Underground Report: Dessa & Rob Swift
One of the true innovators of turntables talks about his Classical-inspired album & Roc Raida, while Doomtree's Dessa explains her rich lyrics, and touches on real life experiences.
“My [original] concern was [that] I didn’t want anybody to say that I wasn’t Hip Hop. And, obviously, if you walk into a club where I’m performing on stage, I’m likely to look pretty different than most of the other performers that evening,” - Dessa
Dessa, the Minneapolis rhyme writer representing the Doomtree collective, does indeed “look pretty different” from her peers. Perhaps it’s more important that her music is also significantly different, offering a unique perspective on life, love and everything in between with a refreshing sound. Currently, fans can catch Dessa on tour promoting her first full length album, A Badly Broken Code, a collection of musical work that has already been dubbed one of the best albums of 2010 by some critics.
Fans have been anticipating this album since her well received introduction to the Rap world, something that carried over to an appreciation for her work with Doomtree. She took her time releasing this full length, giving fans a dose of what to expect on her False Hopes EP back in 2005. Meanwhile, she dedicated herself to writing but not solely focused on music. In 2009, she released Spiral Bound, a collection of essays full of “reflective, funny-sad commentary on human nature.”
With her latest release finally out, Dessa spoke to HipHopDX about the album, how her childhood influenced her writing and much more. Offering candid accounts and a fresh outlook on life, Dessa also spoke of her family, running away from home, becoming an educator and all the lessons she’s learned along the way.
HipHopDX: On "Children's Work," you compare your father and mother to a paper plane and windswept tree. I was curious how those attributes helped inform your identity.
Dessa: I think that my mother, for a portion of my childhood, had a few hard years, which is why I think she reminded me of a windswept tree, still standing but taking a lot of wear and tear from the world around her. My father is a pilot and also a scholarly cerebral guy. I would say that both of them gave me an intellectual [side]. They’re both bright and they’re both kind of ascetics. There is not a very high value placed on materials things in either of their lives and there is a very high value placed on ideas, conversation and language and maybe also a propensity towards melancholy. I inherited all those characteristics from them.
DX: Which are you more like?
Dessa: Wow, um, I think I’m probably a little bit more like my father. I’ve got a lot of enthusiasm and I’ve got a temper and a facility with language. I think all of those things come in large part from him. He was also a classical guitarist so when I was a little kid, I would hear the kind of melancholy strains of classical guitar and I would imagine that also informed my taste in the kind of harmonies I like.
DX: You mentioned melancholy a couple of times right now, but you also mention it on the album. So, what created those “dark circles” before you turned 10?
Dessa: I think that I’ve always been most active in my mental life. The best and most exciting moments for me, happen in the space between my ears or they happen in good conversations. If I were to recount some of the best and worst moments of my life, it’s very seldom doing an activity or playing a sport. It has to do more with ideas or brilliant conversations that I’ve had with friends. So I think even when I was a little kid, I would think a lot and when I look at pictures of me as a little girl, already I have dark circles beneath my eyes. I’ve also heard that it’s associated with having allergies so maybe it’s just me being Romantic about the entire thing.
DX: Could be. Which do you think it is more of?
Dessa: I want to say the propensity towards intellectualism but I bet it’s probably allergies. [Laughs]
DX: Now, you mention this connection between the intellectual and the thoughts leaning towards melancholy. Do you think that, often times, the more we learn about the world, the more questions and appropriate anger we have?
Dessa: I think it’s felt that way for me. In talking to some of my friends, it seems as though there are some bright and inquisitive minds who are more effortlessly adaptive to the world but I don’t know. I guess I started to suspect that it’s just like any other idiosyncrasy. You know? Some people have blonde hair, some people have strawberry blonde hair. Some people have jet black hair and some people have different thresholds of physical pain. I don’t know. I think it might just be that the chemical cocktail in my head that’s part of my personality is a little bit more prone to being blue on occasion than some of my friends. That’s what I’m guessing anyway.
DX: You mention that, but I think a lot of people can relate. How did you deal with that as a kid?
Dessa: I didn’t deal with it real gracefully as a teenager. I ran away from home for awhile when I was 14. I think I was kind of…I know I was tough to raise, so I didn’t have good answers for that. I would sometimes write bad poetry as a teenager but it didn’t serve as an out to prevent some pretty outlandish behavior.
