Rob Swift Shows Why “The Breaks” Is The Most Authentic TV Show About Hip-Hop
On April 10, The Breaks completed the airing of its first season as a series. What began as a 2016 film for television extended for eight 2017 episodes. With actor, artist and director Mack Wilds portraying “Daryl ‘DeeVee’ Van Putten, Jr.” in the Vh1 show, the cast also includes Hip-Hop figures such as Method Man, A-F-R-O, and G.O.O.D. Music’s Teyana Taylor. Since its debut, a host of MCs, DJs, and real-life personalities (Charlamagne Tha God, Prince Paul, Phonte, Torae, Special Ed, etc.) have made appearances. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, DJ Premier has served as an executive producer and music supervisor for the series set in the early 1990s Rap industry that elevated Gang Starr.
Created by Dan Charnas (The Big Payback, The Source, Profile Records) and writer Seith Mann (The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Californication), the show also welcomed Rob Swift to help orchestrate some routines for key DJ battle scenes in episode 103, “Blind Alley.” An early ’90s artist who began as a DJ before moving into production, major label releases, and world tours, Rob represents what “DeeVee” aspires to. The founding member of The X-Ecutioners DJ squad, spoke to Ambrosia For Heads about working on The Breaks. As the Queens, New Yorker and former competitor details, the show goes to great lengths to be deeply authentic, with some tremendous Hip-Hop history sprinkled in for the seasoned eye and ear. Put another way: The Breaks may be fiction, but it’s sampling hard facts and real events.
In the series, “DeeVee” is able to gain last-minute entry into a battle competition, after a fight causes a disqualification of one of the competitors. The fight, itself, is an example of the way the show uses real life occurrences to color its storylines. The altercation was a direct reference to the melee that broke out at the 1990 New Music Seminar between Ice Cube’s Da Lench Mob crew and Above The Law. At the time, Cube was entrenched in a vitriolic war of words with N.W.A. and Above The Law were signed to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records and closely affiliated with Eazy and the other members of N.W.A.
At the top of the ’90s, DJ battles became exciting events in the culture. Rob recalls actually seeing the AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted-era Ice Cube at that New Music Seminar event, the first battle Swift would ever attend. There, DJ Steve Dee (who would help create the X-Men nka The X-Ecutioners) rocked a routine that would mold Swift’s career. It is through Dee’s hands (which would go on to work with Michael Jackson and Teddy Riley) that Swift wanted to present the culture.
“While [The Breaks is] a fictional story, a lot of the instances that take place in the series were scenarios that really went down. [Dan Charnas created] this fictional story around these scenarios, which is cool,” says the DJ/producer/instructor born Robert Aguilar. “The 1990 New Music Seminar [DJ] battle is a perfect example. I was actually there; that was the first battle that I ever attended in-person. I got to see and witness Steve Dee pull out these groundbreaking routines that up until then, DJs just weren’t thinking about doing.” The Harlem, New York DJ and Get Fresh Crew affiliate is credited with pioneering “beat-juggling,” a display that was instrumental to his 1990 win. “Somehow he tapped into a part of his creativity that helped him unleash a different approach to DJ’ing. [He was] actually manipulating the music, almost is if he was a human sampler [like an Emu Systems SP-1200 or Akai MPC 2000 or Logic]. He’s out there moving, and recreating a song, in real-time, with his hands.”
Rob uploaded footage of the aforementioned NMC battle of Steve Dee versus Brother Jay (not to be confused with the X-Clan artist):
Rob, who has worked with Bob James, Large Professor, and Akinyele, continues, “Dan, knowing my [X-Ecutioners] connection to Steve Dee wanted me to consult on that particular episode. He wanted me recreate the routine that Steve did with ‘Something Funky’ by Big Daddy Kane. I did it. I recorded it. I sent it to him. They loved it, but they couldn’t clear the song by the time they were gonna have the shoot for that scene.”
Just like when he’s behind the wheels, Rob Swift quickly improvised. “What I did instead is I chose to do a tribute to my friend Roc Raida, who passed away [from cardiac arrest related to a martial arts injury] in 2009. He was another popular battle DJ. And he was a student of Steve Dee’s as well, so it just made sense for me to pay homage to Roc Raida. One of Raida’s classic routines was with [Run-D.M.C.’s] ‘Peter Piper’ [which The Breaks was able to clear]. So we went with that routine. The actor that was playing Steve Dee, we had him do that. So while it wasn’t a Steve Dee routine, it all tied together, ’cause Raida was a student of Steve’s. I was in the X-Men with Roc Raida and Steve Dee, so it was six degrees of separation.” In July of 1991, Raida (born Anthony Williams) rocked the famed routine at Clark Kent’s World Of Supremacy battle. Wearing a propeller hat (and coming on at 2:50 in video uploaded by Rob Swift), Raida squared off against a fellow elite competitor (with body-tricks), Jasey Jase. That routine, an homage to Jam Master Jay in and of itself, has caused apparent tributes by DJ Jazzy Jeff, Rakim (as DJ), and others.
