DMC World Champion DJ Switch Smashes The Royal Albert Hall
Interviews Dan Prince / Helen Wallace
Photos: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
6.30pm on Saturday August 6th 2011 saw a little piece of history in the world of classical music, but in the world of turntablism, it was a major piece of history. Most male eleven year old’s occupy their times away from school glued to computer games, watching football or generally getting up to mischief. Step forward one Anthony John Culverwell who at the tender age of eleven turned his back on all of the above and decided to take up DJing. The world of music now know Anthony as DJ Switch, three times World DMC Champion, support DJ for the likes of Professor Green, Tempa T, Beardyman, Mistajam, Jazzy Jeff, Sugarhill Gang, Nero – and last Saturday became the first DJ to play the BBC Proms at The Royal Albert Hall in London in Gabriel Prokofiev’s ‘Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra’ with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, pianist Benjamin Grosvernow and conductor Vladimir Jurowski. Yes you did read that right. 1 DJ, an orchestra of 160 and 7000 people wondering what the hell they were letting themselves in for. The last time DMC rocked this venue we were holding our World Finals here with the likes of Cutmaster Swift, Cash Money and Chad Jackson holding the trophy aloft whilst James Brown, Public Enemy, Janet Jackson, Roxante Shante and Big Daddy Kane took to the stage.
Before we speak to DJ Switch and The National Youth Orchestra, composer Gabriel Prokofiev, the grandson of the prolific Sergey Prokofiev famed for his ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella in the early part of the 20th Century plus the film music for Ivan The Terrible and Peter and The Wolf, spoke to Helen Wallace about his forthcoming big night…
Gabriel, the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra was conceived several years ago, how did this all come about?
“Will Dutta had the idea of commissioning a concerto for turntables after being blown away by watching DJ Yoda at a festival. He invited him to be the soloist and then thought of asking me to write it as he knew that I had experience producing Hip Hop and doing remixes of classical music, as well as being a composer. At first I wasn’t convinced by the idea of a bringing together two such different musical cultures and was worried that such a concerto would just be a gimmick with Hip Hop beats being scratched over orchestral textures. But after I had the idea that the turntablist would only use sounds that came directly from the orchestra, I realsied that it could be an organic and musically credible work.”
The original recording was made with DJ Yoda, this time at The Royal Albert Hall you are featuring DJ Switch, will that mean we’ll hear a completely different performance?
“The turntables part has a proper written score, which in many ways resembles a percussion score, though it has a lot of explanations to the DJs as to which sound/technique to use and when. However, there’s room for a lot of ad lib playing and personalisation of the smaller details and rhytmic gestrures of the turntable part – as a DJ culture involves a lot of improvising and I didn’t want to cramp the soloist’s style. So DJ Switch will bring his own personality to the concerto in particular the cadenzas for each movement, in which the soloist is free to manipulate the orchestral material as he likes. As the reigning World DMC Champion, DJ Switch has some mind blowing techniques that he brings to the concerto.”
What do you think the players of the National Youth Orchestra will find most challenging about this?
“There are certain parts of the concerto with a strong sense of groove, taking inspiration from Hip Hop and they’re going to have to find a way of swinging that. Though they’re used to playing classical, I think they’ll be familar with the rhythms of Hip Hop and I think the idea is that they’re going to move their bodies, which will help a lot. I think it’ll be a challenge not to get distracted by the soloist on the turntables – he’ll be so fascinating to watch.”
The National Youth Orchestra
Ahead of their performance, we also hook up with three members of The NYO, an amazingly talented group of musicians who are without doubt the future of British orchestra.
Welcome to DMCWORLD Magazine, a very exciting night in store for The Royal Albert Hall. DMC have been the proud organisers of the World DJ Championships since 1985 and has produced some now worldwide DJ legends who now appear on stage with the likes of Kanye West, The Beastie Boys, Beck and Madonna. Do any of the Orchestra enjoy the art of Turntablism and Hip Hop?
18 year old viola player May Dolan : “Well we’re definitely converts now!”
So what can we expect from the show on Saturday night?
17 year old trombonist Andrew McCoy : “Enthusiasm…excitement…emotion…energy…because we’ve been on the NYO Residential Course for two weeks, we can’t string actual sentences together any more!”
