Roc Raida's passing is a tough one. At this point, his heyday, the mid to late 1990s, seems like forever ago. Back then, any aspiring DJ studied and marveled at videos and tapes of Roc Raida and his comrades the X-Men, as well as West Coast crews like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the Beat Junkies. They communicated in a secret language, breaking hip-hop down to its constituent parts--drums, stabs, throbs, a haughty "ah" or a might "fresh!"--and finding new rhythms, new narratives, new weird things to do with the same old gear.
Turntablism's (still a terrible name) palette was a self-restricted one: canonical breaks and instrumentals, the same sound effects-filled battle tools. Often, you had to be a fellow DJ to even understand what was going on, the new directions which resulted from the careful dismembering of familiar sayings, words, or a snare hits. The detail, the craft, the care: it was startling to witness. But this was also the problem: turntablism was deeply self-referential and inward at a time when technology was just about to democratize everything. Turntablism exhausted itself just as digital DJing was emerging as an easier, cheaper and lighter (lugging around 80 pounds of records vs. a laptop? game over) alternative. You no longer needed to be a virtuoso to DJ; you didn't even need the vinyl. No judgments here--the only truly unfortunate consequence was how quickly the DJs who had ruled the late 1990s were recast as the nerdy, technique-obsessed outliers.
That's why this clip of Roc Raida practicing the routine which would win him the 1996 DMC World title is so inspiring. There was something solemn and serious about that moment back then, when DJs would disappear into their rooms, practicing, studying and practicing. Art redraws the boundaries of our imagination, but at a simpler level, it also reminds us of the value of careful, concentrated, for-love-of-craft diligence. Here, we witness Roc Raida's astonishing work ethic, as he carefully maps out the 5:30 allotted for his routine. His X-Men colleagues, Rob Swift and Total Eclipse, watch as he tries out an earlier version of the now-legendary routine. Even though he's just in Rob's house, practicing in his socks in front of his friends as a cheap fan cools the room, he remembers to point toward his foe, as though this was the real thing. His entire frame sways as he scratches to the beat. Rob tries not to betray emotion as he plays timekeeper; Total Eclipse can't help it, he gawks and gasps. As Roc Raida finishes, Rob, the stern coach, shakes his head, "Five-thirty, yo. That means you don't have time to do 'Jack the Ripper.'" No worries, back to the drawing board. And more practice.
The full performance here: