"Welcome to the lab," says Jamie Keogh, the turntablist known as DJ Immortal, leading a visitor into his garage turned studio at the Coral Springs home he shares with his mother. Six turntables are parked against the wall, which is plastered with several Jimi Hendrix album covers and a Wu-Tang Clan poster. A stack of videotapes of martial-arts movies sits on the windowsill. The 21-year-old Long Island transplant looks his age, with his thin mustache, youthful face, and backward baseball cap. But Immortal is nearly a veteran: He's performed at parties since he was 13, after he got his first set of decks.
Although the terms DJ and turntablist are used almost interchangeably, Immortal takes care to stress the distinction between the two. "I was never into just playing records," he says, outlining the difference. "A DJ plays records. A turntablist plays the turntable. It doesn't matter what record is on there," he says with a tell-tale rhythmic cadence. "A turntablist will manipulate the record with his hands and his mind and make his own sound and actually play the turntable like a guitar or a flute.
"When I first started, I wasn't good. It took years and years of practice to learn the hard scratch patterns. It's easy stuff once you master it. Like this scratch right here, it looks easy, it sounds cool," he says as he fires off four quick rips in rapid succession -- whaa-whaa-whaa-whaa -- capping it off with a long, tweaky whaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!! (Imagine one of the grownups' voices from Charlie Brown inhaling helium and cackling like a nut job.) "But that took me years to figure out," he explains, "because I didn't know what I was looking for."
After high school, Immortal went on to study audio engineering at the Full Sail recording school in Orlando and joined with fellow students Scorponok, Spy-tek, K-razor, and I-emerge to form the Fader Ballistix turntablist crew. This June, he and Scorponok plan to open their own Margate recording studio called Reverse Polarity. The group is completing work on Condom Breaks, a scratch record packed with samples, sound effects, and beats designed for turntablists to rip up. Immortal's solo debut, Hard to Obtain, was released last October, demonstrating exactly what he had been looking for.
Though weighed heavily with samples, Hard to Obtain's fluid beats are too liquid, soft, and slow to be overbearing. In fact, "The Way of the Intercepting Fist" lays down martial-arts-flick dialogue ("be soft like water and flexible...") atop cooing female voices gliding along the trip-hop train track. Bizarre juxtapositions abound, such as 1950s a cappella doo-wop colliding with sitar and Indian ragas or the Terminator 2 sound bites, vocodered voices, Hindu chants, steamy fuzz-guitar, subtle scratching, and bits of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" that make up "Other."
When the hip-hop enthusiast isn't in the studio developing new sounds or recording new material, he's polishing routines for competition. He began battling four years ago and enters up to 20 contests per year all over the East Coast.
Immortal reigned supreme at the Beyond 2002 Super Festival's turntablist championship in Miami in April -- his second win this year. Among other competitions he's swept: Mixwell Fader Masters Open winner 2002, B-Boy Pro-Am winner 2000 and 2001, Break Fest winner 2000 and 2001, Power Movements 2001, and Zulu Anniversary 2001. This placement has given Immortal the opportunity to bust some crossover moves on the skate-rat crowd: he'll soon release a remix album of '90s alt-rock anthems, twisting Nirvana, 311, Sublime, and No Doubt into a hip-hopping hybrid. He practices the jeet kune do martial art and even incorporates Bruce Lee exhortations into his tunes.
"I can play any record I want and it will always be hip-hop -- because I'm hip-hop. So I can do anything I want because hip-hop's me, just my expression," boasts Immortal. "I'm a student of hip-hop -- learning new cuts, listening to new beats, listening to new DJs and artists, and learning from them every day, learning about break dance, graffiti. So I would definitely consider what I'm doing hip-hop."
Then why doesn't it sound like hip-hop? After all, the club kids know Immortal as the crazy DJ mixing all the beats with classic rock. "I throw on some Jimi Hendrix, and then I'll throw on some Queen," he cites as an example. "That's what I'm kind of known for, taking it to the extreme. I try to play Russian roulette with the crowd, [seeing] how far can I take these people out there before they walk out of there."
The vinyl-manipulating wizard attempts to defuse the myth that hip-hop and rap are one and the same. "That's one of the biggest misconceptions in music history," he frowns. That misinformation, Immortal contends, unfairly emphasizes lyrical skills over the technological innovation of decks and mixers -- not to mention the other social signifiers that are pillars of the hip-hop genre.
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"Hip-hop is your state of mind -- the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you dress, the way you look, the way you communicate -- just your whole vibe," insists Immortal. "Hip-hop's the whole culture that emerged in the late '70s with graffiti and scratching and break dancing -- that's hip-hop. There were all these expressionist art forms all these kids were doing, [like] graffiti and DJing. The graffiti writers and DJs didn't even hang out. It was completely two different things, but it was all hip-hop, and that's when everybody stood up and defined a culture. And it was a mixture of these different elements -- break dancing, beat boxing, DJing -- kind of like a little Olympics. We got our own sports we taught ourselves. So that's hip-hop.
"The DJs started hip-hop. Now it's all about the rapper. Back in the day, they came to see the DJ, and he had four or five rappers with him, and no one knew their names. It was like Grand Master Flash and Furious Five. It was the DJ in the limelight, 'cause what's the rapper going to rap to without a beat? The DJ started bringing turntables out to the parks and throwing small community jams. And then rap took over the mainstream and became the public's conception of hip-hop. But we all still do our thing: All the true graffiti writers still graf. All the true turntablists still cut."
Immortal is taking steps to elevate the art of rapping, which he says is changing for the better in the wake of more socially conscious MCs. "Rappers that are speaking about things that really make a difference -- rappers that are making songs with messages -- that's what I'm more into," he enthuses. "I'm into music with messages."
Immortal dabbles in meaningful rap with his group Floetry, which includes Choppa-D-Viz, Lani, Bam Bam, Mik-Ruff-One, and the Ghost of Rob. The team's first full-length release should be out this summer. "Floetry, they're like poets," he trumpets. "And they're trying to change the world with their rhymes, instead of just rapping about guns and forties and blunts and bitches. Some of it's really positive, and some it takes you on a journey between the different emotions in life and the different hardships that you have to overcome. It's the kind of stuff you can listen to in the morning."