A Round-Table Discussion with Rob Swift, Jack Napier and Emily Rhodes.
‘It’s like a bastard language, your scratch vocabulary’
As fate would have it, the very night I got to LA earlier this month my boy Rob Swift of the X-Ecutioners was playing an intimate show at the Grand Star Jazz Club downtown. So, hot off a flight from SF, we ventured deep into the heart of Chinatown to catch Rob performing some of his intense scratching skills before a completely mesmerised crowd.
As funky and swinging as the tracks that he mixed up were, Rob demonstrating his ridiculous turntable prowess brought the dance-floor to a literal standstill. And, once he got into his set, turned on party-goers gravitated towards the decks like honey-bees and gathered in a swarm, hungry for some of Swift’s sweet scratch-porn…
Afterwards, my girl Emily Rhodes and I caught up with Rob and Jack Napier – possibly the most hilarious guy I have ever met – to have a little post-show break down. The interview even got flipped on us at points as we discussed Rob’s set, scratch vocabularies, individuality, commercialism, Grime, the one and only A Tribe Called Quest, Crip-Walking and debated the issue of scratch skills versus performance gimmickry…
Jack: (on DJ Scratch) He’s got the tricks, but then he went into ‘Thea-tricks’ – know what I’m saying?
Rob: He’s very visual.
Me: Partly that’s who you’re playing for, right? Like if you’re playing for music heads or…
Rob: That’s a good point. You’re right Alice, it does depend on the audience – remember when we met? I played more; it was more of a dance crowd.
Me: Yeah, Jehst’s show at Fabric.
Rob: I did a lot less of the scratching, because you want to adapt to the people that are there to see you. You don’t want to play for yourself all the time, you know, so it’s a fine balance.
Jack: Let’s get down to the session, as we’re gonna talk hip hop a little bit – I’m going to give it to Alice, cos I think Alice was about to ask something – so, Miss Alice?
Me: Well, we were just talking about A Tribe Called Quest, and how much we all love them – so, Rob, what is your favourite Tribe album?
Rob: That’s easy – ‘Midnight Marauders’.
Jack: I told you!
Rob: That’s my personal favourite Tribe album – the song that I like the most on it’s called ‘Keep It Rollin’, produced by Large Professor. Large Professor was a huge influence for me as a producer – he’s the guy that inspired me to want to learn how to produce music, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have the albums that I have. You know, to make an album you have to learn how to produce a song, and being in the studio with him – when I used to DJ for a guy named Akinyele and we were working on his album – I learnt. Albums called ‘Vagina Diner’.
Rob: He produced the whole album, and I learned how to construct a song – not just scratch over music, but compose my scratches to a composition, over music. So, ‘Keep It Rollin’ is like my favourite track off ‘Midnight Marauders’, but in general I think that album to me was the best Tribe album.
Jack: That’s dope. And you said something just now: ‘composing scratches’ – when I think about song compositions I think about rhymes and bridges… What is it to composing scratches as you would compose a song? How would you compose a scratch? Cos I would always take a freestyle approach to scratching…
Rob: Scratches if you think about it are words. It’s like a bastard language; your scratch vocabulary, the types of patterns that you execute – if they are broad, then you have to figure out a way to put it all together into a composition.
Jack: This is TTM-101 by the way – ‘Turntablist Transcription Method’. It’s official.
Rob: Yeah, there you go. You’re just basically expressing yourself through the movement of a record. And, my scratch vocabulary may be more versed than yours-
Jack: Maybe! (laughs)
Rob: But, that being said, you can still communicate, I just may have a wider range of words that I may use. So, whereas you may say you’re ‘walking to the store’, I may say through scratches ‘I’m getting up off the coach, walking to the store to buy soda’.
Jack: Right, right.
Rob: I throw in a lot more words, which are the patterns that I’m doing, and that’s what I mean by composition; it’s knowing how to put it all together in a way that sounds complementing – and you’re not just going crazy scratching with no rhyme or reason.
Jack: I got you. Word. So, Rob just played his set – (to Emily) what did you think? Cos this is new to you right? So what was your take on what you saw tonight? Were you feeling the energy? The vibe? I saw you dancing a little bit – I wanted to dance with you…
Emily: (laughs) It made me want to dance – I guess that’s good isn’t it?
Jack: And Miss Alice – what was your favourite song that he played?
Me: I wanted to say actually – because generally, I don’t really like Missy Elliot, but the way that you juggled ‘Get Your Freak On’ in the set – I really enjoyed that. For me, normally if I hear that come on I’ll be like ‘nah – time to get a drink now…’ – but the way you played it, I wanted to listen to it.
Rob: That’s cool.
Jack: I’m gonna get on that, cos I’ve actually heard you juggle ‘Get Your Freak On’ before right? But you flipped it up a bit tonight with the ‘Hottest Around’ bit – I have never heard that particular juggle from you – that was hot.
Rob: Thank you sir.
Jack: Rob’s like: ‘I guess we know who’s the ‘Hottest Around’…’ (laughs). Good call Alice, good call.
Rob: Yes, sir. So we got some London girls here in Cali – let me interview you guys for a second. Alice – are you guys enjoying LA?
Me: Very much – I’ve been here a few hours, so it’s been good so far (laughs).
Rob: You were in San Fran earlier right?
Me: Yeah, in San Francisco. My second home.
Rob: And Emily – you just got here too right?
Rob: And it’s business and pleasure for you? You’re working too right?
Emily: Yes it is. Working for Partizan out here, and got my girl Alice to play with. A nice mixture.
Jack: Emily just got here – she’s already sitting next to Jack Napier! (All laugh)
Rob: She’s a pimp.
Emily: What can I say?
Jack: Wait till she finds out who I am! (laughs)
Emily: What? That sounds really ominous.