17 year old cellist Lucy Arch : “Expect lots of tears at the end as it’s our last concert together this year!” –
Have you ever performed with Gabriel Prokofiev?
Andrew : “Not before this, but we’ve really enjoyed working with him.”
What is the youngest age of someone in the orchestra?
Andrew : “Out of the 165 members, 13-year-old cellist Sarah Hughes”
Explain what happens at the residential courses?
May : “It’s two weeks of non-stop music making with like-minded teenagers.’
Andrew : “And between the rehearsals there was a mid course party where we raved it up with DJ Switch and he said on Twitter it was one of his favourite ever parties.”
May : ‘We also did workshops with the beatboxer Shlomo and with both him and Switch said it was amazing to see something so different from what we do but which requires just as much focus and dedication and talent”
Lucy : “Don’t forget the hill-rolling and flower-pressing that us cellists got up to!”
What is the popular artists being played on the tour bus or on your i-pods whilst on tour?
May : “Dubstep, drum and bass, Lady Gaga, Adele, Tinie Tempah, DJ Sammy, Major Laser, everything really… not forgetting Mahler!”
What was your reaction to The Times claiming you to “be the most uplifting orchestra in the world’?
Lucy : “It’s pretty accurate!” says Andrew. “We’re really touched by that comment as we work really hard at what we do and it’s great to be recognised for that.”
Where is the best venue you have ever played?
Andrew : “You can’t beat the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, being in front of a such a big audience and then hundreds of thousand more on the radio and TV too. It’s incredible. But we also love Symphony Hall in Birmingham too where we played last week with DJ Switch. It has an amazing acoustic.”
So here we are. A beautiful Saturday evening, London’s finest stepping out of limos and Bentley’s walking into one of the UK’s most treasured and distinctive buildings, recognised all over the world. Each year The Royal Albert Hall hosts more than 350 performances including classical, rock, pop, ballet, opera, tennis and award ceremonies – but tonight the capital’s gentry were going to have their feather’s ruffled by one of our DMC boys, DJ Switch taking to the decks amidst violins, trombones, flutes, drums, clarinets, harps and French horns. We speak to one of our greatest champions backstage after the Concerto…
Would we be right in saying that this was one of your greatest challenges as a DJ?
“I suppose so…I remember just how difficult the piece was to take on when I was first asked about performing it about two years ago. But even performing it somewhere as prestigious as the Proms, I knew it inside out by the time we came to perform it, and the preceding tour the same week was a great help – it meant that myself, Vladimir the conductor and the National Youth Orchestra were used to performing with each other as well.”
Compared with entering the DMCs and winning the Supremacy a record three times, how did your nerves compare on the night?
“I was definitely more nervous at my last World Final – I had to have a can of beer to keep myself calm for that! Because the DMC’s go out on DVD each year, I’m used to the pressure of performing, knowing that I could watch it back. That was the biggest thing to deal with mentally. I’m such a perfectionist and if I wasn’t happy with what got recorded, I’d be sitting there helpless as it was broadcast to the nation. But having listened back to it, I’m very happy and can’t wait to watch it back as well. Crowd sizes haven’t really been something that intimidates me. I’d make sure I was performing to my best if there were 5 or 50,00 people in the room.”
Where from here can you take this concept?
“Well from a classical perspective, it’s up to other composers to see for themselves – the possibilities of the turntable being included into their works is there – historically it’s been done as early as 1939. Combining Hip Hop and classical music is a tricky thing – you have to respect the strengths and weaknesses of both ‘genres’, and Gabriel the composer produces both styles of music, so he gets that perfectly. I’d love to see more compositions like this emerge (and there already are others, DJ Radar for one, who just beat Gabriel to it!) but from my end I’ve always been a fan of including more classical elements into my regular DJ performances.”
We’ve always said at DMC that the turntable is a musical instrument, the guitar has strings and chords, the piano has keys whilst the decks have records, do you feel you have finally proved that the turntable is indeed a musical instrument and that the DJ is a musician?
