— Dance System —

On Brighton, Daft Punk, Fine Art, L-Vis 1990, Night Slugs, embracing highs, embracing lows, ’12 Thousand Nights’, finding comfort in isolation and putting the fun back into house music.

(All photos submitted by Dance System)

It’s Thursday evening and Dance System’s blockbuster 20-track mixtape, ‘Where’s The Party At?’, has just been shared with the world in its entirety for the first time. James Connolly, formerly known as L-Vis 1990 but now better known as Dance System, is a heady mix of anxious, pensive and excited, all rolled into one; “I just hope people vibe with it”, he says earnestly. 

He’s speaking to me from his manager’s kitchen, after moving back to the UK temporarily, mainly to oversee the release of the mixtape and the launch of his new label, System Records. He’s spent much of 2020 living in Rome however, a move he decided to make in order to spend more time with his girlfriend. “I thought I might as well head out there while she was finishing her Masters degree”, Connolly explains. “We’d just got around to setting up our life in our new flat … I mean we’d literally been moved in for a week … when we got news of coronavirus and the lockdown. I had a little studio setup in the lounge, she was working away on her dissertation, both of us really focused. I’ve found myself actually thriving during it all to be honest. I mean, I come from an art school background, my time at university was spent in a bedroom just making music, making art, making visuals. It’s almost like I’ve been training my whole life for a time like this.”

“It’s almost like I’ve been training my whole life for a time like this.”

“To be honest, it probably benefited me to be away from home because everything felt new, it’s not my home town, nothing was familiar”, he continues, when I ask what life was like during lockdown in Rome. “It was kinda like an extended holiday in a way. We had a little balcony and we’d go out every day to get supplies … some decent mozzarella, some tomatoes and shit. Eating well and drinking well, pasta for lunch, wine and beer with dinner, stuff like that.”

Connolly was born a million miles away from the bustling streets of Rome in a small, sleepy village called Henfield, about 12 miles northwest of Brighton. He grew up with a tight group of friends, including fellow producers Mumdance and High Rankin, all of whom were interested in music from as far back as he can remember. They’d swap records and tape packs and DJ around the village as much as they could as teenagers, before branching out and heading into Brighton once they had passed their driving tests. “From the age of 17, we were going into Brighton together, raving and going to all the drum & bass nights”, Connolly recalls. “It wasn’t long before that inspired us to start throwing our own party, which we called Fall Out. Jack (Mumdance) couldn’t actually DJ back then, so he was the promoter, and I would play garage-y, breaks-y stuff and Will (High Rankin) would play drum & bass.”

“Dance music was everywhere growing up”, he continues, “and big dance tunes were everywhere in the charts. Being close to Brighton as well, it meant that Fat Boy Slim was obviously a massive influence. I remember on school trips, we’d all be listening to Fat Boy Slim or people would put on happy hardcore tapes … Hixxy, Pilgrim, Sly and all that lot. When we’d get back from school, we’d all just go to each other’s houses, smoke weed and listen to music. I got my first decks when I was about 14, long before I was going out raving. I was buying a lot of records … Armand Van Helden, Cassius … lots of the funky sort of shit I’m channelling now as Dance System. I got into all that through my mate’s brother, who was a DJ and had a pair of 1210s. He gave me Daft Punk’s Essential Mix … well both of them actually … I think it was the New Year’s Eve one they did and the first one that they recorded in ’97. I was hooked from then. I got a mixer for Christmas that year and all I had was my mini HIFI system with a MiniDisc player and my dad’s belt-drive Technics. I was basically playing between those two and a mixer. I saved up where I could … a cheeky hundred quid here or there … and had to do a paper round to buy records. Well, records and cigarettes.”

Connolly got the majority of his early records from Brighton, where he recalls HMV and Virgin having a decent selection of music, often pricing up records at three for £10. “When I was 15, 16, that’s all I did”, he says. “I was getting all of this good shit, I don’t think I even realised at the time. Once I got to college, I started going record shopping every Friday lunchtime … I’d get like five records for £25 or something like that. And that was me for quite a while … until I started going out and realising I could spend my money on other things, too.”

He took to Brighton’s clubbing scene like a duck to water. It felt natural, it felt good, it was, for want of a better phrase, Connolly’s happy place. “It was amazing back then, a totally buzzing music town”, he recalls. “You could go to a hip hop night, a breaks night … there were drum & bass raves, house nights. In my peak time, I’d go out probably four or five times a week … I was really into it. Tuesday night would be a funk and disco night with cheap drinks, Wednesday night would be Minimelt, which was a little drum & bass night, we’d do our Fall Out party on Thursday and then Friday and Saturday … I mean, whatever was going on, massive drum & bass parties, breaks nights, anything. I just absolutely loved going to clubs and dancing. I was never a snob about it either because people just weren’t back then. It was a really fun time, you know.”

From here, Connolly traded the blurry-eyed hedonism of England’s south coast for the quieter, more docile climes of Newport, where he studied Fine Art and Contemporary Media at the University of South Wales. “You know that Sex Education show on Netflix?”, he asks with a chuckle, “That was filmed there, that was where I studied.” Tucked away in halls of residence — “that was where I did my most of my training for this COVID lockdown” — Connolly immersed himself in his art, music and visuals. His course allowed him access to a swell of equipment from the university’s art studios too, which he soon found himself using to put on his own small-scale parties. “I’d have like five projectors on the walls and stuff like that”, he explains, “and my dad would even drive up from Brighton to come and DJ sometimes.” What was the scene in Newport like, I wondered. “Fucking shit”, Connolly replies, without hesitation. “That’s why I got my head down and ended up getting a First. Everyone else goes to university to have fun and party, but to be fair, I was all partied out by the time I got there. I think I’d hit my peak, I needed to stop. In that sense, it gave me a bit of time to chill but also focus.”

“Everyone else goes to university to have fun and party, but to be fair, I was all partied out by the time I got there. I think I’d hit my peak, I needed to stop.”

After graduating, it was music videos that Connolly saw his future in. He’d become a diligent editor and, compounded by his creative flair and love of music, was intent on making a dent in the industry somehow — but it’d take time. After moving back to Brighton, he worked in a local shop and made ends meet by playing parties and promoting, quickly falling back into the life he’d left behind just three years earlier. “It was the era of nu rave and all that electro shit”, he recalls, “…probably 2007, 2008. I started promoting a new party called So Loud once I got back and we did the first one at Concorde 2 with Kavinsky, Night Moves, Capser C and a bunch of other people. I was playing as part of a duo with a guy called Gary who promoted another party called It Came From The Sea … and we were called Savoir Faire (laughs). We were just playing electro and lots of stuff like that. After that first party, I booked Drop The Lime from New York to play the second one and we ended up hanging out a bit. At that point, it felt like everyone was doing the same parties and all of them would list the type of music they’d be playing on the flyers … CSS, Klaxons and shit like that … and I was just done with it. I ended up booking this 15K rig and sticking it in The Volks, which is a tiny, tiny venue, and we painted a banner that said ‘Nu Rave R.I.P’ in blood red … and threw the craziest party ever. I think that was a bit of a turning point for me, because it brought me back to my bass roots. Maybe it was a starting point for L-Vis 1990 as the proto Night Slugs founder too.”

“I ended up booking this 15K rig and sticking it in The Volks, which is a tiny, tiny venue, and we painted a banner that said ‘Nu Rave R.I.P’ in blood red … and threw the craziest party ever.”

Where did the name L-Vis 1990 come from, I ask. “After getting back to Brighton, I was doing a lot of record shopping, mainly for old stuff and ‘80s bits especially. I actually threw a little party called Bootfair Music Club in the upstairs back room of a pub called The Prince Albert in Brighton for a while. Basically, me and my friends used to go out and get smashed at weekends and end up at the local boot fair on a Sunday … just finding records and random stuff … and we’d always go to The Prince Albert for a pint afterwards. One day, I just thought, ‘why don’t we do a party on a Sunday afternoon, where we can just come and play the shit we found at the boot fair?’. Anyone was free to come along and play their tunes, I’d do a raffle and shit. Anyway, I was digging at this boot fair and one afternoon, I remember finding this record by a group called Sigue Sigue Sputnik. They had a track called ‘20th Century Boy’, which also featured a German Remix and in the intro to the track, there’s this like, deep movie voice that describes the ultimate band and how they’re gonna change the future by revisiting the past. That band were called L-Vis 1990.”

Armed with his new moniker, Connolly was now starting to make connections away from Brighton online. By this point, MySpace was already an influential discovery tool and blogs were at the peak of their influence. Palms Out Sounds, a blog Connolly describes as particularly influential, used to run weekly production slots called ‘Remix Sundays’ and ‘Sampled Wednesdays’, allowing users to submit tracks and samples for consideration. It was through submitting tracks to the former that he was first able to connect with fellow DJ, producer and Night Slugs founder, Bok Bok. “One of my tunes ended up making the Remix Sundays thing”, he recalls. “I think Bok Bok searched me out after hearing it and he hit me up on MySpace. The tune was called ‘Change The Game’, which actually made it to my first EP … and yeah, from there we just started chatting. I ended up booking him and Manara to come and DJ at the next So Loud party I put on in Brighton, alongside Mathhead from Trouble & Bass, and we hit it off. I actually threw my first ever party in London shortly afterwards on a Thursday night with this guy, Claws, who was from Toronto I think … I dunno where he is now. I booked Bok and Manara for the same night too and it was at this small venue on Shoreditch High Street, pretty close to Jaguar Shoes, I just can’t remember what it was called. The party itself was shit … I mean I was a kid from Brighton thinking I could just go up to London and promote a party, so it was empty, but it was a good time for me and Bok to be able to chat again. From that point on, we started sending tunes back and forth.”

It was around this time that Connolly got his first break in music video too, landing a job working as a runner for a production company based in London. Now living in the same city as Bok Bok, he found himself sharing ideas about music almost constantly. “We never thought about a label at first”, he explains. “… we just wanted to put on a party. Alex (Bok Bok) came up with the idea of doing something at The Redstar in Camberwell, so we had to come up with a name. Back then, niche and bassline were the dominant sounds playing out in London underground parties and I remember Paleface was releasing loads of tracks with ’Slugs’ in the title … tracks like ‘Screwface Slugs’ and a few others that were similar. The slug was the reference to the bassline, so I think we had a few back-and-forth conversations about different words we could stick in front of slugs and eventually we landed on Night Slugs. And then we threw that first party in Camberwell.”

With his first Night Slugs party under his belt, Connolly would then go onto release his debut record as L-Vis 1990 later that year, releasing a four-track, self-titled EP — which featured ’Change The Game’ of Palms Out Sounds fame — via Seb Chew, Ben Palmer and Sasha Nixon’s then secret label project, Trés Cool. “It was funny how it came about because I was working at this music video production company”, he explains, “and I kept going into the head of music videos like, ‘I make this music, do you wanna check it out?’. She said that she was setting up this new label called Trés Cool with Seb and Ben through Polydor, and was basically like, yeah let’s do an EP. I still ended up making music videos for them too, though. I made one for Erol Alkan and Boys Noize as Dance Area, which is probably still on YouTube somewhere. Erol gave me £200 (laughs) and it was all after effects, so I spent about two months on it solidly. He took me out to buy my first monitor speakers as well … he didn’t pay for them, I bought them myself … but he did buy me a greasy spoon breakfast afterwards. He was my hero, so I was so happy, it didn’t matter.”

“I made a music video for Erol Alkan and Boys Noize as Dance Area, which is probably still on YouTube somewhere. Erol gave me £200 (laughs) and it was all after effects, so I spent about two months on it solidly. He took me out to buy my first monitor speakers as well … he didn’t pay for them, I bought them myself … but he did buy me a greasy spoon breakfast afterwards.”

At the turn of 2009, Connolly was starting to take his production work more seriously and alongside Bok Bok, the pair were discovering the music of producers like Kingdom, Egyptrixx and Mosca — slowly but surely, the building blocks of the first Night Slugs community were falling into place. “It felt like we had a crew, but we didn’t really have a home”, he notes. “I was releasing on labels like Mad Decent and Sound Pellegrino, which were both great labels, but neither felt like my natural home at that point. The conversation me and Alex had was basically about setting up a label so we could release Egyptrixx and ’Square One’ by Mosca, because we felt we needed to put their music out. We weren’t strictly thinking about our own selves at that point, it was more about the community and giving the music a home.”

This community continued to expand via both Connolly and Bok Bok’s online forum digging. They were relentless in searching out new music and new producers, digesting and mulling over every megabyte of every file they downloaded. “There were two forums that kind of summed up our influences”, he explains. “There was the Low B forum, which was more US-based, a lot of Baltimore club, Jersey club … Diplo and all those guys were in there a lot. And then there was dubstep forum. The proto Night Slugs label model comes from us living in both of those worlds and trying to join the dots between the two. Nobody else was doing that.”

These transatlantic links would later be solidified via Night Slugs’ partnerships with Kingdom and Prince William’s Fade To Mind and MikeQ’s Qween Beat, relationships that saw UK and US sounds and aesthetics cross-pollinate in ways never conceived before, especially via the medium of dance music. Such was their impact, Night Slugs were quickly tipped off as one the UK’s most influential dance labels, even after only a handful of records. “We knew we had something special”, acknowledges Connolly, “but we didn’t realise how much of an impact we’d make.”

Club Constructions — another ingenious Night Slugs play — would follow in 2012 by way of Connolly’s ‘Club Constructions Vol.1’ EP, originally written as a standalone record to capture his own vision for a strand of saturated, hi-intensity club music. Such was its impact, other Club Constructions volumes from Slugs affiliates like Helix and Jam City soon followed, before Connolly and Bok Bok made the decision to launch the Club Constructions Community — complete with its own manifesto — in 2014. “We kinda made the new techno”, says Connolly. “I mean, it hadn’t really been done before. The music had an edge to it, but it was still like techno-y and raw. It was just our sound, our community.” The series inspired countless new school club producers, labels and DJs and helped usher in the next generation of Slugs’ affiliates and fans, including the likes of Neana, Akito and later, TSVI and Wallwork’s Nervous Horizon imprint. 

“The Club Constructions dynamic came about in response to my debut album, ‘Neon Dreams’, which came out on PMR in 2011”, Connolly clarifies. “I was a little bit burnt by the whole process if I’m honest. I put a lot of myself and my heart into that record and it didn’t connect the way I’d hoped or the way I’d been led to believe it would. I just wish there’d been some honest conversations about it at the time but I guess it led me needing to take things back and write something totally different, so it was out of that disappointment that my Club Constructions EP was born.”

That said, Connolly admits the process of writing his debut album wasn’t all bad. He was able to fly to New York to work with Nick Hook, mixed the record in Damon Albarn’s studio and shot music videos with his mates in Las Vegas. “It felt like I was living a dream at the time”, he says, “and looking back, I’m proud of that record and I achieved everything I wanted to. I think maybe in the context of time, it wasn’t the best year for it to come out. It was the era of SBTRKT and everyone was into future garage and then I came along with this shiny, pop-house record. Two years, along come Disclosure on the same label, but it’s all part of the journey. I guess until that point, my career had always been on an upward trajectory, so ‘Neon Dreams’ was my first lesson about peaks and troughs in this industry. It taught me how to learn to deal with those, you know.”

“I guess until that point, my career had always been on an upward trajectory, so ‘Neon Dreams’ was my first lesson about peaks and troughs in this industry.”

“I mean, I went into quite a bit of a depression afterwards”, Connolly continues, opening up. “Now I feel like I can deal with this shit more but just thinking about it, I was only 26, 27 when I wrote that album … I mean it’s so young, I was so young. To have all of that pressure, it was a lot. But from that, I went back into the studio and decided to write music that didn’t put any of my heart or my emotions on the line. I got super into Dance Mania at that point and also buying gear. I bought a Sequential Drumtraks drum machine, an ENSONIQ DP4 After Effects unit and a Roland Juno and just made a load of fucking crazy tools. And with that, Club Constructions was born.”

It was in the Club Constructions tracklist that Connolly also believes the first Dance System seeds were planted, too. The rough elasticity of tracks like ‘Video Drone’ and ‘Workout’ felt emphatic and shocking, but in the best possible sense. Perhaps there was something to be said for swapping out richness and emotion for raw, hi-impact, totally unapologetic tracks. Maybe the joy was in making people move all along? It’s a question that’s spurred on Connolly’s Dance System project to occupy the space it does today, breathing new life into what he perceives to be a stagnant house and techno scene. “I actually woke up one morning, looked on Discogs and thought, ‘wait, how in the history of dance music has nobody ever called themselves Dance System?’. I knew I had to differentiate between L-Vis 1990 and this other stuff I was making because I didn’t want to confuse people, especially after releases like ‘Ballads’. It felt like a natural decision.”

2014’s ‘L-Vis 1990 Presents Dance System’ EP on Clone Jack For Daze formed the first Dance System release proper, before 2015’s ‘System Preferences’ on Ultramajic saw his new moniker standalone on a record for the first time — but then came a near four-year break. How come, I wondered? “I always thought making house music was the easiest path”, concedes Connolly, “…the path of least resistance for me anyway. I almost felt like I was cheating because it felt too easy and that’s why there’s a tune on ‘System Preferences’ called ‘Safe Mode’, you know … it’s just always been my safe place. It was hard for me dropping these singular house EPs out of nowhere to build up a DJ career though. I guess it just didn’t feel right for me at the time.”

By this point, Connolly had moved to New York and was working on production for myriad artists from both sides of the Atlantic, including breakout star, Lafawndah. He worked on her debut album, ‘Ancestor Boy’, alongside ADR and Nick Weiss from Teengirl Fantasy, and was becoming an increasingly adept hand at vocal production. While it may have felt a natural step to take as a producer, particularly given Night Slugs’ well established links with Fade To Mind, Connolly’s work suddenly felt a far cry from the shockwaves of Club Constructions. It played out most viscerally on ’12 Thousand Nights’, an 11-track vocal mixtape he released as L-Vis 1990 in 2017. Featuring everyone from Flohio to Gaika to Mista Silva, it was Connolly’s NYC opus, an ode to how the city had reshaped his outlook and refined his skills. “That was all about me coming back from New York and returning to the UK with this idea of writing something”, he explains. “I wanted to do production work and I was intent on working with a whole bunch of people to put something big together, you know. I’ve always loved that whole producer thing, I love working with other artists and vocalists, just getting in the studio to try and create some magic … that’s what it’s all about. I guess that’s what ’12 Thousand Nights’ was … it was me saying, ‘I’m a producer, let’s work’. But I realised it’s hard trying to make it as a producer. Unless you’re in that gang, especially in R&B and rap worlds, it’s really difficult to breakthrough.”

It was a breakthrough Connolly admittedly never quite made with ’12 Thousand Nights’, which in itself heralded a reboot of his Dance System project — albeit almost by accident. “I was doing quite a lot of sampling around that time and also on another L-Vis project that’s yet to come out”, he concedes, “but I’d never sampled anything as Dance System before, I’d just made everything using hardware. I’d never let myself do it with house music for some reason but I quickly realised how much fun it was. From the first Dance System session where I started to use samples, I wrote ‘Please’, which ended up coming out on Edible last year. I said to myself I didn’t wanna come back into things writing house music at 125bpm, so I wrote ‘Please’ at 140, which I ended up slowing down to 132 for Edible. I was basically making all of my house at 140 and nobody was really taking it seriously, but I didn’t care.”

“I think I probably needed a year to embed Dance System properly”, Connolly continues. “The first EP on Monkeytown last year was more on a ghetto house vibe as I think people would maybe expect, where as the Edible release was a bit different, a bit more disco-y, and then the EP on Warehouse Music was different again. I guess I was trying to ease people in, where as with the mixtape, I just decided to go all out. It’s in the brackets of house and techno I guess, but I just call it dance music. It’s me showing people what I can do. I mean, there’s an 143bpm disco house tune with Heavee on there. It all just feels super exciting.”

Out now on Connolly’s freshly-minted System Records, the ’Where’s The Party At?’ tracklist reads like a who’s who of dance music. There are nods to greats past, present and future — from A-Trak and Hudson Mohawke to India Jordan — as well as the transatlantic links first brokered by Night Slugs all those years ago, with Teklife’s Heavee and New Jersey’s UNIIQU3 prominent features. But none of it feels like a reach. Instead, it feels as though Connolly’s mission as Dance System has found willing accomplices. “I don’t care about the house and techno world”, he says bluntly. “I don’t give a fuck about any of that shit. I care about the music but the contemporary house and techno world? It’s so boring. Everyone plays it so safe, everyone plays the same records, the lineups are all the same everywhere … it just feels grey to me, you know.”

“I feel like it’s my calling at the moment to shake things up a little bit”, he continues. “All the snobbery … it just does my head in. That wasn’t what dance music was like for me as a kid you know, dance music used to be for everyone. It was for Dave down the pub, it was for accountants … it was for everyone, it was universal. At the moment, it just feels segregated, only house and techno DJs can play house and techno, you know? And now you’ve got techno DJs getting plaudits for playing a disco tune or a drum and bass record in the middle of their sets? It’s just so dead, man. What I wanted to do with this mixtape was just remove that snobbery from things completely. Everyone on this record, we’re all music people from different worlds and we’re all nerdy about the stuff we love and we all care about what we stand for. I think we all share that same energy.”

“All the snobbery … it just does my head in. That wasn’t what dance music was like for me as a kid you know, dance music used to be for everyone. It was for Dave down the pub, it was for accountants … it was for everyone, it was universal.”

What’s more remarkable about ‘Where’s The Party At?’ Is that the overwhelming majority of it was written remotely, bar UNIIQU3 collaboration, ‘Get Up On It!’, which was recorded during a studio session the pair shared in London 18 months ago. It’s a testament to Connolly’s sureness of vision that it all sounds so utterly lawless but viably cohesive as one body of work at the same time, too. “I’d be crazy if I said I didn’t want people to love it”, he explains, “but if I don’t get plaudits in house and techno circles, if I don’t get booked to play Panorama Bar ever again … I don’t give a fuck. All I want to do is to reach as many people as possible with music that they can enjoy.”

