How The Invisibl Skratch Piklz Elevated Turntablism and Put San Francisco on the DJ Map

The Piklz proceeded to display their musicality, keeping their technical acumen within the groove pocket with synchronized timing. As is customary with the Piklz, each played the part of a specific instrumentalist: D-Styles as the keyboardist, Shortkut as the drummer, and Qbert as the scratch soloist.

Mix Master Mike at the DMC World DJ Finals at The Midway in San Francisco, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2023. (Jeff Straw)

A live version of “Death By A Thousand Paper Cuts” – a song from D-Styles’ 2019 album Noises In the Right Order – and several unreleased ISP songs showed that ghost notes aren’t just associated with jazz music. The turntable trio used the spaces between to impart a sense of presence and feel, a minimalist approach that allowed their scratches, cuts and juggles to resonate with maximum impact.

This would have been a hard act to follow for anyone but Mix Master Mike. The ISP co-founder, who’s been a solo artist since 1995 or so, has a gigantic stage presence and skills to match. A one-man musical blender, MMM unleashed a maelstrom of sonic fury, with bone-crunching drums, an entire range of musical and vocal phrases, and precise turntable cuts that deconstructed the individual pieces of a live performance — only to reconstruct all the fragments into an emotionally-thrilling pastiche. After his set, when Mike was celebrated with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the honor was clearly well-deserved.

The Invisible Skratch Piklz were celebrating, too – 2023 marks their 30th anniversary – and it’s safe to say no Bay Area crew has done more to advance the DJ artform. Along with New York’s X-Ecutioners and LA’s Beat Junkies, ISP have defined the term turntablist, carving out a cultural niche that rests on a hip-hop foundation but exists in its own space.

People stand in a crowd leaning on a barrier indoors.
A crowd watches finalists compete during the DMC World DJ Finals at The Midway in San Francisco, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Piklz have counted many firsts. As hip-hop’s relationship with the DJ has flipped from essential to inconsequential, they’ve maintained the DJ tradition for future generations, and extended its global reach. Over the past four decades, they’ve gone from students of the scratch to wizened masters of turntable music.

And like most cultural icons, their backstory is involved, multilayered and fascinating.

A young Qbert at a community hall mobile DJ dance party. (Courtesy Shortkut)

The Garage Party Era

The Invisibl Skratch Piklz story begins in what former ISP manager Alex Aquino calls the “pre-hip-hop era” of the late ’70s-early ’80s, when youth-oriented street dance intersected with pioneering mobile DJ crews and a Filipino-American tradition of garage parties.

“This was before breakdancing,” Aquino says. He recalls being 6 or 7 and seeing strutters, poppers and other elements of DJ culture – including the Filipino mobile DJ crews who established a scene built around vinyl records, large stereo systems and frequent dance parties.

One of those Filipino DJs was Apollo Novicio, a.k.a. DJ Apollo, a founding member of ISP who spent his early childhood roaming around the Mission District. By the time he reached middle school, his family had relocated to Daly City – where he likely attended some of the same parties as Aquino. “Back in the day, they’d have garage parties and there would be a DJ in the corner of the garage, set up on a washing machine and dryer and stuff like that. And at the parties, they would have popping and locking circles. Strutting, popping and locking. Breakdancing wasn’t even here yet, really. This was, I’d say, early ’80s, and that was pretty much my first exposure to the DJing and dancing element of it.”

Setup for a typical mobile DJ party in the early 1990s. (Courtesy Shortkut)

In 1982, Aquino remembers, a New York transplant named Oscar Sop had introduced B-boying and fat laces to the neighborhood, becoming one of the Bay Area’s first breakdancers. Meanwhile, the DJ crews were becoming more professional, and getting hired for weddings, quinceaneras, traditional Filipino celebrations and the occasional school dance party.

Apollo recalls “doing the strutting, popping, locking thing before B-boying got here.” Back then, “I didn’t even know it was hip-hop. I was such a young age. I’m like, just doing it and like, later on find out, oh, this is a hip-hop culture.”

In addition to dancing being popular among Filipino youth, “Each high school had a DJ group… It was just kind of like the thing to do. All the kids would form DJ groups.”

“I don’t know how to explain (why), but there was a lot of Filipino mobile disc jockey groups,” says DJ Apollo. ”Back in the seventies, my older brothers and sisters, they used to collect music and listen to music. Everybody had to go to the record store and buy vinyl.”

