The Underscore: Behind the custom music of ESPN
This month, in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, we interviewed College GameDay studio DJ, Rob Swift. Rob Swift is the child of Colombian immigrants, second generation DJ, and long-time musical partner of ESPN. Read on to learn more about Rob’s journey.
Tell us a bit about where you are from, your heritage/musical background, and what kind of music you make?
Well, I was born in Jackson Heights, Queens (NY) but my parents are Colombian immigrants. So I consider myself American and also strongly identify with my Afro-Colombian heritage. I'm known for my work as a Hip Hop DJ.
Has your upbringing influenced your music in any way? If so, how?
For sure! My father (Jose M. Aguilar) emigrated to NYC in the late 1960s from a small section of Colombia called "Choco.” Located in western Colombia, Choco is known for its large Black population. That specific region is the second largest gold producer and so my Dad's family were all miners. After settling in NYC, my Pop decided to DJ to supplement his 9 to 5 income. So by the time I was 8 years old, Dad was DJing weddings, birthdays, New Year's Eve parties, etc., and he would bring my Mom (Clara), older brother (John) and I along to help him transport his equipment. It was a family affair so to speak. Being that my Dad's friends were other South American immigrants, he would mostly spin Salsa, Merengue, and Cumbia. I'm talking about the late 1970s and by then, Hip Hop was thriving in NYC and my older brother was immersed in the culture of breaking, rapping and graffiti. Being that my Dad owned all the gear you needed to DJ the way Hip Hop pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash did in the famous park jams that took place throughout the city, my big brother would invite his school friends over to our house on holidays to jam like his hip hop idols while my parents were at work. So my Dad and my brother's eclectic tastes in music influenced me to be the DJ I am today. I must add, growing up in a neighborhood like Jackson Heights also played a role in helping me appreciate all genres of music. From Latin, to Soul, Jazz, Disco, R&B, Freestyle, Rock, Hip Hop, the list goes on and on. I embraced it all and didn't discriminate one genre from another.
What projects have you worked on with ESPN and which one was your favorite?
My first experience working with ESPN was being tapped by them to perform at the 2002 ESPN Sports and Music Awards. I was a part of an all DJ group called The X-Ecutioners and we had a single out at the time called "It's Goin' Down" which featured Linkin Park. The success of the song inspired ESPN to have us perform and wow, what an awesome time I had. Jay-Z was also on the bill that year and he asked us to back him up during his performance. What a rush! I also got to meet the Red Hot Chili Peppers who were being honored at the event. I remember not wanting that day to end! Since then, I've collaborated with ESPN in a variety of ways. I got asked to appear in a NY Yankees vs Boston Red Sox, teaser promo featuring my X-Ecutioners band member Total Eclipse. In 2012 I was a part of the cast for ESPNU's UNite, a late night talk show that centered around college sports featuring me as the show's DJ. What The Roots are to Jimmy Fallon, I was to UNite and I had a blast. I also DJed the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 which aired on ABC. I've been on SportsCenter numerous times. It's seriously humbling to think DJing has facilitated so many cool opportunities with a company like ESPN. I mean, I love sports and I love DJing. So marrying both of my passions is a blessing!
Tell us about the creative process of one of the projects you have done for us? What were your inspiration points?
I'm currently the studio DJ for College GameDay and preparing for each show has really opened my mind creatively. Typically, when I get booked for a gig, I'm DJing for an audience that already knows who I am. They're coming to see me, so I can dictate to the audience what I want to play. But I've had to be more flexible on College GameDay. These are college students I'm playing for that are too young to remember “It's Goin' Down.” So I find myself figuring out fun ways of incorporating the modern music they like with the music I came up with. Last week, we were at Penn State University and during a part of my set, I mashed up Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust,” which is totally my era, with White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" and the result was magical. I could see the older folk in the crowd jamming to it because they knew Queen, while the younger people watching me broke out into the "Seven Nation Army" chant. It's moments like that where you realize DJing allows you to speak to many people at once if you understand how to curate a set properly.
Can you tell us about your College GameDay experience this year?
It's been great. Every weekend I get to travel to a different city and spin for an entirely different audience. It's pushed me to stay on my toes which is a good thing because as a DJ, it's easy to get complacent when you have a residency at the same club. But being the College GameDay DJ keeps things fresh every weekend. Another thing is I work with the coolest people. I remember we were in Iowa for the Iowa vs Iowa State University game and Desmond Howard came to the DJ booth and hung out with me. Moments like that are just so freakin' cool cause you're DJing as a Heisman trophy winner is standing beside you enjoying the music you're playing. There are times where I'm like, somebody please pinch me because it feels like I'm dreaming right now.
Have you experienced any challenges while making a path for yourself in the industry?
Of course. In fact, I still find myself in situations to this day that can be deemed "challenging". Devoting yourself to an art like DJing 100% can be a scary decision. Throughout my career, I've experienced slow periods where, for whatever reason - the 2007 recession, the 2020 covid-19 pandemic - work slows down and you start to wonder if you're going to bounce back. However, my faith always sees me through those dark times. If you're going to make the decision to be a full-time DJ, it's important to understand the path isn't always a smooth one. You have to be ready for the inevitable bumps you'll encounter and stay in faith when the terrain on your path gets rough. That mindset has helped me get through a 3-year recession and pandemic that's technically not even over. Now, I'm sitting here answering questions for an ESPN blog as the studio DJ for College GameDay and CEO of Brolic Army DJ School. When all else fails, just hold on because good awaits around the bend.
How has your art allowed you to express yourself during the current times of the pandemic and social justice movements?
DJing has allowed me to channel my emotions. During the pandemic, when I started feeling isolated, I'd jump on the internet and teach people how to DJ. So, although I wasn't in the same room with a student, I was still interacting with people from all over the world who wanted to learn about what I do. DJing has created a platform for me to speak out against the police brutality and racism we've seen take place since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. My reach spans from Queens all the way to Beirut, Lebanon because of the various world tours I've embarked on and all the music I've released worldwide, and so I use that reach to make my own personal impact regarding the social issues that affect us all. As a 12 year old kid, when I DJed my first party at my junior high school, I didn't realize DJing would also be a means to socially engage people globally.
Any advice for any young aspiring musicians/composers?
Once you've mastered all the rules, break them. Be creative. Think outside of the parameters you learned. We live in an age where mistakes and flaws are frowned upon. Everything has to look, or in the case of music - sound perfect. As a result, creativity takes a back seat to playing it safe. But when you think about it, playing it safe keeps you from standing out. So take risks. Try new things. Don't be afraid to fail. That's how you grow and get better!
What are your favorite sports teams?
Well, my favorite sport is baseball and I'm a huge Mets fan. I live about 2 miles from CitiField, #lgm. College Football wise I'm a big Michigan Wolverines fan. NFL wise its J! E! T! S! JETS! JETS! JETS! and Basketball wise I rock with the Knicks! GO NEW YORK!!!
What do you have on the docket these days and where can our readers find you?
Social media wise you can find me at @brolicarm on Instagram @djrobswift on TikTok, @djrobswift on Twitter and "DJ Rob Swift" on Facebook. I post a lot of behind the scenes footage from my College GameDay adventures so definitely follow me if you want a taste of what DJing for thousands of college students is like.
Thanks to DJ Rob Swift for sharing his story with us! Be sure to tune into his Instagram lives for behind the scenes looks at his College GameDay journey!