RESPECT THE DJ: Rob Swift Speaks Out Against Those Who Should Not Be Called “DJ”
Words By DJ Rob Swift
I started out as a fan first. I grew up around the art of DJing since I came out my mother’s womb. There hasn’t been a day in my life that I haven’t been exposed to the art form in some way, NOT ONE DAY. My father, Jose Aguilar laid the foundation for my older brother John and me.
Dad taught us what it meant to go on record excursions throughout NYC to find that one Salsa song. Dad instilled in us the importance of investing in Technics turntables. Dad schooled us on how to control a room filled with people through music. Dad basically planted the seed. My brother then cultivated that seed during Hip-Hop’s genesis and harvested me. By age 12 I became my brother’s student; the third DJ in our family’s lineage.
My goal was to be the perfect pupil so I learned all I possibly could from my brother. He enlightened me on who Kool Herc was. He played me park jam tapes with the likes of Grand Wizzard Theodore cuttin’ up Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap”, while the Fantastic 5 Freaks held it down on the mic. My brother would sit me in front of my dad’s Fisher speakers and play Grandmaster Flash’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel” and help me deconstruct the entire record, helping me appreciate what it was that Flash was actually doing and how. He then would show me how DJs like Grand Mixer D.STwere taking what Herc, Theodore and Flash were doing to the next level. Eventually I learned all I could from my brother and it was time to seek knowledge from outside sources. Thus, I turned to the radio. On 98.7 Kiss FM, DJs like Chuck Chillout and Red Alert taught me how to arrange a 3 hour playlist. Dudes like Marley Marl on WBLS were showing me that you didn’t have to be from the Bronx to be ill. You could come out of Queens and make it onto the radio. Then there was college radio. Adelphi University’s Spectrum City Crew (Chucky D, MC DJ Flavor, and Mellow D) were educating me on how deep you can get with break beats. The first time I heard “Heart Beat” by WAR was on the Spectrum City show. Years later I went on to “make a little funky beat – for you” with that record. Like I said, I wanted to the be the perfect student!
And I can’t forget my boy Johnny Juice and Jeff Foss at Hofstra University radio. To this day, I remember exactly how Juice would cut up Ultramagnetic’s “FUNKY” “I bought a band, a, a, a, aaaa, a, a” and Juice would transform the hell out of Kool Keith saying the word “band”. Then, on some nights, Jeff Foss would actually air excerpts of DMC routines from cats like Cash Money. The first time I heard Cash Money flip the phrase “calling me a sucker boy you’re pushing a broom” was when Jeff Foss played Cash Money’s 1988 World Final DMC set over the radio.
See, that’s something a lot of these millennial “DJs” will never appreciate. In this day and age of YouTube, many of them are spoiled. They can easily watch a “how to DJ” tutorial and find themselves under the illusion they have what it takes to live up to the abbreviation of “D.J.” When I was coming up, all we had was the radio though. You were lucky to have a VHS at the crib and you were even luckier to have access to the New Music Seminar or DMC battle tapes. So I, like many of my peers, was forced to listen and learn. In listening we developed our ears in a very unique way. That’s another difference between my generation of DJs and the laptop/BPM generation which exists now. The former relies on their ears to be creative. The latter relies on whatever waveforms they see on their laptop screens. But I digress. Thanks to the homey Jeff Foss, I realized there was still more I needed to learn so I began studying cats like Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff, and Aladdin.
In 1990, after arriving home from high school, I turned on Ralph McDaniels’ Video Music Box and saw this kid with sideburns and a Superman Tee flipping Whodin’s “FIVE MINUTES OF FUNK MEGAMIX.” This kid turned out to be Steve D. Again I was reminded there was still more you can do with turntables so I started studying him because not only was he creating his own beats on vinyl (no laptop), he was performing them in a way that a rapper would be able to rhyme to. But all of my learning reached its apex when my dear friend Juju (of The Beatnuts) introduced me to my mentor Dr. Butcher.
