Get to know a DJ: Skratch Bastid (Paul Murphy)
Following the cities where hip hop blew up — New York, L.A., etc. — the late nineties saw a flourishing of the genre in a perhaps unlikely place: Halifax, Nova Scotia. Along the way, one of the main beneficiaries of Halifax's scene became Toronto. Turn on the radio to CBC Radio 2 and you might hear the smooth voice of Buck 65, or, in the case of this week's subject, visit Revival this Friday and you're bound to find one of Nova Scotia's favourite sons shredding the turntables. Paul Murphy — aka Skratch Bastid — is one of Canada's premier DJs, and as benefits that distinction, Murphy has a lot of stories to share. Here we talk about some of Murphy's signature routines, how he played to thousands of Vietnamese teenagers from the inside of a railroad crate, and more.
How did you get started deejaying?
Back in Halifax, my best friend and I would purchase all the newest rap releases every Tuesday. We would get our music from Sam the Record Man, Records on Wheels, HMV, and this local store called Select Sounds. After buying all these CDs and tapes, we would make mixtapes for our friends and the girls we had crushes on. Basically, the idea was that my friend and I didn't have the money to buy everything ourselves, so we split the order in half, and then every month we would get together and make a mixtape of all the best songs from those releases. Eventually, we started playing the music at house parties and what not.
Do you mind me asking what your friend's name was?
Yeah, so his name was the Kuttin' Kracker. He's a lawyer in Halifax now, but he was my best friend growing up. Anyway, we eventually found out that they were still making hip-hop records, and that they were being pressed on vinyl. In the late nineties, there was this resurgence of independent hip-hop like Rawkus, Fondle Em, Company Flow, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. They were pressing records with songs that you could not get anywhere but the record, and so we were like, "Wow, we better get into records." Once we got into records and saw videos of people scratching, we decided we needed to get into scratching, and after that we entered the competitions.
Competitions like Scribble Jam, right?
Yeah, the first one I entered into was actually one in Halifax. I had my setup in my basement, and while my mom was driving one day, she saw a sign for a local competition called the DJ Olympics. She knew I had been working really hard in the basement and she said, "Paul, there's this competition you should enter..." In hindsight, I think she was just doing anything to keep me occupied, so that I wouldn't do anything bad. If your mom is basically saying, "Come on, pussy, enter into the competition," then you have to do it, and I did.
And how did that competition go?
I came third, and that's where I met Buck 65, Sixtoo aka Prison Garde, and all the other dudes from the Halifax scene. They were all like, "Who is this guy?" My name at the time was DJ Stimulus, which was an awful name, and DJ Smurf was my name before that. Anyway as I said, I came third in that competition, I met everyone in the scene, and that was my big break. After that I went home, and practiced, practiced, practiced. The next year I won the competition — that was in 1998. Yeah, so in 1998 I won the Halifax DJ Olympics. That was a really big thing for me because I beat Buck 65, who was a DJ back then, and he's someone I learned a lot about music from. That year, Buck 65 and some of the guys from Halifax also went to Scribble Jam, which I did as well the following year.
Okay, and is that the year that you did your Imperial March routine?
Yeah! The story behind that is that the record I used for that routine was a Buck 65 album, and I had used that routine against Rich while defending my title at the local competition. I then took that routine to Scribble Jam where Buck was popular at the time. Someone recorded it and it ended up on Ebaumsworld — (laughs) that thing was pre-YouTube.
From what I understand, you've recently moved to Toronto?
Yeah, so eight years ago I moved from Halifax to Montreal. Anyone in their early '20s loves Montreal, and coming from Halifax, it wasn't too far away from home and I had always liked coming to the city when I was on tour. I moved there in 2004. After five years I moved to Toronto. Part of the reason for my move to Toronto was because I had been doing a monthly residency at the Drake Underground. The residency had been going really well, I had met a lot of people in Toronto, and I found that I kind of had my stay in Montreal.
Don't get me wrong, it's a great city but I found that for a working artist, Toronto is a much better place to be. The artistic community in Toronto is incredible, everyone is looking to help each other out, and that in turn helps motivate me to keep working. It's been a great three years and I can't see myself leaving right now.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to recall you saying that there's something missing in Toronto's scene, or at least there's a niche you believe you can fill with your residency at Revival.
Yeah, a little bit. The idea for me was that for the last ten years I'd been traveling a lot, and that inhibited me from having a residency. I did one at the Drake, but even that meant traveling from Montreal to Toronto. When I moved here, I wanted to take a step back, and I honestly missed having a monthly night. With a residency you get to build a vibe, a scene, and a mini-community around your night. I also wanted to give back to the people around the world that had had me at their own nights.
So, yes, I do feel like I'm filling a niche. Toronto has so many great DJs that sometimes we don't get to see the great DJs from other cities. Part of it is that I wanted give the people I had met abroad an opportunity to play in Toronto, and the other part was about building a night where people can expect to hear great music and not just music from a certain sub-genre. I really feel like the way the music world is going right now is that people are more interested in the name of a genre than in the sound of the music itself.
If you come to my night, you're going hear everything — from the newest music to the classics. It's simply a good music night without a label, and that's why I called it "Skratch Bastid Presents," because with that you can go anywhere. Was that necessarily missing from Toronto? Not completely, but I think that the night I want to build that is a fresh mix of music and people.
A lot of deejays have abandoned scratching as a technique, and rather than focus on why that is, I wanted ask you about what sustains your interest in it?
