Rob Swift, part of the New York-based turntable team the X-ecutioners
(formerly the X-Men), has produced his dissertation on the wheels of steel. An accomplished effort, The Ablist shows Swift to be an elegant scratcher and skilled beat juggler, as well as a capable producer.
The production is remarkably clean, highlighting Swift's turntable moves
to great effect and generally keeping things wide-open. Openness is a
hallmark of the album overall, from the overhead snippets of mundane
studio conversation that pop up between tracks to the sonic clarity that
allows each musical strain its place in the mix.
And there are many strains. In addition to creating his own tracks and
scratching over them, Swift plays with the band Dujeous, duets with
the keyboardist Sy/nare and collaborates with Dr. Butcher, Dan the
Automator, his rapper Gudtyme, and Pharoahe Monch of Organized
Konfusion. He even grabs the mic himself on one track, "I'm Leaving," an
act that tends to undercut his positioning of the turntable as the equal
of any other instrument or bandmember.
The beats on the whole lope rather than charge, and the album maintains
an attractive midtempo mood throughout, reaching a feel-good, sing-along
high with "Modern Day Music." The track features a full band, with
Swift's turntables an equal partner in the mix, and a gang vocal that
incorporates Rob Swift and Dujeous into the history of DJ/MC
collaborations (sounds better on disc than it does here).
Swift's awareness of what he's doing -- his consciousness of the DJ
tradition and his own skills -- makes a song like "Modern Day Music"
work on several levels. But as in any dissertation, there are moments on
The Ablist that sound like self-contained exercises in proving a
point rather than fully fleshed-out (musical) ideas.
One such reach is "Fusion Beats," which pairs a slow organ vamp against
Swift's cutting of Boogie Down Productions' "The Bridge Is Over."
Fascinating as an example of where turntablism might go, the duet
nonetheless bogs down quickly as Swift and keys player Sy/nare fall in
and out of step with each other.
"What Would You Do," which Swift sets up as a dialogue between two
turntablists -- he and Dr. Butcher -- feels similarly like an
experiment, a concept, rather than an actual song. It makes for
fascinating listening and highlights some great beat splicing, but all
the same, it sounds sealed off.
The Ablist is a fairly accurate state-of-the-art report,
reflecting both the range and extent of the advance guard in
turntablism. When turntablism's moment truly arrives, I expect that Rob
Swift will be leading the pack.