“..if I don’t get plaudits in house and techno circles, if I don’t get booked to play Panorama Bar ever again … I don’t give a fuck.”

“I guess I feel like I’ve reached the stage where I can make whatever I want now because I feel comfortable as a producer”, Connolly continues. “I’m comfortable in myself and my ideas and I think, when you get to your mid 30s, you’re able to let go of a lot of shit that used to bug you. The anxieties, worrying about what people are gonna think, like it doesn’t really matter. If you can believe in yourself and be sure of your ideas and your vision, then people will follow.”

“I’m comfortable in myself and my ideas and I think, when you get to your mid 30s, you’re able to let go of a lot of shit that used to bug you. The anxieties, worrying about what people are gonna think, like it doesn’t really matter.”

And follow they will. “Did you see that Gigi D’Agostino edit I did?”, he interjects as we start to wind down. “I just did that for fun, I used to play it out my apartment window in Rome during lockdown, just to put some good energy out there. We sent it to Annie Mac on the off chance and she loved it, she started playing it on the radio straight away. I think she called it ‘medicine for the nation’ and I don’t quote that egotistically, it’s just nice that she picked up on how I’ve been trying to make people happy with dance music.”

Revitalised and now laser focused, for as long as the Dance System project rumbles on, you can rest assured that Connolly will continue to do just that.

Dance System’s ‘Where’s The Party At?’ is out now on System Records:

http://system.promo/party

— 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

— GRIME & DUBSTEP MONTHLY ™ —

A temporary home for monthly Mixmag Grime & Dubstep reviews while the magazine remains out of print — here are October’s picks.

(Inkke)

Album of the Month: Inkke – ‘Below Freezing’ (FWDK Records)

From the archives

Highlights

1. Blessed

2. Like Silk

3. Shrimp Lover

Glasgow-based producer Inkke has quietly continued to release some of his career-best work over the last few years, following a series of records with Local Action and LuckyMe, as well as his ‘Faded With Da Kittens’ hip-hop tapes. He’s also launched a label, FWDK Records or fwdk, and has been releasing a steady flow of records and self-compiled zines throughout 2020, including ‘Below Freezing’ — a six-track EP / mini-album that spots how vivid and unique his sound remains. Traversing everything from grime to southern rap to the weightless tropes explored by Mumdance & Logos’ Different Circles label (Inkke released ‘Love Song’ through them in 2016), ‘Below Freezing’ is part Boxed-era grime refracted, part lush, wot-do-you-call it electronics, made at a series of different points over the last eight years. Opener ‘Shrimp Lover’ is skeletal and beat-less — a dizzying, square wave joust cut with frosty atmospherics — while brittle percussive loops and clanking hip-hop beats meet trance-y, euphoric bridges on ‘The Sisters’. There’s room for more pensive, hip-hop hybrids on the tracklist too (‘Atom Tan’), as well as the fractious ‘Like Silk’, which again — along with a slew of deft, water-y samples — zeroes back in on the square wave grime sounds Inkke’s long made his calling card. ‘Peekapop’ booms, think gun-toting rap beats upped to footwork tempo in places, before gorgeous, melody-soaked final cut ‘Blessed’ — originally released as a free download by LuckyMe in 2013 — signs off the collection. Proper. 8/10

(Grandmixxer)

Tune of the Month: Grandmixxer – ‘Ice Cold’ (Bandcamp)

An Epic!

Grandmixxer’s uncompromising, singular grime sound has formed the heartbeat of his SLSA (South London Space Agency) label and DJ persona over the last three years but on ‘Ice Cold’ — the latest in a series of instrumental drops via Bandcamp — he takes a brief excursion to cooler climes. Clocking in at over eight minutes long, it builds a la grand orchestra, with every piece joining at key sections; first, the strings, then barbed, contorted square wave bass and finally, a flurry of eski clicks and punches. It plays out like an epic, his own quiet masterpiece — and it deserves plenty of fanfare. 8/10

Commodo – ‘Stakeout’ EP (Black Acre)

Beat maker, storyteller, director?

’Stakeout’ follows Commodo’s ‘Loan Shark’ EP, released on Black Acre back in May, to land as part two of his latest epic, treading bold new ground as a producer. While his beats have always triggered shockwaves based on their sheer impact alone, these are two records that have felt entirely different — Commodo is now telling stories with his music. On ’Stakeout’, he continues to weave a tale that darts between freewheeling, crime-ridden hedonism and looming unease. The title-track for example, opens with crackles and shudders — it’s pensive, creaking and aloof — while the rugged, near metronomic percussion on ’Transit’ mirrors a tickling clock. Final track ‘Crooked Law’, with its bolshy, Batman-style lurch and filmic crackle, seems to suggest that in this instance, crime does pay. When’s the movie? 9/10

Slay ft. Trigga, Coco, Local & Snowy – ‘Dance Dun’ Remix (1Forty)

Mega!

Leeds’ 1Forty label top another stellar year with a big-name remix of one of their defining tracks — ‘Dance Dun’, originally produced by Zed Bias. With the beat now flipped by Chimpo, Manchester’s Slay is again joined by fellow 0161 stalwart Trigga, as well as Sheffield’s Coco, Nottingham’s Snowy and Cardiff’s Local on a heavyweight new mix aimed at uniting every corner of the contemporary grime sound. In and amongst the rapid-fire verses and different accents, there’s a great track here, compounded by memorable, reload-friendly hooks — lets hope it can do over dances the way it deserves to in 2021. 8/10

Cluekid – ‘Electric Avenue / Horizontal’ (Infernal Sounds)

Cop on sight, thank us later

Infernal Sounds continue an impeccable recent run with more grade A damage from Cluekid, who returns to the label with for the first time since 2018’s ‘Mistik World’ EP. A-side ‘Electric Avenue’ is pure dynamite; warm, wobbly, full-blooded.There’s an understated charm about the sheer dubby-ness of it all and the way it meanders in-and-out of breakdowns, the way it scratches an itch for late ‘00s dubstep without ever sounding or feeling tired. On the flip, ‘Horizontal’ sings from the same hymn book, only with added wobble, this time blaring and totally front-and-centre, spiked by short, parade-like trumpet bursts in the background. Emphatically good. 9/10

East Man & Walton – ‘Screw Face / Don’t Speak’ (Hi-Tek Sounds)

Functional club weapons

Skeletal, hoods-up grime sketches from East Man and Walton, who collaborate for the second time here on Hi Tek Sounds. A-side ‘Screw Face’ is raw and rugged, the pair looping a grizzly 8-bar square-wave pattern without a single flash of synth or melody — it’ll make one hell of a DJ tool — while B-side ‘Don’t Speak’ draws for the hydraulics. Fuller and a lot darker in composition, the track’s wheezing, industrial rhythm and oddball clatter is palpably heady — and the sub doesn’t half pack a punch either. 7/10

Bayalien Sound System – ‘Smokestacks’ EP (We Got This)

More than we bargained for!

More surprise, experimental gold from Bayalien Sound System, this time courtesy of stateside label, We Got This. The oddball lunch and crunching beats of opener ‘Smokestacks’ — pinned together by hazy vocal interludes — are a curveball entry point and a million miles from previous EPs, while the contorted, off-kilter whirl of ‘SHAKE’ is also a mind-boggler. Final jam ‘Beautiful Basslines’ is the wildest of the lot, manically flitting between tempos, rhythms and off-piste FX palettes at what feels like light speed. Does it work? Somehow! 7/10

Repulsion – ‘Uh Oh’ EP (Next Level Dubstep)

Not for the faint hearted

Rip-roaring, mechanised club ammo from Oklahoma City’s Repulsion, who returns to Next Level with some of the gnarliest dubstep we’ve heard in a minute. Opener ‘What It Is’ forms a face-melting introduction to the Repulsion armoury, lasting barely 40 seconds before exploding into life like a box of fireworks, while the EP’s title-track melds together warp-speed hydraulics with relentless, rolling bass pressure and drums that seem to nod, in places, toward UK funky. Final jam ‘You Failed’ returns to type, seeing out the EP with more steely, grinding pressure, only this time deeper, darker and meaner.  6/10

Slowie – ‘Warmonger’ (Dee Oh 7)

Bristol, stand up!

Bristol MC Slowie christens his new imprint, Dee Oh 7, with ‘Warmonger’ — a barnstorming new single cut for the rave. Produced by Mr Skandal & Ambler Productions, his flow is breathless from the off, his bars full of character — listen out for a nod to ‘crates of cider’ — and his mic-style long-honed in the clubs of his home city. It’s the first of many new releases planned on Dee Oh 7, including a full-length Slowie album in 2021. Watch this space! 7/10 

Shaytaan – ‘Spirit Loops Vol. 1’ (1000Doors)

Instant win

1000Doors show no sign of slowing down in 2020, despite only launching back in April. They’ve released five records since, including standout EPs from Handsome Boys and Kamran (fka Moleskin), with Shaytaan’s ‘Spirt Loops Vol. 1’ the next in line to take a chisel to instrumental grime. Reimagining and repositioning OG grime sounds and patterns within the dream-sequence context of old RPG soundtracks and video game aesthetics, ‘Spirit Loops Vol. 1’ is a total rush from start to finish. Opener ‘Twin Wield Dual Style’ sounds like a grimy — cutthroat claps and all — ode to the Sonic loading screen on Megadrive, while the jittery percussion and saccharine-fuelled buzz of ’Savannah Plains’ is pinball genius. Third track ‘Magma Hills’ is a delight too, particularly the melodies — they sound like they’ve been lifted from a 90s anime cut-scene — while the dwindling, square wave shuffle, mournful strings and far-off pans of final cut ‘Debug BGM’ form a fitting, thoughtful closer. Don’t sleep! 9/10

Monitor

White Peach celebrate a landmark 50 records next month, with label head and owner Zha debuting on the label for the first time ever (!) … his four-track ‘Snails’ EP crowns another standout year for White Peach — which also functions as a cutting house and distribution service — with records from Mr.K, Phossa, Opus and Rygby feeding into one of the UK’s richest new-school discographies … look out for a limited, white-label press from Bengal Sound & Jook, which features two sought after weapons (‘Bandit’ / DKWTTY’) — be quick before they’re all gone! … Brighton’s Southpoint label also released volume 5 of their ‘Integrate’ compilation series, detailing fresh new tracks from city up-and-comers like Cortese and El Laurie … and looking ahead, keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for killer records from Kercha (DNO Records), Radikal Guru (Moonshine Recordings) and Ziek (Silent Motion) over the next few weeks.

(Bengal Sound)

— DJ Q —

On Huddersfield, London, grime, garage, bassline, ‘You Wot!’, 1Xtra, working with Unknown To The Unknow, Local Action and more, tqd and feeling hungrier than ever nearly 20 years deep in the game.

(All photos submitted by DJ Q)

“Can you hear me alright, the line sounds a bit fuzzy”, repeats DJ Q early on Friday evening, phone signal crackling in the foreground, “hello?…hold up, let me drive over to the other side of the car park, the reception here is awful.” Q is speaking to me from his car after taking a break on his drive home to Huddersfield, the town he was born in back in the mid ‘80s and where he still lives to this day. A boundless influence on UK dance music for the best part of 15 years, his story is like a jigsaw — there are so many pieces that make up the bigger picture. From bassline to grime to garage, his impact can be felt everywhere, whether you realise it or not. “That’s it, I can hear you much better”, he says, calling back a couple of minutes later, “..right, I’m ready now.”

Like many DJs faced with the prospect of an uncertain time away from the DJ booth, Q has spent the best part of eight months locked away in the studio working on new music. “I’ve just been trying to hone my craft and get better at what I do”, he says firmly; quite a statement from a producer responsible for writing some of the country’s best and most memorable UKG records over the last 15 years. “Do you know Bassment?”, he asks. “I’m just in there. They used to run events but they’ve got their own building in Huddersfield too … they’ve got DJ rooms and studios, it’s like a proper music hub for the area man, it’s nice.”

It’s from Huddersfield, a large town in the north of England — close in proximity to Leeds and Bradford and slightly further afield, Sheffield and Doncaster — that Q has made his name. Born to parents of Ghanaian, Jamaican and Bajan heritage, his earliest memories of life growing up were all music related. “I just remember listening to music with my parents a lot”, he says warmly. “They were into everything really, a proper mix of stuff … reggae, soul, RnB.” He credits his dad in particular — a member of 80s band, Harlem Gem (Q even makes an appearance at the 11 second mark in the music video below, in which his dad plays guitar) — with being a huge influence on his own musical tastes and interests. “My dad was a musician and still makes music now actually. When I was younger, he was heavily involved in producing in his band as well. He had releases on vinyl and I think he was quite popular in Huddersfield and a bit further afield. Back in the ‘90s, he had a track that went to #1 on the RnB charts, which was quite a big deal at the time. He started taking me to the studio with him too … I remember he’d make a track at home once and he took it to the studio, it was a place in Leeds at the Tetley’s Brewery. I watched him mix it and master it in front of me and I remember hearing it afterwards and it just sounded 10 times better. That process … it just amazed me and it’s stuck with me ever since.”

“I think my dad was the reason why I got into house and garage but without realising”, he continues. “The tracks he was making were like … Soul II Soul influenced but house-y as well. They always stuck with me and I think that’s why I’ve naturally gravitated towards those sounds in my career. You know what it is … the more I’m speaking about it, the more I’m remembering things. When I was younger, my dad always used to buy the videos from Reggae Sunsplash and every time he went out, I remember getting those videos out and just watching them. I was amazed by the whole stage show aspect of music and performing. He’d collect the Greensleeves sampler CDs and vinyl too, so a lot of the Reggae stuff I was hearing on those CDs as well. I’ve actually sampled some of those tracks I was hearing back in the day in some of my own music, purely from having that influence. My mum too, she’s always been a big driving force. She’s always seen that I’ve had some sort of musical talent because anything I’ve wanted to do music-wise, she’s supported me and tried her hardest to accommodate whatever I wanted to do. I remember when I was younger, I wanted to play the saxophone and I don’t know how she managed to scrape the money together to get me one because they were expensive, but she did … and that was a big thing. I played it from when I was eight right the way through to my GCSEs. I actually played saxophone for my practical GCSE Music exam.”

“When I was younger, my dad always used to buy the videos from Reggae Sunsplash and every time he went out, I remember getting those videos out and just watching them. I was amazed by the whole stage show aspect of music and performing.”

It was this musical grounding — compounded by his parents’ love and support — that gave Q a solid base to start exploring from. He quickly learned that he enjoyed the process of selecting music to play too — whenever he was with his friends, he’d always take charge of the stereo. “I remember asking my mum for a stereo with a mic”, he recalls, “so I could get my friends round to mess about and rap over stuff. I’d find myself always being the one to want to choose the music that we were all rapping over, so I guess I’ve been selecting music from early.”

“I got into garage just on the off chance really”, he continues. “I was mainly into hip-hop and RnB but a family friend brought round a Ministry Of Sound CD … I think it was one of the first annual compilations actually. I remember listening to it and thinking, ‘what’s this?’. By the third compilation, I remember tracks like ‘Spin Spin Sugar’ on there … and ‘Sugar Is Sweeter’. He also had the Tuff Jam CDs … the first ‘Underground Frequencies’ one I think it was called, it had an orange label. From hearing that, I got more and more into it. I asked him where he’d get his CDs from and then I used to just head to that record shop, which was called Fourth Wave in Huddersfield, and spend all my money on tape packs, CDs … I’d borrow tape packs even. It progressed to me realising that you’d never really hear the full versions on tape, so if you wanted to hear a full track, you’d need to buy it on vinyl. Before I knew it, I had a record collection before I even had turntables. Luckily, I had one record player that I used balance on top of my stereo to play records … until the needle broke. I remember having to get a piece of cardboard from the tapes and while the record was playing, I’d be putting the cardboard in the grooves so that you could hear the music properly. I remember that led me to just begging my parents for decks. I must have been about 14 and my uncle’s friend was selling a broken pair of turntables and my mum and dad came through for me on my birthday. They were Soundlabs, but the ones that looked like Technics 1210 replicas … I mean they were belt drives, but they were alright.”

“Luckily, I had one record player that I used to balance on top of my stereo to play records … until the needle broke. I remember having to get a piece of cardboard from the tapes and while the record was playing, I’d be putting the cardboard in the grooves so that you could hear the music properly.”

At school, Q became the go-to friend for music — “I’d be the one bringing tapes in for people to borrow” — but enjoyed a mixed time; “I enjoyed it until year 10 and year 11”, he chuckles, “because after that, I was hardly ever there. I was one of the only black boys in my school too and I don’t think many of the teachers knew how to deal with that, so I found myself in trouble quite a lot towards the end. Like, I remember getting suspended for writing my name on a table … just stuff like that. I did love music at school though, obviously I did it for at GCSE. I remember back then, Cubase was in black and white and you could only use it on an Atari.”

It was Cubase that ultimately formed Q’s entry point into production, as well as Reason 1, which he was given a copy of by his uncle, and the first ever version of Fruity Loops. “DJing was my first love, it was my thing … and still is now”, he explains, “but I guess I kind of fell into producing. The problem was, there was only Fourth Wave in Huddersfield and that’s where I got all my tape packs and vinyl from … there were a few others dotted around but that was the main one. When things started to pick up and people started playing parties, it meant that everyone had the same records, so it progressed to me going to other cities to pick up records. I clocked that if I could go to London, where they’d get all the records first, I could bring everything back and be the one that had all the new stuff to play. I’d drive down or mail order sometimes and get everything they were stocking, literally everything, but it got to a point where people started to catch-up and things moved quicker. The only way I could be different and stand out was if I made my own stuff, so I started producing purely to have something new to play in my sets. I think I’ve got a good ear for knowing what people want to hear, so the stuff I was making early on used to go off.”

“I clocked that if I could go to London, where they’d get all the records first, I could bring everything back and be the one that had all the new stuff to play.”

Q recalls making his first piece of music at college when he was 16. His first productions were soulful and full-blooded, new-form UKG that reflected the music he’d grown up listening to and was still absorbing via the tape packs he’d order in from London’s record shops. So where did bassline — a harder, bolshier strain of 4×4 club music that grew enormously popular in cities like Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield during the mid-to-late 00s — come into things? “To me, bassline is garage”, says Q forcefully. “Well that’s what I think anyway, that’s how it was for me. I mean my garage tracks were getting played by bassline DJs at the time, so I was brought into that scene naturally.”

He recalls it wasn’t just clubs in the north that were supporting his music either. “There were a few clubs in London that were playing different, bassline sort of stuff in London”, Q explains. “I remember when I first started making tracks, I’d go down to Purple E3 on Saturday nights. A couple of Rinse DJs used to play there … people like Wesley J … so I’d basically make tracks and take them down with me to give to whoever was DJing at Purple. These were early MSN days as well but I remember having to send a lot of the tracks I was making first by post on CD.” So, what was it like for Q to connect with DJs and producers outside of Huddersfield, I wondered; was it difficult? “I was the kinda guy yeah … you see when you’d get vinyl sleeves with phone numbers printed on the reverse in small print? I used to phone the number, mainly just to see who’d answer, as a fan boy more than anything. I remember there was this Geeneus release on Dump Valve … ah what was it called … it had a green label … I can hum the song but I can’t remember what it was called. ‘Da Journey’, that was it. I remember phoning up the number on the back and guess who answered? Slimzee. I chatted to him for a while and asked how I could get hold of some of the tracks he was playing and he told me about Rhythm Division. He hooked me up with them, so I was able to start ordering all these records direct from there.”

“I remember there was this Geeneus release on Dump Valve … ah what was it called … it had a green label … I can hum the song but I can’t remember what it was called. ‘Da Journey’, that was it. I remember phoning up the number on the back and guess who answered? Slimzee.”

Armed with a new treasure trove of records, Q started to play college parties — “I remember getting paid £15 for my first ever booking” — and slowly, his dream of making music a full-time pursuit began to unfold in front of him. While the club scene in Huddersfield and surrounding towns and cities was tight-knit and difficult to breach in the mid 00s, Q still found himself surrounded by people ready to lend a helping hand, too. “Production wise, S-Tee would always show me a lot of love … he used to make funky with Andy Jay. He worked at a studio in Huddersfield, so he’d let me go down and record mixes and use the studio, so I got accustomed to what it was like to be working in studios quite early. I got onto pirate radio in Huddersfield around that time too, even though it was hard to get into then. I lasted three weeks on a station called … I think it was Passion FM. I’ll never forget this but I’d been on for a few weeks and I got a call about playing a slot on a Friday night … and at the time, the Friday night slot was the one. I went down with about three MCs, but one of the MCs must have leaked where the venue was and about 100 people turned up … it was like a party in there. From then onwards, I was banned from the station.”

To fund his appetite for buying records (and trainers!), Q had also got a job at his local Tesco while he was at college — “…flipping hell, I was on the checkouts for two years!” — leaving shortly before the release of his first ever record in 2004. Released by 2020 Records, ‘Love Like This’ felt like a dream come true. “I’d made it purely to play in my sets, so it was a funny one”, he explains. “I’d been playing it up north but because I was going to down to Purple E3 in London quite a bit, I built a rapport with a few DJs down there … Wesley J and DJ Excel in particular. I sent them the track and they starting playing it and told me it was going down well in Purple, so they asked to release it. I’d actually done a remix of Donna Deep – ‘Loving You’ for them just before ‘Love Like This’ came out, which had my remix on one side and a Delinquent remix on the other. The whole thing felt like a fucking dream, man.”

With his first record now under his belt, Q left college and took himself off to Leeds Metropolitan University to study Music Technology, where he would stay for a year; “it wasn’t like music technology is today”, he says, “it was more to do with recording bands and loads of music theory. The stuff I wanted to do, I was doing at home anyway, so I thought to myself ‘I’m gonna just have to go all out at this music thing’ and decided to leave to focus on that.”

