— cktrl —

On Jamaica, Lewisham, grime, funky, clarinet, saxophone, Boiler Room, a decade on NTS Live, energy and finding his groove on new EP, ‘Robyn’.

(All photos submitted by cktrl)

It’s 5.45pm on Thursday night and Bradley Miller, better known as cktrl, is warming up a plate of chicken and rice. He’s not long landed back in the UK from Jamaica, where he’s spent the last month and a half recharging and spending time with his aunt in Kingston, the island’s capital. “I just wanted to get away from London for a minute … it’s had bad energy for me in the past …and feel good before getting new music out”, he concedes. “It’s the first time I’ve released in a while and I didn’t wanna feel any type of way or have ill feelings, you know.”

Myself and cktrl first came into contact around ‘INDi’ — a colourful, engrossing 13-track mixtape that I worked on publicity for back in 2016. It was a record that heralded the start of a new chapter in his career, too; no longer would his focus solely be on beat-making or chasing reloads in the club. “I can’t believe that was four years ago, man”, he says with a shrug. “I’ve actually taken it down from streaming platforms at the moment because there’s a few tracks I might put out again … trust me.” 

A DJ, producer and multi-instrumentalist, cktrl — which stands for ‘can’t keep to reality’— was born and raised in Lewisham, where he still lives today, to parents of Jamaican and Montserratian descent; “We’re all bredrins you know, my mum, my dad and my sister … we’ve got a collective bestie friendship but also individual bestie friendships between us, and in the house, we’ve all got our quarters”, he explains. “If we’re together, more time we’re just laughing.”

“We’re all bredrins you know, my mum, my dad and my sister … we’ve got a collective bestie friendship but also individual bestie friendships between us”

“Life on ends was just excitement, man”, he continues, reflecting on his childhood. “…And carelessness. We were just active boys, man … toxic everything when toxic was ok, kinda thing. But you grow up and you read more and learn about life. I guess the influences of culture … like I grew up around pirate radio, back-street clashing, sound systems, like Saxon Sound is from Lewisham … it all had an impact. My first radio show was on Genesis FM, which is where Saxon Sound Studio was based … I’d be in Catford every day, my friends kinda ran things there. Every day was just a whole situation, man. I was always on my own ting though and I think olders respected that.

“I had balance too, because my parents were good with us, we’d always be travelling around London together at weekends so I knew my way around. If I was interested in something or curious, I’d go and check it out you know, where as some of my other friends wouldn’t leave the ends until years later. That whole attitude helped with my music stuff as well … I would never have found opportunities at places like NTS without getting out and about when I was younger.”

This exploratory spirit would lead to getting his first job at Uptown Records, where he worked as a wide-eyed 16 year old, curious about anything and everything to do with music. “I’d been making music since I was about 11”, he recalls, “but what I realised was that I couldn’t play people anything to anyone if it wasn’t on vinyl. I found a cutting place in Forest Hill … Transition actually … Jason at Transition patterned me, he was a really lovely guy, always supporting me and encouraging me.” The beats cktrl had started making remained a ‘secret’ in his early teens though, as most of his friends were more interested in spitting — and not on any of the type of beats he was making on Fruity Loops; “It wasn’t like anything else anybody was making in ends, especially to spit on, but later on I started making stuff for myself to spit on and for others to sing on … slowly it started to develop from there.”

It wasn’t until he was 17 that he’d start bringing instrumentation into his production, either. Despite playing both the clarinet and the saxophone since he was a child, cktrl never saw the two as symbiotic — beats and instruments were different worlds in his mind. “It’s so weird now when I think about it now”, he reflects, “like I spent six years just not doing that. I think I always saw it as so separate … instruments just didn’t feel compatible with what I was doing on a computer screen. I was fortunate though because in Lewisham we had a music service. Like, my clarinet for example, I got for free … and so was my sax actually. I’ve still got the same ones now (laughing) … but shhh! I used to go to a music school on a Saturday, nine in the morning ’til three n the afternoon … it was like another day at school. I did that from year 4 until I was 16, every Saturday. It was a serious thing … like I’d get there, have a clarinet lesson, have a sax lesson and then it’d be theory, samba, orchestra and then band.” 

