Old To The New Q&A – Rob Swift

In 2009, the Hip-Hop world and deejay community at large lost one of its greatest talents when NYC’s Grandmaster Roc Raida tragically passed away following complications relating to an injury sustained while practicing the self-defense discipline Krav Maga.

As a member of infamous Rotten Apple deejay collective The X-Men (led by Harlem’s Steve Dee) and also his later crew The X-ecutioners (alongside Rob Swift, Mista Sinista and Total Eclipse), Raida played a pivotal role in building the turntablism movement that emerged during the 1990s, taking the influences of pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and creating new techniques that pushed the turntable to its limits.

With a career that spanned twenty years, Raida’s lively mix of body tricks, beat-juggling and sharp battle-ready routines saw him win the 1995 DMC World Championship, work with the likes of Showbiz & AG, Big Pun and MF Grimm, and also release a number of group and solo projects, building a legacy before his untimely passing that will forever remain in the Hip-Hop history books and continue to inspire future generations of deejays.

But, of course, whilst Hip-Hop fans lost an incredible musical figure, those closest to Roc Raida lost a friend, a husband and a father. Enter Rob Swift with his tribute project “Roc For Raida” which officially dropped today (March 20th) via www.djrobswift.com.

Released twenty-one years after the pair’s first meeting in March of 1991, “Roc For Raida” is a carefully crafted sonic monument not only to the friendship that existed between Swift and the Harlem deck-wrecker, but also the bond Raida shared with all members of his former crews who were joined together by the letter X.

Containing a mix of routines, original tracks and interview audio with Raida himself, all proceeds from the sale of “Roc For Raida” will be donated to the turntable icon’s wife Tyeasha Williams and three daughters Tia, Nyra and Asia.

Here, the always-interesting Rob Swift speaks on his memories of Raida, putting the tribute project together, and his hopes for the future of turntablism.

Roc Raida R.I.P.

Was the “Roc For Raida” project something that had been in the pipeline for some time?

“No, it wasn’t something I had in the pipeline. At the turn of the year I had just arrived back in New York City from a show I had on New Year’s Eve in Bucharest. 2011 was behind me, I accomplished all I’d set out to in that year, and 2012 was in front of me and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I always make it a point to set goals for myself and think of new ways to help the art of deejay-ing and turntablism get out there and expose it to people. So I was sitting at home thinking about what that next goal of mine was going to be and then it hit me, why not make this year, 2012, about Roc Raida? I’ve accomplished a lot as an individual already. I’ve released albums, I’ve released DVDs, I’ve appeared in movies, I’ve done commercials, I’ve collaborated with artists who I truly respect from all genres of music. I just felt that it had been enough about me and what I wanted to accomplish, I wanted to do something to just honour Roc Raida. So it literally hit me while I was sitting on my couch that I should compose a mixtape and dedicate it to him. It wasn’t something that I’d been planning for months, the idea just hit me when I was sitting down thinking about what I was going to do in 2012 to bless my fans with new music.”

Talk about how and when you first met Roc Raida…

“Ah, man. In 1990 I saw Steve Dee compete at the New Music Seminar in the battle for World Supremacy. For those that don’t already know, the New Music Seminar was an annual music conference held in June every year in New York City. As part of that conference there always used to be an emcee battle and a deejay battle. Being such an avid follower at the time of deejay-ing and the culture, I went to the NMS in 1990 to see Steve Dee compete and that inspired me to want to get into battles. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor by the name of Dr. Butcher who helped me prepare for my first competition. We practiced for twelve months like Shaolin monks (laughs). I remember I’d go over to Butcher’s house and his girlfriend would be there and he would kick his girlfriend out of the room and he and I would literally practice for hours. His girlfriend hated me for that (laughs). So in July of 1990 we started working to get me ready to compete in the 1991 DMC competition which, of course, is another annual deejay event that always has its World Finals in London. So every deejay practicing for that event is hoping to get a round trip ticket to London. So from July 1990 to March 1991 Butcher was helping me prepare for the battle. When I entered the 1991 DMC battle, it was in the preliminaries that I first met Steve Dee and his crew The X-Men. Now at the time, the members of the X-Men were Steve Dee, Sean C., Johnny Cash, Diamond J and last but certainly not least Roc Raida. I remember they were heckling deejays throughout the event and just being very boastful and loud (laughs).”

