Early this year I headed down into south London. It was the Thursday before January’s DMZ: Mala and Loefah had been at Transition cutting for their dance. But initiated by the prospect of a feature in Dummy magazine, I began a long interview with the pair of them. It had been a long time since I’d interviewed Loefah. My first and only interview with Mala happened even longer ago, for Deuce magazine around 2003/4, when “Pathwayz” came out on Big Apple. For a collective that have had such a profound and positive effect on my life, I admit I had always wanted to revisit them in interview, just once, to do the weight of their achievements justice – but only when the time felt right. That January evening the opportunity arose: this is that interview. I’d like to publicly thank Loefah and Mala for making it possible.
· Many thanks to George Infinite for the photos.
Blackdown: 2006’s was an amazing year, where dubstep broke out of its borders and went global. Where have you DJed this year?
Mala: America: New York and Baltimore Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Scotland, Wales. I haven’t been to Sweden or Danmark yet.
Loefah: I had a booking in Denmark but it was around the time of the bomb scare last year. I spent a lot of time on the roof of Gatwick airport carpark. They weren’t letting anyone inside the terminal building until last minute. I waited for six hours before they went “your flight’s been cancelled mate.”
B: What gigs have been highs and lows?
L: The lows are blatantly when they haven’t got the soundsystem set up right. When you get there any everything’s wrong, usually the soundsystem.
M: It’s always the soundsystem I will moan about. You always look forward to going away, seeing new things and meeting new people. For me the highlights are the people I’ve met. Learning about their cultures, what you have in common with people miles away from you. What I always find funny is that people talk about “you’re from England or London so you’re a certain way, and someone else who lives in another part of the world is another way.” But I don’t see that because I’ve found that there’s people who live thousands of miles away from me that I have more in common with than my own next door neighbour. That’s why I find the categorisation of music nuts as well. “World Music” sections in shops… at the end of the day it’s all music.
B: I came into music because I love the music but I’ve come to love the culture and what you learn about other cultures through music just as much as the music itself. Like Pinch’s “Qawwali”. How many people in dubstep knew what a “Qawaali” was before Pinch sampled that?
M: Yeah that is a deep thing. Like Portugal, walking around Lisbon, it’s nuts. The architecture is all old but it’s covered in graffiti and posters for dances. It’s a mad contrast of history and now. I find these places fascinating. I just feel truly grateful for the moments I’ve been having.
L: Crenshaw is in LA. It’s like, Boyz in Da Hood area. Morgan from Spacek is in the studio next to me but is out in LA mixing his album. He rang me and goes “I went to the shop today to get a juice and boys came up to him, some local kids from the area. He thought they were coming on top but nah, they asked him ‘are you that guy from London?’” Word had got round that he was in the studio. They said to him, “if you’re from London, do you know about dubstep?” He replied “yeah, Loefah is in the next studio to me in London” and they went nuts!” Out there, apparently, dubstep’s the new underground hip hop.
B: That’s the interesting thing: you take dubstep out of London and stick it in the Bay Area and does it come out a bit hyphy? Or Brazil and does it come out a bit Baille Funk? Every person that hears one of your gigs in Portugal goes away and says, “now I’ve also got some Moroccan music, I wonder how that would sound.”
L: It’s kinda like the Kode9 theory: the virus.
M: Music does that. It’s down to you as an individual to be as expressive and creative as an individual with your influences and your ideas. Just because you’re from somewhere or you do a certain thing doesn’t mean that’s how you’re always going to sound or stick to. It’s important to always try and do what comes natural, not box or limit yourself. You talk about that theory [that environment influences music] but then that should happen in every home because everyone’s home is different. Everyone’s quite individual.
B: Mala, your music writing always seems very natural and organic [more heart than head, say]. Do you ever go against that natural flow, say to yourself “I’m not going in that direction” and make yourself go the other way?
M: Not looking at other people’s music doesn’t make me think I am or aren’t going to do that [musical direction], but listening to music I’ve finished or half finished, I think ‘nah, that’s not what I’m on.’
L: Now I do consciously do what you said. Not always but I have done this year. I’ve been writing beats, put an element in and then thought ‘nah it’s not about that.’ I’ve limited myself – ‘I can’t use this, I can’t use that’ – until I’m down to an 808 kit and a sub. Yeah, it’s a mad one. As soon as I heard someone else’s dubstep track with an element that I had in a loop, if someone came with that track before me I’d be like ‘fuck, I can’t do anything like that, ever again.’ For examples arpeggiated sequences [a Skream trademark since “Request Line”]. My synth in the studio I can make the sickest arpeggiated sequences ever, they sound amazing. But I can never have them in my beats, ever.