A mobile DJ party in 1991. (Courtesy Shortkut)

Dr. Oliver Wang, author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU Long Beach, explains that “the mobile DJ scene that the Piklz’ members got their start in wasn’t an exclusively Filipino phenomenon at all; there were Black, White, Latino and Chinese crews around then too. But the Fil-Am scene flourished above and beyond those other groups because they had distinct advantages coming from an immigrant community with strong social ties and large social networks.”

In addition, Wang says, “Filipino American families have parties for practically any occasion — birthdays, debuts, christenings, graduations, or just plain house/garage parties for the heck of it. Importantly, those parties all wanted music, and that meant that DJs had all these opportunities to find gigs.”

By the time breakdancing became popularized through movies like Beat Street and Breakin’, Apollo says, “DJing was already here… there were dances every weekend, and DJ battles and showcases almost every other weekend. That’s how it was when I was growing up around the San Francisco and Daly City area in the early ’80s.”

Appearing as FM2O (Furious Minds 2 Observe),  Qbert, Mix Master Mike and Apollo perform at an ‘eco-rap’ show in San Francisco, circa 1989–1990.

One of the top mobile DJ crews at that time was Unlimited Sounds. “They were like the biggest group from Daly City, and they were already established,” Apollo says. Many of the crew members were older and attended Jefferson High School. Apollo remembers hanging out at Serra Bowl, becoming friends with Unlimited Sounds and gradually being drawn into the world of DJing.

“Every day after school, I would just hang out at their garage and practice,” he says. “All the equipment was there, the records were all there, the lights, everything.”

Apollo saved his allowance and lunch money to buy his first set of turntables, and formed makeshift DJ crews with his friends. “We would gather our parents’ equipment, like home stereo equipment and gather it all up. I would get my parents’ home stereo system combined with my homies’ parents’ stereo system, combined with my other homie’s house system. And then we would put all the equipment together and we saw we had a DJ group.”

Apollo started making mixtapes — he still remembers the first time he had enough records to make an all-hip-hop tape — and eventually became good enough to join Unlimited Sounds in 1985, who at the time had gigs all over the Bay Area. That experience gave him a solid foundation in DJing parties and playing a wide variety of records, but he was more interested in “scratching, juggling, trick-mixing — turntablism before it was even called that.”

The Rock City DJs at the famed San Francisco graffiti spot Psycho City. (Courtesy Shortkut)

Prior to joining Unlimited Sounds, Apollo had hooked up with another up-and-coming DJ who was becoming known for his pause-tape mixes and obsessive focus on scratching: Michael Anthony Schwartz, a.k.a. Mix Master Mike, a Filipino-German kid who attended Jeffferson, the same high school as Aquino and Apollo. Rather than practice the type of mixes used for parties, though, Apollo and Mix Master Mike would “do more scratching or tricks, routines and that type of stuff.”

With those bedroom routines, a reimagining of the turntable’s possibilities had begun.

‘Oh, Snap — What Did We Just Do?’

Mix Master Mike didn’t come up in the mobile DJ scene. His early inspiration was seeing Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay live.

Watching Jay DJ for DMC and Run, he says, he remembers thinking, “Oh, they’re using records, but they sound more like they’re a full-fledged band, you know? That was just profound to me, that he was using records and rocking the house, with just records. And that’s when I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to be.”

Mix Master Mike on the subway in Japan, 1993. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Not long after Run-DMC brought their Raising Hell tour to a sold-out Oakland Coliseum arena, Apollo and Mike formed an informal DJ crew called Together With Style (not to be confused with the SF graffiti crew of the same name) and held long practice sessions in Apollo’s garage.

Apollo recalls staying true to his roots with conventional DJing styles – beat-matching and blending records. But with Mike, “we did go hard on scratching and tricks and juggling – which later on turned into turntablism.”

Individually, they would take turns on Apollo’s set of turntables. But one day, they decided to work in tandem — a moment that altered the course of DJ history.

As Apollo remembers it: “Me and Mike were messing around with the turntables and… we’re like, well, let’s just do something together, since we don’t have to wait our turn (to practice). So I grabbed one turntable, and he grabbed the other turntable and we kind of just started making a beat with two records and one mixer. I got the bass kick and he grabbed the snare and we just started making a beat like, boom, cha, boom boom boom cha, boom boom, you know? And then we’re just like, ‘Oh, snap, what did we just do? That was crazy.’”