Buoyed by how far his music was starting to travel, Q also acknowledges being ‘lucky’ and in the right place at the right time at numerous points along the way. It was in Leeds for example, that his journey to BBC 1Xtra would start, through a choice meeting between a friend and a producer at the station. “I remember I was on a random night out in Leeds and my friend was in a takeaway”, he recalls. “A woman came up to him in the queue and told him she worked for 1Xtra and she asked if he knew any DJs in the area, because they were looking to branch out. He ended up giving her my number and I remember him telling me on the way home … I just thought he was chatting shit. About a month later, I got a phone call from a producer at 1Xtra who asked if I’d be interested in sending a mix over because they wanted to listen to my stuff. I sent the mix and I didn’t hear anything for a while, before getting a call from one of the station bosses at the time. Imagine this, he said ‘can you come down tomorrow for a pilot, we really like the mix’. You know what I said? I didn’t even know what a pilot was at the time or anything, so I said, ‘ah, do you know what it is? I can’t come down because I can’t afford to get down to London tomorrow, but if anything else comes up another day, let me know’.”

“I didn’t hear anything after that but it was around the same time that Richie ViBE Vee and Dreem Teem were on 1Xtra”, he continues, “and I’d often send my music to them anyway. Richie played a couple of tracks and ended up inviting me down for a guest mix. When I went down to 1Xtra a few months later to meet Richie and record the mix, one of the producers, Rebecca, came into the room and said, ‘are you the guy that passed up on the 1Xtra show?’. I was like, ‘eh?’. She explained what was going on and asked if I’d be able to stay a few days and luckily I had somewhere to crash in London. I ended up meeting the station boss on Saturday, before going out to Purple E3 later that night before having another meeting on the Sunday. My train ticket was only valid on the Sunday so I had to go back that night, but they asked me to come back down again the next day, on the Monday. They paid for my tickets and I headed down again, recorded a pilot show and that was that. I remember I went away to Malia on the Tuesday for a week, but I didn’t have my phone on for most of it. When I got back, I got a call saying that they wanted me to start a show and of course, I took it. For the first two years, it was me one week with Terror Danjah and his Aftershock show the next week on rotation, so it was a show every fortnight, before I got given my own weekly show. I got the train down every week without fail … from 2004 until 2012, so for eight years. It was Friday nights at first, but for the last three years, I had a show every Tuesday. It was crazy, man.”

Q’s time on 1Xtra was huge for UKG. He was the only DJ with a weekly specialist show on national radio playing it regularly, which saw the music start to ripple out across the country, with scenes suddenly springing up in unfamiliar cities. But it wasn’t easy to bed in — far from it. “I was just this new kid for a while”, he recalls. “I remember yeah, I won’t say who it was, but a producer I used to send music to on MSN … I remember lugging all my vinyl down from Huddersfield for Old School week on 1Xtra … and the next day on MSN, he said to me, ‘how can someone so young know about old school garage? 1Xtra need to sort themselves out’. When I joined the station I was 18 but I’d been collecting records since I was 13, so it was a bit weird to get responses like that.”

The 1Xtra gig didn’t open the floodgates in terms of bookings like he’d imagined it might either, although his own productions were starting to find homes on important, sought-after labels. He released two-track 12” ‘Rider / Random’ on JJ Louis’ prolific Southside Recordings imprint in 2005 — “that were really massive for me” — before a slew of Q records on labels like More 2 Da Floor over the next few years heralded the bassline explosion, which was amplified by the chart success of T2’s bassline anthem, ‘Heartbroken’, in 2007. “I remember Nev Wright messaging me back then on RWD Forum”, Q recalls. “He was telling me they’d all been playing my records at Niche and stuff, so I connected with all them lot around that time. The more music I ended up sending to them, the more I did start to see bookings coming in for bassline shows up north. I’d actually played my first release, ‘Love Like This’, in Huddersfield for about two years before it came out, so when people from the town started to see and hear it popping up on bassline CDs, it was a big thing you know. It meant my music was in there, it was in the mix. After that, it felt like everyone in Huddersfield was behind me.”

“I’d actually played my first release, ‘Love Like This’, in Huddersfield for about two years before it came out, so when people from the town started to see and hear it popping up on bassline CDs, it was a big thing you know.”

With his career now really starting to motor, Q’s role as bassline flag-bearer took on a whole new meaning with the release of ’You Wot!’ ft. MC Bonez via Ministry Of Sound in 2008. Mirroring the club impact of ‘Heartbroken’ a year earlier, it was a boisterous, no frills bassline anthem that ran riot in the party islands across Greece and Spain that summer. It also charted inside the UK top 50 on release too, earning Q his first ever charting single, which in turn, led to a flood of remix work for the likes of Katy B, Dizzee Rascal and even Amy Winehouse. “I originally put out the record out on vinyl myself”, Q explains, “but it was everywhere, so much so that Ministry wanted to pick it up because I think at the time, every label wanted the next bassline hit. I was in contact with a lot of labels anyway because I was one of the only DJs at the time playing stuff like that on national radio. Between 2007 and 2009, my show actually became, bar a few records here and there, predominantly bassline … or what people would call bassline anyway. ‘U Wot!’ just defined that period for me.”

It was through his show that the majority of his new industry links and connections were made too. He found himself opened up to a whole new world of next-gen labels, producers and collectives over the following years — none more so than first Toddla T’s now defunct Girls Music label and later, Local Action and DJ Haus’ Unknown To The Unknown. Q cites 2010’s ’The Rinse Out’ EP and 2011’s ‘Dibby Dibby Sound’ on Girls Music as both crucial in ushering in a new period in his career, while 2012’s ‘Brandy & Coke’ with Local Action is now widely considered a modern UKG classic. “I’d actually been playing T Williams’ ‘Heartbeat’ with Terri Walker on 1Xtra for ages, proper battering it”, Q recalls, “and Tom (Lea) had put that out on Local Action the year before I think. I’d always supported their releases so after I made ‘Brandy & Coke’, I sent it to DJs and I think Tom was on my list. The funny thing was, a few months before, Mosca had sent out a promo email but forgot to bcc everyone and cc’d everyone by mistake. For a good three or four months, that email thread just became a place for everyone on the chain to send tracks to each other so I think Tom probably heard it there first. He ended up messaging Elijah (co-head of Butterz) and me and Elijah have been friends for years, so he did the intro for us and Tom said he’d like to put it out. It was a big thing for me back then and still is now to be honest, working with Tom. He knows his shit, dun he?”

The reception to ‘Brandy & Coke’ opened Q’s eyes to how far his own music was travelling in different circles, especially via a label that treated his music with respect and honesty — suddenly they weren’t just tunes to play in his sets, but records people could take home and digest and be moved by. It laid the foundations for a partnership that has continued ever since, with Local Action putting out a further 10 DJ Q records over the last eight years, including his landmark 2014 debut album, ‘Ineffable’. “It never started off as an album, if I’m honest”, Q reflects. “It started off as just singles and then it just progressed into an album over time. We had the vocal tracks and built around those until we had enough tracks to call it an album. It was a lot of fun putting it together and working with Tom … I mean like I said, he knows his shit. He’ll come up with ideas or just say things in conversation and I’m always like, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’.” The reception to ‘Ineffable’ reinforced the scope of the pair’s work together too; it was heralded as a garage album ‘trembling with joy and possibility’ by Pitchfork and swooned over by critics, fans and broadcasters alike. Looking back, you could also argue it laid the blueprint for UKG’s recent club revival, too.

There was also his work with Unknown To The Unknown. “Ah Rupert (DJ Haus) needs his flowers, man”, Q says without hesitation. “They’re a great label and the records he put out in 2012, 2013 times were straight bassline, which was really important for me. That relationship came out of me playing bits on 1Xtra …a lot of their stuff was so different to what was around. One of the first records I picked up on was ‘B Leave’ by Dubbel Dutch but even before then, I was a fan of Hot City Bass, who Rupert was a part of. I downloaded one of their tracks as a free download from XLR8R and started playing it in my own sets with garage stuff and it worked. Rupert added me to his mailing list after that and he’d send me records, including the Dubbel Dutch track, which I ended up remixing for him alongside TS7 shortly after. I’ve always had a great relationship with Rupert and the label since.” The two got on so well that they also formed Trumpet & Badman shortly after the release of Q’s ‘All Junglist’ EP on Unknown To The Unknown in 2012. Together, their formidable DJ/production partnership saw them release a trio of scorching 4×4 white label records via Hot Haus — sister label to Unknown To The Unknown — over the next three years, in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively.

If his contributions to bassline, garage and 4×4 weren’t enough, it’s at this point in our conversation that Q briefly interjects and talk turns to grime. “I was actually making grime when I first starting releasing you know”, he points out, “the record on Southside, JJ Louis’ label, was basically four grime tracks when you look at it. Do you remember N.A.S.T.Y Crew’s first album? I had a track on there. I’m trying to think of all the grime stuff I’ve done … later on I did the JME thing on Tropical, which was huge for me because I always rinsed the first ‘Tropical’ CD. I’ve done a few tracks with Frisco … there’s a video on YouTube actually, ‘What We Do’. The Jammz track as well, ‘Who’s That Girl’. Remember the True Tiger CDs … ‘Eye Of The Tiger’? I had a track called ‘Going Back’ that I produced for Big Seac on there and that was the first proper grime tune I had on CD thinking about it, in probably 2005? Yeah, 2005.”

“Do you remember N.A.S.T.Y Crew’s first album? I had a track on there.”

In and amongst all of this, Q also formed Q Recordings in 2012 — a label to release music from both himself and other artists — and later, DJ Q Music in 2017, solely for his own material. Between the two imprints, he’s released 25 of his own records, including full-length albums ‘All Night’ (2018) and ‘All Night 2’ (2019), in less than eight years — a move he saw as a natural step to take. “The idea was just to be able to put music out regularly, purely for people to listen to. It’s not about thinking too much, more about making tracks available and letting people have them.” With so much going on, has the hunger remained, I wondered. “When I make music, I never make it with the aim of releasing it. I make it because I enjoy it, so the hunger is always there, yeah.”

One more piece of the DJ Q jigsaw first showed itself, again by chance, in 2015. tqd — UKG’s answer to the Beatles — saw Q link up with fellow producers Royal-T and Flava D, both of whom were very much seen as new-school UKG figureheads in their own right, following standout solo and joint releases on Butterz, Formula Records and Rinse. “Again, tqd was never intended to be a thing”, explains Q. “It all started when Elijah had a few days booked in at Red Bull Studios in London and me and Elijah speak all the time. We’d been chatting on iChat and whatever and he was still playing my ‘Woooo’ Remix a lot in his sets, as well as a few of my bassline tracks. I was also supporting Flava D on the radio … I had done since her early Eskibeat grime stuff actually … and I remember showing Elijah Flava’s beats. He liked them but it was actually her garage tracks that he was really into, which he first heard after tuning into one of EZ’s radio shows, and I think that made him want to start working with her. I always found it funny because I was sending him her grime tracks for ages thinking he’d be into them, but it was actually her garage stuff he wanted to put out.”

“Myself and Flava had actually collaborated on Local Action … that ‘PS’ track … and played a few b2b sets by this point”, he continues, “so Elijah invited me down to the studio at Red Bull. It was me and Royal-T in there first and then Flava came in later on. She heard ‘Day & Night’, which she really liked, so we sent her the parts and we ended up with two decent versions of the track, as well as a load of other ideas we’d started as a three. Elijah suggested we put it up on Soundcloud to see what people thought and rather then putting our individual artist names up, we each put a letter forward … and it turns out that tqd looked the best in that order.”

Their debut record, ‘Day & Night’, was released via Butterz in April 2015 to an influx of frenzied responses from fans and DJs alike. “It was actually Tom Shorterz in Birmingham who was onto us really early”, Q explains. “He’s a very forward-thinking promoter … I mean he was booking me in Birmingham in 2012 because I think he could see what was to come, how bassline, grime and garage were fitting together. He was the first to enquire about booking us together as tqd and I remember we played our first ever show in December 2015. I’ll never forget that because I went straight to Birmingham from Dubai to play the set and it was really fun. That was it man, it snowballed from there.”

tqd bookings were soon flying in from all angles, rapidly increasing in size and scale with every passing week, while fans’ appetite for new music saw the trio spend much of 2016 working tirelessly on fresh material. From Warehouse Project to Annie Mac’s AMP all-dayers to Sonar, Outlook, Creamfields and nationwide tours, the rise and rise of tqd was extraordinary — they were the UK’s new tour de force in dance music. To cement their legacy, the trio released their debut album — simply titled ‘ukg’ — via Butterz in March 2017, which was critically-acclaimed from the jump. Across 10 tracks, they managed to signpost garage’s future without ever losing sight of its past — note ‘A Letter To EZ’ for example, a track that paid homage to EZ’s legacy while also playing on Wiley’s infamous ‘Letter 2 Dizzee’ on 2007 album, ‘Playtime Is Over’. “We were actually watching EZ playing after us in Blackpool one time and while he was mixing, we said we should write a track called ‘A Letter To EZ’ … if you listen to the track, I chopped the vocals the way EZ would press the cue button!”, says Q laughing. These deft, intelligent touches, matched by the sheer colour and energy of their productions, made it one of 2017’s most coveted LPs. As Clash put it, “ukg was never going to be anything less than authentic garage in the hands of the gods.”

“We were actually watching EZ playing after us in Blackpool one time and while he was mixing, we said we should write a track called ‘A Letter To EZ’ … if you listen to the track, I chopped the vocals the way EZ would press the cue button!”

“We probably ended up playing every festival going in that period”, Q says, “as well as every club show. It was crazy. What we actually did in that space of time … I mean there wasn’t any garage around that sounded like that at the time. I really think it was the catalyst for a lot of the garage stuff that’s coming back now and we don’t always get the credit for that.”

The crowning tqd live moment would come via Bassfest, a blockbuster all-dayer first held at the Bowlers Exhibition Centre in Manchester in the summer of 2017. It was initially planned as a one-off event that Q and promoter friend Chris Hogg dreamt up after Q had been featured in Channel 4’s Music Nation documentary, ‘It’s Bass Up North’, in late 2014. tqd headlined, with now iconic social media clips of them looking out from a stage to a sea of fans etched long in the memory. “We just felt we needed to put on a bassline event”, he recalls. “Everyone was on a hype from that, so we knew we had to bring back the old school heads and get everyone together. It was so successful, that we brought it back the next year and it’s continued, but now with more and more new artists.” Now crossing over into Sheffield — its new home is the Don Valley Bowl — Bassfest has grown to become one of the country’s biggest new school dance festivals, with Q still heavily involved with the brand to this day. Does he ever feel tired looking back, I ask. “Nah I feel the same as I did 10 years ago, I’ve just got less hair!”

As our conversation starts to wind down, attention turns to Party Like Us and yet another fruitful partnership that continues to bear fruit. “That was another big thing, linking up with AC Slater”, Q notes. “I was just a fan of his, so I hit him up and it turns out he liked my music as well. I released a track called ‘Big … Rupert (DJ Haus) actually helped me out with that by linking me up with Hypercolour to do promo … and it went out to everyone. Richie Hawtin ended up playing it, which was mad, and AC Slater also got back to me to say he really liked it. From there, I ended up remixing a few Party Like Us releases and then AC Slater put out my ‘Sound Boy Connection’ EP in 2013, which actually had my uncle’s vocals on it. AC started Night Bass not long after and I’ve continued to release tracks with them, mainly through their compilations … there was ‘Bigger Than Jaws’ with Sinden too in I think, 2017? Yeah 2017 … and then in September this year, so a month or so ago, I finally released my first solo EP on Night Bass called ‘Zip Zap’, which features more vocals from my uncle. It’s done quite well actually and what’s nice about all this music is that each record seems to get a different reaction … like, my Night Bass stuff gets totally different feedback to the music I put out with Local Action, from the DJs playing it to the playlists the tracks end up in.”

His latest record, ‘All That I Could / It’s You’ — a silvery, two-track UKG bumper — released only last week and saw him return to Local Action proper for the first time since 2016’s ‘Sonic’. It marks the first of a series of new Local Action releases for Q, who despite being nearly 20 years deep in the game, continues to show no signs of slowing down. “The appetite is still there, most definitely” he says humbly, “..and that’s all it is really, I just love making music for people.” Still grounded by the same principles he adopted as a kid and relentlessly motivated by a pure and undiluted love of music, it feels like for all his achievements to this point, the DJ Q puzzle isn’t quite complete just yet. “I’ve seen DJs online asking about bringing clubs back and wanting to be playing out again”, he concludes, “and I see their point of view, but for me, I’m just enjoying having the time to work on music. Because there are no clubs now, my whole way of making music has changed … I’m not writing music just to get a reaction on the dance floor anymore. I’m approaching things differently and taking my time, learning more about my own music as I go.” DJ Q concept album, anyone? We can only hope.

DJ Q’s ‘All That I Could / It’s You’ is out now on Local Action:

https://djqmusic.bandcamp.com/album/all-that-i-could

Jamz Supernova

On graft, learning on the job, Reprezent Radio, BBC 1Xtra, Future Bounce, A&R, South London and her new puppy, Ché.

(All photos submitted by Jamz Supernova)

Jamz Supernova is entirely self-made. From every DJ booking to every radio show, every club night to every record on her Future Bounce label; all of it stems from years of hard work, belief and perseverance, the majority of it neither seen nor documented.

When COVID-19 first struck in March, Jamz was returning from a trip to Johannesburg, where she’d been working with local female creatives on a trip with the British Council, simultaneously building another network to feed back into the borderless, global ethos that underpins her Future Bounce brand. With the prospect of losing the vast majority of her DJ income on the horizon, the pandemic posed another hurdle — perhaps the biggest of her career so far. “It’s been a weird, weird time in lots of ways, but it’s allowed me to spend my time looking at different projects”, she says assuredly, “and assess what I want and what I’d like to do going forward. It’s been a good time for reflection in that sense and because I’m a busy body, I’ll always fill my time anyway, so it’s been a case of swapping things out and focusing on what I can control. I don’t have any idea when I’ll be out gigging again, so I’m doing what I can.”

Busy body is an understatement. Independently self-taught as a DJ, broadcaster, A&R and even journalist — she recently penned a long-read on the UK’s relationship with South African house music for Bandcamp — her passion for music has been life-long. Born in Walsall just outside of Birmingham to parents of Irish, Jamaican and Cuban heritage, she moved to South London shortly after she was born and has remained ever since, moving between Catford, New Cross Gate, Sydenham and Penge, where she now lives with her partner and puppy, Ché. “He’s made me so happy, he’s given me routine … you can’t be sad around a puppy”, she says, panning the camera round to see Ché staring longingly Jamz’s way. “Just watching him grow over the last few months has been really nice.” 

“My parents met at drama school when they were 17”, she continues as we start to discuss her childhood, “and they split up when I was young and both went onto have other families. I’d spend every other weekend at my dad’s house and my dad became a Jehovah’s Witness shortly after they split, so I was between two very different households. Being at my mum’s … she was very liberal, I could swear, well swear in context … where as my dad was different, I’d have to ask to go to the shop and stuff like that, it was quite bizarre. Both of them were really creative people though. My dad was an actor … he did small stuff in The Bill for a while but it was mostly theatre … and he did that until I was about 10 and traveled quite a bit. My mum has always worked in education as a drama teacher and I guess both of them have always supported me in whatever I’ve chosen to do. You know you hear about some parents putting their insecurities on their children, they didn’t do that at all. They always said I could do anything, be anything … and always enhanced whatever me and my brother were doing and tried to help us be the best we could be.”

“You know you hear about some parents putting their insecurities on their children, they didn’t do that at all. They always said I could do anything, be anything.”

Football was also a big part of Jamz’ teenage life. She’d often play with her older brother, before signing up to play Sunday league. Could she have ever made it as a professional, I wondered. “I played until I was about 16 but I think if I got into a bigger team, I would definitely have continued”, she says with a smile. “I was a defender, a right back actually and I used to think I was really good but never got past any of the trials I went for. I played for a team called Kent Magpies in the Kent league and to be honest, I loved it.”

“Music too was a big part of both sides of my family”, she continues. “It’s just what we did. We played each other music, we swapped CDs … my dad used to be one of the people that would go to WH Smith’s or HMV, buy a CD, come back and tape it, and then take it back. My uncle would always bring CDs over to my mum’s house too and everyone would always have a big system. I’d just sit there and take it all in so I guess music for me, like it didn’t feel like a case of getting into it … it was just always there. It probably makes sense of everything I do now, you know.” 

As for the music she was exposed to, it varied depending on whoever was bringing CDs home. “My dad was more into new jack swing and neo soul, where as my mum was into a lot more 90s stuff … SWV, 702 and stuff like that. When she met my stepdad Will, she also got into a lot more indie music and bands like Oasis, Blur, Catatonia … a lot of Brit pop basically. There was also a big Caribbean influence as well, so there was a lot going on for me musically.”

Inspired by the music of her upbringing, it led Jamz to apply for a course at The BRIT School in Croydon after finishing her GCSEs. “I couldn’t sing or anything like that”, she says, “but I could play piano … well I could only play Alicia Keys but I wasn’t sure I could get in just playing that. I went to the open day with a friend who sang and wanted to apply herself. When I got there, I found out they also offered media as a course so I was like ‘ok, sick, I’m gonna go for this’. I got in and spent my two college years there. It was such an eye-opener because I am an academic person … I gave my GCSEs everything, I had mind-maps all over my room … but I think I was just tired at the end of it all. You put all that work in, you get your results and then what? It didn’t feed me, where as being hands-on at The BRIT School, I could see the work that I was doing, it meant something.”

“I gave my GCSEs everything, I had mind-maps all over my room … but I think I was just tired at the end of it all. You put all that work in, you get your results and then what? It didn’t feed me, where as being hands-on at The BRIT School, I could see the work that I was doing, it meant something.”

