On ‘Forward Riddim’, Heat FM, saving lunch money to buy records, grime, bassline, technology and feeling freer than ever before on new EP, ‘Digital Monk’.
“Maybe it’s just the way I think”, shrugs Dexplicit thoughtfully as he reflects on the last six months, “but it hasn’t been that bad. Maybe I’m lucky.” It’s the first time I’ve caught up with Dexplicit since he played b2b with Birmingham grime producer, Outsider, on Rinse FM back in December 2017. In that time, he’s quietly started to find solace in writing music for himself for the first time in his career — music that speaks to him, music that challenges him. As we catch up over Zoom on Thursday night, Dex is relaxed and leaning back into a tower of patterned cushions, a broad smile etched across his face. “Do you know what it is? I opened a new studio in January, Coronavirus landed in February, March and everything was locked down. It was a gift and a curse. It was a bad thing because I couldn’t take bookings in the studio or bring anyone down, but it was a good thing because I had a reason to just stay in the studio and try things out.”
Speaking to Dexplicit, it’s sometimes easy to forget he was the producer behind Lethal B’s ‘Pow! (Forward)’ — one of grime’s most explosive and iconic tracks to this day — and a veteran of both the wider grime scene and bassline, a sound in which he also developed his own niche. He’s calm, unassuming, aloof. “It’s never been about anything but the music for me”, he says warmly, “I’ve never wanted anything else, honestly.”
Born in Hackney, Dexplicit spent his early years in East London before moving to Enfield as a teenager and he spent much of his secondary school years going back-and-forth between the two. “You’re from London, you know what it’s like”, he says with a wry smile, “Those 279, 149 bus routes … through Tottenham, Edmonton, Enfield, all the way down that high road down to Stamford Hill, Shoreditch … I feel at home along that whole stretch, even now.”
“Those 279, 149 bus routes … through Tottenham, Edmonton, Enfield, all the way down that high road down to Stamford Hill, Shoreditch … I feel at home along that whole stretch, even now.”
It was in Enfield he’d first come into contact with jungle too, his first love and a sound that inspired him to start going to under-age raves around the city. “I just caught the end of jungle”, he recalls, “and there were loads of raves I could get to back then, like the under 18 ones. They held them at The Pleasure Rooms in Tottenham, Ally Pally and places like that. I was probably raving from about 13 thinking back which is mad but that’s how it was then. Just as I started getting into jungle, things started to shift towards garage and to be honest, I was loving garage.”
Garage proved to be Dex’s entry point into music proper. He got hold of a pair of decks and would start playing at house parties and friend’s places — “just anywhere I could play my records” — quickly catching the bug for DJing, for performing, for being involved. “I don’t actually remember how I got into DJing specifically, I just remember how much fun it was”, he admits. “I remember as well, and I’m sure people like P Jam would tell you the same, not eating at school to save my dinner money up. At the end of the week, I’d go to record shops … UBM, Excessive Sounds, all these sort of places … and spend my entire week’s dinner money on one record. The amount of dopamine that got produced by that whole experience … getting on the bus, going to the record shop and listening to something new … that vibe, it just gave the music so much value.”
“The amount of dopamine that got produced by that whole experience … getting on the bus, going to the record shop and listening to something new … that vibe, it just gave the music so much value.”
Galvanised by friends at school in Enfield, including Weighty J — a DJ still active in London’s bubbling underground house scene — Dex started to spend more and more time tapping into the people making the music he loved too. “There were big records like ‘I Don’t Smoke Da Reefa’ (DJ Deekline) that I loved but Sticky … ah man. Do you know what? Growing up, I had four producers that I thought were like Gods back then. Sticky, Wookie, Dr. Dre and Timbaland. I used to think ‘one day, I wanna be like them’.”
At 16, he recalls deciding to sell his decks on a whim — “I’m not sure what I spent the money on to be honest” — and through his dad, who was also into music, he discovered Cubase by chance. “He’d let me tinker on it at certain times and I’d try stuff, but it was all messing about, I didn’t really know what I was doing. The more I got into it, the more I wanted to try out new things though and I ended up getting a copy of Fruity Loops, which changed my life to be honest. I’ve been using it since FL Studio 1.0 and I don’t know many people who have been using it since then”, he says, breaking into laughter. “Seriously though, a lot of producers I knew used to ask me all the time, ‘why are you using Fruity Loops?’. I remember one guy in college said to me once, ‘bruv, if you wanna be a proper producer, you need to use Logic, Cubase or Pro Tools. No label is ever gonna take you seriously if you’re using Fruity Loops’. I was a hard head back then so I ignored him.”
