Winning the '89 Technics World DJ Mixing Championship has allowed Cutmaster Swift to plough the prize money into his studio. Simon Trask talks samples and scratches with the Champion.
Earlier this year, Cutmaster Swift's DJ'ing skills brought him the DMC World Mixing Championship title. Now he's investing his £5000 prize money in his home studio.
NOT MANY PEOPLE can claim to have earned the title of "World Champion" in any field before their 21st birthday. But this is precisely what Cutmaster Swift has accomplished as winner of this year's Technics/DMC World DJ Mixing Championships.
Swift, known to his parents as Johnny Oakley, is no newcomer to DJing. He started out in the early '80s with cheap belt-drive BSR turntables before eventually graduating to Technics SL1200s, and has honed his skills over the years by performing live at hip hop jams. Swift is part of DETT Inc, a London hip hop crew which includes rappers Monie Love and MC Mell 'o' and fellow DJ Pogo.
"We all started out with little dreams that we would make it one day, and now it looks like '89 is the year it's going to be happening", the 20-year-old DJ tells me a couple of days after his Championship win. We're sitting in the offices of DMC's PR company Positive Publicity, which are located, rather unusually, above an amusement arcade in the heart of London's Chinatown. Swift is a quietly-spoken, polite and instantly-likeable person with the undemonstrative confiidence of someone who has proved his worth. He and his fellow rappers and DJs have "paid their dues" over the years, and winning the DMC championship is only the latest stage for Swift in gaining the recognition he feels he deserves.
"Now", he says, "I'm going to go into the New Music Seminar in New York to test myself one more time, and hopefully bring back the title. From then on I want to make records, but I'll still want to tour and do PAs."
DETT stands for Determination + Endeavour = Total Triumph, and there's no doubt that determination and endeavour are qualities which British hip hop artists have needed in abundance. Winning respect from the home(boy) crowd has never been easy, as UK hip hop fans have traditionally tended to idolise just about anybody who comes out of New York at the expense of homegrown crews. If anything, this has forced UK artists to become stronger. In fact, performing live is something that Swift relishes.
"I like showing the crowd that I've got something new", he explains. "The applause I get feeds me, and drives me to keep going. That's what's vital. If everyone's quiet and just staring at you, you've got reason to be nervous."
However, practising at home is just as important, and whenever he has time to spare, the young DJ can be found cutting up records on his Technics decks.
"I have to come up with something new even day, like a new scratch pattern. I try to be as new as I can all the time. To tell the truth, I do so many new things now that people expect it of me. "I might be out in the street thinking about something I'm going to do when I get home, but I never sit down and try and think something out. I'm strictly technical - I'll get on the decks and just go crazy. That's what I've always been known for.
"It's not something where you say 'What shall I be today? I think I'll be a DJ'. You've got to want to prove something, and you've got to convince other people that what you're doing is to be taken seriously."
Swift is very serious about what he does, and for him it was a logical progression from testing himself at hip hop jams to testing himself in the DMC competition. Last year he won the UK Championship and went on to get his first taste of competing against the world's DJs, including the hotly-tipped American DJ Ca$h Money, the eventual winner.
"I've been DJing for six or seven years, and I was an underground name, but I presented myself in the DMC competition, I put myself on the line. It doesn't matter who you are, you should be able to test your ability. You can be dynamic when you're mixing in your bedroom, but you're not guaranteed it when you're out performing, 'cos you'll always be nervous.
"Last year, winning the UK championship was what I really wanted to do. When I was in the World Championship, I thought 'Hey, wait a minute, what are you doing here? My God, you're going up against somebody you really admire'. I looked up to Ca$h Money, 'cos he was an idol from way back. It wasn't like I really wanted to beat him. When I knocked the needle, I just wanted to get it over with, I wanted to go backstage, and that wasn't professional at all. A year of touring with DMC has taught me that; it's also improved my performances and made me come up with my own style where people don't really know how technical I am, they just see something visually and think 'Yeah!'."
