Able Hands

Rob Swift has fat ambitions: He wants to change the way you hear the turntable. To him, decks are not to be relegated to backstage wick-wick-wacking and dope beat pumping; instead, he wants to scratch out respectability for the turntable as a musical instrument like any other. Swift was the East Coast champion of 1992's Disco Mixing Club, a worldwide DJ tournament, and in his dexterous hands, the turntable's full potential is unleashed. It's a marvel to hear him sweat the Technics.

If Rob Swift is not a name you instantly recognize, you might remember him as a member of the noted DJ crew theX-ecutioners, whose critically acclaimed debut album, X-pressions (Asphodel), was the first ever by a DJ crew -- or, as they prefer to be considered, turntablists. Swift's torrid vinyl psych-outs "Nobody Beats (the Bridge)" and "Make a Little Funky Beat for You" have also gained notice and inspired numerous others.

Now Swift is out on his own with a new solo album, The Ablist (Asphodel), and, after the turntable-only X-pressions, it represents a progression in exploring the turntable's viability as a musical instrument alongside other, more recognized ones. It is also an expression of Swift's desire to bring the turntable to a wider audience and Asphodel's hope to successfully sell DJ records.

"A lot of labels slept on DJs," says Swift from his home in Queens as he prepares to depart for a European tour. "Turntablists are marketable and can sell records." However, for Swift, someone so steeped in the New York underground hip-hop tradition, you sense a certain eagerness to defend himself as a hip-hop artist bucking the two-turntables-and-a-microphone standard. "I'm definitely a hip-hop artist, but over the last year or so, I see that I have the potential to become a musician, but all my talents flow from my experience with hip-hop."

Don't be confused. Although Swift takes a fresh angle on hip-hop, The Ablist is pure hip-hop -- but Swift goes beyond standard beat-juggling to create a dope jazz buzz. The album is also packed with conscious MC-ing, courtesy of Gudtyme. "I wanna try to hit people hard in the head, show them that I can scratch and bring live instruments and vocals into the picture," says Swift of his sound. "In my music, I incorporate other things as opposed to just relying on my skills as a turntablist, because live instruments make it feel like music instead of just scratching."

The melding of turntables with live instruments, provided by backing band Dujeous?, is a novel concept and far removed from the X-ecutioners' brand of pure turntablism. The effort is to be applauded when it works. On tracks like "Dope on Plastic," "What Would You Do" and "Night Time," Swift's incredibly deft scratching and Dujeous?'s nimble backing hint that Swift may be onto something. But the intermingling of turntables, not noted for their subtleties, with other musical instruments more capable of subdued lyrical qualities does not always make for good music. "I'm Leaving," despite the turntables, comes across as nothing more than fairly bland R&B.

And what really brings the listener into Swift's world -- and, when it comes down to it, why most will grab the disc -- is his faster-than-a-speeding-bullet scratching. Swift's ability to scratch in a call-and-response style has a jazzy feel, and Swift acknowledges Miles Davis and John Coltrane as influences because of the emotion they were able to convey through musical notes. Perhaps Swift foreshadowed his muso leanings on his 1997 mix tape Soulful Fruit, which featured a single called "A Scratch Is a Musical Note."

If you listen closely, especially to jazz-tinged "All That Scratching Is Making Me Rich," you can hear that Swift hits many of the same notes as the other instruments. It's a battle -- not between opposing DJs but among the instruments and the Technics. Furthermore, on "Dope on Plastic," Swift refuses to let the listener lie back in the cut because it's the cut, courtesy of Swift's head-scratching, that is compelling.

Unfortunately, the difference between this album and other hip-hop records by, say, the Beasties and Money Mark, is never as striking as Swift would like, but in the end, what makes The Ablist a strong album is not the fusion of live instruments with turntables but Swift's remarkable dexterity on the decks. The masterful scratching sequence on the slow-boiling "This Is Our Day" riddles the dubby bass with some of the most fluid rapid-fire scratching in hip-hop. It's so fast, so seamless and so smooth that it sounds as if Swift is working with four hands.

Though Swift is aiming to bring his fused sound-and-turntable acrobatics to a larger crowd outside the already down-with-it, he acknowledges a tremendous debt to his hip-hip forefathers. As influences, Swift names Theodore, Flash, Grandmixer D.ST, Cash Money and Steve D. -- even Herbie Hancock's 1982 single "Rockit." But to Swift, the most important role model is Large Professor, especially when it comes to production style. Taking a cue from Large Professor, Swift produced all but two of the tracks, and scattered throughout the album are snippets ofstudio banter in which you can hear Swift directing the musicians.

As for his continuing relationship with the X-ecutioners, Swift says that they are still together and working on a new album. "It's dope," says Swift. "They allowed me the freedom to do my own thing."

Though The Ablist is probably not going to be remembered as the groundbreaking work Swift would like it to be seen as, it is still a solid album. It never really breaks away from standard hip-hop and therefore never fulfills its promise as something totally new. On the other hand, you also have to ask why anyone with as much skill on the turntables as Swift would want to change the way the turntable is heard. His prodigious talents are enough to make The Ablist all that -- turntable as instrument or not.

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