Legendary DJ Rob Swift on Taking Turntablism to the New School
June 8, 2017 | by David Mac-Fadden Elliott
“Can we hit the lights please?”
In the basement of New School University in Manhattan, about 10 students are arranged in a classroom in a semi-circle. Instead of desks and chairs, each stands at attention with a mixer and a pair of turntables. Meanwhile, their professor, the legendary DJ Rob Swift, breaks down film like a college football coach.
“He’s looking down, looking at his mark, whips it back where it needs to be. You guys will learn that. You guys will get the coordination down. It takes more focus to mix than it does to scratch. So let’s gather around the turntables and learn how to mix acapella.”
Rob Swift is one of the most talented DJs from the most talented generation of DJs, a group that took the mixing of records to such great heights in the ’90s that the music was deemed turntablism. DJs like Rob Swift became the guitar heroes of a new era, creating otherworldly patterns, sounds, and fingering techniques that echoed Jimi Hendrix in their creativity and audacity.
Now in his role at the New School, Swift has taken turntablism into the realm of algebra.
“Remember your pitch [is] your cruise control,” he lectures his class. “These [records] are two cars. Christine is driving at 90 miles per hour. I’m driving at 80. So I’m slower [and] nudging forward is the equivalent of me stepping on the gas. If I don’t put it on cruise control, I’m going to slow back down to 80, correct? If you nudge, that’s telling you you still have work to do on the pitch.”
A little while later, we got Rob Swift to expound on his craft and teaching method.
NO RECESS!: So how did you take the mind-boggling form of turntablism and develop a curriculum around it?
ROB SWIFT: I basically developed a curriculum that mirrored the way I learned. It’s very organic. I kinda give them a rough feel for mixing, scratching, or back-spinning, doing beat juggles, but then I let each of them find their way individually. I think that teaching in that manner allows them to; while they’re learning the techniques, they’re also developing their personality on turntables. Whereas, if you’re teaching a classroom of 12 people the same exact way, they all end up regurgitating the same things. And I don’t want the students to sound like each other.
NR!: How do you grade the class? You talked a lot about the final in the class just now.
SWIFT: I grade the class based on class attendance — sometimes a student can show up and their body’s there, but their mind’s somewhere else. Also I test the students on the history and knowledge of what I’m showing them. I talk about who developed what, who created what, why, when did it happen, where was it first done.
NR!: So is there a syllabus — required listening and reading?
SWIFT: Yes, there’s a syllabus. And then there’s a final, which is a 10-minute set that will reflect all of the techniques that they learn—some mixing, some scratching, and some beat juggling, all combined together in a cohesive way and in a way that reflects their own musical taste.
NR!: So yesterday at the hip-hop brunch at [local eatery] Queens Comfort, one of your students from last semester was helping out and got to share a few bars with [rapper, beatboxer, and former member of the Roots] Rahzel. Furthermore, you’re very encouraging to DJs online who ask you questions on Facebook, and even YouTube threads. How has your role evolved as a mentor and a teacher?
SWIFT: I value my ability to point someone down the right path with regard to this art form. I came up being influenced by the pioneers, [my father], and my brother, and [a] mentor named Dr. Butcher that helped me reach the level I’m at now — understanding how to personalize the techniques. I believe in paying it forward, so it’s nothing for me to encourage someone who commented on a YouTube video or a student I work with one-on-one. I want to take the illusion and the secrecy out of this art form, put it in someone else’s hands, and see where they take it. I sort of have a Rob Swift doctrine, and hopefully my philosophy on the art form will spread and catch on.
NR!: Speaking of the secrecy, there are a lot of things that you do as a DJ that don’t necessarily have a name — you just know what they are. Have you had to develop names to teach the concepts?
SWIFT: That’s a great question. I’ve totally had to develop names and figure out different ways to explain the techniques. You’ve gotta understand, this art form was created in the streets. It wasn’t something that Grand Wizard Theodore or Grandmaster Flash or [Kool DJ] Herc or [Afrika] Bambaataa sat and wrote out. I’m teaching all these different techniques that were created at different points throughout the history of DJing and condensing it into a four-month semester. Couple that with the fact that my students are kids who weren’t around in the ‘70s, who have no semblance of what it is to manipulate a turntable.
NR!: Could you talk a bit more about [what you learned] from your father and your brother?
SWIFT: Well, my father was a DJ. He spun Latin music though. So the thing I learned from my father was how to get a crowd dancing, up off their seats and moving and having fun. You could literally manipulate the emotions of a person through music. I was kinda monitoring the effect of him playing different songs.
NR!: This was at parties?
SWIFT: This would be at parties, wedding anniversaries. His friends would always hire him. [And then] I had a brother who was part of that first wave of hip-hop listeners and enthusiasts. My brother would sit me down and play cassette tapes and school me on what was happening, what I was hearing, how DJs like Theodore were making a record loop itself with their hands; how they would coax sound out of a random record; why things sounded the way they did. My brother would explain all that to me, and that’s where I started to get the education behind DJing. In the same way my brother taught me, I try to teach my students — I don’t just explain the techniques, I give them context.
photo by David Pexton
NR!: So, you founded the X-Men all the way back in 1989?
