The cameraman removed the digital video camera from the tripod and got ready for some hand-held shots of the X-ecutioners at Phat Beats record store in the West Village. A look of concern creased the face of the group’s publicist, who hurriedly approached the producer of the shoot.
Her idea was to lead into the television news story with shots of the DJs scratching, but the X-ecutioners, whose new record, Built From Scratch, charted at #15 on this week’s Billboard 200 albums chart, don’t normally perform in retail outlets and their label rep was worried that without their precision equipment and handpicked vinyl, their artistry wouldn’t come across properly in the small room. Group mouthpiece Rob Swift, who knows the value of good publicity, turned to the publicist and said, “I brought some records. I think we can do it.”
Moments later, Swift was standing between two turntables. On one, he spun a record that featured a heavy syncopated beat. On the other, he scratched deftly with his right hand while his left rhythmically slid the fader switch up and down. As he navigated the phonograph needle back and forth between the vinyl grooves, he bobbed his head, then grinned for a second. He may not have sounded quite as killer as he does on his vintage gear, but it was clear that he was in his element. His superhuman scratches rung with confidence and swung like solo licks from a jazz trumpeter.
“The turntable is an instrument, and it’s a mechanism that allows you to express yourself,” Swift said after the performance demonstration. “Scratching is a way for us to speak without moving our mouths. If you’re a hyperfast-paced person, the way you scratch is gonna reflect that. If you’re more of a laid-back and mellow guy, your scratches will reflect that as well.”
Built From Scratch clearly communicates the personalities of each X-ecutioner on the killswitch. Swift has a smooth, fluid and jazzy style, Total Eclipse is straight-up precise and acrobatic hip-hop, Roc Raida is a showboater who sometimes works the fader with his mouth and scratches with his elbows, and Mista Sinista (who left the group shortly after the creation of the record to pursue other interests) mixes hip-hop with funk groove.
As a collective, X-ecutioners are creative and compelling, giving a new spin to hip-hop while making a noble nod to the old school. For them, it’s all about pushing the genre forward by reaching for the lessons of the past – which explains why the cover art of Built From Scratch depicts the scratch masters recreating the album sleeve of Public Enemy’s classic Yo! Bum Rush the Show.
“Our goal is to bring the focus of hip-hop back to DJing to some degree,” Swift said. “Hip-hop is about the turntables. It started out in the early ’80s with people like Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash in the parks in the Bronx playing music. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the DJ started to take a back seat, and MCs became more of the focal point in videos and shows. But sometimes it would be the DJ that was responsible for the music that you were hearing, and a lot of times it’s the DJ that’s responsible for how the show is organized.”
Built From Scratch overflows with jaw-dropping turntable action as the members of the X-ecutioners battle for dominance, but the album is far more than a crazy scratch competition. Many songs feature skillful rapping by some of today’s hottest MCs, including Xzibit, Inspectah Deck, Everlast, M.O.P. and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda.
And a few between-track skits grace the proceedings with a strong dose of humor.
“We could have made an album just for DJs with scratches that were 1,000 miles-per-hour and every song would be just us going nuts on the turntables,” Swift said. “But why alienate the other 80 percent of the world that just loves music and loves people like Biz Markie and Linkin Park? So we felt, ‘Let’s do an album that’s hip-hop-based and features well-known respected artists, but make sure that the turntable is the nucleus of the project.’ ”
It seems to be working. Built From Scratch has charted higher than any DJ record to date, largely thanks to Linkin Park rapper Mike Shinoda and DJ Mr. Hahn, who turn “It’s Goin’ Down” into a surging, rhythmic marriage of rap-metal and DJ wizardry. But that song is just one of several notable cuts on the disc. “X-ecutioners (Theme) Song,” which features Gorillaz member Dan the Automator, features bizarre samples and snippets of on-air news reports; “The X (Y’all Know the Name)” is a groove-laden cut with rapid-fire raps by Pharoahe Monch, Xzibit, Inspectah Deck and Skillz. “Genius of Love 2002” is an edgy update of Tom Tom Club’s 1981 single with original member Tina Weymouth trading lines with Biz Markie, and “B-Boy Punk Rock 2001” is a lazy, playful cut that features Everlast.
One of the most intriguing songs, though, is “Dramacyde,” which features raps by Kool G. Rap and the late Big Pun. It was Pun’s final recording before the rapper died of a heart attack February 7, 2000.
“He was our labelmate and I had shows with Big Pun and got to know him before Built From Scratch,” Swift said. “When we approached him to do a song with us, he was totally positive about the idea and creative and really involved himself the way we needed him to. And when we got the news that Big Pun passed away, it really touched us, because that was basically the last song he was able to accomplish and we heard him on. And I think that puts a special, unique twist on the album.”
X-ecutioners are currently on tour, with dates scheduled through May 6 at House of Blues in West Hollywood, California, and there will surely be additional shows announced. In addition, they’re working on a song for the next Linkin Park record and in their spare time, the group members work on their own projects. Swift recently performed with jazz legend Herbie Hancock at the World Economic Forum, contributed to two songs on the upcoming Cornershop album and has a solo LP called Sound Event coming out soon. Raida has scratched with the “Saturday Night Live” band and is in the middle of a solo record, as is Total Eclipse, who also plans to continue working with Monch.
“In the future, each of us is gonna do what we can to expose our art in different ways,” Swift said. “One of the strengths of the X-ecutioners is each of us has our own fanbase as well as an X-ecutioners fanbase. I think each of us is on a mission to educate people and turn them onto what we’re doing.”