DX: So, you ran away? Where’d you go?
Dessa: I stayed in the same city. I grew up in Minneapolis and I was there. So, I cut off all my hair and a friend dyed it purple at the Mississippi River. Eventually, I reconciled with my parents. I met them at a center for runaway teens. This all happened through the course of one summer so it was a brief foray but I mention it only to say that I was still trying to figure out what to do with that melancholy and that restlessness. As an adult, it’s a much more manageable part of my life but I remember as a teenager, being really troubled by it.
DX: What led you to come back and reconcile?
Dessa: You know, I’m not sure. I think, in part, it might just be the natural aging of a temperament. I noticed that a lot of cats are more angry, at least on the surface, when they’re teenagers and when they’re in their twenties, than when they’re older. I think that might have to do with how our disposition matures. I think it’d be paying myself too high a compliment to say “Oh, I used to have those feelings as a teenager but now I’ve figured out how to make them productive feelings and handle all of them.” I think I had feelings that happened more intensely when I was a teenager than now on some fronts. But, if I felt them as strongly now as I did when I was 15, I probably would still freak out and run away from home. [Laughs]
DX: On “Children’s Work” you say “I asked God to take the damage out on me / Ten years later, he finally gets the memo / Sent it to accounting and knocked out my front teeth.” So, did you really get your teeth knocked out?
Dessa: Yeah, I did get my teeth knocked out. Wow. Thank you for listening carefully. I was at summer camp and I was swimming and I’m clumsy. I did an overzealous breast stroke into the cement side of the pool and then surfaced and spit out my front teeth.
DX: On the album, you also say, ”A flat-chested gap toothed girl was the best that I’ve been so far.” What made you choose that image as a symbolism for innocence?
Dessa: That’s from “Mineshaft II” about a woman that receives a phone call from a lover who asks if she can forgive him. So, this woman, in trying to do so, finds that she’s a little bit too jaded to be able to say “Yes, I forgive you.” So, she visits her former self, as the flat-chested gap toothed girl, so that she can accept his apology. I guess in part, [I chose that] because it was a true story. A part of it is obvious fictionalization. I tried to think about what I looked like when I was 10. There’s none of the trappings of being a woman. And particularly, knowing the way that I’m looked at now, as a woman in Hip Hop is very womanly. There’s only a few female emcees and that’s a big deal and we call them female emcees instead of rappers. We call them femcees, feminems and everything else…As a kid, although I made a lot of mistakes and continue to do so, I did try to do the right thing even if it hurt to do. My parents were real clear about that. Integrity was one of the principle values even if everything else got fucked. It’s right to honor your word and try to do the right thing. I think I could have counted on me at ten to say, “Yep, I’m up for the challenge. This is going to hurt like hell but if it’s right, then you should do it.”
DX: The forgiveness was the right thing to do?
Dessa: Yeah, morally, my intuition said it was the right thing to forgive him. But, the less impressive parts of me, the pettiness, the old hurt and the fear made that difficult.
DX: When did you fall in love with language?
Dessa: You could probably identify all the factors that help to cultivate a love of language but I think a lot of it was probably at play before I was aware of them. I do know that when I was four, I asked my mom, she had been working at her desk, and I said, “Ma, can we do that thing where you talk and then I talk and then you talk again?” She said, “A conversation?” And I said, “Yeah! I want to have a conversation!” She always tells that story as like, my first ambition, you know? The first thing I asked for, to have a conversation. I don’t know exactly where it came from. I know my parents are a big part of it. I think that probably, my personality is predisposed to be extroverted and be verbal. They called me Chatty Cathy, which is a pull string doll from the '60s. They still tease me, my mom and dad. At dinner time, there would be meals where I would talk and entire meals would be eaten and no one had said anything, which doesn’t put me in an awesome light, but…[laughs].
DX: So, what do they think of Dessa the emcee?