“It’s certainly worth giving credit where it’s due to DJ Yoda – who showed Gabriel all the different techniques he could include into the composition, in particular where you can create whole melodies from a single looped tone. You can actually achieve a six-note scale just by the available pitch adjustments & Gabriel wrote a perfectly fitting lead melody. From the reaction performing the piece has had – everywhere, over the past two years, but especially the Proms – people might not have ‘got’ everything about what I’m doing, but they’ve certainly been massively enthused by it and enjoyed it.”
You were working with over 150 young musians all in their teens, how did they react to you in rehearsals and when chatting with you back stage?
“The NYO were working on the orchestration for a week or so before I came in as a lead soloist, and they all said they were excited about it, but still weren’t sure exactly what I’d be doing. So I was asked to play the pre-party, to give the kids a chance to loosen up before we did the concert tour.”
When you are playing to a packed club you know when you are doing a good job, hands in the air, screams of joy, beaming faces everywhere. At classical concerts the audience don’t normally clap until until the end of the performance, how did that feel?
“It’s absolutely opposite worlds, it’s very bizzare. Gabriel has always told me how he’d like there to be more of that crossover, more akin to the jazz world where someone will do an amazing solo and you just applaud them there and then. In fact the first time I performed the Concerto with an orchestra, I was doing my beat-juggling ‘cadenza’ [classical term for solo] and the audience just exploded. A massive smile instantly erupted on my face. They were a mixed crowd, who had been very quiet up until that point (which is what the piece calls for). We nearly got a round of applause at the Proms for the same bit. I get the impression that if you’re in the audience for it – unless you’re a seasoned classical buff – even you’re not sure how to react. But it’s great we got that ripple. It wouldn’t have happened at a more formal classical concert.”
How did you prepare for this event?
Well the idea of the piece, is that I’ve captured the sounds of the orchestra and I manipulate them back at them, so Gabriel and I spent some time re-recording a lot of the samples, so we could get the power of the NYO in the turntables. We fine combed the piece, improving things and adding little changes as we went. It was basically just as much practise time as I could get to get my parts right and make sure I knew them. The downside was that I was in the middle of a massive tour schedule for the whole of July, so I spent a lot of time going through it all in my head.”
What were your favourite instruments in the orchestra you enjoyed working with?
“I get some lovely interaction with the string sections, all the violins and such. Plus some great ‘question and answer’ sections with the orchestra. All my cadenzas use samples from the orchestra, as does the entire piece, and creating beat juggles with those was by far my favourite creative moment, because in classical music the cadenza is the point for the soloist to pretty much do their own thing, in fitting with the rest of the piece.”
Was your family in the crowd, what did they thing about this magical moment of DJ history?
“Yeah my mum and dad came down for the performance in Symphony Hall the preceding Wednesday, then for the actual day at the Proms. My dad’s a massive classical buff and my girlfriend said she couldn’t sit still during my performance. I think the whole week made his day.”
What did your fellow DJs think of this show when you told them about it?
“Well, most of my friends when I said I’d be performing at the Proms, assumed it would be the Electric Proms before I corrected them – then their reactions doubled in extremity. Even the seasoned scratch DJs haven’t been sure what form the Concerto would take when I told them about it. It’s not mixing tracks with an orchestra just playing over the top, as was more akin to Nero’s ‘Dubstep Symphony’, but it’s not cutting classic ‘ah yeah’ scratch samples over the top of them either. It’s much more mature and interactive, it takes the concept of two disparate entities working together and pushes that concept within itself, if that makes sense. There’s only so much explanation before you actually just need to see or hear the piece for yourself (possibly more of the ‘see’), but I think people have had a good grasp on it when seeing it fresh. They’ve certainly enjoyed it.”
What was your initial thought when Gabriel first approached you on your My Space site?
“I loved the thought of it, and I’ve always been keen in exploring, discovering or creating new musical outlets for both the turntable and myself as a turntablist. Then Gabriel gave me everything; the original recordings with DJ Yoda, the isolated backing tracks, all the samples, the musical scores. Then everything became about how to approach actually ‘doing it’ – I can read music to a basic level, which thankfully was enough for me to grasp the score, but I still have to do a lot of listening and decompiling to work out exactly what sounds Yoda was producing and which ones were the orchestra. But of course, they’re all the orchestra, it’s just which ones are being scratched back over the top. It was a very confusing to approach doing myself.”
