— Flava D —

On grime, garage, MySpace, Eskibeat, Butterz, tqd, Hospital Records, travel, the nature of balance and finding freedom on the West Coast.

(All photos submitted by Flava D)

It’s 8pm in London on Friday night and Flava D, now based in Los Angeles, is just starting her day. “Honestly before this year, I’d be lucky if I was in the same place for more than three weeks”, she says with a smile. Headset on and coffee freshly brewed, she appears calm, relaxed, content. “Whilst it’s been a difficult year and challenging in ways, it’s also been a year for me to grow on a personal level”, she explains, “in ways that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to if things weren’t at a standstill. I’ve just been wrapped up in Flava D for so long and this year, I thought to myself, I’m gonna do some Danielle stuff … everything from therapy to DIY projects and learning new things outside of music. My health, too. I can definitely walk away from this year and say I’ve gained a lot.”

As one of the UK’s big, breakout DJs of the last five years, Flava D’s stock rose exponentially in the space of a few months off the back of her first Butterz record (‘Hold On’ / ‘Home’) in 2013, and later the success of tqd — the UKG super-group she formed alongside previous Polymer interviewee, DJ Q, and Royal-T. It was a rise she enjoyed and admittedly “just got on with”, but only now, with the world effectively ground to a halt, has it all finally started to sink in. “I’ve definitely found myself slowing down”, she says, reflecting on her journey to this point. “Even up to February, I was still booked in for a US tour, which I had to cancel mid-February because cases were rising near where I was in California. It was weird to be presented with like, a month off … or so I thought at that point … but also kind of nice. The more months that went by though, I did start to get a bit sick of it and I didn’t have much motivation for music. I just wasn’t feeling inspired, I wasn’t in those club environments and I guess it was the first time I had any space to think in a long time.”

Flava’s story began in Bournemouth, a large coastal town on the South West coast of England, where she was born and grew up, although she also had family ties in Birmingham — “I was constantly back-and-forth between the two”, she recalls. Although not from a musical family by definition, Flava remembers always wanting to make music. Inspired by her auntie, who was a massive fan of early ‘00s garage — “not all the commercial stuff … more Steve Gurley, early MJ Cole and Zed Bias” — and her own love of hip-hop, she was obsessed from her early teens. “I loved Cypress Hill, J Dilla, early Nas … proper golden era stuff”, she explains, “and dancehall too, that was always around for me growing up. When I was about 13, my mum bought me my first decent-sized keyboard from Argos, you know the type with everything built in? That’s when I really started getting familiar with keys and then later on, when I was 16, I actually worked in a record shop. My boss at the time was making music and he gave me a copy of Ableton, so I took it home and taught myself how to use it in my bedroom.”

“I had a terrible attendance record at school though”, she continues, “…like, 42% attendance or something like that. My mum ended up getting a letter about being taken to court and all sorts. I was a bit of an introvert, I liked to just do technical, geeky stuff, which I suppose worked in my favour when I got my hands on Ableton. This was all around the time of Channel U, which in Bournemouth, was my gateway into grime, because I couldn’t pick-up Rinse FM or anything like that, and there were no pirate stations anywhere. I remember watching Channel U and just being like, ‘what is this?’. It wasn’t like MTV or KISS, it was raw and gritty … I just fell in love with it.”

Some of Flava’s earliest productions loosely functioned around first hip-hop and later, dance music — “my mum loved trance!” — but it was her grime beats that’d ultimately make her name. Galvanised by the instrumentals she was hearing on Channel U, she locked herself away in her room and wrote as much grime as she could — all entirely self-taught. But how did a 16 year-old kid from Bournemouth grab the attention of London’s big-name MCs? “MySpace”, she says without hesitation. “It was all MySpace. I mean Bebo was popping for a little bit, but most of it came down to messaging as many MCs as I could.The first established MC to vocal any of my tunes was Fumin’, who was my gateway into being co-signed. I think people heard it and were asking him about the beat, so he’d put people onto me like that. From there, it just grew … to the point where people were asking me for beats.”

“The first established MC to vocal any of my tunes was Fumin’, who was my gateway into being co-signed.”

