablism began in the streets of New York, echoing through block parties and hip-hop jams. This art form has since undergone a transformation, becoming a global phenomenon that transcends its urban origins.

  • Early Influencers: DJ Kool Herc set the stage in the 1970s with his break-beat style, isolating instrumental portions of songs to create extended beats for dancers.
  • Grand Wizzard Grand Wizzard Theodore invented scratching when he accidentally moved a vinyl record back and forth on the turntable while the music was playing.
  • Afrika Bambaataa expanded hip-hop’s boundaries by incorporating sounds from different genres, influencing turntablists to explore beyond traditional hip-hop music.
  • Evolution in Equipment: The Technics SL-1100 was among the first direct-drive turntables, offering DJs greater control and durability, which became essential for techniques like beat juggling and scratching.
  • The release of the Technics SL-1200 Mark II in 1978 revolutionized turntablism, offering superior torque and precision for performance DJs.
  • The Role of Battles: Competitions like the DMC World DJ Championships showcased emerging artists’ skills and propelled innovations in turntablism techniques.
  • Crews and Labels: Groups such as Beat Junkies and Invisibl Skratch Piklz formed communities where DJs could collaborate, leading to rapid evolution in styles and methods.
  • Scratching Evolves: Techniques such as transformer scratch, orbit, flare, chirp, stab, and crab were developed throughout the ’80s and ’90s, providing DJs with an array of creative tools to modify sound live.
  • Integration with Technology: Developments like CDJs, direct drive turntables, and vinyl emulation software have given turntablists new platforms to manipulate sound digitally while maintaining the tactile feel of vinyl.

The Role of Hip-Hop

As turntablism evolved, hip-hop culture grasped its potential and propelled it to new heights. Hip-hop artists in the inner cities of America began experimenting with turntables, using them as instruments to revolutionize music.

They created fresh sounds that echoed through the streets and clubs, giving birth to a distinct style that would influence generations. DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash transformed the landscape by introducing techniques such as cutting, scratching, and mixing, which became staple elements in hip-hop.

These pioneers used their skills not just for playing records but also for innovating beats and rhythms integral to hip-hop tracks. This merging of DJ expertise with hip-hop’s lyrical flow gave rise to classics that have stood the test of time.

Sampling—taking snippets from existing songs—turned into an art form under their touch; they reimagined these fragments into something entirely new while still honoring their origins.

Their craftsmanship paved the way for countless DJs and producers who continue shaping music across various genres today, ensuring that turntablism remains at the heart of creative sound manipulation.

Turntablism Techniques

Discover the innovative mastery behind turntablism techniques, where DJs push boundaries to create a symphony of scratches and beats, inviting you to explore the intricate art that transforms mere vinyl into vibrant soundscapes.

Beat Juggling

Beat-juggling is where the magic happens on the turntables. This technique lets DJs take control of the rhythm and create something entirely new. Picture a DJ using two copies of the same record to manipulate drum patterns and rhythms.

They deftly pause, rewind, or fast-forward beats with their hands, all while keeping the crowd moving. It’s like having a live remix session right in front of you.

This method isn’t just about randomly hitting cues on different tracks—it’s an art that requires precision and skillful timing. The DJ has to keep their eyes and ears sharply tuned to both turntables, coordinating with the mixer’s crossfader to ensure everything syncs perfectly.

Beat juggling turns deejays into musicians; they’re not just playing songs but crafting unique compositions on the fly. From competitions to club nights, this technique showcases a turntablist’s ability to innovate and captivate audiences with their technical prowess and creativity.

Chopped and screwed

Moving from the rhythmically complex world of beat juggling, we dive into the distinct sound of chopped and screwed music. This technique marks a significant shift away from rapid movements to something more hypnotic.

DJ Screw, hailing from Texas, pioneered this style that transforms tracks by slowing them down drastically and meticulously repeating certain sections. This creates an entirely new soundscape where beats can breathe, drawing out emotions and highlighting lyrics in unexpected ways.

Chopped and Screwed has transcended its Houston roots, influencing artists across various genres who are looking to infuse their music with this unique vibe. It’s not just about playing records slower; it’s about distorting the sound until it takes on a life of its own—sometimes haunting, other times soothing.

