— GRIME & DUBSTEP MONTHLY ™ —

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

(Silkie)

Album of the Month: Silkie – ‘Panorama’ (Deep Medi Musik)

Where to even even start?

Highlights

1. Did You Know

2. Ring Mod

3. Equine Piper

Compiled over the best part of two years, Silkie himself may not have originally approached the early sketches of what would later become ‘Panorama’ with an album in mind — but that’s just the way he likes it. His third full-length for Medi following two volumes of ‘City Limits’, released in 2009 and 2011 respectively, ‘Panorama’ forms his first solo material in three years and feels bountiful and abundantly carefree, in the best possible sense. As with everything Silkie touches, an heir of inevitability permeates the tracklist before you’ve even pressed play — you just know it’s gonna be good — but even by his standards, the sharp, stomping lurch and glossy chords of opener ‘Big 45’ are particularly exceptional. As it unfurls, Silkie shifts from bludgeoning, more club-focused weapons like ‘Leave It’ and the razor sharp ‘Strong & Stable’ to more melodic climes, experimenting with rhythm and texture on standout jaunts ‘Ring Mod’ and ’The Redeemer’. Our tip is the gorgeous, jazzy, purple-y romance of ‘Did You Know’ but the whole thing absolutely smokes. Sit back and revel in his genius, it’s worth every minute. 9/10

(Sir Hiss)

Tune of the Month: Emz & Sir Hiss – ‘Finna’ (No More Mailouts)

Cool as fuck

Sir Hiss and Emz collide again on another top drawer excursion in new single ‘Finna’, after first joining forces on mini-anthem ‘Rolling’ via White Peach back in 2019. Released this time via his No More Mailouts imprint, ‘Finna’ taps the drill-flavoured styles that have dominated the UK rap landscape over the last two years, marking Hiss out as a producer with the talent and the scope to outgrow the localised grime and dubstep scenes that birthed him. In Emz, he’s found a talented sparring partner too — his lackadaisical flow is quite deliberate and dripping with charisma — and here the pair excel on a track bursting with breezy, late-summer heat. Think souped up Cadillacs, glistening chromes and hella smiles, all cut in the style of ‘Magnolia’ by Playboi Carti. 9/10

Dunman – ‘Loco’ (Southpoint)

Bold and totally unabashed 

Bournemouth-based producer Dunman returns to Southpoint with weighty new three-tracker, ‘Loco’, which lands as some of his best and most experimental material yet. The frenzied breaks and bustling tribal drums of title-track opener ‘Loco’ seem to play a tug-of-war with the crunching, drone-like grime stabs that land like missiles just shy of a minute in, while booming trap burner ’Astraroth’, by contrast, is haunting in its cold, cutthroat simplicity. Final jam ‘Check’ featuring JoSoSick on mic duties flips the script again, sampling classic rave alarms and glitchy, sugary-sweet vocals a la classic 2-step. Energy! 7/10

$H The Producer – ‘Views From Feltham Court’ (Dee Oh 7)

Welcome to Bristol

A record directly inspired by the city that made him, ‘Views From Feltham Court’ is a thoughtful introduction to Bristol’s $H The Producer — co-founder of new label, Dee Oh 7, which he runs alongside Bristol’s warlord MC, Slowie. Each of the record’s five tracks hone in a specific area of the city, with opener ‘Newbury Road’ going heavy on silky-smooth, pitched-up RnB samples and rolling, rumbling sub, while second cut ‘The Manor’ is laced with the sort of anxious, hyper-tense string and key work that underpins some of grime’s OG classics. ‘Feltham Court’ is arguably the EP’s nastiest cut — a bruising grime riddim cut with a gothic flair — and hazy, introspective final tracks ‘Bargain Lane’ and ‘The Common’ are slow-burners, flush with silvery melodies and rich, dreamscape atmospherics. Tip! 8/10

The Untouchables – ‘Culture Clash’ EP (DNO Records)

Poetry in (kinetic) motion

Belgian duo The Untouchables go big on their debut EP for Brigton’s DNO Records, with ‘Culture Clash’ — a four-track record rooted in glaring tempo shifts (imagined or otherwise) and meticulous sound design. Chugging, heavyweight opener ‘Audacity’ hits like a freight train from minute one, while hollowed-out dub textures meet frenetic junglist rhythms on perplexing, relentless second cut, ‘Galactic Noise’. Title-track ‘Culture Clash’ does exactly what you’d expect, churning layer-upon-layer of precision-engineered sounds and textures like a smoothie maker, while the elastic beats and oddball dub horns of ‘Time Travellers’ are genuinely engrossing. Digital bonus ‘China Haze’, which functions around hefty reverb and a loose dubstep pulse, is well worth the extra time, too. 8/10

DJ Madd – ‘Soldiers’ EP (Badman Studios)

Salute!

Currently operating out of NYC, Hungarian producer DJ Madd has been a front-runner in dubstep circles for over a decade, releasing across labels like Boka, ZamZam and J:Kenzo’s Lion Charge imprint in a discography that spans over 50 records. Marking LA Outfit Badman Studios’ 10th release, new EP ‘Soldiers’ taps the highly-finessed, roots-flavoured sounds he’s made all his own, with the twisting low-end murmur and lead-plated sub of opener, ‘Babylon Scatta’, a fitting entry-point. There’s room too for murky, jolting, minimalist flavours (‘Lighta Kru’) and the dark, dank sub-dwelling pulse of ‘Weapon Of Choice’, but our tip is bolshy, chest-rattling title-cut, ‘Soldiers’. 8/10

Hebbe – ‘Quiche / Looters’ (Next Level Dubstep)

Don’t sleep on Hebbe!

Dutch producer Hebbe is fast becoming one of contemporary dubstep’s best and on his latest for Next Level Dubstep, he doesn’t disappoint. Rumbling A-side, ‘Quiche’ flits between periods of and jittery, skeletal percussion and intense, processional flute melody interludes — think ‘stand to attention!’ — albeit cut with a constant lingering sense of unease, while on the flip, ‘Looters’ is a total riot. Sludgy, snarling, treacle-thick basslines spar with rasping FX, glitchy alarms and cloudy atmospherics to land as one big heady, oddball rush. Seriously good. 9/10

Distance – ‘Sacrifices’ EP (DUPLOC)

Straight legendary 

Dubstep OG Distance has released music via everyone from Planet Mu to Hotflush to Tectonic — as well as running Chestplate (!) — over the last 15+ years, but ’Sacrifices’ forms his first for fast-rising Belgian outpost, DUPLOC. Across three hi-grade new tracks, he delivers on his reputation as one of dubstep’s pioneering artists; from the grand, operatic swell of swirling opener ‘Sacrifices’ to the pensive glow of futuristic stepper ‘Overcome’, everything is meticulous, distinguished, smart. Final jam ‘808 Snake’ — the EP’s most rugged and granite-textured — signs off on a record that only adds to Distance’s appeal, nearly 20 years on. 8/10

Hijinx – ‘Venom’ EP (Navy Cut)

For the heads

More heat from J.Sparrow’s Navy Cut imprint, this time from Hijinx — new production moniker of MR.K. Across three monstrous cuts, he flexes all his production muscle to the fullest; from the thumping, distorted pressure of standout system lurker ‘Venom’ through to the sweltering, pulsing low-end shuffle of ‘TRU’, it’s full-blooded and full-throttle from start to finish. Even the booming, dubby lean and blaring dub horns of final track ‘Addict’ —itself a low-key face melter — offer little respite. NB: A percentage of profits from ‘Venom’ will also be donated to The Ben Raemers Foundation — a charity seeking to raise awareness surrounding mental health and suicide in the skateboarding community.  8/10 

Fork & Knife – ‘The Swarm’ EP (In:Flux Audio)

Big ’n Bashy!

Fork & Knife downs his grime tools in favour of blaring dubstep sounds on ‘The Swarm’ — his third EP for In:Flux Audio. Opening with the snarling, sabre-toothed glare of the title-track, it’s deepest, darkest and meanest from the outset, with dizzying, blood-and-thunder second cut, ‘Big Tom’, continuing things apace. The nightmarish, mechanised robotics of third and final track ‘Cream’ are genuinely bone-crunching, with heavyset remixes from J.Kong (’The Swarm’) and Charla Green (‘Cream’) thrown in for good measure. 6/10

Monitor

Look out for new music by long-time Rinse France resident, DJ Absurd, on The Bass Society — his new EP, ‘Everything Blue’, is backed up by title-track remixes from Qant and Slimzos’ Owlybeats, as well as a special dub version of his own … be sure to check out fledgling producer fin9k’s debut EP, ‘Trips’, on Chameolon Audio, too — weighty! … Elsewhere, German producer Barom released his debut album project via Simply Deep — a consistent source of foundation dubstep for a good few years now … ‘Run Circles’, comprised of eight sweltering original cuts, also comes complete with bonus remixes from Gnischrew, Noble and Korin Complex … and OG veterans Gentleman’s Dub Club also released their latest album, ‘Down To Earth’ — a full-colour trip back to their roots, traversing reggae, dub, jazz and ska in a way only they know how … Looking ahead, new music from Trends and an eye-catching new release series from Belgian powerhouses DUPLOC are on the horizon — keep your eyes (and ears) peeled!

(DJ Absurd)

— JD. Reid —

On North West London, record collections, grime, rap, LA beat scenes, Rinse FM, working with Slowthai, Novelist, Mabel and more, duality and becoming a father for the first time.

(All photos submitted by JD. Reid)

It’s Thursday evening and JD. Reid is holed up in his home studio in North London — the same studio he’s written all his music in ever since he started producing almost a decade ago. “I’ve still got all my early stuff on this old PC next to me”, he says, gesturing towards a space under his desk. Now a Platinum-selling producer, former long-time Rinse FM resident and, as he acknowledges glowingly, a father too, Reid has always gone about his business quietly. He’s never chased headlines or recognition and admits he finds it difficult to ‘shout about’ his music, but he’s always been laser-focused on making his career a success. And as he explains, now it feels doubly important. “I’ve been blessed to be able to spend a lot of time in doors recently, being with family and watching my little one grow up, running around the house and learning new things”, he says warmly, “…he’s my focus now, you know? Everything I do in music now has got him in mind.”

Born and raised in North West London, where he still lives today with his partner and son, Reid enjoyed a settled childhood. He went to primary school in Gospel Oak before heading to secondary school and later college in Kentish Town and as he explains, still has many of the same friends as he did growing up — his circle is close, secure, grounded. “I’ve always just been local, bro”, he says, without a second thought. Has he ever considered living elsewhere in London or even moving away, I wondered? “I’m planning to buy a place at the moment but for now, we’re here man. I’m after a house with a garden ideally, mainly because I wanna build my studio out the back and that.”

A ‘good kid’ by his own admission, Reid found himself with a mixed group of friends at school, often falling between social groups — “I was cool with the good kids but also the kids that were out doing madness as well” — and earning respect for his love (and broad knowledge) of music. “I was a proper music child from when I was really young”, he reflects. “When it came to secondary school, I think my music taste and me making beats and stuff definitely helped me become cool with lots of different people, too. A lot of it came from my parents … my dad played percussion and had drums in the house and my mum, I mean she had a really big record collection and also worked in the music industry, so I basically grew up surrounded by music. My mum’s probably got more plaques than I’ve managed to get so far!”

“…my dad played percussion and had drums in the house and my mum, I mean she had a really big record collection and also worked in the music industry, so I basically grew up surrounded by music. My mum’s probably got more plaques than I’ve managed to get so far!”

“My mum had a lot of disco, reggae, sould and hip-hop records in her collection”, he continues. “It was so broad thinking about it now. There wasn’t much guitar music played indoors though but if it was, it’d be by a band that my mum was working on like Stereophonics or someone like that. Most of my memories are just of digging through my mum’s records and lucky-dipping basically. When I was really young, about four or five years old, my big obsession was Michael Jackson. There’s old video camera footage of me dancing round the living room to his music so he was probably my first big inspiration, I just loved his stuff. After that, it was hip-hop. Busta Rhymes – ‘When Disaster Strikes…’ was the first hip-hop album I remember being really into, more so for the beats and the flows because I wasn’t really taking in anything he was saying at that age. There was Funkmaster Flex mixtapes as well, Lauryn Hill’s album, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Dr Buzzards Original Savannah Band, a lot of soul I guess … but then there were some obscure CDs in the collection as well. I remember quite a bit of experimental electronic stuff, Daft Punk, Mr Oizo … whatever I found that resonated with me really. There was an old Tommy Boy compilation that my mum had on vinyl and on that I found Afrika Bambaataa and Planet Patrol and all that kind of body-popping 80s hi-hop kinda stuff, which I ended up heavily into. From there, I found Run DMC and then that’d come full circle and I’d dip back into the soul and lovers rock stuff. It was basically like a record shop at home, it was sick … and I still discover things now actually. Looking back, it definitely shaped my music taste.”

With such a rich pool of records to immerse himself in as a kid, Reid’s reference points were already different from those around him growing up — but that didn’t stop him doing his own digging away from home. Inspired by popular tastes at the time — everything from Jay-Z to Outkast and Usher — Reid then discovered The Neptunes and Timbaland in the early ’00s and never really looked back. “Once I found them, that was me, that was my side of hip-hop”, he says firmly. “I appreciate the barrers but I was always more into the fun shit. It was always about the beats and the flows for me at that age, I didn’t really appreciate what people were saying in their verses until I was much older.” 

It was during this time that Reid also started spending more time with his older cousin, himself a beat-maker who’d spend his weekends scouring through records at some of London’s most iconic shops. “I was probably about 14, 15 when I started going regularly I think”, he recalls. “My cousin was the first person to take me record shopping properly, but the first record I remember buying with him was Antonio – ‘Hyperfunk’, which came out in 1998 when I was eight, so I’d actually been going a little bit before. He used to take me to Black Market and I remember I’d buy a few garage records and then I’d go and watch him mix and stuff. As I got older, I then started going to Black Market and Uptown Records with my boy, specifically to buy whatever grime we could find.”

“My cousin actually taught me how to DJ when I was young as well so I always kinda looked up to him”, he continues. “Whatever he was doing, I wanted to be doing. He started making beats on Cubase a little while after and used to show me how it worked, so that was the first time I really showed interest in making my own music I think. It all coincided with grime becoming a bit of a thing, so I became obsessed with trying to make grime beats. I had a couple of mates that’d always be like, ‘you make grime but it’s not really like grime, it’s more like hip-hop’, which I didn’t really hear myself at the time. Now looking back at it, I guess I was subconsciously leaning towards hip-hop, just with a grime aesthetic.”

“I had a couple of mates that’d always be like, ‘you make grime but it’s not really like grime, it’s more like hip-hop’, which I didn’t really hear myself at the time. Now looking back at it, I guess I was subconsciously leaning towards hip-hop, just with a grime aesthetic.”

