This year the DMC World Championships turns 30. For that reason we talked to some of the winners of the last 3 decades about the history of DJing and their personal point-of-view on spinning the wheel of turns. So during the next weeks we like to introduce you to some of them. This time we talked to Cutmaster Swift – World Champion 1989 and the guy who introduced (among others) the technique named Copycat.
When did you start with turntablism?
Cutmaster Swift: First I’d like to point out why I became a DJ! It started from the age of 5 as my Father was in a partnership sound system M&B HIFI. This was really where my passion for music came from as he would allow me to occasionally play from our home system. It was when my Dad upgraded his HIFI system, naturally the old one was passed down to me! My music collection was passed down Reggae, Soul and Disco classics. Otherwise before Hip Hop I bought a lot of new wave and pop music! My Introductory to Hip Hop DJJing? During the end of the 1979 and the start of the 1980s I – like many – was influenced by the media’s coverage of a new black ghetto phenomenon later to be known as Hip Hop. They focused on its four elements; DJing, MCing, Graffiti. Body Popping / Break dancing. It was the similarity I saw of the Hip Hop DJ to the Jamaican sound system selector that captured my interest, especially because the interaction they had. A lot of this was scratch mixing, and the DJs at that time were known as scratch. So when we now fast forward to the present and the name Turntablism, I feel it’s important to mention that there is a great divide in two today. Turntabilsm definition is now considered mainly through competition events like DMC and tends to have very little reference to it’s origins as these are solo musicians, and the music they use to make their compositions in most cases isn’t even Hip Hip. I’d also like to finally add – as Hip Hop is over 30 years old – the word Turntablism wasn’t introduced until the mid 1990s by a US West Coast DJ known as Babu. He self-titled his mixtape with that word and it was adopted by a growing open Hip Hop DJ community!
Are you still active? Do you make a living out of it?
Cutmaster Swift: Of course I’m still active although I don’t battle in DMC competitions no more. My presence is still very active, as an engineer, producer, advisor, at one point a host. Plus I do if available judge! Since I was fortunate to win the championships I’ve toured various parts of the world even to this very day as a DJ which has placed me as an ambassador to the art form. So I often find I’m now placed with providing history lessons on how we’ve come so far!
What kept you excited all those years?
Cutmaster Swift: Hip Hop is a community driven by competitiveness in everything and everyone that’s allies and opponents. It’s that what drives the art form’s elitism!
What’s your most favourite routine?
Cutmaster Swift: I don’t really have a favourite. I feel if I was to admit that I could no longer innovate a new one! All my sets / performances have to show innovation no matter how small. These techniques have all influenced the art form to this present day as they are regularly seen, to watch a DJ juggle or manipulate their records with the technique I introduced in the late 80s like the copycat (1988). I can only feel like a proud father, that the endless hours of practice was well worth it!
»First you have to have the techniques down or it’s gonna be a big mess. This usually is the making and breaking of most DJs!» When developing a new routine, where do you start?
Cutmaster Swift: First you have to have the techniques down or it’s gonna be a big mess. This usually is the making and breaking of most DJs! I treat it like a story and always break my routines into various sections which are then tweaked individually. The right introduction is so vital to any type of DJ if you don’t start correct you’re gonna lose your audience’s attention quick. I always try to start hype. That can be with a very popular record intro, chorus hook, or sound effect I’m creating. Whatever it is it has to be dynamic and the rest – scratches, juggles or lyric cuttin’ – has to continue from that pace. You can slow things down a little if you wish but it can’t be predictable with stuff we already know! As I mention previously every of my routines has to have something innovative no matter how small. That’s how the art form evolves. We are all individuals and it’s important we be just that when we perform. Just doing the same techniques or somebody else’s isn’t that. So if you’re only using different music and thinking you’re being that, don’t be surprised if the audience especially judges don’t feel the same!
What’s your basic philosophy on turntablism?
Cutmaster Swift: From a competitive prospective »If you want to have victory, first be prepared to lose«, otherwise be yourself, make music and have fun!
How do you prepare for battles? And how do you feel when doing a battle?
Cutmaster Swift: In a one-on-one battle (Supremacy), you should know your competitors strengths and weaknesses. I too often see a Turntablist pulling out routines that don’’t reflect even a defence against an ahead opponent! I take the attitude there’s no friends or allies so be ready to go to war. After the battle, if it wasn’t too much of a roasting or personal, maybe you can be that! LOL.
Do you remember your first DJ battle?
Cutmaster Swift:My first battles where in underground parks jams and clubs on a street level and that’s how I became very popular as I won!
How was your DMC battle for championship?
Cutmaster Swift: It still feels like yesterday even though 24 years have past. I was very proud to make my family fully aware of my chosen profession, to be able to take it too an amazing world height competing at the Royal Albert Hall, winning and of course being awarded the very first Gold Turntable trophy!
What was your routine to championship?
Cutmaster Swift: My routine involved an RNB record being mixed with a popular Hip Hop record while doing a victory dance as the ultimate intro. It worked! And then followed by many innovative techniques like the copycat, and body tricks in a 6-minute performance!
Digital or vinyl? What’s your weapon of choice and why?
Cutmaster Swift: During my competitive day’s there was only one choice and that was vinyl. Today is today and both the DJs and technology has evolved. I don’t have a problem with digital. My only criticism is on the live element as some DJs have manipulated their music by pre-editing as an advantage in how fast sounds are accessed or manipulated. This doesn’t influence my judgement of the art form as I can still identify these introduced unnatural differences. As for other judges it’s for them to explain their preferences! Finally, the pro of digital is it’s a lot cleaner with greater access to a far larger library. The cons is the distraction of looking at the computer and random small latency occurrences which a good DJ should be able to minimise!
Your top 3 turntablism records?
Cutmaster Swift: I’d have too mention Fab Five Freddy’s »Change the Beat«, only because on the B-side is the source of the famous sounds/samples »Ahh« and »Fresh«. Every turntablist on the planet should have an original copy! A Hip Hop record would be a second choice but with so many artists too choose from all I’ll say if it’s in my collection I obviously like it and wouldn’t part with any and that goes for Breaks too. This is the original Hip Hop music, segments of energetic drum beats or instrumentals from all types of music genres that’s now occasionally sampled today! Today I feel like mentioning The Incredible Bongo Band’s »Apache«, a real B-Boy classic but ask me another time and I’ll mention another as there’s too many to mention. There’s still plenty of unknown ones but it’s a golden rule of Hip Hop, that DJs don’t give away their music catalogue. It’s a best kept secret!