B: Your sound Loefah, has been built by reduction, it’s the path that got you to “Horror Show” and so on, and your sound is quite minimal. So if you’re down to an 808 kit, what do you do next?
M: Do you think they’re really minimal though?
B: Each element varies a lot but the number of actual elements in Loefah tracks is low, which makes them feel minimal.
M: Loefah beats are deep.
B: I’m not saying they’re not…
L: Nah I’d agree they’re minimal. I’ve got this minimalist style and it minimalist in the truest form: it’s reductionist, taking away elements but…
M: I don’t really think about it that much.
L: I do a bit… I’ll tell you what, I tell you what I can’t do. I’ve tried to write things away from halfstep in the last few months. Not 4/4 but a bit more uptempo, and I can’t do it. I mean I can, I write a loop and bang my head to it, but it’s dry. It’s so not me. Influences man, I personally have got really lost in it.
M: You can have good influences and bad influences.
L: I’ve had a weird year musically. That’s the way I feel. I haven’t liked a lot of stuff I’ve done, to be honest, not 100%. I took a step backwards for a little while. What I needed to do was to stop writing beats for a bit. Consciously I paused for two weeks but if you take into account when I wasn’t finishing things, I dunno, three or four months? Maybe longer. But when I decided I had to get away I didn’t listen to dubstep or write beats and I went and started to enjoy being a music listener again and did it intensely, catching up, finding out about new stuff which I didn’t even know was going on, getting old stuff out I used to love. Just remembering my influences. And remembering what I’m about, musically. I can listen to a country and western tune, a hip hop tune and maybe even a rock tune and they’ll all have something which makes me like them. They’ll have some kind of common denominator.
B: I don’t think people realise sometimes how much music production makes you over analyse music sometimes. You can’t detach from it.
L: I had to though, it was driving me mad. You’re in the studio and even before you’ve turned your computer on, it’s like it’s an enemy of yours, staring at you. It feels like it’s conquering you. There’s a balance too. I got too anal this year into EQing and shit and forgetting to do the rest of the track. I’d spend two days working on a snare and be like ‘the track’s done now, because the snare sounds sick.’ I think being a good producer is knowing when to leave a sound alone, not keep going and going. If you look that music that gets over-produced, prog rock or whatever, it’s dry. It’s boring. A lot of house, a lot of drum & bass: it’s the same thing. Drum & bass: amazingly produced. Great mixdowns using fantastic pre-amps. But where’s the soul? Where’s the groove?
M: That’s what I’m fundamentally dealing with.
B: I think this is what’s good about a lot of tracks you both have made, is that people can engage with them emotionally, not just because they’re well made. But Loefah, I always got the impression that the fact that struggling with your own music had pushed you to higher levels, from the times of “Jungle Infiltrator” to “Horror Show” to “Mud” and beyond…
L: I think it did. But then it got to the point that is like when you mix paint too much and it all turns brown. I had to step back and say, “alright, do I need to know any more about a snare?”
People often talk to me about “the Loefah sound” but I’ve been trying to get my head around what that actually is. Because it’s not always clear, when it’s your own thing.
B: I always find with producers that they find they’re making what seems to them like very different tracks, but that’s because they’re comparing one of their tracks with another and looking at the differences. Whereas to other listeners, who might compare (say) a rock track with several of yours, they see the similarities in your tracks.
L: That’s why it’s about stepping back and looking at your own stuff like that. I’ve been listening to a lot of other DJs’ dubstep steps, more so than I would have. Really in depth. You look at what DJs play what tunes and what tunes they play at a time in a set, and why. You get an idea of what they see music and your music within their own context. It’s all guess work but it does help me.
B: How do you feel the DMZ parties are going? They seem consistently busy…
L: I suppose that’s what they are: consistent, so far.
B: A lot of people would have said “OK we’ve got a really popular night, let’s make it monthly or weekly.” Why haven’t you?
M: Because this is how it feels right.
L: if you do something too much, it gets boring.
M: The workload is a factor and time is something that in this day and age a lot of people seem to be chasing.
