Anthony Williams, AKA Grandmaster Roc Raida, was a turntablist and producer whose rhythmic performances garnered him renown as one of the best battle DJs in the game. He grew up in Harlem, watching Grandmaster Flash on television and copping Cold Crush Brothers tapes from the guys on the corner. Raida got his first turntables at age ten, and hooked up with his friends to form a DJ crew called the X-Men, which they would later rename The X-Ecutioners. A master of mashups and beat juggling, he was the 1995 DMC World DJ Champion, and was inducted into the DMC Hall Of Fame in 1999. Before his death in 2009, Raida DJed for Busta Rhymes and MF Grimm, produced for the Jungle Brothers and Showbiz and AG, and released seven solo records and three albums with The X-Ecutioners.
During the prime of Roc Raida’s career, in 1998, Frank Broughton visited him at his home in the Bronx, where they spoke about scratching and beat juggling styles, DJ competitions in the ’80s and the evolution of hip-hop.
We meet at his house, which is one of those boxy borough versions of a terrace house, with chainlink fencing and a little driveway. Once inside, there is evidence of family life (he’s picking up his daughter from school in Harlem later) and a room off to one side filled with his records and sound equipment. I’d never seen so many Technics decks in one place – there are five, not counting the gold-plated ones he won as DMC World Champion a few years back. His records have the scuffed look of breakbeat tools (the vinyl as well as the sleeves), and he can’t wait to get the rest of them from his mother’s house.
Which of the mixing competitions has the most respect?
It’s between the DMC and the ITF. The DMC is the more popular and the ITF is the International Turntablist Federation. It’s not even two years old yet.
What are your titles?
DMC World Champion in 1995. The final was in London.
How did you get into DJing?
My father was part of a Spanish rap band on Sugarhill Records called Mean Machine. He used to come and get me and I used to have to go with him to the studio while they worked, and I used to wander around the studio while they were doing vocals and stuff. I used to always look at the turntables because they had these red mats. I [would] always look at them and spin ’em around. And my father was like, “Don’t touch that.” And after a while, coming to the studio just constantly, I asked my moms for a pair. And they were just shocked that I even asked them.
When was this?
I was ten years old. This was maybe 17 years ago. I was nine years old when I asked for turntables. ’81, maybe ’80. And every second she was like, “Do good in school, don’t bother us with the turntables.” And I see [Grandmaster] Flash in the news and he was cutting “Freedom” back to back – da da dada – and I was like, “Oohh!” And it went on, and it went off so fast, and I was like, “You have to see the news of this guy named Flash.” He was DJing on the turntables that I’m talking about. And that Christmas came around and he bought me turntables. Two turntables, a Gemini mixer, and an amp.
No. They were maybe like Technics B1s or D1s, back then. And for a while I couldn’t hook them up ’til my father came around and hooked them up. From then, it was on. He would give me records. I would take my lunch money and just save it for weeks and just go buy maybe three records at a time. Practice. That was it. I used to just eat the school food, save up my money, walk to 125th Street – we lived on 112th – and go buy records. I’d save up enough to buy three records in three weeks. And then after a while I started really dedicating myself to that.
Apart from seeing Flash on TV, what was your inspiration?
Back then I was young, so it was a minimum. Where I used to hang out at they used to listen to the Cold Crush [Brothers] tapes, or Busy Bee vs. Kool Moe Dee. These are the guys that used to hustle on the block, and I used to be across the street with all the other kids, just, you know, listening to that go on.
…It was really because The X-Ecutioners have so much respect.
I won ’95 as a soloist, and Total Eclipse won the ITF ’96. Other than that I don’t know – we’re just respected. If I should say so myself. What happened was we came up with beat juggling.
Once we learned one style, we upgraded it and it turned into something else.
I don’t exactly know what that is.
Beat juggling is taking two records, and just rearranging the beat. Rather than cutting it back-and-forth on-beat, you might take something and throw it off-beat and make it on-beat. You might take kick snares, hi-hat sounds and rearrange them into your little mix of the whole thing.
So you do like a blend?
I could show you.
[He shows me: it’s all about being able to isolating each drumbeat on the two records so you can play pretty much any rhythm you want; instead of breaks or bars, your raw materials are separate beats. The result is a rhythm completely different from the originals, made from the beats they contain.]
I get it. That’s amazing. You’re just totally using it like as if you had a drumkit. You know where all the beats are and you just…
…I just arrange it again.
So instead of playing chunks of the break, you’re playing each beat separately.
