There was no way, of course, that the Jamaican-born Herc could have seen what was coming the first time he turned an ordinary instrumental break into a breakbeat, sending a party full of dancers into a frenzy and all but inventing hip hop right there in the rec center of his West Bronx housing project. No way, back in the early 1970s, that he could have predicted the rise and fall and rise again of his musical progeny, the hip hop DJ, or the way a nation of DJs would multiply and splinter and diverge, the beat-makers and producers heading in one direction, the beat-jugglers, the party rockers, and the battlers each heading their own ways. And there's definitely no way he could have foreseen, three decades on, the emergence of the DJ coalition, three or four or five DJs (or more) lined up onstage, each playing his own two decks like the musical instruments they are, and boasting oddball names like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, or the X-ecutioners, or the Triple Threat DJs. No way in hell.
Well, maybe Triple Threat. Someone oughta send Herc a record (wherever he is), 'cause he would get Triple Threat.
Formed in part from the rubble of the legendary, lamented Skratch Piklz, Triple Threat features the Bay Area troika of Apollo Novicio, Jon Cruz, and Vincent Punsalan -- more famously known as Apollo, Shortkut, and Vinroc -- three of the most decorated DJs on the planet. Combined, they've won three world battle titles, and their ranks include the only back-to-back International Turntablist Federation world champ (Vinroc), the inventor of the modern scratch group (Apollo, along with high school pal Mix Master Mike), and the creator of one of the most influential DJ mixers in the world, the Vestax 05 Pro (that'd be Shortkut). All of which is to say that the Triple Threat DJs are great at what they do -- spectacular, really. But if there's one thing that sets them apart from so many of their contemporaries, it ain't the crowns or the kudos, it's this: Like Herc, the Triple Threat DJs know how to rock a party. And when they do, it is very, very good.
Apollo, at 33 the group's elder statesman, explains Triple Threat's ethos via phone from a New York City hotel room the afternoon after a recent gig: "Before we were turntablists, we used to be mobile DJs, and that's what we used to do. People forget about that style. New kids that are just picking up on [DJing] nowadays, they just go straight into the battle stuff and the trick stuff. Which is cool, you know -- to each his own. But we feel like you shouldn't forget the basic fundamentals of DJing either. Because you miss out on an important part of it if you don't go through that step."
Not the only important part of it, mind you. There's a reason they call themselves Triple Threat, and it isn't simply because there are three of 'em.
"People think that's why it's Triple Threat," says Apollo. "And it is that, too. But it's like a basketball analogy -- you know, like a triple-threat basketball player who can either drive to the hoop or shoot a three or play good defense. Being a Triple Threat DJ means having many styles, whether it's digging for records, being a battle DJ or a club DJ, or producing, playing commercial stuff or underground stuff. We pretty much have an equal love for all the aspects of DJing. We try not to neglect any of them, and so we're trying to incorporate it all into one thing."
The philosophy pervades the group's first full-length, the March release Many Styles. Ostensibly named for the old club night at the Tenderloin's Deco, where the three met in the mid-'90s, Many Styles is a sample platter of hip hop and related genres, from the noisy, layered, Bomb Squad-style sonic assault of "Bring Da Ruckus" to the R&B-tinged "On and On," featuring the sweet, poetic voice of Oakland's Mystic, to the frenetic dancehall of "Move Down Pressa," with Ridgi Gong on the mike. Then there's "We're Triple Threat," a beat machine- laden tribute to the old school that sounds as though it was lifted from a mid-'80s Mantronix record.
"We just tried to bring as much range as we could to the album," Apollo says, "as much versatility as we could. We did vocal tracks and turntable tracks, and we did different kinds of turntable tracks. We did a bounce track, we did a straight turntable track, and we did some turntable vocal tracks. It's basically all the styles we use in the clubs -- our mixing styles, our cutting skills, our producing skills -- all into one collaboration together. We even have a b-boy break track in there, the last one, 'Morning Showers.' We tried to bring as many styles as we could to the album, just to get more versatility."
Created in part during a weeklong "beat retreat," in which the three DJs holed up in a South Lake Tahoe cabin and recorded music while the snow drifted outside, Many Styles boasts guest shots from some underground hip hop royalty, including Black Star's Talib Kweli and the Roots' Black Thought, as well as the aforementioned Mystic and her Bay Area cohorts Goapele and Zion I. The X-ecutioners' Rob Swift and Roc Raida step in on the album's highlight, "Tha Cipha," a cohesive lyric track constructed out of classic rap snippets. Interspersed throughout are a series of truly funny intersong skits revolving around the conflicting -- and sometimes absurd -- requests that club DJs deal with every night, with wave after wave of clubgoers insisting on more scratching, or more Lil' Kim, or more G-Funk, or more dancehall -- and all of it rightnow ("When you gonna play it?" demands one woman. "Come on! Come on, Fast Fingers, play it! Hurry!").
Asked about the skits, Apollo bursts out laughing. "That's basically what happens behind the DJ booth," he says. "That's just how it is at a party. Lot of people to cater to out there. So you try to just please everybody, and give them what they want -- but at the same time just keeping it respectable."
That people-pleasing ethic was ingrained in Apollo, Shortkut, and Vinroc long before they became Triple Threat -- for that matter, long before Apollo co-founded the Skratch Piklz (with Mix Master Mike and DJ Q-Bert) or Shortkut joined the now-defunct collective. With Vinroc doing the same thing back in New York and New Jersey, Apollo and Shortkut roamed Daly City's thriving mobile DJ scene, plugging in at community halls and rec centers and doing whatever was needed to turn a club into an event. The ethic survives intact; for its April 30 show at the DNA Lounge, Triple Threat dug into an ancient bag of tricks to keep things interesting.
"Fog machine, helicopter lights, all that," Shortkut laughs. "Yeah, we all came from mobile groups. Back then, there were at least 200 mobile systems in the Bay [Area]. Like Apollo's, Unlimited Sounds. They were one of the biggest in Daly City. You knew that if they were playing a showcase at, like, a hotel ballroom, they were going to come in with a phat setup. And it was always different, because the light show was different, the setup of the equipment was different. But then you still had Apollo DJing. So we want to bring that fun element back to it."
Ultimately, the Triple Threat DJs know that, long before it was about battles or cut-and-scratch records, before "turntablism" was even a word, being a hip hop DJ was about one thing: moving asses.
"We have the philosophy of, well, whatever crowd we're put in front of, we should be able to rock it," says Shortkut, also a member of L.A.'s Beat Junkies. "So many times I've done a gig on my own where I bring nothing but hard-core underground indie hip hop, jazz breaks, funk, scratch routines -- and all of a sudden it's nothing but a club, you know what I mean? Like a dance club where everyone just wants to hear Jay-Z all night. So I learned over the years, especially being with Triple Threat, to be prepared for whatever crowd's in front of you, just be able to rock it.
"Now I have a '4-inch rule' in my crate: 4 inches of everything. Four inches of underground, 4 inches of mainstream, 4 inches of reggae, 4 inches of battle scratch stuff. You gotta have at least 4 inches of everything in the crate. Just enough to satisfy everyone, you know what I mean?"
Yeah, exactly. So would Kool Herc.