Looking through Dexplicit’s Discogs page triggers memories of some of his earliest productions. His first ever record was officially ‘Dirty Pot / Red Brick Road’ — a two-track plate released via Beat Camp Production in 2001 — which he still considered to be garage at the time, despite it’s darker, grimier patterns. “I was still calling it garage back then because grime was just a scene that I saw evolving from garage”, he explains. “There was probably about two years of evolution before people started to recognise it as grime. These times, I was listening to a lot of So Solid, Roll Deep. The game was crews then. Thinking about it, one of those first tunes sounds like ‘Dilemma’ (So Solid Crew) and the other one sounds like ‘I Will Not Lose’ by Wiley.”
“When I first got started, I had no money”, Dexplicit continues after I ask what the process of releasing records was like back in 2001, “so my dad, he got the record pressed for me at Music House and dropped me down at Rhythm Division with the copies. I was too young and gassed to really take it in at that point, but he showed me the ropes. The people at Rhythm Division would give tracks a listen and if they liked what they heard, they’d keep copies in the shop for a little while. Luckily they took some of mine for the shop and I mean, that was just me … imagine how many other producers they gave a chance to. It was a great aspect of the scene back then.”
“Obviously we didn’t have the internet to promote records back then either”, he continues, “so you’d just hope that DJs would find your records and support them. I didn’t know many DJs at the time, so it was like whatever happens, happens. That first record didn’t really do a lot to be fair, but it was out, it allowed me to do it, to see it. I had a record that existed.”
It would spark an almost obsessive compulsion to work on new music every day from the age of 17, the fruits of which were harvested on quick-fire follow up records on Social Circles in 2002 and 2003. But, juggling his time between writing beats in his dad’s garage and working part time at UGC Cinemas (now Cineworld) in Enfield and later Hollywood Green Cinema in Wood Green, Dex’s music was still struggling to find the sort of visibility that’d really help his fledgling career take off. One of his tactics was to try and reproduce some of his favourite songs in Fruity Loops, to help him understand what a particular producer was thinking or trying out, while another was radio. Although he didn’t have his own show, radio would prove to be Dex’s golden ticket.
“You had guys like P Jam and there was a DJ called Slick D who I met in college in 2001, maybe 2002”, he recalls, “and they were both on radio. P Jam was local to me and I actually met him through an MC called Offkey from my school, they were both in the same crew and they’d be at radio quite a lot, I think it was Heat FM. One time, someone came to school and was like ‘yo bruv, there’s a DJ called P Jam and he’s cut your tune to dub” and at the time I didn’t even know what that meant, but it sounded bad. I was like ‘rah, oh my days’ but people kept telling me ‘nah, P Jam’s cool, he wouldn’t steal your tune’. It was so funny.”
“One time, someone came to school and was like ‘yo bruv, there’s a DJ called P Jam and he’s cut your tune to dub” and at the time I didn’t even know what that meant“
“Slick D as well”, he continues, “he was on Heat FM and he was part of a crew called Slingshot. Heat FM was like the Deja of North London, so if you were on there people would hear you. He really believed in my sound, he’d cut my dubs all the time and batter my tunes and it was actually him who first played Lethal my tunes. More Fire Crew came down to guest on a set one night and obviously Lethal’s there. He first heard ‘Forward Riddim’ on that set and also ‘Mr’, do you remember that Lethal B tune? That beat was originally a hip hop tune I made that Slick sped up to grime tempo and played it in his sets. I remember as well, because Slick was playing my tunes twice a week on radio … Heat FM, Raw FM, Blaze FM and all these stations … he hit me up and was like ‘yo Dex, we need something happy, forget the dark ting for a while’ and I made ‘Might Be’. There’s one more beat that’s got a Slick D story behind it but I can’t think what it is..”, he says, pausing briefly, “‘Victory’! That’s it. Slingshot, they had a clash with another crew called Bun Dem Crew and Slick asked me for a war tune for the clash, so I made ‘Victory’ specifically for them.”
When Lethal B first heard ‘Forward Riddim’, Dex was sat in the Heat FM studio. It was his first ever visit to the station and true to form, he was quiet and unassuming, taking stock of everything going on, occasionally nodding his head to the beats Slick was playing. “I was just sitting in the corner on my own and Slick was playing loads of my dubs”, he explains sheepishly. “I remember Lethal kept saying, ‘who made this?’ to virtually every tune. Slick pointed to me sat in the corner and that was it. Lethal took my number and then called me a few days later asking me to send him some tunes. I sent him ‘Might Be’ and ‘Forward Riddim’ and a few other tunes. He actually liked ‘Might Be’ best I think but Jason Kay wanted that because I was around the Social Circles lot back then, so he took ‘Forward Riddim’ instead and the rest is history.”
Originally released on Lethal Bizzle Records before being snapped up by Relentless, ‘Pow! (Forward)’ ushered in a new era of MC rally tunes — MCs sharing 16-bar verses on one track — and also landed at #11 on the UK Singles Chart in its first week in January 2005, giving Lethal B his highest ever chart position to this day. Controversially, it was also banned from a number of national radio stations for references to gun culture and violence, sparking a wider debate about grime culture that has refused to go away ever since. Such was its legacy, ‘Pow! (Forward)’ was also re-engineered in 2011 with fresh verses from JME, Chip, P Money, Ghetts, Wiley, Kano & Face, with ‘Pow 2011’ peaking at #33 on the UK Singles Chart.
“I think after ‘Pow!’, my phone was ringing so much that it left me with some sort of anxiety”, explains Dex. “I’ve now got this relationship with my phone like, I can just leave my phone and not be around it all day and people don’t understand it. They don’t know why I’m not on WhatsApp or why I’ll go ‘missing’ for hours at a time. I realised after it came out that I had to control my phone, not let my phone control me. I changed my number so many times but each time people would get hold of it and it was always popping off. I mean, as a producer it was nice to be in demand but it was a lot to deal with. For me, as I said before, it’s only ever been the music that I cared about. I was only interested in the next big tune.”
“I realised after it (‘Pow!’) came out that I had to control my phone, not let my phone control me.”
Still only 20, Dexplicit quickly became one of grime’s most in-demand beat makers and spent much of the next few years working on beats for some of the scene’s biggest names, as well as nurturing his own DXP Recordings label, which he established in 2005 as a home for some of his other instrumental work. “I’d never had a big artist on one of my beats before ‘Pow!’”, he concedes, “let alone 10 of them, so I was just gassed by that to be honest. I really didn’t think it’d go on to do what it did. I knew my music was good enough, but I always felt I needed someone to help me get it out to people, I just needed that exposure. And ‘Pow!’ gave me that.”
In and around the time Dexplicit first made ‘Forward Riddim’ and ‘Might Be’ — a tune rooted in bassline sensibilities — he also produced ‘Bullacake’, a track that’d change the trajectory of his career in a totally world. It may not have surfaced until 2005, when it was released on the B-side of three-track 12” ‘Dubz Vol.1’ via Rossi B’s More 2 Da Floor, but like ‘Pow!’, it’s impact remains palpable to this day. “DJ EZ was after some tunes and asked my manager at the time, Martin, if I had anything I could send over”, he explains. “I made a folder of tunes and then just before we were gonna send it, I played ‘Bullacake’, just cycling through some old files on my computer. Martin was like, ‘what about that too?’. I was like, ‘nah man, I made it ages ago’ and wasn’t feeling it, but we decided to include it in the folder anyway. In the end, it was the one tune EZ loved and that was it.”
A fierce, looping 4×4 whomper, ‘Bullacake’ was quickly welcomed into raves in cities all over the North of England, particularly in Bradford, Huddersfield and Leeds, where bassline was the dominant, era-defying sound. It also piqued the ears of ‘The Trio’ — Shaun ‘Banger’ Scott, Nev Wright & Jamie Duggan — who simultaneously acted as both gatekeepers and tastemakers, making and breaking some of the biggest bassline anthems in their sets; “they were like some Avengers team up there”, Dexplicit says with a smile. With their support up north and EZ breaking ‘Bullacake’ in his sets around London, the record took off — completely independently from the success he was enjoying as a grime producer, too.
“It was weird”, Dex concedes, “because when I made ‘Bullacake’ I’d never heard of bassline, I was just making dark garage stuff. All of a sudden, I actually remember my friend Cyril who lives in Bradford, he started ringing me like ‘bro, you need to come up here and see what’s going on’. I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’. He told me there was a whole scene up there and they were loving my tunes, so I eventually went up to Bradford and they’ve got some super clubs up there, big, massive places. I remember being in one and about 10 people came up to me to shake my hand one-by-one, like ‘yo Dexplicit’. I was thinking, ‘hold on a minute, how do these lot know what I look like?’. In London, no one knew what I looked like so it was weird for me. Once I saw it and felt the vibe though, even hearing the same drum pattern all night was new to me, I got it, I understood it and started to make songs like that. My biggest takeaway was the vibe honestly. The people in the club, it was just a different energy to what I was used to. Everyone was just on fun, like everyone inside wanted to enjoy themselves. That was it, that was all they were there for.”