How did he decide on playing instruments from such a young age, I wondered? “I was just in assembly one day and people came in playing instruments”, cktrl recalls. “At the end of the assembly, they gave us different options … like instruments we could play … and the first ones I remember were the oboe and the flute, but I wasn’t really feeling the flute. I did think the oboe was kinda sick because remember snake charming back in the day in cartoons and films like Aladdin? Snakes can’t catch me lacking if I play the oboe, you get me, so I had a lesson but it just sounded shit to me. Because it’s a double reed, I just sounded like a duck. I knew I sounded like that as well, so I’d go home and practice and there I was sounding like a duck. It wasn’t gonna run. The next assembly came along and this time there were people playing the bassoon. I thought it sounded kinda wavy but I didn’t like how it looked … I knew I wasn’t gonna get any attention playing the bassoon because no one wavey played it before.”

“I did think the oboe was kinda sick because remember snake charming back in the day in cartoons and films like Aladdin? Snakes can’t catch me lacking if I play the oboe, you get me”

“Then came the clarinet the next time”, he continues, “and I thought, even the way the guy in assembly was playing it … it was vibey still. The teacher was 21, just out of university … he was young and cool, where as a lot of the other teachers were much older, no vibes, dead as fuck. He made lessons exciting you know … it was the first time I felt actually inspired by a teacher. I’d practice and sometimes I’d forget to practice, but I’d get away with it because other people in my classes … like they’d practice and learn to play pieces note for note, but sound terrible, where as my tone on the clarinet was like my teacher. He was gassed about it, which meant I could get away with fucking up entire pieces because he thought it sounded nice. That led to me taking up lessons on Saturdays and I’d go in half an hour early so he could teach me one on one for a bit. I took up the sax a couple of years later with the same teacher … he taught me the whole way through until … I think it was the tories came into government … and they cut funding. It makes me think about kids in Lewisham now and the access to opportunities, I mean … man. It’s important to be able to express yourself and I found I got purpose from playing instruments, so much so that I’m still doing it now.”

Musically, cktrl’s upbringing was rich; “To save you writing so much, basically it was black as fuck growing up in my house”, he says, laughing. “You had everything from reggae to soul, ragga, soca … my mum’s from Montserrat so island stuff was always playing. Back then, it wasn’t a melting pot like it is now, comprised of stuff you hear on the internet, it was just music that came from us … everything was cultural and had a cultural reference. Whether it was music or academia or knowledge of self … every experience I had has always been grounded by that. From Curtis Mayfield to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus … Alice Coltrane as well, big singers like Etta James … there was just always so much vinyl at home. I’ve got uncles with loads of records as well, stuff they’ve just given to me over the years. I’ve got all the original Studio One, Coxone Records, Trojan … you name it, I’ve got it. Growing up around Saxon in Lewisham as well, having that influence … and vinyl culture as well. We had this record shop in Lewisham called Independance that just sold grime. Grime vinyl, all the DVDs … Conflict, Lord Of The Mics, Lord Of The Decks, Risky Roadz, Crazy Times, everything. I’m the reason they stopped leaving the discs in the covers on the shelves ‘coz I used to teef them! Bossman from Essentials used to work there behind the counter as welI. I’d be in there, flipping tiny, trying to reach the racks. He’d end up putting records on for me and passing the headphones over the counter so I could listen.”

“Bossman from Essentials used to work there behind the counter as welI. I’d be in there, flipping tiny, trying to reach the racks. He’d end up putting records on for me and passing the headphones over the counter so I could listen.”

In and amongst the warm island sounds of home and his instruments at school, grime was one of cktrl’s earliest loves. “Unless you know about grime, people don’t really check it like this but … the range”, he continues, “…every beat was different, nothing sounded the same and I loved that about it. Everything sounded very specific to the area it was made, even in a shop just selling grime instrumentals. Them times there you could hear a beat and be like ‘yeah, yeah, my man lives in West’ just because of how many snares he put in a beat. If there was bare snares, it was someone from South, you know what I mean? Snares were moving over there back then.”