The result is an immersive experience that captivates listeners with layers of deep bass and staggered rhythms that have become icons in both turntablism and hip-hop culture at large.


Transform scratching is a turntablism technique where the DJ cuts audio in and out using the cross-fader on a mixer, creating a series of rhythmic patterns that sound almost digital or transformer-like.

It’s like flipping a light switch back and forth to the beat; DJs tap or move the cross-fader quickly while a record spins on one turntable. This method can take simple beats and flip them into complex rhythms, adding layers of creativity to any track.

A skilled DJ will use transform scratches not just for show but as an integral part of remixing songs live in clubs. Each flick of the cross-fader can turn sounds on and off sharply, giving life to staccato effects that no other instrument could produce.

Turntablists often use this style to showcase their precision and timing, turning what was once just playing records into an energetic performance art that captivates audiences at hip-hop shows or club nights.


The tear technique is a fundamental move in the turntablist’s arsenal, used to add rhythm and texture to the music they create. It involves moving the record back and forth under the needle with varying degrees of speed and resistance.

This creates a series of distinct sounds that can mimic percussive elements or even melodic riffs when executed skillfully. A DJ might combine tearing with other methods, such as beat juggling or scratching, to produce an intricate audio tapestry.

Mastering Tear takes practice; it demands precise hand control and timing to match beats perfectly. Turntablists employ this method not only for its sound but also for its visual flair—adding showmanship to performances that captivate audiences.

Whether you’re witnessing a battle between club DJs or enjoying a finely crafted mix from hip-hop artists like DJ Qbert, you can bet that Tear plays a pivotal role in shaping the soundscape of modern turntablism.


Turntablism’s orbit technique takes scratching to a complex level, demanding precise hand coordination. DJs create continuous, quick successions of sound by moving the record back and forth while flicking the cross fader in rhythm.

This creates an orbit effect that sounds like multiple scratches packed tightly together. Each DJ adds their own flair to this technique, making it a signature move in battles and performances.

Mastering orbits requires practice and finesse, since timing is crucial for pulling off this auditory illusion. The best turntablists can make it seem as if several DJs are working in unison when it’s just one artist manipulating the decks.

Next up is the flare technique, another skillful way DJs leave their mark on music tracks with turntables.


Mastering the flare is like unlocking a new level in the world of turntablism. DJs spend years perfecting this intricate technique, which demands a blend of rhythm and precision both on the crossfader and the platter.

It’s not just about moving fingers; it’s an art form where timing is everything, transforming simple tracks into complex rhythmic patterns that can dazzle an audience.

Turntablists around the globe revere those who have mastered flares, often elevating them to mentor status within hip-hop culture. Their performances at competitions are more than just displays of skill—they’re inspiring demonstrations that set the bar for aspiring DJs eager to explore what’s possible with record decks and sound systems.

Moving from the flare, another remarkable technique awaits: chirp.


DJ Jazzy Jeff invented the chirp scratch, a clever turntablism trick that involves performing a quick, sharp conversation between the sounds. DJs need to move the record back and forth over the turntable with one hand while flicking the crossfader on and off rapidly with the other.

This creates a high-pitched “chirp” that can instantly grab an audience’s attention or punctuate the flow of their set. Mastering this technique requires precise timing: you have to close the fader just before pushing forward and open it as you pull back, all in perfect sync with your movements.

It brings out a unique sound that stands out in hip-hop tracks, adding flair to beats and showing off serious skills behind the decks. The chirp has become a staple move for any aspiring disk jockey looking to make their mark in hip-hop culture or beyond.

Now let’s dive into another essential tool of trade: “stab.”.


Advancing from the chirp, another dynamic technique in turntablism is the stab. DJs employ this tactic to punch up their performances with short, sharp sounds that grab listeners’ attention.

It’s all about tapping the record swiftly and forcefully, a move that punctuates mixes like exclamation points.

A stab isn’t just random noise; it serves as both rhythm and percussion in a DJ set. Turntablists master this skill to deliver powerful sound bites that can stand alone or weave into more complex scratching routines.

Using turntables, they transform these quick hits into an art form all its own, adding layers of texture and tempo to the ever-evolving landscape of hip-hop culture.