Buoyed by taking piano and later drum lessons at school, Reid was becoming more and more enamoured with music — it was now more than just a passion. “I remember my school actually started running music tech lessons when I was a bit older, as an external thing. It was at those lessons that I came off Cubase and learned how to use Logic and through going to those, especially with a teacher there to help you, I got more and more hooked. It got to the point where after finishing college, I was either gonna go to university to study English or Music, not necessarily with the view to establishing a career in either, but hopefully ending up in a field of work. My mum just asked me, ‘What do you enjoy more? What are you gonna be more focused on doing?’. The obvious answer was music.”

And with that, Reid headed to the University of Hertfordshire to study Music Technology for the next three years. Inspired more so by the people he lived with and friendships made than the degree course itself, Hertfordshire was a melting pot that Reid credits with solidifying his musical ambitions — “it all became a lot more real while I was there”, he affirms. It wasn’t just Reid who graduated from the same course either. “There was actually a few of us in that year who have gone on to do quite well”, he continues. “Nana Rogues was in a few of my classes for a while, Flux Pavilion was in my year as well … and Jay Hoskins, who I actually lived with, we worked together quite a bit back then. It was a good year for Hertfordshire, that one.” What was the clubbing scene like, I wondered? “Ah we were out all the time man”, he says with a smile. “I wasn’t really DJing them times but it was all just funky house and Drake in the clubs, where as in the house, I was listening a lot of Wiz Khalifa, Frank Ocean and mixtape rap in general. I liked Odd Future a lot then as well. That was basically my whole experience. It was a lot of fun.”

He took three months out after graduating, heading to South East Asia with some old friends to get his mind right and assess his next moves, before returning home to London energised and focused. “I think my mum knew I needed a studio space to work from so she cleared out the spare room and I moved my stuff in”, recalls Reid. “I got it cracking after that.” That wasn’t to say he wasn’t putting in the hard yards to make ends meet away from the studio, mind. “Ah man, I worked at a swimming pool for a bit. I wasn’t even a life guard, I was just sat on the front desk, looking after people’s belongings and doing the odd bit of cleaning. I’ve done the bakery, all different stuff to be honest, I think we all have to sometimes. Once I got back from university though I did really try and focus on getting music-orientated jobs. I interned at some production studios for a while, which led me to a studio called Assault & Battery in Willesden where I trained to be an assistant engineer under these two really highly-regarded producer-mixers called Flood and Alan Moulder. They mixed records for U2 and Nine Inch Nails, so they were massive in their field. I didn’t know the music very well but I knew I was in good company and I learned a lot being there. I found myself having less time to make my own music after a while though, so eventually I decided to leave.”

“Ah man, I worked at a swimming pool for a bit. I wasn’t even a life guard, I was just sat on the front desk, looking after people’s belongings and doing the odd bit of cleaning. I’ve done the bakery, all different stuff to be honest, I think we all have to sometimes.”

It was a move that’d lead Reid to Rinse FM, where he joined the station as a broadcast assistant in the early 2010s and ended up staying for over three years, holding down his own monthly show for the majority too. “Me going there was a real game changer”, he explains. “I met so many people, I got to watch loads of sick DJs up close which in turn helped me get better. I met Plastician and Geeneus there too and obviously they both put some of my first music out. It was just a very important place for me to be. I remember even just being able to speak to people, to DJs you’d listened to for years … it was crazy to me back then.”

“I always tried to keep my mind on the fact I was there for work and not my own thing”, he continues, “and I was never really one to throw my music at everybody, but around them times, what Plastician was playing seemed not too far off what I was making. One day he was recording his show in the little pre-rec room so I just popped my head in and asked if it’d be alright if I sent him some tunes or whatever and he just said, ‘yeah, sure’. That first set of tunes literally resulted in him asking if I wanted to release on Terrorhythm and so he put out my first proper EP, ‘Maneki Neko’. Geeneus then picked up on me being a member of staff after hearing EP tracks on Plastician’s show, so he asked if I’d be interested in releasing with them and then linked me with Katy B and Sinead Harnett as well. All the pieces just came together over a really short period of time.” How did that feel, I ask? “I mean, it was sick. It was weird too though because I was still doing my normal radio job, but now other DJs across the station would know me and were starting to play my tunes. It drove me to keep pushing though and maybe go a bit harder than I would have done had I not had those breakthroughs.”

These would prove to be pivotal moments in Reid’s career, both as an artist in his own right and as a studio producer — a duality that has come to define his more recent successes. His own productions — inspired as much by the bright, syrupy records coming out of the Soulection camp in LA as they were by the beats blaring through the Rinse speakers — made waves on Terrorhythm, while his calmness in the studio immediately put more established artists at ease. It’d lead to a second record with Plastician in January 2015 (‘Amethyst’) before putting out ‘Calibrate’ on Rinse in 2017 — a five-track EP that linked Reid’s two production worlds together for the first time, while also earmarking him as a beat-maker with his finger on the pulse. Features included Novelist, Slowthai, Oscar #Worldpeace, Kojey Radical, 808INK and Odd Future’s Hodgy, all of whom have since gone onto achieve widespread success at the business end of the industry. “I’ve always been like that man, that’s been the story of my career”, Reid says sheepishly when I suggest it was an EP that felt ahead of its time. “To be honest though, I’m happy to be a part of those artists’ journeys and I’m still lucky enough to make music with a lot of them, so it’s calm.”

“A lot of those guys knew me from working with Piff Gang in the early days”, Reid continues. “When you look at the kind of alternative rap or whatever you wanna call it, I think a lot of the people making that stuff now remember Piff Gang because it was a wave at the time. Me being aligned with them back then I think made people feel more open to working with me. I didn’t realise at the time but Ty (Slowthai), we’d actually met each other years ago at some event in Bristol. Him and his manager, Lewis, came down and were asking me about beats but I was just long at the time and didn’t send them. I ended up seeing his ‘Jiggle’ video on YouTube a few years later and hit him up about working on some stuff. The first day we linked, he brought Oscar (#Worldpeace) along with him and so it all just came together. Novelist I’d met at Rinse, Kojey I’d known since he was doing his poetry, Hodgy I’d met on my first trip to LA while I was trying to network. It was just easy to get it finished and ready to be honest. I really enjoyed making it.” 

It was a record that’d also serve as a cue for Reid to leave Rinse and pursue his own success away from the station — and things couldn’t have panned out much better for him, either. Two weeks after leaving, he met Mabel for the first time through his former manager and in the first studio session the pair shared, they wrote ‘Finders Keepers’, which also featured a guest verse from Kojo Funds. Released in May 2017, it peaked at #8 on the UK Singles Chart and landed as Mabel’s jump off point to superstardom, featuring as a bonus track on her UK Top 3 debut album, ‘High Expectations’, in 2019. Nearly four years on, it’s officially double-Platinum. “It’s all mad you know”, Reid explains, “because obviously her mum is Neneh Cherry and my dad used to be part of this collective called The Buffalo Boys and they used to model with Neneh back in the day. When I met Mabel and I realised her mum knew my dad, her dad knew my dad … it was all just very connected. Myself, Mabel and her brother Marlon had actually spent most of that first session on another tune and it was alright but in the last 20 minutes, we got the chords down for another idea, which turned out to be ‘Finders Keepers’. I took it away, did my thing with it and yeah, that was it. We wrote it really quickly.”

“When I met Mabel and I realised her mum knew my dad, her dad knew my dad … it was all just very connected.”

The success of ‘Finders Keepers’ opened the door for Reid to sign his first publishing deal in 2018, which in turn gave him the freedom and financial security to focus on music full time. He continued working with Slowthai and fellow producer Kwes Darko (fka Blue Daisy), co-producing Slowthai’s ‘Drug Dealer’, ’Rainbow’ and ‘GTFOMF’ in just a matter of days, as well as working on self-released 2018 mixtape, ’Tree’. Featuring 15 tracks littered with eye-catching features including grime MCs Ghetts and Bossman, returning collaborators Slowthai, 808INK and Oscar #Worldpeace and a slew of producers, rappers and vocalists from right across the UK canon — from Fatima to Henry Wu to Reeko Squeeze — it was a nod to just how versatile and inventive his own artist-led productions had become. Although understated like ‘Calibrate’ before it, ’Tree’ was undoubtedly a visionary body of tracks and one that lived in harmony with the more intense, chart-bothering work he was undertaking for the likes of Mabel and Celeste. 

“I’m just so, so grateful for everything that’s happened”, he says, as I ask about the emotions attached to his journey from broadcast assistant to hit-making producer. While he might have dreamed of becoming an all-guns-blazing festival act after first seeing Flying Lotus at Lovebox in the early 2010s, he’d long since struck a balance between chasing his own dreams and facilitating those of others — and it’s a duality that continues to serve Reid well. “I know there’s still so much more I can give and achieve though”, he reaffirms sharply. “I’m still hungry for it like I was when I was starting out.” 

As if he ever needed any additional motivation, Reid became a father for the first time in 2019 — an experience that he describes as ‘magical’. “It’s just sick man, waking up to a little person that you’ve made”, he says, a huge smile breaking out across his face. “He’s really inspired me to make sure that I’m giving my all in my work but also setting a really good example to him, as a person. I want him to be able to look at his dad when he’s older and be like, ‘Yeah, my dad was good, my dad was on point’. I just appreciate him so much and love spending time with him.”

“He’s really inspired me to make sure that I’m giving my all in my work but also setting a really good example to him, as a person. I want him to be able to look at his dad when he’s older and be like, ‘Yeah, my dad was good, my dad was on point’.”

Since the birth of his son, Reid has been stuck, like many of us in the UK, at home for the best part of 12 months, working on sessions and writing music for a variety of different projects. Alongside Slowthai, he’s been working closely with 2020 breakout star, Big Piig, and also Ray BLK, as well as a number of other producers and musicians, broadening his scope and making his own music feel more collaborative than ever before — “I used to want to do everything myself”, he acknowledges, “but working with these new artists has actually been fun and good for me, really. I think it was needed.”

There was a soft drop at the back of 2020 in the shape of ‘North West’s Finest’ — a near 30-minute, sample-heavy mixtape comprised of all new JD. Reid material, some of which had been lifted from studio sessions he’d managed to finish just before Coronavirus struck, with features including Denzel Himself, Ms Banks, Big Piig and Suspect. More of a reminder of intent than a statement, it was a tape that laid the groundwork for the music Reid is hoping to release over the next 12 months. “I feel like I took a step away from focusing on my own artist/producer music for a while but that’s gonna he very much a focus this year”, he says. “I’d like to release a series of EPs and there’s a few bits I’ve almost finished but alongside that, just working with more artists and finding that balance between the two. It keeps things fresh for me too. Doing my own thing and then going into other artists’ worlds is inspiring, you know. More than anything though, it’s just gonna be fun for me to put out some of my own shit again.”

“I think not having a million things to do over the last few months has made it feel easier to focus on that as well”, he continues. “It’s not always a bad thing to have time to yourself, do you know what I mean? I’m one of those people who’s guilty of not feeling good if I’m not out here doing the most all the time, but having time with my family has probably inspired me more than I would have expected it to. Sometimes taking a step back is a good thing … and I’m gonna try and remind myself of that as much as I can.”

JD. Reid’s ‘North West’s Finest’ mixtape is out now:

https://jdreid.bandcamp.com/album/north-wests-finest

— LCY —

On Bristol, youth clubs, musical theatre, dance, MP3 players, Red Bull Riddim Rally, identity, Six Figure Gang, SZNS7N and the power of telling stories.

(All photos submitted by LCY)

“The beginning of 2020, great, the middle of 2020, awful and the end of 2020 … I would say kinda great”, says LCY — formerly known as L U C Y — reflecting on the tumultuous year that was. Speaking to her from the new warehouse space she calls home alongside 11 other creatives — “they’re all really keen on skill-sharing which is sick” — she was busy prepping for the release of her new single, ‘Garden Of E10’; a record signposting new pathways for her trailblazing SZNS7N imprint.

As a DJ and producer at the core of a new generation of women taking electronic music by storm in the UK, LCY’s seen her profile sky rocket over the last three years. But behind it all, she remains a humble and conscientious person. Her music is powerful, her ideas deep and her moves thoughtful and considered. “I feel like I’ve learned so much just living with so many emotionally intelligent and creative people over the last few months” she says gratefully as we begin our conversation in earnest, “and I think that’s one of the main reasons why the end of 2020 has been so positive for me.”

LCY’s story began in Bristol. She was born in Southmead Hospital in the heart of the city and spent the first few years of her life “moving around a bit” before settling back in Bristol just before she reached school age. She loathed primary school — “my home life was a bit shit, my school life was a bit shit, I was a bad child basically” — but recalls meeting some ‘good people’ at high school and later, a local youth club. It was here, for the first time, that she found her sense of purpose. “I ended up going along to this youth club one day, just to see if it’d straighten me out really”, she says pensively. “It helped me a lot actually because before that, I didn’t feel like I had a lot to hold onto.”

It was a decision that actually owes a lot to chance — and the influence of her mum, a gifted pianist and leader of her local church’s music group. “Before I did anything with music, I actually used to dance in a group called HYPE”, LCY recalls. “It was a street dance group and we were part of a larger performance group which was sick. I actually got put in the women’s team even though I was only 14, I think partly because I just looked really old for my age. Before that even, my mum used to send me along to a little dance school called 344 Dance Centre in Fishponds during the summer holidays while she was at work. I did quite a bit of dance there and also musical theatre shows too, which were incidentally my first introduction to jazz. And later on I discovered more through Limewire, obviously. They were probably my key influences to be honest … my mum’s piano and dance in various different forms … Irish dancing, ballet, street dance, dancing in front of music videos, all the good stuff.”

“They were probably my key influences to be honest … my mum’s piano and dance in various different forms … Irish dancing, ballet, street dance, dancing in front of music videos, all the good stuff.”

“I didn’t make the mixed performance group for HYPE one year and I was absolutely gutted”, she continues. “Honestly, I was devastated. I was almost at that point where I felt like I was never gonna amount to anything and then I remember my mum telling me she’d just got a leaflet through the door for a youth club that offered help with music. She knew I’d always wanted to try music … I mean she’d been teaching me piano since I was about four years old and I still couldn’t play it for shit … so I went down one day. I ended up going three times a week and stopped going to dance altogether. That was how it all started for me. I was just hooked.”

LCY’s early musical tastes centred around hip-hop, from golden era 90s classics to Lil Wayne’s ’Tha Carter III’ — “that album was my holy grail” — before Freeview music channels started opening her eyes to music closer to home. “Flava, Channel U and later AKA … they were my favourites to be honest”, she says, laughing. “I used to flick through them like I would radio stations and just move from video to video. Then Limewire came along and I was able to turn those moments, those videos, into an actual music collection.”

