DJ Q-Bert Scratches His Way to Sundance

Where do you go next when you're at the top? For DJ Q-Bert, widely recognized as one of the world's best turntablists, the answer is simple: new challenges.

"I'm still learning every time I do something new," says Q-Bert, born Richard Quitevis. His latest project is an animated feature film, Wave Twisters, which will be screened at midnight on Jan. 23 and 25 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

The movie shares a title with the 1998 solo debut from the key member of the now-defunct Bay Area DJ crew Invisibl Skratch Picklz, but the music isn't exactly the same — he says 80 percent of the tracks have been remixed for the film.

Though the original LP was intentionally arranged to have a narrative quality, the decision to make it a soundtrack came later.

"I wanted to have music videos," the DJ explains, "but I didn't want to have something that's normal — I wanted it to be like graffiti, animated art, which is something that was never done."

Though the swirling, psychedelic action narrative may share something with Disney's animated music epic Fantasia (which he's never seen) and Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends (one of his favorites), the movie owes more to B-Boy culture, with animators Syd Garon and Eric Henry creating scrawled texts, hip-hop fashions, and visual equivalents of cuts and scratches. "With normal scratching, you'll take a sound and move it back and forth," Q-Bert says. "It's just like that with visuals."

The challenges of cinema have allowed Q-Bert to explore his sound — a critical step for a man who'd already pushed record spinning to an extreme with cuts like "Invasion of the Octopus People," from the Return of the DJ compilation, and dazzling live displays of innovative new or improved scratches, scoring several top prizes with ISP at the acclaimed DMC international championships before Q-Bert and Co. were asked to refrain from competing and let somebody else win for a change.

"One song I remixed was called 'Invasion of the Octobots,' about these giant octopus robots destroying the city," he says. "So I went and studied lots of monster movie flicks, and the energy they brought out — the whole atmosphere of a giant monster coming to town and wrecking buildings. I started scratching that type of music, and it came out like a totally different style.

"[Turntablism]'s very percussive — it's very hard to convey different types of emotions," he adds. "If you want to convey a feeling of Godzilla coming with drums, you have to find a special type of sound — so I had to learn to scratch the eerie sounds."

Another avenue movie work has opened is working in digital surround sound — using five channels instead of music's typical stereo output.

"We actually designed a mixer for the DJ that enables you to scratch in 360 degrees. You can hook that system up [at a club]. There's a little joystick that allows you to point the sound to which speakers you want. Instead of two speakers, it's totally three-dimensional."

The DJ is aiming to release the remixed soundtrack in the spring, when he hopes the movie is picked up for wider release.

But in the meantime, he'll have a busy week in Park City, where he plans to perform with his ISP crony, occasional Beastie Boys collaborator Mixmaster Mike. Both DJs are featured in Scratch, a documentary on DJ culture, which airs Jan 19-20 and Jan. 23-26 at the festival.