On writing albums, vulnerability as strength, Gobstopper Records, legacy, fatherhood and the power of black music.
“I think you were my first ever interview”, says Mr. Mitch leaning back a little, “I just used to hate doing phone calls, that was the thing.” Our first interview was back in 2011, around the time Mr. Mitch had first caught the ears of Butterz, the pioneering grime label run by Elijah & Skilliam. Shy, reserved and reluctant to be forthcoming, he was a prolific but understated producer working at the outer-reaches of grime’s traditional blueprint. Nine years on, Mitch has written albums for Planet Mu, overseen the rise of his Gobstopper Records imprint, co-run vastly influential club night and label arm, Boxed, and toured the world as a DJ. As we catch-up for the first time in a couple of years, my FaceTime window opens to find him looking relaxed and at one with life, having just become a father for the third time during the current pandemic.
“It’s been a weird lockdown so far”, Mitch concedes. “My wife was pregnant and kinda due just as COVID started to happen and to make things worse, I had suspected COVID in the week leading up to lockdown starting. My kid was due due about two days after I went into self-isolation so there was potential for me to miss the birth but luckily she was a week late … she waited for me.” A proud father — 2013 track ‘Milo’ is dedicated to his first-born son and 2017 album ‘Devout’ was written as a sweet and tender love letter to fatherhood — Mitch’s family life has become an important part of both his music and his identity. But things started out very differently.
“My kid was due due about two days after I went into self-isolation so there was potential for me to miss the birth but luckily she was a week late … she waited for me.”
“I’ve been making music since I was about 12, 13 years old”, he reflects, “but it was only around 2008, 2009 that I decided to start letting other people hear it. I started sending stuff to Elijah & Skilliam and some other DJs as well, but they were the first to get on board and start playing my stuff on radio. I guess that led me to wanting other DJs to start playing my stuff, which led me to start making music I felt other DJs would like. I got in that cycle of trying to make music that would sound good on radio or with an MC on it, but at the same time, I had a very strong mission in my mind to be in the same lane of dubstep producers and DJs who could just make beats and that was the song. Me and the Butterz guys had the same ethos which was to make good instrumental grime music but it was also very much catered for the club. It was cool but there was a lot more thought going into the process, and I felt maybe it was less natural for me to be producing like that.”
Those early Mr. Mitch beats were glitchy, jittery, hyper-energetic takes on grime — see 2010’s ‘Fright Night’ and ‘Skittles’, released on Butterz’ V/A ‘Quality Street’ 12” alongside beats by Terror Danjah, Royal-T and SRC — but always hinted at the possibility for more; the sonics could get weirder. And get weirder they did, but not until 2013 when alongside Logos, Slackk and Oil Gang, Mitch put on the first Boxed club night at the now long-since closed Peckham Palais; a strange, department store style venue with pillars spread across the dance floor and a bar selling knock-off energy drinks and dreadful lager.
“Boxed changed a lot for me. I realised that the audience who came along were happy to listen to whatever we played. It changed my opinion on what I thought I could release. I remember watching Mumdance at one of the nights we put on at Birthdays in Dalston and he would play like, hard club stuff and then in the middle of his set, he’d draw for fully weightless, weird shit and everyone stayed on the dance floor. It made me think, ‘ahh okay, this is working’. It gave me the confidence to put out music like that, music that I’d always been making but never thought anyone would want to hear. I’d actually put out a mixtape called ‘Venus’ in 2012, a free download thing on Twitter, which was a lot weirder, more hip-hop influenced and that actually got a bit of press pick-up. Nothing else I was putting out at the time was getting anything at press, so it made me realise then that people were more receptive to the stuff that came more naturally.”
“I remember watching Mumdance at one of the nights we put on at Birthdays in Dalston and he would play like, hard club stuff and then in the middle of his set, he’d draw for fully weightless, weird shit and everyone stayed on the dance floor.”
Birthing a world-wide network of like-minded producers intent on experimenting with traditional grime sounds, Boxed formed an important catalyst for grime 2.0’s sonic boom. The club nights, which have been housed in venues all over London, became an important IRL meeting place for producers, DJs, writers and enthusiasts alike, and inspired the recording of Novelist and Mumdance’s ‘Take Time’ — a now iconic grime single, that would in turn inspire Skepta to pen ‘That’s Not Me’. But most importantly for Mitch, Boxed helped him find his voice as an artist and formed the launchpad for his debut album, ‘Parallel Memories’.
“I put out my EP, ‘The Room Where I Belong‘, on Gobstopper at the beginning of 2014 and i’d been making a lot of similar tracks that were coming together as a singular sound”, says Mitch. “I now had the confidence to release that stuff and it lead me to the first album with Mu. I sent a big collection of tracks to Mike at Planet Mu and he was into about 90% of them, so it didn’t really feel like a daunting process to make that album because it was almost there. ‘Devout’ (his second studio album, released in 2017) was a lot more difficult because I was trying to do collaborations and stuff … and that’s just long”, he says with a pained grin on his face.