After my early years of tutelage under my brother, I was on my own. Listening to my heroes on the radio, trying to make sense out of what they were doing. And yeah, I had that one 50 second clip of Steve rockin’ the “Friends pattern” I recorded from Video Music Box but there were still missing pieces from the puzzle. My boy Andrew “Dr. Butcher” Venable solved the puzzle for me. How you may ask? Well, yeah he physically taught me things. But beyond that, spiritually, he instilled in me a BELIEF, a CONFIDENCE, that no one, not my father, not my brother, nor any of the DJs I admired from afar ever did for me. Dr. Butcher taught me that as much as I looked up to all of the DJs I mentioned earlier, I myself had my own gift. And that gift was given to me by GOD HIMSELF and that I could achieve great things if I just tapped into that gift. After 365 days of training like a Shaolin monk, Dr. Butcher gave me my first two copies of “Nobody Beats The Biz”, I think it was his way of saying “…you don’t need me any more Rob.” I gave birth to my most famous routine within days of bringing those records home.
After a little over a decade of battling, touring the globe with the X-ecutioners and making albums, I eventually turned into a teacher of the art. I’ve taught workshops in DJing in the 4 corners of the globe. Today I’m a professor of the art of DJing at The New School University.
Thus, I think I’ve earned the right to voice my opinion about the direction in which I see my beloved art of DJing going. That’s something NO ONE can ever take away away me. I don’t care who you are. And if anyone’s wondering, the consequences I may suffer for speaking out DO NOT SCARE ME! I’m not worried or concerned about being blac listed, shunned, talked about in a negative way or marginalized. Never have, never will!
My involvement with this art form spans over 3 decades. I’ve dedicated my entire life to DJing. I’ve sacrificed everything for this craft. Since 1984 I’ve woken up each morning, thinking of ways I could expose this amazing artform to people. Not just young people, but older people. Not just Hip-Hop heads but music heads. People like YOU, reading this!
After 3 1/2 decades of blood, sweat and tears for DJing, I consider myself a gatekeeper of the art. And as a gat keeper, it’s is my DUTY to watch over this beautiful art form. If we don’t watch over it, DJing will spiral into a never ending vortex of wackness. A dark abyss of cornball dudes exploiting the discipline of DJing for their own, selfish advancement. Truth is, it already has.
If y’all are anything like me, then you’re concerned over what we’re seeing from a lot of the new era “DJs” at live shows. A true DJ can perform LIVE anywhere, any time! I’m speaking from experience here, and speaking for the true DJs who put countless amounts of time into honing their skills so that when it is time to perform in front of people it’s game on! At the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards I stepped on stage with The- X-ecutioners (RIP Grand Masta Roc Raida, Total Eclipse, Mista Sinista) and we performed LIVE with Linkin Park. Rocking out to a pre-recorded set was never an option for us. Hittin’ play on an instant replay machine or laptop wasn’t even a thought for me personally because that would be me shittin’ on the DJ morals and scruples passed down to me by my father and brother. A person with the abbreviation D.J. in front of their name doesn’t spend the majority of their live performance holding a microphone. For that would make him an M.C., not a D.J.!
This reflection should not be mistaken or dismissed as “hating”. As DJs, we are responsible for carrying our art into the next generations and when we feel our craft has been mocked, capitalized on, or dressed up it is our responsibility to push back.
Could it be that record labels have stepped in DJ culture with large amounts of money to buy and package what they see as the new marketable trend, the DJ? Perhaps the money is making the DJs lazy and they don’t have to challenge themselves, which trickles down to their fans not challenging them. You see where this is going right? The true DJs that are challenging themselves to grow and constantly create, I challenge you to share that authenticity with the world and never stop the replenishing cycle of creating.
As a DJ I really care about what I do and I try my best to present it in a way that is authentic. Today’s DJ isn’t being challenged. Instead, he/she is being celebrated and the repercussion is affecting the quality of their performances. What’s more, because of technology, the way DJs present music to audiences has changed and as a result, people who actually care about the art (not the money at the expense of the art) are left feeling frustrated. Innovation doesn’t exist the same way it did when I was a student of DJing. There is too much at stake when we allow our skills as DJs to plateau and become lazy. Festival promoters and big business control how DJ culture is represented now. They’re dictating to us what latest mixer to buy and which new celebrity “DJ” to follow on social media. The current state of DJing is just a microcosm of what happens when large corporations, production teams and labels see something (Djing) as a commodity.
I reject a lot about DJ culture in 2017. I reject the way in which its technology is used. I reject its mindset, and I reject anyone who puts the abbreviation “D.J.” in front of their name that spends more time holding a microphone during a performance. Respect the DJ!