Kevin McAuley has long provided a tense, shadowy musical counterbalance within the Hessle Audio camp. From his early days releasing sparse and rolling dubstep, he has latterly connected the dots between jungle, grime and techno with ease, lending his tracks a queasy tautness — tangible unease that threatens to uncoil at any minute. 2011 saw the release of his two most assured 12″s (Inna Daze/Won’t Hurt on Hessle and Hex/Fatalist on Hemlock), both of which showed a fierce commitment to driving futurism, albeit with a healthy nod to a dark UK rave/soundsystem lineage. However, it is on his longer sets that Pangaea has best represented the different shades of his sound. The Pangaea EP, released on Hessle in 2010, included both upbeat vocal cuts with overtly techno-influenced material while new double EP, Release, is his most fully realized work to date, running the gauntlet from fierce techno to hazy drone and grime imbued bass savagery. Little White Earbuds caught up with Pangaea to talk about the early days of Hessle Audio, the perils of “listener fatigue,” and why techno may well be the way forward.
Your tracks often reference the grimier outposts of UK sound system culture — jungle, grime, ragga etc. Has this music played a big part in your life? How did you initially arrive at electronic music?
Kevin McAuley: To some extent it has, yeah. Dubstep of course, and DnB was the first dance music I actually went out and danced to. But my introduction to electronic music was in 1992. I loved the dance music that crossed over into the charts. My parents noticed this and bought me a keyboard to play around with and some compilation cassettes. I found stuff like “Hurt You So,” “Everybody In The Place,” “Injected With A Poison,” etc, a bit scary and weird but exciting at the same time. I was just a young kid though, I didn’t start actively following the evolution of hardcore or jungle or anything like that! If anything my preference became 4/4 stuff, so when I was finally able to afford my first decks and mixer I was buying commercial house and trance in HMV, rather than DnB.
Then I hit my mid-teens and found Warp and Planet Mu around the time that Drukqs was released; I remember seeing posters about for it and buying the CD after hearing some clips. It sounded amazing and that IDM side of things was a breath of fresh air from a listening perspective, as it was more emotionally and structurally complex. So, when dubstep came along it made perfect sense to me, as it was experimental but still dance floor. It was almost like all my musical preferences had led naturally to that point.
What was it like setting up Hessle initially and, relatively quickly, finding yourself at the forefront of dubstep? You guys were in you’re late teens, how did the label operate on a day-to-day basis in the early days?
We just wanted to contribute to the scene at the time. We had our Sub FM show, David and I were writing tunes and wanted an outlet to put some of them out so it seemed like a good idea. Initially we were thinking about a split 12″ between the two of us as our first release, then the TRG tunes came along and it made sense to put those out as our first single. Then I wrote my first EP, Untold sent us music which we put out for 003, Martyn remixed “Broken Heart” …we just built on what we had, one release at a time. I never thought that we were at the forefront of anything to be honest, let alone dubstep. As far as I was concerned the big players there were labels like Tempa, DMZ, Hyperdub, Tectonic…
In “scene” terms, what are the main differences between those days and the present? Do you still feel part of a movement, broadly speaking? Do you still feel an affinity to the labels that Hessle was sometimes associated with (Hyperdub, Hemlock, etc)?
Obviously everything is more fractured now and 2007 was a long time ago, things change. But there’s always been an affinity with the Hemlock guys and Peverelist’s projects — Punch Drunk and Livity Sound, the Night Slugs and Numbers guys as well. I do feel there’s a UK movement still, even if the parameters are wide and pretty fuzzy at the moment
Thinking about Release, you’ve been quite pointed in calling it a “double EP” rather than an “LP.” Why is this?
Well, just because it didn’t feel as cohesive as I’d want a debut album to be. Having that label put on a project is a lot of pressure, too, as I think albums are big statements, and it’s not something I wanted applied to this. I think I’m getting closer to where I want to be, but I’m not quite there yet. Also I was never going to do more than two pieces of vinyl, and the record was the main format consideration rather than the CD. So I thought it was essentially a double-pack format without any obvious A-sides.
But it certainly flows like an album… I feel that with your music it takes a certain amount of time to decipher it and truly “get it.”
If it plays like an album to you, that’s great. It’s difficult to be objective with your own music, though. I can remember when I was about 16 I got into particular Bjork albums — Homogenic and Vespertine — and like really got into them with repeated listening. Same with Druqks, like I mentioned before. Once that happens they kind of take on a life of their own and become part of you in a weird way.
I think it’s really important to make the time for proper listening, get away from the endless bombardment of new music…
Yeah, I know what you mean, because these days it does feel like a continual bombardment. I want to keep up — not just electronic stuff but more abstract things, all sorts — but it’s just impossible, the sheer amount of music out there is unreal. You could dedicate all day every day to listening and still miss loads. It might sound strange but I’ve been enjoying silence recently; I’ll just sit listening to the ambient noise around me when I’m traveling about instead of listening to music. I carry my MP3 player everywhere but I haven’t been using it as much lately. Producing music and DJing — and I also work part time as well — it’s just too much sound sometimes.
Like listener fatigue?
Exactly. But then you hear something like the new Andy Stott LP…
Absolutely incredible, isn’t it?
Yeah it’s amazing, and something like that which I’ll keep listening to almost becomes a palate cleanser. [laughs]
I also wanted to talk to you about Hessle, and your A&R process — how does this work? You have producers like Elgato or Bandshell or Joe, for example, who pop up, we know nothing about them, they drop some music, pop up again a year or so later.