Trying to psych out the competition…

“Exactly. It’s like a mind-game sometimes at deejay competitions with some deejays trying to get into the minds of other competitors. I was there with Dr. Butcher and although I was calm I was also very observant of the fact that they were acting the way they were. But the one exception was Roc Raida. Out of all of the X-Men, Roc Raida was the quietest one that night. I remember he was kinda just scanning the room, looking around, but not saying anything to anyone. I just thought it was really cool that he was kind of distancing himself from the behaviour of the rest of his crew and that really made a solid impression on me. Now fast-forward to the end of the night, all of the X-Men had gone onstage to do their two-minute qualifying sets and I’d also done my qualifying set. I actually got picked to move on to the finals and the only one out of the X-Men who got picked was Steve Dee. So after the battle all of them were kinda snickering and saying stuff to the judges, basically letting them know that they were upset that the rest of the crew didn’t make it through. They did have a right to be upset because all of them were good, but I think that the judges didn’t want all of the crew to go through and make it an X-Men final, so they just picked the one they thought was the best on that night. But after the battle, Dr. Butcher, who was already an acquaintance of Steve Dee wanted to introduce us as he knew I was a fan of his, and when I went to meet Steve, Roc Raida happened to be standing next to him. So I shook hands with Steve Dee and we exchanged a few kind words, and then I shook hands with Raida and I remember he looked at me with a grin but didn’t say anything (laughs). He didn’t say one word, he just grinned at me, looked at me, nodded his head as if to say ‘What’s up?’ and that was it. So that’s the Roc Raida I remember encountering for the first time, very quiet, very introverted, but I also remember that when I saw him get onstage to do his qualifying set I was blown away by how good he was.”

So you were definitely immediately impressed by Raida as a deejay the first time you saw him on the turntables?

“Man, he was so good. He really was so, so good. Raida was just so clean and he definitely had his own style and approach to the turntables that was unique. Over time he really honed that style of his into what we know now as the Grandmaster Roc Raida style of deejay-ing. The cool thing about meeting those guys was that, fast forward to the East Coast finals of the DMC battle, I placed third and I was really mad, upset and frustrated. I was really emotional because I at least wanted to go through to the US Finals. I remember Dr. Butcher really trying to console me, and as my mentor his feelings were hurt because my feelings were hurt. He went up to Steve and asked him if he could talk to me and maybe give me some words of advice given the experience he already had with battles. So Steve came up to me, got in my ear and gave me his phone number. I called him the next day, we talked and Steve said that he would love to have both me and Dr. Butcher join his crew as members of The X-Men. So for me, that was my prize for entering the battle; not getting through to the finals, but being made a member of that crew. Because as a result of that, I ended up bonding the way I did with Roc Raida, and he and I out of everyone became the closest and the rest is history. Now fast-forward twenty-one years and here I am today talking about that night. I met Roc Raida in the middle of March 1991 and that’s why I wanted to release “Roc For Raida” in March because the month has so much signifance to me.”

Footage of Roc Raida at 1991’s New Music Seminar.

Can you remember the first practice session you and Raida had together? There must have been a lot of friendly competition involved back then…

“Oh my god (laughs). The first time I practiced with Raida it was just so much fun. See, Dr. Butcher was already an accomplished deejay. He was already out on the road deejay-ing for Kool G. Rap and working in the studio with Large Professor and Main Source. Butcher really was a mentor to me, so when we would practice I was more of a student listening to the advice he had for me and learning from him and just watching him. So with Roc Raida the difference was that Raida and I were on the same level. We were both students of the culture. We were both passionate about making a mark on the art of deejay-ing and turntablism. We were both unknowns who wanted to be known. So because of that, practising with Raida was different to practicing with Dr. Butcher and I was able to have a different sort of fun with it. I mean, when you have two kids as we were then both wanting to accomplish so much as deejays, being hungry and passionate, all that can come out of that is good, and it did because we made each other better and we helped each other reach our goals. We ended up building careers out of that passion that have spanned twenty one years, you know.”