Dessa: I think, initially, my dad was apprehensive about it because what he’d seen from Rap didn’t look like something that he thought I’d be interested in, because of the views that it purveyed, because of the way it treated women and because of the violence and the materialism that was so often involved. I wasn’t mad at him. I think a lot of people, when they talk about how Hip Hop appears in the mainstream, they get real mad that people aren’t digging deeper. I’m like, “Dude, if I heard music from Yemen and I didn’t like it, the last thing I’m going to do is see if there’s an underground Yemen musical community. You know? [Laughs] If you don’t like what you see, why on Earth would you dig farther looking, unless somebody told you, “There’s something else and something you might like here.” I wasn’t mad and I’m not mad when people say, “What I’ve seen of Rap, I don’t like.” Instead, I said, “Well, can I sit with you, Dad? Can I play you a mixed CD to try to demonstrate the other ways of the Rap world?” He said, “Yeah.” He was living in a one bedroom apartment at the time and we sat down on the floor. I made a mix tape to try to introduce some of the other things that Rap music could be. So, I played him “Duct Tape” by P.O.S. and I played him [“Ms. Jackson” by OutKast] and gave him the words or rapped along with it. And now, he jokingly calls himself “The Patriarch of the First Family of Hip Hop.” [Laughs] He sent me a text today [Laughs]. It’s stupid and he knows it’s ridiculous! He uses the acronym, POTFFOH. He’s very supportive. My mom is into it. It took her a little longer to come around. She’d hoped I’d be a lawyer, I think, for awhile. I think I get why. She thought there was some verbal dexterity there and when she considered the professions that might most benefit from that, law came to mind. But, I don’t know. I don’t want to spend my life arbitrating other people’s problems.
DX: Now aside from being a rapper, you’re an educator. What drove you to that field?
Dessa: Ah, well, I guess the honest thing is that I’d been working as a technical writer. And a musician in Minneapolis who had seen me perform invited me to do a guest lecture. He was an educator. I went into his classroom and I prepared an hour lecture and presented it. I suppose that I wrote it with the same kind of approach that I would have done, maybe a spoken word presentation. I tried to make it animated and interesting and everything. Later, he asked me if I’d be interested in joining the faculty and I said, “Yeah. I gotta pay rent and I’m excited by the prospect of public speaking.” And I liked his institution a lot on my brief visit there. So, I said, “Yeah.” That was about three years ago. I’m now teaching at McNally Smith [College of Music], which is in St. Paul. It just happened that last semester, they started the first Hip Hop diploma program to be offered by an accredited institution. I was already there when it started and then naturally, they asked if I wanted to be a part of it and I said yes.
DX: What has been your greatest accomplishment there?
Dessa: I would say, working as a composition instructor, which is when I’m working with students who are trying to improve their songwriting. There was one student there named Johnathon Hacckett, who was really good. He was a very native, natural talent. He was willing to work hard, willing to listen music with which he was unfamiliar and willing to really hustle. After I had gotten a chance to work with him and finesse the lyrics a little bit, listening to his finished song didn’t feel like teaching. It didn’t feel like work. It was all I could do not to sing out loud in harmony with him. It was so exciting to imagine that I’d had any part in helping him craft what he did.
DX: So, now you’re a teacher, but I’m curious, who are what has been your greatest teacher?
Dessa: I was taught a lot of what I know about rap from Doomtree. That sounds like I’m answering in an effort to be promotional but I’m really not. When I started getting involved in underground Hip Hop, one of my favorite CDs was by Doomtree. I had no idea where they lived. I had no idea where they were from. It turned out that they were my next door neighbors and I thought they were from Seattle or something. So, they were really one of the discs that I first heard where I thought, “Oh, man. This feels real.” It felt real because I could hear them giggling in their recording booth. It sounded like they had captured this real charismatic performance, not just a super polished studio presentation. It felt like this purposefulness to Doomtree and they just seemed like good guys and in Hip Hop that can sometimes be a challenge to find, to feel like you’re in the company of good contentious men.
DX: You say something that struck me on the album. You “love this job” but “hate the business.” What keep you in it?
Dessa: The music. I love making music, singing it, writing it. I love listening to musical ideas from my friends. That stuff is completely untainted and untarnished. The only time that can be disenchanting is after the music is done and it’s time to present the music to the public. The making of the music still feels like a completely enthusiastic adventure. When the music’s done is when you really interface with the people in the music industry. Some of them are great people but some of them are colossal jackasses.
DX: And hopefully you end up working more with the great ones more, right?
