From Pause Mixing to a Grammy Award: The Story of Mixmaster Mike
A look at the San Francisco native’s career as a DMC World Champion, Invisibl Skratch Piklz co-founder, Beastie Boys DJ, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
(Updated June 2nd, 2018)
From his earliest memories, recorded sound always played a prominent role in San Francisco native Mixmaster Mike’s life. Exposed to the deep funk crates of his uncles as a kid, records were often on full blast in his house. This constant exposure helped nurture an enduring appreciation of music and, according to his 1998 bio for the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, “planted the seeds for my later learning to pinpoint bits of music, like a breakdown, a chorus, a guitar solo, whatever it was I was hearing.”
As is common for many artists who came up in the 80s, Mike first found his way into hip-hop culture through breaking and b-boying in 1984 at age 14. Fascinated by the passion he saw people pour into this emerging phenomenon, he knew he had to find a way to increase his involvement. “It was this movement, this art form that was so new, and so full of energy, that captured my heart and really made me want to be involved,” he said in his World Music Festival bio.
An innovative Mike, then in his early teens, also decided to create his own lane into DJ culture by taking two of his uncle’s tape decks out of storage. After he connected the decks to some speakers, he tried his hand at making smooth transitions from song to song. Before long he developed a creative method for mixing songs that played at different tempos. “I would put two different music selections on two cassette decks, and blend them while using the pause button to speed up or slow down the tempos in order to keep both on the beat,” he said in his World Music Festival bio. “That’s how the mixing started.”
“I do the Beasties concerts with two turntables and a microphone — all vinyl, no samplers, and no buttons being pushed except the stop button.”
Pause button blending allowed Mike to test the waters of DJing, but it became a lifelong passion when he caught Herbie Hancock and Grandmixer DST performing their hit “Rockit” by chance one night while watching TV. Hancock’s decision to feature DST prominently on a popular song helped introduce scratching, which was still in its infancy, to the mainstream. Mesmerized by DST’s deft turntable wizardry, Mike knew then and there what he wanted to dedicate his life to. “It was my first introduction to this futuristic art of music manipulation called scratching,” he said in his World Music Festival bio. “And from then on, all I ever wanted to be was a scratch DJ.”
Soon after, Mike had a mismatched Garrard and JVC turntables with a faderless, battery-powered mixer as his first official setup. He earned his stripes early on as a mobile party DJ, working house parties, weddings, and any other event he could pick up. During one of these gigs, a mutual friend introduced him to scratch icon DJ Q-Bert. Just as Gradmixer DST had unlocked Mike’s love of DJing, Mike would likewise inspire Q-Bert to take up the turntables as an instrument. “Q-Bert wasn’t a DJ at the time, but when he saw me scratching that night, it had the very same effect on him as when I first saw DST in concert cutting up the word ‘fresh’ on the ‘Rockit’ 12-inch,” Mike said in his World Music Festival bio.
Mike’s life took a turbulent turn after his initial connection with Q-Bert. Disinterested in school and tired of fighting with his mom about his attendance, he ran away from home before finishing high school at age 16. With his future hanging in the balance, he joined a mobile DJ squad and went to work soon after leaving San Francisco and relocating to Sacramento. As he continued building his skill set as a party DJ, Mike caught wind of an upcoming battle Q-Bert was organizing in his school cafeteria. He wasted little time in challenging the artist he had initially inspired. “It turned out to be perhaps the most classic moment ever in the history of DJ hip-hop,” he said in his World Music Festival bio. “I won the battle, but in a re-match soon after that, he won.”
“I would put two different music selections on two cassette decks, and blend them while using the pause button to speed up or slow down the tempos in order to keep both on the beat. That’s how the mixing started.”
The two rivals eventually decided to put the bad blood aside and join forces when Mike, Q-Bert and DJ Apollo came together to form the original iteration of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. After taking out the competition at the DMC (Disco Mixing Club) US and World DJ finals in 1992 as a trio, Q-Bert and Mike defended the group’s title in 1993 as a two-man team with a legendary routine during the DMC World finals in London. According to Mike, the folks at DMC feared the Piklz were discouraging other crews from competing, asked them to stop entering team battles, and encouraged them to take on judging instead. Since this article was first published, DMC USA CEO Christie Z. wrote in a Medium response, “DMC allegedly asked them each to battle solo — not as a crew,” adding further, “In addition, DMC didn’t have team battles at that time. That’s why it was mostly unfair to allow teams in to battle solo DJs.” Whether the DMC asked ISP to stop entering competitions altogether or to only compete as solo DJs, they stopped battling in the DMC.
By the mid-90s, Mike’s career took another important shift when he and late Beastie Boys member MCA traded phone numbers. While MCA and Mike left each other a series of odd answering machine messages, the group eventually decided to bring Mike and his unique sensibilities on board in an official capacity. “Finally the Beastie Boys realized they needed me to play with them, because I was obviously from beyond the year 2000,” Mike told the SF Gate in a 1998 interview.
Though many live DJs at the time were incorporating other gear besides turntables and a mixer into their rigs, Mike stuck to his roots and used nothing but the bare minimum for his performances. If this led to an unexpected error or imperfection, he chose to embrace it. “I do the Beasties concerts with two turntables and a microphone — all vinyl, no samplers, and no buttons being pushed except the stop button,” he told the SF Gate. “Sometimes a record skips, but hey, that’s hip-hop.”
“Read ‘Dune.’ You’ll learn from them how to construct your own pyramid and become your own master builder.”
Mike’s career with the Beastie Boys, which included countless live shows and scratching duties on various songs, lead a 1998 Grammy for his work on the group’s Hello Nasty as well as an eventual 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though either one of these accolades might seem like a peak of the mountain top moment, Mike is currently busier than ever. 2017 saw him touring sold-out arenas with Metallica, working on new songs with ISP, and wowing the crowd at A$AP Rocky’s album release party.
But Mike, who on one hand seems singularly focused on mastering the art of DJing, has also hinted to the importance of balance in maintaining his creativity. Cutting up records may be his first love, but he also appears to be a man of many interests. When asked by the SF Gate in 1998 if he had any advice for up and coming DJs, he offered the following:
“Seek knowledge. Watch Godzilla and Ultra Man videos. Read Dune. You’ll learn from them how to construct your own pyramid and become your own master builder. I learned by playing with Legos when I was a kid…I’m still playing with Legos. Only now they’re audio Legos.”
(Editors note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Invisibl Skratch Piklz won 3 DMC World titles instead of two.)
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