The success of ‘Bullacake’ led to the busiest spell of his career in terms of DJ bookings — “I was getting booked all the time, I’m talking every week” — to the point where other grime producers started to question if Dex was still actively producing grime. “For a good two years, probably from about 2007, people weren’t even aware I was still on it. The bassline stuff kinda overshadowed everything else I was doing and it even led me to getting to go on tours outside the country. I got booked in Australia, Hong Kong … it was mad. What was great though was that a lot of people in those places didn’t really know what bassline was aside from the tunes they liked, so I got to play what I wanted. I’d always play a load of heavy bass music and grime, it was brilliant.”
In the background, Dex was still as busy as ever in the studio. He was working in a space he’d opened in Enfield and was constantly occupied with MC work, building long-forgotten or never released mixtapes — “some of them had like, everyone in the scene on them” — and contributing production work to two tracks on Lethal Bizzle’s second studio album, ‘Back To Biznizz’. “I actually recorded one mixtape called ‘Versatile Style’ with Jamakabi that never came out. He called me and mentioned it the other day funnily enough. They weren’t songs, they were riddim tracks. You’d have like Napper on ‘Victory’, then Shizzle on ‘Victory’, Frisco on ‘Victory’ and then the tune would change and you’d hear another five MCs on that one. All these guys would just come to the studio back then, it was crazy.”
Dex welcomed his first daughter into the world in 2009, which coincided with his DJ bookings finally slowing down after a near two-year international tour came to an end earlier that year; “I’d said to myself, when she arrives, I need to slow down but luckily they kinda just stopped dead”, he admits, laughing. With his time now split between raising his daughter and continuing to make and release music, Dex started compiling a series of Dexplicit Content EPs, as well as a mammoth 50-track old school grime compilation — “I was kinda just cleaning the cupboards and putting out tracks I’d played in my sets for years” — that helped keep things ticking over.
He then opened a new studio in the Chocolate Factory in Wood Green in 2012 and through new management, started to receive a wealth of major label remix opportunities. “Nelly Furtado, Cheryl Cole, M.I.A. … I was just banging these remixes out and the money was great”, he concedes. “I was working on a lot of other projects as well so essentially I was in the studio with my engineer all the time. It was a weird period but I never stopped making grime or music that I cared about.”
As an OG grime producer with such a rich history, how did he find the challenge to adapt, I wondered? Was it difficult to stay relevant, to compete with newer names on the come up? “The biggest thing I noticed was producers trying to go more minimal, because everything became about the MCs”, he explains. “I found myself not focusing on making tunes to make people dance, but doing the whole head nod thing. The whole scene went a bit like that if I’m honest. There were a lot of other dance-focused genres around as well, like funky and whatever, but I never wanted to jump on a trend. I don’t like making what everyone else is making, which could be a gift or a curse, I don’t know. Obviously dubstep happened too and a lot of eyes were on that. A lot of people stopped making grime actually, when dubstep blew, where as I wanted to try and learn stuff from it because that’s my ethos, I’m always interested in new plugins, techniques, whatever. I started using some of the wobblier dubstep sounds in my own productions, especially while I was doing lots of remix work. In those times, I guess I was just experimenting.”
“A lot of people stopped making grime actually, when dubstep blew, where as I wanted to try and learn stuff from it because that’s my ethos, I’m always interested in new plugins, techniques, whatever.”
It wasn’t until January 2019 and a conversation with Terror Danjah that Dexplicit reprogrammed his thinking; the next phase of his career would be about making the music he wants to make, regardless of what people expect. “I remember Terror said to me ‘look, Dex, a lot of people are making music with their heads and not with their hearts, so don’t you think it’s time to start making music you like? Stop thinking about what’s gonna work and make the tunes you want to make’. And I did exactly that. I made this track called ‘Gorilla Glue’, which was one of the first tunes I took a video clip of myself listening to in my car. I was a bit gassed after coming out the studio and obviously it’s different for me, because I never usually show my face or do stuff like that, but yeah. I love orchestral sounds and I love bass and it was the first tune I made in that mindset. I got a lot of people messaging me about it, Big Narstie hit me up even, and everyone seemed to love it. I’ve now got this whole sound that’s just very cinematic and I love it, man. I’m running with it.”
