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Five words with DJ Rob Swift

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Every year, when Mosaic Wine Lounge offers one of its two 11-day electronic music festivals in Raleigh, there's generally an interesting musical twist to the dance-heavy roster. This year, they've invited DJ Rob Swift—a hip-hop artist who, with the groundbreaking turntablist troupe the X-Ecutioners, helped redefine the role of turntables in music.

On Friday night, from Mosaic's sound booth, he'll act as the sensei to Raleigh's Mass Appeal dance party crew and puppet-master for the dance tendencies of festivalgoers. In between some gym time and grocery shopping, the prolific Swift spoke with INDY Week about some of his principles.

CLASSICAL

Wild Style, the movie. I blended classical music with deejaying and scratching and stuff, but, for me, I wouldn't have been able to accomplish that if it wasn't for my roots in classical hip-hop. I think that Wild Style encompasses what classic and hip-hop means. In 82 minutes, [Wild Style director] Charlie Ahearn did an amazing job capturing a time in NYC and a time in hip-hop where creativity and expression were pure and honest. It wasn't about money or any of that surface stuff.

BPM

Nowadays with technology, a lot of the young, up-and-coming deejays might have a series of songs that they're going to play at a party, and they organize things according to BPMs [on their laptops]. They'll create a crate of songs that are all in the same BPM range so that, when they look at that screen, they automatically know which songs are close in range with regards to speed. They should be able to mix them.

To me, that's not having an ear. What we do as deejays revolves around the ear. Young deejays aren't taking the time to train themselves so that they don't need to know the BPM of a song. They should just be able to listen and figure out whether that next song that they play will mix well. Sometimes, I wish we could go back to when I started, when BPMs didn't matter. What mattered was if you had enough trust in yourself and didn't have to rely on numbers.

PRACTICE

These artforms—rapping, emceeing, grafitti, deejaying, B-boying—without sharpening your skills, without repetition, without fine-tuning your craft, it's impossible for you to grow. I think of how important it is to get those reps in with regards to drawing, or perfecting the perfect backspin, or perfecting the perfect scratch, or being able to be clever in how your write lyrics.

VOLUME

That's the kickstarter. A lot of times, the first thing you hear an emcee say on the mic is, "Yo, turn me up." With regards to deejays, a lot of times we get on the set and the first thing we want the soundman to do is turn us up so that the crowd is feeling us.

EXPERIMENTATION

The way you separate yourself from the pack is completely dependent on how much you experiment with what you do. As a deejay, if you just copy and become a replication of something you saw or liked, it might get you a little bit of notoriety, but you won't be making a significant impact on that craft. I always tell the students up here in New York at the Scratch DJ Academy, where I teach, to learn something that I've shown them but to extend the boundaries of that. Be curious and try things out. The process is fun.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A guide to Mosaic Fall Music Festival."

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