DJ Qbert revolutionized turntablism with the creation of the “crab” scratch technique. This method involves rapid and rhythmic manipulation of the crossfader using multiple fingers in conjunction with pushing the record back and forth.

Practitioners often use two to four fingers, which allows for a flurry of sounds that mimic a crab’s quick-moving pincers.

The “crab” scratch adds layers of complexity to a DJ’s routine, providing a textured and percussive element that can elevate performances. Mastering this skill requires finesse, control, and precise timing but becomes an impressive showcase of one’s turntabling prowess when executed well.

The Art of Turntablism

The art of turntablism transcends the mere playing of records; it’s a creative symphony where DJs become musicians, sculpting soundscapes through intricate maneuvers. This realm is where vinyl wails and hums under the deft touch of artists, transforming the turntable into an instrument that rivals any in complexity and expressive potential.

Uses of turntablism

Turntablism transforms the turntable from a mere music player into a musical instrument. It breathes life into parties, battles, and studios with intricate rhythms and melodies.

  • DJs create unique live performances by using turntables to mix tracks in real-time, crafting a seamless flow of music that can’t be replicated. This often involves beat-matching different songs to maintain a seamless flow of music.
  • Competitions like the DMC World DJ Championships spotlight turntablists who push the boundaries of what can be done with a record and a needle. Contestants impress judges with their technical skills in beat juggling and scratching.
  • Producing Original Tracks: By manipulating sounds on their decks, DJs compose new beats. They take snippets from existing records, scratching and mixing them together to create fresh tunes.
  • Accompanying Rappers: During hip-hop shows, turntablists provide the instrumental backdrop for emcees to rap over. Their scratches often punctuate the lyrics, adding emphasis to certain lines or words.
  • Soundtrack Creation: Turntablism is not limited to hip-hop; it’s found its way into film and TV soundtracks, where distinctive scratches add an edge to the audio landscape.
  • Experimental Soundscapes: Artists like John Cage have used turntablism as part of avant-garde compositions. These experimental pieces explore the limits of sound manipulation using vinyl records.
  • Cultural Preservation: Jamaican reggae and dancehall DJs preserved their music’s oral tradition by ‘toasting’ over instrumental versions of songs. This practice laid some of the groundwork for hip-hop’s emergence.
  • Educational Workshops: Seasoned turntablists host workshops teaching newcomers the basics of scratching, mixing, and creating beats, passing on the traditions and techniques of this musical art form.
  • Improvisational Performances: Similar to jazz musicians, skilled DJs improvise on stage, reacting spontaneously with their equipment to captivate audiences through unexpected twists in rhythm and sound.

Creating new sounds and beats

Turntablists are like modern-day musical alchemists, transforming the familiar into something entirely new. With a flick of the wrist and precise timing, they integrate beat mixing, scratching, and other techniques to conjure up fresh beats.

These sonic pioneers employ mixers and turntables as their tools of choice, breathing life into sounds that once lay dormant in vinyl grooves. Beat juggling becomes an art form in itself; DJs toss tracks back and forth, creating rhythms that pulse with vitality.

The excitement lies in the unpredictability; each performance is as unique as a thumbprint. Artists string together scratches that chirp and stab or let loose flares that tear through silence like lightning.

In competitions or clubs around the world, these innovators push boundaries further with every spin. They set the stage for manipulating sounds in ways yet unheard—a thrilling segue into exploring how sound manipulation shapes this dynamic art form.

Manipulating Sounds

Manipulating sounds in turntablism goes far beyond just playing records. Turntablists become musicians of a unique sort, using their hands to create beats and rhythms that never existed before.

They carefully cue the stylus to specific points on the record, then twist, spin, slow down, or reverse the vinyl to produce entirely new sounds. The skill involves precise control and timing to maintain the rhythm while introducing fresh audio elements into the mix.

DJ Babu coined “turntablist” in 1995, highlighting those who transform DJing from simple playback to performance art. Beat juggling and scratching are not merely tricks but forms of expression that redefine what it means to be a DJ.

Competitions today showcase these talents, where DJs lay bare their skills in chopping up beats in real-time. Now let’s look at some influential artists who’ve sculpted turntablism into what it is today.

