R.I.P. Grandmaster Roc Raida: A Reflection from DJ Shiftee

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There are masters, and then there are grand masters.  There are DJs, and then there are grand DJs.  There are champions, and then there are grand champions.  Roc Raida, Grandmaster Roc Raida, falls emphatically into the latter of these categories.  Throughout the years, there have been plenty of elite DJs, skilled and impactful beyond their peers.  For me, Raida has always stood out beyond the rest.  Why?  Was he the best scratcher?  The best beat juggler?  The most technical?  Probably not.  Don’t get me wrong, he was an absolute monster on the turntables, but Raida’s greatness transcended skill.

I attended Roc Raida’s funeral this past Thursday in Harlem.  In the building, I saw hip hop pioneers, legends from across the globe, and nearly every NY turntablist from the past 20 years.  In listening to greats like Busta Rhymes, DJ Premier, and Rob Swift talk about Raida, I started to get a more exact sense of what made him special.  Everyone touched on the same theme.  No matter how many titles he won or how much he toured and enjoyed success, Raida remained humble, hungry, giving, and forever joyous.

I think that these qualities explain a large part of Raida’s tremendous impact on the global Hip Hop community.  At a show, one could feel Raida’s passion.  It was accessible and tangible in his charisma, his talent, and his showmanship.  It was almost like when you watched Roc Raida, you were watching everything a Hip Hop DJ should embody.  His spirit, his personality, this was how it should be done.

Roc Raida 1994 DMC USA Finals Routine:

Beyond the turntables, Raida continually gave back to the DJ community.  He created Roc Raida’s Gong DJ Battle, an utterly unique DJ contest that fused turntablism and comedy and allowed judges to “gong” weak competitors off the stage.  Additionally, I’ve heard countless stories of Raida going out of his way to provide advice and assistance to numerous DJs, simply out of kindness.  For a myriad of such examples, I highly recommend listening to WNYU Halftime Radio’s tribute show to Roc Raida – perhaps the best remembrance I have heard.

On a personal level, I only met Raida a few times, but I still felt his impact and giving nature.  He was responsible for one of the early highlights of my career.  The scene was DMC NYC 2004.  I was the defending champion, but my 2003 victory over rival ie.MERG was debated vigorously.  DMC NYC 2004 was the rematch, and I was eager to prove that the prior year’s victory was no fluke.  However, following both of our sets, I was doubtful about retaining my title.  I walked through the crowd toward my friends, head and moral both down.  But then, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I looked up and it was Grandmaster Roc Raida!  Without saying a word, he smiled, extended his hand to give me a pound, and nodded approvingly.  I was shocked!  This was Roc Raida!  1995 DMC World Champion Roc Raida!  Grandmaster Roc Raida!  I muttered a thank you, returned the pound, and hurried off to my friends.  “Yo, Roc Raida just gave me a pound!”  The entire complexion of my night had changed.  Even though I indeed ended up losing the competition, what has remained most strongly in my mind is Raida’s quiet, smiling gesture.

More recently, I experienced Roc Raida’s generosity while preparing for this year’s DMC World Finals.  At each level in the 2009 competition, I wore a vintage DMC champion’s jacket from a different country – 1996 DMC Bulgaria Champion jacket for DMC NYC, then 1999 DMC Thailand Champion for DMC USA.  My plan was to wear a different jacket for each day of the World competition.  One night, I was practicing with DJ Precision, and he had a great idea.

“You should wear Raida’s jacket for your final performance.  So you get up there and you are already wearing a DMC World Champion jacket.  I’ll talk to him about it.”

Of course I was interested, but Raida cosigning me with his World Champ jacket?  Seemed like a big move.  Precision got back to me the next day.

“Raida is down.  He laughed; he thought it was a funny idea.  He’ll get you the jacket within the week.”

Raida had his accident shortly thereafter, so the exchange was never completed, but the sentiment remains the same.  Even for someone he didn’t know very well, Raida was willing to help.

Roc Raida was the first ever DMC World Champion from New York City.  A week before his death, I became the third.  It is a sad and confusing sequence of events for me.  I finally joined Raida’s club, but we lost Raida.  We lost our president, our hero, our grand master.  The outpouring of love and unity that have followed his death are a testament to his legacy.  You can see it on the internet.  You could see it at his funeral.  You can see it in the number of tribute events that are springing up all over the globe.

The past couple weeks, I have been watching all the Raida videos I can get my hands on.  They are still fresh, still innovative, and wildly entertaining.  I suggest you do the same.

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R.I.P Roc Raida!  R.I.P. Grandmaster!

-Shiftee

For an official obituary, plus information about how to send support to Raida’s family, click here.

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