To most of his students Robert Aguilar, aka Rob Swift, is something of a legend, a true DJ. Having come up during the original days of hip-hop in New York City, Rob Swift was one of just a few artists who defined turntablism. His unique skill helped transform DJing from a gimmick into an art form.
Rob’s musical career began through collaboration as a member of the Harlem-based DJ crew The X-Ecutioners. The X-Ecutioners formed in the late ’80s and were active through the ’90s, refining turntable techniques like beat juggling, looping, and live sampling, and combining new genres in an effort to bring turntablism out from the fringes of hip-hop.
The 2002 release of the group’s first major-label record Built from Scratch (co-produced by notable artists DJ Premier, Dan the Automator, and Mike Shinoda) was a defining moment for turntablism. The interest of major labels Loud Records and Columbia Records proved that turntablism was more than just an underground phenomenon and legitimized it as a central artistic technique in hip-hop. This success made room for Rob to explore his potential as a musician and a solo artist.
Since then, Rob has released over ten solo albums. In 2010, he began hosting an online hip-hop radio show called “Dope on Plastic” on Scion AV Streaming Radio. In 2012, Rob became resident DJ for UNITE, a new late night sports talk show on ESPNU.
His passion for the art of DJing surpasses any stereotypes of the craft, and his love for it led him into teaching. Now, Rob Swift is a professor at the The New School in New York, teaching DJ Skills & Styles which focuses on the craft of DJing on turntables, along with a history of hip-hop.
I took Rob’s class in the Spring of 2015 and I loved everything about it. Rob taught me the historical value of the DJ, and the vital (but often overlooked) distinction between a DJ and Turntablist. Before meeting Rob, I was DJing using some virtual DJ app and my iTunes playlists. All I knew about DJs was that they played music, the question of how never came up.
This popularized image of a DJ has little to do with the origins of the art form. In Rob’s class I learned his art. His course mediates between the skills of a DJ and turntablist — the best DJs being those who can do both. I came out of the class with more skills, more confidence, and more authenticity as a DJ than I previously knew was possible. So as his student, I took this opportunity to get inside the mind of Rob Swift and examine just how someone becomes a DJ, musician, and educator. Here’s what he had to say…
What led you to being a DJ and turntablist in the first place?
It started with my childhood. I grew up with a father who was also a DJ, though the term then was not as popular. My brother and I would help him pack the equipment for his events, which at the time involved carrying crates full of vinyl. I remember watching my dad seduce a whole room of people… it was hypnotic. He could influence everyone’s mood at once — it was just amazing to watch.
I felt I could do a lot of good through teaching, DJing was so accessible to these kids and it was important to give them something to look forward to at school.
This was my earliest introduction to what a DJ does. I also was blessed to have an older brother who was part of hip-hop culture. I’m 43 now, so we’re talking about the early ’70s hip-hop. My brother’s group of friends was completely immersed in hip-hop, some were graffiti writers, others were b-boys. I remember hanging out in one of their houses listening to tapes from park jams featuring Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. They often came over to jam, and we’d play records on my dad’s equipment, without his permission. We sampled (though at the time it was manual) records by James Brown, Aretha Franklin — the same records that Bambatta and Grandmaster Flash were using in their music. So that’s how it started, I pursued DJing because it was what I loved and what was closest to my heart and home.
Rob Swift at NYU in 1994
How did these experiences lead you to teaching?
Eventually I got tired of just spectating and I wanted to be active in my community. I knew, having been taught how to DJ by my brother, that this was a fairly easy art to learn and explain… but not as easy to master. I could take anyone off the streets and have them scratching within a couple of hours.
It’s all about our intuitive reaction to music — how the body senses rhythm and pulse — and we all have that ability. So, you could say I began “teaching” most of my friends, who sort of functioned as an audience for me when I was practicing.
Fast forward to 1998, I was performing at a venue in Manhattan and this lady who taught at my neighborhood high school happened to be there. At the time, I was part of the group The X-Ecutioners, I guess I stood out for her because she came up to me after and asked if I would be interested in teaching a class at her high school. I was like, “Hell, yes!” So she brought me to the school and had me play a show for the kids, and they loved it, even the faculty was cheering. Then I taught a full course in the fall semester, and that’s how I started. At that point I felt I could do a lot of good through teaching, DJing was so accessible to these kids and it was important to give them something to look forward to at school, you know?
I throw my students into it so that they can – physically — make mistakes. I want them to feel the frustration and then develop a tactile relationship with the vinyl and the music that they’re using.
Do you have any advice to DJs in this generation, and is there anything you wish you knew when you were a young DJ?
When I first touched vinyl, I was already integrated into hip-hop. Like I said, everything felt so natural to me… so I wouldn’t change a thing in my past. I really feel that I had learnt about DJing organically, and I’m so grateful for that. That’s the way I try to teach it. I throw my students into it so that they can – physically — make mistakes. I want them to feel the frustration and then develop a tactile relationship with the vinyl and the music that they’re using. As opposed to reading a manual, and never really personalizing the learning process.
So, my advice to upcoming DJs is to trust their instincts, rather than watching videos of how Calvin Harris or whoever does it, because that’s not DJing in my opinion. The meaning of what a DJ is changed when the new DJ technology emerged. I feel that relationship between the musician and the music is fading for DJs. You’re relying on a software to do what you can do yourself. It just makes everything easier… DJing in my eyes is about self expression, originality, and resonating with a crowd. It’s not about working a certain software and playing hit songs.
This is something I constantly try to bring to my classes, I want my students to know that their sets are an extension of themselves, and they are all unique people that are here to learn how to DJ authentically. So, as a promoter of vinyl, I also think it’s important that DJs today understand the root of all DJing — that is, vinyl — and to try to have a basis with vinyl before they move to digital software. Knowing how to work with records will teach someone how to develop those tactile instincts, and it will make anyone a more well-rounded DJ.
DJing in my eyes is about self expression, originality, and resonating with a crowd. It’s not about working a certain software and playing hit songs… I want my students to know that their sets are an extension of themselves.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching?
That’s easy — watching my students develop. To know, despite the doubt in their minds at the start, that they are going to come out of this course with the skills they wanted to have. And that I know this every time I teach new students, and I’m always right. I like watching them achieve their own goals.
Another cool thing is also watching different students bring their own musicianship to the table. I end up learning a lot. There are endless approaches and styles that you can bring to the tables, that I might not have ever thought of in my 30 years as a turntablist.
Did you know about the New School before? How did you start teaching there?
Initially I had a contract with Scratch Academy, and I was teaching as a guest instructor. Evan Rapport, who is the head of Contemporary Music at the New School, was following me as a turnablist/DJ. He got in touch with me through my website and asked me if I wanted to do a lecture in one of his classes on hip-hop history. I jumped on this opportunity, because I really love spreading knowledge about DJing and hip-hop. So, I came in and did a demo for the students and they loved it. Six months later, he reaches out and tells me he’s thinking of putting together a course — initially the course was a collaboration with Scratch Academy, because they already had the equipment. I was there from 2012 to 2015. And then last year The New School approved the course and we brought the class here. It’s so crazy to me that DJing has brought me this far, I’m basically a professor… which is so weird.
Any memorable stories from your live performances ?
Yes, this performance really taught me a lesson in humility. So, I used to DJ for a rapper called Akinyele, he dropped an album in 1994 on Interscope Records and we were touring to promote the album. In my opinion, Akinyele is one of the dopest rappers to have come out of New York. The tour took us to Houston Texas, and we were opening for Ice Cube — big deal. So you know we’re getting ourselves pumped like “we are gonna murder this set.” We even had dancers — real hip-hop, you know. We get there, and they boo’ed us… They weren’t having any of it.
But that experience taught me something huge, it humbled me a lot. No matter how good you are at what you do, not everyone will resonate with your art. There’s an audience for every musician, specifically for them and no one else. And if you haven’t found your audience and your own unique voice, your music won’t make a difference. There needs to be a mutual connection, always.
Follow Rob Swift on YouTube to watch his amazing DJ videos and to “sit in” on his class at the New School. If you’re in New York City and are thinking about enrolling in one of his classes in person, here’s the info. Rob also teaches a summer course, “Mixin’ the City: Hip-Hop in Practice and Play,” open to any college student. If you’re interested in signing up, here’s the info.