The Rock Steady Crew DJs in 1991. (Courtesy Apollo)

Apollo and Mike would perfect the two-man routine over a period of several years, “and we just started performing it all over the place at showcases and dances, you know, wherever. People were seeing it and being amazed. We were amazed by it ourselves.”

One witness to the early routine was Richard Quitevis, an acquaintance of Mike and Apollo who went by the name DJ Qbert.

“Qbert saw it one time and he was amazed by it. He’s like, Oh, what is that?!?,” Apollo says.

Qbert Enters the Picture

DJ Qbert grew up in San Francisco’s Excelsior district. Like Apollo, his first exposure to hip-hop precedes the term itself. He recalls fishing at Pier 39 at the age of 12 and seeing the Fillmore dance crew Demons of the Mind. “There would be all these poppers; at the time they were called strutters. They would be playing this really fast electro music. And it was like, ‘Look at these robot-like guys in shiny little outfits with these silver hats.”

Qbert was fascinated not only with the vibrant dancers, but the sounds. “I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy. I love it, but where are they getting this music from?’”

Shortkut, Mix Master Mike and Qbert gettin’ up in Bologna, Italy. (Courtesy Shortkut)

Qbert remembers early attempts at breakdancing with his friends, who fashioned their own makeshift outfits. But it was the DJ scratch – particularly the skills displayed by Mix Master Ice on UTFO’s 1985 single “Leader of the Pack” – that really drew his interest. “I just started collecting the music, always collecting the music. And that’s what made me become a DJ.”

One day, Qbert was asked to DJ a garage party. “Everybody was about 12, 13, 14, 15, and everybody was breaking in the garage. And we were playing all my records on a big-ass giant box. Like, you open the top and you put the record in, and you just let that play. And the kids were spinning and they couldn’t control themselves. They would spin and they would spin, right into the DJ box, the turntable box. That was my first time being a mobile DJ.”

He explains his early attraction to turntables and scratching: “You could manipulate sound by grabbing (the record), moving forward and backward,” he says, imitating a scratch sound. “It was like a toy. A toy that was like a musical instrument. I didn’t even know it was a musical instrument. I was just thinking of it as like, it just sounds crazy. You just pull sound out of the air and move it, like, ‘Oh, what a weird contraption.’”

Eventually, Q joined a mobile DJ crew called Live Style Productions, and came to the attention of Apollo and Mix Master Mike, who remember going to Balboa High School to see him spin.

“Q, we just knew from around the way,” Apollo says. “We would go to different showcases on the weekends and see him perform. And so we knew about Q.”

Invisibl Skratch Piklz with the U.S. Championship trophy. (Courtesy Shortkut)

In 1991, Qbert entered the DMCs, winning the U.S. Championships and advancing all the way to the World Finals in London, where he took 2nd place. Aquino claims his technical skills were so advanced, they went over most of the audience’s heads, but Qbert admits he got cocky and didn’t practice before his set: “I was sloppy,” he says. That loss instilled in him the importance of practicing, which he took to with rigorous discipline.

The Turntables Might Wobble

Hip-hop journalist and author Adisa Banjoko, a friend, recalls once being at Qbert’s house and hearing him scratch the rhythms of Rakim’s verses from Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” – using entirely scratched tones to replicate Rakim’s stanzas. “You gotta record that,” Banjoko told Q, who just shrugged and said, “Nah, I do that all the time.”

Around this time, Apollo and Mike were honing their two-man routine and making beats with the intention of forming a rap crew, with them as producers and DJs. After returning from London with his U.S. title, Qbert introduced Mike and Apollo to a rapper who used to hang out at his house named Nim-FHD.

“This is where it all comes together,” Apollo says. “Me and Mike were making beats, and we always wanted to find a voice for our beats. And so when Qbert introduced us to this rapper, and when me and Mike heard that guy’s voice, Nim’s voice, we were like, ‘Oh man, that’s the voice for our music.’”

The extended crew. (Courtesy Apollo)

Apollo explained his vision to Nim, and they enlisted H2O, another emcee they met through Qbert, who also joined the group. “We told Q, do you want to be a part of the ‘Peter Piper’ routine? And he was like, overjoyed. Like, ‘Let’s do it. Absolutely, let’s do it.’ So then we’re like… why don’t we become the DJs for this group that will be the first rap group with three DJs and two rappers? And we’ll do all the beats and scratching.”