This year the World Championship was a close-fought battle between Swift and the American DJ Aladdin. Swift explains why in the judges' eyes he had the winning edge.
"I think it was because what Aladdin did was too similar to Ca$h Money last year. The judges aren't looking for people who can do something that someone else has already done, they're looking for something different. It's easy to see what someone's doing and then copy them, but it's very hard to originate something. That's what a lot of the other competitors have to do.
"Once you know you're doing something that's yours, no-one can ever trouble you. You put yourself instantly on your own pedestal; it's your category, you're controlling it. Now other people can do what I've created, but unless they take it a stage further they'll be living in my shadow.
"My whole aim in winning the World Mixing Championship was to get recognition for being someone who has persisted with mixing and done it in my own form, not just taken what someone else can do and won the competition on that. I've done it in my own style. I came out with my own presentation, my on package."
"At one time I was hyped up on scratching, but then I started hearing how fast and complicated records were getting through the use of sampling."
MOST PEOPLE ARE aware of how the DJ's manipulation of records led to a new use for (he digital sampler, but the subsequent influence of samplers on the DJ's technique is less appreciated. Swift explains how he was influenced:
"At one time I was hyped up on scratching, but then I started hearing how fast and complicated records were getting through the use of sampling. After Ca$h Money started doing all that speed-cutting, I took it a step further and developed a style called 'copycat', which is where you echo a phrase using two copies of a record. It incorporated a lot of faster noises, like delaying sounds for a lot longer. That came out of listening to what could be done with sampling."
So how much better can mixing get?
"It can always go further," comes the Cutmaster's confident reply. "There's so many DJs in the world, and so many DJs still to be born. It's never going to stop."
And he feels the same way about hip hop, as he explains:
"The way I see it, hip hop music consists of every type of music, so it can always be different. It's got a style, but it's always changing. That's the good thing about it."
And that's why it leads pop and rock music, because it's inherently more experimental and open-ended as a musical form.
I wondered what Swift as a DJ rather than a musician felt about musicians who don't really respect DJs.
"I see what I do as being just as creative as them. When I'm on the decks I try to be as creative as possible. Everybody's got their own opinion; maybe they feel intimidated, 'cos the DJs have got a lot of respect, they're getting bigger every year. And they can only get bigger."
Let's talk DJ technology for a moment, and in particular the little mixer which has proved so popular ever since Ca$h Money used it to win last year's World Championship, the Gemini MX2200.
"Everyone thought that because Ca$h Money was using the Gemini, if they got one it would make them a better DJ. But a mixer doesn't really make you a better DJ, you can use anything. A mixer is just a mixer; it's the turntables that are important. You do use 1200s, there's nothing else.
"People think that because the Gemini is small you can mix faster with it, but to tell the truth it's very uncomfortable working in a small space. But no matter what size the mixer is, it's for you to practise and adjust; I can go on a GLI, like I did last year, and still mix just as good. What matters is having the determination to make sure you do what you want to do.
"But the Gemini is very well-built, and the sliders are very sharp. Also, it's cheap, so if you break one you can just go out and buy another. I could spend £500 on a nice powerful mixer and then break the crossfader and half the time it's going to be in service."
Now, there speaks the voice of experience.
PRESTIGE AND PRIDE are not the only consequences of becoming World Mixing Champion. In clinching the title, Swift also won for himself a gold-plated Technics SL1200 turntable, Technics SX-AX5 MIDI keyboard and, last but not least, the tidy sum of £5000. For the young DJ there was never any question about where most of the money would end up: invested in his home studio.
"The money I won from the World Championship, it's basically spent now," he reveals. "I'm going to still have something to fall back on, though; I'll fling a grand into the bank. I've never really done all this for the money side of it. I only do something because I enjoy doing it. The money's the least problem, but of course you do need money, to survive!"
"If you sample old records you're making them sound like a whole new thing - when I mix a record as a DJ I'm expressing how I feel that record should go."
