Released last Tuesday, The Architect by DJ/producer Rob Swift (X-Men, X-Ecutioners, Ill Insanity) has been selling well at Amoeba Music. At the San Francisco store it charted at number three last week on the latest Top Five Chart. Put out by Mike Patton on his Ipecac Recordings, The Architect is the latest in a string of solo releases from the prolific turntable artist, who for this latest release constructed and modeled the album like a classical music composition.
In fact, The Architect is an ambitious project, even for an artist like Swift, who has made a career out of pushing the envelope with his innovative turntable-as-instrument recordings. The Architect, which he dedicated to his former X-Ecutioners band-mate Roc Raida, who died last year, is an excellent recording that raises the bar on turntablist/scratch albums.
I recently caught up with Rob Swift to ask him about the new album and how it came into being. "In June of 2008 I was in my bathroom shaving and my girlfriend, her name is Tess, walked into the bathroom and was like, 'I want you to listen to something. So she set up her iPod and little speakers and played a piece by Chopin for me. I forget what piece it was but I remember being blown away and been really touched and moved by this music I was listening to," he recalled. "So I finished shaving and came out of the bathroom and I was like, Tess you gotta play me more of that music. What is it? And she started to explain to me about classical music. And the funny thing is that all of us have been exposed to classical music at one time or another, whether in a movie or at Macy's in an elevator, or if you're watching commercials. So as much exposure as I have had to the genre of classical music, I don't think my mind and my heart was ready to accept it. But for some reason on that day in my bathroom, my heart was ready to embrace this genre."
Swift began working on his next album a month later, in July 2008, and a month or two into the recording process he said he stopped to listen back and review what he had in the can to date. "I listened back to see how to album was starting to shape up. After sitting down and listening to it I started realizing that I was being influenced by this genre of classical that I had a new found love for," he said. "I then started creating my music in a way that was reflective of the way that the composers created their pieces. So I started working in movements. I was using sounds and then reintroducing the sounds in other songs. And I sat down and went, 'wow!' All this time, artists like Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven were influencing me on this album subconsciously without me knowing. So once I realized that, then I decided that this album would be a take on what I feel classical composers like Mozart and Chopin would have done if they had turntables."
So how exactly is the 18 song album constructed? "There are six movements overall and the six movements are broken down within two songs ["Rabia" & "Lower Level"], so each song has three movements and surrounding those are short little songs that help shape the entire album," explained Swift. The album only has one emcee, Breezevaflowin, who guests on two tracks. But in this new short attention span digital age, when many music consumers only listen to individual songs rather than to entire albums, Swift fears that an album like The Architect can easily be misinterpreted. "One thing that concerns me with things like iTunes is that people might download a specific song," said Swift. "And the album is meant to be listened to from beginning to end and you have to listen to the songs in order. Otherwise you miss the overall concept of the album."
I asked Rob Swift what equipment specifically he used in the recording of The Architect, which he made at his home studio in Jackson Heights, Queens. "For sampling I used the [Akai] MPC 2000 XL and I have a rack mounted sampler called the E-mu 6400 Ultra and the E-mu is really where I sample all of my beats, all the sounds I want within a production. And then what I do is I sequence on the MPC so I don't actually use the MPC for sampling. I just sequence on it. And then I use the Vestax turntables to actually cut, to scratch, and the mixer that I used was the Rane TTM 57, which, in my opinion, is the best mixer on the market. The fader [on it] is really clean so it allowed me to execute all of those really sharp scratches that you hear throughout the album. And then what I mixed off out of it," he said, noting that to record "I use a Roland 1680, which is like a home studio, and you have 16 tracks and it is almost like having one of those old DAT machines in a way. It's digital and you can just record over two hours of sounds and samples. Then I transfer everything onto a Roland 2480, which has 24 digital tracks, and then I mix on the 2480." Compared to many others' studio set ups, Swift admits that his "is modest but I've found it is not what you have, but how you use what you have."
Constantly doing gigs around the globe, Rob Swift has seen the perception of the scratch DJ or turntablist change over the years. Like many, he agrees the the peak point in terms of the most appreciation of the turntablist was a dozen to fifteen years ago. "Yeah, times have changed a lot," nodded Swift, recalling how, "In the mid nineties you would do an event and it would be sold out and every person in there understood what the art of turntablism, scratching, and beat juggling was about, be it a guy or a girl, and everyone there would have been well versed in the art form and knew about other DJs and were expecting to see something that made an impression on them." But sometimes nowadays, says Swift, he finds himself performing for audiences who are not as aware of or haven't been exposed to the art form of turntablism. "It's like we are reintroducing this to a whole new fan base."
