— Joker II —

Part Two of a special two-part interview with Joker — Retracing his career from 2008 onwards, here he is on DMZ’s 4th birthday, collaborating over AIM, the origins of Purple, getting his first passport and writing his debut album.

(All photos submitted by Joker)

“Even going back to the last interview, I’ve missed quite a lot in general”, says Joker reclining in his chair as we start part two of our interview. “Remember Ashley (Joker’s school friend and fellow Kold Hearted Krew member)? When I was living at the house I learned to DJ in, Ashley introduced me to Gemmy, and that’s really important.” A little more than a few hours had passed since part one was published two weeks ago and Joker had already tweeted ‘Missed out a few key things and people need to add to pt2’. His is a story that feels so intrinsically linked to the people around him and to a city that has, by a mix of both chance and design, shaped his career; everything about it feels significant. “It was nice to meet another person so close to home who as passionate about music as I was”, Joker says of Gemmy. “He had a big garage collection, I had my garage collection, it was the same ting for us. Since then, we’ve been friends ever since and we still talk every week.”

Following on from where we left off in part one, Joker’s focus then switches back to ‘Gully Brook Lane’ — a track that undoubtedly changed his life and laid down a blueprint for the music he still makes today. The track’s success, amplified by the support of grime MCs like JME, Skepta and Flow Dan in London, inspired Joker to look to start putting music out through his own label, which was run by Multiverse — a publishing company and label house owned by Ginz. “My cousin had just passed away at the time”, he reflects, “and his name was DJ Kapsize. So at that time, I was looking at my first release to put out … he was a DJ and into his music … so calling my label Kapsize, it was like a farewell, a big up to him really. Now, the second part of the story gets a bit hazy ‘coz I’d started going out and was drinking and whatever”, he concludes, as we both bring up his Discogs page to try and chronicle his early releases.

Kapsize 001 saw Joker release ‘Holly Brook Park’ (named after the estate where Joker used to live) — “it was basically ‘Gully Brook Lane’ sounds with different drums” — with B-side ‘80s’ on the flip. “When I made ‘Gully Brook Lane’, it wasn’t like I knew I’d done something different, it was the response that I got from that song”, Joker explains affirmatively. “At that age, I knew somehow that I could only really touch that sound one more time. It was like ‘how am I gonna get that reaction again?’ I knew I couldn’t just re-make the same track, you know.”

“When I made ‘Gully Brook Lane’, it wasn’t like I knew I’d done something different, it was the response that I got from that song.”

“Things started happening quite quickly from 2007 bruv thinking about it”, Joker continues, deep in thought. “2008’s come along and dubstep’s kinda happening and I’m already kind of in, I’ve put tunes out on Pinch’s label, the dances are happening and man’s being booked. I don’t know if Pinch mentioned it to me or Ginz mentioned it to me or I had the idea myself, but it was like, ‘why don’t you do your own imprint?’. Pinch had Tectonic … there were labels around. It didn’t make too much difference but I guess it was my thing, it was all connected to me.”

Having spent so long feeling cut off from what was going on outside of Bristol — “I was never connected to anyone in the early days, I had no way of speaking to anyone” — 2008 also saw Joker start to use the Internet to network, share ideas, collaborate. “I believe things were starting to move from MSN to AIM”, he recalls. “My contact list was building. I was trying to network and essentially just make friends. I met Rustie online somehow, I’m not really sure how. When I first heard Rustie’s stuff, it sounded like grime to me … it was the same with ‘Midnight Request Line’. I thought that was a computer game grime track, not once did I question it was dubstep because it sounded like fucking Mario to me bruv. But yeah anyway, the first Rustie stuff I was hearing was grime. We ended up talking and we made ‘Play Doe’ online, sending the Reason file back and forth. It happened quite quickly when I think about it.”

“When I first heard Rustie’s stuff, it sounded like grime to me … it was the same with ‘Midnight Request Line’. I thought that was a computer game grime track, not once did I question it was dubstep because it sounded like fucking Mario to me bruv.”

Although writing and recording music, vocals, features, remixes et al online — essentially not requiring artists to be in the same room — feels very much part of modern music-making culture, back in 2008 it was arguably a revolutionary concept. The pair hadn’t officially met — “I think I met him just after it came out” — and built Kapsize 002 (a Joker/Rustie split 12”) from scratch, sending Reason files back-and-forth over AIM. “Like I say bruv, it does feel a bit mad”, Joker concludes, “but it happened so quickly honestly.”