“Hang on, this is a jokes story actually”, she continues. “I remember I entered this nationwide school drawing competition in association with Disney in year six and it was basically about coming up with ways you could torture your sibling over the summer holidays. Anyway, I remember just getting a call one day like, ‘Lucy, you’ve won!’ and I couldn’t believe it. I dropped everything and was like ‘Yesss, I’m going to Disneyland!’ and then the person on the other end of the phone was like, ‘Oh no, sorry, you won the runner’s up prize so we’ll be sending you an MP3 player’. I was half gutted but also like, ‘fuck yes I’ve got my own MP3 player’. I ended up recording songs using Audacity and sticking them on it, which in the long run, turned out to be way more beneficial than a trip to Disneyland.”

“I remember I entered this nationwide school drawing competition in association with Disney in year six and it was basically about coming up with ways you could torture your sibling over the summer holidays.”

LCY’s youth club, Basement Studios, which as of two years ago is sadly no longer running, quickly became a home from home, as it had done for fellow Bristol mainstays like Blazey Bodynod and Hi5Ghost before her. Under the tutelage of local DJ and volunteer, DJ Dazee, she soon found her rhythm. “DJ Dazee used to bring along her vinyl decks and Serato box”, LCY recalls, “and there was also this big bin of vinyl there, which local people would donate records to. It meant you’d basically have a load of crusty old records to mix with … the majority of it was jungle if I remember rightly. Basically what we’d do is find two records from the same producer and mix them into one another and then back again. The records were so beaten up but it was sick. All I’d wanted to do when I got there was learn to DJ so it was a really good feeling but it did always take ages to get a slot on the decks. There was a load of Macs sitting around so I remember one day thinking to myself, ‘right I’m gonna teach myself how to produce’. A lot of people that went to this youth club were punks who’d use the space to take drugs and spin around on the chairs with their friends even though it was a designated music spot, so the people there were really encouraging of me trying to learn. It was so nice to be encouraged to do something. I literally remember leaving one day and it was beautiful and sunny out, Mari (DJ Dazee) had been teaching me some DJ stuff and basic production, I’d made this terrible, terrible tune out of an old Billie Holiday sample and I just remember walking to get the bus and just feeling so, so gassed, thinking ‘this is what I’m gonna do’. It’s been fixed in my mind ever since.”

“I literally remember leaving one day and it was beautiful and sunny out, Mari (DJ Daisy) had been teaching me some DJ stuff and basic production, I’d made this terrible, terrible tune out of an old Billie Holiday sample and I just remember walking to get the bus and just feeling so, so gassed, thinking ‘this is what I’m gonna do’.”

“I’m a firm believer in the power of youth clubs”, she continues, voice suddenly firmer, “because they really helped me and changed my perspective and my prospects entirely. I’m really, really fucking gutted that not just that one shut down, but so many across the country too. It’s something I want to address in the future when I have the means to do so.”

With funding suddenly crumbling, LCY found herself unable to access the Mac room at the youth club once she got to college. It was a initially hammer blow — “I used to literally lock myself away in there three times a week and just desperately try and write or finish as many tunes as I could so to have that taken away was hard” — but undeterred, LCY moved colleges on the basis of Cotham Sixth Form mirroring the same production software. Juggling her time at Cotham with a part time job at a supermarket, she managed to save up enough money to buy herself her own Mac, which itself proved a gateway to being accepted to study a Music Production degree at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). “It was the best feeling in the world saving up and then buying that Mac”, LCY says warmly. “It meant that for the first time, I could produce music at home and that’s actually the time that I started to release my own music as well. From there, I went to uni but to be honest, it was shit. I was based in Guildford, which is probably the worst place I’ve ever been to in my life. I didn’t vibe with anyone, I didn’t vibe with the city and I didn’t leave my room much aside from going to and from work. I didn’t actually realise that I’d signed up for a private course either, which meant there were no halls of residence and I had to pay extra fees. I just remember working so many terrible shifts, but I got through it over the two years. I might not have attended many lectures but I suppose it did give me the time to focus on purely my music, so I have to be thankful for that.”

After a brief spell back in Bristol, LCY returned to London not long after leaving Guildford, armed with a sound she’d been honing for the best part of two years and a belief that she’d make it somehow, somewhere. “My early music was heavily sample based and really badly mixed”, she explains, “and it was definitely more melodic and probably happier than the music I make now. I was still heavily influenced by my own eclectic tastes and also my mum’s piano and her take on chords and stuff like that. I was actually listening to a lot of darker, heavier stuff like dubstep and grime at the time but my own music … I dunno, it’d just always be these little bops and upbeat dance tracks, which I never really warmed to. The first track I ever released was called ‘Always Ready’ which I released in college, I’m not sure if you’ve heard it before? I made a video for it too. I went to London with my best friend and I filmed it on a little camera … ah man, my uncle’s even replied in the YouTube comments saying ‘super cool and really innovative’.”

Released in 2014, it formed an early primer of sorts to 2017’s ‘Mixtape 01’, a rough-and-ready collection of 12 tracks made while LCY was at university in Guildford. “It was the first time I’d really used key production techniques consistently in different tracks”, she recalls. “Like, I’ve always been a fan of Disclosure, more as an observer than anything else, but I remember hearing them on the radio one day and the presenters being like, ‘they’ve got such a distinct sound’ and that stayed with me. I was like, ‘A sound? What is a sound? How do you define a sound?’. I realised that, through trial and error, it’s basically keeping those techniques the same and finding out your favourite ways of making those techniques work in your music … playing with them, extending them, exaggerating them. I feel like you can hear that for the first time in ‘Mixtape 01’ but before that, there was a lot of trial and error and I don’t want to talk about that period much because it was so terrible! I actually hated the mixtape when I made it but looking back, it was a real catalyst for me. It was a really positive thing.”

“Like, I’ve always been a fan of Disclosure, more as an observer than anything else, but I remember hearing them on the radio one day and the presenters being like, ‘they’ve got such a distinct sound’ and that stayed with me. I was like, ‘A sound? What is a sound? How do you define a sound?’

Although still only a handful of releases deep, LCY had started to make waves — so much so that she received a call shortly afterwards from Red Bull Studios in London, who were on the look out for more female representation for a new grime beat-making competition they were launching in 2017. “I mean they probably shouldn’t have said that to me as a primary reason for the invitation looking back, but I was so, so gassed to be asked”, Lucy says of Riddim Rally, which was comprised of multi-artist regional heats, with the winners earning a place in the final. Although relatively small in scale, Riddim Rally launched at a time when Red Bull were particularly active in UK underground music — from drill to grime to electronic music, they’d become prominent co-opters — and as such, LCY’s involvement would prove to be a key early marker in her career. Winning her heat with ease, she made it through to the Riddim Rally final — hosted live at Red Bull Studios with a watching audience and a cast of guest judges including Faze Miyake, Capo Lee and A.G — alongside Bushido, Sh?m and Anz, who was ultimately crowned the winner. “It was quite surreal”, she admits. “I remember I spent so much time at The University Of Surrey library … and I didn’t even go to Surrey … just setting myself time challenges, making tunes in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour. I was terrible at at first but I noticed the progression quite quickly so it was really helpful long-term. I mean, each artist had to make what were essentially three war riddims in two hours I think it was and then battle it out against the other producers with those tunes. The pressure felt really intense. I was still fresh out the womb in production terms and the fear of embarrassment lit this fire inside of me. I thought to myself, ‘I may lose, I’m not going to win, but I will NOT be embarrassed’. It ended up going really well. I was shitting myself on the day and I was definitely the most self-deprecating person in the room. I’d also had a lot of Red Bulls as well so if I was chatting shit, I was chatting a lot of shit.”

“I remember meeting Sicaria Sound there and I’d been on their radio show previously that year so to meet them in person was sick”, she continues. “There was actually a lot of cool people in the room that day. I met Snoochie Shy, I met Mez there. I think for someone who listened to radio all the time and watched YouTube clips every day and saw these people from afar … to suddenly go from university into that environment was so eye-opening. I got followed on Twitter by quite a few of them afterwards and it honestly felt like some kind of magic was happening.” 

Did the experience give her more confidence, I wondered? “Ah, definitely”, she says. “I used to be too shy to say what I actually did when I met people. A lot of the time if I was going to an event or a show, I’d fan girl over artists and tell them how much I loved their music but almost forget to let people know that I produced as well. I remember that started to change after Red Bull and I’d find myself telling people my mixtape was out and sending Soundcloud links in emails and stuff like that, it was quite funny really. I remember going to Outlook not long afterwards with a load of colourful USBs that I kept a load of my tunes on. I met Novelist at a boat party, gave him one and was like ‘here are my tunes, I’m a producer, my email is on the USB itself’ and we’ve actually talked since, so it kinda worked. He didn’t listen to the USB though. I ended up giving one to someone from Kurrupt FM’s crew as well but they swallowed it like a pill. They took the USB and literally ate it in front of me so I was like, ‘ah well, I’ll be damned’.”

“I remember going to Outlook not long afterwards with a load of colourful USBs that I kept a load of my tunes on. I met Novelist at a boat party, gave him one and was like ‘here are my tunes, I’m a producer, my email is on the USB itself’ and we’ve actually talked since, so it kinda worked. He didn’t listen to the USB though. I ended up giving one to someone from Kurrupt FM’s crew as well but they swallowed it like a pill.”

After returning from Outlook, a slew of releases followed. The first, ‘Locations’, was released on Trapdoor in February 2018 — “it was bittersweet for me because as much as they were great and it was a super sick experience, one tune on there still haunts me” — before she self-released her ‘Primary’ and ’Secondary’ EPs in June and December respectively. “I think I released ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’ as a reminder to myself that I should only really release tunes I’m super happy with and in a way that I feel represents me the best”, she says. Heavily sample-based but breaks-y and hi-tempo, they represented a shift in both focus and style that even Joy O picked up on, recently picking out ‘Almost Blue’ from ‘Primary’ for his takeover of the ‘Still Slipping Los Santos’ radio station playlist on Grand Theft Auto V’s most recent update. 

“I wanna touch on the ‘Secondary’ EP a little bit too actually”, LCY continues. “I worked with Rachel Noble on the artwork and it was around the time of the Grenfell tragedy. I didn’t really talk about it at the time because it might have sounded inappropriate but a lot of those tunes … the interludes and the imagery especially … are about Grenfell and the disparity in the UK and how austerity has affected marginalised people. I feel like that previous EPs I’d put out maybe didn’t have that emotional connection to me … they weren’t tracks that had any deeper meaning behind them, you know. Both those EPs were like two sides of the same coin essentially. ‘Primary’ was more about myself and ‘Secondary’ more a reflection of wider society. At that point, that’s what I wanted my music to sound like … a strong representation of emotions and society and people.”

“Both those EPs were like two sides of the same coin essentially. ‘Primary’ was more about myself and ‘Secondary’ more a reflection of wider society. At that point, that’s what I wanted my music to sound like … a strong representation of emotions and society and people.”

With the start of 2019 came SZNS7N and the beginnings of a new era in LCY’s career. Established as a hub for her own music and that of peers and new artists she felt sure to discover, SZNS7N has already laid down a marker as one of UK dance music’s most important new hubs over the last two years. Singular in sound and vision, the only qualifiers are that the music stands up with the rest — including the label’s distinct visual aesthetic — all handled by LCY in-house. Rather than lean on established names, she’s also opted to spotlight producers on the come-up too, with names like zonae, Ship Sket and Muhla cropping up front-and-centre on the label discography. “The label started with my ‘S1N’ EP, which was kinda about inner demons and just getting them out in the open”, LCY explains, “but I wanted the label itself to be multi-disciplinary and more of a platform to encompass everything, really. As time passed, I realised how difficult that was when you’re just one person running a label, so I guess my vision for it has changed a little bit. I remember just after putting ‘S1N’ out, I was playing at Croydub in Prague and both my hard drives broke and it was so chaotic and I didn’t know what to do. I ended up putting a call out on my socials asking for people to send me music and thank God that the Bristol community and the extended London community … basically everyone who has always supported me … sent over an influx of new tunes. Muhla sent me ‘Portland’ and I remember thinking, ’this tune needs a release’ … there was something so magical about it but I just couldn’t place it. I’d had this idea about putting seven tracks out over the course of seven weeks and it just made so much sense for that to be one of them at the time. I feel like a lot of label owners don’t always feel like they can put out just one tune but for me, sometimes a producer might not have written a full record yet and just have this one magical track … and that can be enough.”

“I believe in universal science and Muhla’s ‘Portland’ … he’d moved back to Cornwall from Bristol but came back for one day”, she continues, “and this was before I’d decided to start taking the photos and doing interviews with new artists on the label. I rang him up because I was in Bristol for the day by chance and asked if he was around, not really thinking he would be. It turns out he was at his friends house in Portland Square, so I went to meet him straight away. All the photos we got for that release were taken in Portland Square where he was for literally that one day. So basically, he had a tune called ‘Portland’ that I’d already agreed to sign and put out and he ended up in Portland Square on the off chance on the one day I was in Bristol too. I was just like, ‘wow, there’s some kinda synergy going on’. The same happened with Tailor Jae and Traces, who I’d known individually for quite some time. I remember seeing this tune called ‘Thief’ and seeing their names on it and being like, ‘is that… hang on?’. I didn’t even know they knew each other or that Tailor Jae even produced at the time but again, there was just this synergy I felt. I’ve run the label like that since the beginning. I have to feel a really good energy about both the person and their music. I have to feel like they’re going to use whatever I can give them, as little as that may be, to do some good.”

SZNS7N’s art direction is striking too. Originally functioning around a basic concept that saw LCY take artist press shots and obscure half their faces with white brush strokes, more recently, release artwork has grown more technical and conceptual. “I’m a big fan of a lot of contemporary artists and I’ve always done art on the side”, she explains. “I’ve always found it to be quite intuitive and at the time I was creating SZNS7N, I was looking at a lot of Francis Bacon’s paintings and was experimenting with oil paints. At the time, I wanted to lose my own mask for myself but I still wanted to keep my anonymity. The mask had too many connotations that weren’t related to me or my culture and I felt like I was borrowing massively. Obviously coronavirus has changed that because now masks are a part of our daily lives but at the time, I was reading a lot about the history of the East Asian and South East Asian culture and masks and it just didn’t sit right anymore. I wanted to steer away from that so that’s why I started painting. I hand-painted each one of those covers and it was such a labour of love, but I knew I had to find a new way to carve out an identity for the label.”