They christened themselves FM2O – an acronym for “Furious Minds To Observe” — the first iteration of what would become the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. As Mike says, “it was definitely a meant-to-be moment, when I hooked up with Q.”

The group was managed by Aquino, who had left Unlimited Sounds and started throwing parties while trying to establish an independent hip-hop label, Ace Beat. While working on a demo tape, FM2O played local venues and music industry showcases like the Gavin Convention and New Music Seminar. In 1992, they appeared at the Omni in Oakland on a bill with Banjoko’s crew, Freedom T.R.O.O.P. 187, plus Organized Konfusion, Gangstarr and headliner Body Count. Epic as that lineup is, Apollo, Mike and Qbert’s orchestrated turntable segment during FM2O’s set was the absolute showstopper.

FM2O’s music was slightly ahead of its time; in the early ’90s, “alternative hip-hop” hadn’t yet established itself in the mainstream. No hip-hop group had ever featured three DJs, all of them scratch fanatics.

While Aquino tried unsuccessfully to secure FM2O a label deal, the DJs made moves in the battle scene.

Mix Master Mike with his DMC Legend jacket at The Midway in San Francisco, 2023. (Jeff Straw)

The First Major World Titles

Qbert’s second-place 1991 DMC finish earned him props from Clark Kent, a well-respected New York DJ and producer of the New Music Seminar DJ Battle for World Supremacy. Kent asked Qbert to judge the 1992 battle alongside DJ Scratch and DJ Premier. Mix Master Mike, meanwhile, entered as a contestant – and ended up winning the battle. (Ironically, Aquino says, instead of practicing before his routine, Mike had stayed up all night.)

Video of the battle – during which Mike performs eight different routines, besting Japan’s DJ Honda in the final showdown before taking on defending champ Supreme in a challenge match – confirms he was on a mission to crush all competition. He doubles up Word of Mouth’s “King Kut” with blinding speed and finesse, blends Schooly D and Flavor Flav phrases to dis “sucker DJs,” slows down the records to juggle entirely new beats, deconstructs the wax into a series of melodic tones, and maintains a sense of rhythmic mastery that’s chaotic and jarring but never veers out of control. Boisterous shouts from the crowd testify to Mike’s determined brilliance.

Billed as the Rocksteady DJs (with the blessing of Bronx b-boy legend Crazy Legs, from the Rock Steady Crew), Qbert, Mike and Apollo won the DMCs that same year with the “Peter Piper” routine. The following year, with DJ Apollo unavailable while touring as the Souls of Mischief’s DJ, Mike and Qbert, billed as the Dream Team, again won the DMC World Championship. Mike still remembers the anticipation and energy that went into the preparations for the battle, along with the ginseng they imbibed before their set “like Chinese martial arts masters.”

These victories were culturally significant. Not only had no West Coast DJ ever been crowned a World Champion before, but no Filipino DJ had ever placed that high in a major competition.

To explain just how significant, it’s necessary to understand the evolution of the DJ artform.

The first development, playing “break” sections of records (known as breakbeats), was initially a clumsy needle-drop technique originated by hip-hop pioneer Kool Herc. Grandmaster Flash refined the DJ vocabulary with backspinning, cueing, cutting, punch phrasing, quick-mixing and reading the record like a clock. Grand Wizzard Theodore developed the basic scratch. Steve Dee invented the beat-juggle. But no DJ was doing synchronized team routines that reimagined the turntables as individual instruments prior to the Rocksteady DJs.

“That was an awesome thing,” Mike says. “It just started from a thought. The collective team, it was like it was a unit. We all had the same aspirations and goals of doing things people had never, ever seen or heard before. And it just spawned this whole movement. And it’s just something that we love to do. It was a discovery. Right? ‘Oh, shit. We could take this and flip it anyway we want to,’ you know? And that was the beauty of it.”

Sporting championship jackets in Tokyo, 1993. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Their succession of three major titles in two years elevated the DJ artform and raised the bar for battles. Teams of three or more DJs would soon proliferate throughout the DJ universe, and battle routines became more well-rounded, with emphasis on scratching, beat-juggling, and musicality or rhythmic coherence, as well as sheer technical ability.

It also led to a backlash of sorts: Mike confirms that after dominating for three years in a row, his crew was politely asked to retire from the DMC competition. He characterizes the request as a “giving other people a chance to win type deal.” But to him and his other Bay Area battlers, “We felt like it wasn’t fair to us because we got a lot in the tank. Let’s go. Keep going. See how far we can go… we were ready to defend the next year. But unfortunately they wanted to make us judges.”