“I’d always listened to radio, I used to listen to Dr Fox do the chart show which I’d tape every weekend”, Jamz continues,  “and then I discovered local pirate stations, I always listened to Choice FM in the car … and then I got given a Freeview box, which is where I discovered 1Xtra. I knew from 15, maybe 16, I knew that I wanted to do something in radio so when I got to BRIT School and they had their own radio studio it was like, ‘this is it’. They had a station called BRIT FM and I just threw myself into it and did as much as I could. When I left, I didn’t feel the need to go to university because I’d already done so much. For example, I oversaw this broadcast in Croydon town centre back in 2009 when I was 19 and Katy B was a guest, she performed live for us and I was producing it, sorting the levels, running around and just making sure everything ran smoothly. I remember meeting CJ Beatz there, who was her DJ at the time, and he pulled me aside and said to me, ‘I bet I’m gonna see you at the BBC within a year’. And he was right, I made it within a year.”

Jamz had also landed a job as a teaching assistant at the school her mum taught at to make ends meet — “I’d recommend it to anyone, it’s the perfect job because you can use the holidays to pursue whatever else you want to do” — which afforded her the time to continue her broadcast work, as well as attend events, network and connect. “I remember one time though”, she says laughing into the camera, “I’d been up all night and woke up after a few hours sleep and called my mum like, ‘mum, I don’t think I’m gonna make it in today’ and she was like ‘this is my name you’re ruining, you better get your arse in right now!’.”

During the school holidays, Jamz found herself heading out on as many work experience placements as she could, even earning the chance to attend the Edinburgh Festival via a scheme run by The Guardian. She subsequently applied for a slew of runner jobs and found herself moving between Channel 4, MTV, Freshly Squeezed and a number of other production companies, racking up hours of valuable experience. The holy grail? “During that whole time, I was always applying for the BBC”, she reflects, “but I never got a reply. That was until I’d been a part of this crazy presenting competition that Nokia ran. They were looking for presenters, so the idea was you had to film a short clip of yourself presenting something, send it in and they’d pick out a winner. I got down to the final six, which meant I got to go to Los Angeles, Cannes, Barcelona, Austria to present… these things don’t happen anymore, do you know what I mean? I remember we had to blog our experiences as well, it was all crazy. Off the back of that, I finally got a reply from 1Xtra. When I found out I’d got an interview, I was just coming back from LA as part of this Nokia competition, so I had to ask them if I could come in the following day. I think I just sort of sauntered in thinking I was hot shit because I was gonna make it as a presenter, even though this was work experience for a producer role. I just had this confidence … I don’t know where it came from, but it got me the job and I started a two month placement that summer. When I first got there, they asked me ‘do you want to be on air or in production?’ and I replied ‘on air’. They said to me, ‘right, we’ll see if you still feel the same at the end of your work experience’, so they asked me again and my answer was the same. I actually loved the production work though and I seemed to be quite good at it, so I came back to work as a production assistant once my work experience ended and stayed working behind-the-scenes at 1Xtra for five years.”

“I think I just sort of sauntered in thinking I was hot shit because I was gonna make it as a presenter, even though this was work experience for a producer role. I just had this confidence … I don’t know where it came from, but it got me the job and I started this two month placement that summer.”

Coincidentally, Jamz had also been offered a slot on burgeoning youth station, Reprezent Radio, in the same week she was offered work experience by 1Xtra — an important proving ground for many who have gone onto enjoy broadcasting careers elsewhere, including Scully, Joe Walker, Sherelle and previous Polymer interviewee, Naina. “What I would do was take everything I was learning at 1Xtra and implement it in my own shows on Reprezent”, she explains. “They actually offered me a drive time show and I knew I couldn’t turn it down because I knew I’d be such a better broadcaster by the end of it. The problem was, I still needed to work because I lived on my own, so what I would do was work at 1Xtra from 8am until 4pm, head over to Reprezent to do the drive time show from 5pm until 7pm and then go back to 1Xtra and do another shift, from 8pm until 2am … and do it all over again the next day. I did that for 9 months … I’d even sleep in the toilets at the BBC! But I thought to myself, I’ll never need to work this hard again.”

“..what I would do was work at 1Xtra from 8am until 4pm, head over to Reprezent to do the drive time show from 5pm until 7pm and then go back to 1Xtra and do another shift, from 8pm until 2am … and do it all over again the next day. I did that for 9 months … I’d even sleep in the toilets at the BBC!”

With such a brutal work schedule, time for honing her skills as a selector was limited — when did she have the time to discover new music? “That’s one of the benefits of being at the BBC”, she explains with a smile, “I always had access to this endless catalogue of tunes and DJs were always bringing new music into the building as well. In terms of discovering new music for myself, I mean … that’s my downtime. I love spending time online finding music, so I’d get home and just trawl through Soundcloud and play tracks.”

“I didn’t actually start DJing until I was about 22, 23 I’d say”, Jamz continues, “and I always thought I’d missed my chance because I hadn’t been DJing in my bedroom since I was a teenager. It was stupid really but, as I’m sure Naina would have mentioned, I had a great mentor at Reprezent in Gavin. He’s been a really close, guidance councillor ever since really … he even sold me his decks! They were Pioneer CDJ1000 MK 1’s and the market price back then would have been about £800 and he sold me to them for £400 … and I paid in instalments. Once I got them home, I’d spend every spare evening just practicing as much as I could.”

As a DJ, Jamz was aware that her sets wouldn’t always reflect the Soundcloud-era RnB and down-tempo electronics of her radio shows; “I’ve always thought of my broadcast career and my DJ career as quite separate”, she affirms. Inspired by a deep-rooted love of percussion, Jamz’ DJ sets are often colourful, hi-energy and at times, explosive. “I learned to DJ mixing house music but percussion has always driven me. I actually only learned to DJ RnB and hip-hop stuff three or four years ago because dance music was my passion, it’s what I’d dedicated my time to behind the decks. I don’t know if I had the words for it back then, but I guess what I love to play is electronic music from the black diaspora. I remember when I first discovered Branko’s label, Enchufada, I was like ‘ah, this is so cool, this music feels familiar’ … essentially it was music from the black diaspora, but merged with a European influence.”

During her time juggling working behind-the-scenes at 1Xtra and hosting the drive time show at Reprezent, Jamz was also submitting demos to various heads of music at the BBC. “I sent demos every year for five years”, she says bullishly, “and I remember crying in the meeting after being told I wasn’t quite good enough the first year I sent a demo in because I really thought I had it, even though I was only 21 and didn’t really have much experience. The second year, they replied with pretty much he same feedback and then in the third year the feedback was that I was getting better, but nobody outside the station really knew who I was. It was probably during that time that I came off drive time at Reprezent and took on a specialist show instead. I really started to knuckle down and focus on what I wanted to play and what I wanted to rep for, so I found myself deep in the Soundcloud era stuff that was blowing up at the time. I’d put my shows straight up on my own Soundcloud within hours of them broadcasting on Reprezent and I did that for two years straight, which saw my Soundcloud really start to grow. In the fourth year of sending in demo applications at 1Xtra, they could see I was starting to build a profile but I still wasn’t quite what they were looking for.”

“By the fifth year, I’d actually started producing Toddla T’s show and was having a really great time”, she continues. “He would just let me do whatever I wanted to do … like it was hip-hop month one time and I suggested we make a mini documentary live on air and he was like ‘yeah, lets do it!’ … we did loads of crazy stuff. He saw how hard I was working too, so he’d bring me in on his shows and I’d start warming up for him, even if we were in Jamaica or whatever and I was out there working as a producer. It meant that by that fifth year, I didn’t really feel like I needed a show because my Soundcloud was popping, I had a show that I loved on Reprezent and I was getting to DJ quite a lot anyway … and of course that’s then when they decided to offer me a show! But I didn’t find out for a while that they’d made that decision. I remember one day, all of a sudden, I was told I was being taken off Toddla’s show and I was distraught, I was really upset. They’d told him but they hadn’t told me that part of the reason why I was being taken off was that they were going to offer me my own show and he couldn’t tell me for ages. I ended up getting a call from the head of the station’s PA about two months later saying he wanted to see me tomorrow and I came off the phone, looked at my boyfriend and said, ‘I’ve got a show’ … I just knew.” The relief and the joy was palpable. “I think I was a bit overwhelmed to be honest”, Jamz reflects, “but I’ll always remember those five years. I know now that I can do anything. I don’t know how long it’ll take but I know I’ll get there eventually.”

Jamz’s 1Xtra show began in 2015, where she continues to broadcast every Tuesday night to this day, after originally starting out with a daytime slot at weekends. It didn’t herald a sudden deluge in DJ bookings — “my bookings actually tailed off a bit initially” — nor a sudden explosion of social media likes or follows, but it gave her confidence and purpose. “It actually meant I really had to start building my identity away from the radio fro the first time”, she explains. “Because my DJ sets were so different to the stuff people knew me for on 1Xtra, it did take me that much longer to really establish myself … and that’s why I started to run my own club nights.”

Housed at the now long-since closed Birthdays in Dalston, Jamz began programming her Future Bounce club nights in 2016, purely to showcase the music she wanted to play; “I thought, if I’m not getting booked or booked on line-ups I’d like to be billed on, then I’m gonna book them myself”, she explains. Roska, Branko, Starslinger, Big Dope P and Swindle were just some of the early names to play Future Bounce nights, nodding to Jamz’s curatorial skills for the first time. “Now I get booked alongside DJs like that”, she says firmly, “so I think it’s just about planting seeds in people’s heads.” Wherever Jamz sees a problem, she finds her own solutions — time and time again.

“I thought, if I’m not getting booked or booked on line-ups I’d like to be billed on, then I’m gonna book them myself.”

The club nights would lead to the Future Bounce brand — originally the name she gave to her specialist show on Reprezent — to grow exponentially over the next few years. Intent on maintaining momentum after joining 1Xtra, Jamz had initially trialed a host of different ideas, from a Soundcloud page to host mixes — “we had one from Masego which is still online somewhere I think” — to playlists, to even a YouTube channel; “I tried it for a month and realised that it wasn’t really for me”, she admits, “but then came the club nights and they made a lot more sense.” 

So, where did the label fit in? “I’d always been told, ‘oh you should start a label’ by loads of different people but I always felt like I didn’t know enough about it”, Jamz explains. “I’d always felt unsure of it, but one day I came across an artist that I really liked and went to a distributor to secure some money for them. I had a good relationship with a guy heading up the company and he said to me he’d much rather give me the money to start my own label rather than just help one artist. That was my golden ticket … you can’t really turn that down really. I started it with my manager at the time, who had worked with Chase & Status on their MTA label and also used to produce Trevor Nelson’s show on 1Xtra on Saturday nights. We had this mutual, kinda linear experience of coming up together so with her experience of running labels and my own vision for the A&R side of things, it worked really well.”

Launched in January 2019 with the release of Ted Jasper’s ‘One Day’ EP, Future Bounce — functioning around striking a balance between multi-genre development artists and more immediate, club-focused output — has since released 15 records, including a new monthly club series that kicked off in March. “It’s a boutique label I suppose”, Jamz explains, “and I do look to Branko’s label Enchufada and maybe labels like XL Records as inspirations, but for us it’s always been a launchpad. I come across music so much and there are so many artists that I think are sick that not enough people know about. I see my job being head of the label as being a big megaphone, someone to shout about it all. So far, it’s far exceeded my expectations.”

“I do look to Branko’s label Enchufada and maybe labels like XL Records as inspirations, but for us it’s (Future Bounce) always been a launchpad. I come across music so much and there are so many artists that I think are sick that not enough people know about. I see my job being head of the label as being a big megaphone, someone to shout about it all.”

With her brand fully established and 1Xtra show — a goldmine for new sounds lifted from across a huge cross-section of scenes — now five years deep, talk quickly turns to legacies. “I really believe that it will be a big part of my legacy”, Jamz says warmly. “Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, especially around Giles Peterson’s story and the people that were around him, you know the sort of Talking Loud days … I feel like that’s what Future Bounce could be.”

If she continues to unearth gems like Melle Brown, Swsh and Sola, then there’s no reason why not, either. “Signing Melle Brown was my first, real A&R experience”, Jamz recalls, smiling. “She had no music readied at the time but I’d DJ’d with her and she’d played a few of her own tracks that I was vibing to. I really wanted to sign a female producer too and I felt like it could be her off the bat, you know. She didn’t really have any new music on the cards, so I booked her a load of studio time, worked on finding vocalists and helped her bring a record to life. She ended up being played on every radio station, every BBC station, from 6Music to BBC R1 to BBC R2 to 1Xtra … Rebecca Judd and even Elton John on Apple Music. It really built her profile and helped shine a light on the label as well.” So successful was her debut EP, ‘Intersection’, that Jamz commissioned a follow-up Remix EP, featuring thoughtful edits from the likes of Digital Mozart, KG and Scuffed Recordings’ co-head, High Class Filter.

And then came Swsh – “we flew to Berlin to meet with COLORS and secured them a session, which changed Swsh’s life and raised the profile of the label, which was incredible” — who released their track ‘How You Feel’ on Future Bounce last July, and more recently, Sola. “The most exciting artist I’m working with at the moment that I want to work with long-term is Sola”, Jamz affirms. “We put her ‘Mami Wata’ EP out recently after I’d put a call out looking for new club stuff. I had played some of her music on 1Xtra before but the tracks she sent over in response weren’t for the club in my mind … but I still thought it was cool. She’d actually been given some funding but was looking for a label to help her release her music, so I got onboard and managed the whole campaign for her. The music was already there …. I mean, I helped with the mix downs and stuff like that … but everything else was all her. She’s one of those artists that everyone should want to be like right now. The concepts, the vision for her music, the videos, the artwork … she handles it all. My job has been to build a team around her and manage how we release it. What’s exciting now is that she feels like she’s ready to get in the studio with other artists, so I’m already thinking about how to A&R the next project we work on. She’s a real class act though … there are a lot of singers who I think are great, but if they didn’t sign with Future Bounce, I could find another just as similar. That isn’t the same for Sola. The way she writes, the way she looks, the way she carries herself … she’s just really unique. She could be my FKA Twigs, for sure.”

Having already worked herself to the bone for over a decade, even as our conversation winds down in anticipation of a virtual BBC Introducing panel she’s about to join, Jamz’s hunger to continue breaking new ground is extraordinary. Just talking about the next record, the next radio show, the next milestone seems to energise her. “I’ve had to wear so many different hats”, she says, “and mostly out of necessity, whether it be being my own PR or promoting my own club nights. But mostly, I’m just a nerd and I get a kick out this stuff. Even now, if I see one of our Future Bounce records getting a review in Mixmag or whatever, I love it … it’s such a buzz. For me, all of the work I do never feels disconnected or like I’m wasting my time in the wrong areas though. I can see how it all fits together, how everything influences everything else.”

“For me, all of the work I do never feels disconnected or like I’m wasting my time in the wrong areas though. I can see how it all fits together, how everything influences everything else.”

That said, as she reflects on the last few months, in which she also covered 6Music shows for Giles Peterson shows for the first time — “they were the highlight of my radio career so far, they pushed me, they challenged me and affirmed to me that I am actually a good broadcaster” — there is one lesson she’s learned recently that sticks out more than most. “I know I do a lot but I really have started to learn to say no”, Jamz concludes. “I’ve been really, really thinking about the consequences and the impact of the decisions I make. Is it gonna push the needle, is this thing gonna help my career going forward? I had flashbacks during lockdown of a time when I’d had a car accident and broken my leg but still wanted to gig. I went all the way to the Netherlands to play Eurosonic which should have even a great gig, but I was in so much pain that I played poorly … and we had to catch the train there. It was awful, I cleared the room and I never got booked again. There was definitely a lesson in that for me so from now on, I’ll be prioritising better and approaching opportunities thinking about what I can give to them and hopefully, what I can gain from them too.”

You can tune into Jamz Supernova live on BBC 1Xtra every Tuesday from 9pm GMT.

You can dig into the Future Bounce label discography via Bandcamp here:

https://futurebounce.bandcamp.com/

— Mella Dee —

On Doncaster, school reports, skating, art, breaks, Techno Disco Tool and taking Warehouse Music global.

(All photos submitted by Mella Dee)

“I remember getting one of my school reports back and my teacher said, ‘if Ryan was any more laid back he’d be horizontal.” It’s Sunday morning and I’m speaking to DJ, producer and label head Mella Dee from Bethnal Green, where he’s just moved after almost seven years living in West London. We’re both tired. “Probably better to just do this over audio” he says on text before I call, “because I’m still on 4G. We should have WIFI fitted this week.” 

Mella Dee’s story isn’t a conventional one. Born in Doncaster, he grew up on a diet of happy hardcore, skating and hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s. He did ‘okay’ at school, he enjoyed photography, he even trained as an electrician — so just how did he become one of the UK’s biggest breakout DJs of the last five years? As we start to chat, it soon becomes clear that there is no singular answer. 

“I knew as soon as this thing hit that things were gonna get a bit peak”, Mella says nonchalantly as we reflect on life during the pandemic, “but I knew that I needed to keep doing what I needed to. At the start of it, I actually started painting and drawing for the first time in a long time and I still had keys to my studio, which wasn’t far from where I was living. I spent a lot of time there just writing because if I’m sat there, I’m not really thinking about anything else. At first, I’ve gotta be honest, it was really strange because it just felt like we couldn’t do anything, but it’s been nice to just be at home and spend weekends with my wife.”

For a touring DJ like Mella Dee who can regularly rack up four to five DJ bookings a week, the last six months has proved a sharp contrast. For some in a similar position the adjustment has weighed heavy, but Mella has taken it in his stride, shaped by experience and an unshakeable can-do attitude. For all its faults, its a mantra shaped by Doncaster and his life growing up in South Yorkshire; “it was nothing like London in terms of opportunities, but there were a few good things about it”, Mella acknowledges.

“I was actually born in a little village called Woodlands”, he continues, “which is an old mining village in Doncaster and it was quite a mad place to grow up. I always remember music as well … nobody in my family played an instrument or anything but it was always there, I listened to music all the time. We moved house when I was 10, maybe 11 because my dad got a better job. We moved to a place called to Scawsby, which wasn’t posh or anything, but it were nicer than where we had been living. I got into skateboarding there, as well as my music, but being into that in Donny … it was strange. Although it’s well connected to other places because so much runs through it, I’ve always felt strange being into creative stuff in Donny because there’s just nothing there.”

“Although it’s well connected to other places because so much runs through it, I’ve always felt strange being into creative stuff in Donny because there’s just nothing there.”

At school, there wasn’t much to report — “I was alright at school … I couldn’t stand being there but I could do the work I needed to in order to get through it” — although he did show a natural flair for art, which he ended up studying at A-Level. “I remember my art teacher used to teach us about specific things, like still life or whatever, but she’d just let me do graffiti because I was good at it and enjoyed it”, he recalls. It’s a passion he’s revisited during lockdown, painting and drawing in his studio whenever inspiration struck. “If I was interested in stuff, I’d put a bit of effort in but otherwise I just wasn’t interested you know”, he says. 

At sixth form, he went onto study art, alongside media and photography, but decided to leave shortly after enrolling, instead heading to college to focus all his energy solely on photography. “It were kinda sick, developing films and stuff”, he explains, “but I basically had free license to do whatever I wanted back then. There was a pass you could get as a student that could get you all over South Yorkshire for £30 a month and you could go anywhere on buses and trains. It meant I could just jump over to Sheffield in about 20 minutes, so I’d go there, go skating, hang out at the skate shops there, take photos and shit like that. There weren’t many skaters in Donny at all, so I was able to meet a group over in Sheffield which definitely made it easier. It was a different crowd, I enjoyed it.”

“There was a pass you could get as a student that could get you all over South Yorkshire for £30 a month and you could go anywhere on buses and trains. It meant I could just jump over to Sheffield in about 20 minutes, so I’d go there, go skating, hang out at the skate shops there, take photos and shit like that.”

Mella’s love for music was always bubbling under the surface, too. “There were always bits and bobs going off in Doncaster”, he reflects, “There was a bit of a house scene that I was part of when I was young, alongside little groups of people building drum & bass scenes… but that never really held strong. If you wanted to listen to hardcore in Donny, you also had The Warehouse, which was a pretty specific place for it. It wasn’t always packed but it was a place to go in Donny for sure. I remember there was a bit of a nu rave scene as well but I wasn’t really on that. It just didn’t catch me at that time.” Had he always gravitated towards electronic music, I wondered. “I mean I’ve been into happy hardcore since I was seven years old”, he says, “but I listen to all sorts. I just take it in, do you know what I mean? Watching skate videos used to open me up to other types of music as well … hip-hop was a big one. But yeah, I just listen to everything and always have done.”

After leaving college, Mella needed to find work. He started to head out on jobs with his dad, fitting roller shutters, industrial doors and even blast doors at chemical plants; “it was all sort of madness to be honest”, he says. Despite the physical demands, it was a job that also afforded Mella time to train as an electrician in 2004; at this point, music was nothing more than a hobby. “I had some mates who’d been to uni and they came back with decks”, Mella recalls, “so I just thought I’d have a go really. I mean I’d played like Dance eJay and shit like that but I didn’t really understand anything about making tunes and I certainly didn’t know a bunch of DJs or a bunch of producers.” How did he take to the decks, I ask. “I was just clanging my arse out”, he says, laughing. “I just had random records that I’d buy with no idea how to mix … hip-hop, quite a bit of drum & bass, garage-y stuff … I’d just experiment. It frustrated me to fuck at first but I knew I had to persevere. I started recording a few mixes and then I’d listen to them in the car and now and again I’d think, ‘oooh, that might have been a half decent mix that’, do you know what I mean?”

