What people seem to have forgotten is that hip-hop, in its purest form, is the domain of the DJ — that for the better part of the genre's existence, the DJs were the stars, the focus and the creative force that brought the whole style into being. Kool Herc — the acknowledged founder of the entire movement — wasn't a rapper. He was a DJ, and if he hadn't decided to loop two breaks on two turntables, nobody would have anything to rap over in the first place. People forget that for the genre's first decades, the MC was almost always second billed. Remember, it was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Eric B. and Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. The DJ has always been the foundation that hip-hop culture was built on. That is, until The Suits decided that it was easier to make rappers into video stars and hip-hop into pop.
But as that was happening — as the central focus of hip-hop was moved from the art form and its orchestrators to the bottom line and the frontmen — there was a group of DJs bent on proving that they were more than just stage props, more than just placeholders onstage behind the magazine pin-ups. They would come to be known as "turntablists," and they would push the craft to new musical, artistic and technical levels, transcending mere disc jockeying and creating an entirely new musical language. And of these turntablists, there was no greater example of sheer brilliance, talent and skill than the New York consortium known as The X-Men — later known as The X-Ecutioners once they became the first turntablist group signed to a major label. The X-Men, to put it bluntly, were the apex of hip-hop creativity during the genre's most creative era.
"It was amazing," says X-Men DJ Rob Swift. "I am really fortunate and lucky to have been a part of what happened with turntablism in the '90s — it was literally a revolution." Swift returns to Nashville for this week's installment of the monthly Boom Bap party at The 5 Spot, and he's currently on the road promoting his latest mixtape Roc for Raida, a tribute to his X-Men compatriot and legendary turntabilist Roc Raida, who passed away after a mixed martial arts accident in 2009.
"When we were battling, the consensus among the music industry was that DJing was at the bottom of the totem pole. You had a lot of groups coming out like Snoop Dogg — and I'm not trying to single him out, just use him as an example. When you listen to Snoop Dogg, his first album Doggystyle, there aren't many scratches. On the hook it's either Snoop or some singing — there's not a lot of scratching. And for me that was real turning point.
"That's when the DJ sorta took a back seat. But there were all these groups — The X-Men, Invisbl Skratch Piklz, The Beatnuts — that said, 'Fuck the industry, we're going to revolutionize DJing.' "
And they did, changing the way people viewed the dudes behind the decks for the better — not unlike the way beboppers changed the way the world views jazz, or the way the punks permanently altered the world of rock. The turntablists would create a style and methodology that unleashed the unlimited potential of pre-recorded music well before digital production and performance would allow every two-bit goon with a laptop to claim the title of "DJ," bringing showmanship and style to the form before crazy light shows and giant mouse-heads were allowed to stand in for those things — before pre-recorded sets and push-button playlists were the norm. Turntablism marked the end of the analog era, the final days of hip-hop music as a handmade art. But that's not the end of the story.
"Now when I wake up in the morning, I wake up with the intent that I do my part — partly for someone like Roc Raida, who can't be here in the flesh — to project the true image of what DJing is," says Swift. "Whereas in the '90s we were fighting the idea that DJs weren't important, now in this new age of DJing, I'm fighting the industry's idea that just anybody can do it — that it doesn't take skill. Because it does."