L: On a completely selfish level, if we were to go monthly, I’d have no time in the studio. I’m struggling to get in there as it is.
M: I like it how it is, it’s just right.
L: There’s other dubstep nights all over the place, there’s no need for us to monopolise.
B: To me I like it because it’s a focal point for new music, a high point. People make an effort to write and present new music.
L: [South London dubplate cutting house] Transition was open today [Thursday], even though it’s closed, specially to let people cut for DMZ on Saturday. Clue Kid and Cotti were there with 100 tracks to cut.
M: It’s the same reason now as it was then. We love hearing weighty tracks on a weighty system and just sharing that with people. With it being New Year I had a kind of reflective moment and I honestly can’t believe things are moving how they’ve moved. You don’t plan for anything like this. DMZ’s a nice atmosphere. It’s fun to be doing these parties.
B: What I enjoy is the balance between all the different types of people. I see people in there from all races and classes, all parts of town, people I haven’t seen in raves in ages.
M: So do I. That’s the thing I love, same when you go away to DJ, you just meet different people. There’s so many people in the world and we’re all so different but at the same time, we’re the same.
L: The maddest thing ever was New York. When I played there I really thought it would be a hard set. Because a lot of sets abroad, even now, you can play to a room of people standing still… but they’re loving it. In Portugal they wouldn’t call for the reload but when we reloaded it, they went nuts.
M: In Portugal they delayed the start, so we went on at about 12. All of a sudden we realised it was ram in there, at least a thousand people. We played our music and yeah, people aren’t necessarily skanking out: but they don’t walk away either.
L: I was expecting this stand still crowd in New York. I got the shock of my life. The room was packed and you’d have the tune in the mix for ten seconds and they’d react: they knew the tune. You know Joe Nice’s “5” thing? They all had pieces of paper with “5” on them. “Qawwali” was the biggest tune out there. I didn’t play it, but all the other DJs did, and it got three reloads. Sick. I’ve never seen a reaction to it like that.
B: “Qawwali” has a life of its own. People in different scenes love it. People that don’t like dubstep like “Qawwali”.
L: This is why I mention New York. They get it and they love it – but on their own terms. The tracks that are big out there are the tracks that they decide are big, not the tracks that come over from London. “This fits our vibe.” And I like that.
M: That’s what it’s about. Let them think for themselves. We’re not trying to force feed or lay false impression down. We do our thing and let people take it how they take it.
L: New York was amazing. So inspiring to have that reaction. It’s legendary… New York man! I still haven’t come down off my cloud. No jokes, it was amazing.
B: I still am delighted that after all these years of struggle this music has generated enough momentum to break out of its borders.
L: When we were in New York, Pokes and I were staying with Dave Q, the Dubwar promoter, who lives on this apartment building in North Brooklyn. It’s got a flat roof with a roof garden for all of them. We went up there to smoke a cigarette because we couldn’t get any weed and have a beer. All we could see was this Manhattan skyline. You could see the Brooklyn bridge and it was this skyline that you’ve seen in so many movies, depicted in drawings and comic books, t-shirts, everywhere. And there it was in front of you. We kind of looked at each other and were like… I’ve been knocking about with Pokes, doing not a lot, smoking weed and having a giggle, for years. We exchanged glances and it was like “how are we here? How did this happen? Our music has got us to this place that we’ve dreamed of.” It was a mad experience.
B: It’s right though, because you guys have worked for it.
M: People say stuff about your music but you can’t really see it that way but the things that it gives back… are just deep.
L: It proper humbles you.
M: It’s too much to put into words really.
B: It must be mad to be accepted in New York, a city that has had such an influence on the music we’ve all listened to.
L: Me and Pokes, when we were 19, we worked in this bar. We used to sit in my room, before or after work, and sit listening to hip hop, jungle too, but a lot of hip hop and just smoke weed and dream about going to New York one day. “One day we’ll go, we’ll have it up in New York, we’ll paint a train.” Then suddenly we were there and it was just incredible.
B: Didn’t King Tubby’s son just turn up at your New York gig Mala, because he liked your music?
M: Yeah. But that’s the thing that shocks me, it’s the people you bump into, talking to, that you can relate to.
L: Apparently Hank Shocklee came down to our gig in New York. He rang Dave Q for guestlist - and Dave Q doesn’t know Hank Shocklee. But Hank Shocklee knows dubstep. He’s in it. The Bomb Squad, man! Rah.
