Djing with Qbert
San Francisco, California
In his quest to understand the secrets of the universe and discover the meaning of life, DJ Qbert is constantly learning and sharing knowledge with others. After a night of awe inspiring scratching he still takes time to meet everyone. Promoting the importance of finding balance in your life, loving what you do, and sharing that love with everyone around you, Qbert’s creativity has transformed (crabbed, flared and orbited) the world of scratch DJing. Reflecting on everything he said I am beginning to understand that all things happen at specific times for specific reasons. Maybe today is the day you are introduced to a truly profound DJ.
“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”
*This interview contains explicit language. *
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to be a DJ?
Qbert: It was maybe two years into it and I started getting pretty good. I think I want to do this for the rest of my life. I started when I was fifteen. By the time I was seventeen I figured it out.
CCB: How did you learn about DJing?
Qbert: I guess the first time I heard it was on a song called Buffalo Gals. Then there was a song called Rockit by Herbie Hancock. It was on the radio. I was like, “What the hell are those noises?” I saw some kids doing it by my house in my old neighborhood in San Francisco. They would be DJing in the garage. After school I would walk home and I’d be holding my backpack and I’d be looking in the garage. “Oh, that’s cool,” to see the guys scratching and stuff. I was like, “Hey, I got that record.” So I went home and tried it out on my stereo and I was like, “Oh, yeah this is fun.”
CCB: Did anyone ever take you under their wing and show you how to do all of the different scratches and use the turntables?
Qbert: Probably the first month or months. Mixmaster Mike started about a month before I did. So, I would kind of follow him and see how he did things. I learned the basics from him. After that he moved, then I just started inventing my own stuff.
CCB: Would you bill yourself as a scratch DJ or an all around turntablist?
Qbert: I’m a scratcher. You know like a surfer, or a skater, I’m a scratcher. (Laughing)
CCB: How do you get your name known as a scratch DJ? Is it all about the competitions?
Qbert: That helps a lot because people videotape that stuff and it gets around. Everyone copies the videotapes and they go everywhere. That’s a very important tool, to be on video.
CCB: Is there any other way to get known?
Qbert: Well, there’s the spiritual aspect of it. If you make good music the universe knows and it will put you in the right position for it to be noticed I guess.
CCB: What qualities do you need to be successful as a DJ?
Qbert: Well the root of course is you have to know how to make people happy. Success comes from making people happy because when you make people happy the law of the universe says that you should be happy too. So happiness comes back to you, it’s like karma. What comes around goes around, what you put out is what you get back. So, you definitely should be working hard making music, making people happy and that’s pretty much the root of it.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming DJs?
Qbert: Yeah, just have fun. Everyone has different fingerprints and thinks differently so if you hone your skills you’re definitely going to come with an original style. And of course when it’s an original style it’s going to be more interesting. So, definitely try to work to be original and work to be yourself. Let that come out.
CCB: Are there any training techniques that you have used to make your hands so flexible and quick?
Qbert: Just scratching a lot. You practice at a certain tempo. There’s a pitch control on the turntable, it makes the speed go faster and slower. So, you practice at the slowest speed and every once and a while you move the speed up a tiny bit and you won’t notice the change because it’s so gradual. But, you just keep moving it up every now and then and after a few days you’ll be like, “Wow, I’m scratching on 45 speed, +8 and I didn’t even notice the change!” You get used to that gradual speed up and its no big deal after a while.
CCB: We were lucky enough to get a chance to speak with Z-Trip and he was telling us that you guys are going to be doing a tour together to showcase your scratching. I saw his live show and he does a whole variety of things with scratching video, he plays his drum kit, and he has crowd participation while Pacman plays. Is there anything we can look forward to from you?
Qbert: I’m pretty much raw scratching skills and turntable skills so you’ll see that aspect of me in the show. Where I’m more concentrated on the street side of it or as I grew up being interested in the whole battle pure skills type of thing.
CCB: Will it be predominately the QFO (Qbert’s portable turntable all in one with mixer), or will you be using two turntables?
