The term “turntablism” isn’t rolling off the tongues of critics or music fans quite as often as it once did, back in the days when the X-ecutioners (or before that, X-Men) were more prominent and that group’s Rob Swift was first putting out solo albums. Among the most noteworthy DJs of the time (or at least of those un-attached to a particular MC), Rob Swift is one who is still rolling along. Since his first solo LP, Soulful Fruit, was released in 1997, he’s been continually engaged in a variety of projects of different types. He’s skilled at his craft, of course, but also ambitious. Previous albums have included forays into salsa and jazz, plus an album-length political statement, 2005’s War Games.
With The Architect, Swift is inspired by a particular set of musicians who he considers ‘architects’ of music: nope, not early DJs or MCs, but classical composers. His bio quotes him as saying, about hearing classical music: “that was a pivotal moment for me as an artist.”
This isn’t the first time hip-hop musicians have tried to tap into the grandeur of classical music. Usually, they seem to be taking their direction from film composers: using score-like strings, for example, the way action films would use them to lend the setting a larger-than-life sense of importance. Rob Swift might be one of the first DJs to explicitly try and emulate the structure of classical music, at least to an extent. He’s tried to build some of these tracks as larger pieces, with three or four tracks joined together as “movements” of the same work.
In track titles, The Architect contains an overture, an introduction, a prelude, an intermission, and two sets of movements, plus some others. The “Overture”, the first track, sounds like the beginning of a horror movie, with rain and Phantom of the Opera organ. In general, on this album Swift allows more space for mood alone, taking his time between the most overt hip-hop actions—cutting and scratching—and then sometimes letting them go in a flurry.
On the whole, The Architect does resemble “theme music” or film scores: mood music more than elaborate constructions. That puts it not that far from actual hip-hop film scores (by the RZA, for example), though Swift also showcases his hardcore DJ abilities more than any actual score would. As evocative as a lot of the scenery is, the strongest moments come when Swift is showing off his skills and constructing a mood. “Spartacuts” captures classic hip-hop swagger, partly through vocal samples of MOP and others, while staying firmly within the realm of thriller/haunted-house movie scores.
The one MC on the album, Breez Evahflowin, makes just two brief appearances. In the first, he describes Swift’s endeavor as, “Something like progress / The art form elevated / The next level of turntablism”. I’m a little uncomfortable with the notion of “elevation” here, as if hip-hop, a relatively young creation and a great American invention, isn’t enough of an art form on its own, needing the seriousness of classical to pull it up. Yet Swift never forces that issue. This is hip-hop, clearly. Swift still pulls in other styles of music, like hip-hop DJs have always done.