Rob: Yeah, Jacks a pimp too. No – don’t mind him. (laughs) Yo – (to Jack) where’s that picture you gave me? We got a signed picture of my homie Napier-
Jack: (Whacks out old-skool Napier record) Yeah, when I’m not all braided up I actually clean up pretty well (laughs).
Emily: You’ve got the same necklace on, is that like a lucky…?
Me: Yeah – what does the ‘818’ mean?
Rob: Break down the ‘818’ for us.
Jack: 818 is the area-code for my area, my little slice of Los Angeles, Califonia – San Fernando Valley.
Emily: It’s funny how American mobile phones have different area-codes depending where they’re from, that’s weird.
Jack: Right. And I’ll tell you why – Americans tend to do a lot of shit in excess. We do way more than we should! We coined a phrase called ‘Doing too much’, because we do too much.
Me: What a phrase.
Jack: Like for example – why do I have two of the same cell-phone? I don’t know. Why do you need 26” rims on a truck?
Emily: Exactly – it’s just like…why??!
Rob: Yeah, Americans in general are very into showing off. Even people who don’t have the money – ‘Fake it till you make it’ is a saying here, like: ‘act like you’re rich, present yourself like you’re rich – and maybe you’ll get rich…’
Jack: A lot of acting – and some people can fake it till they do make it…just don’t do too much!
Me: It’s interesting to think about the parallel between US Hip Hop and UK Hip Hop, the UK Grime scene in that sense – cos there was a study recently called ‘Don’t Call Me Urban’ and it had this whole thing about how Grime started off being a pretty genuine representation of, you know, council estates and that sub-culture, and then it became more like this whole bigging up the labels that you’re wearing-
Me: And the money that you have, when obviously if you come from certain areas in London you don’t have very much money.
Rob: Exactly. It’s a contradiction isn’t it?
Me: Yeah, and it’s quite heart-breaking at the same time. The way that that Grime scene has kind of evolved into this mainstream culture-
Jack: What’s an example of a Grime scene city?
Me: Well areas like Bow and Peckham in London, and I guess artists like Wiley back in the day – but now it’s become whack stuff like Tinie Tempeh. Dizzee Rascal – I mean he was grime but now he’s so mainstream-
Emily: He’s well mainstream!
Me: Yeah – but he was credible.
Emily: Everyone used to have tapes of him back in the day.
Me: Yeah – right. So it’s the exact same thing as what’s happened in the US with Hip Hop, so it’s not necessarily an American thing, it’s like any scene that gets recognition…
Jack: Well I’ll put it this way – Dizzee Rascal is so mainstream over here, I didn’t know he was from London! (laughs)
Me: Yeah, for real. I was talking to a guy earlier who worked at the hotel, we were talking about the Cookie Crew – and even those girls, like I didn’t even know that they’re from Clapham in London – I always thought they were American cos they rap with American accents.
Rob: Wow, and they’re from London? That’s interesting.
Me: Yeah, they’re from the late eighties and just have that American female emcee sound – and it was just kind of the fashion to emulate that style back then.
Rob: Individualism – it’s like, I don’t know, like a weird meaning right?
Jack: Yeah, it’s not all you think it is. And you know what? I remember when people started to do the reverse thing in the late eighties/ early nineties and a lot of people started getting rid of the gold and wearing the African medallions and lions on the shirts – remember that?
Jack: Red, gold and green was all the rage. But, one person does it and then all of a sudden a whole genre does it – and then there’s a whole commercialism that’s added to that too. Like: ‘hey, if you wanna keep it real, keep it genuine – this is what you gotta do’. Then, you got people rocking all this jazz who really don’t know why they’re doing it, what it means, what it stands for…they don’t know what the star is, know what I mean?
Rob: They’re just doing it because it’s fashion.
Jack: So there’s a lot of that goes on. From one aspect of the spectrum all the way to the other – there’s, you know, upper crust people who are fighting for their keep it real individualism socialistic status, all the way down to…gangsters. I mean real gangsters – when the Crip Walk became the big thing and everybody wanted to Crip Walk – but they didn’t realise, that’s some real shit!
Rob: You’re not supposed to be Crip-Walking if you’re not a Crip.
Me: What’s Crip-Walk?
Rob: It’s like a…gang-dance? You know the Crips and the Bloods who were popular here in LA right? It’s like a dance that I would never fucking do.
Jack: It’s not something you recommend doing. Basically, it’s one thing associated with one group of people and if you’re not affiliated-
Rob: Don’t do the dance. And it became a thing where you’d see people doing the Crip-Walk who weren’t Crips, and it’s kind of disrespectful I feel too, cos that’s something that’s exclusive to them. If you see someone doing the Crip dance, you automatically assume they’re a Crip, and if you’re a Blood let’s say – like the rival of the Crips – and you’re not even a Crip but you’re Crip-Walking, you could get seriously hurt.
Jack: It’s a thing that originated with one group of people to individualise them, and it got popular and it went mainstream, and long story short – a whole bunch of people are doing stuff because it looks cool but they don’t know where it originates from. But, there are people who do know where it originates from and they take it very serious. Like, deadly serious. Before you know, people are getting, you know…dealt with, individually, know what I mean? And got to a point where high profile representatives of these groups were taking position in general media to let people know ‘hey – if this isn’t what you are, this isn’t what you should be doing – this is not the new thing at the club to be doing; if you’re not part of it, don’t mess with it’.
Me: What was the dance for?
Rob: The Crip-Walk – did you do it like, just before you would…fuck somebody up type of shit?
Jack: No. Noooo…
Rob: What was its function?
Jack: It was just something that Crips did when they were kicking back you know or chilling.
Rob: We ended this off on the Crip-Dance! Man.