“After that, once I was happy with being able to mix, I just started blagging it”, he continues. “I started playing at bassline raves in Donny and actually did that for quite a while. We had this night called Amp, which is funny because my wife Sarah now works for AMP (Annie Mac Presents). I was a resident there and we’d have people like T2, DJ Q and people like that come down to this club in Donny. Me and one of the other residents actually used to chill together and started playing our own little nights in town. We’d play vinyl-only stuff in this little wine bar on Sundays … basically the only place that’d let us do it. I remember hiring a rig from a place in York and bringing it to this bar. I wanted to play heavy stuff and this bar such a shit system, so I was like ‘right, I’m gonna get a rig and people are gonna come out and have a right dance’. I forget about all that shit sometimes. We were just local DJs trying to put summat on.”

“We’d play vinyl-only stuff in this little wine bar on Sundays … basically the only place that’d let us do it. I remember hiring a rig from a place in York and bringing it to this bar. I wanted to play heavy stuff and this bar such a shit system, so I was like ‘right, I’m gonna get a rig and people are gonna come out and have a right dance’.”

Branching out from Doncaster, it’d be a show on Leeds-based pirate, Frequency FM, that’d light the touch paper for Mella Dee’s music to first take off. The station, run by Jason ’Shock’ Taylor, was the heartbeat of young Leeds and an important outpost for electronic music in the city — it was a discovery tool, an access point. “I saw an advert online one day that said Frequency were looking for new shows”, Mella recalls, “so I just sent a demo over and I got an email back and that were it … I was gonna do a show in Leeds.”

Around this time, Mella had also started producing as one-half of Mista Men alongside friend and fellow producer, Woozee. Together, their music — always hard-edged and rugged — referenced the different cornerstones of their own formative clubbing experiences in South Yorkshire; garage, bassline, house. They would go onto release records on Greenmoney, Cheap Thrills and even Unknown To The Unknown, but it was through Mella’s solo shows on Frequency FM that most of his early connections were made. “I was meeting people, doing radio meetings and stuff like that”, he explains. “It was just a good place to be.”

Liquid Steel Sessions, a club night born in Sheffield and transported to Leeds by founder Reuben G after moving to the city for university, was also an important marker in Mella’s fledgling DJ career. He was booked to play at Hifi, one of the city’s best kept secrets — an amazing small venue with a booming Funktion One system — and soon got a taste for playing to raucous, bustling crowds. “Liquid Steel was sick, just being able to play to students and busy, rowdy crowds, it was different”, Mella recalls. “I could play what I wanted and it’d just go off.”

And then came Tropical — a monthly club night Mella founded alongside fellow DJs Jera and Jangle, both of whom he met at Frequency. Jera was from Leeds and Jangle was new to the city for university, but all three of them clicked instantly; “We all loved the UK funky stuff that was popping off in that 2007, 2008 sort of time”, says Mella. Held each month at Wire, another of Leeds’ best, low-ceilinged small clubs, it was actually Tropical that first brought myself and Mella Dee together. As a student in Leeds at the same time, I found myself a regular at dubstep nights, but was also intrigued by other events booking DJs I’d only ever heard snippets of on Rinse FM. “I remember we had like Ramadanman (now Pearson Sound), Heny G and people like that on the line-ups early on”, says Mella. “Oneman, I think that was probably the first time Oney ever came up to play in Leeds … Girl Unit, Mickey Pearce, there was loads man.” I headed to four or five Tropical nights over a six month period between 2009 and 2010, making myself familiar to Mella, Jera and Jangle and other influential residents of the time, like Liquid Steel Sessions’ Reuben G and Frenzy D. It was a club night that opened my eyes to how far dance music could reach but for Mella, it felt like another piece of the puzzle; “that whole period were really good”, he says warmly.

After Tropical slowly faded out, Mella concentrated on Mista Men — “we were DJing quite a bit, we played Amsterdam, Glasgow … it was really good for us to get booked elsewhere back then” — with a quartet of records backing up lots of press interest, including 2012’s ‘Uttu’ EP for Unknown To The Unknown. On the side though, Mella was also experimenting with his own music, all the while holding down work with his dad. “Thankfully, he saw the benefit of me doing my music stuff”, says Mella, “but I spent a lot of time doing those shifts with him, DJing and trying to learn to produce properly … it were hard, man. There were loads of times when I’d just played somewhere and I’d be driving home, knowing that I had to be up at 5 in the morning to go to work with my dad. I just had to get on with it, get up fucking knackered and get through the day, moving fucking steel around.”

“There were loads of times when I’d just played somewhere and I’d be driving home, knowing that I had to be up at 5 in the morning to go to work with my dad.”

By this point, I’d returned home to London after graduating in 2010 and was writing a blog. Mella was one of a handful of producers sending me new music, much of it with nowhere to go. In early 2012, he sent over a ruff-and-ready, wot-do-you-call-it beat that caught me off guard; it was called ‘CTRL’. Fast-forward three months and after listening to the track incessantly, compounded by regular conversations with Mella, I felt inspired to put it out. Coyote Records was born and ‘CTRL’ was released on 12” in July 2012, with remixes from Baobinga (now Sam Binga), Mr. Mitch, MA1 and Grievous Angel. “I think that is the first record you’ll ever see with Mella Dee written on it”, he says. It’d prove a pivotal moment for both of us but for Mella Dee, it also helped zero in on exactly what sort of music he wanted to make and the type of music he wanted to build a career from. 

After moving to London later shortly after the release of ‘CTRL’, Mella also remixed Coyote’s second release, ‘Grade A’ by TS7, in November 2012 — “that were mad considering I’d spent so long buying TS7’s records back in Donny” — before a slew of records followed for other breakout labels like Slit Jockey, Shabby Doll and Omena. He was busy and consistent during his early years in London, if still caught up in making whatever he liked; from sabre-toothed grime beats (‘Don’t Be Nesh’) to crunchy, peak-time house (‘Things Don’t Change’). It was a versatility that proved a blessing and a curse, until he produced ‘GT Turbo’ in 2014. Heavy on breaks — “I definitely hit them hard for a few years” — it pricked the ears of Shy FX after he heard Melé play it at Tuesday Club in Sheffield. “He heard him play it and just said, ‘I want that tune’ apparently”, Mella recalls. “It was sick really, to have someone like Shy FX say that, especially at the time and where I was with music.”

Released on Shy’s Digital Soundboy label, ‘GT Turbo’ laid the foundations for ‘Rhythm Nation Vol.1’ — a defining eight-track beat tape rooted in hardcore, breaks and jungle — and ‘Here / Trellick’, another weighty, breaks-inspired two-track 12” released by Redlight’s Lobster Boy imprint in 2015. “I’d known Hugh (Redlight) for a while, I’d actually first met him through Sarah at BLOC, alongside people like Roska and Toddla T, and we’d talked about doing something together for a while. I sent him tunes for ages and we worked towards an EP. It were really nice to get it done … you know, releasing on your friend’s record labels, it’s a cool feeling.”

It was a 12-month period that had, almost by chance, given Mella direction for the first time. “It was great, I mean it got me some bookings, I got to go out and play with the Digital Soundboy crew … it basically meant I could get a bit more money together to live off DJing.” At the same time, he’d also found himself working a number of different industry jobs to help plug the gaps, including working across PPL and PRS, where he would identify and chase up revenue claims for artists. “I was doing PPL stuff for rappers like Fredo, basically trying to help them through the process”, he says. “It was mad really. I’d be finding out if they could claim and if they had money available to them and stuff like that, it was such a random job. I just took it as whatever I needed to do to help get me by.”

After the release of ’Trellick’ — a record named after the iconic residential tower block he’d often walk past in Kensal Town — Mella decided to start building something of his own. Inspired by the connections he’d made in London and the potential his releases were starting to show, it was time for a label. His own label. “Warehouse Music would have been a good starting point, wouldn’t it?”, Mella asks, laughing. “You know my own label where I can just put out my own music and see what people think of it. No, it’s been great. Originally I didn’t really want to start a label, I was just like, ‘can’t I just put out white labels or summat and stamp Mella Dee on them?’, but after a while I knew I should probably start something. I’d been using Warehouse Music as a way of describing how certain music sounded for ages so it just popped into my head one day. It ties in with Donny Warehouse as well, it was an easy choice.”

“Originally I didn’t really want to start a label, I was just like, ‘can’t I just put out white labels or summat and stamp Mella Dee on them?’, but after a while I knew I should probably start something.”

Since its inception in 2017, Warehouse Music has presided over 15 records — nine of which are by Mella himself — all released on bright, bold coloured wax with matching sleeves. It’s an aesthetic that immediately catches the eye and at first, might feel at odds with the rough, industrial connotations of music made for warehouses. “It’s just a big old term, Warehouse Music … and you know the variety of my stuff, it all sounds different”, he explains. “But it could be a warehouse in New York with Frankie Knuckles playing disco or it could be a big, derelict warehouse that’s horrible and nasty … it all fits. And the colours I mean, I just like bright colours.”

While the first five years of Mella Dee records felt like they were honing in on something, the last three have felt like mission accomplished. Emboldened by the success of Warehouse Music, it was the label’s second release — the anthemic ‘Techno Disco Tool’ — that catapulted Mella Dee into the upper echelons of electronic music in the UK. Hammered by Annie Mac on BBC R1, remixed by Todd Edwards and revered for it’s sample of Sister Sledge’s ‘Pretty Baby’, it became one of the defining dance records of 2017, racking up over 17 million streams on Spotify alone; “I still hear football crowds belting it out even now”, says Mella.

The records that followed have also felt like natural extensions of Mella Dee’s personality too, the way he speaks even. EPs like ‘Donny’s Groove’, ‘Exactly Mate’ and ’Techno Belters’ feed right back into his no-nonsense approach to his life and his music, endearing him to a new army of fans who find both dizzy euphoria and comforting solace in his tracks. It’s a simple formula, but mightily effective. Alongside Mella’s own material, Warehouse Music has also welcomed EPs from Spencer Parker, Leo Pol and L-Vis 1990’s Dance System moniker of late, as well as ‘The Muses Come Out At Night’ by Haider — best man at Mella Dee’s wedding. “I always thought that if I was gonna do the label thing, I’d have to do it proper”, Mella says passionately. “I haven’t got the money to fuck about, so I wanted to make sure it was out there and done right.” 

Such has been its impact, the label also won DJ Mag’s Best Of British Award for Best Breakthrough Label in 2017 with Mella receiving the award in front of a packed audience at Egg in Kings Cross. “I was chuffed we got nominated but I didn’t think we’d win”, he says. His acceptance speech? “I got up and just said, ‘big up, thanks!’. I didn’t know what the fuck to say.” Luckily for Mella, much of his talking was done with the airing of his debut BBC R1 Essential Mix the following year in November 2018 — an honour bestowed on him by legendary dance broadcaster, Pete Tong, and a holy grail for DJs the world over. “I’d wanted to do one for a long time”, Mella concedes, “and I kept pushing for one and eventually I got my chance. It was sick, I really enjoyed it. To say that I’ve done one is still mad really.”

In and amongst the industry success, Mella’s bookings also went through the roof. Prior to the pandemic, he’d spent much of the last two years on the road with rarely a spare weekend, playing as far away as Thailand, as well as all over Europe — a far cry from the wine bars of Doncaster. “Because I’d been about so long playing anyway, I kinda jumped into it with both feet, do you know what I mean?”, he explains. “It definitely gets intense if I’m playing in like, five different places in four days or summat, but I mean I love travelling, especially if Sarah can come with me. The flying is knackering but I guess I’ve learned to get better at sleeping on planes, in cars … just sleeping generally. I drink loads of water when I’m at shows now and definitely don’t party all the time. If I’m lucky, I get to go and play somewhere I really enjoy … sometimes I won’t always enjoy it but the main thing is getting to play my music to people. If the sound system’s good, then generally that’s all that matters.”

From playing in a huge, purpose-built field in the middle of a jungle in Thailand to thousands for Circoloco at the turn of 2020 to small, sweaty clubs all over the UK, the novelty has never of being paid to DJ has never worn thin on Mella either. “Anywhere I’ve been, I feel like I’m lucky to have been there”, he says gratefully. “I don’t think playing music to people and then getting paid for it will ever get old for me. I mean there’s a lot of grafting involved and a lot of work goes into it, but it’s sick, I still love it as much as I always did.” The most memorable nights? “Ah, gimme a small room with a rig, a couple of hundred people and pure darkest, that’s it for me. That’s the best.” 

I don’t think playing music to people and then getting paid for it will ever get old for me. I mean there’s a lot of grafting involved and a lot of work goes into it, but it’s sick, I still love it as much as I always did.

While the future of dance music may look especially bleak, Mella Dee seems more than equipped to deal with whatever life can throw at him. “I’m just looking at the future as a continuation of what I’ve been doing and built already”, he explains. “I’ll work on other things, branch out and probably attempt bigger projects and whatever, but I’ve got a lot left to achieve as Mella Dee. The heavy travelling and shows definitely did grind me down a bit but I could be out with my dad, shifting steel you know? If it comes down to that again, then that’s what I’ll have to do, but for now I’ve learned to appreciate everything I’ve been able to do as a DJ.” In short, whatever happens — for Mella Dee, there’s a warehouse for every kind of music.

You can buy Mella Dee / Warehouse Music records direct via Bandcamp:

https://melladee.bandcamp.com/

— GRIME & DUBSTEP MONTHLY ™ —

A temporary home for monthly Mixmag Grime & Dubstep reviews while the magazine remains out of print — here are September’s picks.

(Sundaysaurus by Asami Watanabe)

Album of the Month: Sundaysaurus – ‘Pretty Poison’ (Chow Down)

Stunning

Highlights

1. Comet Crush

2. Potatohead

3. Disco Laundry

‘Pretty Poison’ is the debut album by Seoul-born, Tokyo-based producer Sundaysaurus — a deft and sumptuous nine-track record stitched together like a patchwork quilt. To be released by Manchester-based label and party, Chow Down, it’s a record that feels in part, loosely anchored in the vivid, new-gen grime sounds that first started to pool in the early 2010s, but there are also myriad nods to the sounds that have defined Sundaysaurus’ own club experiences. Aside from ‘Ice Monster’ — the album’s beautiful, heart-wrenching opener — there’s room for spiralling grime trips (‘Comet Crush’), all-out rave euphoria (‘Disco Laundry’), scurrying breaks (‘Sakura Jungle’) and bolshy, inverted club-pop (‘Solar Panel’). Despite sudden shifts and breakneck left turns, each track bleeds into the next with deliberate ease too, thanks largely in part to the widescreen scope of the record as a whole; Sundaysaurus’ sound maybe singular, but on ‘Pretty Poison’, she never loses sight of the bigger picture. One of the best debut albums to be released this year. 9/10

(Kamran)

Tune of the Month: Kamran – ‘Destruction’ (1000Doors)

A brave new world

Kamran’s debut EP, ‘Transmission’, listens like a breath of fresh air and ‘Destruction’ — one of five tracks inspired by and shaped by his Iranian heritage — is arguably the best of the lot. An incendiary take on OG grime sounds, refracted through a contemporary lens and spiked with nods to sweet-boy RnG and upfront club rhythm, it bookends an EP that sees Kamran reconnect with both his inner self and his music after nearly a decade producing as Moleskin. Beat of the year contender? Probably. 9/10

Silas – ‘Genesis’ EP (Mean Streets)

Thoroughly impressive 

Silas debuts on Trends’ Mean Streets imprint with the fierce, sabre-toothed growl of ‘Genesis’. Comprised of four tracks, it navigates bruising, smoked out trap (‘Power’), pulsing, neck-snap 8-bar grime and ghostly, low-end hybrids like ‘Evil Monastery’, showcasing a sound rooted in exploration and experimentation. Final cut ’Tribe’ — a thumping, upfront twist on funky a la early Champion productions — is also superb. 8/10

Lemzly Dale – ‘Farewell’ EP (Pearly Whites)

Ingenious — pure and simple

The genius of Lemzly Dale never ceases to amaze and on ‘Farewell’, he brings the Midas touch to four original productions that feel rich, lavish and full-bodied. The sultry, new-money swing of opener ‘Zinger’ — a luxurious, breezy twist on hotel lobby music — is a revelation, while the the cinematic, widescreen drama of Bond-esque villain theme, ‘Paperboy’, is garish and dramatic. Title-track ‘Farewell’ continues the theme apace, steeped in piano glitz and faux romance but cut with razor sharp claps and subtle grime flashes, before the washed out, dreamscape strings of ‘Hope’ start to drift away over the horizon. A marvel. 9/10

Thelem & ONHELL – ‘CAUSATUM’ (CHAPTERS)

Scorcher!

Thelem & ONHELL unite on biggest, baddest new single ‘CAUSATUM’ — a joint effort out now on Thelem’s CHAPTERS imprint. Made in just a day and lifted from Thelem’s forthcoming ‘Analogic’ EP, it details crunching low-end pressure, scorched-earth textures and blasts of face-melting, cosmic white noise. Not for the faint hearted but a monster nonetheless. 7/10

Head Space – ‘Bandito’ (New World Audio)

Artillery barrage 

Weaponised, late night dubstep bangers from New World Audio here, this time by way of Russian producer Head Space, who returns for a second outing on the label with ‘Bandito’. The title-track is especially bludgeoning, heavy on both whirring sub and sense of menace, albeit punctuated by short, hushed passages of subdued, mournful respite. The EP also comes complete with a booming remix of ‘Void’ by Q-100 and a further Bisweed flip of Head Space original, ‘North West’, which although breaks-y in part, is utterly devastating. Listen with caution! 6/10

Kodama ft. LX One – ‘Cronauer’ EP (Subaltern Records)

Barcelona stand up!

Subaltern tap Kodama — a new signee based in Barcelona — for their latest 12”, ‘Cronauer’. Comprised of five tracks, it sees Kodama collaborate with dubstep vet LX One on the scything, hardbody title-track, which serves as a looming entry point to his producer world. The gorgeous, hyper-bright, xylophonic melodies of ‘Piranha Plant’ are a delight, while third track ‘Dorsia’ reverts to a more bruising formula, albeit offset by subtle, filmic crackle and delicate melody patterns that lurk below the surface. ‘II Tempo È Oro’ functions around deft piano keys, lo-slung beats and Italian spoken word verses — a real left turn in the context of the EP — before the blissed-out boom of hazy final jam ‘Crookshanks’ closes out. 7/10

Barom – ‘Don’t Leave, Never Arrive Please’ (Off-Switch Audio)

A total surprise package

German producer Barom dazzles on ‘Don’t Leave, Never Arrive Please’ — a sweltering six-track plate of inventive new-school grime sketches. Opener ‘Dusk’ is a mazy, square-wave onslaught awash with nifty textural flashes and bonkers FX, while ‘Agon’ again chops and screws away at conventional grime patterns at will. The contorted, bubblegum melodies and playful glare of the title-track is the EP’s most intriguing cut, while the rasping, neon-lit screech of ‘Bright’ is also a potential show-stealer. Final tracks ‘Pour Gold’ — a baroque, cartoon-y, hi-pressure flip — and the rolling charge of ‘Inim’, offset by delicate, trinket-box melodies, sign off on a record that’ll take many by surprise. 9/10

Hi5Ghost x SAULE – ‘CXT002’ (Cutcross Recordings)

Two of the best face off 

Sicaria Sound’s Cutcross imprint is already laying down markers two releases in, with Hi5Ghost and US producer Saule going head-to-head over four tracks released on chrome-plated USB. The format, which sees the pair share a track each, before remixing an original production of each other’s, aims to help artists connect and cross-pollinate. Hi5Ghost’s ‘Long Way Home’ — a crunching, iced-out lurker — and moody, dungeon-dwelling Saule heater ‘Affliction’ set things in motion, before the pair trade blows, with Hi5Ghost going full battering ram on his breathless remix of Saule’s ‘Lockscrew’. Saule’s jittery, skeletal percussive mix of Hi5’s ‘Breathe’ is a worthy riposte, spotlighting just how far two producers can push each other — even operating in different continents. 8/10

Captain Over – ‘TRANSMISSION 03 (via Bandcamp)

Listen good to do good

Captain Over has worked tirelessly over the last few years, quietly exploring grime and beyond via a multitude of self-released records, even working with Trim on 2018 debut single, ‘Sick’. ‘TRANSMISSION 03’, the third volume in a mixtape series that sees him flip grime, rap and RnB classics and personal favourites, is both punchy and brilliant, as the colourful space-jazz of his ‘What You Need’ edit and syrupy, ray-gun funk of Kid Cudi’s ‘Day n Nite’ twist both attest. Available exclusively via Bandcamp, all proceeds will be donated to Refugee Action and Stop Hate UK, with Captain Over also intending to match all donations himself. Pow! 8/10

Von D – ‘Hunedoara’ EP (Infernal Sounds)

Another one!

Infernal Sounds, one of our favourite labels of the last two years, continue a hot streak of releases by enlisting Von D and ‘Hunedoara’ — a deadly three-track plate that follows recent 12”s for Deep Medi and Artikal Music. The title-track is scything and grandiose, a total battle charge of an instrumental cut with serious weight — it hits front and centre from the off — while B-side cut ‘Akasha’ functions around twisted, looping fairground melodies and again, more signature, monstrous bass weight. Final track ‘Layers’ is the curveball of the three, cut with complex, intricate sound layers (no pun intended) and swirling, oddball FX that showcase a lighter, more playful side to Von D’s output. 8/10

Monitor

Jakebob continues a stellar 2020 apace with the release of debut album project, ‘Smokers’, which details 12 fresh grime instrumentals — including collaborations with Spooky & Jack Dat — and 3 vocal tracks … out now on Chameleon Audio, it compounds a remarkable breakout 12 months and signposts an increasingly bright future … Tik & Borrow are also at it again, this time via Dirty Beats — their new EP ‘Umans’ spotlights is system-rattling dubstep at its grizzliest … also be on the look out for XTR002 — a 9-track compilation spanning grime, breaks and funky by all Australian producers including Secundus, Shinobi Yurei and Open-eye … it drops October 1 via Sydney-based label, Extra Spicy … looking ahead, listen out for Repulsion’s monstrous ‘Uh Oh’ EP via Next Level Dubstep and Commodo’s ’Stakeout’ EP for Black Acre— a part two of sorts to May’s ‘Loan Shark’ EP, spotlighting why he remains streets ahead of 99.9% of the competition. 

