On grime, dance music, journalists, jaded periods and teaching the world Scratchanese.
“Is it too dark or nah?”, asks Scratcha DVA as our video chat starts. He’s speaking to me from home in Luton, where he’s spent the entirety of the lockdown period so far. “I’m pretty much isolating most of the time here anyway to be honest, unless I’m going into London or whatever. I’m in the yard a lot, so it’s pretty normal. My studio’s here as well.”
Scratcha’s story is an interesting one. A day one grime producer turned Hyperdub alumni with a unique take on pretty much everything, I’ve always felt he’s served as a watchful guardian of UK underground music, consistently releasing boundary-pushing records traversing multiple sounds but more recently, cutting through the noise with vital comment and critique. It all started after getting a bit in his own words, “pissed off”, with the lack of visibility his grime beats were getting back in the early 00s.
“I was making a lot of tracks and there was just nothing coming back, which was fine for the first couple of years or whatever, but like, you could end up having five different beats on five different mixtapes and everyone’s happy, shotting their mixtapes and getting their names out there. The MCs would get so much love and I’d just be like “alright, cool”, can we have anything? Can I have some money? It was just weird back then.”
As it happens, Scratcha’s studio at the time was housed, quite literally, above a nightclub in East London — Purple E3 in Mile End to be exact. “I’m recording all these grime sets in there but every weekend, all I’m hearing is ‘dum, dum, dum, dum’ (mimicking a kick drum) from downstairs”, he recalls. “So I go down there and there’s all this house and funky going on, literally straight from my studio. This was the era of your MA1s and Kismets and I just remember everyone inside was having mad fun. Like it was fun. Before you know it, I’d started to make some slower beats and then there we are, I’m in Funky, see you later guys!”
“I’m recording all these grime sets in there but every weekend, all I’m hearing is ‘dum, dum, dum, dum’ from downstairs”
MA1 would go onto remix Scratcha’s first ever Funky track, ‘I’m Leaving’ ft. Alahna, back in 2009, which opened him up to a whole new network of producers and sounds beyond the world of grime he’d grown up in. But it was a flyer, picked up in a record shop in Gants Hill in Ilford, that’d change everything. “I used to go in quite a lot and this was back in the day where you’d get flyers everywhere, like paper ones with mobile numbers printed at the bottom, remember them ones?”, he says laughing. “I was flicking through a load and picked one up and it said ‘Producer’s House’ and underneath, it said something like ‘just for producers’. It was clearly a House and Funky thing, which I was making at the time, so I was like cool and called the number. Turns out it was Cooly G on the other end of the line, but I didn’t know her at the time. I explained I made house and funky and that, so she asked me to send her some tunes. I sent her a couple of tunes later that night, she had a listen and ended up booking me.”
That one booking would form the start of a relationship that’d ultimately lead Scratcha to Kode9, label boss at Hyperdub, after the pair starting writing tunes together. “One time, I was at Cooly’s yard and we were making some tunes and I think I must have gone to the toilet or something, I come back, and she’s sitting on my laptop. And I hate it when people touch my laptop”, he recalls with a wry smirk. “She’d been going through stuff and ended up on this beat I’d been playing a lot on Rinse at the time, it was just a loop. I knew it wasn’t finished but when it’s your tune, you know how to play it. You wouldn’t send it to anyone else, but you knew how to work it into a set. Anyway she kept listening to it and was like, ‘I like it, I wanna play it’, but I kept saying nah, it’s not finished. She got her way, ended up playing it and Kode9 heard it. He actually called me on the phone and was like,’what’s this tune?’ I told him it wasn’t finished but he was wasn’t having it and said, ‘nah, it’s finished’ and that was it. All I did was put an intro on it in the end and that was ‘Natty’, bruv.”
“He (Kode9) actually called me on the phone and was like,’what’s this tune?’ I told him it wasn’t finished but he was wasn’t having it and said, ‘nah, it’s finished’ and that was it.”
Released in 2010, ’Natty’ laid the foundations for a now decade-long relationship with Hyperdub, which has since seen him put out a further six EPs and two full-length albums with the label, punctuated by releases with Keysound, his own DVA Music imprint and a 2019 re-issue of a quartet of his most sought after early grime beats by new-school aficionados, Dream Eater. In time for Bandcamp’s most recent fee-waiving day on Friday, Scratcha also co-released ‘Mixx & Scratch’ — a four-track collaborative EP with fellow grime OG, Grandmixxer.
