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DJ Rob Swift on Teaching at the Scratch Academy

Rob Swift is a legend in hip hop: a master of his craft, a DJ really before he hit high school. That said, even with an insanely busy schedule, the Queens-native is also a guest instructor at the New York Scratch DJ Academy in Greenwich Village – which was founded by another legend, Jam Master Jay. Recently before heading off to Australia, I had the supreme opportunity to speak with Rob over the phone about being an instructor at the Academy, crate digging, the evolution of the DJ and the DJs whom he’d most like to work with.

How did you become an instructor at the Scratch Academy?

Rob Principe, the co-founder of the school reached out to me a few years ago. I wanna say about three years ago he reached out and basically he was like we’re looking to add on new staff and we wanna give the school a little makeover. They had other DJs who would come in to guest-DJ also and I guess they just wanted to revise things. I was one of the people they reached out to and my love for the art goes beyond just performing and being the focal point. Also I like to try to teach people and help the art progress in that way because I know that I’m going to be around but for so long. So I thought it was a great opportunity to help the art grow beyond what I’ve been doing on albums and touring.

What’s your approach to teaching students how to DJ? How do you essentially translate performance art into a classroom setting?

It’s not easy. Because the style of DJing that I do with scratching and beat juggling it’s not like we have sheets of music that we read. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to talk about scratches you really don’t know how to put into words that you pretty much do from feeling. A lot of what I do revolves around just how I feel and what comes out at any given moment when I’m expressing myself. And to try to translate that into words isn’t the easiest thing to do. But that being said…the Scratch Academy really figured out a cool way of creating a curriculum that really breaks down the basic elements of scratching and mixing. The staff there has a book available where each student gets a curriculum of what they’re going to learn. It’s really impressive how the school has come along and how they’ve been able to take the art form and really break it down in its simplest form. To answer your question, a lot of the time I’ll just feed off the instructors. I’m a guest instructor, so I’m usually booked to guest instruct on average five classes a month. What I do as the guest, I come in and reinforce the lesson for the day. The staff is there, the master instructors there have their shit down pat and they explain things and then I’ll come in and chime in and either demonstrate a particular skill that the students are learning, or I’ll help showcase the basic skills they are learning and do a more advance style to show them where they can go with it.

So do you agree with what market analysts are saying about vinyl records, that they’ll eventually fade away? Do you believe that hype?

I don’t think that vinyl will ever fade away…like say the VHS player has. You know like DVDs have taken over and no one buys a VHS tape anymore. I understand the comparison because of the technology and the advancements that have been made with software like Serato Scratch Live where people can download and play MP3s. It makes it easy for people to not have to go out and search for records and stuff.

But that being said, there was talk that vinyl was gonna die when CDs were being made. You know when CDs first came out in the late 80s; everybody was like eventually no one is going to play records anymore. About twenty some odd years later, we’re still using turntables; we have a school that’s called the Scratch DJ Academy that teaches on turntables. I myself when I tour, I bring a stack of vinyl to perform with. So I think that that’s a sign that you can never phase out the turntable or vinyl element. I think that as long as there’s hip hop, they’ll be DJs who manipulate vinyl. I think what’s happening now is we’re just incorporating what we do with the new technology. I use vinyl but I also incorporate Serato Scratch Live, I use a laptop and I fuse the two together. It’s all about adapting. I’ll never stop buying vinyl. So I honestly don’t think that vinyl will ever be phased out; I think it’ll always be here.

For those who don’t know, describe the art of crate digging: The art of finding that piece of music you’ve always been looking for…that you believe you were meant to find.

You have to be patient. I mean there are records that I’ve been looking for…for 10, 15 years that I still haven’t found. I mean original copies of songs. I mean you have to be very patient; you have to have a good ear. Sometimes as a record digger, you may come across something that your audience may not be up on…but you have to understand how to introduce new music to people that you find in your digging adventures. You have to figure out cool ways, interesting ways of introducing new music to these people, to your audience. Therefore exposing them to something new that they may like and then they can go out and search for that record, that particular artist that you played.