He followed it up with a clip of ‘Gotham’ soon after — another hyper-intense, grandiose, orchestral grime beat — that would later go onto become the title-track of a new EP recently released on P Jam’s Beatcamp label; by all accounts, it’s one of the best grime records released so far in 2020. “P said to me, do you know ‘good music is good music, lets sit on it for a bit’”, Dex says, “because he first asked me if he could sign it last summer and I was like, ‘you wanna put it out next year?’. I always trust P Jam’s opinion though and it taught me something about campaigns and how to release music in a different way. It was definitely a lesson and the fact that I’m putting out music with P, 20 years after first meeting him in school days, it’s an amazing feeling. We were in the original Beatcamp together, me, him, Skills, Stevo … Stevo was a grime producer you know … so to be able to release it on P Jam’s label called Beatcamp, it’s an honour to be honest with you bro. Making music I like with my friends, what more could I ask for?”
The success of ‘Gotham’ has since been amplified by ‘Digital Monk’ — a new four-track EP rooted in synth work and released by E.M.M.A’s Pastel Prism imprint earlier this month. Born out of a relationship first established via E.M.M.A’s pioneering Producer Girls workshop initiative alongside P Jam and Ikonika — setup with the aim of encouraging more women to take up music production — it’s the latest in a string of records that have given Dexplicit the opportunity to fully express himself and the interests he holds dear.
“Producer Girls, I mean if it’s a cause I care about. What E.M.M.A was saying was bang on, it’s true, there is an imbalance and if I could help address that then I wanted to be involved. Just like Ikonika and P Jam, I enjoy showing people how to make music as well, it’s a real passion. P Jam was saying the other day on Twitter that it’s one of his favourite things he’s ever done in music and I think all of us feel pretty similar. We did five or six workshops … the Tate Modern in London, Bristol, Brighton, Manchester … it was a lot of fun, man. E.M.M.A would also ask guest producers to come and speak at each one too, so we had people like Etch, India Jordan, Murlo present something. They’d end up teaching each of us something new because what I realised is that we all approach making music completely differently.”
Sharing similar interests outside of music, Dex and E.M.M.A have continued to talk regularly since and it was through one of these conversations that the idea for ‘Digital Monk’ was first crystallised. Inspired by his love of technology and all things cyber — Dexplicit enrolled at the University of Hertfordshire in 2015 to study Computer Science — the EP also has its roots in shared musical nuances. “We like the same things and notice the same things in the music we like”, he explains, “and it’s not just songs themselves, it’s deeper than that. Obviously, because I’d just put out quite a hard grime EP, I didn’t feel it made sense to explore something different myself, so E.M.M.A said I should put something out on her label. She said to me, ‘Dex, no rules, just go for it’. She said I should try using synths and experiment to my heart’s content to see what comes out and that’s what I did. Two of the tracks were produced at the back end of last year and I built two during the lockdown. She’d actually sent me her new album (‘Indigo Dream’) a few months before it came out and I was going mad the minute I heard it. I couldn’t believe how free it sounded. The thing with E.M.M.A is she’s not catering to anyone, she’s just free, and I thought ‘rahhh, I wanna be that free’. It was inspiring, man.”
“The thing with E.M.M.A is she’s not catering to anyone, she’s just free, and I thought ‘rahhh, I wanna be that free’.”
It’s a record that certainly captures Dexplicit at his freest and most viscerally creative, melding together a blurry, heady mix of filmic, cinematic styles that draw on all 20+ years of his production career. Also released with futuristic, Tron-style artwork prints designed by Elena Gumeniuk, ‘Digital Monk’ feels like the sort of EP Dex was always supposed to make — everything about it, although different to everything he’s done before, feels natural. “It’s mad you say that because that’s E.M.M.A’s whole ethos”, he says, leaning forward into the camera. “Music is supposed to an extension of who you are and what you love, and you should aim to channel that, unapologetically. I did that with ‘Digital Monk’ and it felt great.”
“Music is supposed to an extension of who you are and what you love, and you should aim to channel that, unapologetically.”
Looking ahead, Dexplicit still retains his love of producing more conventional grime — “I’ll always love it” — but if 2020 has taught him anything, it’s to push boundaries and push himself, as further evidenced by his decision to start his own YouTube channel focusing on producer tips and preparing walkthrough guides to some of his biggest records; something he’s always wanted to do. “Do you know what else I’ve learnt this year though?”, he asks, “To appreciate learning to be still, to stop chasing things. Living in London, we’ve got this rushing, deadlines mentality and it doesn’t always need to be like that. That helped inform my music as well because I just realised that I’m here to explore, to experiment and to enjoy the music I put out. We’re all here for different reasons and that’s okay, but from this point onwards, mine will be to push the boundaries, no question.”
Dexplicit’s new EP, ‘Digital Monk’, is out now on Pastel Prism: