Isolating the X-Factor

They were four DJs from Harlem who called themselves The X-Men, and like the famed comic-book superheroes, they possessed a mutant ability on the decks
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They were four DJs from Harlem who called themselves The X-Men, and like the famed comic-book superheroes, they possessed a mutant ability on the decks that others envied and even feared. Their chosen arch rivals were The Supermen, whose dauntless leader, DJ Clark Kent, had parlayed his skills into a high-profile slot at New York's WBLS, the local radio mecca for hip-hop. “This was back in 1989,” Rob Swift says, leaning forward as if to accentuate the solemnity of the legend. “The X-Men at that time were Roc Raida, Steve Dee, Sean Cee and Johnny Cash. They weren't really well-known, so they felt that a cool way to come out of the darkness and just unleash themselves on everybody was to challenge the most respected DJs. That's making a statement, you know?”

Although that epic battle never took place, The X-Men rapidly ascended as one of the elite DJ crews to come up from the burgeoning hip-hop underground of the early 1990s. Their feats at organized competitions like the New Music Seminar and DMC drew loud whoops of awe while their contributions to the modern DJ lexicon — such as Steve Dee's perfection of the art of beat juggling — endure to this day. For Swift, who became a permanent member in 1991, The X-Men's stealth mode of operation was also a key element to the group's mystique. “I thought it was a cool name, because the x, like in mathematics, is unknown, and these guys were basically unknown DJs,” he recalls.

The same can hardly be said of The X-ecutioners (the group's name since 1997 for obvious trademark reasons) — now the triumvirate of Grandmaster Roc Raida, Rob Swift and Total Eclipse. As one of the longest-running DJ teams in hip-hop, they've collaborated with everyone from Wu-Tang Clan to Linkin Park to Herbie Hancock and have built an impressive catalog of their own, beginning with their debut, X-pressions (Asphodel, 1997), and progressing with their Top 40 follow-up, Built From Scratch (Loud/Columbia, 2002). Along the way, they've put together numerous mix compilations, as well as a string of individual solo projects, including Swift's genre-spanning opus, Sound Event (Tableturns, 2002), and Raida's inspired loopfest, Champion Sounds (DMC, 2003).

Revolutions (Columbia, 2004) is the trio's latest and most fully realized work of compositional genius to date, settling once and for all the tired debate about whether the turntable truly qualifies as a bona fide musical instrument. Incorporating rock, funk, jazz and even ethnic influences (check the sitar in the opening track, “Countdown Part 2”) into a swirling panorama of beats, breaks and extended scratch workouts, The X-ecutioners succeed in elevating their craft to a new level of mixology. What's more, with the help of such lofty company as Cypress Hill, Dead Prez, Rob Zombie, Fat Joe and The Roots' Black Thought (among others), they're doing it with mad style. Clearly, the members of the X-crew are no longer mere DJs: They've made the leap to full-fledged hip-hop producers.

WISDOM OF THE WARRIOR CODE

“It's actually kind of natural for DJs to become producers,” asserts Raida, who was knighted by hip-hop hall-of-famers Kool Herc, DXT and Grand Wizzard Theodore with the title of Grandmaster in 2000. “What gives us the edge is, being that we're battle DJs and turntablists, we're very well-rounded, so I guess we come at it with a realistic point of view for the music that we're trying to do. Basically, we understand how to make the music that we want to make now. Even since Built From Scratch, we've grown just learning how to put our stuff together, learning how to structure our music and make sure it's understandable. We've realized it's not about the technicality of the scratch we're doing, but it's how it comes off, how it makes you feel.”

Almost as though they're trading turntable licks at a gig, Swift expands a bit on Raida's observation. “I think with X-pressions, we did a lot of songs that revolved around our skills on the turntables,” he says. “We would construct routines and then make songs out of them, only relying on the turntable and a mixer. Now, we're using samplers; we're using drum machines; we're using multitrack mixers. We understand how to make use of a wider range of equipment. I think the technology and then the mental growth that we all experienced have helped us become the DJs and the musicians that we are today.”

