By Chris Gray
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A long time ago, when they were still deep underground and weren't considered much of a mainstream threat, the X-ecutioners were known as the X-Men. This quartet of turntablists borrowed the comic-book moniker to combat another group of superhero-inspired New York spinmasters, the Supermen, headed by the famed DJ Clark Kent. But when the X-Men broke out in the late '90s, they had to drop their handle before Marvel Comics could take them for all the vintage vinyl they had in their stash.
"We just changed the name to X-ecutioners to avoid getting sued," says card-carrying member Rob Swift. "But, you know, at heart we're still X-Men."
It seems to have worked out for the best, though. The new name describes the boys quite well. As record-rousers whose cuts, breaks, mixes and other tricks of the DJ trade border on militant, they certainly live up to the title the X-ecutioners. The folks who bought the group's first major release, 1997's X-Pressions(Asphodel), quickly discovered that this crew knows how to spin records with a frenzied authority. Record execs learned much the same. A year after the release of X-Pressions, the X-ecutioners were signed to Loud Records, home of such hard-core East Coast MCs as Xzibit, the Big Punisher and, of course, the Sweathogs of rap, the Wu-Tang Clan.
But who are these fearless -- and occasionally feared -- wizards who stand behind turntables and spin with reckless abandon?
Swift, 28, was the 1992 DMC East Coast Champion. He was inducted into the crew by founding member Steve Dee, who competed with him in the 1991 Northeast DMC finals. Swift occasionally spins for Akinyele and Large Professor, and was the first to come out with his own solo release, 1999's The Ablist (Asphodel).
Roc Raida, 28, was the 1994/95 DMC American and World Champion. Properly trained by his father, who was a member of the Sugar Hill-signed Mean Machine, Raida, a turntablist since age ten, is the only founding member still with the group. Raida sometimes spins for Showbiz & A.G., Lord Finesse and Artifacts. He recently released his own solo effort, Crossfaderz (Moonshine).
Mista Sinista, 29, was the 1996 DMC East Coast Champion. Mentored by Swift and Dr. Butcher, Sinista joined the group in 1997, shortly before the name change. The DJ also spins for the Beatnuts and Common. Sinista is next in line to release a solo album; Agent Xis expected out later this year on 75 Ark.
Total Eclipse, 22, was the 1996 ITF World Champion. Eclipse, the last member to get inducted into the X-ecutioners, also deejays for Organized Konfusion and Pharoahe Monch. There's no solo album in the works.
Despite the fact that these men manipulate turntables for a living, they would appreciate it if you didn't call them DJs. They prefer the term "turntablist," thank you very much. According to Swift, "turntablist" carries a creative, experimental connotation that many folks fail to realize. It's not like the X-ecutioners are trying to be all pretentious; they just want a term that separates them from all the part-time DJ hacks who spin Motown tunes at wedding receptions.
"The word "turntablist' was basically invented in order to distinguish what I may do on the turntable from what a person like, um, DJ Clue may do. You follow me? Although I deejay and I play out at parties and I know how to plan and rock a party, I do other things as well, like manipulate a turntable as an instrument. And for someone to compare what I do as a turntablist to what a person like, maybe, DJ Clue does -- where he's basically playing records one right after the other, but not really manipulating the records he's playing -- it's kinda unfair."
As a full-fledged "turntable band," the X-ecutioners can dazzle audiences with their skills on wax as well as on stage. They've perfected a technique known as beat-juggling, which, as a band press release says, is "manually alternating between individual kick and snare sounds to create original drum patterns in real time."
Swift tries to clarify: "You're piecing [the sounds] together, over and over again, and you're creating this one repetitious looping beat. And it keeps going." Swift adds, and it's probably obvious, that the technique needs to be witnessed in person. "'Cause it takes a lot of hand-eye coordination. It takes a lot of rhythm, timing, you know. You incorporate all that, you know, at a show in front of people."
Like all good hit men, these X-ecutioners have an agenda: They want to show there is more to hip-hop than people regularly perceive. "It seems that the public at large has this perception of hip-hop as being, um, about materialistic things," Swift says, "about how much money you have, about whether or not, you know, you have girls with fat asses in your videos and stuff like that. I think that while you have groups out there like Mos Def and Dead Prez actually saying something, those kinds of groups aren't shown enough. Instead, you're listening to people like Mystikal, you know. He has a new song out now called "Shake Ya Ass.' I'm not saying he shouldn't make that kind of song. But I think a song like that far outplays songs like, you know, songs that you would hear on like a Mos Def album."