Dessa: I hope so, right? I mean, I want to. It’s hard, though, sometimes, even just to know who might have your best interest in mind, who doesn’t and who’s more interested in short term profit than in long term artistic growth. So, right now, I’m living in the body of a 28 year old woman and I understand that that body can be dressed up and presented in provocative ways. But, I’m reluctant to play that up too hard because soon, I’m going to be living in the body of a 40 year old woman and my mind will be just as active and I hope my musical ideas will be even better. I don’t want to accidentally build a career that is contingent on having a young woman’s body because I only have that for a little while.
DX: I read something where you talked about appropriate anger as a response to the world. What makes you angriest nowadays?
Dessa: Yeah, I don’t like it when people use the word "faggot" in hate. I really don’t like that at all and I don’t like it when people are…I don’t know. The way that women are sometimes treated and dismissed makes me blue. The way that gay people are treated in American society and a lot of places makes me blue and pisses me off. I’d say those two things are easy button pushers for me.
DX: What is more liberating to you, writing, rapping or singing?
Dessa: Oh, wow. Um, man. I think it’s whichever one I’m doing best on stage that night. There are some evenings when I get up and I know my voice is on and I know I can go anywhere I need to in three octaves. You can take the beat out, turn me up in the monitors and I can improvise and my voice is going to be there like a safety net to catch me. And then there’s other nights that I feel like I am up there and my voice is still in the green room, like “I’ve got nothin’ tonight.” And I have to be safe and I have to play it careful and maybe find a harmony note instead of my highest note, just in case my voice can’t go up there with me. On those evenings, I’ve got a mic in my fist and I’m leaning forward and I’m rapping hard because I’m not worried about getting enough breaths to support a delicate note, I’m worried about ripping it! So, it changes from night to night.
DX: What about writing?
Dessa: I guess prose. I think that’s the place that I’m most comfortable. If somebody demanded to know which I thought I was more capable in, I think I’m getting better as a singer for sure. I know I’m getting better as a rapper. But, I think if I had to call it, I’d say I’m strongest as a prose writer right now.
He grew up in a house full of music. It was as if he was destined to be a deejay. But, what no one knew, at the time, was that young Robert Aguilar would grow to become one of Rap’s most influential turntablists. Back then, folks just saw a kid from Jackson Heights, Queens. It was around this time that he learned about the beauty of deejaying, before ever learning the intricacies of cutting and scratching. He watched his father spin Merengue and Salsa, driven by the infectious rhythm and inspired by it. He also attentively observed his older brother, dug in the crates and the love of the music stuck with him. Now, he’s the accomplished Robert Aguilar, better known as DJ Rob Swift, known for his work with The X-Ecutioners, Ill Insanity and his acclaimed solo work.
But he’s never stopped learning. As the years passed since his last release, he developed a new love for classical music, a genre he previously didn’t pay much attention to. Often relegated to “elevator music” dismissal, classical music rejuvenated Swift and that love informed his art. Now, with the release of The Architect, he is ready to unveil this work. Swift recently spoke to HipHopDX about this project, his love of music, his fallen partner Roc Raida and much more.
HipHopDX: You grew up in a house full of music. What were some of the first sounds that piqued your interest?
Rob Swift: Horns. The sound of pianos. Those are two instruments that are really prevalent in Latin music. Pianos and horns. Always. Congas. My dad is Columbian and he would play a lot of Salsa, Merengue, Cumbias, stuff like that, in the house so I grew up on Latin music first and foremost. Then the drum beats started to become an interesting sound to me because my brother started introducing me to Hip Hop. You know Hip Hop in its original form, the drum beat is the foundation for everything. Listening to tracks by James Brown or rock tracks, songs like [Aerosmith's] “Walk This Way” or “Big Beat” by Billy Squier, that huge big drum beat. That became really noteworthy for me. I started focusing on those kinds of sounds and stuff as I started to really be exposed to this music.
DX: When you look at Hip Hop and Salsa or even meringue, what do you see are the similarities between the genres?