“That was the first time I’d been in the studio with other artists properly as well”, he continues. “I remember getting in the studio with Denai Moore for the album and I was a very awkward person at the time, so that was a really awkward session. It was a big hurdle for me, because I’d just signed a publishing deal at the time and my publishers were trying to get me to write tunes with loads of different artists. From being a bedroom producer, just on my own, for so long to then being in a room with loads of other people was really daunting, so writing ‘Devout’ was a very different process to ‘Parallel Memories’.”
‘Devout’ in particular still forms some of Mr. Mitch’s best and most identifiable music. From the wonderful ‘Priority’ ft. P Money — a gorgeous ode to fatherhood, the official video featuring fellow music dads including Last Japan, Logos and Mark Force — to the rich and warm, handmade sounds of the album intro featuring his two sons Milo and Oscar and the silky, sugary pop of ‘VPN’, a collaboration with Palmistry, it’s an album bursting with love and emotion. “Loyalty and accountability are topics that seldom make it into popular music, but ‘Devout’ finds bliss in its sense of balance”, swooned Pitchfork.
Sandwiched between his two albums, there were also Peace Edits, a vinyl-only series of releases Mitch put out on his Gobstopper label in 2015. They were a tongue-in-cheek response to a quick-fire war dub fortnight sparked between producers on Twitter; rather than start fires, Mitch wanted to put them out. Reimagined, ambient beats by Loom, Silk Road Assassins, Strict Face and Mr. Mitch himself — referencing everything from Alice Deejay to Kate Bush — they too were important markers in his own emotional awakening. “They opened up the whole production process for me as well”, Mitch explains. “I’d made a lot of RnB influenced tracks in the past but they were a lot more indebted to US RnB, where as doing the Peace Edits and stripping apart grime instrumentals and looking at all the intricate parts helped me see the music differently. I was trying to make war dubs, I really was trying, but they were sounding dead so I thought I’d flip it. To be honest, I could be in a fight and I’d still seem peaceful.”
Today, it feels as thought there’s very little that separates Mitch from his music; everything he is and everything he represents is channelled into every beat he makes. For some, it’d be difficult for those vulnerabilities and such hyper-personal thoughts and feelings to be played out on record, but for Mitch it’s more about being honest and true. “I find it hard to not be honest, to the point where I’m like, ‘why have I let that information out’ kinda thing”, he says with a gentle shrug of his shoulders. “I’m that guy at the bar, especially after a couple of drinks, I’ll open up and tell you stuff. I’ll tell my wife afterwards and she’ll be like, ‘why did you tell them that?’. A lot of the time, when I’m making a song I won’t even notice the emotional link there until it’s finished. I’ve even tried not to make things so personal, but it always comes back around. When things aren’t functional, it’s only gonna be emotional and my emotions are linked to my present and to what’s happening to me right now. It’s always gonna be real and honest. That said, it’s easy for me to talk about fatherhood because I’m a proud father, but my ‘Primary Progressive’ EP, (written to address his dad’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis, released on Gobstopper in 2018), was a lot harder. It was difficult to talk about because I’d never spoken to anyone or been open about it before. But on the whole, being honest in my music isn’t difficult for me.”
Over the last few years, Mitch’s ear and taste — partly inspired by Boxed’s evolution to look beyond grime and embrace all forms of club music and partly by his own travels as a DJ — has also evolved, to the point where experimentation, as well as emotion, has become a pivotal part of his make-up. His Techno Dancehall mixes — hour long sets of technnoid-dancehall mutations recorded in 2019 — are a far cry from 16-bit grime beats or shimmering, future-pop edits, but have helped build out Mitch’s reputation as a fully-established, black electronic musician. “Being able to tour a lot more as a DJ opened my eyes and my ears to a lot of different sounds I’ve never really explored before”, Mitch explains. “Like, house and techno growing up were not genres I ever fucked with. Being black and from London at the time, you just didn’t listen to that. I listened to grime and RnB, garage … a bit of jungle and whatever, but house and techno was never from our sphere. It’s only when I got older and learned about the origins that I sat back and though, ‘ahh okay’. And also, it’s not just this straight, horrible sounding Berlin stuff that’s really boring. I still wanna find rhythms and sounds that I like and me journeying into that world, I found the stuff that sounds like dancehall, to me anyway, more interesting. It wasn’t me trying to say this is a new genre, it was more me just putting a mix together that showcased techno music that I liked. It was fun to make but I never expected people to be into it so much.”
Tapping into a point made by Fauzia via an impassioned Twitter thread last week, Mitch also points out that house and techno is common currency all over the world — “basically everyone getting booked plays house or techno or both” — and concedes that anything outside that canon is often resigned to less prestigious billing. “Any bass music or whatever you wanna call it, is just put in a little room on the side, which is kinda sad.”
