Turntablism, the manipulation of sounds through turntables and a DJ mixer, has never been a glorified role within the rap scene. DJs are often required to put in a tremendous amount of work centered around the goals of the artist for whom they spin. Even if given ample room for creativity, it’s rarer for DJs to suggest verses to rappers than for rappers to make suggestions to DJs.
Being left off the bill and taking a back seat to the interests of the MCs are problems that plague DJs, said Austin turntablist DJ Rockwell. Despite that, Rockwell has still managed to become one of Austin’s most prominent hip hop DJs and beatmakers, performing with the likes of local giants Zeale, Phranchzye and others.
The pitfalls of DJing are not unfamiliar to Rockwell, who has dealt with heavy hardships since his original foray into the realm of DJing, in part the result of an ACL tear. Rockwell picked up DJing after he tore his ACL, anterior cruciate ligament, during his career as a sponsored skateboarder.
“Part of the reason I picked up the turntable was that I had nothing to identify myself with anymore,” Rockwell said. “When it came to skateboarding, it was all about style and doing tricks, so when I picked up DJing, I was like ‘man, it’s just like skateboarding.”
What was perhaps even harder and more motivating was the death of his father. With the passing of his father in 2009, two years into Rockwell’s career, the DJ became fully committed to his craft. Rockwell reminisced on how his dad bought him his first mixer in 2007, as well as an entire turntable to replace the one he had broken shortly before he was to perform.
“When I was making peace with him [on his deathbed], I said I would make something out of this,” he added. “I said I would work hard and I would take it as far as I could.”
In that same spirit, this past year has yielded tremendous success, opening for national acts such as mainstream up-and-comer J. Cole and hip-hop legend the Wu Tang Clan. Additionally, his first mixtape, “It’s A Good Life,” will be released today and available on his bandcamp website, rockwell9000.bandcamp.com.
The product of months of work, Rockwell fuses old school and contemporary elements of hip hop with jazz, gospel and whatever else the DJ manages to sample into the mix.
Rockwell’s commitment to music goes far beyond his resume. The turntablist carries a far away look in his eyes whenever talks about his work, lost deeply within the thought of his art as he explains his story and the surrounding details.
In this fashion of a commitment to his music, in 2009, Rockwell joined a fusion rap rock group that had a potential deal with Sony BMG records. Despite the eventual success of the group in obtaining the contract, Rockwell ultimately decided to leave the group in pursuit of his own art even though the artist was working two jobs outside of DJing.
“I decided not to stick with [the rap rock group] because any creative input I had wasn’t heard, and I didn’t want to get signed into a contract with these people who weren’t doing any kind of music I enjoyed,” he said.
Overall, Rockwell’s career has had its ups and downs like any protagonist of a story, and he sometimes compares himself to Spiderman’s dual life.
“I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend to worry about, and it’s always a tear between seeing her and doing music,” he said. “I work unglamorous jobs to take care of the Peter Parker side, but then at night whenever I get to do a real show, nobody knows my real name, and I’m just living it up doing my Spiderman shit.”