It’s just been a natural process up to this point, working with people we’ve gotten to know. People will send us things and when it’s ready and everyone agrees on something we’ll do something. It’s not necessarily a case of, “We want a 12″ and we need it in exactly one month.” For example with Elgato, the track “Luv Zombie” was quite a bit older than “Zone” and we were kinda waiting for the track that would go with it. So when he wrote “Zone” we thought the two would make a great 12″. On the other hand, Bandshell makes loads of tracks. For his EP we went through them all until we found the four we thought would work together.
How about your own music? I’ve noticed you don’t play a huge amount of it. Why is this?
I’d like to think that my DJ sets are an extension of what I’m trying to do musically, but this doesn’t mean I’ll just play a load of my own tracks if they don’t fit in with a set. I’ll play my music when things fit in, of course, but I’m not one to turn up and play a load of my own tunes out of context, I never have been. The next thing I’m trying to do is make music which is more aligned to my style of DJing — I want to bring the two things closer together. Up to this point I’ve never sat down with the intention of making things like DJ tools, the writing process has been very fluid and ideas will come without me doing any thinking about what specific thing to write. There are both positives and negatives to this.
Techno is really important in the UK scene at the moment — I’m thinking specifically of producers like Blawan and Pariah, but also yourself — your recent RA podcast had a load of straight up techno on there and Release has a serious techno edge to it…
Definitely — it’s where I’m heading. Techno is a very broad area, a blank canvas. It moves the dance floor, you can lose yourself in it, but then there’s also such a massive scope to put your own stamp on it and experiment. It feels like the perfect combination of functionality and freedom. It certainly hasn’t come out of the blue, though; techno-influenced dubstep tracks by people like 2562 were making an appearance way back in the earlier days. And from a personal perspective my first EP had a 4/4 ambient-ish track on there, I was mixing Sandwell District and T++ tracks into dubstep at the time I made “Router.” It’s just that the techno side of things has taken a firmer hold as time has passed, and you can trace the BPMs dropping from 140 down through the 135, now 130 and below. UK Funky was big catalyst for that drop in tempo as well.
Following the same trajectory as techno itself, in some ways, you had the pounding 140 bpm late 90′s stuff, minimal and where we are now. I think its exciting to have producers coming at it from new angles — very different from being involved at a macro level for years, the pointers will be different.
I’d hope so, you don’t have to have been there for the whole story, you know? Like how Blawan came from the percussive 140 thing as well, but through that he’s become responsible for a whole new sound palate in techno. I think I can come at things from my own angle as well, just through where I’ve come from musically and the type of vibe I’m on.
Do you think there is a danger of the spirit of experimentation within electronic music regressing?
Electronic music is so broad; there’ll always be people trying things out even if it isn’t hyped up or flavor of the month. In terms of dance music, I think it’ll become more and more difficult to create something sonically new, just because technology has made anything possible for a while now. So new trends or movements might come from certain moods or feelings as a response to the status quo, like how dark garage and grime seemed to be direct responses to the commercial pop garage of the time. I don’t know, I hope people aren’t afraid to carry on making weird music with a groove anyway!
Can you ever see yourself going back to 140? It sometimes feels like the most radical thing somebody from the current bass spectrum could do is say, “You know what, here’s an EP at 140 — four half step tunes.”
Well Release has a 140 4/4 track on there, there’s a halftime track! I’ve never been a producer that’s stuck rigidly to something like 140bpm half-step, so I don’t feel I’ve left anything to come back to.]]>
Distance has been applying industrial metallic textures to his bleak and foreboding productions for over half a decade. One of the “school of 2004″ dubstep originals, his sound has always been cut from a rather different cloth, subtly referencing heavy metal while retaining an elephantine groove. He has released a number of tracks on Tectonic in the past, the pairing making perfect sense as both label and artist have displayed a steadfast dedication to continued exploration of the 140-BPM tempo range. Here, he unleashes two monolithic slabs of concave audio, suited for testing the big stacks.
First up is “Reboot.” A stuttering, incessant synth snarls around a booming sub pattern, but the propulsive motion comes from the absurdly prominent snare, lashing across the mix with all the subtlety of a drunken headbutt. There is a pleasing late-90s tech-DnB reference to the track, the sharp Reese stabs evoking memories of vintage Ed Rush & Optical or Ram Trilogy. “Reboot” runs the difficult gauntlet between sophisticated aggression and outright vulgarity, and wins. Although high-octane, it never sounds over the top or grating.
The same cannot be said for “Bezerk,” unfortunately. The metal influence comes to the fore to such an extent that the end result is a furious adolescent snarl, displaying neither charm nor dexterity. The combination of swirling guitar samples, chopped nu-metal drums, and a one-word tribal chant low down in the mix comes on like something Machinehead might warm up with in a dank Oakland rehearsal studio. And while Distance has applied the metal influence with admirable restraint in the past, to these ears, this groove-bereft workout is a step too far. All said, it’s exciting to see Pinch release music like this on Tectonic in 2012. Cresting after a well-received Fabric mix and last year’s stellar — and incredibly assured — LP with Shackleton, it would be all too easy for the label to tread a more polite path at this juncture. This 12″ comes at such a time to assure that Tectonic — and Distance — remain more willing than ever to stick to their subloaded guns with ferocious intent.]]>
Having hosted the experimental new music show on the BBC’s Radio 1 for over ten years, Mary Anne Hobbs knows her stuff. She wants to know what else is out there, and she wants to share it with you. She is arguably the person who turned the world on to dubstep, in the early hours of January 10th 2006 on a very special Breezeblock entitled Dubstep Warz. Since then, she put together two eclectic compilations for Planet Mu (Warrior Dubz in 2006 and Evangeline in 2008) and is about to release a third called Wild Angels. LWE caught up with MAH a couple weeks before her 10-date American tour in support of that record. We spoke to her about the rise in popularity of dubstep and her experiences as a BBC broadcaster and globetrotting DJ.
I’ve got to start by asking about Dubstep Warz. Did you have a sense at the time the show would get the huge reception it did?
Mary Anne Hobbs: What was incredible, I think, was on a very, very small scale I could feel in South London an amazing sense of creative momentum building in the dubstep scene. You could feel the kind of groundswell in terms of the number of people attending the clubs, swelling week on week, month on month. You could feel this real sense of family beginning to form and the notion that it was a group of people creating this momentum, which was pushing the scene forward. And so, it felt to me as if a flashpoint was approaching. I guess what I wanted to do was capture something of that excitement, something of that energy, and something of that spirit. And also just give people a sense of all the different types of textures and sounds. There’s a myriad of different textures and flavors of the dubstep sound, so I wanted to give people a taste of all of those different types of flavors, really. So I picked who I perceived to be the key players in the scene at that time, which was incredibly small still in London.
We put together this awesome show, but what was really funny about it was they were all still working day jobs at the time. I remember one case in point particularly was Loefah. Loefah was working with Sgt Pokes at a company that stuck advertisements, basically, on the side of black taxis in London. He was literally working in a cold garage on his knees all day and up to his neck in glue. I remember he’d been at work all the previous day and he actually stayed awake the previous night to finish the tune “Mud,” especially for that particular show. There was just an incredible excitement in the air that night. I mean, the magic was tangible in the studio and I knew the producers were ready. I knew they could come with the goods. I knew they had a sound that would really, really turn heads and change lives. I was really confident; I had absolute belief in that. We all knew that we put together an amazing radio show and there was such a phenomenal sense of excitement as the whole thing rolled out in the studio that night. But I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the massive global response the program got. I remember DJ Distance, who played on the show that night, putting a little post on dubstepforum, which at the time had literally about 200 members and within the space of five days there were 20,000 hits on the thread. And we absolutely couldn’t believe it. The global response was just totally overwhelming for that show.
What’s interesting now is I think you still feel the ripples. Everywhere I go — in every kind of far flung location in the world — to DJ there’s never a week goes by when somebody doesn’t turn around and say to me “Dubstep Warz changed my life.” And I think, wow that’s absolutely incredible since [it was broadcast] three years ago now. So I guess, in short, there was definitely this amazing sense of momentum building in the scene in London, which is why I chose that particular moment to put it together. But, like I said, the global response — it was a real tipping point (to quote Malcolm Gladwell) to the sound in a way that none of us could have perceived. And certainly that was not the prescription of the show that night, you know what I mean? We just came to put some incredible music on a BBC pedestal, thinking that we would definitely move a handful of people, but not in such mass numbers, and not still three years later. It’s remarkable, really.
What have you found most interesting or surprising about the rise in popularity of dubstep since then?
For me, my mission is always progression and it’s progression with the show on a weekly basis. In 2009 the show is moving faster creatively than it ever has done, really, but I think the really interesting kind of crossover points for me now are the types of relationships that you find between, say for example, the whole country of Scottish producers, people like Rustie, like Hudson Mohawke, like Mike Slott (now based in New York, but formerly Glaswegian). So you have this really fascinating, very particular Glaswegian sound. You find this amazing relationship between those producers and producers who are operating on the West Coast, all the Brainfeeder crew, all the Low End Theory crew, all of whom sort of headed up by Flying Lotus and Daddy Kev out there, but all kinds of really fascinating young producers, people like Nosaj Thing, Take, Mono/Poly, Exile, Teebs, the Gaslamp Killer, Samiyam, Ras G — that whole family of producers. And then also you frequently see these people working with, playing with, and having a fantastic symbiotic creative relationship with the likes of Kode9 — the whole Hyperdub stable, which is a fascinating collection of producers as well. Also obviously with DMZ and Digital Mystikz, and also with DJ Pinch and the whole of the Bristol family. And I think what you find now is people are not so much — not necessarily what you’d perceive as a core dubstep sound. You see the way the influence has traveled between Bristol, between people like Dorian Concept and all the people out in Vienna that are forming their own little scene out there, between the West Coast of America, between South London, between Glasgow. There are, I think, amazing symbiotic relationships, creative relationships between all those communities that are becoming very deep and very, very significant. And it’s wonderful to see that transition of ideas between different camps in spite of the fact their sounds are very particular. When you see the exchange of energy and just what can really be achieved as the barriers collapse globally — it’s a fantastic thing to watch, I think, in these times.
I was just watching some of the impressive video footage from Sónar. What can you tell us about your experience there?
The Sónar festival in 2007 was really such an incredibly important moment for the whole of dubstep, really. That was the big acid test, like, can we take this sound out of tiny, intense little club environment and out onto an international festival stage. And can we make this run, can we make it real in front of eight and a half thousand people. To be realistic, that’s probably the biggest stage dubstep has ever had, globally, I would think. I’ve done [the festival] three years in a row. But again it was kind of crazy. The first year was unbelievable because I remember when we showed up and we walked out into this gigantic open space for the sound check. Skream turned around to me and he was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the type of space that Faithless would play! Are you sure we’re doing the right thing here?!’ And I said to him look, I’ve spent six month priming people, people know that we’re coming. Let’s just wait and see. If we pull a couple hundred people it’l still be a wicked night. Look at this sound system, you know, it’s just the most incredible — I mean it’s a beautiful setting with one of the greatest — well probably the greatest festival sound systems I’ve ever seen in my entire life, to be honest. It’s absolutely state of the art.
I remember also in 2007 the Beastie Boys were headlining at the exact same time that our showcase was taking place. And the way Sónar’s laid out, that means they are literally about ten paces away. So I remember just before the showcase was due to start at midnight there were literally about seven or eight people hanging about dancing to the warm-up DJ and that was it. The whole of the rest of this gigantic open space was completely empty. But almost as soon as I started playing, just a couple records into my set there were just streams of bodies coming in the hundreds, in the thousands, just pouring into this arena. And I remember Kode9 running up to me and going, ‘Oh my god, look, they’re coming! They’re coming!’ It was this incredible feeling as people flooded in, in the hundreds and thousands to watch that scene. By the end of the night — I’m sure you’ve seen the footage on YouTube — you can see the whole place right to the very horizon completely going wild while Skream played. I remember speaking to him after the set had finished that night and he said to me, ‘That was the greatest night of my entire life up to this point.’ I don’t think, again, any of us could have — we knew people had some awareness of what dubstep was and that they were hungry to hear it, but to get the reaction that we did, which was absolutely incendiary, I mean it was completely wild that night. It was more than any of us could have ever dreamed of, really. Obviously I’ve gone back subsequently: I went in 2008 with Mala from Digital Mystikz, Shackelton, and Flying Lotus; and then this year I took Joker, Martyn and the Gaslamp Killer and similarly the responses were absolutely massive. It’s a strange thing when I think back on it… it doesn’t seem real, it almost has a dreamlike quality about it because it is so extraordinary to see that number of people.
Did you get a chance to go out into the crowd?
Yeah, me and Pinch! What’s really great about Sónar is you don’t get that massive crush down the front like you do at most festivals because the sound system is so fantastic. You can hear it with absolute clarity all the way back. If you were to stand at the very, very back you could still hear it with immense volume and incredible clarity even at that distance. So everybody gives each other plenty of space to dance, and to move, and to do their thing in the crowd. It’s just really mellow. Yeah, me and Pinch were out in the crowd dancing to everybody else’s set. It’s beautiful, everybody — all of the other artists do it; they go out and check out each other from the side of the stage or the center of the crowd. Everybody walks around to figure out the exact, the best vantage point to capture the glorious frequencies of that Sónar system out there.
Do you see a divide between the more aggressive sounds of producers like Joker and Rusko and the softer 2-step influenced shuffle of Martyn and TRG, or do you think these are all just points on the same spectrum?
For me, one of the beauties of the dubstep sound is it’s so diverse ,and really there are no parameters and there are no rules whatsoever, and you can draw in any conceivable influence. I’m sure you see it: there’s a myriad of different colors and textures of sound. Obviously, as you say, people were originally inspired by dark garage in the UK so you still feel that fabulous kind of really deep, sexy 2-step vibe going on. But then, also, we were just speaking earlier about the Bristol crew, who are very much influenced and inspired by Berlin’s minimal techno. And then you have the DMZ massive, you can hear the Jamaican Channel One influences echoing through all of those different types of textures of sound. There’s Distance and Vex’d who are openly huge fans of extreme metal bands, so Distance will talk to you about the fact that he’s influenced by Korn and by SOAD, and Vex’d will talk about how much they love Sunn O))). That’s kind of what I really love about this entire spectrum, really, is that there genuinely are no parameters. I think Caspa and Rusko are very open about they’re influences. You know, they’re white boys, and they enjoy much more aggressive influences and quite a lot of midrange they put into their music. But I think for all of us, there’s a great love of one another’s styles and most DJs — myself included — I will play absolutely every conceivable texture of the sound right across the rainbow spectrum in a set because I like to do that. I like to show how diverse the sound is and I think it’s one of the things that keeps it so fresh — you never know what’s around the next corner and there are no rules, which, in 2009, has got to be a really liberating thing.
What do you think of UK funky?
I think it’s still in the very, very early stages of the sound, really. But I think, one of my favorite DJs in the whole electronic music at large really the whole electronic music stratosphere is Kode9 and I think, for me, Kode9 is the man that really gives funky some context. I mean, if you were to absorb and experience and witness one of his funky sets it would absolutely set you on fire. Completely. And I think, in many ways a really incredible DJ will interpret it for you in a completely unique and elemental way. That for me is the best way to absorb funky. Listen to Kode9 play it and then you will kind of understand how it’s meant to be, I think. But you know, it’s an interesting sound and it’s very, very young and it’s very much in its formative stages so it will be really interesting to see how it rolls out over the next couple of years.
Many of these British subgenres, including grime, dubstep, and funky seem to live on pirate radio in their early stages. What is your take on this?
It’s part of the tradition of the British underground, really. Pirate radio has been around for, I don’t know… since broadcasting was invented, practically. Pirate radio has been a great passion for many people, both broadcasters and listeners. If you go down to South London and you drive around in a car for a couple hours you can pick up all kinds of fantastic signals but they.re only maybe broadcasting within a mile radius or something like that. I mean, obviously with the Internet opening up in the way that it has done these days, things like Sub FM, Rinse FM — everybody’s online now and I think their bandwidth is improving on a monthly basis really at the moment.
[Pirate radio is] an amazing resource in the UK and it always has been really. It ranges from literally people kind of hanging a coat hanger out of their bedroom window — they’re watching the front door with a Rottweiler while they kick out their own little show from their bedroom — to stations that are vastly more sophisticated like Rinse, that run 24/7 with some of the biggest producers in the UK broadcasting on that network. Rinse is now in the process of trying to win a proper license so they can actually broadcast legitimately in the UK and, to be honest, I think the radio authority would be crazy not to give them a license at this point because they’re so successful. Really, pirate radio is where you hear the absolute genesis of sound because so many of the producers are broadcasting on those networks, especially on a network like Rinse, and they are bringing the freshest dubs onto the program every week. So if you’re unable to get to a club locally to see these people play, it’s the fastest way to really get a handle on absolutely every conceivable piece of music that’s fresh, really. I have a huge love of pirate radio in spite of the fact I’m a BBC broadcaster. I absolutely love it, I love the fire and energy and that kind of raw sense of chaos, that kind of “be damned” sense about it. I mean, everybody knows it’s illegal, but they’re going to do it anyway because their belief and their passion in the music is so strong.
