This is the third and final installment in the Roc Raida memorial interview series. Here Raida’s longtime X-Men/X-Ecutioner partner Rob Swift remembers their time together.
How did you first meet raida?
I met Raida at the 1991 preliminaries for the East Coast DMC regional battles. Basically that was the first competition that I was getting into so I walked up in there with my mentor, the guy that helped me prepare for that years battle, Dr. Butcher, who has worked with the likes of Kool G Rap, Akineyele, so on and so forth. So I was entering my first competition and all the X-Men [were there] you had Steve D, Johnny Cash, Diamond J, Shawn C, other friends of theirs were there with them as moral support and Roc Raida. And the thing that I found really interesting about Raida was that everybody at the preliminary battle, all the X-Men, they were all loud and drawing a lot of attention to themselves, laughing, joking, just being really loud. And Raida was just really quiet. I remember he was the quietest one out of all of them. That really intrigued me and he stood out on that way. He was really quiet. And then when he went on stage and went up for his slot to try to place it was like watching another person. He went from this quiet guy who wasn’t drawing any attention to himself, that was really observing what was going on, to this beast on the turntables. That was the thing about Raida that struck me the most.
On a technical level what impressed you about his turntable skills?
First of all when Raida would practice at his house he was on a really bad set of equipment. He had two turntables that were belt driven. Belt driven turntables are like the worst turntables, especially for DJs like like us that really manipulate the turntable and do stuff to the turntable. You need strong, durable, direct drive turntables. And he had belt drives. Because you know, Raida grew up in the projects, he wasn’t necessarily born with a silver spoon in his mouth. So he didn’t have the money at the time to invest into the direct drive turntables like 1200s. So you’d watch him at home on these bullshit ass turntables and a messed up mixer but he would defy all odds and use the turntables as if they were 1200s. And that was the thing that really impacted me. He worked with what he had and made the best of it. It almost didn’t make a difference to him. I guess he was just a driven person and that’s how dedicated and focused he was. You could put him on a bullshit pair of turntables and he would figure out a way to use them and make his routines sound like they would on 1200s.
Now how did you come into the X-Men fold?
Well when I met the guys at the East Coast DMC preliminaries I was introduced to Steve D by Dr. Butcher. Dr. Butcher had already known Steve and had practiced with him at his house. So they had a relationship already and I asked him to introduce me to Steve because Steve was another one of my idols, one of the guys I looked up to in that era of battling. Steve was the only one out of the X-Men that placed and made it on to the regionals and I also placed, so during the East Coast battle, the actual battle itself, I guess Steve was impressed with what I did. Coming from Queens, I was an unknown DJ no one knew who I was, but I had my own style developed pretty good. I think I made an impression on the judges. I placed third but I guess I made enough of an impression on Steve that he ended up asking me and Dr. Butcher to join the X-Men like a week later. And out of the whole crew I went on to really develop a strong relationship with Raida from there.
What sort of influence do you think he had on the DJ community?
That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t think there was necessarily a biggest influence that he had because Raida was more reserved. I don’t think he really went out of his way to say “I’m gonna influence people, I’m gonna champion the artform.” He wasn’t necessarily that kind of person. He just loved DJing. He just loved being on turntables, whether it was in front of a crowd, whether it was in his bedroom, whether he was using a turntable to work on a song and doing scratches for people. He just loved cutting. I think the influence he had revolved around his passion for Djing and specifically battling. Raida was one of those battle DJs that his name will stand the test of time. People will always study him in their own pursuit of a championship. It’s like boxing, if you want to be a good boxer, a champion, you study what Muhammad Ali did, what Mike Tyson did. And in the same way you would study what Roc Raida did. How he would compete against different opponents, how he would strategize. His style worked so good with the whole battle side of DJing because he was so flashy and watching him was just very entertaining. He was so fast and quick, he made what he was doing look effortless. And the tricks that Raida would do, the body tricks, using his back and moving… After he passed I started practicing routines of his so that I could do him and kind of carry them on and I don’t think I can do them as good as he could. Actually I know I can’t do them as good as he could. Because he was so fluid. He was like an acrobat on turntables. That was the most influential thing about him, his ability to just kill battles, rip it in battles. That was his forte, that was what he lived for at one point. Just battling people.
How did the body tricks come to be his thing?
We were definitely all looking up to other DJs that were making a name for themselves in the battle scene before us. People like Cash Money, Aladdin, DJ Scratch, Steve D, these were some of the names that were definitely influencing us. Cutmaster Swift from London. These were the DJs that were in that generation before us. They were doing stuff whether it was sounding really funky or scratching really dope and intricate or using parts of their bodies or spinning around and catching the record. These are the DJs that we would look to to get inspiration. And then we would learn a lot of the stuff that they were doing and then expand on it. So if Raida saw somebody do a trick where they were spinning around and doing “rock the bells… rock the bells,” Raida would figure out a way to spin around, but not just catch “rock the bells” but turn it into a rhythm. And what he would perform on the turntables as far as beat juggling he would add body tricks to. So now not only was it sounding good, it also looked good. And that was one of the things that Raida started to do. He would see somebody do a trick, learn it and then do it better, add his personality to it and intensify it. And at the end of the day that’s what DJing is. None of us would be DJing if we all didn’t bite from Grandwizard Theodore or Grandmaster Flash. You learn something and then you expand on it.
So yeah I think that Raida is always going to be remembered for how he looked while he was DJing and performing, he made it look so effortless. It was just incredible.
On a more personal level, do you have any memories that stand out from your time with him?
One thing that I’ll always remember about him and cherish is that he always loved being around us. He would love to be on the road and tour and it wasn’t so much about being on stage or necessarily seeing other parts of the world. I think he was just happy to be with us and sharing a tour bus and going to eat and hanging out and laughing together and watching movies at the back of the bus. He loved that aspect of touring. That’s one of the things that I realized about him after he passed away. I was always one that hated touring. To this day it’s hard for me to leave my family and get on a tour bus without getting homesick. But Raida would drop anything the minute he heard [about a tour opportunity]. He’d just start getting excited and happy. I think more so because he would get the time to hang out with his crew. At the time I didn’t really understand it. I would be like “oh man tour, fuck, alright, we gotta work, we gotta promote the album.” It was more of a drag for me. But for Raida, he would come ready with all his movies, he’d have his little snacks with him. He just loved being on the road. I didn’t understand what was so fun about going home, but I guess in his mind it was like he was going home in a way. He saw it as an extension of home because he was around us and he saw us as his family. That’s something that I’ve really come to understand after he passed away.
Now what lead to your leaving the X-Ecutioners?
A lot of it had to do with the fact that we weren’t really prepared as a group to handle a lot of the notoriety, wealth and fame that started to come our way after we started to get more successful. When we signed our independent deal with Asphodel Records which was the label out of San Francisco that first signed the group and helped us release our first album, up until that point, all we knew was battling. We would just enter DJ competitions. So from 1991 to 1995 every year we were preparing for a battle. Whether it was me and Raida competing against each other and other guys in 1991 and 1992. Whether it was helping Mista Sinista prepare for battles he entered in 1993. Whether it was helping Total Eclipse prepare for 1994. And then it all coming back full circle and getting Roc Raida prepared for the 1995 World DMC Championship, which he won. So all those years we were battling or helping each other prepare for battles. 1996 was the last year we battled in any form and that was against the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. It was the East Coast, X-Men style of DJing versus the West Coast style. And that was basically the peak of our careers as battle DJs, it was the best against the best.
So 1991 through 1996 we were just competing. In 1997 we signed the deal with Asphodel Records. So we went from battling to recording artists. At battles, when you win a competition, all you win is maybe a jacket that says you’re the champion or you might win a piece of equipment. When you’re a recording artist there’s no prize, you’re getting money. I think that when we inked the deal and we got our advance the group was now interacting with each other on a different level. It wasn’t no more “yo let’s sit down and prepare for this battle and practice.” It was “yo let’s sit down and split this money.” So once money began to take a role on the decisions we would make as a group we couldn’t deal with each other. I guess what I’m trying to say is, we knew how to deal with each other as DJs that wanted to battle and enter competitions. But dealing with each other on business terms was like foreign territory for us. So I think that played a role in the group dynamics. The interactions started to change.
When we ended up signing our deal with Loud records in 2001, add A&Rs at major labels being involved in the creative process. The making of the album, the video, what we’re doing on stage, how we present ourselves. And being that myself and Roc Raida were pretty much the two oldest members of the group. I don’t mean oldest in age – Roc Raida is original X-Men and I was the second eldest as far as membership. Mista Sinista got down after me, Total Eclipse got down after Sinista. So Sinista and Eclipse left a lot of the decision making up to myself and Raida. So what ended up happening is I had a different school of thought with regards to where the X-Ecutioners needed to go. Roc Raida had a different school of thought with regards to where the X-Ecutioners need to go. And Eclipse and Sinista would just kind of sit there and let us battle it out. So a lot of times the end goal was the same, we were all on the same page about where we wanted to get to. We wanted to introduce the art of turntablism to the world. But I think the means of how to get there differed between myself and Raida. So a lot arguments ended up happening. We’d argue over certain songs.
We even argued over signing with Loud. I remember I wanted to sign with Rick Rubin. Rick Rubin was with Def America at the time and he wanted to sign the group but Raida wanted to go with Loud. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that another original X-Man, this guy buy the name of Shawn C was an A&R at Loud. And I think Raida felt comfortable being at Loud because Shawn and Raida had a really tight relationship. And I think Raida and Total Eclipse and Mista Sinista saw Loud as a place for us to take that step into production, [potentially] producing for aritsts like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, Raekwon, Big Pun. Whereas I wanted to go with Rick Rubin because I thought that Rick would help shape the group into musicians. I felt like Rick Rubin understood what the groups strengths were and what the groups weakness were. I think that [he] would have helped us develop into better recording artists.
Long story short, I got to a point where I wanted to go was different from where the group was going. And it got to a point where I just wasn’t having fun making music. I wasn’t having fun on the road because I felt like everything was being calculated for us. People were telling us what artists to work with, how to go about making the video, even people that had nothing to do with the group in the beginning were starting to tell us how to perform on stage. Stuff like that started to really bother me and I decided to leave the group in 2005.
So that’s pretty much an in depth behind the scenes as to some of the things that went on. But thankfully I managed to work things out with Raida and it took me leaving the group for us to come back to it and be like “alright man.” The whole group actually patched things up and a year ago we did a reunion tour in Australia. It was myself, Total Eclipse, DJ Precision, Boogie Blind and Roc Raida. And it was like old times again. We were back on the road, doing what we did best, which was performing and just getting busy with the turntables. And I’m glad we got to do that before Raida passed because all of us got a taste of the beginnings of all this again. I think with the notoriety that came our way we kind of forgot our roots. So the reunion tour was a way for us to go back to our roots one last time. I’m really thankful about that, I’m really glad we got do that.
Could you go into some detail about Raida’s injury?
He was in a martial arts class and on the night of September 3rd, it was a thursday night. He was sparring with a classmate of his. The classmate fell on top of Raida’s spinal cord, towards the top of his spinal cord by his neck. I’m not sure if the classmate fell on top of him to counter a move, or if the guy slipped and fell, or if the guy fell as a result of Raida taking him down. I’m not exactly sure. No one really is because no one was there. Raida didn’t remember what happened. The guy fell on his spinal cord and his spinal cord was misaligned. So he automatically lost feelings in his legs. They did two surgeries on him that weekend. I was fortunate enough to drive down to Baltimore where he lived, where he was staying at a rehab facility on September 18th. It was a Friday night. I drove down there with Mista Sinista, DJ Precision, Dr. Butcher and one of my best friends, a friend of mine named Dean who used to tour with us and be our road manager. So we drove down there on the 18th and he seemed fine. Obviously , he was in bed, he couldn’t move his legs. The injury caused him to be paralyzed. But his spirits were up, he was talking and you could tell that he wasn’t 100% himself. But his spirits left us feeling optimistic about him walking again and getting better. He was just like “look, I’m not sure why this happened, but I accept it. if anything I gotta figure out why, maybe there is a reason behind all this.” So he was even looking at the whole incident with a really positive, upbeat perspective. When we left we all hugged him and said our goodbyes. It was as if we thought we’d see [him] next week. We’d be back to check in. And then Saturday morning, September 19th he passed away. He went into cardiac arrest. I don’t want to speculate as to why, all I can say is that when we saw him on the 18th, it seemed like he was on his way to recover. He was in the rehab facility. He was excited about being taught how to get into the bed by himself. He was like “yo they’re gonna teach me how to get into my wheelchair and I can cruise around the rehab facility on my own.” He just seemed really excited and upbeat. So when he passed away the following day it was a shock, because we had just saw him and he seemed fine. In the sense that his spirits were upbeat and he was happy to be out of the hospital and in the rehab facility. So it was just a shock to everybody.
Did you have a favorite Raida routine?
Aww man… so many… I would have to say “Peter Piper.” He had this routine with “Peter Piper” where he just does so much to the record from the way it sounds sonically to, again, visually, what he’s doing with his body. I would recommend anyone who isn’t familiar with the routine goes on youtube and looks for it. It’s a really dope routine. After Raida experienced the initial injury to his spinal cord and he was hospitalized I started to incorporate his “Peter Piper” routine in my set as a tribute to him. Unfortunately, he passed away about a week and a half later, so now I am just going to keep doing it as a way to keep that routine alive. And I think all of us are going to do that, start incorporating little bits of classic Roc Raida routines in our set. Because that’s what he left us with. He may not be here physically to do them himself, so we’re gonna do them for him. He may not be here, but his legacy will always be. He has us and the rest of the crew to make sure of that. What he contributed to DJing will never die. If anything he’s gonna continue to contribute through us.