Rob Swift: That’s a great question, man. I guess the most similar qualities that I noticed about Latin music and Hip Hop is just the rhythm. Rhythm is a huge factor in how the artist sings or flows over the music. The rhythm is what’s guiding them. Shit, when you think about it, I know Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Wizard Theodore, those are the people we think of when we think of Hip Hop pioneers. But, we also had Latin cats like [DJ] Charlie Chase and Tito from the Fearless Four, so as different as you would think the culture is when you think of maybe black folks, black kids and teenagers in Hip Hop and Latin people with Spanish music, the genres intertwine a lot. Spanish folks helped give Hip Hop a certain spice that it didn’t have. Even today, with cats like, well, obviously Big Pun isn’t alive, but you have cats like Fat Joe and myself…The genres are different in a lot of other ways but because I was exposed to Hip Hop at a young age and Latin music at the same time, it helped me have a unique approach to it that maybe a friend of mine that was black didn’t [have]. I was able to fuse a lot of Latin music that I got from my dad into my music. That’s why on [Sound Event], I was able to have that song "Salsa Scratch," fusing my love for deejaying cutting and scratching with the music that I grew up on and showing people that I could mix the two. Now, I’m doing it with classical so I’m always thinking of ways to reinvent myself and my sound.
DX: It must help to expose oneself to different musical styles, right?
Rob Swift: Yeah, with the new album, for example, I could tell a white man in his '60s that grew up on [Ludwig Van] Beethoven and [Amadeus] Motzart, let’s say, that grew up on Park Avenue and goes to the opera and all that…I could be like, “Yo, the turntable is a musical instrument.” He could look at me and say, “That noise you guys make? That scratching stuff? How is that an instrument?” But, then in context of the album, The Architect, using sounds he can relate to, be it a trombone or a violin, then he can see why I say it’s an instrument. I think it’s important to learn how to fuse genres of music into what you do as a deejay because ultimately, deejaying, you have to be prepared to cater to all types of audiences. You don’t want to box yourself to just one group of people. The more I can expand my audience, the more success I’ll have in exposing the deejaying/scratching culture as an art form.
DX: Do you remember the first time you went digging in the crates of a record shop? What did you find? What were you looking for?
Rob Swift: Ah, man! Yo! That’s a hard question to answer because, again, I grew up on music. My brother was a huge influence as far as digging in the crates, looking for joints. I would look for the kind of records my brother would cut up in the house. When we were home from school, my brother would invite his friends from school and they would bring their parents’ record collections because we had all the equipment. He had dope Technic turntables, speakers, a microphone and all that. So, he would bring over Aretha Franklin, Bob James, James Brown records. So, I was educated the right way as a youngster. So eventually, when I was 13 or 14 years old and I could establish my own record collection, those are the kinds of records that I started to get for myself. Songs like “Take Me to Mardi Gras” by Bob James, “Funky Drummer” by James Brown, I’d look for artists like Isaac Hayes, stuff that greats like Flash would cut up in the parks. Those were the kinds of records I would look for.
DX: You decided to go to college while you were spinning, right? Was that as a plan B or was it more just to get the education for the love of learning?
Rob Swift: I was always studious. I was always into school. I always strived to get good grades. Naturally, I wasn’t the perfect kid. I would get into trouble here and there. For the most part, I had an older brother who was the opposite. He would get in trouble, fights. My mother would have to get him out of precincts for stealing women’s purses. He was really bad. For the most part, I was trying to be the opposite, not trying to give my parents a hard time. So, I was always into school. I’ve always been one to really try to apply myself to anything that I do. So, if I’m going to mow a lawn, I want my lawn to be better than anybody else’s in the neighborhood. That’s the kind of person I am. I’m a perfectionist, you know? So, I think gradually, over time, it became less about just being the opposite of my brother and just being a good student and accomplishing my goal of going to college and getting a degree. The whole time, I loved deejaying and I was about deejaying and I would always make time to cut. I remember when I was in college, I took off one semester to go tour with Akinyele and that kind of delayed my graduation. That’s how important music was to me. They were both equally important and I made time for both. I’m just glad that I did get my degree in Psychology and I can say that I did that. It made it easier to go out and deejay 100% because I knew that I accomplished what I set out to do as a student.
DX: Since you mention Ak, I’m curious, have you stayed in touch with Akinyele and Large Professor?
