Rob Swift When you say the name Rob Swift to a young DJ, his or her eyes may open wide and their ears will open up to hear what you have to say. Starting off as Akinyeles’ DJ Rob has made strides that many of us dream of making. From winning the 1992 East Coast DMC Championship to touring around the world with the X-ecutioners to appearing in Gap commercials, there’s not much Rob hasn’t done. He recently sat down with us to talk about his experiences, why he’s no longer a member of the X-ecutioners, and his new album Wargames.
Interview by DJ Mor (Underground Army)
WHO?MAG: How did you get your start as a DJ? Rob Swift: I started out when I was 12 years old after several years of just sitting back and watching my brother. He was into Hip Hop from the beginning. My older brother and I were lucky enough to have a father who had all the best equipment. Technic turntables, all kinds of mixers, and speakers and things like that. So being that we grew up in a household with equipment already there it was second nature for me and my brother to want to be like our father and spin also. My brother started out DJing, buying Hip Hop records and using my dads equipment whenever he was out working, without him knowing. I would be in the living room sitting there watching. That’s how I got influenced, through my dad and my brother, so at 12 years old I was ready to learn how to spin!
WHO?MAG: Who were some of your influences? Rob Swift: Man there are so many people. Obviously Grand Master Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, Bambataa, Kool Herc. At that time I was just a toddler, but having an older brother was cool because he would expose me to all these DJs. People like Jazzy Jay, The Fearless Four, Crazy Eddie, all those legendary groups and DJs I had already known about through my brother. I always made it a point to know about artist and their background. I would sit there and read album credits and study every name. For me that was the beauty of growing up with a older brother who was into Hip Hop. I got taught the whole art and culture first hand.
WHO?MAG: I’m mot sure if many people know this but one of the first people you used to DJ for was Akinyele. How did you hook up with Ak and what were some of the things you experienced being his DJ? Rob Swift: Akinyele made his debut on the Main Source album on a track called “Live at the BBQ”. It also featured Nas. Ak is from Lefrak, Queens and I’m from Jackson Heights, Queens which isn’t too far from Lefrak. So when Ak made his debut that verse he kicked was crazy and he really stirred up a lot of interest in who he was. Not too long after him kickin that verse he caught a deal with Interscope records and at that time he was looking for a DJ cause he didn’t have one. At the time Mista Sinista was DJing for this cat named Spanish Fly, who was cool with Kool G Rap. They were all in a session together and Ak had mentioned to Sinista that he was looking for a DJ, and he knew anybody. Sinista was like “Yo my man Rob Swift is sick and currently he’s not DJing for anybody. He’s just entering battles and stuff like that. You should check for him”. He got my number through Sinista, Ak called me we built on the phone. This was around the time that I was about to enter the 1992 East Coast DMC finals. So I had told him to come down to the battle. He came through, I ended up winning that night, so it was a good look for me. I guess seeing me do my thing confirmed it in him, like, “Yeah, Yo, this dude’s nice”. He took me on as his DJ, and that was a great experience, because I got to tour and expose the art form to crowds that really didn’t get to see the DJ competitions and stuff like that. We performed in places like Alabama and little towns in Atlanta, that really knew nothing about DJ competitions like the DMC. It was a great experience and it prepared me for the future like touring with the X-ecutioners, and handling business. That whole period in my life was great! Understanding how to conduct myself in the studio, meeting Large Professor, just a lot of good things happened from DJing for him.
WHO?MAG: You also were a member of one of the most influential DJ crews in the world, the X-ecutioners. How did you get down with them? Rob Swift: I got down with the X-men back in 1991, when I entered my first DJ competition. Steve D was also in the same battle and it was cool because Steve D was someone I looked up to very much. He is credited for inventing beat juggling, making beats on the turntables. I was in a battle and I guess I made a good impression on him. About a week after meeting him, he asked me and my mentor Dr. Butcher, to get down with the X-men. That’s how I got down with the crew. In 1997 myself, Sinista, Total Eclipse, and Roc Raida, caught a record deal with an independent label called Asphadel Records. That’s when we released our first record X-pressions. That’s when we changed the name to X-ecutioners, because our lawyers advised us to change the name to avoid legal problems with Marvel Comics. We released three albums, X-pressions was the first one, Built From Scratch was the second and that was on Loud Records. Then we released our third album, Revolutions, on Sony Records.
