Turbine scratch music Montreal turntablist turntablism

Montreal turntablist trio Turbine tour de force of spinning and scratching

An interview with Tony Ragon, Benjamin Bongert and Nicolas Rame, three French DJ/producers who united in Montreal and are making a name for themselves on the world stage of turntablism.

Montreal has long had a reputation for supremely talented turntablists and DJs (A-Trak, anyone?). Three Montreal-based DJs/turntablists known as Turbine are actively helping to keep that legacy intact.

The group — consisting of Tony Ragon, Benjamin Bongert and Nicolas Rame — take their name partly since turbines represent a circular movement similar to them spinning and scratching on their turntables, and partly from the verb “turbiner” often used in France (which means “working a lot”). 

They’d also spell their group name as TBN, an acronym standing for Tony, Benjamin and Nicolas (“Turbine” is also the name of a French electronic subgenre of music). Ben produces almost every track Turbine makes, while Tony is more focused on the technical side of things, and Nico calls himself mostly a “stage guy” with a solid DJing background. Tony and Ben have also had experience as sound designers prior to Turbine — Ben in video games, and Tony in advertising and movies/TV.

Joining forces in September 2021, all three members originally hail from different parts of France, but formed in Montreal. Ben and Tony have known each other since the mid-aughts, though, and they’ve been scratching together ever since.

“I used to live in the west part of France, below Brittany. Then I moved to (Ben’s region of) Normandy,” says Tony. “We met in Brittany, in fact, at an electronic music festival, and then we became friends. He taught me how to scratch.” 

Tony then moved to Montreal about a decade ago, and Ben followed him, where they’ve continued their working relationship in music. A few years after they’d started new lives across the Atlantic, they met Nico, who thinks he probably met them both at a scratch session. Nico and Tony would eventually become neighbours in the Plateau, an area with a sizeable presence from the motherland.

Tired of working in the boating industry back home and wanting a fresh start professionally, Tony moved to Montreal to try turning music into a more serious endeavour. Similarly, Ben was working for the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, and found himself wondering why he was working there and not in music by the time he turned 30, leading to him moving to Montreal in 2014. 

Nico was working for the French Ministry of Justice for “too many years,” and came to a similar realization as he got further into his 20s. “At 25 years old, I said, ‘Okay, I move now or never,’ so I moved,” he says. “I already played (music) in France, but I started from scratch.”

Montreal trio Turbine compete in the 2022 DMC DJ Team Championship

On a professional level, taking the leap of faith and moving to Montreal has worked out quite nicely for the trio thus far. For one, Tony considers finding work in a studio to be easier here than in France, and ditto for meeting people within the scene.

Making bassy, genre-bending electronic music with a gritty and menacing atmosphere — not fully hip-hop and not too old school, in Nico’s words — and with turntablism as its defining feature, the group members had varying journeys toward discovering a love for DJing and scratching. At 15, Ben saw a friend who’d bought his first set of turntables to scratch with. It was a more primitive time for the Internet back then, and they stumbled upon a 240p-quality video of DJ Qbert scratching.

“We were like, ‘Oh my God, he’s the best! We have to do something like that,” he says. “Two years after that, I started to work and bought my own turntables. It makes me feel really, really nice to scratch — it’s the only instrument I can play.”

For Nico, it was after a friend of his — who was opening for French rap group Suprême NTM at the time — had a set of turntables in his home, the first time Nico had ever seen one. “I saw him scratching and doing a video game-meets-Bootsy Collins sound. I was amazed,” he says. 

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got to do the same.’ I was with one of my friends. One week later, he got his first set of turntables, and me a month later… We scratched a lot at his parents’ place — respect to them, because we were LOUD! (everyone laughs)… 20 years later, we still scratch.”

So how did all three of them end up joining forces for this project? We can thank Facebook’s algorithm for that. Almost a decade ago, Nico posted a Facebook status wondering why there wasn’t a scratch group existing in Montreal, when several already existed in France. Though there were individual scratch DJs in Montreal, there was no collective Nico knew of. 

His initial status went without any response, but his Facebook memories reminded him of it years later (about three years ago). Nico then reposted it, which led to someone responding and encouraging him to do it himself. He reached out to Ben shortly after this.

“With my label, we released a scratch tape,” says Nico. “At the time, they’d sent us a pretty amazing track. I was like, ‘Ok, which guy in town produces electronic music [that’s] not too much hip-hop, very experimental? Who’s the guy who can scratch, produce, and make good music? So I contacted Ben. We had a meeting two days later, and we’re here now!”

Ben, meanwhile, wasn’t aware of the Facebook post when Nico reached out to him asking to meet up about forming a scratch group. “(Nico) called me and was like, ‘Let’s have a beer,’” he says, later telling us he considers Nico the “missing piece” of the group when they formed. 

“He asked me, ‘Do you want to form a scratch band?’ I was like, ‘Yes! But on one condition: Tony has to come.’ He said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ I called Tony, he came with us, and drank a beer. It was really fun.”

The group perform with three turntables (one for each member), and one mixer each. Ben and Tony use Traktor Control Z2 mixers, while Nico plays with a Serato RANE 70. Each member also performs with a timecode vinyl, so they can import whichever files they want for their sets.

As mentioned earlier, Ben taught Tony how to scratch after the two had become friends. Going from that all the way to forming a group, it became clear to Tony that something exciting was happening. 

“[Ben] told me, ‘Yo! Let’s hang out with Nico, we’re going to grab a beer and talk about scratch bands.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck? I know the whole story — this is going to be fucking amazing! Let’s fucking do it.’”