Now the proud owner of an Akai S950, Swift's exploration of sampling had humbler beginnings with a Casio SK1 and a Portastudio. Instinctively he was interested in sampling bits off records, because that was what he was used to from hip hop and DJ'ing. He subsequently graduated to another low-end Casio sampler, the SK5, and from that to an Oberheim Prommer. By this time he had joined forces with a friend who owned a Prommer, and after a while the two of them decided to pool their resources and try for something better.
"I'd had enough of buying stuff that I was going to have to change in a year or two. So we had this idea that if we got rid of one of our TR909s and got rid of a Prommer, we might be able to get a second-hand S900, but it didn't work out. I notice with most things that never work out, it's only for the best."
In the end, the pair's next move was to invest in a 1040ST and C-Lab's Creator sequencing software, but the thought of owning a decent sampler was never far from Swift's mind.
"This year I said to myself 'Yeah, if I win the UK title again I'll make sure I invest the money in a sampler'. I'm the sort of person, I'll spend and I'll have nothing by the end of the day, though what I've invested my money in can make things better for me. I know I can make it all back on one record.
"So I told my mum I was going to go for the S950 and it was over a grand, and she said 'What! You're going to spend that money already?'. I had to show her that it was worth it. It's like when I began the DJing: 'How come you're buying a turntable for £200 when there are turntables all over the place that are much cheaper?' You know what parents are! But now whatever I say I'm going to do, I say 'Just trust me' and they believe in me. The only problem now is where to put everything. Also, the neighbours complain that there's too much noise."
Now that sounds familiar. The DJ's next step is to consider some soundproofing, buy the S950's optional memory boards for more sampling time, and decide whether to go for an eight-track cassette or reel-to-reel recorder.
"What I'm trying to build up at the moment is just for demos, for working out ideas. Having the equipment at home means that if I'm inspired to do something I can record it straight away."
IT'S NOT SURPRISING that a digital sampler should assume such a central role in the young DJ's studio. After all, sampling is effectively what DJs do when they play, cut up and otherwise manipulate records. Consequently samples are an integral part of the DJ's creative process, as Swift explains:
"People say that sampling is stealing music, but the music today is too 'computery'. If you sample old records you get that natural feeling. but you're still constructing the music in your own way; you're taking something and you're rearranging it and making it sound like a whole new thing. It's like when I mix a record as a DJ, I'm just expressing how I feel that record should go."
And it's this innate creative desire to rework existing records which has led so many DJs to progress from being a mixer to being a remixer and subsequently a producer - from mixing the finished product to producing the finished mix.
While he has been observing and learning from the mistakes that some of his friends have made, Swift is all too aware that "you still have to make your own mistakes to know what's really going on". And although he may not yet know exactly what to do, he knows what he wants to do and has his working philosophy clear in his mind.
"Once you're producing your own stuff, you have a better understanding of what a remix needs, of what should be taken out or put in. You understand what the artist was doing. If you understand that and you remix a record just the right amount, that person will respect you and maybe even want you to produce them.
"It's the same with production. A producer's got to be able to listen to what the artist is aiming for, and be able to package it just right for them; that's what makes a record a hit. If you understand that, you're going to make a success of whatever you're into."
The DJ aims to make versatility in production and remixing his hallmark.
"Why not be a Todd Terry, why not be a Les Adams, a Paul Dakeyne, doing as many things as you can, remixing as many things as possible? I don't really want to be poppy, but I want to give off a positive image for people to aim for. Since Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince have gone platinum and shown that hip hop can be into those categories, I want to be able to reach those categories and do something that everyone can relate to. Not to water it down, but whatever you go into, you've got to aim as big as you can."
Cutmaster Swift has already shown his propensity for aiming as big as he can by winning the DMC World Mixing Championship, and in doing so he has also demonstrated his belief in the virtues of originality. But there again, when someone uses words like "presentation" and "package" in referring to the results of their creative impulses, I wonder if DJs are hardwired to think commercial worth first, out on a limb second. The evidence suggests that it really depends on the individual DJ. And what will this individual DJ end up producing? We can but wait and see.
Interview by SImon Trask
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