“I remember one day, I took the plunge and thought I’d message Wiley on MySpace, never thinking he’d actually reply”, Flava continues, “…and he did! He just replied with his mobile number … you know Wiley, he’s super blunt, but I couldn’t believe it was real. There was me, 16 years old and faced with the prospect of ringing Wiley to talk about my music. I did it though and that’s how that relationship was formed. He ended up buying beats off me for £100 each. He wouldn’t even vocal all of them but he’d still pay me, which was great. That was basically how my name really started to grow, to the point even Ghetts called me off an unknown number one day asking me to send him beats. I was actually in a pub in Kent with my friend at like 4pm and I get the call. The minute I hung up, I put my beer down, ran home and exported all the new ideas that I had and sent them over to him. We ended up making a tune called ‘Shutdown’ or something like that and from there, I worked with him and also Stutta quite a lot. It was weird to have all these people start coming to me, but I guess that’s how word spreads. My goal at that time was always to get a play on Logan Sama’s KISS FM show as well and I remember I got that first play, which was of a Stutta tune I’d produced in that period. Back then, if you got that play, you were certified … you’d made it.”

“…Ghetts called me off an unknown number one day asking me to send him beats. I was actually in a pub in Kent with my friend at like 4pm and I get the call. The minute I hung up, I put my beer down, ran home and exported all the new ideas that I had and sent them over to him.”

Having saved the majority of the money she’d earned through her early beats — “once I had over a grand, that was it” — Flava looked to move closer to London. “I ended up moving to Maidstone in Kent, where my best friend lived”, she says, “and I stayed there for about two years. I was basically just a beat-making machine back then. I had a part-time job at Co-op but for a long time, I was also on job seeker’s allowance too. I was spending £40 a week on food, you know … frozen pizzas and all that crap … and just making music constantly. That was my life. It was basically part-time job, Ableton, get drunk in between. Kent was great at first because it did feel like an upgrade on Bournemouth but after a while I remember thinking, ‘this is dead, I still need to be in London’.”

“I was spending £40 a week on food, you know … frozen pizzas and all that crap … and just making music constantly. That was my life. It was basically part-time job, Ableton, get drunk in between.”

Flava ended up first moving in with her partner in Eltham, in the South East of the city, before later moving to Lewisham where she’d spend the next five years. “The relationship might not have worked out, but I’m so glad I chose to stay in London”, she reflects, “it was the best thing I ever did.” It was in Lewisham that she first connected with Elijah & Skilliam — label heads at defining 2010s grime label, Butterz — at the back end of 2012, too. Although strongly affiliated to Wiley’s Eskibeat label in her early days — “He always called me the First Lady of Eskibeat” — Butterz were the first label to really open Flava’s eyes to how far her music could travel. “They found me”, she recalls. “The story was that they were in the car on the way to a gig somewhere and heard DJ EZ play ‘Hold On’ on KISS. At that point, they just knew me for making grime so I think they were a bit taken aback by it. They found it refreshing that I was versatile in what I was making. Elijah ended up emailing me and asked to sign it and to be honest, I was quite unfamiliar with Butterz at the time … I was just locked away in my own world. I agreed on the spot and I just remember thinking I’d never been approached by anyone that professional before. They had all their shit together, they were polite, everything looked great. We actually met properly for the first at the DJ EZ Boiler Room with Butterz and Matt Jam Lamont in December that year. It was a massive, massive night for me because I played on CDJs for the first time. Thankfully my set isn’t online because it was terrible and I didn’t really know what I was walking into, I was clanging so much, but it was so important for me to be there and just go for it. I remember speaking to Mark (Royal-T) afterwards and him saying to me, ‘just so you know, we’re like a family and we welcome you and we’re gonna look after you’. I remember thinking it was really nice to have that validation, that reassurance you know? And it’s true I mean, looking back now it’s far more than just a professional relationship, it really is like family. I look at Elijah and Skilliam as my older brothers and as a label, we all have each other’s backs.”

“I remember speaking to Mark (Royal-T) afterwards and him saying to me, ‘just so you know, we’re like a family and we welcome you and we’re gonna look after you’. I remember thinking it was really nice to have that validation, that reassurance you know?”

Flava’s debut record proper, ‘Hold On / Home’, released on Butterz in March the following year (2013), signposting a new direction for both herself and the label — UKG had arrived. It would form the catalyst for a slew of records and collaborations, including ‘On My Mind’ with Royal-T, the blistering ‘In The Dance’ EP for Champion’s Formula Records imprint, ‘PS’ with DJ Q and 2015 anthology, ‘More Love’ — a sumptuous 12-track collection of tracks that cemented her status as flag bearer for a new school of UKG music. “It was definitely a great time for me”, Flava reflects. “I remember I also started to take over the Butterz show on Rinse FM quite a bit then too and I was basically learning to DJ live on air as I went … it was proper in-at-the-deep-end stuff. There was so much great music and content around then as well and Disclosure were around at mainstream level so everything felt exciting. It felt like people were really tapping into garage again.”

In the background, Flava was honing her own craft too. Under the tutelage of Elijah, her music was growing with every release. “He taught me to look at my ideas differently and see the bigger picture”, she explains. “He’d be like, ‘how can you make this beat bigger? What about the outro? Maybe you could bring this or that up a notch’. He taught me to challenge myself and my ideas … it’s always about taking things to the next level, you know. The relationship between myself and Butterz has been great for us both in that sense, because I think we’ve learned from each other. Before ‘Hold On / Home’, I’d actually been making garage stuff for a good year or so, mostly just to send to DJ Q to hopefully play on his 1Xtra show and I treated it more as a hobby really. I never had any ambitions for any of it to be signed, but everything worked out in the end.”

“Learning to DJ then was also massive for me because I’d been asked by Cameo and DJ Q to come in to record guest mixes on the BBC pretty early on”, Flava continues. “… but obviously I couldn’t because I didn’t really know how to mix properly. I didn’t have enough money to buy decks or anything like that because in those times, I was just making enough to get by. That Boiler Room was actually the first night I caved in and thought I’m just gonna wing it. I had my friend’s friend on mic, hosting … we didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing, she was awful … I would pay good money to get hold of that recording, honestly. I ended up getting my first paid gig through the boys at a Butterz night at Cable in Vauxhall the following year, where I played the warm-up set. It was actually a crazy transition for me to suddenly be tasked with learning to DJ in front of so many people, as opposed to in my bedroom how I’d learned to do everything else, but I got there. It probably took a few years to find myself as a DJ and find my style to be honest. I was very stiff and wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone in the crowd when I started out but over time, I got more and more confident behind the decks.”

“That Boiler Room was actually the first night I caved in and thought I’m just gonna wing it. I had my friend’s friend on mic, hosting … we didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing, she was awful … I would pay good money to get hold of that recording, honestly.”

Her exploits as a DJ also opened Flava’s eyes to the wider world. Aside from travelling between Bournemouth and Birmingham as a kid, and later across London as an adult, travel had always felt like an alien concept. “I didn’t even have a passport”, she recalls. “I’d never flown on a plane, I’d never really been anywhere before I started to DJ.” Her first gig? “Israel”, she says with a smile, “Tel Aviv in Israel in 2013. Elijah came with me but I was incredibly nervous for that, he was basically holding my hand on the plane and making sure I was alright. I mean, I’d never even been to Spain or anything so Israel was a pretty crazy first experience overseas. I loved it though, it was exciting. To me, the chance to be paid to go and DJ abroad is still just an amazing feeling. It definitely sparked a fire in me and made me feel more motivated to do more of it. After that first booking came in, they didn’t stop. I remember going to Russia shortly afterwards and then basically all over Europe. I felt like a seasoned DJ before long and it was good to get to know how crowds would react to what I was playing in different places.”

Despite an increasingly exhaustive tour schedule, Flava had started to write with Royal-T and DJ Q more and more following a series of collaborations across 2014 and 2015. It was a relationship that Elijah & Skilliam saw the potential in right from the off, although tqd — the next defining chapter in Flava D’s career — came together as a project on the off chance. Dropping in on a studio session that Q and Royal-T were sharing at Red Bull Studios in London, Flava’s influence helped spawn the debut tqd single, ‘Day & Night’ — a record born out of that very session. “They were probably about 70% there on finishing the track when I jumped in”, she recalls, “and I liked what they’d got down so I just asked if I could add some melody and yeah, it kinda went from there. They wrote most of the ‘Day’ mix and then on the vinyl, there’s also a ‘Night’ mix which I wrote the majority of. I got the stems and added my touch and it just felt really natural. We were friends, we had the same interests, we made similar music … it just made sense to work together like that. Off the back of that first release, I remember our agent, Max, phoning us all one day telling us we had an offer and asked if we all wanted to play back-to-back. We were like, ‘alright, it’ll be a laugh’ and went for it. After we actually played that night, we realised that we all had really good chemistry behind the decks and that we all brought something different to the table. All of a sudden, we had offers flying in left and right, which inspired the album and the whole tour campaign. It just went off.”

The tqd project saw Flava D, Royal-T and DJ Q play some of the UK and Europe’s biggest festivals including Creamfields, Eastern Electrics, Parklife, We Are FSTVL, Boomtown, Snowboxx and Outlook, as well as Ibiza, bringing UKG back to dance floors across Europe. It also spawned their critically-acclaimed debut album, ‘ukg’, released on Butterz in March 2017, which many feel formed the blueprint for the resurgent UKG sounds breathing new life into UK dance music right now. “When I look back, especially with life being so different at the moment, it feels crazy to think that all happened”, says Flava. “At the time, we were just like fucking machines, always ready for the next step. It was wild really because we had so much going on, so much travelling and so many gigs but after a while, I think we all just needed a break.”

In and amongst the chaos of the tqd years, Flava reminds me of just how much all three artists were still doing individually; whether that be Flava’s 13-week XOYO residency, recording Fabriclive 88 or her work on ‘Soul Shake’ with My Nu Leng — one of 2016’s defining underground dance records — Royal-T releasing music with Defected or Q building his own DJ Q Music label from the ground-up. “We achieved so much in such a short space of time but I think at the back of our minds, we all still wanted to explore other avenues”, Flava acknowledges. “It’s good to look back at it now and feel like it was a special period of time, rather than still be throwing it in people’s faces.”

The culmination of the tqd project saw Flava make new transatlantic connections with AC Slater’s influential Night Bass label, with whom she released 2018 EP ‘Spicy Noodles’, and later Hospital Records — one of the UK’s legendary drum & bass labels, formed in 1996. Never bound by genre — “I’ve always made whatever feels natural, not what’s popular” — Flava found herself energised by working in these new spaces. “The US has always interested me”, she explains, “it was never my ultimate goal to make it out here but the market is huge and I’ve always seen that as important. I’ve been going back-and-forth between the UK and the US since 2015 and each time I come back, I see the popularity shift, to the point where people come up to me and reach over the booth, tapping on their phones with requests for me to play proper heads-y garage records. It’s amazing to see. The link-up with Night Bass was a way for me to build on that, because they’re an important label out there, and it’s sick to see people getting so invested in the music coming out of the UK.”

“I’ve been going back-and-forth between the UK and the US since 2015 and each time I come back, I see the popularity shift, to the point where people come up to me and reach over the booth, tapping on their phones with requests for me to play proper, heads-y garage records.”

Now based in Los Angeles, where she’s ‘semi-lived’ with her partner since 2018 — “I go where the gigs are generally … if I’m playing in the UK, I’m based in London, if I get a few weeks off, I’m in LA” — Flava has continued to expand and experiment, particularly amidst a COVID backdrop this year. But more importantly, she’s also started to find time for herself. “I’m a hot weather girl”, she says with a smirk, “so the sun, the palm trees, I love it. I mean I love London but the grey and the cold, I just can’t deal with it all year round. There’s also a lot more for me as a person here in terms of my health and wellbeing, and just living life generally. I love travel now too and there are so many options for me to do that here because America’s so huge.”

“I’m not sure if you saw, but I bought a camper van last year”, she continues. “It’s not something I’d ever really thought about or aspired to buy, I just liked the freedom of it. It was October, November time and I’d seen someone travelling in a camper van on Instagram and it had all the amenities on board … I was like ‘how are they powering all their electrics?’, and of course it was all solar powered which I thought was insane. I just kept thinking about being able to travel wherever I want if I bought myself a motorhome like that. I love to make music out in the wilderness too … anywhere very peaceful or quiet … so it just felt like the best idea. I ended up buying a second hand camper from Craigslist, which is like America’s version of Gumtree, and yeah, just on a personal level it’s been so beneficial. If I want to get some space or head out to Joshua Tree or wherever, just knowing I can is so freeing. Even during COVID while everything’s been closed, I’ve always had the option to get in the van and drive somewhere if I want to. Having that freedom is amazing.”