The trio figured out the basics of what they wanted to do, as well as setting up Spotify playlists to see if they were on the same page musically. “It all flew perfectly,” says Tony. “It went really smoothly from the beginning.” 

The way they work together behind their sets of turntables is meticulous and quite specific. After choosing the most exciting track and splitting each one in three, each member plays different parts. Ben produces most of the tracks, and the members then work from the beginning, since they’ll have to practice it over and over again (at least 30 times, according to Ben), and want to make sure it flows nicely.

Tony and Nico listen to the tracks Ben’s produced, then choose one track to polish further so they can create parts and arrangements around it. Once they’ve made something they’re happy with, they get to work and export various soundbites to be placed on the record so they can mesh together the right way. 

“It depends on the track, but sometimes we play some stuff at the same time, and sometimes it’s more like a visual thing,” says Tony. “One (guy) is playing, then the second one, then the third one, then the three of us.”

According to Nico, sometimes their dynamic ends up being more like a Q&A, as he and Ben go back and forth with vocal and synth parts, with Tony playing bass parts at the same time. 

“Sometimes, we play on the same turntable,” says Ben. “We’ll have all the sounds on the same records, and we’ll have a short lapse of time… to scratch. It’s really exciting when it’s really short.”

The trio’s goal is for their individual parts while scratching to sound like one cohesive whole, while also making sure both the music and the performance are full of energy, and that people will respond on the dance floor. “The way we interact with the turntables has to flow and be natural, and to blow people’s minds,” adds Tony. 

For example, the trio often opens with a sample of the Godzilla theme, with scratches, spoken word snippets, drum breaks, and samples of rap songs like Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” (which itself samples the Godzilla theme) thrown over top. Sampling that song is a “wink to the hip hop heads,” according to Nico. 

“Even if with that track, the beat is from Ben, all the drums and the bass are [me and Tony]. We use famous samples just to make people understand what we do, but the rest of the set, there are no samples — just compositions. We export our own samples.” 

Inspired by turntablists like Montreal’s own A-Trak, DJ Qbert, Cut Chemist, Kid Koala, and fellow Frenchmen C2C, Birdy Nam Nam and DJ FLY (the latter is a former DMC World Champion with whom Nico lived in the same building for many years in his hometown of Lyon), Turbine pull musically from genres like house, hip hop, breakbeat, and drum & bass. 

Their full sets are usually 45 minutes, and it took them a year up to now to mould it into its full form (the group hold practice sessions twice a week). “The chemistry (between us) was the easy part, but we have to practice until it goes pretty softly,” says Nico. “We have to be on time, because if you forget a sound, there’s a hole in the track. You’ve got to be on time.”

A tease for “Reality” by Turbine

Thus far, Turbine only have three original songs available on streaming services: “Warm-Up,” “Mind Control” and “Reality,” the latter two having been released earlier this year. Since their live set is 18 tracks, though, there’ll be more coming out, with a new one coming out “worst-case scenario, in September,” according to Nico (though they hope to release a more “house-y” track before the summer ends).

The feedback they’ve gotten within Montreal has largely been positive, even if their style of performing is relatively niche — for example, they don’t get booked at house or drum & bass parties, since their repertoire of genres extends beyond those two. When they promote their music in France, meanwhile, they can be easier to book since their style isn’t as foreign or niche to people there, because there’s already a history of turntables groups back home. 

The group also scratches competitively: at last year’s DMC World DJ Championship (the world’s biggest turntablism competition), Turbine placed fourth in the team category. “It’s a kid’s dream,” says Tony.

“The fact that we can enter into that kind of process is mind-blowing. But it’s a lot of work. In fact, the first time we got together, we were like, ‘Okay, we’re not going to do the DMCs. We’re not going to do battle DJ stuff. We’ll focus on doing a whole long set. We won’t focus on a six-minute one.’ The first DMC we were able to enter, (we were like), ‘Let’s do the DMC!’” 

As it turns out, their set was easier to condense into a six-minute bite-sized package than they thought. Although the competition was entirely remote (the final is usually in-person in London), it was still a big accomplishment for Turbine, and especially since there will be no team category in this year’s competition. 

For the rest of the year, Turbine plan to play shows within Montreal and elsewhere in Canada, while also doing some PR to prepare a tour of France in summer 2024. They also plan to extend their set by 15 minutes to play for a full hour, as well as possibly release three new singles. 

They’re aiming to release six singles a year for now (one every other month), but acknowledge that it’s a time-consuming process between practicing, putting on shows, and mixing and mastering — especially as they don’t have an assistant working directly for them. Although they’re based in Montreal and have a couple guys booking gigs for them, their next step will possibly be to promote themselves within Europe. 

“It’s pretty expensive to play in the rest of Canada,” Nico says, adding later that the group had also booked gigs in Ottawa and possibly Gaspésie, and that they really want to eventually play in Toronto and Vancouver. (When Cult MTL spoke to Turbine, they were about to play their fourth-ever gig together at a private function. MURAL Festival would be where they’d play their first in-person gig.)

“It’s hard to send an email to a promoter and say, ‘Yes, we need three plane tickets for a new band.’ It’s tough for promoters. It’s easier maybe to find some gigs in Europe after (getting) some grants that pay for the first flight. When we are in France, it’s easy to move. Maybe next year we’ll play in France, but now we’ve got a few gigs here.” ■

Turbine performs with Pick a Piper and Loopsy Dazy at Brasserie Beabien (73 Beaubien E.) tonight, Oct. 7, $10/$15. For more on Turbine, please visit their Instagram.

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