WHO?MAG: You’re no longer a member of the X-ecutioners, what brought that about? Rob Swift: About a year ago I left X-ecutioners. I decided to leave because I felt the chemistry of the group had changed. I felt we were not on the same page anymore. Creatively we were going in different directions. We were arguing a lot, disagreeing on how to accomplish things, how to make music. It just wasn’t as fun anymore. Also, being on a major record label I felt like we lost a lot of creative control with our music. It’s funny when we recorded Built From Scratch, we had a hit song, It’s Going Down featuring Linkin Park. The song took off. That song really put X-ecutioners on the map in the main stream. We were on MTV almost every day. Performing at big award shows with people like Britney Spears, and P.Diddy. That song on one level really helped us expose the group on a larger scale, but at the same time it almost cursed us. Our label, Sony Records, I felt, kind of type-cast us and thought well, you had a successful rap/rock record. So in a way they felt we had to do another rock/rap record. Like their main focus was getting us to work with Rob Zombie, and other rock groups. So we found our selves forcing the music, and trying to make music that the label would accept, as opposed to making music that we felt from our heart. So, the mixture of the group chemistry and the label situation really turned me off to the overall outlook of things, and I just decided to leave the group. I decided to work on my album, War Games.
WHO?MAG: What were some of the titles you have won? Rob Swift: I didn’t really enter many battles. I only entered the battle circuit for two years, and my claim to fame was when I won the 1992 DMC East Coast Championship. For me, it was really never about winning a world title or anything like that. It would have been nice, but my overall goal was to put my name on the map and get people to like me. Obviously, battling helped me land the deal with Akinyele, helped me get in
X-ecutioners. If it wasn’t for battling, I don’t think I would be where I am now. It served its purpose for what I needed it to do for my career.
WHO?MAG: What were some of the things you experienced as a DJ with Akinyele or the X-ecutioners, that you would not have experienced otherwise? Rob Swift: The traveling. Being able to do what I do on turntables has opened the door for me to see the world. I’ve been to places like Japan, Canada, Europe. I don’t think I would have been to the majority of the countries that I’ve been to, if it wasn’t for my skills. There are other things that are really cool, like meeting people, being able to affect people, being able to get on stage, do a routine and make people react a certain way. Whether it’s shocking people, making people feel happy, or whatever the case is. Being able to do that through music, is an incredible feeling. Also, working with artists like Herbie Hancock, Bob James, opening up for Aero Smith at the MTV Icon’s ceremony, walking by Janet Jackson, and waving “Hi!” to her, all because of this talent I have as a DJ.
WHO?MAG: You recently hosted the DMC East Coast Championship in New York. How do you feel about the battle scene today, compared to what you experienced when you were coming up? Rob Swift: I think that there are a lot of talented DJs on the come up right now. A lot of DJs are getting busy. But I must say, overall, the scene isn’t as exciting as it used to be when I was coming up. I feel like there aren’t enough DJs really standing out personality wise. It seems like everyone is up there cutting it up, but at times its hard to differentiate one DJ from the next. When I was coming up, you had Q Bert, Roc Raida, Mix Master Mike, we were all from the same circle of DJs. We all knew each other, but we still had our own personality on stage. Even though we all used to vibe together, sometimes even practice together, you could still tell the difference in our style. It’s hard to do that now. If you turn away and listen to a battle, it’s hard to really tell who’s who. Where as back then, you could turn your back to the DJs and tell the difference between who was performing. I feel like that’s what’s really missing from the scene right now.
WHO?MAG: Not only are you recognized for your skills as a DJ, but you have produced tracks for your past and present albums. What was the transition like going from DJ to producer? Rob Swift: It was pretty easy because I feel like my knowledge of records is so deep. Having records lying around the house from Bob James, Herbie Hancock at eight/nine years old, I felt it instilled in me the seed to understand what production is. Then, being around a legendary producer like Large Professor when I was working on Akinyele’s album, doing the scratches, and seeing Large create a song from nothing, seeing him rock the SP 1200, also prepared me. The transition was pretty easy. I’m glad I made that transition, because it’s helped me now in my albums. I don’t have to depend on someone else to give me a beat and I can create my own beat and throw on my own scratches. That’s the beauty of it, to be able to DJ and produce like a Premier or Pete Rock. The transition has been real smooth.
WHO?MAG: Did you do all the work on your new album? Rob Swift: I did all the work on my new album War Games, except for two songs. The song with Breeze Ever Flowin called “Dream”, was produced by this kid named Twick, and the song featuring Akinyele and Prince Hayes, “The Holy Trinity”, was produced by Psycho Les, from the Beat Nuts, who is a good friend of mine. With the exception of those two songs, I produced every track on the album.