As it turned out, stepping away from the competitive battle scene proved to be a blessing in disguise. “After we stopped battling,” Mike says, “I was like, okay, what’s next? We’re going to make records now. I’m gonna become a full fledged artist, you know? I don’t want to be this DJ dude. I don’t want to be a DJ guy that’s playing other people’s records standing up there. We’ve done that already. I’m going to get in the studio and be a producer, and I’m going to make music out of this whole thing, like, springboard into making original compositions. And so that’s what I’m doing, to this day.”

Invisibl Skratch Piklz in Hawaii, 1996. (Courtesy Shortkut)

But first, the crew needed a new name. During their time DJing for FM2O, the three DJs were collectively known as Shadow of the Prophet, or simply, The Shadow. A chance encounter with an early-career DJ Shadow – who apologetically offered to change his name – led to Qbert graciously telling him that he could keep the name “Shadow,” and that he’d change his group’s name instead. “Rocksteady DJs” and “The Dream Team” were one-offs, for the most part. They needed something catchy that also reflected who they were.

One day it came to them. As Qbert recounts, “We was on one, and we were laughing and laughing. And I think Mix Master Mike said, “Why don’t we be called the Invisible Pickles? We were just cracking up and we were thinking about, you know, an invisible pickle.”

The next day, Qbert got a call from his pal Lou Quintanilla, a.k.a. DJ Disk. “And he said, ‘How about Invisible Scratch Pickles?’ I was like, that kind of sounds dope.” (Though it may sound abstract, the name is rooted in a concrete concept: the turntable as an “invisible instrument” that could be almost any instrument – drums, guitar, vocals, anything.) The crew’s offbeat sense of humor reflected in their new name had long been evident; in 1992, they released Battle Breaks, one of the first DJ tool records specifically designed for scratching, officially credited to the Psychedelic Scratch Bastards on the Dirt Style label. In later years they would put out various releases under an affiliate record label that they named Galactic Butt Hair.

Before settling on the new name, though, they ran it by a younger DJ who was asked to join the crew — Jonathan Cruz, a.k.a. DJ Shortkut.

Shortkut. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Electro and the Art of the Quick Mix

Growing up in Daly City, Shortkut caught the DJ bug thanks to a Filipino mobile crew who played his 6th grade dance. He started DJing at age 13, after the local Filipino sound system culture had cycled through disco, metal, and New Wave, before arriving at hip-hop, freestyle and Miami bass.

One of Shortkut’s first exposures to a DJ battle took place in a large hall.“There would be about four to six sound systems separately set up in the one room with their own individual sound systems. Each group would get about like 20 minutes to do their thing, and then at the end of the night, whoever won. The word got out that group won, and then that’s who everyone wanted to book for school dances or birthday parties.”

Shortkut joined a crew called Just 2 Hype, which played freestyle, Miami bass and 808-laced Mantronix singles. “That’s why I think the Bay Area is specifically more scratch-DJ based,” he says, “because everyone scratched to fast beats, all the classic electro stuff.”

He also worked on perfecting the art of the quick-mix, changing up the record every four or eight bars. But records like DJ Jazzy Jeff’s “Live At Union Square” drew him into the world of scratch-mixing. “When I first started scratching, I just listened to records, basically. All the early records I used to buy, I would just try to copy what I heard on record.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he says, “I really got into embracing hip-hop” – catching up with records that hadn’t been hugely popular in the Filipino scene, and becoming further enthralled with scratching and beat-juggling. “That’s when I was first hearing about Qbert and Apollo and Mix Master Mike,” he says.

First trip to Japan, 1993. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Back then, Apollo was the big name, being from Unlimited Sounds. “He was the party rocker. But he was kind of the B-boy out of all the Filipino guys I knew.”

As he attempted to build his DJ skills, Shortkut remembers listening to cassette tapes of Qbert scratching and mixing. Initially, he had only basic equipment, and used belt-driven turntables. “I got better once I got to direct-drives because I already knew how to handle it and have a certain feel to it.”

Qbert winning the U.S. DMC Championship in 1991 was huge, he says. “We didn’t really have any role models, as a Filipino kid.” He took the win as validation – and inspiration.