(Commodo)

— Ashley Verse —

On grime, fashion, community, chance meetings, life in Mitcham, music videos, opportunity and the importance of shaping your own world view.

(All images submitted by Ashley Verse)

In June 2015, I interviewed Steven ‘Cheeky’ Cee — DJ, promoter and engine room behind Eskimo Dance — for a piece on the legendary grime event for Boiler Room. We met at Boxpark in Shoreditch and meandered between the various bars, walking and talking, before setting up stall at Cook Daily to grab some food. Before our interview began, I noticed a guy with a camera sat in close proximity and it was only as our chat progressed that I realised he was there to shoot us. He was quiet but assured, snapping only at choice moments, capturing the essence of our conversation and the energy and passion Steven spoke with. As our talk drew to an end, punctuated by an impromptu chat to Wiley on the phone from Cyprus — a moment snapped by the photographer — I was finally introduced. “This is Ashley”, said Steven, “he’s been taking some photos for us”. We fist-bumped, said a quick hello and swapped details — “It’s just @AshleyVerse on Twitter”, I recall him mentioning. The photos were in my inbox within 12 hours and nearly five and a half years on, I can still say that Ashley Verse took my photo once. 

(Steven Cee & Me (Tomas Fraser), June 2015 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

Now widely considered one of the UK’s leading young music and fashion photographers, Ashley’s work has graced magazine covers, album covers and national newspapers. His shots have become iconic, etched long in the memory of fans and contemporaries, but the biggest compliment I and many others who know and work with him can pay, is his character — his success hasn’t changed him; he has remained an unaffected human being. As we catch up, bleary-eyed on Saturday morning, there are genuine smiles on both our faces — this is the first time we’ve caught up in over two years.

“This year actually started quite positively for me”, Ashley says, “I was still touring, I’d gone and shot a bit of Paris Fashion Week for the first time and I was literally thinking about hitting up the different fashion weeks across Europe for the summer but obviously by March … game over.” As a freelance photographer working across predominantly music and fashion, gigs, events and in a broader sense, travel, form Ashley’s lifeblood; without them, work can be difficult to come by. But, for someone who lives life constantly on the move, has the impact been wholly negative, I wondered. “At first, it annoyed me”, he concedes, “because I wasn’t ready to stop, I wanted to carry on working. But after a while, it taught me how to utilise time for myself a little bit better. Like a lot of people, I started running all the time … it had a nice effect on me. For me personally, because I work freelance, I never have the consistency to be able to go to the gym or have a routine. I’ve never had a routine when I think about it. Like if I wanna run every morning, what am I gonna do when I’ve got an 8am call time? The next day I might have a concert from 9pm ’til 3 in the morning, it just never added up, so after a while I realised it was nice to have a set pace.”

Ashley grew up in Mitcham, South London, where he still lives today, the son of Bajan and Jamaican parents. The area was and remains incredibly diverse, with communities formed block by block, street by street — a spirit Ashley carries with him to this day. “There’s a bond between everyone”, he explains. “We all live on the same block, we all interact with each other … we always had youth clubs and growing up and I remember like, in the summer, we’d always be going to Thorpe Park and whatever through the council’s youth club scheme. My estate has always been a community in that sense.”

He attended Rutlish High School, a popular all boys school in the area — an experience he describes as “boisterous to say the least.” His school years, 2004-2009, also coincided with grime’s meteoric rise and fall; from explosive, Mercury-prize winning art form (Dizzee Rascal – ‘Boy In Da Corner’) to tracks being banned on the radio and derided in the press (Lethal Bizzle – ‘Pow! (Forward)’. “Everyone was playing it in the playground”, recalls Ashley, “everyone was sharing it on bluetooth, infrared, Limewire … the music was flowing. Everyone wanted to spit bars in the playground, at lunch time that was all people were doing. Sectioned off in one corner of the playground, everyone’s got the latest Ironsoul, Flukes … some kind of instrumental … and everyone would spit. It was a real mixture of different energies, especially being at a school with no girls around, but it was a good time that taught me a lot.” Was Ashley ever tempted to MC, I ask. “Ah yeah of course, we all did”, he says, breaking into laughter. “I loved it though, we used to have little clashes in the playground, at certain times we’d do like, off the top freestyles where you weren’t allowed to spit your bars. It was fun, it was competitive and the energy was always good. Aside from that, we’d be listening to other people’s music anyway, especially local spitters. We had a lot of road rappers around in South, as well as grime. That was where I first got in touch with it all.”

“Everyone wanted to spit bars in the playground, at lunch time that was all people were doing. Sectioned off in one corner of the playground, everyone’s got the latest Ironsoul, Flukes … some kind of instrumental … and everyone would spit.”

After finishing school, Ashley attended Brit College, where he hoped to study and eventually make music. He’d studied piano at high school, as well as classical courses — “I got to Grade 5” he says, looking around his bedroom wall for the certificate — but had also started Media Studies as a GCSE option. “Media just clicked with me like that”, he says, clicking his fingers, “so as I was applying for Brit, I decided to change my decision and apply to study Media. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do yet, but I knew I wanted to do something within media.”

It was a decision that’d change the course of his life. After a year studying, he decided that he wanted to focus his energies on music videos, inspired by his love of the slick, US rap and RnB videos he’d watch on MTV Base and the grainy, DIY cuts he’d catch on Channel U. “It was after a year at Brit that I got my first camera”, Ashley recalls. “I started shooting music videos for people that lived locally mainly … friends that lived nearby, local artists that I’d heard of or people I’d grown up listening to. At the time, I actually starting working with Stormzy, but he fitted into that bracket for me at the time … he was someone my age, my bredrins were telling me he was hard and that I should work with him … I mean that’s kinda how it came about. He’s from Norbury so it wasn’t far from where I was and he was just one of a number of local artists making noise at the time. I think the videos are still on my YouTube channel, which is probably over 10 years old now.”

“With everything going on, especially with the birth of SBTV and your GRM’s and Link Up TV’s, it felt possible to me”, continues Ashley. “Music videos felt like a real opportunity at that age. There were a lot of people at that time who wanted to be the next SBTV … everyone had a something TV channel, mine was IMTV. It was a big motivation and I actually said this to Jamal (Edwards) the other day, he was a big inspiration to me early on. I remember the days he had a normal job and walking into where he was working and being like ‘you’re SB … like, what are you doing here?!’. I had no concept of the world at that point or how anything worked, so it gave me a dose of reality to see him still grafting.”

As one of only two people in his local area he recalls having an industry-standard camera — the other being his friend Jake, who was more into photography than music videos — Ashley soon found himself in demand. “Sometimes it’d just be people asking me to take photos of a house party or something like that”, he explains, “but I remember I had one friend who decided he wanted to model. It didn’t amount to being a great portfolio or anything like that, it was just me shooting him in the park … like we had no clue … but it worked for him. He got signed to AMTK as a model and even my mum had been telling me to do photography for ages and I was always like ‘nah, don’t wanna do that’. It wasn’t until little things like that happened that things started to fall into place. By the time I turned 18, I could start going to clubs too … and also take my camera along to catch live PAs.”

“My first ever live show that I remember shooting was … Skepta at XOYO in 2011”, he continues. “The photos from that night are so old that I don’t even have them on a hard drive anywhere but I know they’ll be floating around on my Facebook. I wouldn’t have called myself a photographer back then by any stretch.” Did he just pitch up with a camera, or was he invited, I wondered. “I was actually invited by Julie Adenuga. We used to work at the Apple Store together when I was a temp. I had no idea who she was in terms of who her brothers were, she just always had great energy at work. Eventually I found out from some other people there and she was cool with it, but I guess at that time, she would have had people drawn to her because they’d know her brothers were JME and Skepta. I was just drawn to her because she was sick. Once I’d told her, she was like, ‘do you know what, Skep has a concert next week, do you wanna come along?’ and that was it. That was my introduction to shooting shows.”

“I was actually invited by Julie Adenuga. We used to work at the Apple Store together when I was a temp. I had no idea who she was in terms of who her brothers were, she just always had great energy at work.”

Although still obsessed by the idea of directing music videos, Ashley would become more and more enamoured with photography over the next few years. Still in his late-teens, his work behind the lens wasn’t met by instant, overnight success; it was a slow and gradual build. He was still shooting predominantly local artists in Mitcham and although now a regular at shows in London, he was still unaware of how far his work could travel. “I saw that there was potential for growth”, Ashley concedes, “but it wasn’t until about two or three years later that I really started to take my photography work more seriously. I used that time to really hone my skills but the main reason I switched my focus away from music videos was because I got frustrated. Because I’d been studying the techniques, I tried to start writing treatments and bringing these stronger ideas to life, which I didn’t really know how to execute, but artists at that time and at that age did not wanna read a treatment. It was always just ‘come to my estate and we’ll shoot’ and after a while I got tired of that. It felt limiting, it felt like the ideas weren’t vast enough and the fact that I could go to a club, take my camera and get a couple of photos started to appeal more to me.”

In the years following, Ashley setup camp in the photo pits of some of London’s most iconic venues. From Brixton Academy to Visions in Dalston, if there was a grime event going down, chances are you’d find Ashley, camera in tow. Alongside other breakout photographers like Vicky Grout, Courtney Francis and Blaow, his lens was responsible for capturing the raw energy of grime’s second coming. “When it was just us lot … Vicky, Courtney, Blaow … stepping into the pit back then, there was no one else there”, Ashley explains, “and because of that, we developed our own community. It wasn’t long before we realised it would only be us in those pits, you know.”

From those vantage points, Ashley captured era-defining shots; Drake coming out with Section Boyz at XOYO in 2014 on the night he shunned the BRITS, Skepta and Novelist at Visions, which saw Skepta perform ‘It Ain’t Safe’ with A$AP Bari for the first time in 2015, as well as countless Eskimo Dances, radio sets and headline shows across the country. But what is it that makes a good shot? What does Ashley try and convey in his live photography? “Energy”, he says assuredly. “That’s what a lot of the artists were putting out and filling the rooms with. I quickly learnt as well that being in the pit is a prime spot for being in the middle of all that energy. I shoot shows like a fan, like I’m meant to be in the crowd … I will dance, singalong to every tune and people at the end are like, ‘did you get photos or?’ … I live the experience the same way the crowd live the experience. Being in that pit, you’re in the middle of the artist putting out energy and the fans giving it back. I’m literally standing in the middle of that flow, so I catch the energy from both sides. That for me, is what I always want to capture on camera. You don’t always get that from crowd shots, but you always get it from shooting the performer … you can see how much they give.”

(Drake w/ Section Boyz @ XOYO, 2016 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

“I quickly learnt as well that being in the pit is a prime spot for being in the middle of all that energy. I shoot shows like a fan, like I’m meant to be in the crowd … I will dance, singalong to every tune and people at the end are like, ‘did you get photos or?’ … I live the experience the same way the crowd live the experience.”

“One of my first photos that went viral or felt viral to me at the time”, Ashley continues, “was a photo of Skepta and Novelist. It was the first time I’d gone to Visions because it was rumoured that Skepta was meant to be turning up. I just wanted to see it and find out what was going on. He went there to launch ‘It Ain’t Safe’ with Bari there and I got this one photo that I put up on my Instagram and he reposted it. My phone was pinging so much that I thought it was a phone call. I remember I was watching a film and I thought to myself, ’it can’t be that important, I’ll get it in a second”. I finished the film, looked at my phone and my notifications were going mad. That was then first time I realised that this could be a tangible thing. I knew at the time I was taking photos because I loved it, but I didn’t have a vision for it beyond that. It was still very much a hobby at that point, I was still working retail … but at that time it felt like all of a sudden, there was potential for it to be a real thing. That whole period even made me feel like I understood grime better. Obviously I’d been listening to it for years but experiencing that energy, I didn’t understand it until I picked up a camera.”

(Skepta & Novelist @ Visions, 2015 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

Although Ashley and co had a front row seat, he still had to earn the trust of grime’s top tier. Initially, MCs were sometimes bemused to see young, wide-eyed photographers at their shows; just what were these kids getting out of coming along to raves with their cameras? “Grime was very protective of itself at the time”, Ashley concedes, “but what I was too young to really understand was how much grime had been tarnished over time. I knew that they’d banned ‘Pow!’ from the clubs way back but I didn’t really understand the press story … whenever press had mentioned grime, it’d always be in a negative light. There was certainly a small sense of ‘why are you guys here?’ at first, most definitely. I guess people had to suss out why we were there and what our intentions were. I think myself, Vicky, Blaow etc saw taking photos as a way of showing our appreciation for what they did. Our cameras were our way of saying, ‘look, we love what you do and this is why we’re here’. Over time, people started to realise that we understood the music, the culture, the vibe and we’d start getting invites to shows and radio sets. The rise of the music, too, really benefited us … we kinda grew with it. Grime helped us all establish careers, really.”

“I think myself, Vicky, Blaow etc saw taking photos as a way of showing our appreciation for what they did. Our cameras were all we had to say to them, ‘look, we love what you do and this is why we’re here’.”

Even as an established photographer with some of the hottest exclusives London had to offer, Ashley was still unsure of what to do with his work. Entirely self-taught, the concept of approaching editorial platforms or magazines was completely alien. Instead, Instagram became his first port of call, a vehicle for not only showcasing his best work, but for building a rapport with the artists he was shooting. “Instagram was really helpful”, Ashley explains. “I’d put photos up and DM them to artists, that’s literally all I did with my photos at first. A few people would speak to me about stuff and say things like ‘have you ever tried messaging so and so at this title or that title’ and I was like ‘whaaaat?’. I had no idea back then, but over time, I learned how to build an email, how to approach people, how to reach out to magazine editors and people at websites. Bit by bit, I was able to learn the business acumen of it all too, because I didn’t have any of that when I started. I didn’t know the way to move or how to be … I’m sure there were times when I didn’t follow the rules because I didn’t know how things were done. Did I piss people off without realising? Probably, but I literally didn’t have a clue. I had to educate myself and learn as I went.”

“We all had similar intentions”, continues Ashely, discussing strength in numbers and coming up with other young photographers. “And I quickly realised if Vicky or Blaow weren’t at a show, I was gonna be at a show on my own. When you start seeing that familiar face each time, it helps you build an unspoken bond and respect, you know. We all talked between ourselves and we were all there because we fucking loved the music and wanted to take photos. That was it, pure and simple. It was a sick time.”

Aside from music, Ashley had always naturally gravitated towards fashion too. Inspired by his older cousin, who was heavily interested in fashion when he was growing up — “he’d buy a lot of Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs” — Ashley had always kept his finger on the pulse. His first break came via a friend, who had spare tickets to a few shows at London Fashion Week in the early 2010s while he was still at college. “As I said, I was the guy with the camera in my ends”, Ashley affirms, “so my friend asked if I could come along and take some photos. I think she was blogging at the time and wanted me to get a few snaps here and there, so I went along. It was only a small taste, but even that … like, just being there … I felt quite unwelcome if I’m honest.”

“I loved watching the shows and seeing the vibe, the outrageous outfits and what not”, he continues, “but to be honest, being young and being black, I felt very underrepresented there and I didn’t feel welcome. Even more so for the photographers … and I see it even now doing fashion shows … a lot of the older photographers, they don’t embrace young photographers or female photographers. You’ll see that the photo pits at shows are quite staggered, they’ll build it so it staggers up so you can shoot from higher and higher positions. Usually, you’ll find female photographers sitting on the floor at the front and I was discussing this the other day, they really don’t embrace other people. These guys have been shooting for 25 years plus but they’re just not ready for a new wave of photographers. I still feel like that’s the case.”

(J Hus, shot for Mixmag, August 2017 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

It would be GQ that’d first reach out to Ashley on a fashion tip, purely by chance after seeing some of his music portrait work in a number of smaller, independent magazines. He received a direct message from the then picture editor, who asked if he’d be interested in contributing to GQ — one of the world’s leading fashion monthlies. “That was first proper taste of being able to go to proper shows … you know like an Alexander McQueen show or a Burberry show, Moschino and brands like that. It was completely alien to me at first. I’d find it so weird after Fashion Week, going from there and coming back to the ends … it was such a contrast but at the same time, because of everything that was going on in my ends, it felt good to have that contrast and to know that there’s more out there in the world. A lot of people that get caught up in bad situations, they haven’t been able to see enough. They don’t really know what’s really out there for them to see. People talk about disenfranchisement and not having opportunities but before you get to that stage, it’s not having the knowledge of the opportunities in the first place. People just aren’t aware.”

“A lot of people that get caught up in bad situations, they haven’t been able to see enough. They don’t really know what’s really out there for them to see. People talk about disenfranchisement and not having opportunities but before you get to that stage, it’s not having the knowledge of the opportunities in the first place.”

Just as he’d had a front row seat to grime’s 2.0 explosion, Ashley’s work in fashion also ensured he’d have the best tickets in the house to see it mesh with fashion too; a merger that he was able to document like few others. “There were suddenly a lot more high fashion streetwear brands that were appearing at Fashion Week”, recalls Ashley, “so as well as all the super tailored pieces, you started seeing brands like KTZ, Liam Hodges, Nazir Mazhar …. and tracksuits appearing on catwalks. There was literally one season of that and the next season, Skepta’s walking for Nazir. I think it was rumoured that they were working on a musical collaboration for the show, this was before ‘Shutdown’ too, but he came out and did the catwalk. It just felt amazing to see it. Even the way they did up his tracksuit, you could only see his eyes, so it was a case of ‘if you know, you know’. I got in there for the dress rehearsal and was like, ‘that is Skepta, definitely Skepta’. I managed to grab a quick two minutes with him, no more than that, and I said to him ‘I thought you were doing the music?’ and he kinda just shrugged it off with a smile, like ‘I can do it all’. I mean it had been done before with Cassette Playa who had JME and Tempa T walk in 2007, but I was in year 10 at the time so it was before me and even then, there was a big, big gap before grime was embraced at fashion shows again. The move to bring Skepta in like that did a lot for him and the fashion industry I think and really started the influx of young designers being given the freedom to be more creative and less polished. Suddenly it wasn’t just about suits and you started to see the hinges fall. There’s still a long way to go even now, but that period was so important.”

(Skepta x Nazir Mazhar, 2014)

Ashley told much of the story through his Instagram, which pieced together how and why certain MCs — from Skepta to Jammer to Tinie Tempah — were front row at certain shows and why their music was starting to soundtrack catwalks, because even by this point, the magazines and editorials he was shooting for still didn’t understand the dynamic; why had grime become so influential? It was a question other music titles were more than happy to answer, particularly Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson, who gave Ashley’s work a solid home at Complex UK, and with it, a foundation for him to build from. “He really helped me develop by giving me a place to host my photos from concerts and shows”, explains Ashley, “and he’d then find the right words or connect with the right writers to put everything together. We worked heavily together at that time, which was sick because he gave me a home. I knew that if I’d taken a sick photo, JP would be able to bring it to life.”

For all his trials and tribulations so far, Ashley’s biggest challenge has always been one he’s had to learn on the job; working with artists, teams, editorials, managers, tour managers, agents. “I felt like coming into an industry like this would be bless”, he says sheepishly, “especially coming out of retail. I genuinely thought I’d experience a different energy in music and I wouldn’t have to deal with some of the stuff I’d dealt with before. Everything has a different energy so I came into it like ‘rahhh this is gonna be sick’, but you know, even in music you can’t pick who you work with. I guess there’s always gonna be an office dickhead … they don’t go away in life. My mum always said this to me but it didn’t click for a long time … to learn how to deal with certain characters early because they’re always going to be around, in whatever industry. You’re always gonna encounter energy you might not vibe with, or an interaction that doesn’t work out the way you want it to. Once I stumbled a few times in that sense and that lesson was reaffirmed, I was like ‘alright, cool’. I mean, when I first came up properly in 2013-14, it was a lot easier to speak to artists, so I was able to build up a different level of rapport. Even though it’s different now, being able to work with whoever I liked and build that trust, has helped me get through to new artists and teams I haven’t worked with before … whether that’s striking up conversations on set or having a chat before we shoot. A big thing about working for yourself is that you should be able to work with who you appreciate and vice versa. Essentially, work with who you fuck with.”

“A big thing about working for yourself is that you should be able to work with who you appreciate and vice versa. Essentially, work with who you fuck with.”

It’s a mantra that has served Ashley well, especially with regards to Mabel — an artist he has become a go-to live tour photographer for over the last two years. “I think we’ve done three tours now”, says Ashley, “and she tours all the time, trust me. My first touring experience was actually with Chase & Status in 2015, which was an amazing experience given it was quite early in my career, but by time I got the opportunity to work with Mabel, everything was built on good energies. We didn’t jump straight to tours but I did a headline show for her first and at the time, I was getting booked by different artists or their labels or managers to come and do the odd show here and there, so it wasn’t unusual. But after that first show, I built a really good rapport with her team and they asked me back to do another headline show and another and another. Then I was on tour for a week and it suddenly became like ‘come here, come there’ and I guess I really feel like I’m part of the team now. From Mabel and management right the way down, everyone on her team brings a good vibe and that’s why I enjoy working with her so often. Her work rate is incredible too. There are so many things that I get to see being with her day-to-day … I mean the amount of work her and her team do is crazy.”

(Mabel, 2019 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

Mabel’s tours have taken Ashley across Europe, where she first supported Khalid and has since embarked on her own European tour, and all over the UK — an opportunity that he doesn’t take lightly. Not particularly well-travelled by his own admission, touring has opened Ashley’s eyes to how far his work can go and more recently, has also enabled him to connect with his Bajan heritage too. In essence, his camera has become his passport. “The camera is definitely the thing that’s taken me to most of the places I’ve been in life”, Ashley says. “I mean I’d been on holidays when I was young but nothing crazy, I really hadn’t seen that much before I started taking photos. I’ve been all over Europe, to LA and to Barbados, which is amazing for me because it’s part of my heritage … I’m Bajan and Jamaican. The fact that my camera work here has allowed me to go back home in a sense … it’s mad. It’s always a blessing when I realise how far my camera has taken me. I never imagined I’d be able to see so much.”

