Q&A: DJ Rob Swift Looks Back On His Work With The Late Roc Raida

Back in the early '90s, the DJs Rob Swift and Roc Raida would take the subway to each other's cribs and engage in seven-hour practice sessions. Raida's apartment, up in Harlem, was decorated with posters of rap acts Ice Cube, Kid 'N' Play and MC Lyte; Swift's bedroom in Queens showcased inspirational pictures of Jimi Hendrix and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As Swift says now, from his apartment in Jackson Heights, "Me and Raida had different tastes and influences but we bonded as DJs as soon as we met." Soon, the duo would terrorize the hip-hop battle scene as part of both the X-Men crew of super-DJs and then the X-Ecutioners.

But that bond was tragically cut in September 2009, when Roc Raida passed away after suffering a heart attack that stemmed from an accident that occurred while practicing martial arts a couple of weeks earlier. It's a loss his friend and DJ peer Rob Swift has chosen to commemorate by releasing Roc For Raida, a mix of Raida's best routines, productions, and poignant interview snippets; all proceeds from the project will go to Raida's family. Swift sat down and reminisced about how Raida's school of DJing thought differed from his fellow X-Men's, the day their crew faced off against Q-Bert and Mixmaster Mike's Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and how Raida's developing production work might have seen him collaborating with Jay-Z.

DJ Rob Swift, Roc For Raida trailer

You recreate some of Roc Raida's DJ routines on Roc For Raida. Are they hard routines to pull off?

Yeah, the majority of Roc Raida's routines were very difficult. The unique thing about him and his style was that he wasn't satisfied with just being able to manipulate a record with his hands—he also had to figure out a way to make it harder and faster, so he'd incorporate different parts of his body into his routines. Not only was he trying to use different body parts—his elbow, his back, his nose, his stomach—but he'd figure out a way to pick up his mixer and hold it in the air and do tricks. He always figured out a way to do something both sonically and physically. He was on a completely different level when it came to being flashy and his showmanship.

Was the showmanship something Raida was doing when you first met him, or did that come later in his career?

If you look at the history, the original members of the X-Men were Steve Dee, Jonny Cash, Sean C and Roc Raida. Steve Dee was the most popular, the most accomplished, and his style was basically taking a section of a song and making a whole new song out of the drum section of the beat. Steve calls it The Funk; it's more widely known to be beat-juggling—so taking the kick, the snare and the hi-hat and rearranging the sounds. When I was inducted into the X-Men two years after it was created, in 1991, I felt like there was a school of thought in regard to the members of the group and their approach to creating their routines. It's similar to, say, Sigmund Freud: He had a concept and theory on how the mind works and his followers helped project that approach and it became the Freud way of thinking when it came to psychology. It's the same with the X-Men: Steve Dee had this approach to making music with vinyl and the rest of the X-Men pushed that approach. But Raida, I feel, out of all of the original members he was the one that I felt wanted to shy away and break away from that school of thought. He was like, "I don't want to just stand in front of the turntables and make beats; I want to also be flashy and incorporate body tricks into my routines." So Raida was the one who broke away from that school of thought and developed his own ideas and his own approach to manipulating vinyl.

How did the other members of the X-Men take to Raida's new style? Did they ever think the body tricks were a little corny?

Honestly, to be candid with you, from what Raida told me in our conversations, I think Steve Dee wasn't as supportive of him breaking away from the X-Men school of thought. I think Raida felt like Steve Dee was very resolute in his approach to DJing and his approach to creating battle routines. Whereas Raida, as much as he learned from that school of thought, he was more curious and he'd see other DJs do tricks and it would appeal to him more than it did to the other guys in the group. With Steve, as the founder of the group, there was more of a struggle there to gain acceptance for the route that Raida was taking and his approach. These [thoughts] are from conversations I've had with Raida. But I think a guy like Diamond J, Johnny Cash, even myself, we were a little more open.

Speaking for myself, I was more open to the idea that as a DJ or a student of any art form you want to be able to do anything and have a variety in your style, not limit yourself to one way of doing something. Some people may listen to you do a beat-juggle and may not understand it, but if you add a physical trick and move the fader with your elbow or stop the record with your back, then that part of the routine is appealing to them. You impress them physically, not just sonically. That to me is very important for a DJ.

You mentioned Raida being known for his body-tricks. Were there any really outlandish ideas that he talked to you about, but could never pull off?

To be honest, every idea that Roc Raida thought of, he figured out a way to do it. There was nothing that he said he wanted to do that he couldn't figure out. I remember he said, "I want to pick up the mixer as I'm DJing, turn around, hold the mixer and move the fader with my back as I'm manipulating records." [Swift stands up and walks over to his turntables and picks up his mixer.] Just doing it right now is difficult with no music, so imagine finding out a way to do it, to stay on beat, and do the trick! He did that at the '95 World DMC battle that he won. That was probably one of the reasons why he won.

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