Rob Swift: I stayed in touch with Large Professor more than I do with Akinyele. Ak, isn’t necessarily in the music scene the way he used to be when I was running with him. Right now, he’s into owning various clubs, whereas Large Professor is still actively producing tracks for people, releasing his own albums. So, in that sense, I still kind of stay in touch with Large. Large more than Ak was a huge influence on me as an artist and producer. Akinyele was more of an influence on me as a business man. I really learned how to conduct myself as an artist, making sure I got paid, understanding how to conduct myself at a show with fans. You know what I mean? Large was more of an influence on me as an artist in the studio. So, that’s another reason why I just stayed in touch with Large more than anything.
DX: Back in ’97, when you released Soulful Fruit, did you envision Stones Throw Records would become what it is today?
Rob Swift: No, man, no. they’ve gone on to really etch themselves a spot in Hip Hop history. At the time when I dropped my first mixtape, Stones Throw were just a little indie label that was run by one guy, Peanut Butter Wolf. Now, it’s gone on to be this underground empire of Hip Hop. From the stuff they’ve released of mine to Madlib’s stuff, they’ve definitely gone onto etch themselves a spot in Hip Hop history, as I said. It feels great to be a part of that history.
DX: About 10 years ago, you compared turntables to drums in an interview. How is the turntable like other instruments for you?
Rob Swift: Ah, see, the thing about the turntable…Just looking at it, it reminds me of a drum kit. Also, usually, what we do is play beats on turntables. We play tracks that have a heavy drum influence. If you’re at a club, you’re not going to just play something that has no drum track. In that way, it reminds me, personally, of the drums. But, overall the turntable can be any instrument. It can be whatever instrument it is that you’re playing at that moment. It can be a piano, it can turn into a horn, it can be a bass, it can be a saxophone. On The Architect, I made the turntable morph into a symphonic collection of sounds. As long as you understand how to manipulate that sound and become that…Like, when I’m cutting violin sounds on The Architect, I’m thinking like a violin player. If I’m cutting harps, I’m trying to think like someone playing harps. That’s the vibe that The Architect gives off.
DX: Now, when you tour, do fans still ask for your classic routines? How do you break off that new stuff? How is that like a Jazz solo or guitar solo? How is it unique to it?
Rob Swift: Yeah, I feel like when I’m performing, it’s almost as if a lot of my fans from back then come out and it’s as if they want to see me perform my greatest hits. It’s like when you see LL Cool J perform, you want to see him perform “Rock the Bells,” and “I’m Bad.” Even though he has a new catalog of music, you kind of want to see him perform those old songs that you grew up on and that you know all the words to. It’s the same with me. When I’m performing, it’s funny, I’ll hear certain people in the audience yell out certain routines like “Welcome to the Terrordome” or “Nobody Beats the Biz.” I know when I hear the titles of those songs that they want to hear my classic routines, the routines that I made a name off with those records. It’s really cool. In that sense, it’s like seeing Bob James and waiting for him to perform “Nautilus” or seeing Herbie Hancock and hoping that he’s going to do a version of “Rockit.” As far as the improvisation part of it, there’s times where you want to challenge yourself and your audience and you’ll break out into something you don’t necessarily plan to do. It may be a feeling in the crowd, an energy in the club, and you’re just inspired to try something different. That’s similar to how Jazz musicians perform. One thing that I’ve noticed rocking with Jazz bands, I have a lot of experience performing with groups like Bob James and his band, Herbie Hancock and his band, I’ve performed with these guys, and a lot of times, the rehearsal is like, “Rob, you get this sound and make sure it works with the music we’re playing. Horns, you do this after the eighth verse and then I’m going to go in and do a solo.” You kind of run through it once or twice and then you kind of wing it at the show. At the show, it’s never going to sound like it did at rehearsal because we only ran through it once or twice. Whereas, when we perform as a deejay collective, with my groups The Ill Insanity or X-Ecutioners, we practice everything and get it down to a science so we know what’s gong to happen every second of a routine. When we perform it, our goal is for it to happen exactly how we practiced it. So, I have experience with both being improvisational and also being meticulous in rehearsals. But, overall, it’s good to be diverse because you could be on the turntables on stage and something can go wrong and you have to be ready to improv right there. Having that strength, that quality is important.
DX: So, have you ever played any other instruments?