There are a slew of highlights in Ashley’s career so far; a first J Hus cover for Mixmag in 2017, THAT Drake image, shooting Chip’s ‘League Of My Own II’ album cover, Frisco’s ‘System Killer’ cover and forthcoming ‘The Familiar Stranger’ album artwork, alongside a lengthy list of music and fashion editorials. “There are so many things I didn’t think were possible when I first picked up my camera”, he admits, “so to work on covers for artists I grew up listening to is a beautiful thing. It’s pushed me to want to do more and hone in on my skills … I worked with Ambush on his album cover recently, Young T & Buggsey … I just didn’t realise how many avenues there are with photography and the deeper I dive, the more I’m finding.”

“There are so many things I didn’t think were possible when I first picked up my camera”

“I’ve been thinking as well”, he continues, “this time has allowed me time to think about refining and elevating what I do. If you’re always working, you don’t get time to work on things like that. If I’m boxing every day, I don’t get time to train … I don’t get time to get in the gym and work on my technique. We get so used to the speed that we work at that we forget everything else. It makes us misjudge the importance of things sometimes … not everything is the be all and end all. Just take time, de-stress and you can deal with things so much better. It feels good to be at ease right now and that energy is something I wanna maintain as I move forward.”

You can keep up-to-date with Ashley’s work via his website:

https://www.ashleyverse.co.uk/

Aniefiok Ekpoudom

On books, lyricism, language, telling stories, putting people first, class, UK rap and the Black British experience.

(All images submitted by Aniefiok Ekpoudom)

I last saw Aniefiok Ekpoudom in the summer of 2018. We caught up and chatted about some potential press opportunities over an in-and-out lunch at Nando’s on Kensington High Street. It was brief, but I left feeling like he was on the cusp of something. In the time that’s passed since, he’s become one of the most important young music writers in the country, meshing together a unique, flowing writing style with an innate desire to tell stories. He earns the trusts of his subjects quickly — “a lot of people don’t realise how important researching around an interview is” — and explores and unpicks their thoughts, feelings, emotions in way few others can; he sees the human first. His work, always honest and pure in gaze, has helped capture the spirit of Black British music — British rap in particular — and set him on his way to start scaling new heights in the coming years. As his FaceTime window opens up on Friday night, I find Aniefiok in typically relaxed mood, calm in manner, beard game extremely strong.

“I was thinking, how am I gonna document culture without leaving my house?”, asks Aniefiok as we discuss the challenges that lockdown has thrown up over the last six months. “New music and a lot of rap especially blows in the club or at carnival and places like that, so where do you go now for music to take off? It was definitely a big shift for me, trying to adjust to that. I spent a lot of time listening to No Signal, which felt like a night out when you were locked in but also a great place to access music. It was interesting to see how music they’d play would impact on the people listening as well. I remember the ‘Dior’ Remix and that ended up turning into a thing in itself because they played it during the breaks of the NS10v10 clashes. To be honest, that aside, I wasn’t really taking much new stuff in though, I found myself going back to the music I used to listen to and albums I’d forgotten about. Podcasts, too. I think we really felt the value of them … there’s something that podcasts can do that music can’t do, especially in terms of tapping into immediate emotions and feelings. You get a sense of community from them as well, so being able to have that without being able to physically be in one place was important for me.”

It’s this theme of community that was central to Aniefiok getting through a difficult lockdown period. Born in Lewisham to Nigerian parents, but raised predominantly in Orpington on the fringes of South London alongside twin brother Ukeme, it was how lockdown affected the people and communities around him — friends, neighbours, church — that put things in perspective. “There’s a great community of Nigerian families and West African families where I live in Orpington”, he explains, “and I guess usually we’d be in and out of each other’s houses and you’d be seeing people at church, popping round to friend’s houses and whatever, so to see that suddenly shut off was quite hard. Not just for me, but especially for my mum. I remember I just started walking to my friend’s house and he’d be in the window and I’d just chat to him from outside … there wasn’t really much else I could do. That in itself really highlighted the importance of community.”

“I was born in Lewisham and lived there for about nine years but I always say that I’m from Orpington”, he continues, “and there’s definitely a massive contrast between the two. Obviously there’s a lot more greenery and the pace of life is a lot slower than Lewisham, but I also first felt aware of my race when I got to Orpington because everyone was white apart from two kids at my primary school. Teachers were even highlighting race to me as a nine year old, which is kinda crazy when you think about it. I’ve got a twin brother and I remember our teacher saying to us on our first day, “don’t you bring your Lewisham rubbish to our school”. Thinking about it, it’s mad to think she felt that she could say that to us as nine year olds.”

“Teachers were even highlighting race to me as a nine year old, which is kinda crazy when you think about it. I’ve got a twin brother and I remember our teacher saying to us on our first day, ‘don’t you bring your Lewisham rubbish to our school’.”

“We just got on with it”, he says, as I ask how he remembers dealing with it. “At that age, there was no real problem with the kids themselves because at that point, you don’t really recognise race properly. I also learned that racism was very much learnt behaviour, something people pass down, fathers to sons, mothers to daughters. In terms of school, it was fine though to be honest. I always say I don’t miss school but I had a great time in general. Some of those racial experiences are a bit crazy looking back though and it taught me a lot about how people see race in this country. There’s a big mix, not necessarily racially, but certainly class wise in Orpington so to be able to experience how all those different perspectives on race co-exist is interesting … you know, how where you come from and what you experience shapes how you see the world.”

During his childhood, music was certainly omnipresent too. “It was always a big thing”, Aniefiok explains, “in a West African house, a) there’s always a lot of music playing and b) there’s always house parties, hall parties and church of course. It became normal for me to just to these places and just sit and listen to Highlife by massive speakers, which was always good fun. My dad had a really eclectic taste in music too, so he’d have songs from Nigeria that were personal to him, but he was also into things like Soca, Reggae, Michael Jackson … and he had a massive CD collection. It ended up with him buying me and my brother CDs. I’m not really sure how he knew what was of our age, but it started with Usher when I was like, 9 or 10, and soon progressed to Eminem and maybe Snoop Dogg. That’s where I first found my music taste I’d say, but then also in school … actually I don’t really know what I was listening to but I remember in year 8, I discovered Tinie Tempah. But I mean grime Tinie Tempah, like ‘Chapter 1: Verse 1-22’ and all those mixtapes … that definitely started my love for grime and UK rap music. I always get defensive when people say ‘ah Tinie only made ‘Wifey’ and that’s it’ because I’m always like ‘you don’t know he had these three or four mixtapes before’. I’m kind of an obsessive person anyway, so when I find something that I’m interested in, I really take to it and that set me on my way. I started using Bluetooth to share tunes with friends, I was finding new music on YouTube and forums albeit fleetingly, listening to Logan Sama on Monday nights … and then I think Giggs came around. Randomly, around that time, I found a Mos Def and Talib Kweli song called ‘Thieves In The Night’ and that’s when my interest in rap really took off if I’m honest. I still think that’s probably one of the best rap songs of all time … I remember thinking, ‘wow, what is this?’ … they were literally telling stories and even though I was only 15, it really impacted on me. Just hearing how poetic they were, Mos Def especially … you know when you’re a kid and you just hear a song and it’s like, ‘this music speaks to me!’. It was one of those moments.”

Inspired, Aniefiok started to read everything he could about rap music in the US – “I became such a book nerd” — and began expanding his knowledge on 90s golden era rap albums and the foundations of hip-hop. Already an avid reader — his mum bought him books by the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and Nigerian author, Chinua Echebe — he listened to countless hours of music, read books, essays, interviews and almost anything else he could get his hands on. But rather than fall in love with a specific sound or certain type of beat, Aniefiok was fixated on the lyricism and the stories that rappers were telling. “I just couldn’t get over how descriptive this music was”, he recalls thoughtfully, “like Nas – ‘Illmatic’, the first three albums by Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang … I found it really interesting how they’d all come out of this one area in New York as well.”

He soon realised that within the lyricism, sometimes between the lines but often front and centre, rap music held up a mirror to society too. It was complex and nuanced, an important vehicle for rappers to speak up about their lives and experiences, and the way they were treated and viewed by the communities they lived in. “I feel like I speak a lot about music, but my interest has always been in what they’re trying to say and what their lyrics mean. I’d never find myself asking about composition or sonics, I’d always be asking about what artists were going through, how they were feeling, what certain lyrics were reflective of. I always remember there was this Nas line off ‘Illmatic’ … I think it’s from ‘The World Is Yours’ … where he says ‘I’m amped up, they locked the champ up, even my brain’s in handcuffs’. That line tells you what was going on in New York at that specific time … Mike Tyson was champion of the world, he’s locked up in prison and so on. I just feel there are so many stories like that encased in their lyrics.”

“I’d never find myself asking about composition or sonics, I’d always be asking about what artists were going through, how they were feeling, what certain lyrics were reflective of.”

After excelling at English at school, Aniefiok headed to the University of East Anglia in Norwich to study Law. “I didn’t enjoy my course but had a great time”, he recalls, “and I kind of only stayed because it was the last year before the fees trebled.” Throughout his three years in Norwich, he’d go onto meet ‘loads of different people’, all of whom opened his eyes to the realities of the class system in the UK; never before had it felt so important or so obvious. “In Orpington everyone was kind of thrown in together, it was a big mix of people, where as at university it was so apparent … people insisted on talking about it”, he explains. “I had no idea how important the class system was in this country until then. There was also the whole North-South divide thing going on, which felt even bigger because I’d never really been up north before. Just meeting people from all over the UK was interesting. I mean I lived with someone from York who is still one of my good friends today, and I’d never met anyone from York before. It was a really good experience in that sense.”

Determined to make the most of his time, he joined both the university’s creative writing and skydiving (!) societies, with the former proving its worth almost immediately. Attending once a week, he started to hone in on a writing style and, inspired by his long-held love of rap, soon felt confident enough to start self-publishing album reviews via a DIY blog. It’d lead to his first big breakthrough during the summer of his second year, too. “I’d discovered Twitter in my first year but in second year, I made this account where I’d just tweet rap lyrics and quotes”, he says, “and to be honest I should have kept it up, I probably would have made a bit of money out of it today! Anyway, I was on that account and I started writing about music, especially UK music. I was really into US rap stuff and reading about it for hours, but no one was really doing the same for the artists over here, no one was talking about the music culturally. I started writing blog posts and reviews … some would probably be now classed as think pieces to be honest. I think the first one I wrote was about Giggs and his struggle to perform, where he was constantly getting blocked by the police. I was trying to analyse the relationship between Giggs and the state basically.”

“I remember being on Twitter one afternoon and I saw that Link Up TV had tweeted about looking for new writers to contribute to their blog”, he continues. “They’d asked anyone interested to email with examples of work, so I just forwarded my stuff over. The editor at the time, Adenike Derrick, gave me a shot and that was it. My first interview was with George The Poet, which was for an e-mail style magazine that Link Up were doing and aside from that, I’d just be blogging while I could at university. Sometimes, when I was back in London, I’d go along to interviews with Rashid (Link Up TV founder) and prepare the questions for him to interview people like J Spades or Jammer or whatever. They were my first experiences of actually speaking to artists I really enjoyed listening to and getting my head around how everything worked.” How did it feel speaking to artists for the first time, I wondered. “I was kind of okay with it I think”, he says, breaking into a smile. “George The Poet was fine, but I think the first time where I became aware that maybe I had something was with Smiler, who was like my third interview I think. I’d gone along to my first press day to interview him and I was only about 20. I remember I started to ask him questions about certain lyrics in his tracks and I remember the reaction in the room … everyone was like ‘you’ve done your research, rah’. From that moment, it clicked in my head that this is how it was gonna work. Like, if you want to have an interesting conversation with someone, show them that you’re interested in what they’ve presented and what they have to say.”

“..if you want to have an interesting conversation with someone, show them that you’re interested in what they’ve presented and what they have to say.”

It was a realisation that’d spark Aniefiok’s curiosity once again. Just as he’d tasked himself with reading everything he could about rap music in the US, now he wanted to find out who the best music writers were; how did they interview people, what were they writing about, who were they speaking to? “I’d research as much as I could and go and study those people and their work”, he explains. “I left university in 2013 and still wasn’t really sure if a career in music could really mean something, but I remember having a meeting with my careers counsellor just after my final exams. She asked me what I wanted to do once I graduated and obviously I had this law degree and I actually found competition law quite interesting, so we talked a bit about that, but then she asked what else I enjoyed. I told her about blogging for Link Up TV and spoke about how much I loved music and musicians. We got to the end of the interview and she said, ‘well, the only time you smiled at all during that was when you talked about music, so you should probably focus your energy there’. It gave me the push I needed to try get into the industry.”

After returning home to Orpington, he started to write long-form stories — akin to pieces he’d read in The Fader and The New York Times — and began familiarising himself with the websites and titles that were covering the music he was interested in. It would be PR that’d grant Aniefiok his first industry break however, landing a six-month internship at Sian Anderson’s Sigh-Tracked agency — “PR was interesting, you had to proper learn the art but I was a bit too introverted for it I think” — before joining SBTV alongside a strong team of writers headed up by then editor, Ash Houghton. “Thinking back, I’d actually spent a year at a marketing agency the year before all this happened”, he recalls, “and when that was coming to an end, I decided to travel for a bit. I headed out to Hong Kong and Japan for a few months because a friend of mine at the same agency had recommended I do it and then headed to the US for a little while straight afterwards. It was there that I made the decision to really go for it and try and break into music, so the minute I got back I started to speak to the people I could reach in London, the artists who were making the right noises. So in 2015, I interviewed Kojey Radical, Nego True, George The Poet for a second time … as well as some MCs … I was doing it consistently in my spare time basically. I also did a random stint at The MOBO Awards’ 20th Anniversary show too and then I remember Ash just sent me a DM on Twitter one day saying he had a job at SBTV if I wanted it. I ended up staying for a year and a half and that was the place I really found myself as a writer. We just had so much freedom to create and I felt confident bringing my ideas to the table. Big up Ash because, well we had similar tastes … he was really into reading and interviews so he put me onto people like Howard Stern and others who were skilled in the art of asking questions. I picked up a lot of what I know now during my time there.”

Aniefiok would also help pioneer a new series during his time at SBTV. With Ash’s backing, the pair launched a long-form, in conversation series (‘A Day With’) that would see Aniefiok shadow a chosen artist for a day, alongside a photographer. It’d result in some of the richest and most insightful content of the SBTV website era and became a calling card for Aniefiok himself — he’d finally found his voice. “The first artist we spent a day with was Angel in West London”, he recalls. “We went to his mum’s house and then he took us around his local area which was cool. All his brothers were with him too and WSTRN were with him at points, but I think it was before they were WSTRN if you know what I mean. The second one was with Giggs the day before he released ‘The Landlord’ in 2015, which was thanks to Jamal and his connections … he just had the access you know. We spent a day driving around East London with Giggs, chatting as we went … I mean it’s insane when I think about it now. The third one was with Jaykae in Birmingham, which is where I got the idea to start covering music and musicians outside of the London bubble and looking at how their experiences might have been different. It was such a rewarding time back then because I was able to find out what I wanted to cover and which direction I wanted to go in.”

What makes a good story, I wondered. “I think it’s just honesty”, explains Aniefiok, “and I’ve always been drawn to those characters that have an element of authenticity about them. Giggs and Jaykae are very good examples of that because their music is so open and honest. For me, interviews will always start with a song as well and they’ll definitely bleed into the writing. Like, there’ll be a song or even just a line in a song that I hear that’ll make me think ‘oh wow, this is vulnerable and honest and I like what you’re trying to say here’. Some artists are just amazing characters anyway but that’s usually the start or the entry point for me. If it’s going well, there’ll usually be a moment where the barrier breaks as a musician and you can kinda get into who they are as a person. Sometimes it can happen off the bat, where as some times you really have to work for it and even then, some artists might not be in the right place or frame of mind to talk about certain things. And you have to respect that.”

After leaving SBTV in late 2016 following the website’s closure, Aniefiok decided to go freelance — “it was on a whim really” — with the belief that he’d find his way. He began freelancing for Noisey and The Fader shortly afterwards, but there was no road map, nothing was set in stone. “Looking back, I had a lot of faith”, he says shyly, “I mean I was always into self help books and stuff like that but I had nothing concrete at all. With Noisey, I decided that I really wanted to document culture, especially British rap culture and with that, black music more generally. One of the first pieces I did for them was with Bugzy Malone, which picked up where I left off with the Jaykae piece for SBTV. I was able to spend a day in Manchester with Bugzy, we went back to his old estate and had a really interesting conversation. From that piece, I started to move in that direction quite intentionally because I was always interested in seeing how my upbringing and experiences at school compared to my friends, so through speaking to these artists, I could extend that to look at how Birmingham differed to London and how Manchester differed to Birmingham and how different London is from the rest of the UK. I guess I just really wanted to cover culture and be able to look back on my work in 10, 20 years time, flick through it and think ‘yeah, you had an accurate read of what was going on in the country at the time’. That in itself helped me hone my craft as a writer as well, to the point where in 2017 I started to enjoy writing more than I enjoyed music. That was a big moment for me.”

“I guess I just really wanted to cover culture and be able to look back on my work in 10, 20 years time, flick through it and think ‘yeah, you had an accurate read of what was going on in the country at the time’.”

“I felt like a lot of black artists in this country weren’t getting covered with the nuance that their music deserved either”, Aniefiok continues. “The music is so rich and the stories within the music are so rich … they’re saying so much about the country we live in, the conditions people are coming from. I felt like the coverage wasn’t really reflecting that, you know. In the US, hip hop was celebrated for it but UK rap and grime over here … nobody really spoke about it in that sense. I felt like it was really important to try and cover it in that depth and with care, and really show people who the humans were beneath the music.”

His passion — “essentially I always want to document British culture through the lens of UK rap and grime” — matched by his gift for writing vivid long-form prose soon piqued the interest of the newspapers and world-renowned titles like Vogue. “A lot of my relationships are built on trust”, explains Aniefiok. “Like, at The Guardian for example, I feel like I’ve built a good level of trust with Ben (Beaumont-Thomas) and Laura (Snapes) over time and they trust me to deliver on certain stories. When I was first establishing myself there, there’d be a lot of back-and-forth on my pitches and ideas, and also I was aware I’d be telling stories but in a way that would make sense to their tone and general style. It’s always interesting writing for national newspapers because the readership is so broad … you really have to qualify what you’re saying. It was a challenge at first, but I feel like it’s really sharpened my skills as a writer and I’m grateful for that.”

A slew of standout pieces with The Guardian over the last 18 months — including July’s Film & Music cover piece on Headie One — have quickly cemented his reputation as one of the best young story-tellers in the country. But Aniefiok’s work isn’t limited to interviews and profiles. In 2019, he was asked to contributed to Derek Owusu’s ‘SAFE’ — an anthology comprised of 20 essays written by 20 Black British men about the Black British male experience. “I wrote my essay about Orpington”, he notes, “and it was the first time I’d been able to write with that much freedom. I called it ‘The Sticks’ and it was about growing up in the suburbs and dealing with racism and stuff like that … I just wanted to give my perspective on life and my experiences, what I’d seen and been exposed to. I’m not particularly good at politics or working politics into my writing, I don’t think it’s my strength, but it’s crazy to think that people consider race to be politics. Anyway, I caught the bug and continued to write my own essays and I guess and it made me think about writing my own book.”

“I’m not particularly good at politics or working politics into my writing, I don’t think it’s my strength, but it’s crazy to think that people consider race to be politics.

Although still in the process of writing, Aniefiok signed a deal to write his first book earlier this year. “I had it set in my head that I was gonna write books from that 2017 stage I think”, he explains, “and because of the way I naturally write anyway, I’ve not found the writing side of it too bad. I actually remember speaking to Sian Anderson once and she said reading my writing was like reading a script, which is something that’s always stood out to me. My writing is probably more in keeping with that style than it is journalism in a traditional sense, so I’m enjoying the freedom and also having so many words to really craft a narrative and a story in a way that you wouldn’t have the time or the space to usually. I feel like I’m not fully into the nitty gritty of the writing stage yet, so I’m looking forward to doing that over the next few months.” The book itself — a narrative non-fiction to be titled ‘Where We Come From’ — aims to explore the impact that British rap has had on different communities across the UK. “As I’ve said a few times, I’m really interested in looking at people’s experiences in different parts of the country”, says Aniefiok, “but it’s crazy that now, after thinking about it for so long, I get to write my own book about it all.”

“I actually remember speaking to Sian Anderson once and she said reading my writing was like reading a script.”

Further essays have followed recently too, including his first piece for Vogue regarding the music industry’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd, and he’s also been commissioned to write an essay for Merky Books — the publishing house established by Stormzy in 2019. “Calum Jacobs, who runs a great magazine called CARICOM which looks at the black experience in football, is putting together his first book”, Aniefiok notes, “which will be comprised of a series of essays about black footballers in the British game. I’ve not written mine yet but I’m looking forward to that. I love football, it’s a major passion, so I’m happy to be able contribute. I mean, for me, sports writing is some of the best out there and has always been a big inspiration, so I’m really excited to write in that space.”