Qbert: I’ll be using two turntables. I’d be having the QFO in my hotel room to practice with before the show.
CCB: What is your feeling about digital DJing, the CD turntables, the Rane Serato? Z-Trip appreciates the technology. It allows him to carry around a lot more music when he does a variety of parties. But, he really loves vinyl and believes you should really be able to do it on vinyl and live in front of people.
Qbert: I’m pretty raw like I said. I’m all for vinyl. I like the digital because you can record it right away and scratch it right away, but it doesn’t have the same quality as vinyl because it’s digital sound. Analog is more thick and it’s not as digitized. There’s something missing in the digital realm. It’s like its hollow. And if you compare a bass beat recorded from analog to digital the bass is more thick on the analog so it’s definitely more raw and more warm. So, in a live show I’m all vinyl but at home in the studio I’ll mess around with digital just to see how it would sound on vinyl. Like a pre-test so that’s what’s cool about it.
CCB: We were lucky to talk to Yogafrog (Qbert’s business partner in their company Thud Rumble, and friend) about the advancements you guys are making as far as the technology of scratching. He briefly mentioned that you are considering working on some sort of console that has two turntables and a mixer all in one that you would be able to carry around.
Qbert: Yeah, absolutely that’s something that would be really cool. You would be able to mix digitally on that or be able to put vinyl on it and it’s all in one instead of having all this stuff you would have to connect.
CCB: How is that progressing? Did you come up with a name?
Qbert: Probably in another year it should be out. There was this one name we had for it called the Warlord but we’re trying to think of something a little better than that.
CCB: From listening to your music and things I’ve read I’ve found you see DJing as a form of spirituality and then also scratching as another sort of language. Can you speak a little bit about that? Is there a connection for you with science fiction? And how did you become interested in that?
Qbert: Well, I’ve always been interested in futuristic stuff and I think that scratching is a very futuristic musical instrument. I was always interested in all the other races out there on other planets. I wonder what their entertainment sounds like. I really got into all that from that question, of what kind of music was out there. That’s pretty much my connection with science fiction and also it’s cool because it’s all futuristic stuff.
A lot of our technology is very primitive and I wish we could incorporate some of the advanced stuff out there. Especially even the spiritual side of it like how with other races that are advanced there is a lot of harmony in man. It’s brotherhood and over here we have forgotten to love each other. We’re all like he’s in that set or that clique or that territory, it’s wrong. We’ve all forgotten that we are all part of each other and there’s a brotherhood.
CCB: I was reading something on the Internet, something informally done, but you’re pretty much considered one of the most influential Asian Americans. We talked to Yogafrog and he was saying you’re probably the biggest reason there are so many Filipino and Asian DJs coming up now. Does this create any sort of pressure for you? Is it really a purely positive form of reinforcement to keep you going and to keep you doing what you do and what you love?
Qbert: Absolutely, it makes me want to work harder. It does give you a lot of pressure. It’s like I better practice or else all these people are going to be bummed out. But, it’s a good thing. It’s a very positive thing for me.
CCB: You have several break albums out and I was wondering how you go about putting together a break album. How do you decide what beats and sounds and the order of them? What production equipment do you use when you’re making them?
Qbert: Whatever sounds good. Me and my partner DJ Disk, when we were younger kids we would always get vinyl and we’d be like, “Damn, this is a waste of wax. This sucks, all these records suck.” So, we always wanted to make records that were going to be good. Useful and had more than one, more than even fifty things on there that are going to be good. It was always like even if you don’t like this part I’m sure they’re going to like this. And if they don’t like this I’m sure somebody is going to like this. There’s always something there for whatever scratch DJ. And if not at least we think there’s a lot of stuff on there that’s good for them.
As far as the equipment I like to record on Pro Tools which is really easy to use. And as far as sampling I love to use the SP-1200 because it’s analog and ASR10 that’s analog as well. And analog synths and of course vinyl, just a bunch of funk records from the 70’s. You know I love those drums. I’ll grab those drums and put them on my drum machines. Make them up-to-date and stuff and that’s just the funk.
