Can a DJ learn to scratch in just 12 hours?

We challenged Vanessa Maria, a rookie scratch DJ, to take an intensive turntablism course and record a performance routine showcasing her new skills. Find out how she did...

As a DJ, I have always been fascinated by the world of scratching. It’s an artform that requires a high level of skill and precision, something that has always captivated me. To me, scratch culture represents the intersection of the old and the new. On one hand, scratching is steeped in tradition and has been around for decades. On the other hand, it’s a constantly evolving style of DJing that has adapted to new technologies and trends. 

I also love the sense of community and collaboration that seems to exist within scratch culture. DJs are always pushing each other to be better and to try new things, and this competitive spirit has helped to drive things forwards. I think scratch culture represents the best of what DJing has to offer, a combination of technical skill, creative expression and community. It requires dedication and hard work, but it also seems like a lot of fun. 

With all of this said, I’d never actually tried scratching. As a DJ, I’ve always focused on mixing and blending tracks, rather than manipulating the tracks themselves. My style naturally incorporates lots of cutting, so I always thought that scratching would build on techniques that I naturally leaned towards.

So when Pioneer DJ set me the challenge of learning to scratch, I jumped at the chance. They were curious to see what progress a DJ with no prior experience in scratching could make in just 12 hours.

We split the time across two days, which would culminate with me recording a final two-minute performance routine to show what I’d learned. From the outside, the world of scratching and turntablism can seem a little intimidating; the aim with this challenge was to break down some barriers by showing what could be achieved in a matter of hours. And to make things additionally interesting, we decided I would apply the scratch techniques I learned to my usual style of club music and DJing. 

I would be learning from Cutmaster Swift, a former DMC World champion, who’s been a major figure on the UK turntablism scene for decades. The plan wasn’t to set a super strict time limit or anything—I was learning and practicing for “roughly 12 hours.” In any case, the challenge was meant to be a fun and hopefully inspiring example for DJs who are curious about scratching, or perhaps even aspire to reach the standards of a legendary DJ like Cutmaster Swift.  

As excited as I was, I did have a certain level of trepidation about learning how to scratch. I knew it was going to be a difficult journey, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it. But I was determined to step out of my comfort zone and see how far I could go. I admittedly had no idea what to expect. I had always admired the skill and precision of scratch DJs but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to pick up the techniques in such a short space of time… 

On day one, we started with the basics. Cutmaster Swift introduced me to the fundamentals of scratching, including how to grip the crossfader and the platter, and how to control my hand movements. I spent the morning familiarising myself with the CDJs and practising the basic scratch techniques, such as the baby scratch, cutting and the transformer scratch. It was a lot of information to take in at once, and I found myself feeling a bit overwhelmed at times. But I kept at it, focusing on one technique at a time and practising consistently until I felt comfortable with each one.

The most difficult part was getting my timing right. Scratching with the beat is crucial for achieving a smooth and seamless sound, and I had to work to keep my scratching in sync with the music. But as the day went on, I was starting to get a feel for it, the rhythm and flow of the music, and I was having a great time. I began to see the potential for what I could do with scratching. I should also mention that Cutmaster Swift was an excellent teacher. He made the learning process fun, and he demonstrated each technique slowly and clearly. Most importantly, he was patient with me.  

I really wanted to sneak in some practice at the end of the first day, but I had things to do in the evening. I managed to get about 40 minutes of practice really late at night but I was so tired that I just wanted to sleep and be fresh for the second day.

On the morning of the second day, the size of the challenge became more obvious as I tried to decide on the routine and practice as much as I could. I felt a sense of “looking up at the mountain” as I arrived at the studio, feeling both tired and intimidated by the task ahead. And I was faced with the added challenge of adapting scratch techniques to the club music that I play. We’d decided that this approach would make the challenge more authentic and unique to my style. But on day one I was practising with music made for scratching, so I hadn’t quite realised how much I would have to adapt!

I was looking for tracks that had the right energy and flow, and I spent hours experimenting with different sounds and techniques. Cutmaster Swift played a crucial role in the process, showing me advanced scratching techniques and encouraging me to come up with my own routines. With his help, I was able to identify the qualities I was looking for in the tracks I selected.

I’m admittedly a bit of a perfectionist, and so I set myself a really high standard for the routine. I was dedicated to making sure that every scratch and transition was executed perfectly. I had spent the past 12 hours learning from one of the best in the business, and I was determined to make the most of this opportunity. I practised my routine over and over again, making sure that I had all of the scratches and transitions nailed. When it was finally time to film, I was nervous but excited, ready to show what I had learned…

Unfortunately when I finished I was pretty disappointed with my performance. I felt like I could have done better, and I was frustrated with myself for not living up to my own expectations. Despite all of my hard work and practice, I struggled to execute my scratches smoothly and consistently. It was a frustrating experience, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disheartened by the results. 

Cutmaster Swift, on the other hand, was thrilled. He praised my skills and told me that I had come a long way in just two days. He encouraged me to keep practising and to keep pushing myself to be better.

As I watch the filmed recording of my performance, I can see that the intro was not as strong as I had hoped. I can see that I was quite nervous and this probably affected my performance. But as the routine progressed, I could also see how I improved. The scratches I executed were good, but I know I can make them even cleaner; the transitions between tracks were smooth, but I can see how I could have made them even more seamless.

I am still proud of my performance. My back-cueing was particularly strong, and I feel motivated to continue working on my skills, especially my stage presence, so I can deliver even better performances in the future. Scratching requires dedication and hard work, with the best DJ perfecting their craft over many, many years, so I know that it will take time and practise for me to reach the level that I want to be at. 

Looking back on the challenge, I would say that it was both easy and difficult. I was able to learn the basics of scratching in just a few hours, which was testament to the power of practice and determination. On the other hand, perfecting and filming a routine was a much more difficult task. Still, learning to scratch was an amazing experience—challenging at times but also incredibly rewarding.

The process has made me look at DJing differently, and has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. It has shown me the potential for creativity and self-expression through scratching, and it has definitely sparked a desire to continue practising and refining my skills. While I was disappointed with my routine, I am determined to keep working at it and see how far I can go. I may not be a scratch legend like Cutmaster Swift just yet, but I am excited about the journey ahead and the opportunities it holds for me as a DJ.

Words: Vanessa Maria