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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

Whatever Happened to the X-Ecutioners?

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DJs had been refining their craft since the earliest days of hip-hop, but it wasn't until the mid-'90s that they made the case that turntables could be considered a lead instrument. DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... was the breakout hit of the era's turntablism movement, in part because it eschewed the showy scratching that battle DJs prided themselves on in favor of brainy compositions. The X-Ecutioners, however, proved that the two weren't mutually exclusive.

Working from a foundation of samples, breaks and juggled beats, the four-man New York crew recorded one of turntablism's seminal works, 1997's X-Pressions, an album that played like one long, head-nodding suite. As buoyant and grimy as Wu-Tang Clan's classic works, it was an instant hit in underground circles that promised future success for the X-Ecutioners.

In light of the buzz surrounding X-Pressions, the group had a choice between signing to Loud Records, a division of Sony that harbored some of the era's most revered rappers, or to American Recordings, where they would work with pioneering producer Rick Rubin.

DJ Rob Swift still thinks his band mates made the wrong decision.

"There had always been a set career path for a lot of DJs like us: You start as a battle DJ, then you begin DJing for a rap group, and if you're successful at that you can move on to producing for other rappers," Swift explains. "I wanted to break that model, and thought that Rick Rubin would be the perfect person to help us grow as DJs and focus on making records. But the rest of the crew wanted to be on a label with Mobb Deep, Big Pun and Wu-Tang, thinking that would help them become producers."

Despite Swift's misgivings, the decision to sign with Loud paid off-at least initially. Early in their tenure, an A&R rep fatefully suggested that the X-Ecutioners record a track with a then little-known band called Linkin Park. By the time that single, "It's Goin' Down," hit the air in 2002, Linkin Park had become one of MTV's breakout stars.

The song was a bona fide hit for the X-Ecutioners, but also a double-edged sword.

"On one hand, it helped propel us into the living rooms of music fans who had no clue about us or the culture of DJing, but it boxed us in," Swift says. "I wanted to move on from there-maybe work with African drummers, or a jazz musician. But A&R forced us to stay in that rap-rock box. We were stuck making songs with, like, Rob Zombie, just to please our label.

"To be honest, that pissed off some of our turntablism fans," Swift continues. "We went from making an album like X-pressions, which was really genuine, just us experimenting and bringing in friends from our neighborhood to rap, to an album that was more calculated. I think a lot of our true fans saw through that."

Disgraced, the X-Ecutioners splintered, falling into obscurity after Swift left the crew in 2005 in an effort to woo back old fans with his uncompromising solo albums.

Time has healed certain wounds, though. The group flirted with some reunion shows last fall, and meanwhile three sometimes X-Ecutioners-Swift, Total Eclipse and Precision-now tour behind a new project called Ill Insanity.

"Ill Insanity is, to be completely honest with you, better than the X-Ecutioners, more technically inclined," Swift says. "Our ideas are a lot sharper. That has a lot to do with the kind of technology that we're incorporating now. When we were performing before, we were using just vinyl and the turntable. Now there are mixers and software and technologies that have allowed us to go back to the ideas that we were unable to pull off before because of the limitations of just using vinyl."

Ill Insanity headlines a 9 p.m. show on Saturday, Feb. 28, at Liquor Sweets, 3000 S. 13th St., with the Rusty Ps.