CCB: The rumor is that you were asked by the DMC ( A turntable scratch competition) to stop competing because it may have been discouraging to others. That seems very much against the way your whole personality is, trying to show other people how to get better and to spread the art form. It doesn’t seem like you would ever want to be discouraging to others. How did this make you feel? And is there any truth to this that they asked you to stop?
Qbert: Well, they asked us to be judges that year and everything is meant to be, everything is planned. Spiritually my path was meant to be at that time because I made Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik, which is like a mix-tape thing, and then after that I made the movie Wave Twisters. It was all meant to be that I stopped competing and use my competition energy in the music realm. The energy of competing is still there, I’m still practicing. I’m always getting better for whatever project I’m going to be doing at that moment. A continual evolution I guess.
CCB: I was reading that you have a no MC rule other than Kool Keith.
Qbert: No, that’s wrong. I work with MCs all the time. Of course right now I’m definitely concentrating on the whole scratching aspect of it all.
CCB: Is there anybody you would like to work with?
Qbert: I really like Madlib’s production, I love his stuff. I’d like to work with Eminem, Rakim, Kool G Rap, Biz Markie. There’s a lot. I’d love to work with Kool Keith again, he’s awesome.
CCB: You (at Thud Rumble) have been working on the mixers, the needles, the skipless records, the cables, the slip mats, the QFO. Did it all result strictly from playing around with turntables and equipment and deciding what could be better?
Qbert: A lot of it is from of course what you said. But, a lot of it is from we like to say what if all the time. That’s a very important phrase. What if we had this? What if we did this? What about this? How about this? And all these dreams, we know we can make the thing come to life somehow. We’re always dreaming. We’re always thinking of the craziest stuff because that’s where it all starts in the imagination. All creations, we’re always dreaming to see what’s next with the what if questions. What about this? What about that? What if we could fly around in space suits and scratch? What if you could take a crap and it just turns into little rocks so you don’t have to go to the bathroom? We’ve got a machine for that, you know things like that. What if there was an automatic tint on windows to adjust the tint to make it darker or not as dark? (Laughing) There’s so many things in this world that are primitive that aren’t here yet but are definitely on different worlds. I’m just trying to bring those things out.
CCB: There was a little figurine made of you. What is that like having a miniature version of your self? Do you keep them around?
Qbert: I give them to my friends. It’s no big deal. You can’t dwell upon it too long, but that is pretty cool to have a toy. They’re actually coming out with a new one. There’s a Wave Twister’s version of me as a dunny. The octobot pilot, I was one of the bad guys wearing the gray outfit.
CCB: Is the octagon (his home studio) eight turntables with a big candle in the middle? You go there and jam with other DJ’s?
Qbert: Yeah, it’s not a candle. It’s a water fountain with a light in it. If you look on turntabletv.com you’ll see all kinds of pictures.
CCB: How did you decide to put something like that together? You just wanted a place where everybody could congregate and scratch?
Qbert: Before we used to practice, a bunch of DJ’s staring at the wall, our turntables would be set up on the wall. So we can’t really talk to each other like that. So, we made a little round table. Once again it’s that what if type stuff. What if we made a table like this? That way everybody can communicate better. Like, “Hey, let’s do a chorus!” Boom we go into a chorus or let’s do a bridge or whatever. “Hey, you do the drums.” Boom. It’s much easier with the eye contact and at the same time you can see what they’re doing. You know if somebody is doing a scratch and the tables are against the wall we don’t know what they’re doing.
CCB: On the Thud Rumble site you say that DJs should always be continuing to develop their sound. As far as advice for doing this would you suggest listening to music, listening to other DJ’s? What advice do you have to make sure you keep developing yourself?
Qbert: It’s everything combined in one. Like this conversation, you’re talking to me and I’m getting ideas right now. You go outside and you fall down in front of a whole bunch of people and you say that would be a good skit for a TV show or something. You know everything is going to influence you if your mind is open enough to notice everything and to be awake enough to know everything is an influence.
CCB: Are you still learning from other DJs yourself?