I remember when you and Raida both started doing cuts on releases from artists like Akinyele and Show & AG in the 90s. I always had this vision of the pair of you kind of bragging to each other light-heartedly like “Guess who I’ve just been asked to do the cuts for?’ or ‘You heard Show & AG have got something new coming out? I’m doing the cuts on that…’

“Man, just hearing you say that is giving me tingles because you just completely captured what my interaction with Raida was like back in the 90s when we were first starting out. Because we would say to each other, ‘Look who I’m doing cuts for’ (laughs). I remember the first time we realised we were known was about 1993 which was one year removed from when Raida and I retired from battling in 1992. In 1993, Raida was at one of the NMS events and I remember he was like, ‘Yo this guy just stopped me and knew who I was and I didn’t really know how to respond.’ Raida was telling me that the guy was saying ‘I’ve been following you and Rob Swift, you guys are really dope.’ When Raida told me that he was like ‘Yo, people know who we are, man.’ To me, that was like the first time I actually realised that we had respect amongst people who we didn’t even know. We both sat there like, ‘We’ve got fans!’ It’s memories like those that have been creeping back as I was working on the “Roc For Raida” project. Memories of when we first started out. It’s great because thinking about those things and remembering those conversations with Raida really helped me get back in touch with a time that seems so long ago now.”

Were there any specific Roc Raida routines that made you wish you’d thought of a particular idea or scratch?

“Dude, I had that response to practically every routine Raida ever did – I wish it was me who’d come up with that idea, I wish it was me who’d done that scratch, I wish it was me who’d thought of that trick (laughs). But on the flipside of that, the beauty of it is that there were times where Raida did routines and it actually was me. Now, I don’t say that to brag or to bring attention to myself, so I guess I should give you some context on that. As I said, Raida and I retired from deejay competitions in 1992. We felt like competitions were becoming very biased and that some of the judges involved were playing favourites or that some battles were even rigged and it was already pre-agreed who would win. So after experiencing that we decided that we weren’t going to battle anymore and would just concentrate on getting our names out there in other ways, which is what led to us both starting to deejay for acts like Akinyele and Showbiz & AG. In 1995, Raida decided to come out of retirement and give the DMCs another shot. Because Raida was so busy travelling with Show & AG and didn’t have as much time to practice individually as we had done before we started deejay-ing for all these rap groups, Raida asked for my help. Now at the time, I was developing new approaches to beat-juggling, which is a technique that revolves around taking kicks, snares and hi-hats from a song and rearranging them. Usually when you hear beat-juggles the music is moving forward, but I’d figured out a way to beat-juggle backwards and make the music sound like it was going in reverse. I started developing this style of beat-juggling and came up with a routine using “Eric B. Is President”. There was another beat-juggle routine I’d come up with using Ed O.G & Da Bulldogs’ “I Got Ta Have It” which was more musical as I was re-arranging the horn sounds. That was when I really started to think about turntablim on a more musical level, whereas Raida approached it very much from a more physical body-tricks, flashy, visual point of view. You would see Raida and you would sweat watching him deejay because it was so energetic and action packed…”

But Raida always had that focussed look on his face that let you know he was in total control of everything he was doing regardless of how energetic a routine was…

“Exactly. That was Raida. Even though we practiced together we were successful in not sounding alike because we were aware of the importance of each developing our own styles. So when Raida decided to enter the 1995 DMCs, because of time constraints he asked me to help him prepare. So what I did was, I gave Raida those beat-juggling routines I’d been working on because I wanted him to win. I loved Raida like a brother and if he won it meant that I won and all the other X-Men won as well. So I played my part to help him the way Dr. Butcher had helped me. So to answer your original question, there are routines of his that he’s done that I gave to him, so when Raida was on the turntables doing these incredible things, there was also a part of me up there with him. When you listen to “Roc For Raida” there’s actually a segment where he talks about how we would help each other prepare for battles and give each other routines that we’d been saving for the right time to unleash on the world. If someone else in the crew needed that routine for a battle or something, then he got it and that’s just the way it was. Raida says it perfectly on the mixtape, that that’s what the X-Men was about, helping each other out. So when I tell that story about giving Raida my routines, I don’t say it to be egotistical or to be given credit, I say it to make the point that that’s just how giving we were to each other as a crew. That’s something that I really miss about those days, because that’s really what it was all about, just all of us helping each other to reach our goals.”

Footage of Roc Raida at 1995’s DMC World Championships.

Putting this project together must have been a very emotional experience for you?

