The X-ecutioners' last album, 2002's Built From Scratch, was a listener-friendly primer of turntable acrobatics. If that LP was the equivalent of an introductory college class — say, DJing 101 — the master DJs' Revolutions, due June 8, is the next level of course study.
Again they've got a star-studded cast of guest lecturers. Where the last album featured Linkin Park, M.O.P., Large Professor, Big Pun and Kool G Rap, this time around, the X-ecutioners have tapped the talents of Rob Zombie, Ghostface, Dead Prez, Cypress Hill, Fat Joe and others to further educate the masses about the art and science of turntablism.
"What we're doing is introducing the art form in stages," said Rob Swift, one-third of the group, which also features Roc Raida and Total Eclipse. "In some ways, Revolutions is an extension of Built From Scratch because once again we worked with MCs to show the connection between the DJ and the MC. But at the same time, we're just so much smarter about recording now. We understand how to make music using the turntable as the main focus but still keeping it understandable so that any average Joe off the street could enjoy a song. So this one's a little more advanced."
For the X-ecutioners, it's more important now than ever that the public understand the role and history of the DJ, a character who once dominated hip-hop but has recently taken a back seat to samplers and drum machines. "A lot of groups don't even have DJs," Swift said. "Hip-hop nowadays has become so separate. You have b-boys in one corner, MCs in another and DJs off in a corner by themselves. But hip-hop was originally about being able to do it all."
And that's exactly what X-ecutioners do on Revolutions, with the help of their gifted guests. The album isn't a self-indulgent display of the trio's DJ skills, nor is it a mere compilation disc: It's a cohesive and exciting showcase of turntable wizardry couched within strong, cleverly arranged songs. During the verses, the X-ecutioners often don't even scratch, but when they let fly to accent a vocal phrase or to solo between verses, they leave no doubt about their virtuosity.
One of the album's highlights is "Live From the PJs," which starts with a Latin beat before shifting into a springy club rhythm. The track is filled with old-school, Run-DMC-style scratching and rapping from Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface and the Roots' Black Thought, the latter of whom offers some heated verbals: "Shots follow the target, I ain't gonna chase y'all/ Swinging aluminum bats, it's not for baseball."
"That's one of my favorites," Swift said. "Basically, we are cutting up the music the way Grandmaster Flash would with the Furious Five in the parks. Back in the days when hip-hop started, you would hear it at the parks in the Bronx. A DJ would bring out his equipment, and his friend would grab the mic and MC the whole show. And you'd just dance or play basketball or breakdance to the music. That was the beauty of growing up in the projects, and I think the song captures that."
X-ecutioners recorded the song in the studio with the rappers, an experience they still get excited about. Even though they've worked with a "Who's Who" of players, being in the same studio as Ghostface and Black Thought was the fulfillment of a dream. "We've been fans of them and bought their CDs and wished we could work with them for years," Swift said. "Watching them spit their rhymes right in front of us for our song was incredible."
But one of Swift's favorite tracks on Revolutions is "Space Invaderz," a beat-heavy, guitar-inflected cut, which features no rapping but has a clear narrative element. "It's a story about a robot that invades New York," Swift said. "And, we are basically trying to save the city by fighting it with scratches. Our turntables are our weapons, and much of the [song's] story is being told through the use of a turntable." Another rapper-less track, called "Don't Believe the Hype '04," is filled with quotes from President Bush about the conflict in the Middle East.
Revolutions also includes a reinvention of White Zombie's "More Human Than Human" with vocals by Zombie and new raps by Slug from Atmosphere (see "X-ecutioners Collaboration May Leave Fans Scratching Heads").
X-ecutioners launch a tour on June 2 in New Haven, Connecticut. Dates are scheduled through July 5 in New Orleans.