You may know Grandmasta Rats simply as “DJ Ratty” or maybe even DJ Rat.star. Whatever you call him, be sure to give him the respect you’d give a grandmaster. The veteran San Diego DJ has made a name for himself since the mid-‘90s with his battle-ready mixing skills and his all-vinyl aesthetic. He got on the phone with GoodVibeSD.com over the weekend to talk about vinyl, beat juggling, James Brown, and his close friend, DJ Greyboy.
Quan Vu: How did you get into DJing?
Grandmasta Rats: I used to MC. That’s how I got started. The name Ratty even got put together because my MC name was Rattyhead. Because my hair was always twisted up or braided up.
We had a group. We were trying to market ourselves. We had a 12-inch out. We were young. We were marketing to labels in LA. I was so ready and fired up to figure out how to make money off of it, I didn’t even back then appreciate the fact that we had an independent record of our own and we should’ve been like, “Fuck these labels. Let’s just keep doing what we do.” But I had a day-job. I was anxious to not be doing that anymore.
It kinda goes around what you’re asking me, but—it was an easy segue to go from MCing to DJing.
QV: What was your group called?
GMR: It was called The Ones Who Freak. Because you gotta try and think: the best groups at the time—like ’92-’93—were like Leaders of the New School, A Tribe Called Quest, Poor Righteous Teachers. It wasn’t like Outkast or Ja Rule—y’know, bullshit. It was thought out.
So we were like we’re gonna be The Ones Who Freak. If anyone asks us what that means, we’ll say, “We freak beats. We freak the stage. We freak the ladies. Whatever.”
QV: How did you meet DJ Greyboy?
GMR: We met each other when we were 18. I knew he was this really hot DJ in San Diego but we never really crossed paths. We did a little bit of work together when he was going through this process—this is before The Greyboy All-Stars. I would say he was just figuring out what his style was gonna be. I got to record some stuff with him but I could tell he was in the middle of a feel-out process.
Then we linked up a little bit later—I’d say ’93-’94 when he was really thriving out of a spot called The Green Circle Bar. We used to just hang out. I’d bring an eighth of ganja there every week and represent like, “Hey I’m just here to hang out and be your bro, man. I’m not jocking you or anything.”
I was DJing at home, just getting my style down. And Greyboy, he mastered this style—I’m not saying he originated it—but he mastered this style of just playing a cross of like JB’s (James Brown) and samples and crossing that over to hip-hop. And I really am calling him an originator actually, but clearly there are just too many DJ’s in the world to say that he’s the #1. But he’s close.
I just saw how a DJ could really own the stage and not have to share it. If you have a clear vision of the style you wanna put out, you don’t have to put up with requests. You’re giving a performance. I was like, “I’m going out like that. Pass or fail, I’m gonna try to go out like that.”
He can take two of the same record—they weren’t even calling it “beat juggling” back then, you were just, “Oh, he’s fucking shit up.” But that’s what it was, he was beat juggling, an excellent scratch DJ. That’s what I wanted to do and I just took it from there. After we linked up, I got my own thing.
Back to what I do, when I’m in the field—whether I’m in the nightclub or at home—as far as my DJ style goes, it’s just a cross of old school JB’s, old school hip-hop, and doing the battle style and scratch demos. All vinyl.
That’s how I came up. I see a lot of different types of ways to DJ come up. I’ve seen so many different styles come around, that I just never got into them because spinning vinyl was normal to me.
QV: I was gonna ask about that. I know a lot of DJ’s are rocking Serato just because it’s so much more convenient than lugging around crates of records to a spot. Are you still lugging around crates to gigs?
GMR: That’s weak! I don’t even think it’s because of that. I hear guys say that. I think it’s because it’s harder to get a [record] collection together. It’s a lot more inexpensive to get [digital] music—if there’s a DJ paying for all that music, he’s a fool because everyone knows you can get that shit for free. So it’s easier—and I’m not talking shit about them—but it’s easier.
I’ve researched Serato. I know there’s a lot of convenience. And I’ve seen a couple guys. Like Rhettmatic uses it and he has a laptop to the side so he can fuck it up on the turntables. But honestly, I can respect it and everything but that shit just gets in the way for me. It doesn’t help me. But I don’t hate on the progression. It’s extremely progressive. And if that’s what makes somebody want to DJ, I’m all for it.
But as far as I’m concerned, I like lugging it. I play two or three nights a week and I’m happy to pull those records out and lug them two or three blocks. People look at me like I’m a terrorist walking down the street. It used to look normal to see someone with headphones on their head and a couple of big ol’ crates. But over time, I’ve caught people giving me different looks because they don’t see it as much.
QV: What are some of your favorite records in your collection?
GMR: I would say JB’s, any of that. Whether you know it or not, if you’re programming drums, you’re copying James Brown. Even his late ‘60s stuff when he really got into his funk style and switched it up and really was just really working that…he clearly had a vision but no one could see that that shit was just gonna change music. You can’t predict that in the ‘90s and late ‘80s, Public Enemy and all these fools, these were some of the artists that really used James Brown a lot.
QV: So you went from Rattyhead to Ratty to Grandmasta Rats.
GMR: I started up a Youtube page two years ago (www.youtube.com/ratstarwars) and put up every trick that I know. So I just decided it’s definitely battle-tested. I know who I’m better than and who I’m not better than. I do as much beat juggling and mix tricks as I possibly can and practice every day, all day. This is what I do for a living. I try really, really, really hard for perfection.
“Grandmasta” usually implies that this is really old school or it’s about a battle DJ. And I was like, that’s where I need to take it. There’s always gonna be some fools mad-dogging or trying to criticize your set. But if you take it there and you’re doing your mix tricks to perfection and your degree of difficulty is really hard, it’s impossible not to get respect.
That’s just how I think. I’m real competitive when it comes to performance. I can’t just go from record to record like, “Yeah I play hip-hop. Here’s Gangstarr”. Nah, here’s doubles of Gangstarr and I’m going under the leg and behind the back, 360, suicides and shit.
QV: What do you think of the San Diego DJ community?
GMR: I would say it’s thriving. Everywhere I walk—I’m gonna walk into a bathroom soon and there’s gonna be a DJ in there. They’re everywhere. You’ll roll to Nordstrom’s and instead of a piano player at the bottom of the escalator, there’s gonna be a DJ there pretty soon. San Diego’s thriving a lot more than it gets credit for. Some of the best kept secrets are here, right in 619.
To keep up with Grandmasta Rats, subscribe to his Youtube page (www.youtube.com/ratstarwars). He also mixes frequently at La Puerta Restaurant and El Dorado Bar in Downtown SD(last Fridays) and Bluefoot Bar in North Park.