But digging is an art. I think to kind of go back as far as technology and the advent of CDs and all that, it’s an interesting situation. On the one hand, it has made it easier for people to go out and buy equipment in a matter of minutes, download MP3s in a matter of seconds; and then can go out and call themselves DJs days later. So all of a sudden in a matter of two days, 48 hours, they assume the title of “DJ” and then they’re going out and DJing their college parties, house parties, and local bars in the East Village. But they don’t have a grasp of how to make people dance in the true sense of the form; and not just playing Top 40 records but taking music and creating a story and keeping people on the dance floor. We’re talking about stuff that’s your musical taste, not just random Top 40 songs that you know is gonna work. Also, the technology has made it so easy. But you know what else is interesting to me…there was a time Nicole where I was DJing in the late 80s and early 90s where rappers, producers, friends of mine who were in hip hop were like You’re a DJ?…as if to say that I was wasting my time, as if I would never make any money off of it, I’ll never make a career out of it. Now you have a lot of has-been rappers, has-been producers, and has-been actors even, people who used to act in movies but no longer have a movie career that are turning to DJing as a way to stay relevant and reinvent themselves. So it’s just interesting to me…that I feel like the art of digging has been lost because of technology. And then you have people who want to become DJs but who don’t want to help the art progress and are just doing it to kind of have a name and to become famous I guess. So to them digging is logging onto some website and downloading free music.

But to me digging is actually getting in my truck, driving into the city and making stops at vintage record stores; and spending two, three, four hours at each spot looking through every single record and finding those gems that I eventually want to play out. So digging…to kind of bring it back to your question, the art form of digging is definitely intricate. And just because you DJ doesn’t mean you understand the nuances of the art form like digging for records, finding a song that no one’s heard but you know that when you play that song people are going to move and these are aspects, basic skills that every DJ should have but not necessarily a skill that every DJ does have. At the Scratch Academy we really make an effort to emphasize a lot of these things because if we don’t do it then the next generation is going to grow up without fully understanding the importance of digging for records and not being lazy and relying on downloading MP3s and stuff.

This is a perfect segue: How do you feel about the evolution of the DJ? I mean you guys are pretty much put on a pedestal these days; you headline 20,000-seat arenas, how do you feel about that evolution?

I think it’s great and I think we deserve it. I think that DJs, we are the bridge between the people and the music. We’re the bridge between the people who go out and buy the music and the artist that puts out the music. I mean as far as hip hop is concerned, the nucleus of hip hop is the DJ. If it weren’t for Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash; there would be no Jay-Z, there would be no Little Wayne. For so long we were looked upon as the stepchildren of the art form. The producer, the rappers were getting the accolades, all the attention at one point more so than DJ. Like I said, I remember when friends would say that’s what you do, you DJ? You’re not gonna go anywhere with that. And here I am touring the globe, teaching classes because I have this skill to move a record back and forth. So I think that now that DJs are put on a pedestal, and like you said they’re headlining arenas and stuff, I think it’s about time.

With your latest project, The Architect, how did you come up with the concept to fuse hip hop with classical music?

About two years ago I was introduced to classical music by my girlfriend. But before then I would hear it in movies and commercials and department stores, but it never really penetrated my psyche like that; it never really registered with me. For whatever reason, this one particular day my girlfriend sat me down and played a piece by Frederic Chopin called “Prelude 4.” It was something at the moment where I guess I was ready, mentally ready to take in this art form and it really made an impression on me. I remember the moment I heard that piece, literally going out the next day and searching out this music. Using my digging skills sort of speak to find other composers, be it Mozart, Beethoven. I just wanted to soak up as much of the art form as I could. So I would listen to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach on road trips; I’d import CDs on my iPod when I’d go away, fly away somewhere on tour, I’d bring my iPod and just listen to all this classical music. About a month or two after this whole rush of classical music that I was soaking up, I started working on my next album. And without me realizing this classical music was influencing the way I was approaching my songs. I didn’t realize this was happening but I had about three or four skeletons of songs for my album; they weren’t finished, they were like rough drafts but I remember sitting down and listening to them and it hit me like wow. I realized I was using a lot of symphonic sounds; I was constructing my songs similar to how these compositions I was listening to on these classical albums sounded. That’s when I made the conscious decision because I was seeing how this music was influencing me for my album, and I decided to keep in that direction, embrace it rather. I would use like violins, trombones, orchestral, symphonic sounding sounds to help express ideas I had as a scratcher. And gradually The Architect came together. I think it’s safe to say it’s my most um, ambitious album. I always try to do something different in all my albums, and I’m proud of all my albums; every album I put out is special and unique in its own way. But I will say a lot of my albums have been heavily influenced by jazz records, so I was able to reinvent myself with The Architect by going a completely different route with classical music.