Speaking of people with a strong passion for music, you’ve had Wiley on your show at least once. What was that like?
Yeah, I did once, actually. I had a really fantastic conversation with Wiley. It was very confessional. He spoke a lot about what he felt were his own mistakes, his own downfalls. And he said to me that he regretted letting people down so often. His no-show record in terms of not showing up for gigs, not showing up for interviews, not showing up for sessions — it happened all the time. He was speaking about the fact that he deeply regretted his behavior. We were also talking about the fact that the grime scene in the UK suffered from basically a great deal of violence, which was kind of erupting around the scene and within the scene and made promoters shy away from allowing grime nights in their venues, from booking artists who were perceived as grime artists on their broader electronic bills because they didn’t want to bring trouble into the clubs. They didn’t want knives or guns in the club.
We spoke at great length about the fact there was a real problem, it seemed, in grime to know where art stops and life begins. The line was not clear for some people, albeit a small minority. There was a sense grime lyrics had always been perceived in the first person, if you see what I mean. A man on a mic spitting aggressive lyrics was an automatic call to arms for some people. Wiley and I spoke about it at great length. He confessed on air, he said, ‘It’s partly my fault. I have put this into people.’ He conceded on air to me he felt some of what he did as a younger man has fueled this fire. But now it was partly his responsibility to try to quell the flames and try to re-establish where the line is between art and life. Obviously there’s a huge history in MC culture of hostile and aggressive spitting on microphones. It goes all the way back to hip-hop, I’m sure you know, so it’s nothing new, people dissing each other on mics — it’s happened for generations. But it’s knowing when to put a mic down and go home peacefully, isn’t it. It’s trying to establish a culture where whatever happens on stage doesn’t then spill over into the streets. It was a fascinating conversation. Definitely my favorite grime MC of all time and probably always will be.
You’ve been as much a champion of grime as you have of dubstep on your show. How do you see the relationship between grime and dubstep?
In spite of the fact that the two cultures have been linked, dubstep is all about the producers whereas grime is all about the MC. Dubstep was quite careful to distance itself a little bit from grime because it didn’t want to draw the same problems into the clubs. I wished earlier on that grime and dubstep could have retained a closer relationship. But I can understand the wisdom of the dubstep community wanting to pull away a little bit. If you were to understand what was going on, on the ground, especially in London, in the UK about three years ago, I think you would see why the dubstep people took a step back.
You do kind of see the two paths.
It’s funny because a lot of the producers are very, very deeply influenced by grime. I mean, Kode9 will talk to you about how much he loves grime and how much it’s influenced his sound. But I think the dubstep people were looking at what happened with garage and garage was torn apart by violence. I mean, the whole scene completely melted down because people were getting shot and stabbed in the clubs. Promoters just wouldn’t take the risk putting on garage nights any longer. So I think the dubstep community still had that very, very fresh in their minds: we don;t want to go down the same pathway as garage and be obliterated after a few years because the violence is out of hand. So they went down a completely different sort of, much more spiritual, “peace and love” pathway. It was a very, very good decision to make, I think, in those early days.
Yeah, dubstep’s got a great vibe to it. There’s a certain positive quality about the music itself that, I think, can be heard wherever it pops up around the world.
Sonically it’s much less aggressive than grime, definitely, but there was a definite step back from the dubstep community in terms of wanting to establish a different vibe at the raves. I mean, the energy is absolutely phenomenal at a grime rave. Chantelle Fiddy used to run the best ones where she’d have 30 people up on stage all spitting, passing mics, and it’s just absolutely wild. But the tension in the audience was palpable. You could feel it, it was thick in the air; whereas at dubstep raves it;s completely different. It’s 100% peace and love. It really, really is markedly different.
So, you’re going on a tour of America this month. How is this different from previous out of town gigs?
I’m on the road pretty much all the time. Every weekend I’ll pack my bags and shoot off somewhere, but this is different in terms of the fact it’s actually three entire weeks away from home — three weeks away from the show. I’m kind of on the road in America, so aesthetically it’s different to me, in my mind it’s like a “real” tour. It’s like the sort of thing a band would do, in a way. Normally I would go do one or two shows then come back home again and prepare for the Radio 1 show and go and do that midweek. Aesthetically it’s different, in my mind. It feels like an old school tour, you know in the most traditional sense of the word. It’s almost like being 16 again, being told you’ve got a three week tour of America. I can’t tell you how exciting that is. I’ve never attempted anything like this so I have no concept of what it’s going to be like to be on tour, but you know I get to pretend that I’m in Motley Cru for a couple of weeks. It’s going to be fantastic.
You’re not driving between any cities are you?
No, no, I’m flying. I would love to do it on a motorcycle. I mean, that would be my dream. It’s always been my dream to ride across America on a Harley Davidson. But I don’t think it’s practical, covering so many miles in an incredibly short space of time. But in an ideal world, that would be the dream ticket, really.
Photo by Merlijn Hoek
You’ve played a few one-off shows here, Sub Swara in New York, Low End Theory in LA, and West Coast Rocks in San Francisco this past January. What are your impressions of the American scene and sound?