“I lived about five minutes from Q’s house,” he says. “I used to go to Q’s house with the guy who taught me how to DJ. We both cold-called Q because we knew he was the one who had all the battle videos. So we would go to his house and dub the videos and while they were dubbing, me and Q would scratch.”

During this time, Shortkut says, Mike had moved to Sacramento, and Apollo was DJing for Branford Marsalis, “so I would hook up with Q and Disk a lot.” Q used to bring Shortkut and Disk along when he opened up shows in the Bay – affording the younger DJs valuable stage experience. Shortkut, Mike, and Q eventually formed a crew briefly called the Turntable Dragons, pre-ISP. Then, in 1993, Shortkut, Mike, and Q played a Bomb Hip-Hop Party – possibly the first time they had been billed as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz.

The five-man crew. (Courtesy Shortkut)

‘Everyone That Worked There Was Filipino’

Dave Paul, publisher of Bomb Hip Hop Magazine, coincidentally also began as a mobile DJ in 1984 with a crew called Night Connections. He tells a funny story about working an after-school job for Chevron. “I wasn’t that great. So they moved me from, like, the main Chevron on Geary Street over to one on California Street. And everyone that worked there was Filipino. Turned out everyone that worked there was also a DJ.”

Paul knew of Apollo from Unlimited Sounds, and had seen Qbert perform a famous “Mary Had A Little Lamb” routine during a San Jose battle around 1989 or 1990. “That really got his name out,” he says.

During the annual Gavin Convention in San Francisco, Bomb Hip Hop magazine would present live performance showcases. Paul booked the Piklz on multiple occasions, beginning in 1992, when they were still called the Rocksteady DJs.

According to Paul, the vibe of those early performances “was always sort of the don’t-give-a-fuck style. Like, things didn’t have to be clean. They were just really raw. And it was just ill. They were doing stuff that no one else was doing at the time.”

DJ QBert. (Thud Rumble)

After releasing a now-legendary compilation tape that featured Qbert along with a Canadian MC named Madchild, as well as local underground artists like Homeless Derelix, Blackalicious, Bored Stiff, and Mystik Journeymen, Bomb Hip Hop became a record label in 1995 with the release of Return of the DJ Vol. 1.

That record essentially started the movement of turntablism as a musical genre. The Skratch Piklz (at that time, Qbert, Shortkut and Disk) were featured on “Invasion of the Octopus People,” while Mix Master Mike contributed his first official solo production, “Terrorwrist.”

Return of the DJ evolved into a compilation series spanning multiple volumes, and inspired numerous others, like Om Records’ Deep Concentration and Ubiquity’s Audio Alchemy compilations. Asphodel, an alternative label known for ultra-underground somnolent, ambient, droney electronic music, signed the Skratch Piklz to a single deal, which resulted in 1996’s single “Invisibl Skratch Piklz vs. Da Klamz Uv Deth,” which featured Qbert, Shortkut, and Mix Master Mike.

‘Invisibl Skratch Piklz vs. Da Clamz Uv Deth,’ 1997. (Asphodel Records)

“A very strange thing about that (single) is, I had just invented scratch music,” Qbert says. “Which is this thing where every sound is scratched. Drums are scratched, the hi-hats are scratched, the snare and vocals are scratched, the chords, every single thing is scratched! No matter what is in there. So that was tracked out — like, every track was off the turntables, making a complete scratch song.”

Turntablism spread quickly through San Francisco’s progressive club scene in the mid-’90s. A Mark Herlihy’s art/performance collective Future Primitive established itself as an avant garde music label with a live recording of Shortkut and Cut Chemist at Cat’s Alley, on Folsom Street. An outer Tenderloin hole in the wall, Deco, became a headquarters for unfiltered, ultra-creative DJ expression in its basement, via “Many Styles” nights curated by Apollo. Qbert was part of the groundbreaking alternative hip-hop group Dr. Octagon along with producer Dan the Automator and MC Kool Keith, who recorded an indie classic that got re-released nationally by Dreamworks. To this day, Qbert’s scratch solo on Dr. Octagon’s “Earth People” stands out as a particular flashpoint, the turntable equivalent, perhaps, of the guitar solos on “Hotel California” or “Comfortably Numb.”