Scratching and mixing are two techniques that I've always enjoyed the sound of. Scratching is a totally live technique — you can't do it accurately with a program, it's not easy to do, there's a steep learning curve, but I love the sound of something getting scratched in. You can do it too much — that's true — and you can do it sloppily, so it becomes its own little art-form and presentation. When you come to one of my shows, I don't stand there and scratch for four hours straight, but it's a flavour that I can add to something. I can take a song that you've heard before and do a live version that sounds fresh and new.
Is there something you can tell us about yourself that'll offer some perspective on Paul the person, rather than the DJ?
One of the things that I've gotten to do through deejaying is to travel a lot. I've been to twenty-seven countries, and through traveling I've learned and gained so much perspective on the world as a whole. The one thing I can recommend to anyone is to get out there and see the world. Traveling has inspired me and made me realize how lucky I am to be able do my art and travel, but also how lucky we are here in North America to be as privileged as we are. Hearing different music from around the world inspires me in the music that I play, so deejaying has given me that and it has inspired my deejaying.
I'm also a pretty competitive person, and my competitiveness got to shine in the DJ competitions, but most of that came from sports. I love playing basketball, and Shad and I have a pickup league going. If anyone wants to test me, they can email me.
Is there one story you could share that stands out as particularly funny?
Some of my first gigs were in places like Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and Moncton, New Brunswick, so as a DJ in Canada, I've grown up working this Canadian circuit. I picked up gigs where I could, and as a result, I've played in just about every corner of this country.
Last summer, though, I played a couple of shows in Alberta and British Colombia. My brother, who was living in Calgary at the time, said he would take me to my gigs in his Toyota Corolla. In between Fernie and Nelson, British Colombia you have something called the Rogers Pass, which is one of the highest peaks on the Trans-Canada highway — It's about a seven hour drive between Nelson and Canmore. On our way to Canmore, my brother jokingly floors it up this mountain.
His glaring smile starts to turn into more of a straight face, and then all of a sudden, he says, "This isn't good." He pulls us over, and there's no reception on my cellphone because we're on the side of a mountain, the car is fucked, and I have a gig that night. So I hitched hiked to the next town and called CAA. CAA said that they could tow the car about 170 km to the next nearest city, Cranbrook, which we did but Cranbrook was was still about three hours away from Canmore.
At Cranbrook, I made a few calls to see if a junk shop was open, no junk shop was open. We decided to take a cab. We ditched the car in the parking lot of an auto parts place and took all the items from from the trunk, including twelve bottles of beer from the Fernie brewery. We called a cab and took a $454 cab ride to Canmore with a guy named Loren with in an Oldsmobile Century. He looked like death. He said to us, "You can drink whatever, smoke whatever — I don't give a fuck" So we ended up rolling a joint and smoking it with the cab driver. I arrived in Canmore with one less car and almost $500 poorer, but I still made my gig, and, to this day, I still haven't missed a show.
Can I tell you one more story?
You've heard about the Nightlife Exchange Smirnoff did, right?
Right, so I went to Vietnam for that. I think that Canada and Vietnam were low on their list of priorities for the event. That is, Canada and Vietnam don't have a lot in common, so it was a rather odd pairing. Obviously I didn't know what I was getting into, but, hey, who's going to say no to a trip to Vietnam.
Their goal with the Nightlife Exchange was to make it look and feel like you were having a night out in Canada and vice-versa. Now, have you ever tried to make something look like Canada? It's a really hard to thing to exaggerate. They had six to eight people dressed up as Mounties, and then they decided to try and make it like Canada's nightlife. To do that they tried to replicate a club from Canada, and the club that they decided to replicate was Club Zanzibar... It was like they got a high-res picture of Club Zanzibar and just blew it up.
Club Zanzibar has a history, though. It is was a legendary venue in the sixties and seventies, but now it's a strip club. So, I flew all the way to Vietnam to play at Club Zanzibar. They had a crazy night with a screamo band doing Lady Gaga covers. I was put into a railroad container, and the idea was that they had shipped me from Canada. There were 4000 teenage kids going crazy. Anyway, It was just odd that they flew me halfway across the world to play club Zanzibar in a container.
Any exciting projects you're working on that you can share?
Beside playing basketball, Shad and I are working on his new record. Shad is one of those rappers that still give me the chills every time I listen to his lyrics, like, he's such a good writer. I think that he's still underrated, but he's a world class MC in my mind and I'm excited to be working with him on his next record. I'm also working with Classified, a good ol Halifax boy.
I'm looking to work more on my production. As a traveling DJ that can be hard, but sometimes you have to step back. I think that's a little more sustainable in the long run. Beside that, I'm excited to continue to work on and grow The Skratch Bastid Presents night.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite Brunch Spot? The Drake.
Starbucks or Darkhorse? The Beer Store.
Favourite venue? The Marquee Club in Halifax (RIP).
Go to bathroom song while deejaying? Knee Deep by Parliament, Hypnotize by Biggie, or, as my friend Mat The Alien calls it, Crapper's Delight.
You can catch Skratch Bastid this Friday at Revival. In addition on August 11, Skratch Bastid hosts his BBQ at the Steam Whistle Brewery, with artists like BadBadNotGood playing.
For more DJ profiles, visit our Toronto DJs Pinterest board.
Is there a DJ you would like to see profiled on blogTO? Email us at editors [at] blogto [dotcom].
Photos by Dylan Leeder.