Do you know what was interesting, certainly in terms of my trip to the west coast, I felt this incredible sense of momentum building on the west coast much in the same way as I had in 2006 in South London with the dubstep scene. I could feel there was a tangible energy. Many of the artists I had supported individually on the show — people like Daedelus, Gaslamp Killer, Flying Lotus — I heard about this mystical club, and I know how very important clubs are in terms of really being the central hub for a scene. And I had heard time and time again about this fantastic place called Low End Theory and I thought, ‘god, you know what, I’ve absolutely got to get out to the west coast and experience this place. I get this overwhelming feeling something really, really special is happening out there, even an ocean away. And actually what was interesting was that, ostensibly, I went to the west coast to see what they had got. I mean, I was going to put together a special for the BBC Radio 1 show and also I was going to shoot a little movie out there, which I did do, but it was very much my mission to see what they got. But then when they found out I was coming, Low End Theory immediately said to me, ‘Well you know what, if you’re coming you’ve got to play.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you know man, I haven’t got a visa or anything like that, so it would only be for fun.’ So they said ‘Yeah, for sure, just come play half an hour it’d be absolutely wicked.’
And it’s kind of interesting because everybody had said to me LA is, you know they’re very cool, the audience, they will probably watch you with their arms folded. But when I got there that night it was literally one of the greatest nights of my life on earth. It was just completely incredible. The whole place was road-blocked. People were screaming down the front, it was just crazy. It was absolutely unbelievable. I felt like this must be what it’s like to be in The Beatles. Absolutely wild. I also thought to myself, you know, there’ll be a few people who know who I am, but it’ll only be a handful of people, people who like the show and stuff like that. But when I got to Low End Theory almost the entire producer community of LA had showed up, all of whom seem to have listened to the show on a weekly basis and were intimately familiar with everything that I’ve done and I was completely overwhelmed.
Similarly in San Francisco, they heard that I was coming and Loefah said to me actually, ‘You know you really should play in San Francisco, if you’re going to go there you’ve got to play there.’ Again I said, ‘I don’t have a visa, so I’ll play for free in a little bar or something.’ Kid Kameleon set up a show at seven days notice and put together myself and a bill of another six artists he knew I would love to see playing. And again they’d said to me, ‘It’s a Thursday night, so it might be a little bit quiet in San Francisco. So don’t worry if we only get 100 people in or so, but come and do it for the hell of it.’ But again, the place was completely mobbed and just went off in the most incredible way, in a way I couldn’t have conceived of at all. And I remember meeting this guy in SF, he came at the end of the set and said I came from Peru I wanted to tell you my story. And I said ‘god, wow that’s amazing you’ve come so far at a week’s notice. He said he lived on this little island off the coast of Peru and it’s been his mission for many, many years to download the BBC show every single week, and he said it normally takes him about five or six days to do it because the Internet connection is so bad and if a bird sits on the wire or something like that it gets interrupted and he has to start again from scratch. But he said for years he downloaded every single show and burns the show on to CD, and he’s taken the CDs to every bar and every club on the island. He said it’s the only kind of music they have on the island other than traditional Peruvian music. But he said everybody listens to the show on this island and he’s converted everybody. And I was so blown away, so moved, so touched he would come all that way just to tell me his story. It’s just completely mind blowing really. So, yeah, the reactions on the west coast when I came in January were absolutely phenomenal. That was what kind of inspired this tour, if you like. I got in touch with Surefire, just an amazing agency, and they said ‘Look, why don’t we get you a visa and do a real tour and actually spend some time out here.’ So I thought that sounds like a dream come true, so that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Wild Angels is very eclectic — it includes a variety of moods and tempos, and the artists are certainly not from the UK. What do you think is the common thread?
I wanted to represent a collection of producers that are literally building new causeways, brick by brick, out to the future spaces beyond dubstep, beyond techno, beyond hip-hop, beyond soul music. You can almost identify where core sounds come from, but you can see how these people are building new pathways out into the future. The thing that tied it together is that sense, even if it’s only philosophical, is really looking for future sounds beyond the key, core genre sounds. People who are literally building out on their own, on a new trajectory. The whole notion of future sounds, really.
What do you hope to achieve with this compilation?
I always hope it will prick people’’s imaginations, really, as much as anything. If people are inspired to go on their own missions and go seeking for themselves as a consequence of listening to that record and they discover more, that would be a wonderful thing for me.
Do you have any advice for budding writers, DJs, or broadcasters?
Charge at your dreams and don’t ever look back. People in this day and age go to university to study [media] and yet I would say to people in this industry, you are completely and utterly the master of your own destiny. I think, to a degree, Darwinism is never more prevalent than it is in this industry. It’s all about survival of the fittest and I think the people who are the most passionate, the people who are the most committed, and the most driven, the people who literally cannot conceive of living a different way are the ones that will make it through. You can’t study this in the same way that you can study to become a doctor or a lawyer. I suppose you can theorize about it. You can write a PhD thesis on any conceivable part of the media. But once you actually become a player, once you enter into the game, there literally are no rules. What I would say to people is every time you see a little chink of light, run towards it and look at it. Look in there and see what’s behind the light. Every time you see a threshold that looks as if it’s a little bit dangerous to cross, leap right at it. You do need to just charge at your dreams because there is no pathway set out in stone that you can follow. It really isn’t like any kind of traditional career and I really think that’s a great leveler because you don’t need some fancy education that’s going to leave you in debt. I just think in many ways that’s the beauty of this industry, of what we do in the media, in the arts, in music, as DJs, as writers, as broadcasters. It’s all driven by our passion and it will be your passion that powers you and that will drive you so much further forward than anything, any type of qualification you could ever acquire. So, I love that about what it is that we do that I think it’s one of the few industries where you can genuinely say everybody’s on level ground here.]]>
I think we can pretty much all agree that when we’re talking about dubstep these days, we’re only nominally talking about dubstep. Like the theorized supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, that anemic, bass-powered sound of South London constituting dubstep in the strictest sense keeps a nearly infinite cosmic soup of highly disparate sounds in constant motion without registering much of a blip on its own. High-profile podcasts like The Village Orchestra’s “Blank Page” mix (moving from Boards of Canada to Zomby to Drexciya) and mnml ssgs’ recent SCB mix (in which Paul “Scuba” Rose finds parity between headfucker Donato Dozzy and funky drummer Roska) ostensibly rep dubstep in 2009 as much as DJ Hatcha’s “Dubstep Allstars: Vol. 01″ mix comp did in 2004. It’s not uncommon in dance music for the signifier to lose its signified (see: minimal techno), but it’s perhaps rare for a genre or sub-genre to improve as its title becomes diluted to the point of possible meaninglessness. While the line between Horsepower Productions and the Hotflush roster might not be yardstick-straight, but how brilliant is it that such a line exists in the first place?