As a DJ, what do you think it is about music that brings so many different people together, from so many different cultures?

I just think it’s the feeling that music gives you. I think its cool how as a kid you may think you don’t like jazz…but you like A Tribe Called Quest who samples jazz. Or as a kid you may think that you don’t like rock music but you’re a fan of Run DMC, who obviously incorporated a lot of rock in their music. That’s the thing about music it can kind of translate over a wide variety of ages, languages, cultures, as long as they’re open minded. Even with The Architect if I was close minded, if I was the kind of DJ who said I only scratch “hip hop records” then I would’ve missed out on creating this album. If you’re open minded, music can make a difference in your life. Music is a very powerful tool to communicate. As far as my album is concerned, its been great to be able to capture the attention of an older white man in his 40s, 50s who may look down on DJing but then the minute he or she hears what I’m doing on The Architect and how I’m fusing classical music with the art form of scratch DJing; they then realize that I’m a serious musician and that I take it as serious as any classically trained violinist or pianist.

One of my favorite quotes goes: “When you’ve been hungry, you’ll never be full.” Like you said you’re constantly pushing yourself, as a DJ, as an innovator, especially with The Architect, so what is it that keeps you going, what inspires you to always stretch yourself and to do different things?

Wow, that’s a great question! Um, I don’t know, but I think that I really, truly enjoy what I do. I have fun pushing myself as an artist, as a DJ. I don’t smoke weed, I don’t drink, so DJing for me is how I get lost and medicate myself by making music. And also I challenge myself to learn a new scratch or to find that record or to figure out a way to introduce some song I may like to people that I’m not sure who might not like it as much as I do. Always challenging myself in that way keeps me wanting to elevate and then I think at the end of the day too, I’ve always remained a fan of the art. I think that a lot of times a lot of accomplished DJs, ones I even look up to sometimes feel like they’ve reached a point where they’ve done it all, that no one can top them, and I believe when you start to think that way you yourself stop progressing because you feel that’s it, there’s nothing else. But me, I stay a fan of the art; my mentality is I still want to get better and who can I watch, who can I watch to gain inspiration from, who can I watch who might teach me something that I don’t know how to do. And I think that’s what has kept me around for so long.

If you could work with three DJs right now that you have not worked with, who would they be and why?

Wow, that’s a hard one. [thinking] But I would say DJ Shadow; I’d like to work with him, he’s really good. I feel that what he’s done for the art form is really great like he’s helped introduce what we do as DJs to a unique audience. What he does creatively is really noteworthy. So Shadow would be one. Um, another DJ that I would like to work with would be…damn, because I’ve worked with so many DJs that I already look up to. You know, I’ve never worked with Mix Master Mike.

No?!

Never. Never. I mean I’ve performed with him, I’ve toured with him but I’ve never worked with him in a studio setting. That would be really cool. What I like about Mike, he has like an energy about him that’s really unpredictable. It’s really cool. Just yesterday I was just listening to some of his stuff…I have a radio show called Dope on Plastic on Scion radio, and every now and then I’ll play DJ-oriented songs that I like that I like to expose my audience to who may not listen to it on a regular basis. And I was going through some Mix Master Mike stuff and was like this guy has some really dope energy. So Mix Master Mike would be the second DJ. And the third DJ I would like to work with creatively [thinking]…um, man who would that be? I’ll round it off and say Jazzy Jeff. I think that he’s done a lot for DJing and he’s been around for a minute. I think whenever you can link with someone who’s that grounded and that well versed in the art, whether it’s club DJing or scratching on a record or whatever, you’re definitely gonna learn something from that. So I would go for those three.

So my final question, I know you said that you’re heading off to Australia for a tour next week, but where can New Yorkers find you playing?

Various places. I don’t have a residency at the moment, where I DJ on a weekly or monthly basis but I bounce around. This summer, Brooklyn Bodega [hip hop festival] looks like I might be a part of that, we’re trying to work out details. I’m constantly DJing at random spots in Manhattan like Club Blvd; in Williamsburg, Savalas but I’m also touring the states and across the country, so people who might be interested in coming out to see me live can also visit my website, DJRobSwift.com to get my full tour schedule.

The Architect is in stores everywhere!

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About ND McCray

ND McCray is a former Brooklynite, now St. Louis-based writer, penning pieces on arts, culture and other stuff.
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