“Have you heard this kid? He‘s sick,” says a Power 106 host describing the turntable prowess of Ron Keys, known to his vinyl-shredding peers as DJ Swamp. Making a beeline for the 1200s, Swamp proceeds to bastardize pop’s sacred cows: Nirvana‘s “Lithium” is cross-faded with Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express”; Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” plays peekaboo with the theme song from Halloween; Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” gets buggered with beat-box kick-drum ‘n’ snare; Billy Joel‘s drippy doo-wop “Longest Time” is pitch-bent into helium highs and quivering lows. Swamp calls it his “death mix.” After he exits the booth, the stunned host asks, “Did you mess around before you came up here?” Swamp pauses — this is radio, after all — then says, “A little.”
Thus far DJ Swamp’s career seems less like a set of long-term goals than a series of sublime flukes. A tall, gangly white kid from the Midwest, he entered the DMC deejaying competition back in 1996 on a whim and ended up winning it; he was flown last year to Glasgow to give a workshop at a DJ symposium; he‘s contributed to releases by Kid Rock, Morcheeba and Crystal Method. Oh yeah — and he deejayed for Beck for five years. “It’s not like I auditioned or anything. [Beck] had heard me play and just called me up. So I was like, ‘Okay.’” But you can only be a sideman for so long, especially with a twangy speech flow that practically leaps from your mouth. “I‘m from Cleveland, and I went to a mostly black high school,” he says, explaining the source of his nasal, faux-ebonic voice. “It bugs me, though, because some people think I’m trying to sound all backwater on purpose.”
Armed with an unusual degree of tech savvy and the pillaging impulses of a pop-culture jackal, Swamp has moved beyond dance culture‘s turntable ghetto to become pure entertainer. He does this by breaking records over his knee, tossing platters behind his back and catching ’em on the flip side, or, just in case the audience isn‘t transfixed, casually setting them on fire. Though he initially turned heads as a scratcher, he also understands his craft’s limitations, plainly spelled out on “Ring of Fire,” from the new disc Never Is Now: “It takes more than your mom buying you a new pair of Technics, you geeks!” When I ask which jocks influenced him, running off a short list, Swamp is miffed: “A better question might be which of those guys was influenced by me.” He shoots the same incredulous look to questions about his choice of beats. “I‘m not into sampling some obvious shit,” he says. “Why should I pay to use someone else’s stuff when I can write ones that are better?”
With its textured rock guitars, slamming grooves, cheesy sci-fi samples, brag-bloated rhymes and itchy fingers, Never Is Now is a multipronged attack that Swamp hopes will scoop the rave intelligentsia, hip-hoppers, frat-rock boys and the “hippies with the herb.” Typical of his tweaked approach is the android gurgle of “Worship the Robots,” utilizing text-to-voice software instead of human lungs. “It took me a year to edit that song — I actually had to chop every line down to its syllable.” The track is supplemented with a video by Steve Hanft (the DIY dude behind Beck‘s “Loser”). While Hanft’s wide-angle X-Games aesthetic gives the video — depicting Star Wars storm troopers skateboarding and breakdancing — its retro-hip sheen, it‘s the meticulous editing job, making the actors pop & lock to the music, that has Swamp’s stamp all over it. It‘s the same sort of manic energy he imparts to a random phrase like “We’re in hell, ain‘t it groovy?” (“My Peaceful Hell”) or when he tweaks an innocent quote such as “Oh, yes” until it becomes an orgasmic moan (“Gossip”). With Swamp’s Farrelly brothers knack for being so moronic it‘s genius, the oldest DJ tricks never get old.
In a dance-music world beset by egos, here-today-gone-tomorrow clubs, police harassment, nonstop travel, dangerous drugs and the constant specter of tech obsolescence, Swamp never loses his sense of humor. And if Never Is Now doesn’t catapult him to fame, he‘s not sweating it: “I’ll just keep doing my thing.”
His mettle is tested a few weeks later at the Roxy, where his headlining show is a minor disaster, plagued by technical difficulties and poor organization. At one point, a drunken fan jumps up onstage, snatches the mic from the DJ‘s hands and starts to freestyle. Instead of getting pissed off, Swamp begins to scratch rhythmically along to the alcohol-fueled word salad. Afterward, he shakes the guy’s hand and takes back the mic. “I think I‘ll have to make him a regular part of my show.”
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