So it’s from this era of dictionary burning that Ike Release, a Berliner by way of Chicago (and staffer at mp3 retailer zero”), and Hot City, a bass-loving London house revivalist, would come to assemble one of the year’s most solid dubstep 12″s. Infrasonics’ two previous releases have showcased the considerable tech-step talents of label proprietor Spatial and each measured 10 inches in diameter, so the label’s third release finds it departing from its comfort zone before the slab’s even out of its sleeve. When the needle first drops on Ike Releases’ A-side you might think Infrasonics’ innovations end with what’s printed on the label. If that’s your assessment, then you should listen more carefully. Retaining the chain-gang beat science that made Spatial’s last two records so enjoyable, these two tracks could probably bang along just fine without the reverb-laden, glossy synths they keep boiling. Their presence, however, scores a few points for maximalism, especially on the devastating, two-stepping “Misdeeds.” It sounds like precisely the big moment Infrasonic has been building to so far. Hot City’s side makes for a somewhat bigger departure. The producer’s sample-spiked, lo-fi fidget house doesn’t scream dubstep, but I sense Infrasonics’ logic. When the breakdown hits about halfway through “Setting Me Free,” its tart organs and downward bass movement conjure Skream but pulse like a Will Saul set. (Not that Will Saul has been at all opposed to dubstep lately.) “No More” moves Hot City’s distorted bass even more into the realm of contemporary house, sounding not entirely unlike something Diynamic might release. All of this disregard for genre hegemony begs the question: might dubstep, like house, be a feeling? So long as labels like Infrasonics are around to shoot strange new iterations into orbit, I’d say we should be cool with that.]]>
After notching up a slew of killer cuts last year and an equally impressive array of remixes, ears have been pricked in anticipation of Martyn’s full length debut. Originally a drum and bass producer, it seems the Dutchman (real name Martijn Deykers) has all but defected to dubstep, rapidly cultivating himself a sterling reputation over the last year and a half for his impeccably turned out sound. Alongside Romanian peer TRG, Martyn’s productions map some of the most easily assailable crossover points between the dubstep and techno divide. Typically more clubby than the likes of Shackleton and Pangaea, yet no where near the raved up wonk of pundits like Skream, Benga et al., Martyn has managed to forge himself a neat little niche in the dubstep realm.
Great Lengths comes out on Martyn’s own 3024 records, a label so far only to release a small number of tracks by himself and 2562, and so named for the area code of Martyn’s hometown. The opening salvo of “The Only Choice” greets us with a volley of area code shout-outs, much in the same way you might expect from a hip-hop record. After warming up the drum skins with this intro we’re struck by “krdl-t-grv,” a track embodying all the elements Martyn puts together so well: tough, embossed percussion, techno laced pads and a killer dubwise bass line.
However we are shown multiple sides to Martyn over the course of the album, including a sideline into 4/4 beats which he explores over three different tracks. “Seventy Four” starts off with a very old school-sounding thumping house kick drum but develops into something more along the lines of an incredibly restrained Border Community outing. The low, slow sawing bass line never opens up like a James Holden or Nathan Fake track, sounding more like a mournful fog horn instead, while the rhythmic synths are always clipped rather than drawn out. “Elden St.” has brushes of deep house and with its soft blurry chords is a gorgeous early morning track, easily fitting into Martyn’s “music for a warm but rainy day” ethos, while the hidden track at the end of the disc fully engages the deep house sound with a Schatrax feel.
Most of the dubstep tracks are imbued with an early breakbeat feel recalling the days of mask hysteria, usually a refined chord progression hinting at those raving days of yore. Others hold a pleasant wistfulness as on “Little Things,” one of the album’s deeper cuts, or on the only full vocal “These Words” featuring the breathless tones of dBridge. Towards the end of the album a garage influence shines through with the terse percussive step of “Hear Me” working a chiming synth sound that melds beautifully with the organ-like bass and a yearning snatch of vocal.
It would have been easy to litter the album with previous singles, but Martyn keeps it down to two of his most well known: “Vancouver” and “Natural Selection,” both absolutely imperative sides whose absence would have left the album conspicuously incomplete. Great Lengths at its end is undoubtedly an intense labor of love and one planned meticulously. Martyn shows a highly impressive set of skills from forging beatless atmospheres to ethnic-tinged club rumblers and smooth, faultless half time steppers. The engaging artwork is done by 3024 co-head honcho Erosie, completing a stunning package from beginning to end. Unquestionably this is and will remain one of the year’s best.]]>
While compilations by Soul Jazz and Skream have highlighted the rude bwoy and raved up ends of the dubstep oeuvre respectively, the Round Black Ghosts compilations have become the touchstone of the more subtle, techno influenced fare. Any discerning fan of the artists and the sound on display here will most likely already have this swag of non-exclusive treasures which have mostly been out for the past few months. Looking through the track listing it’s a round up of the usual suspects, with TRG, Scuba, Pole, Kontext and Martyn all featured and all artists who helped define the course of this particular branch of dubstep in the past 12 months. ~scape owner Pole, for his part, seems to have been reinvigorated by dubstep, his productions once again sounding vital after many years of rehashing the same idea to the point of tedium. The RBG compilations highlight the deeper end of the spectrum, though that isn’t to say these tracks are without their dance floor appeal.
