With their major-label album Built From Scratch, the X-ecutioners have taken the art of turntablism to new heights. Noah Callahan-Bever finds out why urban fans have eluded them since day one, and how rock ‘n’ roll saved these DJs’.
By Noah Callahan-Bever
“So are you guys gonna come out for the X-ecutioners show tonight?” says the bubbly Caucasian clerk at Philadelphia’s Cue Records, gushing. She’s chatting up two black customers who are both rocking Philly’s basic hip-hop uniform: a huge white tee, baggy jeans, white-on-white Nike Air Force Ones, and a white do-rag. “It’s just next door, and it’s gonna be awesome!” she promises, tossing a conspicuous glance at the X-ecutioners’ Rob Swift.
A native of Jackson Heights, Queens, Swift (born Robert Aguilar) initially got into DJing by watching his father and brother. “My dad was a salsa and merengue DJ. , who sits at a listening station, headphones on, completely oblivious to the conversation. The crew-rounded out by DJs Roc Raida and Total Eclipse-is scattered throughout the two-level store, digging in the crates while awaiting tonight’s show. But the hip hoppers don’t recognize Swift, and simply shake their heads at the clerk. “Them niggas is cool,” says one, “but it’s just a lot of scratching.”
This is the X-ecutioners’ quandary. They may be some of the most skilled and progressive practitioners of deejaying, one of hip hop’s core art forms, but they remain largely unrecognized by the urban audiences they’re trying to reach-and completely ignored by urban radio. “Popular rap sticks to strict formulas that don’t apply to turntablists, so most urban fans don’t know what to make of the X-ecutioners,” says MTV News and radio personality Sway. “Rock fans, on the other hand,” he adds, “are more open-minded.”
Swift, a die-hard rock fan himself, says the group’s inability to grab black listeners is frustrating, but he’s glad at least somebody is paying attention. “It is sort of bittersweet to see all these white kids into our music,” he says. “I’m on clouds right now regardless of which audience appreciates us. But it’s like, damn, if you’re not up there with platinum jewelry, then you can’t reach the kids that you really want.”
Back in 1989, a loose organization of New York battle DJs who hung out and practiced together began calling themselves the X-Men and performing around town. Over the years, their roster swelled and shrank, but the X-Men, who sometimes practiced for eight hours a day, continued to battle at every major event, racking up more championship rings than Michael Jordan.
Eight years later, the crew’s front line included Robert “Swift” Aguilar, Anthony “Roc Raida” Williams, Keith “Total Eclipse” Bailey, and Joel “Mista Sinista” Wright. Marvel Comics had dibs on their name, so the guys reinvented themselves as the X-ecutioners and became the world’s first turntablist band, signing with the independent Asphodel records. “They really took a chance on us,” says Swift, 30, a Queens, N.Y., native who graduated from Baruch College with a degree in psychology. “They were like, ‘We think you guys are smart and innovative. Here’s some money-do whatever you want.’”
Their well-crafted debut, X-pressions, which features a collage of beat juggling, scratch exhibitions, and underground rap songs, sold fewer than 100,000 units, with barely a nod from hip hop listeners. But the four men hit the road anyway, and performed at nearly every underground hip-hop venue throughout the Northeast and Bay Area, rocking audiences filled with backpacking, Birkenstock-sporting college kids. Then, in 1998, an early member of the X-Men named Sean C, who had become an A&R; exec at Loud Records, helped the X-ecutioners land a deal with the more established (though now defunct) label.
But the switch didn’t culminate in the pot of gold the guys were expecting at the end of the rainbow-at least not at first. For three years, the group’s project, Built From Scratch, sat on the shelf as Loud pondered how to get the group the widespread, mainstream attention it deserved. “The wait was financially rough,” says Eclipse, 25.
But now he’s grateful for the delay, because it may have worked in the group’s favor. One day last year, the foursome had an epiphany while watching Linkin Park’s metal rap video for “One Step Closer.” They realized that they, too, needed to cash in on the whole hip rock explosion. They quickly returned to the studio to do collaborations with heavyweights like Everlast (“B-Boy Punk Rock 2001″); Tom Tom Club and Biz Markie (“Genius of Love 2002″); and Linkin Park (“It’s Goin’ Down”). “I think our album was good the way we did it the first time,” says Total Eclipse. “But those last songs really added depth and made a better representation of turntablism.”
In fact, the collaboration with Linkin Park-which eventually led to the X-ecutioners opening for them on tour, as well as an appearance at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards-is arguably responsible for the album debuting in the Top 20 of the Billboard pop charts and selling almost 500,000 copies to date. Linkin Park rapper Mike Shinoda says his group has loved the X-ecutioners from the start, and was psyched when they called. “These guys were some of the artists that gave us inspiration to be the musicians we are today,” he says. “Plus, they have an open ear for musical evolution and aren’t afraid to experiment.”
Indeed, no matter whom they chose to work with, the X-ecutioners have always been confident in their ability to represent their music honestly. “There was never any apprehension on our part,” says Roc Raida, 30, of the group’s decision to expand their scope. “As soon as ‘It’s Goin’ Down’ was done, we knew it was the one.”
Just as things were starting to fall into place for the DJs, though, internal strife between Mista Sinista, 29, and the rest of the group became too much to bear. Last December, Sinista agreed to part ways with his three colleagues. “I’m really anal,” says Swift of the impetus behind the split, “and I like to approach my music and my life like I’m in the army. I want things done on time. I want them done repetitiously until they’re done right. I want us to be masters, meaning that we perform whether or not we feel like it. Sinista is the type that needs to feel the vibe before he can get things done.”
For his part, Sinista says his work ethic had nothing to do with his leaving. “There were a lot of manipulative, outside influences that infiltrated our family,” he argues. But Swift maintains that nobody came between the group members. “We couldn’t get past our different approaches, and we were about to drop a major album,” he says. “If we weren’t on the same page, then we would have died out there.”
Philadelphia’s bohemian Theatre of the Living Arts is packed for tonight’s show. The X-ecutioners take the stage, and the hip hop guys watch skeptically, until Rob Swift throws on Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” and proceeds to chop and rearrange Timbaland’s hypnotic guitar licks, creating an entirely new melody. Swift follows with the intro to Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ugly,” and the crowd loses it. Flipping back and forth between the beats, he fasions a complex collage from the two. Finally, he falls back from the tables, sweating and exhausted. One of the hardrocks turns to his friend and gives him an enthusiastic pound, impressed by the technical wizadry and clearly hooked by the thumping rhythms. “Tonight’s show felt special,” Swift would say later.
Standing by the bar is the same excited woman from the record store, only now she’s all dolled up for the evening. And whaddya know? Behind her are the same do-ragged dudes who had said they weren’t up for an evening of “just scratching.” Ain’t that a itch.