2010 was a hell of a year for the New York-based DJ Rob Swift. He released an album, The Architect, in February, spent most of the year touring for it in far-flung places such as Moscow and Beirut, filmed an upcoming DVD, released an EP called Sketches of the Architect in September, and contributed music to the Find Your Tribe campaign which was featured before movie trailers in theatres this December.
Swift has always been a go-getter though, from his early beginnings as a turntablist with the innovative crew the X-Men, aka X-ecutioners (composed of Roc Raida, Total Eclipse, and Mista Sinista), in 1991, to his collaborations with artists such as Mike Patton, Herbie Hancock and Cypress Hill, to his consequent solo releases. Somewhere in there he even managed to appear on Sesame Street, showing kids the concept of forwards and backwards through scratching.
Swift took that adventurous attitude and applied it to The Architect, which was released to critical acclaim over Swifts unconventional use of classical music pieces in his scratching, a genre of music that he says his girlfriend introduced him to with Chopins Prelude no. 4.
I remember just falling in love with that piece and then wanting to discover more of the genre, he says to me as I catch him on the phone in between gigs in Portland and Seattle.
It turns out becoming a DJ seemed like a natural progression for Swift whose Columbian-born father was a DJ himself in the 60s and 70s.
When he moved he brought over his love for salsa, meringue, Cumbia, and Im lucky because not only did he love music but he was a DJ as well. He got himself grounded here in New York City and when people realized how good of a DJ he was, his friends would hire him to DJ at parties, weddings, events. And my brother and I would help him carry all the equipment and help set it up at these venues and then wed watch and see the people dance. So thats what my first exposure to what DJing was and thats how I got interested in the whole idea of controlling people without having to open your mouth and say a word – just by the music that you play.
The hip hop side of his art came in from his older brother, who was heavily influenced by the pioneers of culture like Africa Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash.
My brother would take me with his friends to house parties and Id see guys like break-dancing in peoples living rooms and basements and outdoor parks,” Swift says. “So, thats how I got exposed to the art of hip hop, that side of the music. My brother and my father were the ones that kind of basically put me on that path to eventually do the same things that they did.
Aside from his influences from his brother and father, Swift is has a wide range of musical influences ranging from Aerosmith to Miles Davis to Public Enemy. Naturally, he says that listening to pretty much everything is why hes introduced so many different styles of music into what he does as a DJ. However, listening to Swifts work youre bound to hear much more than different musical genres scratching around; theres a distinct cinematic flavor given the amount of film clips sampled at any given time. I asked Swift if movies have also had some bearing on his art.
Oh definitely, thats a great question, he says. There was a movie called There Will Be Blood with Daniel Day-Lewis and the person who produced the score was Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. If you listen to the score, it’s dark but it has that orchestral, symphonic feel and its almost like a new age film of classical music, in my opinion. I remember watching the movie and not just being moved by the scenes or the acting but by the music and how it was used in certain scenes. I would watch the movie while I was working on The Architect and I would actually be inspired to go right back into the studio. I saw that movie 20 times. Sometimes just listening to soundtracks inspires me too, like listening to Psycho. Theres a lot of weird, eerie stuff in there.
Weird and eerie sounds like the basis for a lot of the bands on The Architects label, Ipecac Recordings, run by none other than Mike Patton who Swift worked with on the pop album Peeping Tom (of which Swift hopes to be part of on the next album) and the eccentric DJ battle of General Patton VS The X-ecutioners.
Im just really glad that I was able to put The Architect out on Ipecac Records, he says. It was just perfect. It was like you couldnt write the story any better, you know.
Though Patton wasnt so involved with The Architect, Swift still made a point of thanking him in the liner notes for influencing the album from afar.
Mike influenced me a lot,” Swift starts. “Working with him on projects like Peeping Tom and General Patton and getting to know his style and approach to making songs was definitely an influence on this album because hes one of those guys who doesnt limit himself to just one thing. I remember there were times I was working on songs for The Architect and I would hear his voice in my head saying stuff like Use whatever you want man, just go crazy. Do whatever you want. Its the approach that you have to have, especially when you are doing this kind of music and youre incorporating things and sounds from other genres. You cant limit yourself. And thats what hip hop is. Its actually using all of the music and sounds that exist in the world and making it yours.
If thats not a poetic take on the value of hip hop, I dont know what is. Given the way a lot of critics and listeners can be a bit snobbish towards hip hop and DJing as an artform, Im curious to know whether Swift thinks people have become more accepting of scratching as a legitimate form of composed music.
To be honest with you, he admits, the art, the DJing that I do where I am expressing myself through turntables and scratching, and like you said, composing music, its been accepted by some people but I also think theres a lot of people who dont recognize it as being actual musicianship. So thats why for me Ive always been on this sort of journey to make that that statement that the turntable is an instrument and it can be as effective as a piano in communicating. Thats kind have been my whole goal, to convince those that dont recognize it as an art or music, that it is.
My album The Architect really accomplishes and hits home the fact that, look Im using the genre of classical music to express the thoughts I have as a scribe scratch DJ. When you use symphonic sounds like a violin, you really become a violinist on the turntable and I think the album definitely helps drive that point home.
Currently, Swift is promoting his online radio show Dope on Plastic on Scion Radio, as well as working on a DVD DJ Rob Swift Live: The Documented Movement that combines interviews and live performance footage and goes behind the scenes of all the tours, showing the preparation that goes into each show. As for touring this year, Swift plans to hit the road with his Live Movement Tour at the end of January and spread the dates throughout the next 12 months, hitting the USA as well as Australia, Europe, Canada and Asia.
Im really excited about it because its going to be like a cultural thing with B boys, artists and DJs all being collectively creative together in one setting and one venue,” he says. “Then I have other dates, I may be going to Europe in March. Thankfully the 1st quarter of the year looks like its going to be pretty busy.
Being busy sounds like just the kind of state that Swift thrives on, considering everything that he managed to succeed at in 2010. I ask Swift to sum up his feelings on the past year.
This year has been amazing, he enthuses. I think that Ive been able to accomplish a lot. I dropped an album, and an EP, visited places I have always been interested in visiting. I worked with some very, very talented and skillful artists and MCs and DJs throughout the year doing scratches and production work. Its just been non-stop but its not like Im tired, I still have energy. So I finished the year strong, I started it strong. Im really thankful and looking forward to making 2011 even better.
With Swifts track record, we have no doubt it will be.