Appropriately, it’s Peverelist and Appleblim’s “Circling” that marks the beginning of the compilation, a track which made it on to many year end lists in 2008 for its contrasting elements of lush, swirling textures and stark overtones. Scuba’s “Bleach” appears to be the only unreleased track of the bunch, and in typical Scuba fashion it is a densely packed, yet restrained affair of cavernous proportions. It almost seems strange seeing Zed Bias’ name on the liner notes. For most people he will irrevocably be synonymous with 2-step and garage, though the only tell-tale sign of his past in the instrumental mix of “The Cauldron” is the wobbling bass (though set to much lower frequencies here). Two of the finest moments on RBG 2 come from the startling percussion of Kode9 and Badawi’s “Den Of Drumz” and Kontext’s fathoms deep, glitch-stepping masterpiece “Blinkende Stjerne.” The tracks respectively represent the clubbier and home listening ends of dubstep.
At first listen RBG 2 could seem unwelcoming, too distant and unyielding, but ensconce yourself in a darkened room with a quality pair of speakers or headphones and all will be revealed. These tracks may mostly be available already but they lose none of their polish by being assembled here in one place.]]>
Zomby sees himself as part of the undead but with a taste for skunk weed instead of flesh. He is a resolutely anonymous producer whose publicity photo has few clues into his identity: he wears white gloves and a mask of the all-seeing eye of providence. Zomby’s been banned from dubstep forums, infamous for missing gigs and has no small legion of fans who’ll call him a cock while still admiring his tunes. And 2008 was big for Zomby tunes. Starting with “Mush,” his 8-bit mourn of a debut for Hyperdub, Zomby has since dropped two wonky bombs with his “Liquid Dancehall” single and debut album, Where Were U in ’92? As much as electronic music likes to micro-manage it’s sub-genres, Zomby diversifies his portfolio as much as possible. Witness the range on his upcoming self-titled EP — shotgun burbles of “Aquafresh” rub next to the woeful Burial sighs of “Test Me for a Reason.”
“The Lie” was Zomby’s second single for Ramp Recordings in 2008, and unsurprisingly, it sounds nothing like his first. Instead of fluorescent melodies, “The Lie” is built around a cement-rubbed drone, roughed up and buzzing. Drums might pop and explode like other half-step producers (a la Skream) but there’s none of the cool functionalism — the pummeling is all inward. Taking a Ricky L. sample that oscillates between teen angst and Jah anomy (“I was born in a system / that doesn’t give a fuck about me”), the vocals are treated with a sheen of delay and rebuilt around a series of clipped hiccups and hyahs. There’s something uncanny about how the track operates: it circles around like a vulture, picking apart the vocal sample until there’s nothing left. The L.V. remix, then, is wise to focus on the drums, adding large waves of delay which rock the track like a ship. The single is rounded out nicely by “Dripping Like Water,” which is built on a staircase bass line, melodica and the wheeze of an old record talking about water. A series of compelling contrasts, “The Lie” continues Zomby’s skunk-fueled trudge across aesthetics and offers perhaps his most affecting single of 2008.]]>
I have to admit that it took me a while to warm to dubstep. The spare hypnotics of Shackleton and the inimitable, tinder dry soundscapes sculpted by Burial immediately appealed but then their interpretations on the medium are truly unique. It wasn’t until hearing the likes of TRG and Martyn that I opened up more to the genre as a whole, the elements of techno influence being a major reckoner with my senses. 2008 has seen a handful of artists from both camps blur the lines between techno and dubstep. Perhaps the best exponent of this cross over of the two genres right now is Headhunter with his debut album, Nomad.
Hailing from Bristol, Headhunter has been hotting up the outer edges of dubstep over the course of the past two years and a fistful of devastating EPs. This full length album, made in several different cities around Europe (thus the name) marks his transition from up-and-coming producer to serious operator at the fore of his field. Opener, “Lifeform” is a wash of textural techno akin to Convextion and other Basic Channel affiliates, though equally a nod to Mancunian label Modern Love and their own take on periscopic, dubby 4/4 sensuality. In stark contrast, “Prototypes,” which follows on, plummets to subterranean depths to chalk out a burrowing bass line at once statically charged and acidic, worming its way through an underworld labyrinth towards sci-fi ascendancy.
True to its name, Nomad embraces a journeyman’s spirit, exploring at times the slightly harder bass stepping frequencies with mechanical fervor, as on “Technopolis,” “Physics Impulse” and “Baseflow.” At other times (“Grounded” and “Your Say”) ventures are made into more ethereal realms where the pads and chords are allowed to work their way to the fore, the bass and drums stripped away to shuffling, skeletal markers of time. “Birks Range,” another 4/4 cut with plump bass stabs underpinning broad brush strokes of chords firing around an echo chamber, brings the album to a close.
Clocking in at just under and hour, Nomad is an album easily digested in one sitting and one that does not tire with continuous listening. Headhunter, weaving together elements from varying realms of jungle, dubstep, breakbeat and techno, has created a dazzling debut album, one that regardless of genre will sit right up near the top of many best-of lists for the year.]]>