NEW YORK -- Sometime in the early '90s, someone dropped the fader
on hip-hop DJs.
Gone are the days of the up-front, celebrated turntablists such as
Grandmaster Flash and Jam Master Jay, scratch-and-mix masters who gained
fame outside of tight rap circles. So it's more than a little surprising
that at a sold-out show boasting guest appearances by the Roots' Black
Thought and De La Soul (promising a new album this summer), the most
memorable performance came from four DJs who hardly said a word and
"guests" were relative rap unknowns.
The X-ecutioners, formerly the X-Men, aren't the star attraction on the
Elements of Hip-Hop tour, which also includes Rahzel, the Roots' human
beat-box. That distinction belongs to Common, a scintillating rapper backed
better-than-average live band. Most of the 400 or so people at Tramps in
New York City on Tuesday were there to see him, so getting several hearty
ovations was no mean feat for the X-ecutioners, a group with eight
turntables and no microphones.
Most of the X-ecutioners' set included nothing from 1997's
X-pressions, the only album they've recorded since forming in 1989
and winning a horde of DJ contests. Roc Raida, Total Eclipse, Rob Swift and
Mista Sinista simply displayed the turntablist skills they've been working
on since grade school, at first all scratching together, complete with spin
moves and turntable stops with various body parts. They mixed up the beats
too fast for the audience to even dance or bob their heads for more than a
One Common fan from Brooklyn, who would only identify himself as an MC
named the Enthusiast, seemed a little perplexed by the display. He was also
bothered by the "X" symbols fans made with their arms during the show,
comparing them to "shackles." However, the Enthusiast later acknowledged,
"Yeah, they was tight, real tight."
Despite being somewhat shackled to their turntables, each X-ecutioner
performed individually with more freedom than most MCs. Swift, with his
stunning jagged cuts of songs by LL Cool J ("Rock The Bells") and James
Brown ("Sex Machine"), and Raida, who scratched and spun with his knees,
hips, back, elbows, nose, whatever he could use to manipulate the
turntable, got the loudest ovations. But each member's mixes and spins
flowed with excitement, each one a complete and highly conceived musical
piece, combining familiar samples with wicked, indecipherable microbeats.
Next to the sheer turntable-wizardry, the only complete X-pressions
track they played all night, "The
Cipher" (RealAudio excerpt), with
underground rappers Gudtyme, Creature, Pliz and World, seemed tame.
Even X-ecutioners fans were in awe. "Scratching -- it's what I like, and the
X-ecutioners are the best," said 21-year-old Manhattan denizen Josh
Davidson. "And tonight proves it."
Common and his band (organ, drums, guitar, bass and DJ Mista Sinista of the
X-ecutioners) predictably received the warmest response, with the club
finally filling to capacity. His set primarily featured the refreshing,
intelligent raps from his latest album, One Day It'll All Make
Sense, such as "Hungry" and "G.O.D. (Gaining One's Definition)." But
Common made sure to throw in the almost-classic "I Used To Love H.E.R.," an
allegorical rap from 1994's The Resurrection, explaining Common's
take on the modern hip-hop scene.
That was the highlight of his show, not the cameos by Black Thought and De
La Soul, who perform "Stolen Moments Pt. II" and "Getting Down At The
Amphitheater," respectively, on One Day It'll All Make Sense.
Make no mistake, this was Common's night, just as today's hip-hop world at
large belongs to the MCs and the DJs.
But the X-ecutioners struck more than a small blow for the invisible
turntablists, perhaps a small step toward producing the next DJ superstar,
a la Grandmaster Flash. [Fri., Jan. 23, 1998,
9 a.m. PST]