All Hail the Queen
DJ K-Swift Presides Over Club Music's Man's, Man's, Man's World
And she lets the music speak for itself, concentrating on her mix instead of MC-ing to hype up the crowd like so many other club DJs. At first glance, you'd never think this butterscotch-toned, baby-faced young woman is one of the hottest DJs in club today. And though she's been a weeknight presence on WERQ (92.3 FM, aka 92Q Jamz) since 1999, the 23-year-old is just getting warmed up.
A Randallstown native, K-Swift was introduced to club music at an early age. She grew up listening to DJs such as Shawn Marshall, Mark Henry, Scottie B, and Sean Caesar on early-'90s mix tapes and at Club Odells, and she cites DJ Coco Chanel, one of the few women in the mix-tape game, as an early influence. "We done a lot of mix CDs together [now]" K-Swift says. "And it's overwhelming because I grew up listening to her."
Though Swift loved club music, she actually started DJing after seeing Salt-N-Pepa's Spinderella in the late '80s. The then 11-year-old got in her early practice on a set of turntables her father got her, but she never imagined her hobby would turn into a career. (She tried her hand at playing the clarinet and the drums, but her focus remained mostly on the ones and twos.) As a teen she was the DJ for her and her friends' hip-hop group, Natural Flavor, which was done purely for fun. Eventually, Swift started spinning for fashion shows as a student at Randallstown High and doing the background music for the morning announcements.
Relatives and friends supported K-Swift's DJing dreams, but she felt the pressure to go to college. She obliged, enrolling at Catonsville Community College, though she didn't give up on mixing, getting an internship at 92Q in 1997. There, she helped produce the Neke at Night Show, whose host Neke soon became her radio guru. "Neke taught me everything I know about this business," Swift says. "I look up to people like Cathy Hughes [co-owner/chairwoman of Radio One], but Neke is my Number 1 mentor. Them being black women inspires me to do more."
Neke pushed for K-Swift to have an on-air mixing slot in '97, though the head honchos weren't convinced that she was ready. Serendipitously, DJ Reggie Reg--Neke's regular DJ at the time--got sick on-air, and K-Swift stepped in. Her set was so impressive that she was soon offered other on-air spots, starting with the morning mix for the popular Big Phat Morning Show. Soon she was co-hosting and mixing Ladies Night With Neke, a unique local show by and for the ladies that even held all-female versions of "The Cypha," the station's call-in MC battle. By 1998, Swift also had a Saturday-night radio spot and was becoming the most poplar DJ among the teen crowds in local clubs such as the Tunnel and Generation Xtremes.
Everything was smooth sailing until a new urban hits radio station was established in Baltimore in September 2001. The folks behind the new station, WXYV (105.7 FM), recognized Swift's talent and clout and, she says, offered her a full-time position. Though the offer was attractive, Swift says she declined: "I didn't want to leave my family [at 92Q]."
It proved to be a smart decision. When 92Q got wind of the X105 offer, she was paired up full-time with Reggie Reg--aka the "Godfather" of club music--and Off the Hook Radio was born in November 2001. On-air, Swift and Reg share a comedic chemistry that borders on sibling rivalry, but Swift says she's learned a lot from the veteran DJ. The pairing has paid off in other ways, too. Off the Hook Radio is currently the No. 1 rated show in its time slot (7-10 p.m. weeknights), according to Arbitron ratings.
Swift loves being an on-air personality, but her passion remains with the mix. Ultimately, she'd like to tour as a DJ, spinning all sorts of mixes--club, hip-hop, reggae, and go-go. "You gotta be really versatile," she says. "Being able to play different types of music will get you further."
Her flexibility sometimes breeds animosity, however. In a scene often sharply divided by age--from teens who bounce to more raunchy, up-tempo club music while surrounded by security, to the 25-and-over crowd, which dresses to impress and likes more versatile music and a classy environment--many in the local club-music scene hate on Swift because her following is so strong across the age groups. "Every party I do has over 2,000 people," she says matter-of-factly. "I cater to the young crowd and the older people also. To be able to cater to different [demographics] is almost unheard of." The hating doesn't faze Swift, who's busy holding down residencies at Club Choices, Hammerjacks, Cameo, and Paradox. Swift also has her own entertainment company, Club Queen Entertainment, through which she releases her mix CDs (Club Queen Volumes 1-5) and promotes and coordinates the parties she DJs.
This club queen isn't all about the nightlife, though. She steps from behind the decks from time to time to speak at local grade schools, promoting Baltimore City Public School System's reading program. She also volunteers her time and services to the NAACP's voter registration drive and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland. Young kids know her name, and she uses her profile to reach out to them.
While she keeps it real in her hometown, she would like to see club and other local sounds move beyond B'more. She knows about a lot of local hip-hop and R&B up-and-comers stepping out right now--"There's Paula Campbell, Tim Trees is on the come-up, a guy named Comp just got signed to Def Jam, Dandro is real hot, and that's just to name a few," she says--but like many local artists, Swift wants to see homegrown talent become more active in its own growth. "I think Baltimore is very, very talented," she says. "[There are] a lot of talents here, but the local artists should try to push themselves as opposed to getting other people to push them."
She says it's starting to happen with club, as her own and other DJs' mix CDs are moving units in other markets. "My CDs are being sold in Philly, D.C., North Carolina, Atlanta," K-Swift says. "Circulation of my mix CDs, hopefully, can help push the [Baltimore] sound out there." That drive is all a part of the motto for this young woman who wears many hats: "Never be comfortable where you're at."
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