Influential Artists in Turntablism

A host of innovative DJs have shaped turntablism, leaving their mark on music history. These trailblazers have crafted new techniques, influenced genres, and inspired countless others with their skillful manipulation of vinyl.

  • DJ Kool Herc: Recognized as the father of hip-hop, Herc kick-started a cultural movement in the 1970s from his Bronx apartment building. His “break-beat” technique, which extended danceable parts of records, became foundational for turntablists.
  • Grandmaster Flash: This pioneer perfected cutting and beat juggling that dazzled audiences. His technique of quickly switching between different music breaks helped extend rhythmic beats, making Flash a legend in DJ circles.
  • Grand Wizzard Theodore: Credited with inventing the scratch technique, Theodore revolutionized turntablism. The sound he created by moving vinyl back and forth on the turntable remains essential in any DJ’s repertoire.
  • Mix Master Mike: As part of the hip-hop group Beastie Boys and a solo artist, Mike brought innovation to scratching and mixing. His complex patterns and quick-wristed skills earned him worldwide recognition.
  • DJ Premier: Renowned for his sample-heavy style and producing tracks for many influential hip-hop groups, Premier’s deep cuts provided textured layers that redefined east coast hip-hop sounds in the ’90s.
  • DJ Screw is the inventor of the “chopped and screwed” technique, which slowed down the tempo of existing records to create a unique sound atmosphere; this has become indicative of Houston’s hip-hop scene.
  • Jam Master Jay: As part of Run-D.M.C., Jay was instrumental in bringing turntablism into mainstream popularity. Cutting across heavy guitar riffs blended rock with hip-hop beats effortlessly.
  • A-Trak: Bringing turntablism to new heights with his adaptability across genres from rap to electronic music, A-Trak showcases how DJs can dominate global stages while still displaying traditional DJ skills like scratching and beatmatching.

Turntablism in Modern Times

Turntablists today push the envelope, infusing their performances with a mix of retro and cutting-edge techniques. The DMC World DJ Championships remain a prestigious arena where these artists engage in high-energy battles, demonstrating their prowess in beat juggling and scratching.

These contests have become global events, drawing competitors and fans from all corners of the world eager to witness innovation in real-time.

The influence of turntablism now stretches across music genres, integrating not just elements from hip-hop history but also influences from R&B, rocksteady, and even experimental sounds.

Performers constantly experiment with new subgenres like boom bap and chopped and screwed music, redefining what can be accomplished on the turntables. Visuals often accompany these sonic explorations as performers blend photographs, video projections, and computer graphics into their acts for an immersive experience that captivates audiences visually as well as auditorily.


Turntablism stands as a vibrant form of musical expression, weaving together history, skill, and creativity. DJs across the world spin records into something extraordinary, pushing boundaries beyond traditional music-making.

They transform the turntable into an instrument as dynamic and expressive as any guitar or piano. Our journey through beats and scratches reveals a culture rich with innovation, where the wheels of steel continue to shape sound in thrilling new ways.

As we look forward, this art form promises to keep evolving with each flick of the wrist and twist of the knob.


What exactly is turntablism?

Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating music using turntables and a DJ mixer.

Who are some pioneers of turntablism in hip-hop history?

Pioneers like DJs Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore, and Grandmaster Caz were crucial to the development of turntablism in the 1970s.

Can you explain what scratch drumming is?

Scratch drumming is a technique where DJs create percussive sounds by moving records back and forth on a turntable.

How did the song “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock influence turntablism?

The song “Rockit,” featuring scratching techniques, showcased turntablism to a wider audience and helped popularize it beyond its hip-hop roots.

What role do competitions like the Disco Mix Club play in turntablism?

The Disco Mix Club (DMC) organizes global DJ competitions that highlight cutting-edge skills in cutting and scratching among disk jockeys.

Is modern-day turnablism different from what DJs did in the past?

Today’s version includes advanced technologies like final scratch software and controller devices, but maintains classic elements such as drum breaks used by early D.J.’s.

David Grik, a celebrated turntable expert and audio reviewer, brings over 15 years of experience in sound engineering and vinyl technology. An MIT alum, his insights and reviews guide enthusiasts in the world of high-quality audio. You can learn more on the About Us page.