Our conversation then turns to another OG Joker collaboration, this time with Jakes — or was it? “Bruv, ‘3K Lane’ wasn’t actually a collaboration”, he explains as I pick out from Discogs. “I gave Jakes the ‘Gully Brook Lane’ Reason file and he put that at the beginning, dropped it to ‘3Kout’ and switched the ‘3Kout’ sounds out for the ‘Gully Brook Lane’ sounds. It’s our songs as one basically. He took my song, chopped it in, made a dub plate sort of thing and it ended up coming out, bruv. It was a mash-up dub plate that he made and everyone went mad for it. I was like, ‘do people know this is two songs?’ You’ve gotta clock back in those times, not everyone would have known ‘Gully Brook Lane’ because it was a little bit detached from what was going on in dubstep. It was connected through Plastician, who sat perfectly in the middle of grime and dubstep, but he was one of very few DJs like that back then.”

Joker’s transition to Reason from Fruity Loops was also an important development in his own music-making process. “Do you know about a drum & bass MC called Sweetpea?”, he asks. “Well he lived in the block of flats that was connected to the maisonettes, where I was living. He told me about Reason, he showed me how to use it and I managed to wrap my head around it pretty quickly. That was the beginning of me learning about synths, do you know what I mean? I would also say it’s the reason that my studio looks the way it does now, because at that time … it was all new to me. It was like, what is this? What does the green subtractor thing mean? What really is a synth? I remember then going to Roni’s studio with Ashley and clocking an Andromeda A6 and thinking, ‘that must be a real one’. I didn’t know where to look back then, bruv, but I knew that what was happening inside the box was possibly a computer game version of the real world. Does that make sense?”

“It must have been 2008 yeah”, Joker continues, “and me and Gemmy have seen the Roland SH-201 in a magazine. This might not be how Gemmy remembers it, but it’s how I remember it. There was a picture of the SH-201 in the magazine and Pharell was standing next to it, and we were like ‘yo, bruv, that’s gotta be sick’. Gemmy bought one first, he got it from Mensah (now releasing music as NYTA) who worked in a music shop when we were young. I went over and we were like, ‘is it analogue?’ We still didn’t understand what analogue meant, we just knew that it was hardware. It was hardware that emulated the real thing and that in itself was a big step up for us.” Pointing to his own SH-201 via our FaceTime chat window and then zooming in for a closer look, Joker then says proudly, “‘Tron’, ‘Purple City’, ‘Psychedelic Runway’ … they were all made on this. Some of my biggest records were coming out of this thing.”

“There was a picture of the SH-201 in the magazine and Pharell was standing next to it, and we were like ‘yo, bruv, that’s gotta be sick’.”

Joker and Gemmy’s friendship continued to bear plenty of fruit in the following years too. Sharing information and advice, the pair learned the ropes of production together and between them, landed on what came to be known as Purple — an intensely cinematic, hyper-specific sound that went on to change the face of dubstep. “We’d make music that belonged to a similar family really”, Joker explains. “Our music was different but you’d hear a Joker track in the club and you’d hear a Gemmy track in a club and think of similar sound palettes, if you know what I mean. I just remember me and Gemmy talking about music and I think he had a track called ‘Purple Moon’ or something like that. We ended up just speaking about just … PURPLE, bruv. I don’t know how but learning stuff together and creating sounds, like that became what people started to call Purple. It got to a point where I’d be looking at pictures of purple skies and … yeah it’s hard to explain. It was blatantly inspired by grime because we were both from grime, but we were like ‘yeah, fuck it … Purple’. Before you know it, anyone making synthed-out shit with chords or using saw waves in a certain way was associated with Purple.”

“I would say it got bigger than man”, Joker continues, “to the point where new producers were coming through who’d probably never heard of any of us, and they’re stuff was getting called Purple.” And then came ‘Purple City’ in 2009 – a Joker track that has come to be widely regarded as the definitive Purple anthem, written alongside fellow Bristol producer Ginz. Massive in the clubs, it is an iconic record, enshrined in the memories of those who were lucky enough to hear it — and feel it — on dance floors at the time. “I knew Ginz because he setup and ran Multiverse in Bristol and we got along cool. I went to his yard, I was probably 19 … fuck this all happened when I was 19? So anyway, I brought my SH-201 to Ginz’s and this is when he had a studio at home. We had that, this big CAT synth, maybe a DX FM keyboard and one FM plugin that was used once for one sound. The drum pattern was done first, real quick. Actually it was all written in what felt like seconds bruv … Ginz had these percussion sounds that he’d made, his kitchen doors shutting and some other random noises that you can hear in there. Ginz did the mixing on it, but I remember playing Mix 3 out at Native, which was an old club that used to be in Bristol where RUN, an old drum & bass night, was held every Wednesday. I played there at some small club night and remember thinking, ‘do you know what? I like this one you know’. It felt quite sustained, it felt good, but I do remember needing to hear more mid-range in the club so I hollered Ginz, so he did his thing and that was it finished. Ginz’ mix was phat … like it was READY, you get me?”