Armed with dub plates cut at Transition, cktrl found himself testing out his own grime beats on the system at Uptown, where he would also later learn to DJ. “I used to go back there even after it was closed and play people beats … and at other shops as well, like Black Market and Sounds Of The Universe. Do you know DJ Flight? I used to go and play new records to her and she’d give me feedback. Basically on the weekends, I’d get on a train and go up to these shops and play beats to people. DJ Flight was actually instrumental in helping me getting my mixes tight, she taught me so much early on. Around that time … kinda 2010-11 I think … Boiler Room was starting up and NTS was just starting to happen. A lot of my friends were starting to play Boiler Room parties and whatever, and I really wanted a shot at getting involved in what was going on. In turns out that Thristian from Boiler Room worked at Sounds Of The Universe and I started to play him tunes. He liked what I was playing him and hooked me up with NTS, because I said I’d really wanted to play there. A week later I was starting on NTS … I think it was the station’s third week of broadcasting and there I was. The rest is history.”

“It was through Mischa Mafia (PDA) at NTS that I first got booked for Boiler Room”, he continues, “she put me forward and got me the slot … she was a genius, the way she saw things at NTS was just different and I don’t think she always gets the credit she deserves for all those great ideas. I played Boiler Room #87 in London Fields, which will always be my favourite one. I couldn’t mix really … the nerves mixed with playing vinyl … but the reason why that first one was so good was because people were behind me, it was dark, and they wanted to dance. The later ones I played were just a bit stiff, it was never quite the same.”

cktrl had got his first decks via Dappa, who now works at Rinse FM, who sold him a pair of decks when Uptown Records closed. “He sold me two 1210s and a shit mixer for like, a hundred pounds or something”, he explains. “I went up there with my girlfriend at the time to pick them up and I’ve still got the same decks now … just with a better mixer. The one I had literally had a cross fader and not much else. I would say it took me a year of practicing to be able to mix one tune into another. I was heavy into dubstep so I think it must have been like a Mala and a Joker tune that I managed to pull off. Crazy, thinking about it.”

“I would say it took me a year of practicing to be able to mix one tune into another. I was heavy into dubstep so I think it must have been like a Mala and a Joker tune that I managed to pull off.”

After the success of his first Boiler Room, cktrl started to look at his music in a different way — “a tension had kinda entered my mind” — as he became aware of scenes starting to take shape all over London. His own instrumentals, fitting between grime and funky, were progressing fruitfully and he’d won fans in the emergent Boiler Room community that was suddenly becoming a focal point for London’s electronic music scene. But something wasn’t right. “I had interest from people trying to manage me and whatever but I didn’t really know what to do”, he notes. “In hindsight, I mean I played one tune and it went mad in there and now if I was to do that, I’d press it on vinyl and release it straight away. I didn’t have that knowledge then so I just ended up speaking to lots of people about records and EPs without ever getting anywhere … everything just kinda slowed down. I wasn’t in with the instrumental gatekeepers of the time either … it was a toxic scene then really. I just didn’t have any way in.”

Despite the blossoming influence of funky house — especially its role in helping propel Giggs into mainstream consciousness in London — and the kudos of emerging labels like Night Slugs, who were cross-pollinating UK and US underground sounds via Fade To Mind, cktrl was banging on doors that just weren’t opening. He had the music, just not the connections. “It was a ride of emotions to be honest, because it was all happening in front of my face”, cktrl explains. “I felt that innovators like Lil Silva and Sampha … those two in particular … I think if they’d continued to push instrumentals the way they did in the beginning, things might have been a bit different but they were obviously at different points in their careers. I actually did my last Boiler Room with them around Lil Silva’s ‘Mabel’ release. It was myself, Lil Silva, Sampha and Macabre Unit.”

Propped up by a day job at the Mayor’s Office at City Hall that he held for almost seven years, cktrl continued to make beats and play out as much as he could. His show on NTS continued to give him focus and by 2015, Lil Silva, Sampha and even Jamie XX — who’d just released his ‘In Colour’ album — were playing his music, which was now mainlining at 130bpm. “Benji B might play the odd bit on Radio 1 now and again too”, he says. “He’d get a beat and just play it once maybe … but that aside, it was hard to get other people, the key gatekeepers, onside.” It was a reality that made cktrl wary of releasing anything — “you could have the hardest riddims, but without that network, those key ‘cooler’ people playing it, it felt pointless putting my beats out” — and even friends’ record labels didn’t feel invested enough in his output. “It was knock back after knock back in the end”, he admits, “and I was so fed up of it.”

