To the uninitiated, the X-ecutioners' preference for the term "turntablists" rather than "DJs" might seem an affectation, or might at least come across as a bit uptight. But this winter, on their first American tour, the New York City crew feels validated by the many satisfied customers who have told them they've seen plenty of DJs but never witnessed anything remotely like what the X-ecutioners do.
During the twenty years since DJs first began manipulating spinning records -- an act that perhaps constituted the most literal "revolution" since Copernicus's theory of heliocentrism -- the turntable art evolved underground, for the most part. Although rappers, hip-hop music's more extroverted component, tend to attract the most attention, they originally did little more than extol the prowess of their DJs.
"We're purists in that we come from the hip-hop generation that was into break dancing -- you know, the early generation," says X-ecutioner Rob Swift, at age 25 the second oldest member of the four-turntablist group. "You could almost categorize us as pioneers."
DJs have had plenty of time to practice since the idea of the turntable-as-instrument was conceived. Mainstream rap turned to digital sampling, but cutting and scratching remained cherished skills among a dedicated minority of hip-hop heads. In certain neighborhoods, old-school contests (called "battles") never went out of style. Working under the radar of the music industry, turntablism developed without ever abandoning its original mandate -- to create a wholly new kind of instrumental track.
The astonishing pinnacle of that process is manifested in the handiwork of the X-ecutioners, a supergroup of battle champions who came together in 1989 (the group's original name, X-Men, was recently changed for copyright reasons). Swift and cohorts Total Eclipse, Roc Raida, and Mista Sinista emerged from their lengthy artistic fermentation like hip-hop Buddhas on a mission to share the benefits of their discipline.
The time had come. Last year saw mainstream hip-hop slide deeper than ever into conformity and stagnation. Meanwhile, DJs in northern California, Japan, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom were picking up the out-of-fashion old-school baton, finding in records from the Seventies and Eighties the inspiration to create some orthodoxy-challenging sounds of their own. Finally Asphodel, a New York record label specializing in these predominantly European interpretations, tapped the source and signed the X-Men. At that point the crew had seen their work show up only on compilation albums such as Deep Concentration and Return of the DJ, Vol. 2, as well as in the documentary film Battle Sounds. The signing represented a chance to perform for a much broader audience.
Swift admits to never having heard the many far-flung DJs and producers who've respectfully appropriated classic hip-hop values, but he's quick to add that he's open to listening to them. In no way does he think that the turntablist's job is strictly one of preservation. "DJs invented hip-hop," he points out, "so why can't they advance it?"
That attitude forms the core of the 22-track X-Pressions, the X-ecutioners' debut album. Available on CD, it offers far more than a recorded exhibition on the wheels of steel. The individual members, separately working as DJs for various rappers (Sinista is currently the DJ for the Beatnuts and Common, Eclipse for Organized Konfusion, Rob Swift for Akinyele and Large Professor, and Raida for Showbiz & A.G., Lord Finesse, and Artifacts), together present a unique vision of the genre. Several X-Pressions tracks feature singers and rappers (two of whom, Gud Tyme and Rallo, are onboard for the tour as well), and a few instrumentals glide smoothly from start to finish without a single cut of the needle. (Those tracks are built purely from samples.)
Still, insists X-Pressions's chief mixer Swift, "the album totally focuses on the turntable as an instrument." Even on scratch-free tracks, the turntablists' orientation does indeed show through. "Beat Treats" and "Solve for X" sound a bit like the psychedelic grooves favored by London beat heads (from a Mo' Wax compilation, for example) -- but rougher, spliced as they are by hands informed by a lifetime of constant motion. The X-ecutioners' approach to the digital sampler and multitrack studio evokes a livelier, albeit less futuristic, atmosphere than that of their new-school contemporaries.
"We're showing that the turntable can lead to other areas of hip-hop music," says Swift, describing a course exactly opposite that of the rest of hip-hop's vanguard. Many studio-bred wizards extrapolate a hip-hop future based on their experiences with progressive rock and jazz, while the X-ecutioners, sustained by a steady diet of hip-hop, strive only to advance the form while adhering to its original values. Yet there is considerable common ground. Interestingly, both camps ended up sculpting music characterized by highly ethereal yet deeply insistent momentum. It's a long way from the dance party jams of the late Seventies but is somehow driven by the same emotions.
That kind of foray into abstraction shines from the heart of an X-ecutioners' show. Unlike most hip-hop artists who use the title "DJ," the X-ecutioners actually re-create music on-stage. They take you there.
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On their album, Raida, Swift, Eclipse, and Sinista have solo tracks to showcase their styles, plus group tracks on which they turntablize as a band, with different members "playing" drums, horns, bass, and guitar (a technique pioneered by the Bay Area crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz -- disciples of the X-Men who in turn have come to influence them). To the novice, aggressive scratching can sound disruptive and noisy. On the group tracks especially, even seasoned hip-hop fans can be puzzled by what's going on.
But on-stage, where the sound of every cut corresponds to the deft action of the turntablists' hands, it all makes dazzling rhythmic sense. You can see how they control the record with one hand and the mixer with the other, showing off independent left/right coordination to rival any drummer. And only through first-hand experience can "beat juggling," the X-ecutioners' specialty, be properly appreciated. They'll spin a record that includes a popular beat, such as A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario," and cut it up so as to rearrange the order and cadence of its elements. The snare, high-hat, bass, and vocal snippets from three seconds of music are isolated and recombined; the needle never leaves the vinyl. The result is a Frankenstein monster, with the sound of the sliding stylus as the ghoulish stitching.
Heard with an open mind, the scratch is an uncommonly wet percussion sound, and the reconstructed beat becomes a rhythm more sprawlingly complex and defiantly elastic than logic would predict. No wonder DJs don't want to share an occupational title with people who read announcements on the radio.
The X-ecutioners perform on the Elements of Hip-Hop Tour tonight (Thursday) at 11:00 p.m. at Liquid, 1439 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 535-3063. Also on the bill: Common and Rahzel.