WHO?MAG: What’s the idea behind War Games? Rob Swift: War Games is an album that was inspired by the events of 9/11/01. The terrorist attacks on this country really impacted me. A couple of months after that whole event, I was really depressed. I remember questioning why I was doing what I was doing? I felt, like what I do was so insignificant, considering what just happened. I didn’t like feeling that way, because DJing brought so much joy to me, to my life. I felt like I needed to do something to get out of that rut. Why not document my feelings on what was going on through my music? So I just started video taping everything. I remember after that event, I was glued to CNN and all the other news channels that were covering what happened. I would just sit there and just record everything that had to do with terrorism and world events. I just started getting more interested in why things happened. Why is there poverty? Why is there police brutality? I just started questioning everything. I felt, as a form of therapy for me to deal with my feelings, I should put it all out into the music. Gradually, I started creating the whole concept around War Games. “War Games” is a social political album that’s done through the use of the turntables. As a DJ, I am using my turntables to communicate my thoughts on the world. That’s how the whole album came about. Half-way through the album, I felt like just listening to it, people may not realize that there were actual events that inspired a lot of the music and even the sounds that I used. I felt that just listening to the album, people may not catch on to that. So I also wanted to create a movie and edit a lot of the images that impacted me, and gave me ideas for certain songs. I would edit those images around the album, so you could see I used that sound, because of that news event. I created the DVD “Behind the Music” with Uncle Lucio. War Games is a concept album, and I think a lot of people might be surprised. I’ve already started getting a lot of feed back like that was some heavy subject matter. People are expecting me to go nuts scratching it up from song to song. When they see what the album is all about, I think their first impression is a heavy toll on them. I want that. I want to provoke thought. I want to make you feel something beyond, “oh, he’s killing it on the scratches”.
WHO?MAG: As far as collaborations and other people you worked with, who can we expect to hear on the album as far as MCs, DJs, etc? Rob Swift: War Games features a lot of talented artists. I have Large Professor, who is a mentor of mine on the production side. We re-made a song that he recorded with Main Source called “Friendly Game of Baseball” and on the album I re-titled it “Another Friendly Game of Baseball”. As you touched on earlier, that song is about the Amodou Diallo assassination by four police officers in the Bronx, New York. They shot him 41 times. All he was doing was reaching for his wallet. He didn’t have a weapon on him. That incident really touched me. I felt like beyond terrorism, beyond the events of 9/11, there’s terror affecting blacks every day, so I wanted to touch on that. One of the intro songs in the album, called The terrorist , features DJ Melo D who is a good friend of mine. He’s one of the Beat Junkies from the West Coast. I have a track called “Military Scratch” featuring Ricky Rucker and Toad Style who are two up-and-coming expressive DJs out there right now. I did a song with Akinyele, who I used to DJ for, back in the early 90s. That song also features this kid, Prince Hayes, who is an up-and-coming MC from LA. We also have DJ Quest, from “The Space Travelers”. Bob James, the legendary jazz musician, sampled by Run DMC, Missy Elliot, Main Source, Onyx, the list goes on and on. We have Anthony Safri, a musician who used to play with this group from the UK, called “Corner Shop”. Dave McMurray, a saxophone player. I have a well rounded roster of cats on the album. Not only are you going to be exposed to some serious political content, you are exposed to a lot of talent on the album. I feel like I am touching all bases, definitely.
WHO?MAG: We represent one of the most legendary boroughs in Hip Hop and that is Queens.
Especially the area where you come from, the Corona, Elmhurst area. You have a lot of people that came from there. You have DJ Camillo, DJ Precision, The Beat Nuts. You have a lot of people from that area alone. What was your experience in that area? Rob Swift: Queens, for me, plays such an integral part of hip-hop. All you have to say is Run DMC, Russell Simmons, LL Cool J. Those names alone solidifies how important Queens is to hip-hop, in my opinion. Then, the area where I am from Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona. You have cats like Kool G Rap, Beat Nuts, Eric B. I was fortunate to come up in an area of Queens that lived and breathed hip-hop. Akinyele, Main Source, Nore from Lefrak. Nas, Mobb Depp, Marley Marl from Queensbridge. The list just goes on and on, how many important artists have come from Queens. I don’t think I’m ever going to leave Queens, because I feel such a strong connection.
WHO?MAG: Any last minute shouts, anything else before we bounce? Rob Swift: Basically, I would like to say it’s important for people to go out and support my album. Not only because it’s going to help me out, but because it is going to open doors to future DJ oriented albums. When our CD gets shipped out to Tower Records, Virgin Records, they’re competing with Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, you know what I mean? A lot of these stores won’t take as many records, because they feel if it doesn’t sell, it’s not something they can make money from. It’s important for the fans to go out and buy “War Games” and support the album. It’s going to make it possible for other DJs, like This Style, Q-bert to come out with their own albums. That is going to make it possible for the art to keep going. Also, I want the people to check out my website www.djrobswift.com. I have a lot of cool stuff on there. I have music, video clips, from DJ Alladin, Roc Raida, Steve D. For cats who didn’t get to see a DJ competition from 1991, I have a lot of history footage. I have a talk form, where cats from all over the world are posting messages, and networking .It’s a really dope website for fans of the art form to check out. You can see my tour schedule on it. My tour started in August. It’s a United States tour that lasts through the first weekend in October and in mid-October I head out to Europe. I expect to be in Germany, and all the other spots in Europe. A lot of good things happening for me from now until the end of the year.