Needless to say, it’s not an empty boast when Mix Master Mike says he and the Skratch Piklz “pretty much created this genre of music.” No one was doing it before them, and many followed in their footsteps. Locally, the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters (aka the Space Travelers), Supernatural Turntable Artists, and the Oakland Faders all scratched and juggled. Live bands incorporating turntablists included Live Human (DJ Quest) and Soulstice (Mei-Lwun). New York’s X-Ecutioners were probably ISP’s closest counterparts nationally, having formed in 1989. But despite their turntable innovations, even they weren’t performing or recording as a band until after the Skratch Piklz.

Invisibl Skratch Piklz at the DMC World DJ Finals at The Midway in San Francisco, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2023. (Jeff Straw)

Back when they were known as the X-Men, the X-Ecutioners faced off against the Piklz in a landmark 1996 battle in New York’s Manhattan Center – a contest so epic, it’s listed among Mixmag’s Top 10 DJ Scratch Battles of All Time. X-Ecutioners member and DJ historian Rob Swift says Qbert first came on his radar in 1991, when he beat X-Ecutioners founder Steve Dee to win the US DMC Finals.

“We thought he was Hawaiian,” Swift says, because Qbert appeared to be wearing a lei in the battle video. “We didn’t know that he was this Filipino DJ that came out of this Filipino community of DJs in the Bay Area. We didn’t know that there were DJs out there.”

Swift later entered the 1991 New Music Seminar battle, where Qbert was a judge; the two exchanged numbers and began calling each other and exchanging videos regularly.

When rappers began increasingly excluding the DJ throughout the ’90s, he says he and Qbert would discuss what to do about it., “We would both be like, ‘You’ve got these rappers (not respecting the DJ). Fuck them, and we’re going to create our own DJ scene. If the music industry is going to turn their backs on DJing, we need to figure out a way to just create our own scene.’”

“And,” he adds, “that’s exactly what we did.”

Invisibl Skratch Piklz in Lebanon. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

Enter the ITF — and D-Styles

When the Pilkz battled the X-Ecutioners, it was as much about gaining respect for turntable culture as it was about individual bragging rights. Though the court of public opinion is still split on who won, the battle put a spotlight on both crews. As Swift says, “We started strategizing ways to book our own tours and create all-DJ competitions (like) the ITF, the International Turntablist Federation,” who organized the historic battle.

Founded by Alex Aquino with help from Shortkut, the ITF was established in 1995 and stayed active until 2005. It was intended as a cultural organization, and as somewhat of a critique of the DMC, which had become the only major DJ competition, following the demise of the New Music Seminar.

“Without the DMC,” Aquino says, “we wouldn’t have this world stage for the guys to be on. But after Q lost that first battle, we were like, something has to change.”

Specifically, the criteria. “And so, we were like, let’s do our own battle. Let’s have real turntablists and DJs judge it, like a New Music Seminar, but instead of just the one-on-one battle, the advancement class for the belt, let’s do a scratching category. Let’s do a beat-juggling category. And let’s do a team category. And that’s how we started out.”

In a Japanese magazine, date unknown. (Courtesy Shortkut)

DJs like Vin Roc, Babu, Craze, and A-Trak all won ITF titles, as did teams like the Allies and Beat Junkies. The ITF succeeded in giving turntablists a visible platform to showcase their skills and in further popularizing the artform in the U.S. and internationally. (In 1999, the DMC would add a team category, and the organization currently rotates additional categories, including Scratch, Portablist, and Beat Juggling.)

After Return of the DJ’s “Octopus People,” with Apollo unavailable and Mix Master Mike pursuing a solo career, the Skratch Piklz needed new blood. For the next few years, ISP membership became somewhat fluid, swelling and contracting as new members joined for a while, before going off to do other projects. DJ Disk, DJ Flare, Canadian teenage prodigy A-Trak, and former Thud Rumble label manager Ritche Desuasido, a.k.a. Yogafrog, were all ISP members at one time or another, along with Shortkut.

In 1996, Beat Junkies member Dave Cuasito, a.k.a. D-Styles, joined the Piklz and became a linchpin for the group; Aquino calls him “the hidden master.” Though not as flashy or famous as Qbert, he’s well-respected in turntablist circles and has helped focus the Pilkz on compositional elements in their music while also being able to scratch, cut and juggle at a high level.

Born in the Philippines, D-Styles grew up in San Jose. Like the other Piklz, he was exposed to hip-hop through breaking and its accompanying soundtrack. “I would hear the songs that they were playing, but then they would scratch certain words and certain parts of that song. And so I was always curious how they were doing it.”