Rob Swift showed the cast how to recreate the routines in his home studio. A past ITF and Vestax champion, The Beat Junkies’ DJ Babu (also a Dilated Peoples band member) worked with the DJs as well. “[I made sure that the actors] understood every, single, movement that needed to be performed. So when they got up there and were actually shooting the scene it came off the right way,” notes Rob. “At the end of the day, my name is on it. I love this art, and I would never half-ass anything that has to do with DJ’ing; this art’s been so good to me.” Just as he was inspired by his father and older brother (both DJs), Swift hopes The Breaks leads viewers to buy turntables and explore the element.”I really believe that the effects of that show will be felt later on. I mean maybe more so in the context of DJs. I meet people now that say ‘I started DJ’ing when I saw the movie Juice.'” Like Omar Epps’ character in that 1992 film, putting a budding, skills-focused DJ in a battle on screens has effects with its viewers.
“Uncle” Ralph McDaniels of Video Music Box is credited as the first person to broadcast DJ battles. Rob Swift recalls seeing the VJ and music video director airing Steve Dee and others on his seminal show. Notably, Ralph is one of the Hip-Hop icons who makes a cameo in the club during The Breaks‘ DJ battle. “I know that shit went over a lot of peoples’ heads, but not mine,” says Rob.
From nuance to seismic moments in Hip-Hop history, The Breaks may be introducing characters and some televised entertainment, but it is also telling the music’s story, and using primary sources to do so. While highlighting The Breaks connections, Rob Swift also made another point about Steve Dee. Stemming from Hip-Hop founding fathers, Rob credits one of his mentors (he cites Dr. Butcher as another) as being one of the last original innovators of DJ’ing. While the craft of what is now called turntablism continues to evolve, Rob traces its earliest developments Uptown.
“The first DJ to get really tactile with vinyl records and turntables was…I would say, Grandmaster Flash,” Rob details in what becomes a rare history lesson. “His method was just very technical, whereas [fellow pioneering DJs] Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were just letting songs play from beginning to end, Flash would curate a set. The way he went about getting in and out of songs revolved around a lot around timing, bar structure, sequencing, understanding measure, understanding 4:4 time signature [were his strengths],” explains Rob. “Then came Grand Wizard Theodore,” one of Flash’s early apprentices. The fellow Bronx native, like Flash, would attach himself to a group: The Fantastic Five. “Theodore, we credit for inventing scratching. When I say the word ‘inventing,’ it’s a little misleading in that… Theodore himself will tell you, ‘It’s not that I necessarily invented grabbing the record and moving it back and forth; every DJ before me technically was already doing that [through] the act of dropping the needle on the record and queuing the part of the song you want to play forces you to [scratch].’ It’s just that the DJs before Theodore never thought to articulate that sound and that hand movement so that their audiences would listen to it. DJs would queue up a record in their headphones, get the record sound exactly where they wanted it, and then they’d hold the record still and drop in the song. Theodore decided, ‘I’m gonna manipulate the record the way I queue it in my headphones, but I’m gonna let my audience hear me do that to enhance the listening experience.”
Both Flash and Theodore appeared in Hip-Hop’s breakthrough film representation, Wild Style. Another DJ from the film is the next innovator, according to Rob Swift. “DJs after Theodore learned that and started to apply their own technique and movements to [it]. You have guys like Grand Mixer D.ST (fka Grand Mixer DXT), who I feel, is the one DJ from that era that truly approached the turntable like a musical instrument. All you have to do is listen to [Herbie Hancock’s] ‘Rockit’ and you’ll know what I mean.” With his trademark headphones on, Grand Mixer performed with the Jazz legend on the 1985 Grammys, one of the watershed moments of Hip-Hop DJ’ing.
In the 1980s, fast hands meant a lot to DJ’ing, just as they did to boxing. “The best DJs scratched the fastest or back-spun the fastest. Then, in 1985 or 1986 a guy named Lightning Rich from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania started taking the Grandmaster Flash backspin and altering the approach more.” Rob Swift says the Philly class (which would include DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Cash Money, and others) utilized timing differently within the back-spin. Those DJs were cutting back strategically to alter the order and timing to the sounds heard on the records they used.
Enhancing this, Rob Swift credits his X-Men band-mate with the last innovation. In the mid-to-late 1980s, Harlem’s Steve Dee would introduce what is now known as beat-juggling. “Steve truly is the last DJ to redefine a style,” says Rob of Steve’s reaching “new levels.”