Sunday afternoon in San Diego. I’d just woken up after a nap to try and kill a headache. I groggily checked the clock. “I have to meet Rob Swift in Solana Beach in fifteen minutes,” I thought to myself. I grabbed a Coke out of the ‘fridge, my hand-held recorder and hit the road.
On my way up I-5, chugging the Coke, I scrawled possible questions on my hand with a Sharpie. Less prepared for this interview, I could not be.
Luckily, when I arrived and Rob came down from his room to meet me, he’d just woken up as well. He got a cup of hot cocoa and we slumped on the couch, chatting sleepily.
The last time I saw Rob was five years ago. The X-Men (as they are known in un-copyrighted contexts) were playing at the Crocodile Café in Seattle. Rob, Total Eclipse, Roc Raida, Mista Sinista (who’s since left the group to pursue acting projects and solo career) and I gathered around a table in the Croc’s back bar to discuss the future of turntablism. Right then it looked as if DJs as artists were finally making headway in the competitive milieu of modern music. Om Records’ Deep Concentration tour (featuring Radar, Peanut Butter Wolf and Cut Chemist on this particular leg) had just played at the Showbox the night before. Despite the enthusiasm we all felt at the time, a breakthrough of the art of the turntable was not to be.
In the five years since our last meeting, the DJ has remained in the background. Rarely heard on even Hip-hop compositions, some of the most talented musicians of our time still toil in the background of the underground. The Invizble Skratch Piklz (The X-men’s West Coast counterparts) disbanded — each to pursue his own projects — leaving the X-Men as the leading DJ crew still together, putting out their own records.
“In a way, I feel like we are leading the way and setting the example,” Rob says between sips from his hot cocoa. “At this point we’re the most high-profile DJ group so we kinda set the pace. That’s not to say that we’re better than anybody, or that we’re the best, or that nobody can fuck with us, but on one level, we are the leaders. We’re the first group to make it to Billboard. We made it to shows like Carson Daly and MTV’s Icon. We’re definitely knocking a lot of doors down that haven’t even been touched by other DJ crews.” True dat: The X-ecutioners second full-length Built from Scratch (Sony, 2002) debuted at number fifteen on the Billboard charts. They’ve been in a Gap commercial, on David Letterman and, thanks to a collaboration with Mike Shinoda and Mr. Hahn from Linkin Park, they’ve gotten airplay all over the place.
“I’m glad that the record has gotten the exposure that it has because it’s good for the music in general,” Rob says. “People are like ‘Why’d you do a song with Linkin Park? They’re a rock band.’ But why not? Rock and Hip-hop have had a relationship since the beginning of Hip-hop. DJs used to cut Rock records in the 70s: Aerosmith, Rush, Billy Squire, AC/DC…” By collaborating with members of Linkin Park, the X-Men were able to slip under the mainstream’s radar, and as Rob adds, “Let people hear a whole other way of making music.”
Finding this “other way of making music” has been an ongoing quest for me. In 1995, feeling that art of the DJ was disappearing from Hip-hop, I went in search of the lost art of the scratch. After a few months of digging in the crates and combing the independent Hip-hop releases in various record stores, I found Bomb Records’ first DJ Compilation, The Return of the DJ, Vol. One. It was here that I found the Skratch Piklz, Beat Junkies, Z-Trip and Radar, Cut Chemist and the X-Men and was briefly sanguine about the survival of art form. Seven years later, it’s still and underground phenomenon and one still has to search for it, save the exposure that the X-Men have garnered.
The cover of Built from Scratch pays homage to Public Enemy’s 1986 debut, Yo! Bumrush the Show (Def Jam/Columbia), featuring not only the X-Men, but the pioneers of turntablism as well.
“We’re all Public Enemy fans in the group,” Rob says explaining the cover. “I was a huge Public Enemy fan, I have pictures of myself with Chuck D. I met him in like1986 or 87 at a show he did in the Bronx. So, our manager, Peter Kang, was like, ‘It would be really cool if the cover of the album was a tribute to Yo! Bumrush the Show where it’s the same basement setting and you guys are plotting to take over Hip-hop. You guys would be like the S1Ws and Flavor Flav would be Grand Wizard Theodore…’ and so on and so forth. We have Grand Wizard Theodore, Kool Herc, Grand Mixer DST: three legends of DJing, and three different generations of DJing, and then you have us. When you look at the cover, it shows the lineage of DJing, where it’s been and where it is now.” This image puts the perfect face on a sound that is indeed bumrushing the industry, not unlike the way Public Enemy did in the late eighties. The compositions that the X-Men build with scratches are comparable to nothing else in music. Ever. The only analogy lies in the improvisation of Jazz musicians. Even then, the X-Men aren’t limited by any one instrument — they can play and manipulate any recorded sound.
Later that night at The Scene in the Clairemont-Mesa area of San Diego, the tag team crew of Total Eclipse, Roc Raida and Rob Swift manipulated many sounds live on stage. This is where the art of DJing truly manifests itself. With a row of Technics 1200s linked by various mixers and cables, the X-Men wreck shop. Blending beats, samples and their unique styles into an aural onslaught – intricately timed and improvised on the spot — these guys don’t seem to notice the limits they break on a daily basis.
“The most important thing with the next album is to figure out a way to re-invent ourselves again,” Rob had stated earlier, thinking ahead. “To not come out sounding the same is the most challenging thing that we’re going to face.”
[The X-Men check sound at the Crocodile circa 1997.]
[SLAP Magazine, 2002]
[photos by Roy Christopher]