In a lot of ways it’s just like what Miles, Coltrane, Bob James and Herbie Hancock did with their instruments. The difference is the turntable wasn’t designed with the intention of being an instrument. We just turned it into one.
story by Spencer Lokken
photo by Jon DeCola
A collective of turntable musicians from New York, the X-Ecutioners are currently solidifying their spot in history as some of the best DJs of all time. They’ve taken the art of spinning records to new heights and continue to push the envelope in every project they’re a part of. Relying less on the presence of an MC, these guys possess skills behind the decks that you might not believe until seeing them live.
Manipulating records by mixing, beat juggling and scratching, the end result is an entirely brand new piece of music. This should forever end the argument of whether or not it’s possible for a DJ to be considered a musician. There may not be any guitars or drum sets in sight, but when you’re composing a new piece of art entirely out of sounds found on vinyl, you’re entitled to tell people that you make your living as a musician. If that logic doesn’t fly with you, consider the fact that Britney Spears calls herself a singer. And we let her.
The group of DJs called the X-Ecutioners was originally known as the X-Men, and formed around 1989. At that time, members Steve D, Johnny Cash, Sean C, and Roc Raida united to try and dethrone Clark Kent’s Superman DJ Crew from the top of the ranks. They entered countless professional DJ competitions and became pioneers in the game, consistently coming up with new tricks to defeat the enemy.
Chicago Innerview got a chance to speak with legendary member Rob Swift about their new album and getting the chance to spread their message to a crowd who may not be so familiar with the elements of hip hop.
Chicago Innerview: Your father and your older brother were both DJs. Tell me a little bit about being exposed to that art and culture at such a young age.
Rob Swift: It was an amazing time for me because I got to experience hip hop in person. I had an older brother that was a part of this culture and he would take me to basement parties and house parties and I’d watch people breakin’ right before my eyes! My brother knew all these people who were involved in the music and the culture. I basically had a front row seat to it all. I wouldn’t give those years back for anything. It gave me an appreciation for the art that I feel a lot of young kids being exposed to it today may not have.
Chicago Innerview: So you were immersed in it. What was it then about the DJ that really captivated you?
Rob Swift: I think it was what I was best at. I tried the b-boying and breakin’, the graf…I used to write rhymes…as far as hip hop is concerned, I did it all. DJing is just what I felt most comfortable doing. Because of my father and my brother, it was second nature for me. The thing that really made me embrace it was that people saw me as a good DJ and they respected my skills as a young kid.
CI: Can you tell me a little bit about turntablism, and the correlation you see between it and other forms of music?
RS: Obviously the turntable isn’t considered an instrument like a piano, guitar, etc. We turned it into an instrument. Some people may not see any similarities, but there are. As a DJ, I think as a musician. When I’m up there scratching, I try to become Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane or Bob James. Everything I do, I want there to be rhythm and soul attached to it. We’re dealing with measures, bars and structure. In a lot of ways it’s just like what Miles, Coltrane, Bob James and Herbie Hancock did with their instruments. The difference is the turntable wasn’t designed with the intention of being an instrument. We just turned it into one.
CI: One of the greatest things about the X-Ecutioners is that you’re now able to perform and showcase your talents without worrying about beating a competitor in a DJ battle atmosphere. It seems you’re all getting to be quite comfortable with this in recent years. Why is being a versatile artist so important?
RS: Learning under my brother about the culture, one of the important things about hip hop is if you’re going to be a hip hop artist, be just that. An artist. Learn all the aspects of the art form. These days you have a lot of people who only rhyme, or only make beats. I understand it, but I think to appreciate the art in its entirety, you have to try it all. The person that’s more well-rounded will have more longevity.
CI: Speaking of longevity, I’ve noticed a scary trend in hip hop lately: MCs aren’t giving their DJs respect anymore. Back in the day, every other verse used to be dedicated to the guy behind the decks, but now it’s all about ‘Look at me, I can rap, and the other 30 people on stage know how to sing along.’ What are you and the X-Ecutioners doing to help thwart this?
RS: I think the blame lies on the shoulders of some of the record labels that saw hip hop as a way to make money. These people at these record labels who were in charge of signing artists over time started to feel like the most important person in the group was the guy holding the microphone. In addition to that, a lot of the groups kind of let these labels victimize them, and let the labels redefine what the hip hop group is supposed to be. A lot of these artists aren’t standing up for themselves or their DJs. As a result, you have what you have today: You turn on the radio to listen to hip hop music, and you’re lucky to hear one scratch. With the exception of songs produced by DJ Premier or Pete Rock, you’re not going to really hear scratches at all. That’s why we did our album, Revolutions [in stores June 8] on Sony. That’s our album to help balance things out, to help expose what hip hop music really is supposed to sound like in its truest, purest form. Out of all the aspects of hip hop, DJing is the oldest. It has the most tenure. Still, people are only exposed to the rapping part of it all and some people don’t know the name of the DJs who DJ for a lot of the popular rappers now. All they know is the rapper’s name. And a lot of these artists don’t even have DJs! Revolutions is the answer to that. For those kids who weren’t around when I was coming up listening to hip hop, we’re giving them what Theodore, the Furious Five, and Run-DMC gave to my generation. The difference is, it’s not an old school album. It’s the 2004 take on what groups like Run-DMC and the Furious Five did. Then aside from that, you have songs where it’s just us from beginning to end carrying the song through our scratches. Our scratches are like the vocals of the song. Similar to what D.S.T. did with Herbie Hancock on ‘Rockit’, where it’s just an instrumental track and the highlight of the song are the scratches. We’re doing that in a 2004 futuristic way for a lot of the young kids who don’t get to listen to music with the presence of a DJ. We’re trying to strike a balance. We’re touching on a lot of different points and I think we’ve got every corner covered.
CI: Sounds great. Now, I couldn’t get out of here without asking about your experience working with Linkin Park. Something tells me their core group of fans aren’t exactly the ones who’ll be lining up to pick up Kanye West’s next album.
RS: Our collaboration with Linkin Park will probably be the most memorable and pivotal collaboration that we took part in because that song [‘It’s Going Down’] appealed to so many different people. Working with them really helped us really reach a wider audience. We’re appreciative of their involvement with the group. They helped us take our music to the next level.
The X-Ecutioners will play at Metro June 12.