How did that come about?
Actually, it came from a guy named Barry B...and Steve D. Barry B was from Doug E Fresh and the Get Fresh crew, and a good friend of his was Steve D, which was one of the original X-Men. The original X-Men were me, Steve D, Johnny Cash and Shaun C. Barry and Steve were good friends and they came up with it. At the time Barry was sick and he came up with it and he was like, “Yo Steve.” He was sick, so he could only do like so much, so Steve used to practice and practice, and us being around Steve and being friends as well, we picked up on it too. So it was like we all kind of built on it together. And then we just came up with this crew and I said let’s be the X-Men and be a DJ crew.
So beat juggling was the basis for putting the X-Men together?
What happened the first time you did that in public?
Steve was the first person to beat juggle in a competition. This was in ’91, at the NMS [New Music Seminar], and people were just fucked up, like all the judges that were on the panel. Like Ritchie Rich, DJ Scratch, all the popular DJs at that time were just fucked up. “Aawwww, what the hell is he doing?” And from that point Steve was like, “Yo, I have a crew as well.” And from that point we started getting into battles and people started seeing different styles of beat juggling, ’cos everybody had their own mind and we all had different styles. So it went from level one, two, three, four, and then it recycled. Once we learned one style, we upgraded it and it turned into something else.
Is that something that most people do now?
So it’s like the influence has spread.
It’s mainly beat juggling and scratching. That’s the two main skills going on in the competitions now.
What were the skills people did in the competitions before that?
Back then it was more visual. What you could see, not really the sound.
So the sound and the technique hadn’t changed much since the very early days?
It’s changed a lot. Now it’s really difficult.
Back then it was more or less who’s the fastest...who can go behind their back, who can spin around, who can take their shirt off.
I guess what I’m trying to ask you is the evolution. It’s like everyone says, Kool Herc was the first, Flash beat him on skills, Herc beat them all on volume, and [Afrika] Bambaataa beat them all on records. What’s changed since then? How did it develop?
Back then it was more or less who’s the fastest. As well as just going back-and-forth. Who’s the fastest, who can go behind their back, who can spin around, who can take their shirt off. That’s what I mean by it was more visual. It was more what you could see, and not really what sound was actually coming out of the turntables. Back then it was transforming, that Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money came up with. So it was more what you could see, and who can transform, and what record you transform, and how you did it.
Transforming is a scratch. I don’t know whether to say Jazzy Jeff or Cash Money came up with it, but it’s a scratch. Transforming is moving the fader while moving the record back-and-forth.
[He demonstrates. The key thing that’s happening is that the fader is used to isolate small chunks of the scratch, so that you only get the forwards scratch and not the rewind bit, so you get a rhythmic effect without having to rewind to the beginning of the scratch each time. The record he’s using is the Fab 5 Freddy one on Celluloid, “Change The Beat,” which ends with “This is really FRESH.”]
It was maybe do all the body tricks, and then after you do your body tricks then you transform. And that would make up a complete round, because back then at that point that was the thing to do. That was ’87, ’88, ’89, ’90.
So before that it had all been pretty much constant, similar skills?
And after that came beat juggling, and after that came…It’s like everything goes in a circle. People started beat juggling when they seen us do it, then people will go back to transforming. That’s when they came up with the flare, which is a backwards transforming. And that’s a flare, so now we have an upgraded transform, so now you have to upgrade beat juggling. That’s when I started putting records on at 45; instead of it playing at a 45 beat, it’d play slow, if you catch it at the right place. Catch it on the downbeat and play it on the snare, and it’ll play slow. It’s just doing weird things with beat juggling. It’s just like I say, recycling what you’ve been doing before and upgrading it.
So it’s always evolving.
There’s always a new scratch to learn, always a new style of beat juggling.
And what is your opinion of how it started?
Herc is definitely the founder of hip-hop. Flash upgraded it by doing stuff like scratching with his elbow and spinning behind his back, and [Grand Wizard] Theodore came up with the scratch. So from like Herc, playing records back-and-forth, to Theodore actually scratching a record before he throws it in, to Flash scratching it with his elbows and turning around behind his back. To [GrandMixer] DXT coming up with a different style of scratching other than the rub.
The different style of scratching where it has the different notes in it.
He was doing what we call now chops.
[He demonstrates: a few rhythmic scratches before the actual chunk (here it’s “Fresh” again) comes in, all part of the same rhythm, i.e. using the fader to make the scratches into separate beats.]
And back then all everybody was doing was…
[Demonstrates a continuous back-and-forth scratch.]
Instead of the MC needing the DJ to be there to keep the beats going, he’s like, “Aww fuck that, we did a mix down in the studio, there’s a DJ right there, in the DAT player.”
The other thing is that right at the beginning it was the DJ who was the key figure, but then the MCs took all the limelight away.
I think that happened because what the MC is doing is vocal. What you say is what you say, like the DJ’s playing records. His attention span to the crowd is at a minimum because he’s worried about cueing up the records, keeping them on time; the MC is more social. He’s like, “Check out the DJ,” “Yo, do you see this?” So the crowd is like “Aww,” listening to what he’s saying, and the music is blending in with it. The MC was just more vocal type of thing going on, so it drew the attention from the DJ to the MC. Because the MC was doing actual talking. Once the MC starts rhyming, the MC is rhyming over the beat, if that makes any sense. The only reason you’re paying attention to the DJ is ‘cos he’s keeping the beat.
So the personality…
The other thing was people started playing live shows with DATs [Digital Audio Tapes]: It’s more reliable, it’s not going to jump. And that kind of made the DJ redundant. How did people feel about that?
That happened maybe ’93, ’94.
Before then most shows would have been live.
Before then, all shows were basically live. But yeah, the DAT pretty much took the DJ’s place for a while. Because instead of the MC needing the DJ to be there to keep the beats going, he’s like, “Aww fuck that, we did a mix down in the studio, there’s a DJ right there, in the DAT player. Basically I can just take this tape, throw it on and we don’t need you. If you show up, it’s cool, if you don’t, I got the DAT.” And then as hip-hop started getting more popular and it started making more money, people started getting more corporate about it and being more professional. To the MCs it just wasn’t cool that the turntables would skip when you’re performing live on MTV. That’s embarrassing to them. When in fact that’s been going on for years in the park.
Yeah, it’s part of it.
But now, it’s been came up, and you’re on MTV, now when the needle skips you’re embarrassed. Even though you’re a hip-hop artist and you came from the people in the parks cutting up the record, and it skips, there might be a scratch in the record. But now that you’re on TV you’re embarrassed – of your culture, basically. So I guess they were like, “To avoid jumps on MTV we’re gonna use DAT.”
And in terms of the DJ’s skills, that became kind of separate, and it became more about the competitions and not about the shows. When do you think that happened?
That happened when they started the New Music Seminars, because people go to see these competitions and it would be like kind of going to see a show on Broadway. Just a battle itself was entertaining. You would go you see 12 people, six on each side, and just to see who’s gonna match up at the end and who’s gonna win. It’s like a mystery. Like who killed the butler. It’s a mystery, it’s unplanned, it’s gonna happen right in front of you. So it became more of a show, basically.
Meanwhile the DAT is doing all the work in the shows…
So this became a separate show, just for the DJs. Kind of like a play just for the DJs.
And that was from the New Music Seminar. What year?
I can’t say. I think the idea of just doing DJ shows came from that, because seeing a DJ get busy, wasn’t too normal until these competitions came around. before that it was a little piece maybe. A DJ would scratch a record in the middle of the show or over the record that you’re on. But before that you didn’t get a chance to see the DJ do his solo skills just by himself. No MC there to say anything, just “Are you ready? GO!” And he has a minute-and-a-half to go. So after they seen that, I guess they were like, “Woah. Let’s start doing DJ shows, let's have DJ battles, let’s have them come out and just perform.”
It really changed the game. No longer are you playing for an MC or for people dancing. Now you’ve just got a minute or two minutes to show your skills off.
It brought the respect back to the DJ. A little bit. because sometimes you do these shows and after you cut up for maybe five minutes people are like, “Hey, let the record play.” “Play some reggae.” “Play something that I like.” It’s good, but then it’s bad because some of the people there don’t appreciate it.
For you, when the competitions started to be more important than the shows, how did that affect the way you want to perform?
You have to know how to sample your stuff clean. You have to know how to get levels. That’s where having an ear for music comes in.
Not the way everything has to be like in two minutes instead of the whole evening?
I still think the same. I still practice the same way. It’s just that if you give me a half hour, or if you give me 20 minutes, I know that I just have to take all of these three minute routines and four minutes and just pile them together to make up that time that you want me to perform. So you’re still seeing the same stuff that I would do in a battle, minus me dissing my opponent. Because there’s nobody there to diss, but there’s a crowd, so instead of a intro with me dissing somebody it’s a intro to please the crowd.