“During X-pressions, we were more, like, in our own realm,” says Eclipse, who at age 27 is the youngster of the group. “We were giving ourselves the option to want to record the thoughts that we had as battle DJs, you know, to feel free to record any ideas that we had at that time. Later on, we just toured and gained experience by speaking with and meeting different artists on the road. It was just a natural-born process for us to want to move ahead.”

As Swift has repeatedly observed, battle DJs often find it difficult to make the transition from the stage to the studio because it involves the crucial step of resisting the urge to compete in favor of just making music. The X-ecutioners may have consciously reined in their battle mentality (if only slightly) for the making of Revolutions, but interestingly enough, they have sacrificed none of their competitive edge when it comes to their studio approach. Whereas studio time was once an all-too-precious commodity in their leaner, hungrier years, these days, each member has his own home-recording setup outfitted with Digidesign Pro Tools, which gives them a solid leg up for trading ideas without having to watch the clock.

“Sometimes, we may be together practicing, and we'll bump into ideas just from being spontaneous and brainstorming,” Swift explains. “Or we might work separately on our own personal time to put together an idea, and then we'll pass them along to each other and see what we can come up with. Having access to the recording equipment at home, you can just work a lot more patiently and be more focused. And you have all your records at your disposal; everything you use that inspires you to create, it's at your fingertips. When you're at a studio, you're just bringing a bag full of records, and if you find out the one you need is at home, you've just blown the whole session.”

EVOLUTION OF THE SCRATCH

Patience definitely has its rewards, and in this sense, Revolutions could just as easily have been called Evolutions to describe how Swift, Raida and Total Eclipse have sharpened their skills as producers. This time around, for example, they've opted out of bringing in hired guns (as they did on Built From Scratch, which featured production chops from such heavyweights as DJ Premier, Dan the Automator and Large Professor). For Revolutions, they chose instead to go for their own signature: an overall beat-heavy and fat-bottomed sound that owes as much to the grittiness of old-school hip-hop as it does to the slick guitar-based overdrive of some of the X-crew's surprisingly heavy rock influences.

“It felt more hands-on for us this time around, as far as the production was concerned,” Swift says. “I mean, I have my own production team with Anthony Saffery called The Professionals; Eclipse has a production partner he's working with [Matt Stein, whose notable credits include the Jungle Brothers, Brand Nubian and former members of Parliament-Funkadelic]; and Raida is producing himself, so we definitely have a method together.”

Of course, their turntablist roots always inform the method. “Our goal is to really fuse and integrate what we do as DJs into our music,” Swift continues. “We don't want our scratches to just be in the hook. So, for example, sometimes we'd take live guitar or bass, and we'd burn it onto CD and scratch it back in. By altering the guitar and the bass, we're almost becoming those instruments, thanks to the technology.”

He posits the track “Let Me Rock,” which features the guest vocals of up-and-coming nu-metal punks Start Trouble, as emblematic of this unique production move. “The song is a mixture of different styles of music,” he explains. “The drums are real hip-hop — sounding — I sampled those with the E-mu 6400 sampler — but I wanted guitars played over them. Instead of sampling the guitars and just placing them into the mix, I burned them onto CD and scratched them all back in just to inject more of my take on the turntable. I didn't want the song to lose the idea that a DJ is constructing all this. The bottom line is, we want to send you home thinking about how we used the turntable within the music, because these days, you rarely hear scratches on songs.”

A similar transformation takes place in “(Even) More Human Than Human,” which pits Rob Zombie and Atmosphere's rhyme guru Slug against some deftly layered turntable cuts and unearthly, almost schizoid-sounding effects. Anyone familiar with White Zombie's radio hit from a few years back will recognize the original song's distorted guitar line, but that's the only element that survives the X-treatment (with Matt Stein and Eclipse producing); everything else, including Zombie's newly recorded vocal, is generated from the ground up.

“It's definitely very energetic and dark-sounding, which is something that most people aren't really accustomed to hearing from us,” Swift says. “We didn't want to scratch a whole bunch of battle-break sounds like ahhh and fresh over it; we wanted real eerie, dark sounds to work with the guitars. So, again, some sounds we burned to CD and then scratched back in. There's also a part where I'm scratching a kick and a snare like a drummer. I think it's important to approach songs that way so that people understand why we say the turntable is an instrument.”

Raida voices his agreement, citing the Revolutions track “Regulators,” a study in funkativity with guest MCs Rock Marc and Sly Boogie dropping an incomparable rhythmic flow, as one of the more memorable instances in which the turntable provided a much-needed creative lift. “It's funny because I was in what I call a ‘beat slump,’ where I couldn't do a beat for like three weeks,” he recalls. “And then, one night, I was just trying out different records, and I found a part that was maybe a second long. I sampled it and just immediately had a vision of the beat coming together. From there, it opened up all kinds of possibilities. Of the songs that I've done, I feel that's one of my best mixes.”

ABOUT TIME WE GO BACK

After 10 years in the game as a cohesive unit, The X-ecutioners as a team are one of the few — if not the only — exponents of a turntable-based production style whose ties to the original b-boy essence of hip-hop and rap music remain immovable. For each of them, recognition and respect for the innovators of the past are an indispensable part of the music's future.

“That's definitely one reason why we're calling the album Revolutions, because we feel that right now, we need to spark a musical revolution,” Swift says. “A lot of artists are making music just to sell records — and that's not just rap music. But across the board, as far as hip-hop is concerned, being DJs, we know that rap music and its success is due to the hard work and creativity of Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Grandmixer DST … all those people. If it wasn't for that movement, the music wouldn't be as successful as it is now.”

“I feel like our form of turntablism is definitely going to resurface, because just like artists who make cover songs, everybody always goes back into the genesis of things,” Eclipse adds. “It's important to find out who you are and what you conduct as an artist. I just feel like the whole art form of turntablism is going to start a revolution and do a full 180 commercially.”

Probably the deepest insight comes from Raida, who, as an anointed Grandmaster, has been entrusted by his elders as a protector of the legacy of hip-hop and DJ culture. “If Kool Herc and Bambaataa weren't digging and finding breaks, hip-hop wouldn't exist,” he says. “Hip-hop came from jazz, rock, soul and all that — that's why it's been so easy for us to mix all these elements into our album, because that's what hip-hop is. This generation might think hip-hop is about, ‘You gotta have this kind of beat,’ or, ‘You have to be rhyming about this kind of thing,’ but they don't realize that hip-hop came from anything. It came from anything that was dope.”

X-PONENTS OF THE HOME STUDIO

“Back when we made X-pressions, none of us had access to home recording equipment,” Rob Swift notes. “We were forced to create that whole album in the studio, so you know, at a certain time, you've got to leave, and that can mess with your creativity.

“On Revolutions, all of us had state-of-the-art equipment at home,” he continues. “I even mixed a song from my house. It definitely made a difference for us because we could work at any time. At three in the morning, we could go lay scratches or sample a beat. With X-pressions, we couldn't do that; we had to wait until we had a session booked.”

Total Eclipse

Akai MPC2000XL sampling drum machine
Apple Mac G4
Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth
Digidesign Digi 001 interface
E-mu Proteus 2000 sound module
Event 20/20 10-inch monitors
Korg Triton-Rack module
Mackie 1604-VLZ Pro analog mixer
M-Audio Oxygen8 MIDI keyboard controller
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable
Rane TTM 56 Performance Mixer
Technics SL-1200MK4 turntables (Japan edition),
RP-DJ1200 headphones

Roc Raida

Apple Mac G3, G4 PowerBooks
Digidesign Digi 001 interface
E-mu Proteus 2000 sound module
Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable
Rane TTM 56 Performance Mixers (3)
Stanton FinalScratch digital vinyl system
Technics SL-1200 turntables (3)
Vestax PDX-2000 turntable

Rob Swift

Akai MPC2000XL sampling drum machine
Apple Mac G4 PowerBook
Digidesign Mbox interface w/Pro Tools software
E-mu E6400 Ultra sampler
Mackie 1604-VLZ Pro analog mixer
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable
Rane TTM 56 Performance Mixer
Roland VS-1680, VS-2480 digital studio workstations
Shure KSM32 mic
Vestax PDX-2000 turntables (2)