Shortly before the release of ‘Purple City’, Joker also recalls meeting Kode9 for the first time, which coincided with getting sent 2000F & J Kamata’s ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’. “I don’t remember if he hollered me or I hollered Kode9 but the second we met, we got along cool”, Joker recalls, “to the point where I’d just call him dad and he’d call me son. Back then, he wasn’t old but I was definitely young, do you know what I’m saying? I sent him ‘Digidesign’ and also this song I really liked, which was the 2000F & J Kamata tune. He said he wanted to put them both out on a 12” and that was that, bruv.”

“I don’t remember if he hollered me or I hollered Kode9 but the second we met, we got along cool”, Joker recalls, “to the point where I’d just call him dad and he’d call me son.”

“Remember Mary Anne Hobbs as well?”, Joker continues. “She had her Dubstep Warz show and I think it was Kode9 that actually picked me to play the second one in 2008. It was there that I met everyone else in that world, people like Silkie, Quest, Chef, Distance and Starkey. Everyone was there, basically.”

As talk turns to how life was at home after starting to establish himself beyond Bristol, Joker quickly dials things back to 2007 and his first overseas booking. “That was the first time I ever owned a passport”, he recounts, “and I had to get it because someone hollered Pinch or Pinch knew someone who knew someone in Belgium who wanted me to play. I had to get a passport, bruv. Man had to get a passport. Big up Pinch yeah, please make sure you put that in. Anyway, I’d never been on a plane mate and this lady could see I was prang when I got onboard. The plane had the propellers … ah man this woman had to hold my hand. We’ve got in the air and I just remember thinking, ‘this is dodgy, this is hella dodgy’. I made it anyway and I remember being gassed to just be in Belgium. I got to the club and I asked the promoter guy for a juice and man came back with a big bottle of Courvoisier, which was a step up from my E&J days. Them times there I was mad young, I probably used to drink a little bit with my friends but nothing major, so when man said I could have a whole big bottle for myself, I felt like I was living BRUV.”

As Joker himself alludes to, watching a producer DJ was the only place for the majority of people to hear new records, beats and remixes back then; “Even before songs came out then, they were big”, he says “and not being out made them bigger.” Wheeling his chair over to a shelf behind him, Joker then pulls out a flyer — still in pristine condition — and holds it up to camera. It’s a flyer for DMZ’s 4th Birthday at Brixton Mass in 2009, detailing a line-up that included Digital Mystikz, Loefah, Kode9, Skream, Pinch, Silkie, Gothrad and loads more, as well as Joker himself. After a quick Google search, we realise that ‘Purple City’ was officially released three months after DMZ’s 4th birthday on June 8, but he recalls the track was already massive months before. “Everyone was rinsing it, bruv. Dubstep was sounding pretty diverse by that point and there were a lot of different sounds being played, but I had no idea what this night would be like. I remember walking up to Brixton Mass and just seeing this queue.” Joker then pauses to try and find a photo, before hanging up briefly to call Mala.

“So this here (holding up a photo detailing a huge, snaking queue line), is exactly how I remember it”, he recalls. “There’s like rows of four people in the queue mate, snaking all the way round. I remember walking up with a record box, 2-2 dubs and that, ‘Purple City’ still on dub plate and I saw the queue and it felt like I was about to walk into a movie. At this point, things were still happening for the first time in my career so it was just mad. It was a case of ‘are all these people gonna fit inside?’ I got in there and I remember seeing photos afterwards and everything inside was just purple. I don’t know if was the natural lighting or how the photographer chose to edit the pictures but yeah. I played and it was sick, bruv. DMZ wasn’t that old then either, it was only their fourth birthday but I remember that show for me being a ‘shit is happening’ moment for me. That was a serious moment not just for me, but for the music in general.”