What do you think Gabriel’s grandfather Sergey would have thought of this performance?
“I think every musician would like to leave some sort of legacy, and having your grandson ultimately enter the same field of work as yourself is surely vindicating. Gabriel himself has been telling me about how even the piano at one point within the classical world was frowned upon as being a soloist instrument, which sounded absurd to me but then that’s deadling with a timeframe of hundreds of years, which puts it into perspective. I’d have been interested to see if Sergey had access to turntables as they are now, as opposed to wax cylinders or whatever, and whether he would have gone down a similar route to his grandson.”
Have you ever seen any of the DMC Finals at The Royal Albert Hall in the 80s? DId it unnerve you thinking you were taking to the stage where the likes of Wagner, Verdi, Elgar, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Jimi Hnedrix, The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and Jay Z have all appeared. Not to mention Her Majesty The Queen, Winston Churchill and Nelson Madela…?
“I’ve seen the History of the World Champions DVD and I knew they’d held the finals there a few times before, which felt really nice to give it that sort of ‘full circle’ feel. It wasn’t until I got there and did a tour of the building that I found out quite how many sorts of events that building had hosted – from Miss World competitions to the first ever sumo wrestling match outside of Japan. It’s rather stupid to be intimidated by reputation sometimes – if I’d have known before I met Vladimir that he is considered one of the top ten conductors in the world right now, it wouldn’t have helped me at all interact with him. And I don’t suppose everyone else you listed were intimidated by the other people on the list! You still have to go on and do the show. I did have some time to contemplate how many great people had been on that stage, but then just he practical things we had to get done on the day such as soundchecks just subsume your time. And maybe it wasn’t the very same stage anyway. Besides, I’d only seen the Royal Albert Hall on TV before, having watched a few Proms, and it actually felt much smaller compared to how I thought it would be.”
How did you think your performance went tonight, were there any mistakes that we laymen may not have noticed?
“Haha! I’ve yet to listen back to it, I might hold back until it goes out on TV. The fourth movement of the five in the piece was the hardest for me to nail for this tour, because Vladimir made it much slower and darker, which made it tough on me to get right in rehersals. But for the Proms I think it was pretty much nailed. Most of it was to be fair. I do recall there are probably three small moments within the whole thing which I might cringe at. But having Yoda in the audience, and hearing that he gave me the highest praise in saying that I’d nailed it, I’ll be more than happy with that.”
Tell us about the Salt N’ Pepa cop out…
“Well…I was doing a masterclass with some of the NYO, explaining that fourth movement, which has the six-note scale/pitch change section I mentioned before. So I did a few excerpts from the piece, then I showed them that with exactly the same approach, I could recreate the melody from that ‘Push It’ track with the same scale. They dared me to do it on the night, include in the piece somewhere, but I bailed out. Surprisingly.”
What was your highlight of the night?
“Well, not wanting to do the actual Prom down at all, because it went superbly, Benjamin Grosvenor’s performance was stunning and NYO’s rendition of Romeo & Juliet was stunning, I’d made a note to myself to ensure I caught them doing it at the Albert Hall. But the highlight of the day had to be at the end of our rehersal, which was in the Hall. We’d just done a run through of the piece and everything sounded great, and they were about to start re-rigging the stage for the next piece, when one of the violinists stopped everyone to say “we’d just like to thank DJ Switch for being brilliant” and handed me a present which the orchestra had signed. I was so touched by it, they were all brilliant themselves and it was just the perfect way of topping off spending a week with these young talented musicians. Who are just normal kids who seriously love playing classical music!”
And finally, who is the greatest turtntablist in the world right now?
“Ooh contentious. We’ve got plenty making great names for themselves these days, I wouldn’t feel right singling out any one above the others. I’m really happy for JFB, we’ve been doing a couple of projects together and he has such a drive to get better, to represent the artform. Then he goes and completely smashes this year’s UK Final, he’d stepped up his game so much. It’s great having mates who are really sick at what they do.”
Anthony John Culverwell AKA DJ Switch
3 x DMC World DJ Champion
6 x DMC UK DJ Champion
Watch the concert on Saturday August 13th at 9pm on BBC 2 and BBC HD.