On The Record: DJ Swamp
BY KALANI WILHELM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Dark and mysterious can only begin to describe the wicked persona of turntablist-producer Ronald K. Keys, better known as DJ Swamp.
His punk rock look may match his risk taking antics, but his skills and next level behavior on the turntables have always been rooted in the traditions and framework of old school hip-hop culture.
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No matter how much technology and window dressing the future injects into the world of DJing, Swamp said he will always view it as an art form in which he is free to express himself as he pleases.
For 20 years his bold, trademark set theatrics have included pyromaniac-like tendencies like bathing vinyl records in lighter fluid and then setting them on fire as they play. He is also known to chug said lighter fluid and spit balls of flame during performances. He’s also been known to smash records and other equipment, while early gigs featured cutting himself with record needles.
“I just try to have a good time, all the time,” he said during a phone interview from Maui earlier this month. “I’m just blessed to keep coming up with new ideas that excite me. I can’t wait for audiences to freak out when they come to life.”
As a scratch junkie and hip-hop purist, the extracurriculars have only added to his allure as one of the more underrated innovators of his time. Swamp may not be a familiar name among the young, aspiring fame-seeking DJs of today — but he should be.
Swamp became a household name among turntablists when he won the United States DMC Championship in 1996. Based on the notable competitors present that night in San Francisco, the win was unexpected and instantly put him in the exclusive company of legends like QBert, Roc Raida and Mix Master Mike. He exercised his right to be an unconventional scratchmaster ever since.
His evolution from a street sweeper in Cleveland to sought-after music mind and performer would lead to a four-year stint as DJ for Grammy Award winning indie-alt performer Beck. He would later work alongside notable names like Crystal Method, Katy Perry and Kid Rock.
Swamp has been in Hawaii for nearly a full month; other than a few days spent in Waikiki, he has been soaking up the Maui’s laid-back vibes. His extended staycation has included watching Team USA win the Women’s World Cup, snorkeling adventures, a Lahaina boat party and beach bar happy hours with friends.
“Everyone’s really nice, no ones really hating or acting mad,” he said. “I see what’s changed in the last 10 years and what’s been the same for thousands. It’s a very healing place. It inspires me to be healthy.”
Inspired by Grand mixer DST with Herbie Hancock’s performance of “Rock It” on Saturday Night Live in 1984 – a stage he would get a chance to perform on, twice, years later with Beck — he said since he took up juggling and breakdancing as a kid, he’s always had a thirst for performing.
These days, whether he’s playing at Burning Man, performing with a hip-hop legend like Biz Markie or melting faces at this year’s official 420 party in Seattle, Swamp said he is a magnet when it comes to soaking up creativity from the company around him.
“I had a residency in Las Vegas a few years ago and while living there I got to meet a lot of magicians,” he said. “I fell into a whole weird underground scene, which turned my show into something really magical and unique.”
Touring, making beats and programming for Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepson has kept the motivation level for the 40-year-old at an all-time high.
“I’m thankful for what I have so far and I appreciate anything I get, but I don’t think (my legacy) as important to me now as it may have been at one time,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t get the credit I deserve and sometimes I get way more opportunities, love and praise than I really think I deserve.
“(The) bottom line is, you had to have talent when I got in, there was no way around it. I’m still on the come up and I kick (butt) consistently.”