When Rob Swift first started spinning back in the early ‘90s, it wasn't so easy to become a DJ.
“You had to invest a lot of time, energy, and money into just taking that first step,” remembers the iconic turntablist. “Now fast-forward 35 years, and you could be a DJ within a day. All you need is a laptop.”
On Friday, Feb. 8, Swift and his former X-Ecutioners partner Mista Sinista will make a special visit to The Patron Saint, performing a special two-hour set dedicated to golden era hip-hop. Beforehand, we caught up with Swift for a phone interview, discussing his evolution as a DJ and much more.
NUVO: I know your father was a DJ. What do you remember about your childhood and how music played a part in it?
ROB SWIFT: My father immigrated here to the States in the late 1960s from Colombia, South America, and he brought over his love for music. He was a DJ in Colombia. He would do parties and stuff for his friends, and he became that to his friends here in the States. As a young kid, I remember my dad asking my brother and I to help him transport the equipment that he was using at these parties. So we’d help him load up this car. We would drive to places as far as New Jersey, help him set up, and then watch him make people dance. Those are my early memories of what a DJ does.
My older brother grew up as part of that first generation of hip-hop kids that were cultivating and developing this new art form. My brother is about seven years older than me, so he’s of the same age as Grand Wizzard Theodore, Tony Tone, Charlie Chase, and the pioneers that started this art form. My brother would sit me down and explain to me what those DJs were doing because these were DJs that were operating the turntable differently from my dad. My dad was just letting music play from beginning to end, and then swapping over to the next turntable to play the next song. But those guys were actually manipulating the turntables like an instrument with scratching and mixing. So that was my exposure to early DJing.
NUVO: How did you go about learning to do it yourself?
SWIFT: Again, my brother was immersed in hip-hop. He used to write graffiti. He used to breakdance. He DJed. My brother rapped. He did everything. I wanted to be like my brother. I basically did whatever my brother did, and he was pretty good at DJing. I would watch him DJ on my dad’s equipment. There just came a point where I was tired of spectating. I had watched dad DJ, I had watched my brother DJ, and I wanted to physically do it when I turned 12. So I asked my brother to teach me.
NUVO: How did your relationship with The X-Ecutioners begin? Were you a fan of the legendary turntablist group before joining the group?
SWIFT: From the age of 12 to the age of 18, I trained by myself, with my brother, and with neighborhood friends. When I was 19, a neighborhood friend introduced me to a friend of his named Dr. Butcher. I had heard the name, but I didn’t know who he was. I just knew there was a guy named Dr. Butcher in Queens that everyone hailed as being one of the best DJs in our borough.
My boy JuJu from The Beatnuts knew Dr. Butcher and insisted on taking me to Dr. Butcher’s house. He wanted me to see Dr. Butcher DJ because he knew how much I loved this art. I went to his house thinking, “He’s not going to do anything that blows my mind. I’ve seen all there is to see regarding DJing.” But I went over there and was quickly humbled. He was super unique and creative.
So I asked Dr. Butcher to take me on as a student, and he did. He trained me for a whole year (The was in 1990 when I met him). In 1991, I entered my first battle. It was the 1991 DMC. That’s where I met up with a lot of the DJs that I heard who were around doing things. One of the guys I looked up to was a dude named Steve Dee. Steve was competing the ’91 DMC that I entered ,and that’s where I discovered The X-Men. Steve was one of the co-founders of the group. Up until then, I had no idea they existed. Unbeknownst to me, my mentor Dr. Butcher knew Steve Dee. So when I entered the battle in ’91 and Steve was there, I asked Dr. Butcher to introduce me to him. We want on to compete against each other. And then after the battle was over, Steve Dee asked me and Dr. Butcher to join them. So we got tapped to be in the group in 1991 after the DMC battle.
By 1993, the face of the group became myself, Roc Raida (rest in peace), and Mista Sinister. The three of us were carrying the torch and representing The X-Men. We would do shows in and around the city. We would go on little tours here in the States. In 1997, we signed an independent deal with a record label called Asphodel. The label was fearful that we would get sued by Marvel if we released music under the X-Men name, so that’s why changed our name to The X-Ecutioners.
NUVO: How much has the game of DJing changed over the years, and how important has it been for you to adjust and evolve?
SWIFT: DJing has changed drastically with regards to technology. It’s a lot easier for people to pick up this art now. When I was first learning about the art form, you had to spend time collecting records, which meant physically leaving your house,record digging, and investing money into music. You had to buy equipment, speakers, amplifiers, turntables, headphones, needles, and tape recorders.
So with regards to technology, it has changed drastically. Thank god I have learned and figured out ways to stay relevant, although the art form is now flooded. I mean, it’s saturated to the point where there are people that are DJing at venues that don’t really know how to DJ when it comes down to it. But again, because they have a laptop and a bunch of MP3s, these venues don’t care. They know they could pay someone with less experience and less money. And as a result, the value of our art form has declined due to the advances in technology. But I’ve managed to still stay relevant and be of value to the culture because of my knowledge and my ability to reinvent myself.
NUVO: You now teach a course on DJing. Being that you’ve been around for so long and are a researcher of hip-hop as a genre, I’m curious what you think about where hip-hop stands today?
SWIFT: I think people confuse hip-hop with trap music and that new genre of spoken word. I don’t want to demean it or talk down on it. It is a form of spoken word. The content just isn’t what an authentic hip-hop song would contain. So in that sense, I think people’s views of hip-hop have changed a lot. To me, a hip-hop song has scratches [from a DJ] on it. Nowadays, you could listen to a Drake song, and there are no scratches.
So it has changed. All I can do is just focus on the hip-hop music I like. There are a lot of current artists today releasing music that falls within the framework of what I feel hip-hop is.
NUVO: That being said, who are some current hip-hop artists you are excited about?
SWIFT: You have so many. Talib Kweli is one that comes to mind. He’s really dope. You have artists like Skyzoo and Torae. You have dudes like Roc Marciano. R.A. the Rugged Man is really dope. There’s a slew of artists that release music and make an effort to contribute something beyond the mainstream. You just gotta be willing to do your part to look for it.
NUVO: You’re visiting Indy with Mista Sinista. Talk to me about your relationship with him and the impact he’s had on your life.
SWIFT: Sin is a brother to me. I’ve known him for the same amount of time I’ve known my mentor Dr. Butcher. I actually met Sinista through Dr. Butcher. What I love about Sin is…our relationship is truly a brotherhood. We fight. We argue. There are times where I’ll just avoid him for a week or two because he does something that upsets me. But, sure enough, when we hit the stage, the chemistry is something I haven’t really been able to replicate with anyone else aside from my mentor. After all these years, I’m just really thankful that Sin and I have this opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to a modern fan base of DJ culture.