Beck praised it.
Technology and dancehall united over it.
Now, DJ Rob Swift has transformed it into a sociopolitical weapon.
“Two turntables and a microphone” are evolving from their infant years as dance-party entertainment into voices that condemn worldwide injustice. Their activist consultant is Rob Swift, a prodigious New York City DJ who rose to ascension with underground-hip-hop supergroup the X-Ecutioners. His vinyl manipulation has been in collaboration with chameleon Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas), jazz legend Bob James, and Herbie Hancock on his album Future2Future. (Hancock laid respect on the DJ by naming the collaborative track “This is Rob Swift.”)
While Swift has always commanded esteem, it wasn’t till his latest, 2005 release, War Games, that he waxed social awareness. The muse was 9-11.
“Two months after the event, I realized I wasn’t getting any work done,” Swift tells Xpress from his studio in Queens. “I was consumed by what was on the TV. It paralyzed me. I wasn’t motivated to turn my equipment on, to travel, work, or perform. I decided the only way to get myself out of the rut was to use that event to get me creative again.”
Four years in the making, War Games is full of daunting messages. President Bush’s war chant begins the album, a bleak introduction to other issues on the record – police brutality, poverty, and the ongoing war in Iraq.
Despite Rob’s good intentions, the question arises: Are turntables appropriate tools for calling minds to action?
“We’ve reached a point in the DJ art form where DJs are just showing off on albums,” asserts Swift. “We’re just sort of showcasing how good we are. I wanted to do an album that took skill to make, but it wasn’t necessarily about my skill. I wanted to make people think.
“I’m not a rapper. I’m not writing song after song. I’m a DJ – and I wanted to use my talents to express these thoughts, views and ideas. It feels good to make an album that’s less about how good I am, and more about what’s going on in the world.”
But, as in all musical forms, expressing ideology without cramming it down listeners’ throats remains a delicate balance. Various artists have used “feathered finger-pointing” to instill an almost subliminal social message without compromising their artistry. One prime example is Ry Cooder’s masterpiece Buena Vista Social Club, which raised the world’s awareness of Cuba’s marginalized musicians without resorting to audio guilt.
Swift’s album works in a similar way. Shunning overt statements, he filters cultural commentary through turntables.
“I know that people may disagree with what I’m embellishing on the album,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ve alienated anyone, but if I have, all I can say is that, as an artist, you have to be true to yourself. Part of being an artist is risking alienating people, especially when you’re pushing the envelope.” To date, he has yet to receive any documented criticism from fans.
Despite the overarching theme, Swift’s trademark beats are highly evident on War Games. Guest vocals by tongued persuaders like Breez Evahflowin lend serious hip-hop values that lighten the heavy message.
By buoying both his artistic and activist side, Swift is furthering the philosophy of his mentor, Dr. Butcher. He met Andrew (aka Butcher) around 1990 in Queens, when Swift was just beginning to tailor his scratches. At the time, Swift was aspiring to be as good as other turntable heroes like Steve D. and Cash Money.
But Butcher saw this idolizing as a barrier.
“He was the best DJ in my neighborhood,” recalls Swift. “He taught me that I needed to work at being better than the people I admired. Before that advice, I would practice what Steve D. was doing. After the advice, I started coming up with my own beats that the people I looked up to weren’t doing. I was like, ‘Wow, I think I could make a difference.’
“The turntable,” continues Swift, “was not created originally for us to do things like beat juggle. It was a tool for us to simply play music on. It was not designed to be manipulated.
“However, when you don’t limit yourself to how someone else defines an object, than you can turn almost anything into an instrument – or a voice.”
DJ Rob Swift appears at Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.) on Friday, Feb. 17, with Breeze Evahflowin, Stronghold, and DJ Tweak. 9 p.m. $15. 236-2424.