With such a rich and diverse back catalogue and a DJ career that’s taken him all over the planet, it’d be easy to define Scratcha in ‘veteran’ terms, but such is his appetite for tapping into new sounds, his music still feels decidedly future-facing, fresh and exciting, and his outlook feels youthful. He’s even managed to stave off feeling jaded or resentful. Apart from a disillusioning period four years ago, that is. “Ah it was was probably 2016-17 sorta times and I just thought fuck this, fuck that, fuck everyone, fuck music even. You have to feel like that sometimes though. When you’re jaded, I’m always aware that you can’t go back there. You can’t be jaded forever. And now I’m super happy with where everything’s at.”
One bugbear that’s refused to go away however, is Scratcha’s relationship with music journalism, which continues to irk him to this day. First irritated by working tirelessly on writing his second album, ‘NOTU_URONLINEU’, back in 2016 and finding journalists’ responding indifferently to the record, he’s been keen to change the dynamic ever since. “I remember that album coming out and nobody was really getting back to us and it was just like, really? I’d just locked myself for the best part of a year in a room, I’d covered up the windows so no light could come in, it was pitch black the whole time, and I’d made an album. Like, really?”
“We as artists, we make music and we decide to give it to the world though”, he continues more seriously. “Journalists will then come along and slot themselves in between that, me giving my music to the people. You can say what you like, critique it, score it out of 10, whatever, I’m totally okay with that. But then, just know that I’m gonna score you out of 10 as well, because, why can’t I?”
To counter the possibility of unfair critique and journalists writing about music releases with a perceived lack of context or understanding of what it takes to make a record, he’s spent the last few years trying to flip the script. “I have this plan, which I’ve been trying to put into action for a little while”, he says, grinning. “I had five journalists lined up and I wanted to get them in a studio, Red Bull ideally, give them each a key, give them a month and see what they come up with. One of them had to have a decent knowledge of how to use the DAW, but yeah, I think it’d work. Then we’d get some musicians to review it. It needs to be flipped so they can think, ‘hang on, that was a product of my hard work and my creativity’ and you’re out here saying I should have done this and that instead.”
Another of Scratcha’s plans is centred around his SMS-style text language, which he’s adopted since he first got a mobile phone back in the early 00s. It’s become an extension of his personality, which I’ve found helps him make important points and give valuable insight — especially on social media — without feeling like he’s being harsh or conversely, preachy; it softens the blow. Dubbed Scratchanese, he’s been working on a dictionary for the last two years, which he hopes to release by the end of 2020.
“I’d could pull up emails from 2004 and it’s the same shit, some of it was worse back then bruv”, he laughs. “When I say something on Twitter or on email or whatever and someone replies saying I don’t understand what you’ve just said, I’m just like, can’t you read? It’s clearer than English! I just never got out of the habit of typing like that when I first got a phone, but seriously though, I’m gonna be doing pocket-size hard copies of the Scrathanese dictionary by the end of this year.”
“When I say something on Twitter or on email or whatever and someone replies saying I don’t understand what you’ve just said, I’m just like, can’t you read? It’s clearer than English!”
The idea isn’t to stop at just physical copies either, Scratcha wants to go global. “I was talking to someone about going to teach Scratchanese recently. My boy lives out in Seoul, he’s a teacher out there, and we’ve been thinking about me flying over to do some classes as well. Eventually, the way I see it, it’s gonna be the norm to just type in shorthand and to communicate like that. I’m just already there, ahead of the curve.”
As our conversation winds down and the reality of retreating back into lockdown stasis starts to hit, Scratcha remains upbeat, energised by where he sees dance music headed. There are nods to labels like Nervous Horizon — “I saw it coming with them lot, them guys are dons, I like them a lot” — and the new-school class of DJs and collectives who have breathed new life back into UK dance floors. “I feel like the generation of people like Yazzus and LCY, these lot wanna party, you know what I mean?”, he says enthusiastically. “The tempos are up and they just wanna rave. Just watch the Boiler Room sessions from our era, boring as fuck. Then look at theirs, the energy is completely different, it’s mad. They’re not confining themselves to one sound and everyone involved in that whole wave is making all sorts of stuff. It’s healthy, bruv.”
“To be honest”, he continues, “you can just do what you want now, there’s no gatekeeping and everything is open. And that’s what music’s supposed to be like.”
Scratcha DVA & Grandmixxer’s ‘Mixx & Scratch’ is out now on Bandcamp: