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.
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.
What sort of records or breaks did Raida like using the most?
He was cutting up records like [Run-DMC’s] “Peter Piper,” [Herman Kelly’s] “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat,” [LL Cool J’s] “Rock The Bells,” and he had a really cool routine with Boogie Down Production’s “The Bridge Is Over.” That was one of my favorite of Raida’s routines. But to be honest with you, he was cutting records that all of us were cutting and scratching and mixing at some point. I don’t wanna say there was anything special or unique about them—what was unique was the way he manipulated them and that made him stand out.
Were there any records he used that did surprise you?
I think the record I was most surprised with was actually two records: Before Roc Raida, I never saw a DJ take two records and use them at the same time. For the most part the DJ is manipulating duplicate copies of the same song. Raida came up with the idea of using “Good Times” by Chic and [Vaughan Mason’s] “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” and he decided he was gonna use those two different records and create a battle set from them. That moment was when I really realized that his mind was different from the average battle DJ’s, because up until then the example that was shown to us by the pioneers that came before us was that you used two copies of the same record. He decided to use two different records and fuse them together to make one track out of it. He really didn’t limit himself.
What was Roc Raida’s reputation like in the DJ battle circuit?
Raida’s rep in the battle scene was that he was just an animal, a beast.
So were people scared to battle him?
That’s the thing: because he was so good, people wanted to battle him. Raida was the kinda guy that you wanted to battle because if you won it would catapult your own career. After he retired—after he won his DMC world title—we were touring as the X-Ecutioners and we’d do shows and people would call him out from the crowd, like, “I wanna battle Roc Raida!” And he’d be like, “Okay, let’s go!” Right in the middle of the show he’d take ten minutes out from the performance and battle a fan from the crowd! Even with all his accomplishments and titles and accolades, if you challenged him he’d be like, “Okay, let’s go right now.”
I’m so glad you brought this up, because you have a lot of guys now who are quote-unquote the world’s best DJ or the world’s greatest DJ and you ask them if they wanna battle and they just say, “Oh, you wanna battle me? That’s $20,000. Let’s battle for 20 grand or your car.” But Raida would battle for nothing, just for pride. That speaks to his humility. Even though you were a fan or an up-and-coming DJ challenging him, he’d still give you the respect to let you see where you ranked. That’s something you don’t see any more. I mean, I myself have had run-ins with popular DJs: “You think I suck? I think you suck? Let’s battle.” But it’s like, “Oh, you wanna battle, Rob? 20 grand.” Why don’t we just battle to see who’s better? Hip-Hop is about that; b-boys did it, MCs did it. Things have changed a lot now, but Roc Raida didn’t—he was a b-boy at heart.
What’s the most memorable battle you and Raida took part in?
The Invisibl Skratch Piklz versus the X-Men in 1996. That was intense. We went at each other like our lives depended on it. It was the two schools of DJing at the time that were the most popular: the X-Men with our New York style of beat-juggling, body tricks and showmanship, and the Skratch Piklz with the west coast approach which was focussed on scratching. You had people that swore on the Bible that X-Men were the best, or the Skratch Piklz were the best. It was two crews literally putting their reputations on the line and their school of thought on the line. If you watch the clips on YouTube, you see Roc Raida’s face and he looked like he wanted to fight them; his facial expressions and physically how he moved on the turntables, it looked like a fight to him. We scarified our reputations for the fans to see something that will never take place again and never had before. When you watch the video you can just feel the energy in the room and how loud people were getting whenever one guy would one up the other.
What was the vibe like after the battle?
After the battle we hugged, laughed, and were like we’ll never do that again! It was so stressful preparing for it. I mean, I’ve got to prepare to battle Mixmaster Mike and Q-Bert—that was a stressful thing.
Before battles, did you guys talk about strategy a lot?
We totally talked about strategy all the time. Battling isn’t just a physical thing—it’s a mental thing. It involves understanding how to adapt to your opponent, when to pull out your best routine and when to save it, how to perform your routine in a way that intimidates your opponent, looking at him, demeaning him with the words you use. Battling is definitely psychological. It was like war.
What’s the funniest or best dis another DJ has aimed at you in a battle?
Raida actually had a dis towards me with this Roxanne Shante record. He would take the words “Rob Swift” that Akinyele was saying on “Dear Diary,” and then took Shante saying, “You should go on vacation/ With that name sounding like a wack radio station” [from “Have A Nice Day”]. He’d go back and forth between the two. He’d always do it at me and everyone would laugh and point at me!
Beyond the battle circuit, Roc Raida also started to get into producing for rappers like the Jungle Brothers and Big L. Was that something he was interested in pursuing further?
He was definitely interested in doing more production. As a DJ, that’s the natural step forward. So hanging around his producer mentor, Showbiz from Show & A.G., he really got that bug to want to make beats. I feel like Roc Raida was as nasty on production as he was on the battle scene. It’s unfortunate that he passed away ’cause I feel like we’ll never know what he would have went on to accomplish as a producer. But he did leave us behind an assortment of music; I got to play a lot of his production on the mixtape. It gives you an idea of the potential he had.
How did Roc Raida come to be mentored by Showbiz?
Roc Raida met Show and A.G. through Lord Finesse. They were looking for a DJ; Roc Raida was good friends with Lord Finesse and tight with those guys, so he was recommended. He went on to be their tour DJ and learn how to produce under Showbiz.
How would you sum up Roc Raida’s production style?
He favored a lot of dark beats. Uptown producers like Buckwild, Lord Finesse, and Showbiz, they all have a distinct sound and Roc Raida, being from Harlem, he was influenced by that sound. He had that dark sound to his production style.
If he were around today, who do you think Roc Raida would be producing for?
He’d be working with a variety of people: rock bands, rock artists, obviously hip-hop artists. But it would be music that was hard hitting and loud and in your face. I couldn’t picture Roc Raida working with like a singer or anything like that.
Which rappers would you have most liked to have heard over a Roc Raida production?
It’s crazy, because Roc Raida did so much different stuff. I could say Rakim or Dr. Dre, but I wonder what Jay-Z song would have sounded like with Roc Raida production. I feel like Jay-Z to me always sounds best when he’s on DJ Premier style beats, Just Blaze style beats, and Roc Raida was definitely on that boom-bap hard-hitting shit. I wonder what a Jay-Z song would sound like with Roc Raida behind the boards.