(Photo by Ashes 57)

Joker would go on to release ’Tron’ a year later in 2010, another of his career-defining records that lived in his sets long before it was released — “song were around long before they were even available then bruv” — before switching his attention to ‘The Vision’. Released in 2011 via 4AD, ‘The Vision’ was Joker’s first studio album proper, written in his bedroom at his mum’s house. It was expansive, bold and totally different to anything he’d released before. The production value was rich and the ideas were detailed and intense, but while it brokered him as an artist proper for the first time, it signalled an excursion from the style he’d come to pioneer. ‘The Vision’ also featured vocal collaborations and features for the first time, including Jessie Ware — “she came to my mum’s to record bruv!” — as well as nods to his Kold Hearted Krew years on ‘Back In The Days’, which featured Bristol MCs Buggsy, Double, Scarz and Shadz. “What was your honest opinion?”, Joker asks. I recall listening to it quite a bit after buying it on CD in 2011 from a HMV in London and felt like while it sounded like Joker, it also sounded like an artist trying to be somebody else. “That’s exactly what I was trying to do, bruv. I didn’t want to make an album of ‘Purple City’, that was the main thing, but now looking back, maybe I should have done, maybe I should have made an album of stuff like that.” 

Did it come too early, I ask. “Maybe, yeah. I don’t regret one bit of it though”, he says, “but the tracks on there that people would play out in the clubs had already had their lifespan by the time it came out. Thinking back as well, I’d already made two mix CDs before and I was still a grime kid, still an RnB head, just deep in this dubstep world.” He then proceeds to play clips of RnB demos he’s still got on file, all of which he made when he was teenager. “Tracks like these never came out, so the only stuff people have heard from me is the greaze. Whether people like it or not, that isn’t my only side. I will always release what I’m feeling at whatever time, so I guess like you said, if it came out four or five years later, maybe it would have made more sense.”

“There will be a point in the future where people look back at where I was back then and go ‘ahhh it makes sense now’, do you know what I mean?”, Joker continues. “I was young though, bruv. How I hear those early big songs like ‘Purple City’ and ’Tron’ now is different to how I heard them back then. I can step away now and appreciate them in a different way, but back then I felt man was just making bangers for the rave and I couldn’t see how I could make a body of work like that. Even talking to you about this, it’s made me think like … all the genres that I love, whether it be jungle, drum & bass, garage, grime … it’s all happened in our lifetime. How mad is that?”

Armed with the experience of writing his first album and working with an entirely different scope, Joker spent the next few years working on singles from the LP with 4AD, as well as honing new-age material via Kapsize. It was in 2014 that he made ‘Midnight’ — a track he refers to as the next ‘tipping point’ and one that would find its home on ‘The Mainframe’, Joker’s second album released on Kapsize the following year in 2015. “As a producer, I go through like … realms”, he explains. “Like ‘Gully Brook Lane’ up until ’Tron’ was a realm. It all made sense, it all fitted together and I knew what I was doing with all of it. With ’The Vision’, I was scattered, I was looking for shit, I was between realms and then with ’Midnight’, I felt like I’d found a new realm. I remember playing the chords and thinking, ‘bruv, this is fucking ME!’. I was closer to ’Tron’ and ‘Gully Brook Lane’ with it … it was still the same sound but it was like version two. People might not know but I love trance-y, rave-y kinda sounds so I built the chords with this trance vibe in mind. A certain combination you land on is probably gonna sound similar to something you’ve already heard anyway, so I’m sat there playing the chords and I start humming, and then the lyrics come. ‘I’m waiting for tonight … oooo-oohhhh’ … I was like ’NOOOOO’. Now it’d come naturally, I couldn’t hear anything else, I wish I’d not heard it in my head. But because it came so easily, I thought do you know what, let me layer this vocal underneath. I pitched the whole track down, pitched it up and I then I settled on the ‘woaaah-ohhhh’ bit. I knew someone who hated the song, so I thought if I send it to them and they like it then I’ve nailed it. The sample made me feel uncomfortable as well to be honest but like with ‘The Vision’, I didn’t come into music to be comfortable, bruv. Man is here to create and if that makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes, I’ve gotta roll with that.”

“…I didn’t come into music to be comfortable, bruv. Man is here to create and if that makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes, I’ve gotta roll with that.” 