“It definitely was, man. I’ve got an interesting story about something that happened when I finished the project. As I was about to start mastering I had the idea of holding off on completing the mastering process so I could add one more element to the project. I knew that I had these audio tapes that had been given to me by John Carluccio who had directed a film in 1997 called “Battle Sounds” which was the first battle deejay documentary. He’d given me audio cassette tapes containing outtakes and excerpts from interviews he’d done for the project with myself, Roc Raida, Steve Dee, Mista Sinista, and during those interviews we were talking about each other and the impact we’d had on each other’s lives as friends. I decided I wanted to find those tapes and then figure out a way to use that audio to narrate the project. So I looked for the tapes and I couldn’t find them. I looked for hours and I was really bugged because I knew being able to use that audio would make the mixtape sound exactly the way I wanted a fan to hear the project. I just couldn’t find them, so I decided I just had to carry on with the mastering because it was late-January by this time and I knew that I wanted to have the project ready for a March release. So reluctantly I continued with the process, but inside I was bothered by the fact that I knew the potential I felt the mixtape had wasn’t going to be fully reached as I hadn’t been able to find those tapes. Now, it just so happened that a machine I was using in the studio, a compressor, broke on me as I went to start mastering again. I was just like, ‘What else can go wrong?!’ First I couldn’t find the tapes I wanted to use and then the machine I need to finish the project breaks on me. So I was sitting in my studio frustrated and then it occurred to me that I knew what to do to bypass that machine and still make the music sound good. But to do that I had to go in to an old equipment box to find some wires and cords to rewire some stuff, and in that box I found those missing audio tapes that’d I been looking for (laughs). At the time, I remember thinking to myself ‘Yo! That was Raida totally sabotaging my equipment because he wanted me to find those tapes so that his voice could be heard on this project.'”

Was it difficult to listen to those tapes again?

“When I actually started listening to the tapes there were parts that literally made my eyes water. I remember there was one night I was going through one of the tapes and my girlfriend was next to me and she literally started crying listening to Raida and I talking about each other. So that was the most emotional part of the project for me, listening to each other speak about our friendship and how close we were. It’s sometimes easy to forget how innocent and pure things were during those times and I think the mixtape really captures that.”

How much of the influence of both The X-Men and The X-ecutioners do you see and hear in younger deejays today?

“Man, again, I don’t say this to be egostistical because that really isn’t me, but who haven’t we influenced? The X-Men and The X-ecutioners have influenced generations of deejays. I’m 39-years-old now and there’s young deejays today learning the artform of turntablism by referring to video tapes of me explaining how I created my “Nobody Beats The Biz” routine from the 90s. I see young deejays in battles doing the exact same tricks that Roc Raida did in battles fifteen years ago. So we’ve influenced a lot of people. But that being said, we were influenced by a lot of people who came before us. I mean, I would not be here today if it hadn’t been for Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Charlie Chase, individuals like that. I also wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t have been for local deejays, people like my father and my brother. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for deejays like Cash Money, and the same goes for Roc Raida. But what I always say when I’m asked this type of question, is that it’s important for those younger deejays who were influenced by what we did to understand that at some point they can be better than what we did. They can be better than Rob Swift. They can be better than Roc Raida. It doesn’t stop with what we created. Turntablism keeps going. If Raida and I had had the mentality that we couldn’t be better than a Cash Money or a Steve Dee or a Mixmaster Ice from UTFO, then I wouldn’t be sat here talking to you today. I’d just be reading an article that you’d done interviewing someone else. It’s about elevating the art and knowing that you can be better than the people who influenced you and that’s such an important thing for young deejays to understand. I teach a class at the Scratch DJ Academy and I’m teaching these students from Lang College’s New School For Liberal Arts and I tell them all the time that they’re getting better and better and if they keep practicing they will be better than me. I’m not afraid to tell them that because I want them to be better than me. I want to see people step into this artform and achieve higher success than I have both skillfully and creatively because that means the art will always continue to grow.”

I remember reading interviews with you when The X-ecutioners dropped 1997’s “X-pressions” album and you were talking about wanting turntablism to be viewed as a serious musical genre in its own right. We’ve done a handful of interviews over the past decade or so where you’ve continued to talk about wanting to see turntablism reach a point where it could be studied and taught with the turntable being used as an instrument. Now here we are in 2012 and it definitely seems that those goals have been achieved. It must make you extremely proud to see those ideas and dreams you and others shared back in the 90s being taken seriously, which in turn has allowed the artform to grow with you still being a driving force behind that growth today…

“You said it perfectly, man (laughs). That’s why I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview with me because you were there when I was saying back then what I wanted to accomplish and now we can kinda revisit what I said and see if I did achieve those goals. So here I am now teaching a fully-credited college course in deejay-ing which is crazy. It’s nuts (laughs). So this conversation is putting even more stuff into perspective for me because sometimes you get so caught up in what you want to accomplish you don’t always have the time to soak it all up and pat yourself on the back when you’ve actually reached a particular goal because you’re already moving on to something else.”