Grandmaster DST and Qbert. (Courtesy Alex Aquino)

His answer came when he saw Grandmixer DST’s scratch segment on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” After getting a basic Realistic mixer for his birthday, he, too, joined a mobile DJ crew (Sound City), who pooled their equipment like so many others – and spent their meager proceeds on post-gig Denny’s meals. After taking part in typical mobile battles with crews exchanging 20-minute sets, he discovered there was a battle specifically for scratch DJs, and competed in the 1993 DMC.

In 1996, he moved to San Francisco to attend college, but what he really wanted was to pursue music. He was already familiar with Mike, Qbert and Shortkut from the battle scene, and from hanging out on Tuesday night at Deco, a small speakeasy-style jazz bar with open turntables in the basement.

“One strange night, I got a phone call on my answering machine and it was Yogafrog and Q, and they were like, ‘Hey, man’ – I don’t know if they were drunk or what – but they were like, ‘we need to talk, man. We think we should all come together and form a crew.” They met up and talked, and soon after, he was asked to officially join the group.

D-Styles stoic demeanor compliments the other Piklz, yet beneath his focused concentration lies a punk rock attitude that aligns with Qbert’s philosophy that the only rule is there are no rules. Likewise, his turntable-composition approach balances the others’ battle-DJ backgrounds.

Shortkut and A-Trak at Qbert’s place, 1997. (Courtesy Shortkut)

“As far as a turntable composer, I feel like we definitely embrace the more musical side of it, and less technical,” he says. “For the battle DJs, they really try to spray like a Uzi, you know what I mean? And just get off a bunch of power stuff off and try to wow the the crowd and the judges. For music, it’s more about the long-term thing. We want to make music that’s timeless. And it’s not based off of a five-minute routine.”

With the core Piklz now set with Qbert, Shortkut and D-Styles, Mix Master Mike – who remained affiliated with the crew – says, “I felt like we had the perfect stew. Everyone had their own style, their own identity.”

Around this time, Mike began putting together his first solo album, Anti-Theft Device, which he envisioned as “not an underground album (but) a worldwide release.” He imagined himself as a sonic transducer, attracting and reshaping matter into different forms. He drew on inspirations like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, early Public Enemy, Thelonious Monk, Rage Against the Machine and Ennio Morricone. He contemplated the subtlety of silence, of ghost notes and pregnant pauses. And then he went out and made an album with booming, deafening drums and thumping bass on nearly every track.

“I focused on the drums first,” Mike says. “I wanted to make sure those drums were hitting really hard.”

Mix Master Mike’s ‘Anti-Theft Device,’ 1998. (Asphodel Records)

On Anti-Theft Device, the found sounds and quirky vocal samples (“NASA maintains this is not Colonel Blaha’s voice”) often present on DJ mix tapes resurface often, along with boom-bap beats and scratched phrases, instruments and sound effects. There are elements of intoxicated or altered reality, and bug-out moments that suggest turboized vocoders spouting underwater propellers, or seemingly random musical sample generators harnessing infinite libraries of sound, from raga to reggae to rock.

“At the end of the day,” Mike says, “it’s about spearheading the evolution of the battle DJ – as artist, composer, tastemaker.”

While Mike was the first Pikl to make a solo album, Qbert crafted an especially ambitious concept for his first official solo debut. As Mike tells it, he had some extra tracks left over, which he gave to Qbert. “And he fuckin’, just like, went crazy on those beats. And then, yeah. It became Wave Twisters.”

DJ Qbert’s ‘Wave Twisters,’ 1998. The album spawned a cult-classic 2001 animated film of the same name. (Galactic Butt Hair Records)

Wave Twisters, the Beasties and Beyond

Wave Twisters holds the rare distinction of being a soundtrack around which a movie was later designed. The album received extremely positive reviews, making many music critics’ year-end lists. To this day, it’s regarded as one of the best turntablism albums of all time. Tracks like “Destination: Quasar 16.33.45.78” took ISP battle routines to new levels, imagining a battle in inner space between a heroic dental hygienist and the minions of a villain named Lord Ook. The track revels in sci-fi tropes, with vocal cues like “Attention, starship!” coloring the scratched, transformed and cut-up audio landscape.

According to Qbert, Wave Twisters was willed into existence. “I intentionally foresaw it because in the back of my head, I was like, I’m gonna make every song like a storyline. It’s going to be a thing. And somebody’s going to animate this. And then out of nowhere, the universe made it all work.”

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