New realm now established, we close out our chat on the promise of catching up again a few days later. As our new FaceTime chat window opens early on Friday evening, I’m greeted by Joker in his car, driving. “We’re on a little road trip, bruv”, he says smiling, “…let me pull over for a minute and connect everything up properly.” He calls back, now sat in the passenger seat after switching over driving duties with his girlfriend, holding the phone up with his hand and eyes peering out at the acres of countryside flying past in his side window. We start talking about where he’s at now and how his technical ear for music and sound has impacted on his own back catalog. “I’m not saying I’m nailing it bruv, but if I can mix a track the way I hear it, that’s gonna give it a different energy you know”, he explains. “I could say that about a lot of stuff I’ve put out as well, like I’ll listen to a track now and I can hear what I’d do differently to how I made it originally.”

Over the last 18 months. Joker’s started to take his mixing and mastering more seriously, so much so that it’s now an important part of his working life; a second job, in other words. “For me, fucking around with synths and EQs and the technical things, I quite enjoy it … wait, is that a funny way of saying it? I find it quite enjoyable anyway”, he says. “I’ve always had a love of hardware as well but for me to make use of all my cool plugins and equipment, I need to be making music. I don’t really wanna be putting in time on a quick drum beat I’ve made, but it’s not every day I’m gonna be able to make a full song either. So I thought, do you know what, I could get paid to learn and enjoy my shit. I was like, ‘hello everyone, I mix and master … HOLLA’. It started as simply as that early last year and since then, I’ve been building the studio out a bit and just doing as much as I can.”

“For me, fucking around with synths and EQs and the technical things, I quite enjoy it … wait, is that a funny way of saying it? I find it quite enjoyable anyway.”

The first album he mixed down was Swindle’s 2019 epic, ‘No More Normal’, and he’s since mixed/mastered records for everyone from Stormzy to Example to Hudson Mohawke. “One of the maddest stories was being out on a road trip to Croatia for Outlook Festival last summer and I get a call about a small tweak that needed making to a mix I’d submitted a few weeks before”, he recalls. “I had all the mix stems saved in my Dropbox and on the way to Croatia, I ended up driving past Noisia’s studio in Gronigen (NL) and decided to stop off just to catch up and chill. When I got the call about the mix, I asked if I was cool to do it from Noisia’s studio and I ended up working with Nik from Noisia to re-master it. It turns out we couldn’t make this tweak from from the files I had in my Dropbox, so a few days later, I’m probably doing about 180mph testing my car out on an Autobahn having crossed over the border into Germany, and I get a phone call about the changes having to be made urgently. I knew I’d have to go home, so I opened my Google Maps and the closest city to us was Dusseldorf. I ended up driving to Dusseldorf and we caught a flight back to London that day, went home to Bristol and managed to get the changes done. My girlfriend had left her hoodie at home in Bristol so she was happy she could pick that up, but then we had to go back and get my car. We headed up to Birmingham Airport to catch the next flight out to Dusseldorf but the plane we were due to fly on was leaking hydraulic fluid. Dusseldorf airport itself then had to shut early that day, so the only flight we could get was one to Cologne. We then had to get a bus from Cologne to Dusseldorf to continue our drive to Croatia. Honestly, it sounds mad, but it was so funny bruv.”

In terms of studio balance, Joker’s learned to plot out his time each day, working on mixes in the day and his own music later in the evenings and into the early hours. “I think I’m naturally more creative in the evening and I think it’s best I leave my ears fresh for other people’s work in the day time”, he explains, “and then when they’re not needed to do any fine-tuning, I can get on with my own stuff.” It’s a duality that’s allowed him to flourish over the last 12 months, with both sides to his work informing the other. Going forward and looking ahead, he seems to be at his most comfortable and content in a long time. What’s next I wonder?

“Right this second, I don’t have much idea if I’m honest with you”, he says thoughtfully. “I’m sat on two EPs and a little project but I think the whole Coronavirus thing has given me a lot of time to think. I still enjoy making 140 stuff, I still enjoy DJing … I guess I just want to think about and execute things better. I’d like to get into producing for artists, which I’ve said forever, but sometimes I feel like there’s too much going on in my beats or whatever … maybe that’ll change. It feels like it’s just the beginning of me getting to grips with things again and I’m excited, you know?”

“Do you know that it is?”, he continues before we sign off, “you kind of have to be fed up with something for there to be change, and I’m not sure what I’m fed up with at the moment. And to be honest”, he says 10,000 words and four hours of interview time later, “I’ve always just wanted to let my music do the talking anyway.”

You can trace Joker’s discography and buy records direct via Bandcamp:

https://joker.bandcamp.com/

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