Qbert: Absolutely, always. Even if they are doing something wack. It’s like okay I’m not going to do that. So you’re always learning something. You turn every negative in to a positive and every positive is already a positive, so it’s all good.
CCB: I talked to Z-Trip about this and it sounds so simple. Still not a lot of artists take the time the way you and Z-Trip do to greet your fans after the shows. Can you just talk a little about the importance of that aspect of what you do?
Qbert: Yeah, how else are you going to meet the chicks. (Laughing) You know, its fun. I like to tag. I tag my name and so its good practice for me to tag. It’s cool. I think you can also send out a positive vibe to whoever wants to meet me and maybe somebody from the audience has a question and I can maybe give them some advice. The main thing is hopefully I can help them in any way. I may not know what their question is but if I can help them, that’s cool.
CCB: What do you think the most difficult part of your job is?
Qbert: Probably when I’m touring and sometimes the tours overlap one another. It’s like I didn’t get enough rest here and there, and scheduling myself to get eight hours of rest a day. I’m also a vegetarian. I eat raw foods and it’s hard to find that stuff when you’re on tour sometimes. So, it’s like I have to prepare some stuff to go and sometimes I’ll run out. Sometimes if I just pack a whole bunch of Fiji waters it’s just all the weight on my luggage. That’s pretty hard for me. But when I’m home it’s all good. With my music and I have my whole diet over here of raw foods.
CCB: It’s all raw food?
Qbert: Yeah, see there are vegetarians and above that are vegans. Then above that are raw foods. Raw foods are foods that are not really cooked over 105 degrees so that the food still has a life force in it and that keeps you very healthy.
CCB: I never though about that. I’ve been a vegetarian for over a year now, but I still eat animal products like cheese and milk. So, you stay away from all that as well?
Qbert: Absolutely, if you are eating cows or milk you might as well inject all kinds of chemicals in your body because that’s what they are doing to their cows. They are injecting all kinds of chemicals in them to make them more buff and those chemicals are really bad for you. If you want to drink milk you should learn about almond milk. It tastes like a million times better than milk. It’s sweet and it’s from almonds. They squeeze the milk from the almonds and it tastes like you’re drinking a vanilla milkshake from McDonalds or something, Yeah, learn about raw foods, man. They are the ultimate best tasting foods in the whole world. They have a place out here called Café Gratitude in San Francisco. There are like three of them out here and they are like my home base. And there’s a place called Que Sera Sera. Aw, man they have a chocolate cheesecake that tastes exactly like a chocolate cheesecake, but it’s made out of vegetables and nuts.
Qbert: It is ridiculous. It is like the best tasting food in the world.
CCB: I’m going to have to look in to that, thank you
Qbert: Have you heard about the power of words with water? Aw, man. If you get into that, there’s this water called Fiji water and it has the highest amount of silica for any water. Silica is what your brain is made out of and also your body is made out of 80% water. This Fiji water is 450 years old from the ecosystem in Fiji. It’s a natural mountain where the water is filtered. The crystal formations in there are really crazy.
Have you heard about, if you bless water, do you know about the life in water?
Well if you bless water, say you write the word “love” on a bottle of water right, and then you magnify the water molecules you’ll see that the molecules have turned in to looking like a snow flake crystal. Now if you write the word “disease” and bless the water as disease or something negative, and you get a microscope and look at the molecules, it will be all messed up. So, whatever you tell yourself. Like your body is made up of 80% water. So, if you tell yourself you’re beautiful and smart you become that. So, I drink water and I bless my water. I write words on it. A lot of people are doing that nowadays. You can look on the Internet, words with water. You’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s really, really important.
CCB: That’s fascinating, how do you stay up on all these things. How do you become so interested in all these aspects of meditation, spirituality, balanced life?