SWIFT: Well, I wasn’t a founder of the X-Men Crew. The X-Men was actually founded by two guys: Steve D and Shawn C. They lived in Harlem. Roc Raida and Johnny Cash [were] also [members]. Those are the four original members of the group. Eventually, they kinda spread out and started battling and interacting with other DJs in other boroughs and other cities. And those DJs that they got along with and connected with they inducted into the group. They met up with me in 1991, and I got down with the group. I’m thankful because it really helped me propel myself, in that I was just around my mentor at the time, [original X-Men member] Dr. Butcher. It was just him and I practicing and training. [Then] I was around more DJs that loved this art, enjoyed expressing themselves through turntables, and took this whole thing as seriously as I did. Being inducted into the X-Men really changed the trajectory of my career a lot.
NR!: By 1995 you were on the [Bomb Hip-Hop Records release] Return of the DJ Vol. 1 compilation. And what I think that compilation really shows is how many different styles had emerged around the country. I wonder if you could speak on that a little bit, the differences?
SWIFT: Yeah, totally. Return of the DJ is an album that was put out by a guy named Dave Paul. He had this amazing idea of gathering DJs from all over the nation and putting out this one album. [From] the West Coast, you had the [Invisibl] Skratch Piklz who put an emphasis on scratching, they would just get on one turntable and manipulate the record in ways that would boggle the mind. Then you had, on the East Coast, dudes like myself, rearranging drum tracks from records and taking one beat that was produced by [for example] Marley Marl and completely changing it and making it a Rob Swift production. Then you had people like Z-Trip, who were probably influenced [by] both coasts. To hear that on vinyl and see the different styles did a lot for the art form and [helped] the whole culture gain more popularity.
NR!: Speaking of the Skratch Piklz … in 1996, your crew the X-Ecutioners and the Skratch Piklz had a legendary battle that was part of a Rock Steady Anniversary. Do you have any memories of that battle?
SWIFT: What?! I have a lot of memories of that battle — so many. The first memory that comes to mind was just how the battle came about. This wasn’t something that the X-Men or the Invisibl Skratch Piklz thought of doing. It’s not like we saw ourselves as arch rivals or DJ enemies. We were actually friends. But I think people were curious to see what would happen if the Invisibl Skratch Piklz battled the X-Men. And Crazy Legs, who’s a member of the Rock Steady Crew — we were sitting with him at a dinner in Hawaii after an ITF battle [International Turntablist Federation]. We were out there as judges, and after the battle was over we all met up for dinner — Invisibl Skratch Piklz, X-Men — we’re sitting there enjoying our food and then Crazy Legs comes out of nowhere and is like, “I wanna see a battle between the Picklz and the X-Men at the next Rocksteady Anniversary. That needs to happen.” Honestly, I’ll speak for myself, I was like, “I don’t necessarily care to see that. I’m retired from battling. The last thing on my mind is proving to anyone that I’m better than Mix Master Mike or Q-Bert or Shortkut.” But I think my ego wouldn’t let me express that, and I think the same probably goes for everyone else at the table. No one was gonna say, “Nooo, we don’t want to battle.” It’s like your skill is being questioned. You’re going to rise to the occasion.
photo by David Pexton
And that’s what we did. It would go down as the most historic, competitive battle between two DJ crews. We went after each other because our reputations were on the line. And I remember practicing like I never practiced before for that competition. Now, the strengths of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz was scratching and working as a team—they would get together and arrange these, like, turntable band orchestrations, where each of them is manipulating a sound and coming together and forming one musical piece. The strength of the X-Men was individual one-on-one competition [from myself, Roc Raida, and Mista Sinista]. Knowing that, Q-Bert decided the fair thing to do was have two battles; there would be the group battle and then an individual round. I always say they beat us on the team battle and we beat them on the individual battle. Both sides held serve, so to speak.
NR!: Yeah, that’s an amazing competition. I know we have to let you get back down to class, but I’d love to ask you if you could tell us a bit about the Kickstarter campaign and give us a progress update on [long-awaited release] X-Files.
SWIFT: Right on, thanks for asking about that. In the beginning of 2015, I started thinking about my career and where I was. You know, I felt like, as much as I was enjoying teaching, I had neglected the artist side of me, and I decided I wanted to make an album and put it out. But the thing about making albums now as compared to when I dropped my first solo album, The Ablist, in 1998, was that in 1998 you could release an album with an independent label and it would sell. Now technology has made it so the concept of buying an album is foreign to a lot of people. I was trying to figure out a way to release an album without taking a hit to my pocket. I found out about Kickstarter and saw that a lot of other artists were having success with it and [thought] “That’s the route. I need to get with the times.” We came out with this amazing campaign. Our goal was to raise 10,000 dollars, and within two weeks we hit our goal. By the end of the campaign I raised over 15,000 dollars. I released the album to those who supported it, and now you can buy the album on Bandcamp.
The album itself is called X-Files: Lost & Deleted. What I wanted to do conceptually was introduce my catalog to new fans, but give it a makeover, update it so that new fans could appreciate it, but old fans can appreciate it for being revamped, and me breathing new life into music they’re already familiar with. It was a way to bridge the [audiences], and I think I succeeded. Now it’s just back to teaching and creating a bunch of Rob Swifts. I keep saying [that] through teaching, I’m creating a DJ army that’s gonna take my philosophy and spread it and help the art grow even more.
NR!: That’s beautiful.
SWIFT: Yeah, man.
NR!: Could you just give me, real quick, three desert island breakbeats?
SWIFT: So if I was stranded on a desert island the three breakbeats I would wanna have would be James Brown “Funky Drummer, “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band, and “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers.