Rob Swift @ The Darkroom Chicago 4.13.07
During my regular errand-running on Friday, April 13th I witnessed three separate fender benders in as many blocks. Statistically, most car accidents happen on Friday afternoons, presumably because people are rushing to get home, yakking on the their cell phones making plans for the evening, or are simply innocent participants to another’s missteps. So with extreme caution, I made my way back to the crib and hoped for the best, taking defensive driving to new heights. Anything to make sure the whip was in working order, able to carry my ass to
Rob Swift, who was touring to promote the release of his new DVD As the Tables Turn, was the headline performer on a scaled-down, Hip hop-centric bill which also featured Chicago mainstays, Angry Skinny (aka DJ Form) and Shon Dervis. In addition to Darkroom regulars, and music aficionados, the crowd was a veritable who’s who in Chicago Hip-Hop with artists like BeatDaddyFish, Bobby Lovelock, Alo, and Ron all making their presence known, albeit as spectators.
While the bodies slowly piled in, Form and Dervis spun seamless blends, dropping old school tracks, classics, and songs that only go over in Chicago (Juice’s “Freestyle or Written” anyone?) It was actually refreshing to see them perform at a new venue after recently being ‘let go’ from their multi-year run at The Note (sidenote: when will fools stop coming to the club strapped? You’re only hurting the scene with that nonsense.)
As two the few remaining DJs in town who still rock strictly wax sets, Form and Dervis hastily perused their record bags for the next track, rocking two verses and out for most of their selections. But while many Serato DJs bring back up wax in case their laptops crap out, there’s no remedy for a damaged tonearm, or in this case, a needle with bad connections. So as Dervis’ set came to a close, one turntable was having trouble with the high end. All I could think was “that wouldn’t be an issue if they were using Serato.” To each his own I guess. Although, the crowd wasn’t too concerned about the lo-fi mishap and really, if you can’t bob your head to muffled version of Dead Prez’ “Hip Hop,” you should take your audiophile sensibilities home.
The clock struck eleven, and a hooded individual made his way from the Green Room, with Rob Swift following closely behind. The stage was in chaos for a minute as sound guys and DJs both swooped in to help Rob set up his Serato interface. Yes, I said it, Serato. One of our culture’s most respected tablists was now rocking digitally. Like my man Ogun (of the Thirsty Cambodians) said “you know it’s official when dudes like Rob are using it.” As he unloaded his ‘record’ bag, which was full of Serato vinyl complete with timing strips and markings, the crowd started to pack themselves 10 deep at the front of the stage like teeny boppers at an Xtina concert.
Once the sound in the monitors was to his liking, Rob got on the mic and let the crowd know that his set would be broken into three parts. The first part, which could have easily passed for Average Joe DJ’s entire set, started off with the syncopated drum beat of The Soul Searchers “Funk for the Folks.” Rob repositioned his Bluetooth-style earpiece, and proceeded to cut the hell out of the track, beat-juggling and live remixing simultaneously. I’m guessing from the lackluster response, the majority of the crowd never heard of The Soul Searchers, let alone “Ashley’s Roachclip.” But Rob kept it moving, transitioning seamlessly into James Brown, to Booker T, and so on… all the while, chopping breaks like a butcher on meth.
After about 25 minutes of ‘warming up’ as Rob called it, he stepped to the mic again and worked the crowd with questions of Rex Grossman’s future. Taking it as a dis, one patron jokingly called out the Knicks. But just as quickly as Part One of his set ended, Part Two began. Heads weren’t ready. Any tablist can craft a decent beat juggling set, but it takes true master to build one on the fly. Upping the stakes of Part One, Rob threw in more ITF-ready tricks, behind the back juggles, and half-time chops. Selection-wise we were treated to more old school breaks, but by this point it didn’t matter if you couldn’t tell the difference between Barrabas and a hole in the wall, the crowd’s attention was firmly focused on his technique.
And for Part Three, it was all about technique. Working in a battle mode, he removed his earpiece and proceeded to plow through 10+ prepared routines. Some of which dated back to the late 90’s and other were specifically designed for this tour. He pulled out all the stops, and honestly at least half of the routines were difficult enough to land him a spot in the 2008 Eastern regional DMC finals. Playing melodies using the pitch control, manually reversing a drum beat while crabbing with the other hand, and working the fader with his spine were just a few of the tricks that made the crowd erupt with applause.
As Rob drank his 4th bottle of water, he announced that he was getting tired and wanted to head back to the hotel. Of course after paying a hefty cover charge, nobody was having it. So to silence our collective pseudo-anger, he prepped us for his ‘grand finale.’ He grabbed two new Serato records and cued up his next selection, and the crowd grew unnervingly quiet. He dropped the needle and out burst the verse “LL Cool J is hard as hell/battle anybody I don’t care who you tell.” Once the beat came in, Rob closed his eyes and began juggling the words “Rock the Bells.” Starting out at a snails pace, he slowly increased the tempo, so that by the end his hands were a blur… I have to admit it was pretty amazing. Although it was a simple juggle, he was working ‘blind’ and with incredible speed. Needless to say, the crowd ate it up and if we weren’t already on our feet, he would’ve received a standing ovation.
In the end, guys like Craze may be pushing the boundaries of the art form, but when the old guard comes through with their battle-tested routines, it’s akin to witnessing history as it was. You can’t go wrong with tried and true.