Qbert: Well, because I don’t have a job. All I do is scratch all day, that is my job. So, I’m free to learn more important things which is the secrets of life of course. So, I’m always into that and I’m always looking to find out why are we here. Where’s the center of the universe? What is God? Where do we go after we die? What is a ghost? What are angels? What is meditation? They say meditation is a mind orgasm, you know? I love having orgasms so I’mma learn about mediation if I’m having mind orgasms, shit. (Laughing) It’s like there are so many questions that are hidden from us in this world because this world is like a prison planet. We’re just kind of like cattle to the rulers that own this planet and so they’re keeping all these secrets of eternal life from us and so I’m trying to learn about all that stuff.
CCB: If you don’t necessarily have the same kind of freedom, as far as if you have a job, are there ways to break free a little bit? Would you suggest anything, any reading materials, any thinkers, any philosophies?
Qbert: Yeah, it’s all on the net. Look on the Internet. There’s a lot of good stuff. Like go to crystallinks.com. There’s stuff all over the place. It’s like those Buddhist monks. You know how they are just all meditating, a whole bunch of them all meditating in a row? That’s because their spirit is somewhere else like in a garden or some kind of paradise. You know they’re not on earth. Their spirit is in a 4thdimension, a higher dimension. And they’re just chilling in heaven. They could care less about this life over here (Laughing).
CCB: Do you affiliate yourself with any religion?
Qbert: Just peace and love, that’s me. Peace and love, and God is at the center of the universe. This whole universe is made of atoms. We’re all made of the same things, a piece of shit, a flower, your skin, were all made of the same atoms. So, its just all building blocks and so were all part of this whole big atomic thing. Like its in quantum physics, were all the same thing.
CCB: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
Qbert: The ultimate happiness in life is giving and the ultimate evil is selfishness. So, when I give my heart and people are happy I think that’s the most rewarding thing to me.
CCB: You put together Wave Twisters, and the Do It Yourself instructional videos, which is a fantastic teaching tool for other people. Is there anything else like that on the way?
Qbert: Yeah, absolutely. Volumes 3, 4, 5 of Do It Yourself. There’s Turntable TV Volume 2 coming out real soon and another movie of course. I’d like to do that again.
CCB: Another animated movie?
Qbert: I’m not sure. It might be animated or it might be something else, but I have to work on the music first. Make the music first and then write down a storyline. I get all the ideas together so when all the music is made I just have to hire the animators.
CCB: When you came up with Wave Twisters did you script it in your mind and then find appropriate samples to scratch and appropriate music? Did you have the whole storyline in your head first?
Qbert: A little bit, it kind of just went together. Like you know what, I’ve got all these songs maybe I’ll make each song a chapter in a movie. So, then I started re-editing the songs, I started putting words in them and making it have a storyline and then I talked to the animators and they helped make the story even better. It just all came together, you know it’s all meant to be. There’s a saying, “When the student is ready a teacher will appear.” Well I was working on the movie and I was telling Yogafrog I’ve got enough here to make a movie. That would be cool if we could make a graffiti movie because there are no graffiti animated movies out there, right? So, anyway the next day Sid rings the doorbell and he says, “Hey, I’m an animator and I’d like you guys to do some music for my commercial.” We were like perfect, we were looking for an animator. People don’t realize that things do happen at the right time when they are ready, so just get your shit ready, and something will happen.
CCB: Are there any collaborations with other DJs (Other than with Z-Trip) coming up?
Qbert: Pretty much right now that’s the only one because I’m doing so much work. I want to do my own movie so for a couple years I’m going to be on my own after the Z-Trip thing. But who knows, maybe that Z-Trip thing, maybe we can make a movie together.
CCB: I’ve been reading a little bit about it and Z-Trip was saying that the DJ community is close and people do interact, but he feels like it used to be more, people used to really talk and get together. But now that everybody has sort of reached a kind of level of celebrity and got their name they all kind of stopped hanging out a little bit more. Do you feel that too?
Qbert: Yeah, sure. Everyone’s kind of doing their own thing. As soon as someone gets big, they’ve got a million jobs to do, so it’s kind of hard to get together with the other guys. But I’m all about calling the guys, like “Hey, Merry Christmas. Happy birthday!” You know things like that, but other than that it’s like I’ve got to get back to work too. You know I’m following my dreams, they’re following their dreams.
* Interview conducted by Michael Maniaci