This personal sonic evolution has also bled into the work Mitch does with his Gobstopper Records label, which has been active since 2010. Originally a home for his own grime productions and those of less-established OG producers like Moony and Deset, the label gradually evolved to put out some of the most innovative and exciting grime music of the mid ‘10s, including game-changing EPs by Irish producer Bloom (see 2012’s ‘Quartz’), Strict Face and Dark0. It’s latest evolution has seen Mitch look beyond grime’s confines over the last 18 months — as first hinted at by Odeko’s often overlooked 2016 debut ‘A History With Samus’ — to harness producers exploring all areas of the club. Recent EPs by BFTT, Nikki Nair and Otik have all signposted a new direction for the label, but one that Mitch feels is still in keeping with the Gobstopper outlook. “There was a period where there was a lot of emotional, grime tunes in sorta 2014, 2015 and that became a big part of what I was putting out. But now, especially as I’ve started to play a lot more club sets, a lot of the label output has started to become more club-orientated. The base line is it’s always gotta be interesting, that’s always what I look for. There are even producers I’ve had on the label regularly, I won’t name names (laughs), who have sent me stuff and I’ve been like, ‘this isn’t left enough for me’. I’m looking for club stuff but if it’s just works in that one context, then it’s not really for me.”
Following the murder of George Floyd and the global response to institutional racism and generational injustice, Mitch has also made the decision to sign music from only black artists from this point forward. Posting on Twitter, he acknowledged that 90% of Gobstopper’s output has been from white men in the past, and this was something he wanted to use his label platform to change. “It’s weird that this particular incident was such a trigger point for everyone, myself included”, he says thoughtfully. “There’s been countless others that have angered me but not to the point of now. It’s just got to the point where enough is enough. As a label, I wanted to make the change because through touring Europe, I’ve noticed I’m often the only black person on the line-up. As an artist, it’s also taken me ages for people to just see me as an electronic artist. As a black musician, I think it’s harder to be seen that way in a wider sense rather than just a black music artist. Obviously I’ve come from grime and it’s a big part of my make-up, but it doesn’t define me. I feel like people look at you with a different gaze as a black artist, and very few black people have managed to change that. Like if you look at Actress for example, you look at him and he’s just an electronic artist. I don’t feel white artists have that same conundrum, so I wanna put more of a focus on black people who make cool electronic music.”
“As a black musician, I think it’s harder to be seen that way in a wider sense rather than just a black music artist. Obviously I’ve come from grime and it’s a big part of my make-up, but it doesn’t define me.”
The past few weeks have also brought up memories of his own experiences growing up and also spotlighted the small, every-day behavioural nuances that as a black person, have become engrained and normalised. “It’s made me think about these little things as I do as a black man in the UK, to kinda change myself or to go out of my way to not suffer sometime of racism, doing things differently because of my race”, he explains. “But now it’s just like ‘nah, I’ve had enough’. Like, we’ve just moved out of London but I had to think about whether or not my kids are gonna experience racism. If I put them into a school here, what percentage of the class are gonna be people of colour? What’s the constituency like? One place we considered, we had a look at the voting records at the last election and there was a high percentage of UKIP voters and we were like, ‘nah we can’t go there’. These are things you have to think about as a black person.”
“My grandmother was white, with a black husband, and later in her life she moved down to Sussex, in a place called Robertsbridge”, he continues. “One summer, I was down there staying with her for a few days and I’d gone to the shop to be greeted by a group of boys standing by a car who shouted, ‘All n****** get out of town’. I was quite young but it was scary, there’s like seven of them and me as a little kid. It’s those moments that remind me that I can’t just go anywhere I want to without thinking about the racial implications first. As a young kid experiencing racism, I just kinda put up with it and got on with things generally, but I don’t want that to be the case for my kids.”
On the whole, the response to Mitch’s decision has been mostly positive and many fans are looking forward to the future of Gobstopper. “I’m all for giving money to different charities”, says Mitch, “but I can’t see the changes personally, at least not directly. So, I’m always thinking what can I do? If I can make change and I’m in a position to do that, why can’t I do that now? I’ve had a few people say things like, ‘too little too late’ but most feedback has been good. It’s cliche but in a colour blind way, I was just signing music that I liked in the past, rather than thinking about anything else. It’s taken this to bring it to the forefront of my brain as an issue, so I’m gonna do what I can with the label to address it.”
“I’m always thinking what can I do? If I can make change and I’m in a position to do that, why can’t I do that now?”
As we wind down our conversation, it dawns on me that despite 2020 being such a testing, trying year to this point, Mr. Mitch has never seemed more together. It’s often suggested that the best art comes from times of personal struggle and hardship, but in Mitch’s case, I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Blossoming as a person, husband, dad — “life is hard at the moment but it’s full of little joys” — his music has taken those steps with him. And long may that continue.
Mr. Mitch’s ‘Daydream Of You’, written during lockdown, is available via Gobstopper now.