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Sideshow Swamp

A Beck boy no more, DJ Swamp uses headbanger histrionics to blaze his way to the top.

At first blush, DJ Swamp holds all the intrigue of a nicely edited movie preview. The man smashes records during his sets and rubs the shards on his chest! He sometimes scratches his tongue with a stylus! He even sets himself on fire when he's really into it! How much more interesting can a live act get? It's certainly bound to get one pumped up for the DJ Swamp experience.

Then the buzz surrounding turntablism's It Boy becomes more audible. He is ubiquitous in the print media -- appearing with hands ablaze on the pages of Alternative Press, shilling edible sex aids in Jane ("Thank you Satori sensual scented love oil -- and there's a clean-up on aisle me") and popping up in glossy ads for Technics 1200s. It becomes clearer and clearer that perhaps DJ Swamp is whoring himself out to The Man.

How punk-rock is his story, though? As a kid in Cleveland with stars in his eyes, reflecting the glow emitted by Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money, he bought himself a Casio RZ-I drum machine at age fifteen. He supported his scratching habit by working summer jobs at Wendy's and teaching himself the ropes of DJ-dom. He started turning heads at the 1995 East Coast scratch competition finals when, at the end of his set, he licked his needle, literally scratching on his tongue. The next year he took the prize at his first-ever DMC U.S. National scratch competition, which signaled the beginning of Big Things for young Ron Keys, who supported himself by driving a street sweeper before breaking through.

Going through changes: DJ Swamp has had a mutation of his own.
Going through changes: DJ Swamp has had a mutation of his own.

Swamp is a DIY dream come true, but the exposure is nearing critical mass.

After his inventive and kind of sickening display at the 1996 competition, Swamp sent out a video of his DMC performance, which ended up in Beck Hansen's hands. Beck needed a DJ for his ¡Odelay! tour because Dust Brother Mike Simpson, who had served as the studio mixmaster for the record, was bound by contractual issues that kept him from touring. In came Swamp, who toured and worked with Beck for four years in addition to working in the studio on Midnite Vultures. This notoriety as "Beck's DJ" (and that is how he is referred to more often than not) led to more and more opportunities to beef up his resumé as a hired gun at the decks, working with everyone from Kid Rock to the Dandy Warhols to Hanson, never really tying himself to any one genre -- or persona, for that matter.

During the Beck years, Swamp sported a cute Poindexter look: Sweater vests, neckties, dorkily parted hair and a goofy grin were his trademarks. Over the years, though, he has morphed into a scary Rob Zombie look-alike, complete with the straight-from-the-depths-of-Hell album cover for Never Is Now. In the jacket photo, Swamp glowers at the world, his long, black hair blowing in his face as he thrusts a skull, clutched by his black-painted fingernails, toward the camera. Oh, and he's standing in a swamp. He really couldn't have been more obvious if he'd titled the album I'm Spooky. It seems to be an affectation, a marketing ploy, and it doesn't help that the majority of the record itself is a bona fide snoozer, if not a little embarrassing.

Never Is Now, Swamp's debut album (not counting the several breakbeat records released to the DJ market) opens with "Ring of Fire," in which he busts out with a spare little rap reminiscent of Kid Rock on a bad day. It is followed by "Worship the Robots," a humorous ditty that features a computerized voice (courtesy of text-to-voice software) dishing out typical hip-hop braggadocio. It's obvious that Swamp is technically proficient with computers, and producing the record was good hands-on experience for his inner computer geek, a personality he indulged quite a bit while on tour. "There was a lot of learning going on. I was learning how to use my computer, just trying to do a lot of it on the road," says Swamp. "I started it when I was still on tour with Beck, for the better part of 2000." He crafted the record remotely, primarily utilizing drum machines and his G3 laptop. "I hit that a lot," he says.

There are a few good tracks to be found on Never, though. "Feed the Hand That Bites You," among a few others, is chock-full of dirty grooves, but Swamp's dependence upon the drum machine evokes the feel of early-'80s rap, and the macabre song titles such as "My Peaceful Hell," "Disintegrator" and "Wheatgrass and Razor Blades" seem to force the scary-goth issue a bit, especially when paired with the ominous cover art. It's reminiscent of the radio DJ who thinks he's the first guy ever to play Ministry's "Halloween" on October 31. It's too blatant, too strained, and kind of sad, because there really is nothing new under the sun, and those who have gone before have pulled it off more effectively and much more authentically.

It's a shame that Swamp feels he has to affect this cheesy persona to augment his skills, because he is a very talented scratcher. His guest appearances on the Dandy Warhols' Tales From Urban Bohemia and Ben Folds's Rockin' the Suburbs are exciting, enviable performances. It's just too bad that he downplays that particular skill on this record, because he's depriving listeners of the true Swamp experience.

One can never fully appreciate DJ Swamp without seeing him live, however. He's got more tricks up his sleeve than David Blaine: In addition to the vinyl-induced slashings, Swamp drenches platters in lighter fluid, sets them afire and works from within the flame. He'll stack six records on top of each other, scratching the top one, then yanking it off the stack, letting the stylus land on the next record. He taps out "Louie Louie" in Morse code, using his pitch control and crossfader; he can also pick out "Axel-F" with a needle and a tone record. This is a man who's obviously done his homework; he loves what he does, and that is what has set him on the road to cult stardom. Why, then, the doofus hesher vibe and the histrionics?

"It's what I can get away with. When I was a young guy, I was just like any other hip-hopper I saw, and everybody hated it," Swamp explains through a mouthful of KFC. "I discovered things I could do that people liked."

So it would seem that the next step is hiring a carny barker to stand outside his gigs, being that DJ Swamp has fashioned himself into his own personal sideshow. Not that this is a bad thing, when speaking of live performances: What comes across as cheesy on paper (and in this case, on record) is often unspeakably brilliant in a live setting.

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