Are Turntablists Percussionists? Maybe.
(Left) DJ Swamp manning the turntables
We’ve recently experienced an epiphany here at DRUM! After spending years writing about drummers and percussionists, we thought we knew what rhythm making was all about. Turns out we were wrong.
Years ago we interviewed Joey Waronker who at the time was the drummer from Beck’s band, and stuck around afterward to check out the show. The concert hall was packed way beyond capacity, and the crowd went ballistic as soon as the lights went down. But instead of the whole band, a single person walked on stage, slipped behind a set of turntables, twiddled a couple knobs, and began laying down one of the most bombastic drum solos we’ve ever heard. It was DJ Swamp, Beck’s turntablist, juggling the dense grooves and fills.
We were floored.
After years of arrogantly dismissing DJs as veritable nonmusicians, we realized in an instant that the craft of manipulating two turntables had risen to an art form. Even more astounding — we decided that turntablists are indeed percussionists.
Think about it. Playing two turntables requires technique and a musical ear — characteristics that are essential to every percussion player. And while DJs are capable of scratching any kind of sound from vinyl, they aren’t exactly in the business of playing notes from the musical scale, like a guitarist or keyboardist or saxophonist does. What DJs actually do is use sounds from records to create rhythms. And we’ve decided that this makes them percussionists, whether they know it or not.
Now, we don’t expect to get away with making this claim without hearing some dissenting opinions from our readers. So feel free to tell us what you think. Are turntablists percussionists? Do they even qualify as musicians?