(Lijah – ‘Alhassan’ cover art by LCY)

It was this that’d signal LCY’s re-brand from L U C Y to LCY at the start of 2020, heralded by the release of her self-titled ‘LCY’ EP in February. Landing with a new logo and 3D animations designed by Joe Joiner, it marked the latest chapter in the SZNS7N story — and LCY hasn’t looked back since. “I mean I guess the label started out quite messily in some ways and I felt like people can maybe roll with it for a year or so but after a while, they’re gonna expect a better standard”, she says purposefully. EPs by Ship Sket and NARA followed, with NARA’s ‘Ipse Dixit’ cover art — this time designed by Jordan Chappell — particularly distinctive. “She loves Fiat Pandas, like the classic Italian Panda and so I sent Jordan a mood board with some notes and he got it straight away”, LCY says. “We flipped he colours around a bit but it was essentially done pretty quickly. I was nervous because it was the first time I’d worked with an external designer on artwork properly since my Trapdoor release and I’ve always got a really clear vision of how I want things to look. It can be frustrating sometimes, you know.”

(NARA – ‘Ipse Dixit’ cover art by Jordan Chappell)

In and amongst releasing her own material, DJing and presiding over SZNS7N, LCY also spent the best part of 18 months touring the UK as part of 6 Figure Gang — a DJ tour de force super group born out nothing more than friendship and mutual respect. Although having recently left the group, LCY, alongside Sherelle, Jossy Mitsu, Dobby, Fauzia and Yazzus, conjured up some of UK club music’s most defining moments over the course of 2019 & 2020. “We’d all been mates for a long time”, LCY explains, “and there were close links between all of us. There were certain events where we’d all be playing, like I the Keep Hush line-up I curated which Dobby hosted, Jossy playing A.G. and Manara’s club night where we first came up with the name and then we ended up getting the Rinse FM show together. It just kinda snowballed to be honest and we just did stuff that felt right between us. Sherelle putting us on the Boiler Room tour as 6 Figure Gang really catapulted us into the spotlight though, mainly because I don’t think UK club music had seen anything like us before. There was a lot of press opportunities and people gravitated towards us a lot and I think that was purely because it was so genuine.”

“Sherelle putting us on the Boiler Room tour as 6 Figure Gang really catapulted us into the spotlight though, mainly because I don’t think UK club music had seen anything like us before.”

Their contrasting styles behind the decks made for energy-sapping, ceiling-slapping club nights, with records played at breakneck speed and mixed with laser precision, smiles permanently etched on each other’s faces and blends celebrated like last minute winners. “It was a really good fucking thing”, LCY concludes. “I might not be a part of the group anymore, mainly because I felt like I couldn’t be as genuine as I wanted to be when we started, but it was such a good experience and we had a lot of fun.”

Circling back on her own output, LCY is hoping 2021 can usher in the next part of her vision for SZNS7N. New single ‘Garden Of E10’, released on December 18, serves as an introduction to a post-apocalyptic world she’s currently building in narrative form. “I’m writing a story at the moment that I’d like to eventually turn into a comic”, she explains. “The video for ‘Garden Of E10’ basically depicts the third scene in that story and follows this hybrid creature that has a dog’s mouth, a human head and a robot’s torso. It’s set a thousand or so years in the future and basically sees this creature head out into this new world for the first time. It’s a strange concept I guess because I always feel like people know what’s going on in my head but yeah. Ultimately, I just wanna try new things.”

“My favourite, favourite artists in the world … like the people who stay in my heart forever … are the ones that put so much effort into their art”, LCY continues. “You can connect to their music not just visually or sonically but in every way. I wanna be like that. I feel like you’re taught to write stories and imagine things at school but there’s not really a space for people to be weird and create worlds from their imagination that exist just for them anymore. Look at folklore and folk tales passed down over generations, they came from every day people doing every day things … and stories came from that. I just want escapism to be an option for people and hopefully, eventually, everyone can start making their own little stories again.”

LCY’S ‘Garden Of E10’ is out now on SZNS7N:

https://szns7n.bandcamp.com/track/garden-of-e10

— GRIME & DUBSTEP MONTHLY ™ —

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

(EVA808)

Album of the Month: EVA808 – ‘Sultry Venom’ (Innamind Recordings)

A legacy realised

Highlights

1. DEMANTAR

2. BROKEN NEON

3. GOLD TOOTHED TIGRESS

Icelandic producer EVA808 is a true technician and with it, one of dubstep’s most influential producers of the last five years, boasting co-signs from Hudson Mohawke to Ty Dolla $ign, Skrillex & Boyz Noise. Her music is cutting and intensely atmospheric and on debut album, ’Sultry Venom’, she shines bright across 19 tracks that flit between all-out cinema and blink-and-you’ve-missed-it beat sketches. The tracklist may seem bloated at first glance, but it unravels like a maze that you can’t help but get lost in, too. There’s room for garish menace (‘I Saw The Devil’), icy, moonlit synths (‘Broken Neon’), oddball, hyper-technical hip-hop musings (‘Lean Back’) and late-blooming trap beats (‘Heated Seats’), all of which bleed into one another, glued together by a shared sense of overarching darkness and pain. It’s a remarkable record and after a quartet of EPs for Innamind, not to mention standout records for both Crucial and White Peach, certainly represents EVA808’s most ambitious and personal outpouring yet. 9/10

(JLSXND7RS)

Tune of the Month: JLSXND7RS & Rocks Foe – ‘Warren & Justin’ (Dark Knight Records)

One of the best from two of the best 

JLSXND7RS and Rocks Foe have long been sparring partners — grime’s tour de force tag-team for those in the know — and on ‘Warren & Justin’, both take to the buttons on a much sought-after gem of an instrumental. Released as a two-track plate featuring a sweltering Boofy & Hi5Ghost remix on the reverse, it’s a dub that more than backs up the hype. Sprawling, Ghibli-esque melodies and mystical, delicate flashes form much of the track’s early blueprint, before brutish, snarling 808 kicks and a frantic strings onslaught flood it with the sort of OG grime energy that JLSXND7RS has made a calling-card. A clash of styles, expertly pulled off. 9/10

Flava D – ‘Berlin’ EP (Bandcamp)

Grime history brought back to life 

Flava D returns from the cold with ‘Berlin’ — a new record comprised of four of her most prized dubs, each with their own slice of grime history. Re-mixed and mastered for 2020, the 12” — strictly limited to 500 copies — features ‘Berlin’, iconic beat to D Double E’s 2015 ‘Berlin Freestyle’, as well as ‘War Dub’, which featured in a grime producer clash broadcast live on Rinse FM in 2013 alongside fellow producers including JME, Teddy, Rude Kid and Preditah. There’s also room for ‘Robot’, selected by Wiley for ‘Step 18’ of his Steps Freestyle series back in 2013 and ‘Plate’, one of her earliest and most requested grime beats. She may have spent the last few years spreading the UKG gospel as part of tqd and even dabbled with drum & bass of late, but Flava D remains one of grime’s most prolific architects. She’s promised there’s more to come, too! 8/10

Taiko – ‘Oaken’ (White Peach Records)

Ever reliable, ever superb

Taiko has been one of the UK’s most reliably excellent dubstep producers for years now and on ‘Oaken’, his latest for White Peach, he only reinforces that sentiment. The sumptuous, jazzy romance and classic dubwise flavours of opener ‘Oaken’ featuring Ed Hodge forms a gorgeous entry point to a record that sees him hit the sweet spot between rough and smooth this time out, too. ‘Lawless’ plays contorted pan flute melodies off against fraught and rasping beats, while the oddball FX and gloopy, whirring, low-end hum of ‘Spent’ represents its own point of intrigue. Final track ‘Where Ya From’ is the EP’s most emphatic, a fluttery, sickly-sweet instrumental that lands, in places, like vintage Murlo meets early 2010s era dubstep. 8/10

LX ONE – ‘Bloodshot / Seeking’ (Vantage Records)

Big and bad!

LX ONE crowns a vintage breakthrough year for his Vantage Records imprint with the label’s first slice of wax. A-side ‘Bloodshot’ details a heavyweight collaboration with Youngsta defined by playful, cosmic, ray-gun style pulses and a booming lean, while on the flip, the ominous, gloomy battle charge of ‘Seeking’ plunges the 12” into darkness and mystery. A-grade club ammo from a seasoned producer clearly enjoying a new lease of life. 8/10

Lolingo & Lyrical Strally – ‘Lolingo vs Lyrical Strally’ (Skeen Records)

Pure energy!

Producer extraordinaire Lolingo and YGG’s Lyrical Strally go head-to-head on a bullish EP bursting with attitude and charisma. The minute-long 16-bit ‘Intro’ is relentless from the off, with Strally’s flow sharing parallels with some of JME’s early freestyles, while second track ‘Batman’ sees him navigate a deft, spatial instrumental in breathless fashion. ‘Feline’ is lifted from a similar playbook, only Lolingo’s beat is harder and cut with powerful, rasping strings this time, before Strally really comes into his own on EP standout ‘Dashboard’ — a freestyle recorded in one, pulsating take. Final track ‘To-Do List’ details the skippiest beat of the entire EP, which gives Strally plenty of room to manoeuvre and mix up his flow. A great record from two seasoned young pros. 8/10

Drone – ‘Ghost Racer’ (Bandcamp)

Drone’s dark materials

Like Taiko, Drone has long been a consistent source of top-tier grime and dubstep material, recently developing his sound to feel bigger, louder and more industrial on records for V.I.V.E.K’s System label. On ‘Ghost Racer’, a grizzly six-track EP self-released on Bandcamp, he flexes similar muscles, ranging from the crunching distortion of the title-track to the scything, nightmarish pull of ‘Cursed’. The jittery unease and percussive death rattle of ‘Sinking’ adds to the sense of foreboding, before tracks like ‘Blueprint’ and ‘Feet In The Dirt’ down the tempo and up the hazy, filmic crackle instead. Our tip is the murky, guttural jaunt of final track, ‘Crayon’, which bookends a record forged in gloom. 8/10

Numan – ‘Replica’ EP (SPECIAL* REQUEST)

He’s back!

Numan first caught everyone’s attention in the early 2010s as a grime producer with plenty under the bonnet but away from music, has since turned his hand to making apparel, perfume and more. ‘Replica’ — a record written to capture the concept of a new fragrance — is his first in some time but details three new tracks full of energy and verve. Sparkling opener ‘Bubble Bath’ listens like a day dream in fast forward, complete with bonkers quack FX (!), while the hazy, crackling quasi-romance of ‘Wicked Love’ lands somewhere between Burial and The Blaze. The lo-slung, acid-y beats of final cut ‘Dancing On The Moon’ pack a genuine punch too, closing out a mini-concept record that should remind everyone of Numan’s pedigree. 7/10

Felix Dubs – ‘Clarity’ (Red Lagoon)

Spreading his wings

Doing much of his talking via his music, Birmingham’s Felix Dubs has quietly established his Red Lagoon imprint as a go-to next-gen grime label over the last 18 months, presiding over records from Jakebob, Gallah and more, as well as three solo EPs of his own. His latest, ‘Clarity’, is perhaps his most dexterous and versatile, abandoning OG sensibilities in favour of adventure. Classy opener ‘Clarity’ — a booming, down-tempo beat cut with winding, late-summer guitar licks — is a case in point, while jittery, pensive UK funky is the order of the day via second track, ’Steps’. Jazzy notes continue apace on the sumptuous ‘Want And Need’, with more mellow, reflective beats in ‘Midnight Blues’ and ‘Illuminate’ holding down the latter part of the tracklist. Final track ‘Soulfood’ signs off in similar, downtempo fashion, drawing the curtain on an EP full of poise and promise. 7/10

Commodo – ‘Procession’ (Deep Medi Musik)

A master at work

Commodo caps a stellar year by returning to Deep Medi for the latest in a series of standout conceptual records. ‘Procession’, comprised of three tracks ‘written in groups’ is loosely based around, in his own words, a ‘Lovecraft style story’ that unfurls with the nuance only Commodo can work into crunching, hi-pressure tracks of this ilk. Opener ‘Lobby Theme’ is intense and aloof at the same time, as frantic tribal drum work meets shady, cops-and-robbers style film noir, while the abstract bleeps and creeping, oddball tension of second track ‘Eldritch’ feels genuinely gripping and totally absorbing.The saga concludes with the shadowy, unerring rumble and mysterious choral chants of title-track ‘Procession’, which brings little closure — but maybe that’s exactly the point? Either way, it’s genius. 9/10

Monitor

As we close out 2020, it’s worth highlighting Lean Streets — new sister label of Trends’ Mean Streets — and their debut compilation, ‘Flavas’, featuring a collection of essential new grime flicks from P Jam, Felix Dubs, Lemzly Dale, D.O.K and more … and LCY’s new single, ‘Garden Of E10’, which features a vivid and wildly dystopian official video, signposting an intriguing future for her SZNS7N imprint … Looking ahead to January, Cella Records have lined up a debut multi-artist compilation of their own … out on January 22, ‘Radio Static’ details 10 weighty new tracks from a cross section of some of dubstep and grime’s most exciting next-gen beat-makers in Kodama, Drumterror, Nuboid and label head, Turner On The Track, amongst others … keep your eyes peeled for hot and heavy new plates from DJ Madd (‘Soldiers’ EP on Badman Studios) and Hebbe (‘Quiche / Looters’ on Next Level Dubstep) — trust us (!)… and we’re looking forward to hearing a much-rumoured new collaboration between Sam Binga, Gemmy, Sir Hiss and hotly-tipped MC, Emz, on Pineapple Records in 2021 too!

(LCY)

— Shae Universe —

On Port Harcourt, growing up in Watford, collaborating with Ms Banks, Westside Boogie, Etta Bond and more, alignment, self-belief, performing at Twickenham and shining in her own lane.

(All photos submitted by Shae Universe)

It’s approaching 11pm on December 23rd when Shae Universe and I finally get hold of each other after almost two weeks of trying. “We made it”, she says chuckling as our call begins, only a few days after the latest, sobering wave of COVID-19 restrictions had been announced. A precociously talented singer, rapper and songwriter with an extraordinary vocal range, Shae has blossomed under the surface over the past three years, working in her own spaces and drawing admiring glances from some of music’s most reputable names in Chance The Rapper, Jorja Smith and Kojey Radical amongst others. From speaking on the phone for just over an hour though, you’d never think it. “I’ve always been really humble”, she notes, “and I don’t think that’ll ever change.”

Born in Port Harcourt — the largest city in Rivers State in Nigeria — Shae and her family moved to the UK in 1999, when she just four years old. Initially moving around different areas in North West London, Shae finally settled in Watford, where she is still based today. “I don’t remember a lot about my life in Nigeria because I was quite young”, she says softly, “but I guess there are specific things engrained in my memory. I remember my dad used to ride a motorbike … in Nigeria we call them okada … and even though I was super young, I’d ride on the back with him sometimes. Obviously very safely and securely, although it probably wasn’t the safest thing to do to be honest. When you’re that young though, you’re not really scared of anything. I had no fear, so it just felt exhilarating.”