Rob Swift's love of music goes back to his childhood and a father and a brother who both directly influenced him. "I was exposed to the art from since I could remember, since I was crawling. My dad, who was a DJ, would make tapes for himself. And he would take my brother and I and my mom to parties that he was hired to DJ at. And he would DJ Latin music. I am from Columbia, from Cali, Columbia, and my dad brought his love for Latin rhythms like cumbia, salsa, and merengue to New York when he migrated here in the '60's. So that was the kind of music that I was exposed to as a kid, but I was fortunate to have an older brother who was into hip-hop so what my brother would do on our days off from school when my dad would go to work and my mom would go to work, my brother would invite his friends over and his friends would bring their parents' record collections over to our house and I would sit there in the living room and my brother would cut up songs by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and others, and his friends would get on the mix and rap. And I would just sit there in the living room and watch hip-hop being made organically right there. And I was like 8, 9, or 10."
I asked Swift about the X-Men DJ crew: how they came about and when exactly he joined the fold? "The X-Men came about in 1988, 89 when Steve Dee, Sean C, Roc Raida (rest in peace), and Johnny Cash formed a crew to battle the Supermen. The Supermen were DJs Clark Kent, DJ Scratch, and Richie Rich. These were Brooklyn DJs who were basically running things in New York and Steve Dee and the rest of the fellas thought, 'Well we're as good if not better than these guys,' so what better way to make a name for ourselves than by challenging them? And hence the name X-Men. They were called the Supermen, so Steve Dee and the guys thought they're arch rivals and they had a comic book name so we're gonna have comic book name; we're gonna be the X-Men. And that is how the X-Men got started. And then in 1991 I entered my first DMC competition -- the East Coast DMC competition -- and Steve Dee was a contestant in the battle and that is how I met Steve Dee. And I guess my style made an impression on him cos a week later he asked me to be a member of the X-Men."
Of course the X-Men did not maintain that Marvel comic book inspired name for all of their career. "It was a legal thing, the change of the name X-Men to X-Ecutioners," explained Swift. "Our label [Asphodel] started to get scared because of the attention that the group was getting and our label was like, 'Guys, we spoke to our lawyers and we think we could foresee and predict a lot of legal troubles in the future if you guys continue to use the name X-Men, so we strongly suggest that you change the name.' So it was our label that basically influenced us to do that. So we wanted a way to keep the X in the name and I came up with the name X-ecutioners." As a group, especially a turntablist group, the X-Ecutioners were extremely successful getting signed to major deals. But with that level of exposure came responsibilities, and for their 2002 album on Loud/Sony, Built from Scratch, and their 2004 major label release, Revolutions on SONY, the labels interfered with the creative process. So much so, says Swift, that "There was a time when we kind of lost our creative vision. And that's why I always made room to release solo albums, 'cause that was my way of kind of applying the ideas that I wasn't able to apply within the context of the X-Ecutioners."
Not surprisingly then, Swift is quite happy to be releasing his new album on Mike Patton's Ipecac Recordings -- a label know for its unbridled love of music. "I can't even describe how cool and down to earth he [Mike Patton] is. He is all about the music," said Swift. "And we've known Mike for years now. The X-Ecutioners actually released an album with Mike Patton called General Patton vs. The X-Ecutioners on Ipecac years ago and his core following of fans were the ones that really knew that the album was out and supported that album. I remember we did a show together in Manhattan and it was sold out and I was so surprised at how many people loved this guy. I just knew Mike as Mike. I didn't know he had this fan base who were lined up around the block." Hence, Swift couldn't be happier putting out his latest release on Ipecac. "When I finished the album The Architect I knew I wanted to release it on Ipecac 'cause Mike always takes chances. He never limits himself to anything or any category and never boxes his music into a specific genre. He does whatever he feels and I just knew he would appreciate what I was trying to do with this album in melting the art of scratch DJing, turntable manipulation with classical music. Ipecac is a label that is about pushing the envelope."
The Architect is available at Amoeba. Below is the video for the album track "Rabia - 2nd Movement."