Rob Swift: Nah. Well, you know, when I was in the sixth grade, I played the recorder. It was part of my music class so I had to learn how to play that shit. It’s like a flute or whatever but nah, I’ve never actually learned how to play another instrument. I don’t know how to read musical notes. I wish I did. I wish I would have taken that more seriously when I was in the sixth grade because I think it would have made me an even better musician and an even better deejay now. If there was an instrument that I would like to play, it would either be the drums or the guitar. I’m a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. What those guys do with guitars is just so sick, man.
DX: What did you learn from them that you use now?
Rob Swift: Being musical, connecting with my audience. You can take a guitar and go crazy but not really connect with the audience. But, then you can just play a sound that’s really pleasing that your audience can vibe to and grab their attention. I think in that way, it’s similar to cutting. That’s in anything, even rapping. You could be one of those tongue twisting rappers, rapping one thousand miles per hour, and you understand what you’re saying but the audience is like, “What’s he saying?” Then, you can slow down the pace and speak clearly like a KRS-One and enunciate every single word and have the crowd vibing to what you’re saying. It’s the same thing. Watching cats like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, you understand. These guys understand when to kill ‘em and when to pull back but still kill ‘em in a real subliminal way like “I’m taking it easy on you but I’m still killing you with just how smooth my sound is.”
DX: You said your girlfriend introduced you to classical music to inspire this album. What did she have you listen to at first and how did that appreciation for the Classical pieces evolve?
Rob Swift: I don’t remember the exact composition but it was a composer named Frederic Chopin and I think he’s actually Polish. I remember I was in my bathroom shaving. It was a weekend in the afternoon. She walked in and set up her iPod and was like, “Yo, check this out. Listen to this.” She left the bathroom, left me in there by myself and this beautiful music just came on. I’ve heard Classical music before in school, in department stores and elevators but it never registered with me. It never really did anything to me. Something about that day, I guess I must have just been mentally ready to take in this music., It did something for me finally. I remember I finished shaving and I was like, “Yo! What was that? What were you playing for me? Who was that? Do you have more stuff?” She started playing more stuff that she had on her iPod and I was just like, “Wow. This is some ill shit!” From there, I started going to Best Buy and Virgin and old vintage record shops and I was looking for this music. I was buying CDs and records. I was looking for “The Best of Mozart” and “The Best of Beethoven.” I started researching this music. This was in June of 2008. In July, I started working on my album. What started happening is, about a month or so, or five weeks of working on the album, I started realizing. Like, I would work on a track, wake up the next morning and see what I needed to do to it and what was missing. In doing that, I realized “Yo! The way I’m composing this music, the way I’m outlining these songs, the ideas and instrumentation that I’m using, it’s like I’m being influenced by the Classical music that I’m just getting up on.” It wasn’t like I said, “This Classical genre is dope so I’m going to make a Classical deejay album.” It was nothing like that. It was more like, while working on the album, I was influenced by this music. That’s when I realized that I’m not doing the same old Rob Swift jazz influenced album, I’m doing an album that’s influenced by Classical music. That was a great feeling and I started run with it. Now, you have The Architect.
DX: Hip Hop lost a legend and you lost a friend when Roc Raida passed away. But, what was your last conversation with him like?
Rob Swift: My last conversation with him was really crazy, man. It was in person and it was me, Mister Sinister, Dr. Butcher, DJ Precision, a good friend of ours named Good Time. We all drove down to Baltimore, Maryland to the rehab facility they had him in. It was great because we got to talk about what we would normally talk about like deejay gossip, touring, what it was like for him on the road with Busta Rhymes, what we were up to in New York. We were all just catching up. Although he was paralyzed and bed ridden, there was a really great optimistic vibe coming out from him. It was great experience seeing him and the time we spent with him. It was the night before he died and I’ll cherish that forever. I’m so glad that I got to see him in person one last time. It was shocking to hear that he passed away hours later, literally, twelve hours after we left him, he passed away. It was really mind boggling, you know? Not cool, obviously but God has his plan for each and every one of us and you really can’t question that. All I can do is worry about what I can control and that’s keep his legacy alive. I actually dedicated The Architect to his memory. When you open the CD, there’s a page where I dedicate the album to him. I’m glad I got to do that. My goal is not only to expose what I do as a deejay but also to continue and finish what he can’t anymore.