Before he helped the X-Ecutioners become all-stars, Rob Swift, in what some consider to be the first turntablist record ever, got soulful.
After lingering out of print for nearly five years (just about up until Z-Trip, Mixmaster Mike and his own X-Ecutioners started moving big units), fleet-fingered turntable maestro Rob Swift gets new due as a father of the genre with the rerelease of his 1997's Soulful Fruit.
Originally brought to you by Stones Throw records, Fruit's place in the history of turntablism is well-secured it's one of the first, if not the first, turntablist disc ever but in hindsight, that praise alone is a little misleading. From his first chilled, late-night-at-the-lounge opening notes, Swift makes clear that his intention is not to make anybody sweat, not to flaunt his skills at inventing nutty mash-ups or whip anyone into anything close a frenzy. If his X-Ecutioners material is ready-hyped for the club, Soulful Fruit is all after-hours cocktails; as one of his more chilled tracks notes, Swift spends most of his definitive document in "Relax Mode". But it's that understatement and sense of assuredness that gives it the feel of a smart, slightly loungified mix tape (although the only one in recent memory in which the intro is furnished by Richard Dreyfuss).
Swift didn't make a "Jazzmatazz" installment or anything, but his interests lie less in the bang-and-splash world of hip-hop (or metal, a la the X's work with Rob Zombie and Mike Patton) than in the easy, limb-swaying sounds of soul, jazz and funk that's spawned an entire underground hip-hop subdivision. "Cutting With Class" rides over the occasional James Brown horn and a sweet, serpentine funk groove. Two interludes featuring Bruce Lee come off as a little sinister, but mainly hypnotically groovy. Swift's jazz selections dip into gospel into hot buttered soul, and he deftly employs his wheels as a judicious complement to his sounds, not as the dominant force wreaking havoc over them. He slurs more than bangs, deftly handles instead of frenetically juggles.
That said, there's plenty of juice here for the hip-hop heads. "This Is a Remix" is a crackling revisiting of Black Moon's "How Many MCs?" employing the loop used to build the original. And the sendoff "Who Is It" finds him dissecting a Method Man sample almost into single syllables.
But as those hip-hop heads know, the hole card here is the "Man Vs. Machine" live battle with Rahzel, a mind-scrambling battle that starts with a whisper ("I don't know if I can do this shit man, for real," Rahzel goads Swift, before launching into an audio movie trailer pitching their battle) and ends up with bang after bang, the two combatants pummeling their respective machines for a good 14 minutes.
Swift, of course, would go on to help redefine turntablism for the mainstream with the all-star DJ collective the X-Ecutioners (first known as the X-Men before somebody told the Marvel people), whose Roc Raida, Mista Sinista and Diamond Jay all appear as a live band on "A Turntable Xperience". But that's for another story time. Swift's chiller aspirations and the ability to regard Soulful Fruit in the context of eight subsequent years of turntablism can make it sound occasionally slow verging on sleepy, but it's that understated, earthy vibe that sets it apart from most modern hip-hop, turntablist or not. Swift isn't out to carve out a party with his hands; he just wants to send the listeners to someplace nice, and if he helps define a genre in the process, cool.