Hip-hop DJ trio Ill Insanity, whose just dropped debut Ground Xero on Fat Beats is available in CD and vinyl formats at Amoeba Music, have been kept busy since the record's release two weeks ago. Last week the Queens, NY DJ group were in California doing sets at Guitar Center in SF and LA on Pico, in addition to some club dates. And the last couple of days they were on TV and will be again this coming week on Monday and Tuesday (March 3rd & 4th) when they are DJ guests on BET's Rap City at 5PM each day. Meanwhile upcoming tour dates include stops in Seattle and Boston.
"It's a brand new start," said Rob Swift of the new group that he formed along with younger DMC champ DJ Precision and alsoTotal Eclipse -- the fellow former member of the famous DJ crew that Swift and Eclipse were in with Roc Raida and Mista Sinista, the X-ecutioners (originally known as the X-Men before Marvel Comics objected to copyright infringement). Unlike the two albums that the X-ecutioners released, which had several vocalists featured, Ill Insanity's debut stays truer to the art of the DJ with only one of the album's fourteen tracks featuring an emcee: the rapper Dasha who cameos on the song "Decorated Vets."
Rob Swift says the freedom to make an album just as he and his bandmates wanted was a result of being on a smaller label. "When we signed to Loud Records as the X-ecutioners we were the first turntablist group to sign to a major label and overall we thought we were doing something good for the art form and introducing it to a wider audience," he recalled. "But the reality is when you sign to a major label you don't have the freedom that you would have if you put out the record with a friend on a makeshift record label. You have to compromise a lot with a major label....and we ended up working with artists we wouldn't normally work with. We were kinda bossed into this trap of being told what to do by the record company who said if you want to be popular you have to work with this or that artist."
Hence, Ill Insanity's album is more DJ-oriented and its guests are mainly other DJs. Other turntablists that make cameos on Ground Xero include their former band mate Roc Raida, Excess, and DJ Q-bert. Meanwhile, saxophonist Dave McMurray Ill Insanity use consistently throughout the new album and also on stage. "With CDJ's you could never replicate the sound of turntables where as on Serato you can," said Rob Swift when asked about the difference between the CD scratch players made by Pioneer and the Serato which is manufactured coincidentally by their main sponsor Rane - manufacturer of the TTM 57 mixer that they also utilize heavily. As far as having Rane and Guitar Center (who sponsored their most recent tour) as sponsors, Rob says it is very important these days just to get out there and be heard. "It (sponsorship) helps us reach people. It's a huge help...because there is only so much we can do on our own. Touring is expensive."
Like most fans of the art of the hip-hop DJ or turntablist, Rob Swift believes that the art form has fallen off creatively in recent years with most new younger DJs imitating rather than innovating. "I don't think the generation of DJs that carried on the torch have done a really good job of continuing to make the art form interesting to people. I think the younger DJs are too caught up with looking up to Q-bert and they stop practicing when they master the trick that Q-bert or whomever has already done that. So instead of thinking beyond that scratch that an established DJ has already created that they, the younger DJs, have stopped instead of thinking beyond that," he said, adding that he and his fellow X-Men/X-ecutioners, "Tried to think beyond those we looked up to and admired. That is how it should be."
Rob considers himself as much of an educator as an entertainer. In fact, it was during a Black History Month program about a decade ago when he was teaching a DJ skills workshop at a high school in Astoria Queens that he met the then-young aspiring DJ Precision who would later, after years of honing his skills and winning the 2007 US DMC title, become a member of Swift's latest DJ group. And at the recent Guitar Center performances/workshops, including the one at the Van Ness Avenue store, each performance by the turntable trio was followed by individual workshops with aspiring DJs who could get crash-courses and/or jam with members of Ill Insanity. These one-on-one sessions were then digitally recorded and burnt to CD on the spot for attendees to take away with them.
"Our attitude is let's try to show people how this is done," said Rob. "If people understood the energy and creativity and work that went into making each song, they might appreciate it more." The veteran hip-hop DJ also sees it as a type of renaissance. "I feel that this is the beginning of us taking the art form back and that new generation that is getting into DJ'ing, I feel that we are putting it on our shoulders to show people that this is real music and that this is creative music and also educating people about the art form because I feel like no one else is really doing it right now."
As far as DJ battles go, these days the general consensus is that they have lacked excitement for about five years or so and Rob attributes this in part to practice of using pre-produced battle records, something that didn't exist years ago in DJ battles. "In competitions I feel a lot of DJs are misusing technology so instead of picking up two 12" records and seeing if you can just destroy these records and seeing what routines you can extract out of these records, now a lot of DJs are getting producers to prepare battle sets for them on vinyl," he said. "And they are going up onstage with two pieces of vinyl and they are doing DMC routines for example, and doing six minutes without even lifting the record up. And I just feel that in a competition that it is kind of watering down the skill it takes that DJs have spent years to build all these years."
Look for Ill Insanity's new album Ground Xero at Amoeba Music in both the CD and vinyl hip-hop sections. It's a great album, sporting tracks such as the jazzy "Non Verbal Communication," "5 Fingers of Death" (Feat. Q-bert), which is a bragadocous cut, "P-Bounce," which is a fusion of numerous styles and all turntable based -- no drum machines but all scratched in, the abstract sounding "Sound Science," and the rock flavored "Scratch Live." Also at Amoeba look for Rob Swift's DVD As The Tables Turn -- a documentary that was released last summer and check Ill Insanity's MySpace for music samples and other information.