Freedom feels like the key word underpinning her decision to release with Hospital Records, too. A fan of drum & bass since she was a teenager, the release of her debut Hospital EP, ‘Desert Lights’, earlier this year may have caught many off guard — even label co-founder, London Elektricity. “It must have been the start of 2018 and I was playing at a big multi-genre festival. In the shuttle bus from my accommodation to the festival site was London Elektricity and at this point, I knew of him but didn’t know the face. He’s talking to the driver and I gathered that he was a DJ and then he introduced himself as Tony from Hospital Records. As luck would have it, I’d just started to dabble with making some drum & bass. I’m not usually the kind of person that’d be like ‘hey, can I send you some tunes’, but I felt like I should probably ask if I could fire some ideas over to him. He was like, ‘absolutely!’ … we swapped emails and that was that. It’d always been my dream to have a Hospital release actually, just because they’re a real benchmark label. A couple of weeks later, I sent him a folder of everything I’d been working on and I think he was pleasantly surprised because obviously I’m well known for my bass-heavy, aggressive garage or bassline or whatever. He was probably expecting some jump-up but what I sent was very melodic, liquid drum & bass and he seemed refreshed by it. That’s how my debut EP came about in the end and yeah, it’s just been a really organic relationship and even now, I’m still learning how to make drum & bass. It’s a completely different way of producing, you know. If you can produce it to a high level then you’re really good because honestly, it’s so, so technical.”

As we begin to wind down our conversation, Flava is shocked when I let her know we’ve been speaking for almost an hour. “No way”, she says quizzically … “really?”. Although still learning to separate herself from her music and make time where she can, she admits she feels more grounded and content than ever before in Los Angeles. “My partner actually helps me a lot with balance”, she continues, “because for a long time I was a workaholic. It took me a good four years to learn that sometimes ‘no’ can be the best answer, you don’t have to agree to every opportunity that comes your way. I realised that you have to make time to do things for you, things that are good for your soul and the person you are away from music. At the beginning of this year, I had a few panicky moments thinking about what I was gonna do while the world came to a halt, especially because I wasn’t used to having so much time in one place. My partner just said, ‘look, you’re fine, you’ve done great things already and whatever happens, just appreciate your accomplishments … you don’t always need to be thinking about the next move’. It’s definitely something I’m trying to work on.”

“My partner just said, ‘look, you’re fine, you’ve done great things already and whatever happens, just appreciate your accomplishments … you don’t always need to be thinking about the next move’.”

“The time off has also changed the type of music I’m writing a bit too”, she continues. “I’m not making tracks with the end goal of them bumping in the club or whatever because I’m not in that environment right now and nobody else is either. I’ve been making a lot more experimental stuff, just music that feels more expressive. This year has just been about appreciating music for me… in whatever context. I’ve been picking up new skills too, so like, I’ve always wanted to learn the guitar and I bought myself an electric guitar. Over the last three months, I’ve been watching YouTube videos and I’m nothing special, but I’ve played my guitar on a few tracks and it actually feels really good to have that human element involved. Everything I make now, you’re probably gonna hear a bit of guitar in there! I think having my van has also changed what I’ve listened to as well, because a lot of it is now more melodic, kinda driving music … stuff you can listen to and appreciate. I’ve delved into that a bit too. I’ve realised my music doesn’t always have to be for people in the club. Sometimes it might be for people just starting their days.”

“Over the last three months, I’ve been watching YouTube videos and I’m nothing special, but I’ve played my guitar on a few tracks recently and it actually feels really good to have that human element involved. Everything I make now, you’re probably gonna hear a bit of guitar in there!”

With ‘Berlin’ — a special white label drop comprised of four classic grime beats, never before made available — released via Bandcamp only last week too and talk of a debut album in the offing, it seems as though 2020, although testing in part, has been kind to Flava D. “I’ve really been able to invest in myself this year. I’ve looked after my health, my mental health, I’ve made things … I built a bike from scratch, I even built the PC I’m speaking to you on”, she says. “… but I think the biggest thing I’ve learned this year is balance. I never really understood how important it is to be grateful for what I have and to not punish myself for slowing down at times. I know it sounds cliché, but health really is wealth.”

Flava D’s ‘Berlin’ EP is available now via Bandcamp:

https://flavadubs.bandcamp.com/album/berlin-ep

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