Another thing is how the skills of the DJ got taken into the studio. Do you do any production work?
Yeah. I’ve done stuff for Showbiz and AG, Jungle Brothers. We have an album out ourselves called X-Pressions, just a whole bunch of stuff.
Do the skills that you have as a DJ translate completely into making records?
Yeah. Yeah it does. I don’t know how, but it does.
What are the different techniques? What are the differences?
The difference is there’s no limit when you’re doing production to what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s up to you to make that limit. To say “That’s just too far-fetched to do that. You won’t get any respect by doing anything like that.”
And it’s really a progression. The DJ used to be making a beat for the rapper. You’re doing the same thing when you’re in the studio, just with different tools.
What what would you typically do to put a record together?
I would listen to records. I have that pile right there. Unplanned as always. I might just be listening to a record and hear something I like. Then I sample it. Maybe I might feel like finishing it right there. Maybe I might not. So I just might sample it, loop it, listen to it for a while, clean up. just do whatever I’m doing. And then I might think of something else to do with it, and then I would put it on. And if I don’t feel like finishing it then I’ll save it and come back to it later on. I don’t really put a time limit to what I’m doing. You have to leave room to change stuff and add stuff.
How do the layers come together? What’s the first thing you would put down?
You can’t tell. Sometimes I might hear some drums. I might wanna chop them up. And then maybe a week later I might hear a bassline or some horns or something that I might want to put on top of that. And I’ll put that there and I’ll go there. So there’s never a thing of saying what to put to it first. It’s just what catches your ear.
Do you still have to learn new skills, or could a DJ just go straight into a studio?
There’s a lot to learn, but I can’t say it’s more difficult. It’s the same thing but instead of knowing a mixer and how to maneuver a record and a fader together, you have to know how to use your machine. You have to know how to sample your stuff clean. And you have to know how to get levels. That’s where having an ear for music comes in. You have to know how loud to sample your stuff, how to mix your stuff down, just a whole bunch of stuff.
The end result you’re trying for, is it the same thing?
Yeah. Yeah, it’s music.
When do you think the DJ first got respect for being a musician?
I don’t know. I think it gradually just crept on people. Like since day one, Flash was the producer of all the Furious Five songs, so I guess you could say from day one. But as the years went on and hip-hop evolved, it just got bigger DJs, like [DJ] Premier, Pete Rock. They’re DJs with skills, and they’re also good producers.
It’s all about the ear. Do you play an instrument?
I play drums.
You learnt before you started DJing?
Yeah, about the same time. My father plays just about everything: guitar, bass, pianos.
What about other things, like beatboxes? Who started using those?
Were you going to the shows or were you too young?
I was too young. [Laughs] I was definitely. I was only ten or eleven years old, they wasn’t having me go to no hip-hop shows.
What was the first time you went to a show?
Maybe ’83, I seen Cold Crush, and I think Busy Bee at The Pier. That’s like downtown, around 14th Street, like right by the water.
How was that?
Oush, that was amazing. I went. I got an autograph of Grandmaster Caz. Oh man, that was it to me. The Cold Crush back then were like my idols. They were just dope. Everything they did, to me was just dope. And it was so difficult for me to get their tapes. I had to work hard to earn respect from these guys on the corner that were hustling and stuff, just to go up to them and say, “Here’s a tape, can you make me a copy of that please?”
You still have all the tapes?
Yeah. They used to make me copies of it. Then, when they found out I was a DJ they’d say, “Make me a tape, Shorty,” and I’d give them a tape. that’s how I got all my tapes, from them.
You’d make them one and get one in exchange.
People made a lot of money out of the tapes didn’t they?
Did you make any money from it?
Psshh, who me? Naw. Nobody was trying to buy a tape from a 12 year old. I would have to just basically go up to them myself and say, “Do you wanna buy my tape?” Back then I was just a child with a set of turntables.
So it wasn’t till the X-Ecutioners that it got going for you?
Yeah, till the X-Men, really. ’88, ’89.
The X-Men and the X-Ecutioners is the same crew right?
It’s the same crew but we changed the name. For legal reasons when we did our album. ’Cos of the comic books. We didn’t want to get to that point where they would pursue us.
So how many records have you got?
This isn’t all my records. I have a lot of records at my mom’s house that she’s telling me to come get. So I’m just wondering where I’m gonna fit ‘em. I’m getting all this new equipment, what am I gonna do with another shelf of records? But I want them though, bad.
This interview was conducted in 1998 in the Bronx. © DJhistory.com