“I remember my dad used to ride a motorbike … in Nigeria we call them okada … and even though I was super young, I’d ride on the back with him sometimes.”

“Watford was very, very racist when we first moved here though”, she continues, “…it really was quite bad. There wasn’t a lot of diversity culturally, it was a predominantly white area when we first moved here so I think for us, it was a bit of a culture shock. My parents wanted us to move somewhere a bit more peaceful and less busy, somewhere not at the heart of London but yeah, I don’t think we expected it. On a social level, I just remember it all being quite awkward. The vibe between me and my neighbours for example, like that was never warm or friendly. We had a couple of run-ins as well … mainly just people being not particularly nice to us or making remarks in the street. It’s come a long way though, because now it’s a lot different and I feel a lot better about being here.”

Thankfully, the racism Shae encountered on the streets of Watford didn’t extend to the classroom in Harrow, where she spent her school years. “I can’t lie, Harrow was a lot more culturally diverse so I never really experienced it in the same way at school. I was such a good child looking back, you know? I was a total goody two shoes and I was always really scared of disappointing my parents but to be honest, I think that was partly down to being the oldest of four siblings and also being my parents’ first born. They were very traditional growing up in terms of their beliefs and stuff and they didn’t really know anything else. There was quite a lot of pressure on me to do well academically and I guess I lived up to that. It did my head in but somehow I managed to see it through and did pretty well. I was very focused, never gave anyone any trouble, didn’t get into fights or anything like that … I just tried to do my best.”

Music too was a big part of Shae’s childhood. “I feel like my first ever memory of music would probably be some form of African worship or African praise”, she says, energised by the switch in conversation. “In my household generally though, there was a lot of Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Barry White … gospel as well, that’s always been huge in my family. My mum is actually a gospel singer and before the pandemic hit, she’d travel to different countries and sing at different churches. As I got older, I started to find my own artists, outside of what was being played indoors. I discovered Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu pretty early on … I guess it all stemmed from Neo Soul at first and then I slowly branched out into RnB and the big 2000s pop stars. I was very in-tune with pop culture generally back then, actually.”

She discovered her own flair for music — and her voice (!) — at secondary school, where her love of literature signposted a route in to first writing bars and later, writing songs. “I loved poetry, slam poetry and all that kind of stuff”, she recalls, “…and then the poetry kinda morphed into rapping. I had a weird phase, when grime was a big thing, of going to the back of the playground and just clashing everyone. Everyone had tags as well … mine was Baby Murkage. I was actually hard you know. I’m telling you the mandem didn’t wanna bar me at the back of the playground because if you got washed out by a girl it was a big thing. After that, I started to sing a bit more. My mum, bless her, would force me to sing in the church choir, so it started as a chore but I ended up thinking it was quite nice. It helped shape my musical ear too, especially in terms of harmonies and pitch and stuff like that.”

“I had a weird phase, when grime was a big thing, of going to the back of the playground and just clashing everyone. Everyone had tags as well … mine was Baby Murkage. I was actually hard you know. I’m telling you the mandem didn’t wanna bar me at the back of the playground because if you got washed out by a girl it was a big thing.”

As her musical tastes began to evolve, so did Shae’s ambitions. Although clearly academic and a high achiever, music and her love of performing arts had come to the fore and with university on the horizon, there was only one choice she felt destined to make. “I ended up going to a drama school university called Rose Bruford College in Sidcup”, she says. “You know how in America they call universities, colleges? That university, though it’s based in the UK, was quite unique in the sense that it offered a course that’d allow you to go out to America and study over there for a semester … and that’s the course that I chose. It was called American Theatre and it was very similar to a lot of other performance arts disciplines like singing, acting, dancing … but it focused on American works, American playwrights, American history, that type of thing. In my second year, I got to fly out to America for a semester and I chose to go to the Stephen F. Austin University in this town called Nacogdoches in Texas, which not many people have ever heard of … I mean I hadn’t either. It sounds kinda random but it was the best experience ever.”

Had she always been intrigued by America, I wondered? “Do you know what, it’s so crazy that just talking about it and saying this stuff out loud now is making sense of why everything has panned out the way it’s panned out”, she says, expressively. “If I’m being really, really honest, I first picked that course because it sounded interesting and obviously, getting that experience out in America … the place most people see as like the place to go to fulfil your entertainment dreams our whatever … was really big for me. I didn’t understand the depth of that decision at the time, though. It’s so weird because I find that the way my life works, a lot of the time it’s only after looking back and reflecting that I’m like ‘woah, hold on, all of this stuff was supposed to happen’. I never thought about how me studying out there would later intertwine with my real life reality all these years later, you know.”

“It’s so weird because I find that the way my life works, a lot of the time it’s only after looking back and reflecting that I’m like ‘woah, hold on, all of this stuff was supposed to happen’.”

Shae first garnered attention while still at university, posting clips of covers on Twitter. Faceless and pure, they alerted the watching world to the power of her voice and that alone — and it wasn’t long before the share count started to rack up. “They were really short clips, just shot from my neck down”, she recalls. “I’d just sing my favourite songs, that was it. Somehow and I’m not sure how it happened, but these covers started to go viral. I remember I covered a Stormzy track and he got wind of it and acknowledged me, which felt crazy at the time. Chance The Rapper, too. I think at that point, that’s when I realised I might actually have something. I know people say it’s bad to look for validation from an external source but for me, it felt right and I think it depends on your character, too. I’m naturally a very humble person, maybe to a fault, but as I said before, I feel like those early co-signs, especially from people way ahead of me on their own journeys, were really helpful.”

Shae also credits her university experience with helping her find her voice and shaping her early artistry, too. “I specifically remember being sat in one of my classes and we had this teacher called Steve”, she recalls. “He would always teach the boring context classes and I can’t lie, I would fall asleep sometimes and he’d have to nudge me or whatever. Eventually, he started taking the voice classes with us and that’s when I first noticed something about myself that I’d never realised before. I’m 5’11, so I’m quite a tall woman and I’ve probably been that height since I dunno … I was young, anyway … so for a very long time, I was always towering over most people. I felt quite self-conscious about it, especially because people would often move out of the way as if they were intimidated by me, so I’d always over-compensate to make people feel more comfortable. What I ended up doing, was pushing up my voice subconsciously and softening it … and I’d never even realised. Steve, my teacher, was like, ‘Why are you doing that? That’s not where the power in your voice is at all’. Just unpacking things like that, even now, is like ‘woah’. I must have made so many small adaptations like that, just to appease other people and my own insecurities, so I’ve been working hard on stripping those away. Upon leaving university, I felt ready to come to terms with my voice and who I was and what I wanted to be.”

Off the back of the success of her early Twitter covers — “Chance The Rapper responded to my cover of ‘Ultralight Beam’ with Kanye West, retweeted it and told me I was dope!” — Shae took a second to consolidate. Still faceless, she saw the potential in her voice doing the leg work but also understood she needed to strike while the iron was hot — now was the time to step out from behind the curtain. “It definitely gave me this sense of drive, this spark”, she explains. “Plus, at that time, I did have people messaging me asking where my music was. I had to have a conversation with myself about what type of artist I wanted to be. Did I want to be known as the girl who records sick covers of the songs that she likes? Or did I want to be my own artist? It was something I’d studied for and wanted my whole life you know, so I knew what I had to do.”

“Did I want to be known as the girl who records sick covers of the songs that she likes? Or did I want to be my own artist?”

Decision made, Shae released her debut single ‘Big Mistake’ featuring Ms Banks in 2016, complete with an official video. “When I think about it, that was my first ever original song and my first ever song with a feature”, she says, pausing for a moment. “I mean, it’s crazy really.” How did she go about collaborating with Ms Banks, I wondered? “She basically heard the track after she’d caught wind of me on Twitter and just wanted to jump on once I’d sent it over, it was as simple and as easy as that. I will forever rate and respect Ms Banks because she doesn’t care about clout. If she hears something that she likes or respects, she’ll let you know. At that point in time, I had zero clout compared to where she was in her journey and nobody knew who I was. She didn’t have to do that at all, but she did.”

While ‘Big Mistake’ offered a window into Shae’s world for the first time, it was the slew of follow-up singles (‘Move’, ‘No Stallin’, ‘Black Panther’) that really shone a light on her singular talent. Already buoyed by “the tribe” she’d galvanised via her Twitter covers, demand for new Shae Universe music grew quickly — and she was in no mood to let anybody down. “I didn’t really know what I was doing at first”, she explains, “and it was a steep learning curve having to get my head around the business side of things and what not, but I knew I could navigate it. I was unknown then, so I felt like I could slide through and prove my worth to people with my music. It was nerve-wracking but it was fun … I mean, I’ve performed at most venues in London now I think, I did a lot of free shows and support slots, stuff like that. I’d go into spaces being completely unknown and leave with new fans, you know. That in itself was so important.”

“I think ‘No Stallin’ was probably my biggest, kinda defining moment of that period though”, she continues. “It came out in 2018 and it was my first and only track to hit 1 million streams thus far. Through that song, I was contacted by Roc Nation EQ, which is their distribution arm, and I was flown out to New York to meet with them. It was the first time I’d flown solo as Shae Universe, as my own artist, so it really felt like a big milestone.”

After working with a trio of managers during this first phase, Shae took the decision to mange herself in 2018. Fiercely independent but also very much a subscriber to the trust-the-process school of thought, it’s a combination that’s served her well — and opened her up to some career-defining collaborations. “I have a record with Etta Bond called ‘No More Love’, I worked with Kojey Radical on ‘700 PENNIES’ and I’ve also got a feature on a track called ‘No Warning’ with an artist called Boogie”, she says definitively. “Not A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie which people often get confused with, but an artist called Westside Boogie. He’s from Compton in California and he’s signed to Shady Records, which is Eminem’s record label, and he put out an album ‘Everything’s For Sale’ in 2019 which has everyone from Snoh Aalegra, 6lack, JID and Eminem on it too. To be featured on an album like that with those artists … I mean they’re seasoned artists, do you know what I mean? Again though, I feel like everything that’s happened on my journey so far has kept me grounded. You can get 500,000 co-signs from all these stars all around the world but it doesn’t mean they’re gonna hand you your career and you can blow tomorrow. You’re still gonna have to put in the work, which is what I’ve always done, but these things do serve as a reminder … people do see you and people see what is coming.”

“You can get 500,000 co-signs from all these stars all around the world but it doesn’t mean they’re gonna hand you your career and you can blow tomorrow.”

“Boogie actually found me via my covers as well”, she continues. “It was a cover of a song called ‘Redbone’ by Childish Gambino. He just popped up like ‘yo, we should work’ and the rest is history. It culminated with me opening for Eminem at Twickenham Stadium in the summer of 2018 as well, as part of the London legs of his Revival Tour and it was epic. Honestly, that shit was epic. I mean Twickenham holds 82,000 people I think so it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever performed to in my entire life. Somehow I find performing to a really big crowd easier than performing to a more intimate one, just because it feels like one big sea of energy. 50 Cent and Royce da 5’9” were there to perform too. It was an amazing experience.”

“More recently, a single called ‘You Lose’ which I released earlier this year, was also important for me”, Shae continues. “That single represents the first time I really pushed myself outside my comfort zone in terms of genre and musicality. My producer sent me a beat with drill undertones and bear in mind, the first time I heard it I was like, ‘what the heck? I’m an RnB singer’. Somehow, it just worked and that track is the fastest-streaming of my career so far.” The official video, pieced together by Blanguage Online who reached out to Shae after first hearing ‘You Lose’, features clips of over 100 women — including a host of creatives, photographers, writers, models and even fellow artists Sinead Harnett and Emelie Sandé — singing along to the track during the UK’s first lockdown period in April. “When Blanguage pitched the idea of a quarantine video tapping into empowerment and togetherness, I literally just DM’d everyone I knew that day and asked if they’d be interested in being in the video”, Shae explains. “With Emelie Sandé, I was just shooing my shot because I’d performed shortly before lockdown and she just happened to be there. We followed each other on social media afterwards but obviously that didn’t mean she’d automatically want to feature in this video. It was a long shot, but I sent her a DM and she did it! It was like that with everyone I reached out to in the end. I reckon that video, maybe in years to come, will be something to remember, you know. There’s greatness in that video and I feel like a lot of those women will go onto achieve amazing things, man.”

Shae’s latest single, ‘Levels’, also pairs top tier vocals with striking visuals, this time originally conceived by her younger sister. Written and performed as a homage to the R&B greats that have inspired Shae’s career to this point, there are countless iconic moments — including nods to classic videos by Aaliyah and Missy Elliott. It also recently won Video Of The Year at the 2020 State Of R&B Awards. So, with so many strings to her bow, how would Shae herself describe the music she makes and moreover, what she stands for? “I believe that I’m here to make space for multi-faceted, multi-talented women”, she says, emphatically. “Women that have multiple sides and thrive in all of them. I feel, especially being a black woman in the UK music industry specifically, sometimes you feel like you’re boxed in … if you’re not subscribing to what this particular ideal of what a black female music artist should be, then we’re not gonna listen to you, kinda thing. I don’t feel like industry blueprints are the ceiling either. Just because X, Y or Z artist have done something a certain way, doesn’t mean that is the only way. Rules in this industry are there to be broken and that’s when you get pioneership and that’s when you get innovation and that’s when you get real inspiration and real breakthroughs. I’m just here to be myself unapologetically and hopefully, I believe, that’ll inspire all different types of people.”

“Rules in this industry are there to be broken and that’s when you get pioneership and that’s when you get innovation and that’s when you get real inspiration and real breakthroughs.”

With such steadfast belief in herself and her purpose, you’d be hard pressed to find anything with enough force to knock Shae from her path. Even in times of struggle — from being let go from her job at Harrow Council earlier this year to seeing her kindness taken advantage of time and time again in the industry — she has managed to push on and flourish. Out of the trauma of 2020, she’s started her own vocal coaching business — “I’ve already got a whole load of clients who are all really focused, which is great” — recently performed as part of the BET UK Soul Cypher alongside Sinead Harnett, Hamzaa and Jvck James and is at the midway point of writing and recording her debut full-length project, which she hopes to release next spring. “I can’t really say too much at the moment”, she notes, “but it’ll be my first proper body of work as Shae Universe, which is a huge deal for me. I’m blessed to be in a position to now have a lot of important eyes watching what I’m doing, mainly thanks to collaborating with artists who are a lot further along than me, artists with multiple bodies of work. It’s quite daunting but definitely exciting. What I will say as well is that I’ve never heard music like this before. It’s scary because when you’re coming with something new, you know that some people are gonna love it and some people aren’t gonna love it. I’ll have to wait and see I guess, but I’ve got full faith that people will vibe with this new sound that I’ve been playing with.”

“Looking forward though, I’ve learned a lot this year, especially about myself”, she continues. “I’ve learned to honour my boundaries. I spent a long time subconsciously appeasing other people and making sure those around me were comfortable, even at the expense of my own comfort. Compromise and empathy are important but balance is equally as important. As a music artist, without me being okay, feeling alright and feeling stable, there is no career, there is no music. I can’t be out here exhausting myself and putting all my energy out into the world without replenishing. Just knowing that has helped me maintain and protect my peace a lot more.”

— Flava D —

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

(All photos submitted by Flava D)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Scully —

On Croydon, Southampton, God, divine timing, making ends meet, commentating, curating, Reprezent Radio, Noisey, No Signal, Copa 90 and learning to trust in himself.

(All photos submitted by Scully)

“Do you mind if I do a few things while we talk?”, asks Jason Kavuma, better known as Scully, early on Saturday morning, “I’ve got quite a lot on today”. Adorned in a No Signal jumper simply bearing the words Black Radio, he begins hanging his washing out to dry as we start our conversation. There’s a marked calmness about Scully from the outset, a quiet confidence that hangs on every word — an almost unshakeable belief in what he’s saying and what he stands for. His isn’t a story of overnight success, either, but more one of tireless, grinding resolve and a refusal to give up on his dreams. It may sound cliché, but for Scully — now one of the UK’s most prominent young media voices — hard work really does pay off.

“I feel like I’ve lived 2020 with survivor’s remorse”, he says pensively as we begin to chat, “because I’ve had a great year, but some people are really struggling. I know it’s not my fault …  maybe guilt isn’t the right word, it’s probably more somewhere in between guilt and empathy … but I do have to remember how blessed I am and how lucky I’ve been. There’s also been a lot of going on, a lot of black trauma … things going on in this life that nobody could have predicted … so there has been a lot of ebb and flow in some ways. Today, right now, I’m good, I’m quite happy. On Tuesday, I remember waking up feeling mad low but most other days this week, I’ve woken up and felt great, so I think it’s just a case of knowing yourself. I know who and why I am and I get a stronger sense of purpose about who and why I am each and every day … and that’s a great feeling.”

“I know who and why I am and I get a stronger sense of purpose about who and why I am each and every day … and that’s a great feeling.”

Born and raised to Ugandan parents in Croydon, South London via a stint in Southampton as a teenager, Scully has spent much of 2020 split between three places; first, a flat share in South London, followed by a spell back at his family home in Southampton before recently moving into his own flat in Norwood Junction. “From Mitcham up to West Norwood, that’s my family”, he says. “Basically this greater Croydon area, it’s just home. It’s funny, like, a lot of my friends and people in the industry are always asking me about moving here or there, but I never will. People don’t understand like, Croydon is home … it’s got a different energy, I feel. I always tell my mates, wherever they’re from … North London, West London, Birmingham … there’s a different vibe to Croydon. You know when you’re just on your strip? That’s Croydon to me. I know whenever I’m there, I’m comfortable, I’m about, I’m home.”

“Ah that KFC is my local spot”, he continues, after we trade stories about coming out of West Croydon station late at night. “I used to go to church along that road, and that KFC there, that was my Friday night treat with mum. We’d go there, get a bucket because my cousin would come over … they used to do Vienetta as well, I think it was called Vienetta? That was my treat, every Friday night.”

Scully spent his early years in Croydon — between Jasper Road in Crystal Palace and the Eastney Road estate in West Croydon — and recalls primary school was “alright”, before the family moved to Southampton once he reached high school age. It was a decision he initially lamented, but now credits with being integral to shaping his world view. “I was raised in a matriarchal household … I was a mummy’s boy first and foremost”, he says bluntly. “I also had a lot of older cousins but managed to strike a balance between being around both my male and female cousins. My female cousins put me onto quite a lot … RnB especially … but also I remember one of them putting me onto Dipset really early on, I must have been eight or nine. I was a Dipset fan from that point forward, to the point that I went to go and see Cam’Ron for my 21st birthday … it was that big of a deal for me. I was surrounded by family growing up really, so like, if my mum had to go to work or was away for a night, I’d end up with my cousins or at my aunts who weren’t really my aunts … just people on my road who were lovely.”

“Life was bless and then I remember when I was about 11 years old, my mum saying to me one day, ‘you’re not gonna get into the same trouble as your older cousins’”, he continues. “She told me she wanted to study for another degree and that she was enrolling in Southampton and I had to go with her. I remember hating it … like why? It moves me away from my friends, from the area …. I really loved ends. It’s weird because I didn’t ever see things being any bigger than my ends. You see in The Lion King where Mufasa, Simba’s dad, says ‘everything you see that the light touches, that’s our kingdom’? That’s what Croydon felt like to me. I remember going to Catford once to see my uncle and thinking, ‘oh my God, this is so far, what is this strange land?’. The minute I moved to Southampton, suddenly my world felt huge. Seeing a different place, a different makeup of people, to me it felt like the other side of the world. Seeing different lived experiences too was important. I went to a Catholic boys school because my mum thought that’s where I needed to go to stay out of trouble and it turned out to be really rough. I remember on my first day, someone tried to nank someone but the other guy had a set of knuckle dusters anyway, so he beat the shit out of this other kid. I remember going home and laughing at my mum like, ‘you moved me to get out of trouble and now look’. The kids on the school bus were like, ‘yeah, this is the worst school in this area’. I think she felt as long as I wasn’t in a gang, things were alright.”

“You see in The Lion King where Mufasa, Simba’s dad, says ‘everything you see that the light touches, that’s our kingdom’? That’s what Croydon felt like to me.”

“It did expand my world view though”, Scully continues. “There were kids in my class with six or seven bedroom houses out near the coast, whose grandparents had enough money to buy the house next door … like palaces, or that’s what it felt like. But then I had friends who lived in flats on the estate with me and it just felt like life in Croydon. We’d go out on our BMXs, play one-touch against the wall … basically I was seeing so many different levels of class for the first time. I’ll always be thankful for that experience because now I feel like I know how to speak to people without worrying about a communication gap or getting on people’s levels. Going to such a mixed school … I mean I had Polish friends, East and South Asian friends, black friends … both African and Caribbean … white friends, there was a big Irish contingency because it was a port city too, it was just such a big mix. Suddenly, I felt like I knew the world. Croydon is incredibly diverse too of course but I think if I’d stayed there for my high school years, it would have been easier to become quite insulated by cultural boundaries.  Going to a new city proper opened up my eyes.”

Music wise, Scully never felt bound by genres at home. His parents would play a whole mix of records; from gospel to country music, played by his dad, to reggae and an eclectic mix of pop and soul — from ABBA to Luther Vandross. “I guess they never wanted me to do anything in music”, he explains, “they just wanted me to appreciate it. It led them to encouraging me to pick up an instrument. They thought me playing something would make me a well-rounded person, and they’re the same with my little brothers now, but I don’t think they realised how enamoured with music I’d end up. I picked up the double bass when I was about seven … I’m not really sure why, it was just quite big and even at my young age, I realised that the double bass could lead me to the bass guitar and then hopefully jazz. I remember my first live performance in year 5 and my parents turning up really late in traditional attire in front of the entire school. At the time, I was really embarrassed but looking back, it was actually sick. They arrived just in time to see me perform and they stood out, which in turn, probably made me stand out. In essence, they indoctrinated me to love music without realising.”

“I remember my first live performance in year 5 and my parents turning up really late in traditional attire in front of the entire school. At the time, I was really embarrassed but looking back, it was actually sick. They arrived just in time to see me perform and they stood out, which in turn, probably made me stand out.

As a kid, his own music tastes mirrored the diversity of his parents’. He may not have bought classic records on vinyl, but genres were never an obstacle. “I liked everything”, he says with a shrug. “Good music was good music, that was it. I remember one birthday, I got a Busted CD but I also got a Jay Z CD … I wanna say it was ‘Reasonable Doubt’ and it wasn’t new, it was hand-me-down from my cousin … I had a Spice Girls cassette as well. It was the most random mix of stuff, but it just made sense in my immediate family home. It’s not that I didn’t know what genres were but it was never segregated, I just listened to music and enjoyed it. If I found something and I liked it, I’d become obsessed, that’s just how I am … I had to learn everything. I remember once we got dial-up internet, it was like ‘cool, now I’ve got AOL, I’m gonna watch everything’. Me and my cousins would spend hours watching MTV Base and MTV2, Kerrang! … everything. For me, there’s no point learning without learning enough to be the best and I’m lucky to have parents who reinforced that in different ways. My mum was always like ‘you can do whatever you want, I believe in you’, where as my dad’s view was ‘if you’re gonna do something, you better do it well’. Those two approaches levelled me out.”

After finishing school in Southampton, Scully went to college in the area, but dropped out after the first year; after almost eight years away, he had his heart set on a move back home to Croydon. “I told my mum I was going back and that was it”, he recalls. “I moved in with my aunt who was still living on the Eastleigh Road estate … big up my aunt Kate and my little cousin Jojo because they essentially put me up for a while. Big up God as well … I’m a Christian right and I think he’s definitely had a plan for my life because there’s certain things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have been able to do. For example, going to university … I didn’t even finish college, so I should never have gone. When I went to Southampton, I did this CAT test … a cognitive ability test basically … and when I got my results back, I got an abnormally high score and my teachers said it didn’t make sense, but confirmed that there was no way I could have cheated or had any sort of unfair advantage. I mean, there was definitely a few times I could have been expelled from that school, but they gave me the benefit of the doubt because they saw something in me. My entire school life ran off my potential and I think they were hoping I’d realise it one day.”

A special letter of recommendation from one of his teachers in Southampton would subsequently get him into Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford, where he would go on to study journalism; at this point, he was fixated on becoming a political correspondent. It was an ambition leveraged by the success of a blog he’d helped co-run with friend, Pete Simmons, while he was in college. “Pete had setup a blog called Push and brought me on board to share the work with him. Pete is from, I wanna say …. Winchester? Somewhere near Southampton anyway and I think someone had told him about me and how obsessed I was with new music. We were introduced, we got along and he ended up asking me to help run this blog with him. I mean, I was mad political and wanted to write about politics, but no one would give me the time of day. I was like 15, 16 and I had some good SATs results but you can’t email CNN and be like, ‘yo, I should be your political correspondent’. I took it as a sign that I should write about music until I’m 21 and then I’d be an adult and people would take me seriously. In my head as well by the way, I was sure I’d be a millionaire by the time I was 21 and I’d then be able to pivot. I genuinely believed that. I’m so lucky to have been surrounded by people in my life who helped me believe in myself. That’s another big part of success as well … not being afraid of failure. I was never scared to try my hand at anything.”

“I mean, I was mad political and wanted to write about politics, but no one would give me the time of day. I was like 15, 16 and I had some good SATs results but you can’t email CNN and be like, ‘yo, I should be your political correspondent’. I took it as a sign that I should write about music until I’m 21 and then I’d be an adult and people would take me seriously.”

With Push going from strength-to-strength, Scully had his first tase of recognition. He was creating, curating, influencing — and people were paying attention. It was at this point that Pete headed to London for university — “I’ve no idea which one because our relationship was just solely based on talking about music” — and was soon approached by the BBC. “He went to the BBC to work with Charlie Sloth I believe, but he was only there a year. Straight afterwards, he went to do publishing at Universal Music, mainly off the back of the work we were doing with Push. He’s still doing bits now, so I’ve got to big him up. I’ve got a lot of love for Pete because when we met, I was just any yout but he never treated me like that. We connected early on and it’s been love ever since.”

Scully’s time at university was chequered by his other ambitions — admittedly, he was never fully invested — but now based in East London, his world view continued to expand. “You see when you step off a plane in a new country? That’s genuinely what it felt like for me seeing new parts of London”, he says. Pete’s success opened his eyes too, if only to the existence of white privilege — “he deserved it fully, but there was probably a benefit to him walking into an office as a white kid as opposed to me as a black kid” — but also to his own detractions. “If I’m honest, I wasn’t ready for that type of responsibility then”, he admits. “I’d turn up to meetings smelling of weed, I’d turn up late. Basically I thought because I was good at what I did, that was it … like, who cares? I was very much of the mind set that people needed to accept me how I was, purely based on the fact I was good, which I think rings true to a point, but not as a 19 year old kid. But even then, I knew I was still funny … especially on Twitter.”

It was Scully’s exploits on Twitter that’d pique the interest of Alex Hoffman — former VICE / Noisey lead and acclaimed video director — who decided to offer Scully his first, fully-fledged music internship. “I came to his attention one day after tweeting VICE a bit recklessly in the early quote Tweet days”, Scully recalls. “It was something like, ‘you n****s hiring?’ in response to a Tweet they put out and loads of people started replying. Alex obviously saw it and reached out to me to say, ‘this shouldn’t be how it works but I’ve seen your tweets and you’re funny, you should come in and we can talk about an internship’. I went and met them and Alex reassured me that if I did the right things and was willing to work, I’d excel there because I had a lot of potential.”

Scully began his internship at Noisey, where he was tasked with mostly writing and covering stories on the website, but on occasion, he was also asked to head to video shoots and even work on some of his own content. “Alex opened my eyes to all the different things I could do”, Scully notes. “He knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also grew up idolising Dame Dash. He used to say to me, ‘you say you wanna be an A&R and you say you wanna be a writer, but there are so many other roles available to you in music media. I mean, I ended up being the assistant director for a Charli XCX video on literally my second shoot after being a runner for this Darq E Freaker video Noisey did on my first, so I guess he was right. I love to chat, so I spent a lot of time speaking to people and asking questions on those shoots. It’s one thing to be smart, but to be curious and ask questions is just as important.”

“It’s one thing to be smart, but to be curious and ask questions is just as important.”

Still enrolled at Anglia Ruskin whilst at Noisey, Scully also got a job at a nearby Pret-A-Manger to balance the books — the latest in a long line of jobs he worked to keep things ticking over. “People used to ask me like, ‘how do you manage to do it all at once?’. What people didn’t understand was that I’d been working three jobs since I moved back to London. I’d wake up at 4.30am to get to Pret for 5am and do the breakfast shift until 10am. It was literally around the corner from the VICE offices, so I’d head straight there afterwards and work until 2pm, sometimes until 4pm if I was needed, and then I’d hit the university library. I caned it like that for time. My worst job was as a door-to-door charity fundraiser, but I also worked part-time at Ladbrokes, I worked at Greggs … I did loads of odd jobs when I had to.”

“I’d wake up at 4.30am to get to Pret for 5am and do the breakfast shift until 10am. It was literally around the corner from the VICE offices, so I’d head straight there afterwards and work until 2pm, sometimes until 4pm if I was needed, and then I’d hit the university library. I caned it like that for time.”

Despite all his hard work, however, Alex and his other superiors at Noisey felt he still wasn’t ready to embrace his newly crystallised dreams of being a presenter — much to his own displeasure. “I thought I was ready to do it, so I felt like he was just hating at first”, Scully admits, “but what I didn’t realise was that he was helping me to grow during that period. About six months in, just as my internship was coming to an end, he said to me on the off chance, ‘I can see you’ve got the passion, you should try radio’ and ironically, Pete (Simmons) had said the same to me a few months before. They both told me to check out this placed called Reprezent Radio because the studio was in Peckham, which wasn’t far from home, and they had a few things going on. Up until that point, I’d never considered radio or even thought about it.”

At the time in 2013, Reprezent’s biggest show was hosted by Jamz Supernova, while Krept & Konan’s Play Dirty show — hosted by Docta Cosmic — was also a fixture. But by his own admission, nobody at the staton was a standout star yet. “Stormzy actually had a show too”, he recalls, “but the reason it was so big for me was because all these people were from ends. It made me feel like Reprezent was the place to be. It was at this point that I think this divine sense of timing intervened as well, because I went to Reprezent for the first time on a Saturday, just to introduce myself and ask about the possibility of getting the show. I knew I had to do my training and basically learn how to broadcast, but while I was there, there was a woman on air … and I can’t remember her name God bless her … but she was struggling. She seemed really nervous on the mic and station managers Adrian and Gavin asked if I could go and help her out a bit, just on the off chance. I don’t know why they thought me of all people would be a calming influence, but I went into the studio and tried to help. I ended up doing a bit of mic work while Adrian and Gavin were looking in from the outside. I thought they were thinking I’d done a terrible job, but when I came out they told me that I sounded really natural and couldn’t understand how I’d not done any sort of radio work before. I did listen to the radio for hours as a kid, especially on a Sunday, which was the only night I did any homework. I’d listen to the Sunday Surgery with Annie Mac and Nick Grimshaw, I remember I loved Zane Lowe because he played everything and obviously Westwood on 1Xtra. I actually remember my mum buying me this big, blue JVC thing for my 10th birthday, which was really special … but I’d never considered working in it at all before that day at Reprezent.”

It was in radio that Scully found the room to flourish. Reprezent offered him a chance to channel everything that came naturally — energy, humour and personality — into broadcasting. “I never really saw any of those things as skills, let alone transferable skills”, he acknowledges. Without any practical training however, it was difficult for them to offer him a show of his own. “I was just some random guy off the street at this point, so they offered me the chance to produce shows and do my training”, explains Scully, “and then fill in shows if there were any spaces. At the time, the Play Dirty show was a big one and it was often hosted by Docta Cosmic, who was Krept & Konan’s DJ. He ended up making me his producer and we’d text each other all the time, we’d line up the tunes we were gonna play … he even let me have mic time, doing the news and a run down of topical stuff that’d happened each week. To him, it was probably just a case of teaching someone a couple of years younger than him the ropes, but to me it was a big deal. Over time, because Krept & Konan were getting bigger and bigger, it meant that he could do the show less and less, which in turn meant that I ended up filling in quite a lot. I did it for long enough for Adrian & Gavin to reward me with my own slot, which was 10pm-12 midnight on a Friday.” 

What were those early shows like, I ask. “No features, just vibes”, he says, laughing. “I was literally just slapping tunes and then getting on the mic to say ‘yo, I love this one’. There were no genres, I just wanted to contextualise UK music … I thought I was the guy to do that, I felt like there was nobody better placed. I started using proper musical language to describe tracks as well, talking about arpeggios and production and shit like that. I was basically using my classical training vocabulary to describe early Naira Marley afro drill stuff. Adrian and Gavin were like, ‘this is sick, we get it and we love that you’ve got this passion for music but it doesn’t make sense for the show’. I’d play like Naira Marley, then something by Trim, into a track by Bloc Party … I dunno, I was literally playing everything. They knew I loved Zane Lowe but they were like ‘you can’t be Zane Lowe because this is a Friday night on Reprezent Radio’. That spurred me on to zone in on certain styles and bring in features to help contextualise the other stuff. My first feature was called Politically Peak, which I thought could help open up talking about politics for people my age and younger. I had another feature where I’d press play on the first three new tunes I could find in my inbox, which in essence, allowed me the chance to play a load of different genres. Over time, all those things helped me build a reputation as someone who would give time and attention to listening to new music and as a result, I ended up doing a load of first radio interviews with artists that have gone onto have a lot of success in their careers.”

“I started using proper musical language to describe tracks as well, talking about arpeggios and production and shit like that. I was basically using my classic training vocabulary to describe early Naira Marley afro drill stuff.”

Scully’s rise at Reprezent saw him become one of the station’s defining voices over the next five years, alongside the likes of Naina, Sherelle and now close friend and sparring partner, Joe Walker, as well as a host of other breakout names. The Sunday Roast, a weekly two-hour show hosted by Scully and Joe and centred around debate on any given week’s big cultural talking points, has also become a calling card for both Scully and the station as a whole, too. But in and amongst it all, he’d adjusted his sights. He now felt confident enough to approach labels, with his dream of becoming the next Dame Dash coming into the foreground of his thinking and growing seemingly more attainable by the day. A host of internships at first Secretly Canadian, followed by Island Records and a spell working with DJ Target at Pitched Up, granted him valuable experience. But he was soon faced with a familiar conundrum; was he actually ready?

“I was going to every show, every event, making the most of every opportunity that came my way”, Scully recalls, “and I felt I was good enough, I felt like I deserved it … but nobody gave me that chance. Adrian and Gavin at Reprezent knew I was desperate for a label job but I guess it was a bit like Alex at VICE … I wanna big up so many people now actually, Louis Melvin … it’s his birthday today so happy birthday to him … James Grant, Alex Hoffman, Darcus Beese, both twins, Alec and Alex Boateng … so many people saw me on my journey and all of them recognised that I had something that would one day pay off. But all of them turned me down at that stage of my career and between them, they made me realise the power of saying ‘no’. I felt like they were hating on me but looking back, I wasn’t ready. I was still smoking weed every day and just not really that interested in legitimate work … but I thought I was serious, like I really thought once I got this job, and I wasn’t really sure what that job would be at this point, I’d stop bunning all the time and become the guy. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was probably depressed. I was 23, 24 years old and I wasn’t coming to terms with not getting the roles that I wanted.”

Here, came a defining, make-or-break point in Scully’s career. Faced with leaving university, low on money, living on a mattress on his cousin’s floor and struggling to break into the industry beyond his work at Reprezent, he was faced with the offer of making some quick cash through one of his older cousins. “I remember looking at him once he told me and just saying no, there and then”, Scully explains, eyes fixed sternly on the camera lens. “I told myself I had to stop doing all that dumb stuff, I had to stop smoking weed … none of it felt conducive to me working in the industry I wanted to work in. I had a couple of options … either carry on doing what I was doing, knowing that I’d be alright working part-time at Foot Asylum and staying on my cousin’s floor. I could go back to university, which I actually considered after enrolling at London Metropolitan University, one of the few places that would have me … or I could throw everything I had at music for one more year. I remember, a few months later, I’d actually started working part-time at Ladbrokes in Thornton Heath and Sleeks from Section Boyz walked in and was like, ‘Scully, what are you doing here?’. At this point, like I’d had my face about but I wasn’t really known outside of small circles to be recognised like that. For him to ask what I was doing working there, it kinda hit home. I just said I needed a job and he replied, ‘yeah, but you’re Scully’ and walked out. That was literally all he said. I remember looking at the clock from behind the counter and thinking, ‘rah’. There and then I realised I was depressed. I was working 4-8 hour shifts and I just hated it, so much … to the point where I did not care about looking after myself. I’d genuinely cross the road without looking, I just didn’t care … that was the mindset I was in.”

“I’d actually started working part-time at Ladbrokes in Thornton Heath and Sleeks from Section Boyz walked in and was like, ‘Scully, what are you doing here?’. At this point, like I’d had my face about but I wasn’t really known outside of small circles to be recognised like that. For him to ask what I was doing working there, it kinda hit home. I just said I needed a job and he replied, ‘yeah, but you’re Scully’ and walked out. That was literally all he said. I remember looking at the clock from behind the counter and thinking, ‘rah’.”

When he needed it most, divine timing would strike again for Scully. A few days before his 25th birthday in 2018, he received a call from Louis Melvin — once a former grime MC known as Loudmouth — a TV and content producer, working on everything from Channel 4’s acclaimed Four To The Floor (FTTF) docu-series to recently launched Beats By Dre content content series, Agenda. “I get a call from Louis and he’s like, ‘we’re working on this iconic program called Yo! MTV Raps, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it’ and I was like ‘I’m a rap geek, of course I have!’. He explained they were looking for someone young, well connected, passionate and who knew music inside out to help produce the show. I was like, ‘cool, do you want me to recommend some names?’. It turns out, he wanted me to come onboard and I was like, ‘what, really?’. He’d seen the work I’d done at Reprezent, especially the playlist job which Adrian had given me … I looked after what went on the station’s various lists each week basically. That in itself had brought me to Louis and James Grant’s (fellow producer) attention again, which was funny because I actually met them both as an 18 year old and they always told me one day I’d be ready. I knew they probably didn’t see me ever being a presenter myself, but the offer of helping produce the show was far better than being at Ladbrokes. I told my boss at Ladbrokes that I needed six weeks off to film this TV show, because I was gonna get paid decent money … not life changing but better than I’d get working there … and then come back. I wasn’t gonna try and take it was holiday or anything like that. My boss was like, ‘if you go, you can’t come back’ and I paused for a second, looked at him and just said, ‘it’s not much of a threat really because this job is shit, bruv … if you don’t let me come back, that’s fine but good luck to you lot because working here is shit’.”

‘So, a day before my 25th birthday, I left Ladbrokes and these times, the Yo! MTV Raps thing isn’t confirmed, it’s just an offer at this stage”, he continues. “I wake up on my birthday, get a call and Louis is like ‘Happy birthday bruv, I’ve got some good news mate … it’s happening, you’re coming on board as a producer’. Somehow, I ended up working an events production job for a company called Break Communications in Carnaby Street and producing for Yo! MTV Raps for the next six months. I felt that after all that, combined with radio productions and my playlist job at Reprezent, I’d walk into a label job the following January, no problem.”

As it turns out, said label job didn’t materialise, but Scully was finally on the right path — things were starting to align. A few days before his 26th birthday, he was approached by the BBC to undertake some freelance work. “They were impressed with what I ended up doing for them” he recalls, “and that was it. They reached out and were basically like, ‘we should probably give you a job, we’re gonna be hiring in a few months’. They’d seen the work I’d done at Reprezent and knew I did it well, so felt like I could easily come across and be an assistant producer for them. Big up the BBC, because there’s a lot of good people there, a lot of people I’m still friends with and a lot of people I respect. I took the job and learned loads from people I knew were great presenters and who believed in me … people like MistaJam and Sian Anderson. Big up Sian especially, because she’s been putting me onto things for years. Working on Sian’s show was great because she knew me and what I was good at, so she had me on B-Mic, which led to MistaJam to promoting me to C-Mic on his show. It was sick because I was getting my voice heard on a drive-time show on the BBC … I’d have people snapping me saying ‘oh shit, I’m listening to 1Xtra and I can hear your voice’.”

It was at this point that presenting opportunities started to really take off. Scully had continued working with production company, Lemonade Money, who he’d worked with on Yo! MTV Raps, and was also working on a new show for E4 with Joe Walker and Zeze Millz, as well as influential YouTube platform, Copa 90, for whom he interviewed footballers like Mezut Ozil. Suddenly, everything was coming together. But was the BBC the place for him, I wondered? “It was funny because the BBC was quite strict”, he says. “Like, if you’re a producer at the BBC, they see you as a producer and that’s kinda it. That’s not a problem because it’s a great place to work but its hard to make that step up and be a presenter. Everybody knew I was desperate to be a presenter, not necessarily on 1Xtra, but they knew that I wanted to make radio and be heard. They spoke to me quite a bit about staying on and even just doing some work in a freelance capacity, but I think they could see my heart wasn’t in just doing the production work. I was seriously considering it for a while but I realised that I needed to take a risk to get where I wanted to be, so I decided to leave.”

It was a decision that’d place a lot of emphasis on 2020 being a defining one for Scully. He’d done his thousand hours, he’d acquired his experience — now it was about becoming the presenter he always knew he could be. “2020 was gonna be all about me focusing on my goals”, he affirms, “because I didn’t have any responsibilities and if everything failed, I could move back in with my cousin or my aunt … I could even move back in with my mum. I prepped to do all of this Euro 2020 stuff, a load of talks and documentaries with VICE … everyone was telling me I was finally ready and it was my time. Here I was, 26 years old and ready … five years late on my own deadline, but ready. Bang … COVID. It locked everything off. I was actually on my way to VICE’s offices to film part of a documentary on UK drill and I get a text to say that the offices are closed because of the new government guidelines and that they had to shut immediately. Don’t forget, back then everyone thought lockdown would last for two weeks and that’d be it, but I was monitoring the situation and I knew it was gonna be longer. In my head I was thinking maybe September, but not 2022 as it’s looking like now. I took it pretty well because I knew in my head that everything was gonna get called off already, but then I thought, ‘you fucking idiot … you’ve just left a stable, salaried job to go freelance and pursue your dreams and you can’t film or present anything for the next six months’. At that point, I felt like it was a wake up call. This was God telling me, ‘fam, this presenting thing is not for you, seckle’.”

“I took it (COVID) pretty well because I knew in my head that everything was gonna get called off already, but then I thought, ‘you fucking idiot … you’ve just left a stable, salaried job to go freelance and pursue your dreams and you can’t film or present anything for the next six months’.”

And then came No Signal. Widely considered one of the UK lockdown’s biggest success stories and with it, a powerful and much-needed celebration of global black music culture, Scully’s role in the station’s remarkable rise cannot be underestimated. Alongside fellow presenter and previous Polymer interviewee, Henrie, and station owners Jojo and David Sonubi, not to mention a host of other DJs, broadcasters and programmers, he has become a figurehead for the station’s groundbreaking output; specifically, the now iconic #NS10v10 soundclash broadcasts. “I jumped on it essentially because me and Jojo had done a few Face The Facts political broadcasts in 2019, the last one being around the general election in November”, Scully explains. “It was called Recess Radio back then, in reference to the club nights Jojo ran, but I remember thinking there was so much more we could do with the station. We used to record at GUAP Studios and I remember seeing Ibrahim (founder and editor-in-chief of GUAP Magazine) pulling up in a new plate Mercedes Benz and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be sick if we could do something like this?’. Fast forward to COVID shutting everything down in March and we’re looking around thinking, ‘shit we’ve got nothing to do … shall we just make some radio for the sake of it, for our friends that are stuck at home?’. At this point, I’ve already decided that after this year, I’m probably not gonna work in radio anymore because I’d left the BBC and things were just looking different. Could I really go back with my tail in between my legs? I just decided that was 2021’s problem and we thought we’d have some fun making radio again.”

“Bare in mind, I’d also just moved back in with my mum and three little brothers in Southampton at the time”, Scully continues, “and the family unit was very different to the one I grew up in on an estate in Croydon. They’ve got a four bedroom house now and I’ve got brothers who all play football and own instruments and don’t really want for anything. I’d had all these grand plans about what I was gonna do with my family … you know, just reconnecting and that … and then No Signal just blew up. Big up my oldest bro Josh … he’s 17 and he gave me his room and was just like, ‘bro, you’re a big man, you’re 26, you can’t be sleeping in the living room’. I stayed in his room, basically just holed up doing radio all day, every day. My brothers get it and my parents do kinda get it, especially when they see me getting TV credits on Yo! MTV Raps or turning up in The Guardian with No Signal, but it’s still hard sometimes. Anyway, No Signal’s just buss and finally, I get offered a label job.”

Brokered by friend George ‘Quann’ Barnett — marketing executive at Polydor Records — Scully was put in touch with Andy Knox at EMI Records about the possibility of working in the label’s commercial department as a consultant. “Andy first phoned me in May and explained that he’s heard good things and would love to get me on board”, says Scully, “but there was lots going on at the label and it was going to take a few months to get things sorted out. I’d heard this sort of stuff so many times before, so I just thought it was air to begin with, but true to his word, I eventually got an email through with a contact offer. I couldn’t believe it to be honest. He was like, ‘this is the best I could do, I hope it’s all good’ and I was like ‘I’m gonna get this much bread to work in music, are you stooooopid, this has been my dream for years, come on!’. Long story short, I started as a consultant at EMI in September and I can’t thank Andy enough. He was honest with me from the start and that’s made me want to run through brick walls for him. It’s more important to me than wanting to be an A&R. I’m also very lucky to get that job in the first place, especially in a pandemic, and to now be able to live in my own flat in the ends because of that … I feel very blessed.”

“I still think there’s a lot left for me to do though”, he continues, “but I’m finally seeing the fruits of my labour. There was a time when I thought this all might not work out, that I might have fucked it. It didn’t dishearten me, I always knew I could do things on a smaller scale, but I’ve also always felt like I was well placed to contextualise music. I have the ability to talk and communicate, the gift of the gab or whatever, so why not? With No Signal, I guess I had the chance to excel at that, it’s given people the opportunity to see me as a presenter on a bigger stage, which I’m forever grateful for. We’ve got so much more to do, it’s gonna be a dynasty, but in the meantime it’s great to be the home of black radio and of black excellence generally. I mean we’re just a group of good friends who know each other doing things together and it’s massive. People love it, people want to be a part of it. For me, I just have to continue to remind myself of that.”

On the horizon, Scully — who would describe himself as “a content creator, curator and commentator” — has big plans for 2021. Split between the label job he’s long yearned for, No Signal and his work at Reprezent Radio — not to mention a new content series and podcast with Joe Walker set to launch early next year — it feels like his time has finally arrived. “Joe was an integral part of my journey and without him being my mate, I feel like I would have given up”, Scully concedes, “to the point that at the start of the year I nearly cried when I thought about what a great set of friends I’ve got, especially Joe.”

“This year, I feel like I’ve done a load behind the scenes”, he continues, reflecting on his own ambitions, “whether it be production or my label job … but next year I want people to know me as a presenter. I was lucky enough to be on The MOBOs long-list for Media Personality Of The Year this year which was fantastic, but the year after I want to be in the running to win it. I wanna be a household name, the rap game Parkinson, the musical equivalent to Anthony Bourdain. That’s where I want to be.” On his current trajectory, I’m not sure many people could bet against him. 

“I wanna be a household name, the rap game Parkinson, the musical equivalent to Anthony Bourdain.”

— GRIME & DUBSTEP MONTHLY ™ —

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

(K9 by Graeme Day)

Album of the Month: K9 – ‘Cut’ (Bandcamp)

Living on record

Highlights

1. ‘Tool Time’

2. ‘Eternal Sin’

3. ‘Victory Lap’ ft. Rolla, Sgt Stats, Swarvo, Lynxman, Nasty Jack, Direman, Razor, Patman, One Fourz & Snowy Danger

K9 has long-been one of grime’s most powerful and emotive spitters and latest tape, ‘Cut’ — a hyper-personal 9-track collection featuring everyone from Direman to SBK — crystallises that reputation fully. Always adept at turning his flow to the beats of outfitters like Mssingno, Visionist and Evian Christ, all of whom lend production credits here, as well as Silk Road Assassins (‘Taste Of Metal’), K9’s output also feels like a far cry from any paint-by-numbers formula too. Right from the piercing early bars of ‘Dishonour’ ft. Direman, K9 lays himself bare, picking instrumentals that elevate, rather than overbear, the pain and anguish he channels in his lyricism. The syrupy pop of ‘Stevie G’ — an ode to Liverpool FC’s legendary former captain – complete with auto-tuned hooks, is a lighter moment, but tracks like ‘Eternal Sin’ and standout cut, ‘Ice Climbers’ ft. Frostar, Wiley & Direman’, capture the darker mood that permeates the rest of the tracklist. ‘Never Been That’ featuring new school champ, SBK, is also a standout, as is the swarming, apocalyptic ’Tool Time’ — a track produced by Evian Christ — and final jam, ‘Victory Lap’, which lands as a multi-MC rally over DJ Oddz classic, ‘Champion (Remix)’. ’Cut’ isn’t always an easy listen, but it delivers completely unapologetically, in ways few other grime tapes of its kind do. 8/10

(Jammz by Ben Walsh)

Tune of the Month: Jammz x Jon Phonics – ‘Man Of The Match’ (Astral Black)

Emphatic!

Straight up, no frills grime from two artists who continue breathe new life into the sound; Jammz via his I Am Grime label and exploits on the theatre circuit with ‘Poet In Da Corner’, and Jon Phonics through experimental electronics and his ahead-of-the-curve Astral Black label. ‘Man Of The Match’ sees the two pull no punches on an in-your-face grime single that toes the line between fun and menace. While the artwork may feature a photo of Thierry Henry knee-sliding circa ’03-04, Jammz isn’t here for nostalgia, his breathless flow tearing away at Phonics’ sharp, scuttling instrumental right from the off — an emphatic reminder that he remains one of grime’s fiercest and most naturally gifted spitters. A proper heavyweight duo, like Keane and Vieira! 8/10

Novelist – ‘Quantum Leap’ (MMM YEH Records)

In his own lane

From 2014’s ‘Take Time’ with Mumdance to his Ruff Sound project and ‘Lewisham McDeez’ with The Square, Novelist has always done music his own way. New six-track EP, ‘Quantum Leap’, is no different, a record steeped in ‘80s synth music nostalgia and another nod to his diverse tastes, many of which lay way outside the more traditional grime canon. Introduced by a minute-long, prophetic spoken word monologue, ‘Quantum Leap’ begins in earnest with the swirling, neon-tinted tones of ‘Freedom’, with each track bleeding into the next like a synth patchwork. Far from the accelerated grime of previous production EPs, tracks like ‘Luxury Life’ and ‘We Are One’ — the latter of which functions around a chugging house groove — see Novelist flexing in ambitious new spaces. Moodier final tracks ‘The Sapphires’ and ‘Billionaire Boys’ may allude to grittier, more familiar palettes, but this is a record that reaffirms Novelist’s trailblazing approach to his art. Salute! 8/10

Kid D – ‘Spiritual Art’ EP (2 Easy Records)

One of 2020’s big winners

More stone cold goodness from the legendary Kid D, a producer who’s enjoyed a prolific 2020 and is now in the process of putting finishing touches to a new album, due early 2021. Less of a primer and more of a showreel, ‘Spiritual Art’ spotlights the ethereal charm of Kid D’s recent grime productions, striking a balance between light and dark, rough and smooth. Opener ‘Super Natural’ is a testament to that vision, melding together bright, glistening synth layers and chiptune vocal FX with crunching beats, while ‘Blessings’ — again deft and bright — fizzes and sparkles. ‘Godly’ signals a slight change of pace, albeit still playing off lighter textures against harder, grittier bass sounds, with fourth track ‘Breath’ treading a similar path. The big, booming 808 lean of ‘Spirits’ is an EP standout, before bleepy, star-gazing final cut, ‘My Energy’, draws another stellar Kid D record to a close. 8/10

Gesher – ‘Holding One’ EP (I Am Grime)

Don’t sleep!

Rising producer Gesher has enjoyed a quicktime ascent in recent years after impressing in influential grime beat-making competition, Beat Boss, back in 2019. He debuts for Jammz & Jack Dat’s I Am Grime label with ‘Holding One’ — a five-track mini opus that also features one of the grime records of 2020 in ‘Change’ ft. Mayhem NODB, co-produced alongside Jammz. Gesher’s signature sound is skippy and playful, as evidenced by the bubbling, infectious 8-bar rhythms and sharp strings of first track ‘Gold Bullet Skank’, while the warped, de-tuned basslines and jazzy, sunset synths of the title cut are a revelation. Fourth track ‘Trap Ish’ does exactly what it says on the tin — think big, swollen 808 stabs and gothic, choral flashes — before the devilish OG grime of 8-bar monster ‘Darth Maul’ closes. A big statement. 8/10

Zha – ‘Snails’ EP (White Peach)

A fitting way to celebrate a landmark 

Toasting a landmark 50 releases on White Peach, label head Zha debuts on the label proper with new four-track stormer, ‘Snails’, following a series of releases on sub-label, Naan, over the last three years. Spatial and heavy on fuzzy low-end, each track represents an excursion from the soundscape inspired beats of previous records, trading delicate, faraway melodies for rough, abrasive percussion and cranking pressure. Rasping opener ‘Snails’ is a case in point, while the jittery, cut-and-paste sampling and filmic crackle of ‘Daisy’ is intriguing and fun. Bolshy, low-end rumbles and snarling patterns underpin third track, ‘Shattred’, which sees the EP take an ominous turn, before the rolling, industrial dread and blaring FX of ‘Tunnels’ sign off. Killer! 8/10

Lington – ‘Capsule’ (Bandcamp)

Finding his range

A vastly underrated grime technician for a number of years now, Lington’s ‘Capsule’ — an eight track, conceptual mini-album of sorts — represents his most accomplished work yet. From the winding snare rolls and luscious, hi-def melodies of opener ‘Orange Opal’ to the demonic, hoods-up growl of ‘Intercom’, this is the sound of a producer embracing his range. Moving through the gears as the tracklist unfolds, there’s also room for gloomy, grey skies (‘Evasion’), trappy, low-end rollers (‘Dmonz’) and ruff-and-ready gqom-inspired breaks (‘Antagonize’), before the subtle, melodic shimmer and ominous boom of final cut, ‘Gelato Sorbet’, winds things down. 8/10

Yamaneko – ‘Kaizo Nandaru’ EP (1000Doors)

Pure genius

Yamaneko has never made conventional grime by any stretch of the imagination, but his fleeting references form key building blocks of the worlds he builds within his music. Now based in Tokyo, he debuts for 1000Doors with ‘Kaizo Nanadaru’ — a stunning, seven-track record inspired by ‘illegal and fan-made art’, from modded video games to graffiti. Gorgeous opener ‘Chūnibyō’ listens like a Ghibli-esque lullaby, while the intricate, locked grooves and pulsing, automated Galactica of ‘Infinite Waveshine’ zeroes back in on the sounds first explored on acclaimed debut album, ‘Pixel Wave Embrace’. The sugary, lo-slung rush of ‘Nabana no Sato’ is a genuine joy too, as is the dizzying energy of frenetic Megadrive throwback, ‘Shimokitazawa Autoscroller’, both a marked contrast to the grimy, 8-bar snap of tracks like ‘Drewell’ and EP standout ‘Ultra Star’. The EP closes out with the intense and beautiful ‘If You Keep Asking Me I’ll Melt Away In The Summer Air’, a quiet nod to the ambient landscapes Yamaneko has also made his own over the last five years. A highly technical, emotional, wondrous record by one of electronic music’s most original minds. 9/10

Panix – ‘Panix EP’ (Substantial Audio)

Classic dubstep flavours

Statement dubstep heaters from DMW Sound’s Panix, who debuts for Substantial Audio with a self-titled four track EP here. Steely, dubwise opener ‘Regal’ forms a fitting entry point to a record rooted in OG sounds, with moody, hyper-wobbly second track ‘Ghoul’ befitting of some of the UK’s most memorable dubstep circa 2007-2010. The grinding, contorted rattle and scything pressure of ‘Hench’ is probably our tip, although the shadowy, reverb-heavy wobble of menacing final jam, ‘Wobble 96’, runs it pretty close. 7/10

Kercha – ‘Fulminating’ EP (DNO Records)

Quietly brilliant

Russian producer Kercha offers up plenty of surprises on new EP, ‘Fulminating’, a markedly distinguished four-track record out now on Brighton’s DNO Records. Pensive, thoughtful opener ‘Hold The Breath’ forms a welcome introduction to Kercha’s production world — a track that prods and hints at something more explosive without ever fully letting rip — while the bizarre FX, gloopy, yoyo like baselines and clunking, hydraulic breakdowns of ‘Jazz Symptoms’ are brilliantly perplexing. It’s a theme that underpins the rest of the record too, with the wild, cut-and-paste pinball of ‘Suggestion’ and yet more hyper-complex, oddball sampling and peculiar left turns on title-track ‘Fulminating’ keeping things interesting right to the final second. Absorbing! 9/10

Monitor

This month, look out for Grandmixxer’s rip-roaring ’South London Intergalactic’ mixtape via his SLSA label … and be sure to check THUGWIDOW & Bruised Skies’ superbly-titled ‘Requiem For A Sesh’ EP on Astral Black, a fascinating first collaboration between two producers with wildly contrasting visions … looking ahead, December is shaping up to be a defining month, with big releases forecast from Flava D (‘Berlin’ via Bandcamp), who is putting out her first grime record in over six years, Taiko (‘Oaken’ via White Peach), Commodo (‘Procession’ via Deep Medi) and JLSXND7RS, who has two new records on the way next month … EVA808 is also in line to drop her hotly-anticipated debut album, ’Sultry Venom’, on Innamind and bustling Brighton label Southpoint are back with the eighth volume of their multi-artist compilation series, ‘Southpoint Presents’, too!

(EVA808)

— 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