In response came ‘INDi’ in 2016. “I was tired and I just wanted to show off my range and what I could do really”, says cktrl, “kinda like ‘I’ll show you’ sorta thing. In hindsight, ‘girl’ was the first track on the tape which was really uptempo and then after that it just slid … the tracklist is bare funny looking back. It was the first record I felt like it looked like I was a guy though … it looked like I was about it, people on instagram had to respect me, you know (laughs). I’m so glad I did it, because it helped me go through what I needed to go through to understand what I wanted to say as an artist. Before that, I think people had seen me make a grime beat, a funky beat, a house beat … whatever, people had seen me do it … but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was how I was sharing it. What I needed to grasp was how I was gonna earn a place at the table and stay long enough to have a conversation, and I think ‘INDi’ was the first part in me understanding that process.”

“..I think people had seen me make a grime beat, a funky beat, a house beat … whatever, people had seen me do it … but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was how I was sharing it. What I needed to grasp was how I was gonna earn a place at the table and stay long enough to have a conversation”

The next 18 months would see cktrl try and follow up the success of ‘INDi’, but a series of stumbling blocks — from management to PR — made it difficult to signpost a way forward. He did form new label, Songs 4 Girls, in 2017, as a response to the appropriation of RnB in electronic music however, which he continues to push to this day. “It was about bringing the music back to us and giving black women in particular a platform”, he explains. “London always had Shola Ama, Sadie Ama, Kele Le Roc and even Katie Pearl, but I don’t think their music was ever given the respect it deserved. I wanted to help give black women their voices back essentially, and still do.”

“It was a hard period though, man”, he continues, “but I’m glad I’ve had to go through these things and times of uncertainty to get to where I am now. I feel like it was essential. I’ll be honest with you, everything I’m doing now is just like it was before, too. Since doing music full time over the last few years, my days kick off with a bit of exercise and then I’ll come back and jump on my decks, maybe play my instruments or start building a beat … maybe I’ll start making a beat and love the drums but there’s no chords and I’ll realise that’s actually fine by itself. I do a lot of sampling from outside my bedroom window, so maybe I’ll patch in some of those and then think, ‘yeah I can play some sax on this’, set up the mic and hit record. Basically, there’s a lot going on and that’s always how my mind works when it comes to making music.”

It’s a theme that underpin’s cktrl’s new six-track EP, ‘Robyn’, which releases via Touching Bass on November 27 — his first new material in nearly two years. Described as an ‘exploration of contemporary classical from the black perspective’, it also includes collaborations with friends and close affiliates Duval Timothy, Coby Sey and Purple Ferdinand. “Duval’s like a renaissance man”, laughs cktrl. “I’ll go over to his, buck him and find out he’s just made a scarf from some exquisite fabric. Or like, I remember one time, I walked in and he’d just made his own shoes … I remember another time having a cup of tea out of some mugs he’d literally just finished making … that’s just what he’s like. When it came to this record, I’d just go over to his … which is basically like an art studio … and he had an upright piano, two mics and like a dictaphone thing plugged into it. We just sat there and played for hours, me on clarinet, him on keys. A lot of the stuff on the new EP is chops from those sessions.”

“What’s mad about it is that it’s actually classical music, it’s not jazz”, continues cktrl. “It’s literally improvised, freestyle classical music. I guess I’ve got to a stage where I’m now comfortable enough in my ability and what I want to say to make a record like that. Growing up, even Independence, the record shop … freedom fam! Nobody’s beats in there sounded the same, from Alias to Terror Danjah to Treble Clef with ‘Ghetto Kyote’ … what drums sound like the drums on ‘Ghetto Kyote’?”

“It’s literally improvised, freestyle classical music. I guess I’ve got to a stage where I’m now comfortable enough in my ability and what I want to say to make a record like that.”

