INTERVIEW: Skills to Pay the Bills; Pray's "Scratch" Raises the Roof on DJ Culture
by Jessica Hundley
(indieWIRE/ 02.26.02) — In the early 1990s documentary filmmaker Doug Pray caught the Seattle music scene deep in the throes of a massive media cooption. “Hype,” shot in the dirty aftermath of the corporate mainstreaming of Grunge, was a fascinating look at the uncomfortable union of art and commerce.
Ten years later, Pray turns his cameras on yet another musical movement, focusing this time around on a sub-genre still languishing on the side stage, just beyond the eye of the industry. The resulting film “Scratch” exposes the immense talent and energy behind the long evolution of the hip-hop DJ. A thorough and remarkably engaging history of scratching’s progression, Pray’s newest project manages to provide a basic primer for hip hop first timers while leaving some meat on the bone for the hardcore fanatics. With it’s roots deep in the fertile soul of funk and soul and the cultural and political influences of founders such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Mixer DXT, scratching has become, over the course of nearly three decades, the undisputed backbone of hip hop. Pray speaks to the forefathers of the movement and their varied progeny (Qbert, Mix Master Mike, Cut Chemist, and many others), combining interviews, performances and an eclectic editing style to create a captivating example of art made for art’s sake. Jessica Hundley spoke with the director about working with the Hughes Brothers, the evils of the record industry, and the artistic value of spinning records Palm Pictures released “Scratch” in New York on Feb. 15 and will expand it to select cities this Friday.
indieWIRE: Tell me how you got involved with this project initially.
Doug Pray: I was asked to do it. It was produced by Brad Blondheim and Ernest Meza. It was their idea and they approached me and it was definitely their baby.
iW: And the Hughes Brothers were involved as well?
Pray: With the Hughes Brothers, I had edited “American Pimp” and although I know that was a really controversial film, it was actually a really interesting job for me. They had just finished and I knew that their editing equipment was just sitting there. They were just completely cool to us, letting us borrow their camera and giving us like 70 rolls of film that were left over. And they let us use their sound package and they gave us really good advice, just filmmaker to filmmaker advice and that kind of helped it out in that nice, cool way. They let us use their office and their Avid editing system. They’re just cool, I can’t really say enough good things about them.
iW: That’s an encouraging sign and really needs to happen more — that sort of community and support between filmmakers.
Pray: Totally. And I would do the same for other filmmakers because that’s definitely how it should work.
iW: So did you have an interest in this movement prior to being approached?
Pray: No, I was not a fan. I’m a pretty big fan of music. All my life I’ve really gotten into different kinds of music. But this was Brad and Ernest’s idea and they knew about that culture, were fans of mine, and they felt that it was more important to get a filmmaker whose style they liked and whose approach they liked, rather than get someone who was a dedicated lifelong hip hop head. And there’s some advantage to being an outsider when you make these kind of films.
iW: Well, your excitement about discovering your subject translates itself into the film. The narrative seems fueled by your excitement as opposed to ego or that smarmy expert take.
Pray: I hate that. You don’t go to movies to be expertly taught about things, you go to movies to get excited about stuff. I liked working the way I did. Sometimes you get in trouble, but whenever I was in trouble, I would just ask the DJs. I’d go to them and they were a resource. I think it worked out. We were trading energies and I was coming to the subject with some objectivity.
iW: And I imagine that objectivity came in handy, in terms of keeping your enthusiasm for the subject. Everything was fresh.
Pray: Exactly. I mean, you have to do tons of research so you’re not an idiot, obviously, you have to know exactly what you’re talking about when you go in. On the other hand, if these are new people and it’s a new situation, you’re kind of more excited about it and you’re like, “god, how come my friends don’t know about this?” You start to get pissed off about the way people look and hear mainstream hip hop and rap, it’s just so limited. Everyone thinks it’s close-minded, stupid, if you’re not a big head. But the truth is, underground hip-hop is a hugely open minded, amazing movement.
iW: And highly sophisticated musically as well.
Pray: Completely! It’s so much more about jazz and poetry and improvisation and that’s what kept me going and why I wanted to make the movie. The movie is kind of for everybody. It’s for the people who are fans and it’s also for the people who are just like, “what’s going on today?”.
iW: Did you try DJing yourself?
Pray: Yeah, but it’s hard. Really hard. To scratch a needle across vinyl and have it sound pleasant is a real challenge. Within a week of talking to these people and watching what they did I was convinced of their validity as musicians, which is something a lot of people doubt. A lot of people think you’re not a “real” musician if you scratch, but I think the film goes a long way in proving otherwise.
iW: I think the editing of the film, the style you chose, is a form of scratching — but with image rather than sound.
Pray: Yeah, totally. I tried to do the same sort thing stylistically with the film without getting in the way and having the filmmaking become too distracting. I didn’t want to take away from what the DJs were saying. I wanted viewers to watch the interviews and the performances, but to be stimulated by the images and the editing. And every film has a beat. I tried to learn from the DJs in the way they work with the crowd. I wanted a 90-minute jam that would become more intense as the movie went on. Then we had Mixmaster Mike come and scratch over the film, over the transitions, which was amazing.
iW: In a lot of ways this seems a logical progression from “Hype” in that it’s yet another film about artists making music on their own terms, working outside corporate labels and corporate radio and surviving.
Pray: They’re really similar that way. The only difference was that “Hype” was about something that was precious and that had been sort of beaten up and crushed by the big marketing machine of the world. “Scratch” was about something that “is” and it’s much more of a pleasure to work on something that “is” rather than something that “was”. “Hype” was about media and marketing and this is much more about music. And the other difference was that these people were so enthusiastic, so happy to have the cameras on them finally. The DJ movement has been evolving for the last 20 years and finally someone wanted to ask them about it. They were ready for me in that way, ready to share with an audience what they love and why they love it. They wanted to talk because they want people to love DJing as much as they do and to see the art in it and the skill and the beauty that exists in this music. They had so much to say and for me, I was happy just to give them a place to say it.