Born from the ashes of New York hip-hop DJ supergroup the X-ecutioners and from a frustration with the current state of turntablism, Ill Insanity are on a mission to return the art of the DJ to its former glory.
Composed of ex-X-ecutioners Rob Swift and Total Eclipse along with younger inductee DJ Precision, the turntable trio have just released their progressive scratch music debut, Ground Xero, on Fat Beats, which includes among its turntable guests fellow former X man Roc Raida, plus Excess and DJ Q-Bert.
Ill Insanity’s ongoing national tour, which stops in San Francisco on Feb. 21 for a performance and a workshop at Guitar Center and a party-rocking throw-down at Levende Lounge, seems less like a jaunt and more like a crusade to its three impassioned turntable ambassadors.
"This is the beginning of us taking the art form back," Rob Swift said, sounding something like one of the Marvel Comics heroes from which his original group, the X-Men, took their name. "And I feel that we are putting it on our shoulders to show people that this is real creative music. And we are educating people about this art form because it seems to me like no one else is really doing it right now."
Speaking a few weeks ago at Swift’s Queens, NY, apartment, which also serves as the group’s recording studio and rehearsal space, the trio had gathered to mourn what they see as a creative lull in the art of turntablism and to prepare for its pending renaissance.
"Basically we were all bored with music, and that’s what brought us together," Total Eclipse said. All three agreed that for several years now DJ battles, traditionally the barometers gauging the advancement of the turntable art form, have been in a decline. "There has been a really poor attendance at DJ battles for the past five years, especially here in the US," said Precision, the 2007 USA DMC Finals DJ battle champion. "And it’s because the art form has slipped so much."
Part of this artistic stagnation, they believe, is because DJs of recent years have been satisfied with merely imitating instead of trying to innovate. "The younger DJs are too caught up with looking up to what came before, so they stop practicing when they master that trick that QBert or whoever has already done years ago," Swift said, "and consequently now everyone is sounding the same."
Precision jumped in: "And a lot of them don’t even know the complete history of the DJ, like that Steve Dee created beat juggling."
In performance Ill Insanity’s setup includes five turntables, three mixers, and computers to operate the Serato program. "What we are trying to do is to use the new technology without dumbing down the art," Swift insisted. "We have much respect for what came before us, still applying the skills of Grandmaster Flash, party-rocking, and so on…. But we’re saying, ‘Let’s do a 2008 version of what’s already been done in the past.’<0x2009>"
And as for the future of turntablism? Swift is optimistic: "There could be a kind of DJ revolution again. I predict that in a couple of years things will go back to the way they were." (Billy Jam)
Feb. 21, 6 p.m. performance and workshop, free
1645 Van Ness, SF