Our conversation then returns to George Floyd. “I stopped watching the videos of black men and women getting killed on camera a long time ago”, says Aniefiok. “As soon as it happened, I was aware of it, but the videos were painful to watch and I didn’t want to subject myself to that. I get that the videos help spread awareness too but in those times, I was thinking of the families … like, your son or your brother or your dad’s last moments are just being broadcast all over the Internet. I remember the George Floyd murder actually happened in the same week as Amy Cooper too … I think that was her name … calling the police on a black man from a park in New York. It just showed the two injunctions … one incident was overtly racist and the other served as proof of what can happen if racism is tolerated and allowed to spread. I went to protest but just thinking about the fact we had to go to protest during lockdown … that feeling of having to show what our lives were worth in the middle of a global pandemic … it was crazy. The conversation around it extended a lot longer than usual which was interesting to see though and I think we saw people, especially white people, actually come around to the idea of trying to understand what black people had been through, which was good. In Britain, we’ve got a society where everybody is hush hush about things that actually matter, we don’t really talk about too much, but I feel like the shockwaves of that incident have made people talk and given people the space to share their stories. It made me realise that everybody is going through the same stuff, you know.”

“I went to protest but just thinking about the fact we had to go to protest during lockdown … that feeling of having to show what our lives were worth in the middle of a global pandemic … it was crazy.”

“I knew it was a subject I couldn’t ignore but equally I knew I didn’t have to write everything in response”, he continues. “We all have certain strengths so when Hattie Collins asked me to write the piece for Vogue, and big up her for that, I had that in mind. There are loads of writers who are really good at commentating on race and how it links to politics and society, so I was conscious of not just adding my voice out of ego or anything like that. What I did want to do was portray things a bit differently. A lot of the time, you’ll open a magazine and there’s always a black person talking specifically about race. As a black person, you don’t wake up thinking ‘yeah I’m black’, sometimes you might just wake up and think about football or music, do you know what I mean? I wanted to show that we’re just normal people with different experiences and as much as race is a very big and important thing to talk about, especially at the moment, there are different shades to the Black British experience. As well as the Vogue piece, I also wrote about No Signal for The Guardian which was more of a celebration, because they’re a great example of how the Black community has come together during lockdown. I wrote a piece on Tion Wayne for Noisey too, which delved into his specific experiences growing up in Edmonton. I guess I find it really frustrating when publications only want to speak to a black person about race, because we can talk about so much more.”

Given the impact Aniefiok’s work has already made, not only within music but also wider cultural spheres, there is no doubt that he’s destined for even greater things — but just how much more is there to come? “I feel like I’ve only done about five percent of what I want to do”, he says assuredly. “There’s so much more work to be done and I’m impatient which doesn’t help, but I really want to continue documenting Black British culture … that’ll always be very personal to me. I’d like to go into fiction at some point too and eventually broaden out, maybe into football, and screenplays are definitely something I’d like to explore moving forward.”

“I’ve also been learning a lot about how, socially, nothing is a mistake”, he continues. “It’s like when I did this Headie One piece for The Guardian. Headie’s from Broadwater Farm so you start researching the area and how that place was put together. He’s Ghanaian too, so you start seeing the mix of Ghanaians of Jamaicans in Broadwater Farm and how that, combined with everything else from a conditioning standpoint, steers the choices that people make in their lives. The time people spend in a certain place and where they might come from often has a huge impact on the decisions they’ll make, so that’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate into my work. You hear in it in the music again too. I remember in that piece I quoted one lyric from one of his early freestyles where he’s like, ‘do what comes to mind, fuck karma’ and it’s no accident that he’s said that. It’s the product of so many different things, social layers and conditions … you’ve got to think about everything that would make a young kid feel and react in that way. That extra level of detail and understanding is something I really want to start channeling in my pieces.”

You can read more of Aniefiok’s work via his website:

https://aniefiokekpoudom.com/

— Naina —

On pop music, working dead end jobs, Southampton, cats, Reprezent Radio, Apple Music, DJing and the benefits of running a label with your best friend.

(All photos submitted by Naina)

Chances are, if you’ve been paying close attention to electronic music over the last four years, you’ll have heard the name, Naina. You’ll have probably heard her voice, too. And no doubt you’ll have caught one of her sets, either IRL or online. As a DJ, broadcaster and record label founder, she’s left quite a mark of late, cutting through the noise alongside a tight-knit crew of fellow DJs and artists who are helping to not only signpost the future, but design it. As we catch up on a busy Wednesday afternoon, Naina still relentlessly in-demand and working as hard as ever, she seems relaxed and content — after all, she did buy a cat during lockdown. “I mean it’s been a shit-show of a year hasn’t it?”, she asks gloomily, “Obviously, everyone’s been affected by Coronavirus, but I’ve kinda seen it as the universe asking everyone to just chill out a bit … and hit reset.”

Like her flat mates, Naina made the decision to pack up and leave London soon after lockdown was implemented back in March— “I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to stay with my parents for a bit” — moving back out to her family home near Windsor in Buckinghamshire. It was here that Naina’s story began; she was born in Ascot — “my mum wanted Ascot on my birth certificate rather than Slough!” — and grew up spending time most of her time between Reading and London; the two closest big cities. Her childhood was quiet and fairly unremarkable; she recalls spending time with her older sister, who listened to Deftones and went to Reading Festival every year, but also by her own admission, found herself tucked away in her bedroom for hours, listening to pop. Her parents, both Indian by heritage, were born in Africa — her dad in Kenya and her mum in Uganda — and although not particularly musical, enjoyed listening to Bollywood music, mainly from some of their favourite film soundtracks. “I remember Bollywood soundtracks on tape”, Naina recalls, “and driving to see family in Croydon with them playing on loop. I can’t even speak the language but I know every word to those songs. My name Naina actually translates to mean ‘eyes’ in Hindi and it’s in loads of Bollywood and Indian songs, so I’d always hear it and be like, ‘ahh that’s my name!’. I guess it made me a lot more open to that sound and that style of music. I actually did a mix recently for Azeema Mag, which basically pays tribute to the music I heard growing up through my parents, something I’ve never done before. I think I should try and show that side of me more, now more than ever.”

“My name Naina actually translates to mean ‘eyes’ in Hindi and it’s in loads of Bollywood and Indian songs, so I’d always hear it and be like, ‘ahh that’s my name!’. I guess it made me a lot more open to that sound and that style of music.”

“Thinking about it, I just fucking loved pop music though to be honest”, she continues with a smile. “I think there’s a lot of people who are really into electronic music now, who used to listen to fucking everything as kids”, Naina also muses, “and I think a lot of them probably listened to bands a lot. I was so open-minded with music growing up .. I mean I was really into The Fugees, I remember having an album on CD, but also people like The Sugababes and All Saints. Primarily, as I got older, it was bands though … I guess you could say it was a bit all over the place. The first time I really got into dance music was through a band called The Faint … I didn’t even know where they were from or where I’d first heard them but they were so left … and also listening to bands like Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and stuff like that. The dance elements of their music made me explore that side of music more and I opened my eyes to producers like Rustie. From there, I just fell into it.”

It was only at 18 that she first started to lay roots elsewhere, heading to Southampton Solent University to study music journalism, where she would go onto meet close friends, music publicist and all-round industry polymath, Mitchell Stevens and DJ, producer and visual artist, Morgan Hislop. “I met Mitchell on my course, we were both studying the same degree and we were both clearly music heads”, Naina recalls. “I remember I first met him and I thought, ‘I hate you, I actually hate you’ (laughs) but then fast forward a week and boom, we were best friends. We hung out and he was DJing quite a bit at the time and I remember just really wanting to DJ too. I was always the person at house parties picking out the music, so I ended up asking my mum to buy me a controller for my birthday … just one of those cheap, plastic things that look like toys. We’d come back to mine after nights out and just mix until the early hours and after a while, I ended up putting some of my mixes on Soundcloud. Slowly, I guess people started to take notice.”

“I was always the person at house parties picking out the music, so I ended up asking my mum to buy me a controller for my birthday … just one of those cheap, plastic things that look like toys.”

“I remember Morgan as well”, she continues, “he was actually putting on club nights in Southampton at the time and reached out to ask if I wanted to play one of them. It ended up with us all becoming really good friends, united by this idea to try and push a certain type of electronic music. I remember when Disclosure first came onto the scene … it must have been 10 years ago … we had them play for us at this club called Unit in the city. They ended up coming to my student house afterwards and playing an after party set. I mean, we all knew they were sick but other people still weren’t aware of how good they were.”

After graduating, Naina was intent on finding a job in music. Through her degree, she’d managed to find a bit of writing work but her passion lay in DJing, radio, broadcasting — she wanted to become a voice. After being asked to record a guest mix for Reprezent Radio back at university in Southampton, she became aware that the station was now on the look out for new talent. Not daunted by her lack of practical experience, she got in touch and applied, with the station quick to draft her in to start covering shows. “Back then, the big name on Reprezent was Jamilla or Jamz (Supernova) and her Future Bounce show, as well as Martha”, explains Naina. “It was really weird because I was balancing trying to get into radio with an awful sales job I was doing to pay my rent, and before that, I’d been working in this terrible bar in Maidenhead called Smokey Joe’s. There’s a dreadful photo of me out there from the one time they forced me to be a shot girl for the night. I’ll never live it down.”

Ironically, it was the sales job that’d bring Naina to London full time. She’d impressed in an entry-level corporate role and was offered a promotion, which saw her moved to offices in London. Commuting each day, she found herself becoming enamoured with everything the city had to offer. “I loved it so much, I ended up moving to London in the end”, Naina notes. “I carried on doing the sales job for a while but it got to a point where I was doing so much music stuff that I really wanted to give that a go properly. I felt like I was at the age I could take the risk and I mean, luckily it definitely paid off. I started having coffees will people, just meeting up with people and putting out the feelers. I’d been pre-recording a late night Wednesday night show on Reprezent for a while at this point and me leaving my job coincided with them asking me to do the 7-9pm slot every Friday night, but live. I remember thinking ‘fuck yes’ and then texting Reprezent station manager, Adrian, like ‘life update, I’ve quit my job and I’ve got a month to find something else, but even if I have to move back home, I still wanna commit to the Friday night show’ kinda thing. He messaged me back almost straight away like, ‘how old are you?’ and thought, ‘ahh shit, is he kicking me off the station?’, because back then Rep really was the voice of young London and I thought maybe I was too old. He was like, ‘I need some production work doing’, which was great for me because I’d spent two years recording, editing and sending in my show anyway. I’ve always been really interested in that side of it … working out how Final Cut works, thinking about how to stitch this or that together, using Audition. I taught those things myself but Adrian was happy to put in the hours to help brush those skills up once I started. It was supposed to be a three-month contract but I definitely outstayed my welcome.”

Naina stayed on indefinitely and was soon made Head of Production at the station; “it was such an exciting time to join”, she recalls, “because it was just levelling up constantly.” Alongside fellow presenters like Joe Walker, Jeremiah Asiamah, Henrie, Scully and Sherelle — not to mention the other 100+ presenters across the station roster — she quickly became an important part of the Reprezent fabric. Closely aligned in terms of ambition, dedication and a natural flair for broadcasting, their shows soon became destination spots for those looking to get their ears around some of the best music and debate London and beyond had to offer. Her own Friday night slot, now running for close to five years, is a perfect example; from first mixing her favourite new music solidly for two hours each week, she’s since built in a guest mix slot that’s seen everyone from Machinedrum to Ikonika join her live in the studio. 

“I’ve gone through a bit of a rollercoaster with my show because when I was first got it, I thought to myself ‘right, this is a Friday night slot, so don’t be playing any more Kelela or James Blake anymore’”, Naina reflects. “I knew I had to switch it up a little bit. I decided to make it a club music show that catered for people like me, people who listen to all sorts of different electronic music. Whether it’s footwork or funky, it doesn’t matter, it’s just under one umbrella. I have to be aware that it’s an FM station too, so I’m conscious of not playing anything too niche for too long, and also as a radio producer I’m naturally always thinking about the audience that are tapped in listening. I generally try and balance the sounds of more familiar producers like Bicep or Four Tet with new underground stuff that I rate or might have discovered myself. It’s been really nice to see it grow organically, because I started out recording make-shift shows from my bedroom, so after doing it live for while, I just thought, ‘do you know what, I’m gonna invite all the people I love down to the show’. I always aim to spotlight new producers and maybe DJs that haven’t had the chance to be on the radio before where I can too, as well as going big and shooting for the stars. I’m lucky to call so many of my guest my friends now.”

Then there was The xx’s ‘Night + Day’ series —a week-long program of events that saw The xx partner with Reprezent and Young Turks to broadcast specially-curated shows, as well as afterparties, live performance broadcasts and cinema events in advance of their record-breaking run of sold-out gigs (7!) at Brixton Academy in March 2017. “It was one of the most surreal weeks of my life”, admits Naina, “but I fucking loved it. I mean, The xx were doing the drive-time show every day, like … ah it was incredible. I remember Robyn coming down and me losing my shit because she’s an absolute icon, Sampha was there one day … it was just mad. For that whole week, XL and Young Turks basically moved into the station as well, they’d all just be sat on the floor with their laptops open. What was also so beautiful about that week was that so many Reprezent presenters volunteered to just help out. Everyone was so happy to see the station winning and just wanted to get involved any way that they could.”

“We had some special moments too”, she continues. “I remember we all got to go to the Young Turks afterparty and we all got invited to watch The xx soundcheck at Brixton Academy, which was incredible because they asked us to go on stage with them. The funny thing was that my sister, who lives near Bristol, had already got us tickets to see The xx that week so I told her to come to London a few days early, thinking she could tag along with me at work and whatever. She ended up meeting the band and coming along to that sound check, which I think was the moment she finally stopped and thought, ‘actually my little sister is actually pretty cool’.” The ‘Night + Day’ week was the first to really hammer home just how much of an impact Reprezent Radio was having on young London, serving as a primer of sorts to a visit by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle the following year. Through tireless graft and intelligent programming — “we’re like one big dysfunctional family” — Naina and co had put the station firmly on the map. 

The dedication doesn’t just stop at Naina and her fellow presenters either. During lockdown, she’s not missed a single show, thanks largely to the perseverance and foresight of station manager, Adrian. “He saw this all coming”, Naina explains, “like honestly, he was on top of the lockdown situation so early. I was all in denial thinking everything would be fine and he was busy packing up the whole station back in March. Reprezent has two studios, as well as extra equipment at Bussey Building in Peckham where we do our training, and Adrian got all of it together and then went driving around to drop off essential bits to everyone he could. He drove all the way to my parents house in Buckinghamshire to drop off some CDJs and a sound card, like what the hell? He drew up a list of the equipment everyone had and then he’d fill in the gaps, basically making sure that everybody with a regular show had the capability to broadcast live from home. Someone will switch me over via a laptop remotely and then using this amazing software called BUTT, I’m able to connect to the Rep server. Station manager Adrian has been the one patching me through recently, he gets a takeaway every Friday night and listens to my show to make sure I’m not cutting out. Sometimes, he’ll text me like ‘you’re dropping out, get off the WiFi, get your parents off the WiFi, stop watching Netflix.”

“Station manager Adrian has been the one patching me through recently, he gets a takeaway every Friday night and listens to my show to make sure I’m not cutting out. Sometimes, he’ll text me like ‘you’re dropping out, get off the WiFi, get your parents off the WiFi, stop watching Netflix.”

What was the energy like recording from home, I ask. “The first few times I did it, it did feel really weird. I mean, you don’t even get a friendly nod from whoever is working on the show with you like you would at the studio and I miss getting guests in with me as well. I remember I did an interview with India Jordan on the day they released their ‘For You’ EP and they were in the park celebrating with the Local Action lot. I rang them, we did the interview and it went really well … even they were like, ‘that was such a good interview’ … and it didn’t record. We had to do the exact same interview again and it sounded probably better second time around, but little things like that have been frustrating.”

“I remember I did an interview with India Jordan on the day they released their ‘For You’ EP and they were in the park celebrating with the Local Action lot. I rang them, we did the interview and it went really well … even they were like, ‘that was such a good interview’ … and it didn’t record.”

It all feels a far cry from her work at Apple Music, formerly known until recently as Beats 1, where she’s worked on playlist shows (The Apple Music 1 List) — as well as covering for Matt Wilkinson — for the last three years. “They just sent me a mic during lockdown”, Naina says. “I record for them two, three times a week but rather than a full show, I’ll just record dry links, which I then send into the producers who piece it all together into a show, which is incredible really. They’re a really great team to work with, because they push you … the demands are different and starting there was so exciting, it was like a fresh start you know. I put everything I knew about radio to the back of my mind and went in there ready to learn again.”

Tapping back into her love of music from across a broad spectrum of scenes, Naina’s playlist show work at Apple Music has also sharpened her broadcasting skills; rather than curate shows, she’s there to to voice them, to serve as people’s access point for the music that they’re consuming. Offset by her cover show work with Matt Wilkinson which gives her the chance to do ‘loads of ridiculous things’ — “I did an M.I.A. tribute mix for no reason other than it was her birthday” — Naina has quickly come to realise how different being a radio DJ is to being a radio presenter. “The two roles are so different”, she acknowledges. “The way that Annie Mac records her show for example … it’s about what she’s saying, how she’s saying it, how she’s using her voice … she’s a broadcaster. It’s amazing that people like her can DJ too, because they can also shut it down anywhere and run festivals, host stages and run parties. That is what I love. I love being a voice, more so than anything.” Is that where Naina sees herself, I wonder. “Yeah I think so. I mean it’s weird because I started out DJing before I started out at radio but as I did more of it, I realised that I just loved chatting shit about music. Now it’s got to the point where people are actually listening to me and want to know what I think or what I’m listening to, which is sick.”

That’s not to say Naina plans on scaling back her DJ career any time soon, mind. Last summer, she posted a tweet from a newly setup Twitter account called ‘@hooversoundrecs’. Alongside close friend and fellow DJ, Sherelle — herself one of 2019’s breakout DJ success stories — the pair had long-agonised, debated and gone back-and-forth over the merits of starting their own label. On August 22nd, the tweet, simply detailing a spinning logo GIF and a basic message asking producers if they’d like to send demos went viral, and Hooversound was born. “I remember a lot of people talking about starting a label and just saying how long it was”, Naina recalls, breaking out into laughter. “But thinking about it, I remember Sherelle really stood out to me at Rep because when I first started, there weren’t many really heads-y people there and she was definitely one. I had DJ Earl on my show one night and she popped her head round the studio door and was like ‘okayyyyyy’. That got us talking about footwork and whatever, which I told her she should focus on with her show, as well as jungle which she loved as well. We became good mates really quickly, got to know each other’s mates and yeah before we knew it, we were playing b2b in support of The Prodigy at Brixton Academy.”

“The night before that gig, she came to mine to have a mix and figure out what we were gonna play”, Naina continues.”We did this 140-175bpm set and it was fucking jokes, but it also made us realise that a lot of the music was unsigned, made by artists that not a lot of people know about … we should do something with this. We chatted about it for so long but because we were both so busy working and trying to hold down our shows, DJ and whatever, it took a while for us to decide when to start. We knew there was never gonna be a right time so last summer, because we were in a good position … Sherelle was killing it, she was on Radio 1, I was on Beats 1 and Reprezent … we both had exciting things that were going on that would compliment running a label. I can tell you now though, we did not expect it to go everywhere like it did. I remember that tweet … like we’d been on the look out for music and doing a bit of research … but we were so overwhelmed by the response to one, kinda vague little tweet. The true test, we thought, would be if anyone had actually sent music through. We refreshed our email inbox the next day and were like ‘oh, shit’. We had so many demos. To be honest, it’s nice to be two women running a label, especially women of colour, because there aren’t enough. It’s been great to see people back it.”

“The true test, we thought, would be if anyone had actually sent music through. We refreshed our email inbox the next day and were like ‘oh, shit’. We had so many demos.”

Named after a synth sound fondly used by The Prodigy and in other hard, fast dance music styles like Gabber and Trance, Hooversound launched officially with the release of Hyroglifics & Sinistarr’s ‘BS6’ in March — a sweltering, four-track plate of acid-y, 160 Jersey club pressure, complete with a Scratcha DVA remix of the original track. “I love the fact that people can’t work out what Hooversound is”, says Naina. “That’s kind of the point, you know. The type of sets myself and Sherelle used to play were always so chaotic and full of music that wasn’t really represented properly, so we wanted to make a home for that. We’re not a Jungle label, we’re not a Footwork label, we’re not a Funky label. We’re a bit of everything. I don’t think we’d ever want to box it in.”

“We’re not a jungle label, we’re not a footwork label, we’re not a funky label. We’re a bit of everything.”

While Hyroglifics and Sinistarr sent over the full ‘BS6’ project as a demo — “we were just so excited by it, we knew it had to be 001 for sure” — every artist on the Hooversound roster, which continues to build out with every passing month, has their own label backstory. Deft, one of Naina’s favourite ever producers, followed up with three-track EP ‘Burna’ in June, a record she believes embodies everything Hooversound represents. “I’ve loved Deft’s music for so long”, she explains, “and he’s a prime example of what the label’s all about because he can make anything. He can work on 160-170 tunes, but doesn’t necessarily put them out in favour of his 130 stuff, which is sick, but he’s got such a varied audience that people are always gonna welcome whatever he releases with open arms. He sent us a load of stuff after he came on my Reprezent show one Friday night, and I knew he’d been sat on some gold. The tracks on his EP were written quite a long time ago but never had a home, so I’m really happy that we could provide a space for it.” 

With 003 helmed by HØST — and only released last week — Hooversound have more than hit the ground running, with a tight visual aesthetic defined by black-and-white colour-ways and repeated block text patterns also fast becoming a calling card. It feels like the final part of the jigsaw for Naina, who, despite all of her achievements so far, seems destined for the very top. She discussed Annie Mac’s impact in glowing terms and gave nods to other seasoned presenters like Benji B — selectors who are able to balance a love of underground music with a love of broadcasting — and it’s perhaps in those spaces that her future would be best served. But regardless of where she ends up, she’s determined to enjoy the journey. “The general dream is to continue what I do as a broadcaster, but continually grow and get better at it as I go. I can’t say where I’ll end up from here but with the label as well, I just want to carry on enjoying everything that we’re doing. That’s the M.O.”

Naina broadcasts regularly on Reprezent Radio and Apple Music 1. 

You can also browse the Hooversound back catalogue here: https://hooversoundrecordings.bandcamp.com/