There are some people who feel that the art of turntablism isn’t as organic as it once was and that recent technological advances have led to a generation of lazy deejays who rely too heavily on their equipment to do the work. With that in mind, do you think it’s still possible for there to be a generation of deejays who become iconic in the same way that a Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jeff or Q-Bert did purely through their skill and creative innovation?

“That’s a great question. I think that whether or not the next generation of deejays is successful in elevating the artform using the technology available to them today depends a lot on who they’re learning from. I mean, there were wack deejays when Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa were deejay-ing. There were wack deejays when Mixmaster Ice and DJ Aladdin and Joe Cooley were doing stuff. There were always wack deejays in the past the same way there are wack deejays now. But it all boils down to who you are learning from. I’m the deejay I am today because of my father and the appreciation he instilled in me for music and my culture. I am who I am today becuase my brother taught me about Hip-Hop first-hand, taking me to the train-yards to watch him do graffiti with his friends. He took me to house-parties and I would watch my brother deejay and his friends breakdance. I’m the deejay I am today because of people like Dr. Butcher who sat me down and broke down the mental approach to deejay-ing and how you perceive the turntables and your ability to manipulate them. So going back to your question, technology is supposed to make you less limited in what you can achieve. What I can do today with Serato Scratch Live I couldn’t do only using turntables and a mixer and because of that I’m a better deejay in 2012 than I ever was. But then on the flipside of that, you have those people who see someone on YouTube or at an awards show deejay-ing, think it looks cool, and then think they can buy some turntables and a laptop, download some songs and be playing in public within a week. But often the people they’ve seen doing that aren’t performing live on television anyway, they’re basically doing a deejay version of Milli Vanilli, so straight away their influences are not good ones, which worries me because if your influences are inadequate then you yourself are going to be inadequate. So as far as the younger generation of deejays is concerned, there ability to become legendary and iconic and known for doing great things depends a lot on who they choose to model themselves after and look to for their influences. But I do have faith that there will be young deejays out there now who will help the art elevate and use technology the right way.”

So playing devil’s advocate, where do you stand on the debate surrounding deejays using vinyl-only in their sets and routines?

“I always get frustrated when I hear people talking about vinyl-only and that stuff sucks if people don’t use vinyl. No, it doesn’t. It has nothing to do with whether you’re using vinyl or not. It’s about the approach to the equipment. That to me is the more important thing. I mean, I love vinyl, I still buy records and I still use vinyl when I perform. But I also like technology and I think that what companies like Serato and Rane are doing today is beefing up the hardware that we use as deejays and making it so that we can literally produce a song from scratch in real-time in front of a live audience, which is amazing. But again, it’s all about the approach to the equipment, and I’m so hands-on in everything I do I’m not going to just simply let the technology do the work for me. You’ve always got to be accepting that time moves forward, it doesn’t stand still. So you have to be able to apply that mentality to life in general and adapt and keep up and incorporate technology in a way that suits you, rather than just be mad at it or turn your back on it because otherwise you’re going to be left behind.”

So following “Roc For Raida” what’s next for Rob Swift?

“Honestly, I’m the type of person who works best when I feel inspired to do something. I try not to look too far ahead into the future as to what my projects are going to be. I just try to stay in tune with myself and whenever I feel inspired to do something, whatever it may be, then I do it. I’m not sure what I’m going to do in the future. S**t, if you’d told me six months ago that I’d be dropping a Roc Raida project and teaching a college class then I’d have been like ‘Really? Okay, cool.’ I really don’t plan that far ahead, I just try to be ready for whatever happens. But right now I’m really trying to generate as much noise as I can for “Roc For Raida” and that’s my only focus right now.”

Any closing words for Raida’s fans?

“I really just want people who’re reading this to please support the project. All proceeds from “Roc For Raida” are going to Tyeasha Williams, Raida’s widow, and his three daughters Tia, Nyra and Asia. I just want people to support and do something charitable to give something back. Roc Raida gave so much of himself to others during his career in order to entertain his fans, so it would be nice for those fans to do their part and give something back as well.”

Ryan Proctor

“Roc For Raida” is available now via www.djrobswift.com.

“Roc For Raida” Online Trailer

One response to “Old To The New Q&A – Rob Swift

  1. Great artist, truly a legend with a special project that I am looking forward to buying and hearing. Another great interview!

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