As the three-man DJ troupe X-ecutioners scratched through their hour-long set Monday, video images projected onto a screen above the stage. There, in grainy black-and-white, were jazz musicians straining away on trumpets and saxophones.
It was an interesting choice because, like most DJs, the X-ecutioners never appear to exert themselves – their whole act is based around making daredevil wrist-flicking seem as calm as a hurricane’s eye. On a more formal level, the contrast between jazz and hip-hop DJing couldn’t be more pronounced: While most classic jazz improvisation hinges on a relatively steady beat, the X-ecutioners improvise the beat itself.
This practice led to somewhat confused reactions from the crowd at the Marquee Theatre Monday. Since most of the group’s songs featured minimal lyrics, frantic scratching and ever-changing beats, the audience seldom got an opportunity to settle into a groove. When it did, though – when the X-ecutioners let, say, a James Brown or Public Enemy sample play long enough to be recognized – fans were inclined to hoist their arms and cross them in an approving X.
The X-ecutioners occasionally employed rappers to accompany their scratching, but most of the music onstage came from the six (two for each man) turntables which spanned the stage in a horizontal line. While each DJ had his own station, Roc Raida, Rob Swift and Total Eclipse would often mosey over to one of the others’ tables to take turns trading cuts in assembly-line fashion.
Each of the X-ecutioners had his own style. Swift was the unassuming leader; Roc Raida was the show-off with the Napoleonic complex; Eclipse was the behind-the-back, under-the-leg, over-the-shoulder flash master. At one point an MC announced that on the next track, each DJ would spin records representing a different component of the song. One then took the bassline, one took the drumline and one sandwiched in little snippets of vocals.
Then (and, for some, only then) did the X-ecutioners’ methods begin to make sense. When nobody was there directing traffic for the crowd, it was awfully easy to get lost in the symphony of scratches.
Opening hip-hop act the Coup were much easier to interpret – they spelled out their mistrust of journalists and the government loud and clear. Despite this coolly received politicking between songs, the group’s set got the crowd moving with a blast of live-band funk and thinking-man’s party lyrics.
Beat box revivalist Kenny Mohammed drew raves from observers, and he came back around late in the night to join the X-ecutioners. Sometime after the DJs banged out their Linkin Park collab, “It’s Goin’ Down,” Mohammed and Rob Swift threw down in an old-school battle. Mohammed’s mouth frighteningly replicated any number of drum beats and other effects, but Swift won the audience’s favor with lightening bolts of wrist action that resembled nothing so much as a street hustler conducting a shell game.