What does he want his new, freer music to represent, I wondered? “I guess I want to be the vanguard for a new generation of musicians”, he says firmly. “The reason 2020 feels perfect is because everything has had to reset, so I feel like the next 10 years could be mine just because of that. When you think about the greats yeah, whether it be Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Curits Mayfield, Marvin Gaye … they could do lot of things that musicians now can’t do. Curtis wrote his own film scores, like ‘Super Fly’ … look at ‘The Wiz’ with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. That’s the kinda energy man wants to be on, but within a 2020 context and I hope this ‘robyn’ EP can open a few doors like that. Growing up, learning my instruments, there was no chance of me reciting a piece that was written by someone who looks like me. If I decide to get the sheet music for this project printed and even made available in syllabuses … like hopefully some young black kids can be like ‘rah I follow that guy on Instagram and now I’m studying his pieces for my test’. That would be a ting.”

“I think a lot of people make music without having an awareness of where they sit within a wider context”, cktrl continues. “I’m very aware of my position and hopefully I can affect positive change. You’re obviously a man and I’m sure you see what’s written about men and toxic masculinity online, so even just me writing this vulnerable as fuck piece of music breaks those barriers down as well. There’s vulnerability in there, honesty, sincerity. It’s about being able to connect with people properly, not on just a superficial level. There’s no lyrics because it’s purely instrumental, but the responses I’ve had to it have touched on break-ups, mental health, loved ones … I put it together to make people feel through what I’ve experienced, but I’m not telling them how to feel.”

“You’re obviously a man and I’m sure you see what’s written about men and toxic masculinity online, so even just me writing this vulnerable as fuck piece of music breaks those barriers down as well. There’s vulnerability in there, honesty, sincerity. It’s about being able to connect with people properly, not on just a superficial level.”

The vulnerability that plays out on ‘Robyn’ has also benefited from cktrl’s recent interactions with fashion and a number of friends who work in the industry, reaffirming his realisation that its not just his music that can move people, but how he presents it. “I think that’s why the visuals and everything around this project feel so upscaled”, cktrl explains, “I’ve got so many friends who work in fashion and design .. like whoever Beyonce uses, I can work with if I need to.” True to form, it was friend and director Jenn Nkiru who secured cktrl a cameo in the official video to ‘Brown Skin Girl’ — a track lifted from Beyonce’s groundbreaking ‘Black Is King’ visual album, which released this summer. “Jenn’s from Peckham, do you know what I’m saying?”, he says proudly. “People are out here. We’re out here! All of the days when things used to be popping with Boiler Room and whatever, like it felt so much more difficult then than it does now. I felt like my own music was being gentrified against me and I didn’t fit in, I couldn’t live in that world. Thankfully, I had my instruments and my range, which has helped me discover this whole new side to music. Without that, I think I’d have given up and be working in some job that I hate right now.”

cktrl’s road map for the future feels fully believable too. There’s focus and determination now, qualities he admits haven’t always been his strong point. He sounds buoyant, inspired, happy. “I think the plan is to get a series of singles together with vocalists … but heavy hitters”, he says. “I’m learning that by showing that I’m a musician first, artists are more inclined to gravitate towards me, where as before I was networking and trying to get my name out without fully letting onto what I could do. It’s hard to get people to put respect on your name without that, without being yourself.”

“When your back’s up against the wall, you always look inward”, he continues. “Whether that’s family, health … the things that are important. I guess, looking back at this year, it’s a time that’s allowed me to take a break from social media and to focus on things that are important to me, without pressure. Everyone has ideas but the way you go about executing them is very important, and I think it’s reminded a lot of people about the first time they did something, the first time they made music or wrote a song. Nothing else used to matter, you know. This year has given that feeling back to me … and also a sense of self worth. Modern life is full of doubt, especially in London, and I think that’s partly why I went to Jamaica. Over there, you can be the brokest guy and walk around like you run the ting. Confidence just isn’t an issue, it’s an energy that puts things into context. Money and status equals power in the West but there it doesn’t matter, at least externally… and it was important to remind myself of that.”

You can pre-order cktrl’s new EP, ‘Robyn’, via Bandcamp here:

https://cktrl.bandcamp.com/

You can also download a special cktrl edit of Aaliyah’s ‘are you that somebody?’ via Bandcamp too — all proceeds go to IMKAAN, the only UK-based women’s organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and minoritised women and girls:

https://cktrl.bandcamp.com/track/somebody-cover

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