B: So can you explain a bit about how you managed to get to where you are now?
M: I don’t think I had just an initial hunger for anything, I just like building beats.
L: We’ve always done music together, that’s been our link. We used to make jungle mixtapes and never get nowhere.
M: We were never trying to get anywhere, we were just doing our thing.
B: But you always seem to be reaching out to achieve things.
M: Well if that’s what’s going on, it’s not something I consciously do.
L: No but you’re good at them things. When opportunities arrive, Mala will clock it.
B: Like for example at some point you must have first wanted to take music seriously. So how did you go about making the first step?
M: What I did was: bought a good pair of monitors. When I decided I wanted to make a beat, of a certain standard, then I got some monitors so I could tell exactly what is going on with the frequencies. I kinda new what I was after, because that was just natural. You find your program which works best for you, which at the time for me was Reason. And just went deep in it, played it like it was Streetfighter. That’s how I saw it, that making music was like a computer game. And you’ve got all these things that you’ll be twisting up. You start with silence and at the end of the time that you’re looking to go deep in it, you end up with five minutes of some’tin that just come from no where.
B: How do you fight off distractions – playing computer games, going out – to write music?
L: I don’t. when I’m writing a beat I’ve got bare other things going on. Playing computer, on the internet. If I just have me and the computer, I can’t get nothing done. Mala’s different though. If you get him on any computer game… there’s nuff times we’d be playing computer games at home, lean, we’d both be playing. Then I’d get too lean and just watch and Mala would be like “I’ll have another game.” I’d fall asleep, I’d wake up and it would be 6 in the morning and Mala would still be there: focused.
M: I can push through sleep mate.
B: Being able to live off lack of sleep has got to be a key asset to be a producer.
M: It’s a key asset to dying young as well I swear.
L: I’ve definitely found that the best time for me to write music is from about 3am to 6am. My proper going in gets done then.
M: Do you know when I mix down? For the final mixdown I will go asleep, and go into in first thing in the morning when my ears are fresh at just a moderate level. Then you can hear that everything should be where it should be.
L: My mixdowns always happen last thing. I need a deadline like going to Transition. That’s what makes me finish a track.
M: A kick up the arse. Haha…
B: To me dubstep is right to be listened to at night. It’s not daytime music. It’s also great to drive to.
L: Our agent Rebecca told us she was on the phone to grime’s JME. They were taking about how you’d describe grime music. He was saying “grime’s like going down the park, having a sandwich and seeing your mates play football.” And she said “I kinda see it like driving around in a car, late night in London.” And JME was like: “nar nar, that’s dubstep.”
That isn’t dubstep for me so much these days but the old days for us, the Hatcha years, the Youngsta years, Rinse, that was car music. Mala’s car. Coki’s car. Do you remember them early, early days, when we used to just block up in your car?
M: Yeah, many a time we’d listen to Rinse sets. 2003.
L: Park on the road, build a spliff, listen to Rinse. There’s only certain spots we could get it around south London.
B: How did the initial link with Hatcha come about?
M: I’ve known Hatcha for years man. I remember hearing Hatcha play, when Forward>> did a thing at Fabric in 2002.
B: The Tru Playaz night?
M: Yeah. I went with Coki. I remember Hatcha was playing there and I’d heard Hatcha play a few sets at garage raves and he was always deep because he’d play different record from what mainstream garage heads were playing. He’d always have a sound. I knew him from then. I don’t even know why… we were just writing these beats but it was only when we went and checked Hatcha in 2003 that he said come down Forward>>. Some of the beats we were making weren’t too far away from the beats we heard. So I played some beats to Hatcha and he was like “I could play this man.” It was a track that me and Coki had done in February 2003. He played it once and that was that. After that he played “Pathwayz”, “Mawo Dub” and “Indian Dub” and that was that. Hatcha heard some’tin, I’m not sure what he heard. But he introduced some’tin to a few heads.
L: Youngsta too, but the initial thing was Hatcha.
M: Like everything in life though, I’m the type of person that things in life you have to work for, one way or another. I aint really a person to ride on a next man’s back. So I wasn’t going to give someone music and do nothing else. That’s not my nature. My nature’s is to do more shit. I guess that’s how things started moving. We were getting beats played but not enough were coming out, so we decided to start a label to put our beats out.
L: Dubstep is what taught me to do think like that. If you want something in life, you have to go and get it. You can’t just wait for it or expect it to happen.
B: To me, it’s finding the strength to get up and go do it, that is the hard bit.
L: Mala was making his tunes for Hatcha, and he knew Hatcha. We used to link up on a production level, we’d link as friends and by the end of the night we’d get on a beat.
M: We’d always be talking about beats.
L: Playing each other the beats we’ve just written. I remember Mala was doing what he called “broken dub house” and it was live, man. I liked it. In my head I was going to bring back 1994 jungle. I was going to write this cross between ‘94 jungle and Metalheadz b-sides. Then I went to Forward>> with Mala when “Mawo Dub” got played and I had such a person connection with rave scene when I was younger, it used to be very important to me on a level that was probably a bit too serious, and I felt something in Forward>> that night that I hadn’t felt in years. It just felt like the Blue Note again.
B: Lots of people who helped start Forward>>, had wanted that Metalheadz/Blue Note vibe again.
L: But with Forward>> it wasn’t the music so much. I remember what blew me away the first few Forwards>> were [Wiley’s] Devil mixes. I think Youngsta was playing and I was just blown away. Then I was listening more to Mala’s stuff and it was then that it became known as, in my head anyway, “138 shit.” I was writing at 145-155bpm. That was then when it became music to be played at Forward>> but I still didn’t know it was called “dubstep.”
B: To me it seems like to a lot of people dubstep has filled a hole where jungle used to be. People have come over from drum & bass saying “this is what I’ve been waiting for.”
M: That was me as well. Loving jungle and then loosing interest… you just needed something else.
L: Something happened to drum & bass: it was Bad Company, though it wasn’t their fault. They come along with a new style that was fresh, and everyone jumped on their style. That was the start of formula drum & bass. The trend was: ‘everyone writes in this style.’
B: Everyone was waiting for that jungle replacement, which is why the DMZ night is so key…
L: The thing I love more than anything about DMZ is when you walk up the stairs you walk through into the main arena, that is what it was like at a rave. You got hit by this wall of bass and loads of sweaty people who didn’t actually give a fuck about the fact that you’ve walked in the door. They’re not looking at you. You find your spot, you get your drink, big bass, crashing beats and that’s the dance.
B: 2006 was a mad year for dubstep, unlike any other. What do you guys hope for, for the next few years?
L: I still don’t think about the future.
M: Nah, not like that. I just want to finish some beats. You know when you’ll get a drink that you love? And you’ll just rinse that drink out for weeks. Every day you’ll go and buy it. Eventually you’ll get sick of it and I love music so much I don’t want to get sick of writing it.
L: At the same time I feel with writing music I’m just scratching the surface.
L: It’s a rabbit hole.
B: Kode said something that’s haunted me for ages, that’s music’s like a drug, and like all drugs eventually its effects ware off. I don’t want to believe it.
L: I don’t believe it. I think if music’s a drug it’s an opiate. Heroin addicts say that once you’ve taken it once, the devil’s on your back for the rest of your life. That’s music isn’t it? Once you’ve got it, it’s there, in your ear, talking to you, telling you what to do.
B: It definitely feels like an addiction to me. But I’d rather be addicted to music than anything else.
L: It’s not an addiction, it’s just part of life.
M: Standard. It’s not even something I can think about: not having music.
L: It’s breakfast. It’s sitting up in bed, a cup of tea. It’s the standard things in the day. It’s always there. It’s birdsong.
B: Birdsong is a better way of putting it than an opiate, for me.
L: Can you imagine no music? I can’t. If I was in the desert I’d be beating on the sand. Or humming. Singing at the top of my voice because no one else is about.
M: It’s part of life, it always is, from when you’re in the womb, hearing certain frequencies and shit.
L: Kode9 told me that when you get that big bass, no gnarl to it, it makes you feel cool, feel nice, because it reminds you of the womb and your mum’s heartbeat.
M: This is why I think a lot of people like house, that four beat, is like a heartbeat. That shit is infectious mate.
L: 140bpm is supposed to be a good speed to write at because it’s double resting heartbeat. Benga told me that.
M: Benga’s deep.
L: But it doesn’t apply to me because I’m kind of writing at 70 bpm. I am! My hats are at 140 bpm though…
B: What are your thoughts on a Digital Mystikz album, Mala?
M: The way I try and work is if something happens, it happens. And now, it’s not happening. I’m not trying to put that thought into my head, try and get something done by a certain time. Because I just can’t work like that. I’m not writing nothing off but I don’t think it’s important for me to do.
L: It would be rude not to though. Nah it would! [Joking] Actually there is a Mala album coming. It’s coming out on Loefah Bootlegs Volume 1 ahahah…
B: I think you’re right not to force it Mala, but I do think an album would reach people that don’t normally buy 12”s.
L: But then those people might not reach Mala, and they reach him now when he plays.
M: It’s not something I’m thinking about it. And I don’t think about it because then it becomes tricky. Haha simple.
B: How does DMZ the label work?
L: [Smiling] It comes down to paper, scissor, stone between the three of us usually.
M: It is what it is really.
L: We have a meeting and sort it out.
M: The whole dubplate thing means you can see tunes doing certain things and then you can tell from that. And that’s the interesting thing about it because although the people don’t dictate, it’s ultimately what the people talk about that builds the music up. But we’re not trying to confine ourselves to any one sound.
L: I think you know when a certain track’s right for the label, because I’ve said ‘no’ to tracks of mine going on DMZ, when I don’t feel like they’re good enough. But there’s no definite sound to the label. I just want the beats to be my favourite, the ones I like myself.
M: Everything should be quality control.
B: It’s a shame Coki wasn’t about…
L: … he’s here man [smiles].
B: That’s what it’s like in clubs with him! You won’t see him but he will be there somewhere - no one will have noticed him. But everyone will notice his track smashing the club to bits. And what about Pokes, you seem to have known him for a long time?
M: I’ve known Pokes years.
B: He seems like the fourth member of DMZ…
L: It ain’t even four members, it’s one member. We form like Voltron, like Wu Tang. We go away and I’ll play a Loefah gig and Mala will play a Mystikz gig and it’s alright. But when we come together and do our thing, it’s bad. Captain Planet, man: our powers combine.
B: Pokes seems to be a master of jokes. His banter on the Dubstep forum is second to none.
M: I’ve known him years, yeah, and he is one of the funniest people I know, without a doubt. He has me in stitches. If he were here it would be a different interview, he brings in that type of energy.
L: Every time I see him, he makes me laugh. You know “funny guys,” sometimes it’s like “give it a rest mate.” But Pokes doesn’t even try.
M: And that’s what he does in the dance.
L: I’d describe his humour as sadistic. Please quote me on that, because he’ll like that. But no, he’s really quick witted, you can’t leave yourself open.
B: He’s key to the DMZ night because he conveys that everyone – DJs and ravers – are all in it together and it’s a positive vibe.
L: Exactly he’s the communication. Everyone talks about bloody lyrics, right, but he’s actually having a conversation with people. Not just “listen to me.”
M: Through Pokes, there’s people that name dances, from his sayings. I saw something talking about “doing a Churchill” and that’s what Pokes talked about in DMZ Leeds, because everyone’s nodding their heads like the Churchill Insurance dog. “When this one comes in, all you lot will be doing the Churchill…”
B: My favourite is “redeye jedi.”
L: Yeah that’s an old one, that’s a jungle lyric.
B: It’s one thing to work with an MC you like, but it’s deeper to work with someone you’ve known for years.
M: This is the whole DMZ thing. It’s natural. Mans is just rolling like when we were at college and shit.
L: When we first got into dubstep, Pokes wasn’t in it.
M: The first time he came in, was when we did [Rephlex’s] Grime party at The End.
L: And we had to hassle him! “Come on bruv, just host it for us, please. Don’t chat, just intro it.” And he was like “It’s strange but I just don’t think you should chat to this music.” We really had to twist his arm.
B: It could have been so different.
L: I think Pokes is a big, big part of DMZ. Because it needs a vocal aspect. But I think it’s not that lyrically driven. If you want lyrically driven, go to a grime rave. We have our thing which isn’t lyrically driven. It’s not better or worse, it’s just not that.
M: Strickly good vibes. You’re coming into our house man.
B: People probably don’t realise, but wasn’t your first ever DJ set was at The End Mala?
M: It was.
B: That’s a pretty amazing place to have your first DJ set.
M: When they asked me, I looked at it like an opportunity. I was like: I’ve always loved DJing but I’ve never really wanted to be a DJ, but the reason why is because I’m totally deaf in my left ear. So I’ve always thought that if I’ve got to DJ in a big place I’m not going to be able to do it, even if I could mix in a bedroom. But I had decks when I was younger, I’ve been buying records for years but I wasn’t looking to DJ. So when Rephlex asked, I thought even if it only happens once, it’s an experience, so I’ll do it. Later I thought to myself, ‘shit what am I going to play?’ And then I thought, I might as well cut loads of dubs, because I had music so I might as well cut it. And that for me was when the step was made where it’s like not just like a couple of my beats in people’s sets but now you’re gonna hear my sound. This is my sound. We both played that night and so this was the first night that the DMZ sound got showcased. I remember it not being that busy compared to the first party, which I’m actually quite glad about, because I was shitting myself.
B: Fair enough, it’s The End!!!!
M: I’ve seen big DJs in there, so to play there was just… rah. It’s one of those things where you know you’re alive because you’ve stepped into something that you’re fearing. But you go and do it anyway. Plus the fact that people might not dance to my sound was quite daunting but after playing a few times and people don’t always dance, you realise that perhaps people don’t always dance to the music that I’m making but people aren’t leaving. But it started changing the perspective on what my music might be for. I don’t think I necessarily make beats for the dancefloor. I make beats for a dance, a big system.
B: I think it’s the next challenge for dubstep, now it’s popular, that producers can write beats that don’t have to be the biggest beat every time or the most rewound tune. Like the risks taken for Devil mixes, you don’t have to play them all the set, but just some of the set.
L: You are right though. When we played Leeds, the room was packed but it was like being at Slammin’ Vinyl. Birds in bikini’s a guy on stage with white gloves and glowsticks.
L: It was different, it was “a rave.”
B: Did bits of the roof fall off onto the decks due to your bass this time?
L: No they had a canopy. So yeah, something dawned on me that I didn’t want this, I’m not trying to create rave again, me personally with my sound or where I want to take my sound.
B: This is why I think you guys get it right by using good soundsystems because it means tracks don’t have to be the fastest or the hardest, because you can feel them properly. I mean, look how well your “Cray’s Cray” remix has done Mala? And that’s not the fastest or the hardest.
L: That’s the baddest dubstep tune written. It’s sick mate.
M: I worked hard on that. Because it was a remix, the way I approached it was different, because you’re writing for somebody. I remember it being a really different process, but I enjoyed it.
B: It’s nice to hear vocal tunes in dubstep.
L: Nah. Not all vocals but certain vocal tunes. But that track does it… that track’s the one.
M: The vocal, for me, created in inspiration to piece everything around it, even though the vocal isn’t used throughout the track. All I used from the original was the vocal and the trumpet. Everything else I played, like the melodica, the keys.
L: It’s not just a scene tune, it’s a really, really good piece of music.
B: It’s one of those important tunes, because it appeals to people beyond the core dubsteppers.
M: I don’t like one type of person. The whole “dubstep” thing, I don’t think in that box.
L: Dubstep is a box now. It didn’t used to be a box, but it is now.
M: But that’s just natural because we put everything in boxes, man. But I just keep trying to fight that.
B: And as long as people keep doing that there’ll still be enough different spaces to grow into. It definitely needs to be pushed though.
L: I think it’s going to break. I think there’ll probably be a split somewhere along the line.
M: I don’t really see it as splits because even though you say there’s scene or whatever, everyone’s still doing their own thing.
L: Yeah but I can still see there being a definite shift in the music. But literally only in my crystal ball, it’s not like it’s definitely going to happen…
M: It’s natural.
L: I could see it splitting into two different things.
M: Just do your thing and enjoy your shit. Serious. Don’t worry about the rest of the world.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Grime’s MC Purple
First rule of urban music: don’t call out people’s names. I guess Woebot didn’t get the email because, in a random outburst, it looks like he’s decided to try it. OK, OK fine, let’s bring it: Dubstep v commercial, sorry, funky house. And if it turns up for the ruck, we’re having grime on our side too thanks, because it’s not like he’s repped for grime in the last two years neither.
Of his article, calling out my name is the funniest. I’ve only written about funky house once, in Pitchfork last August, so I’m assuming that’s where Woebot thinks I “made great play of it being geographically rootless.” Now sure, I’ve written regularly about dubstep and its sonic relation to, and adsorption of, local geographical influences, but I’d really like Matt to point out where I call house “despicable” for being global?
My main paragraph against commercial house in my Pitchfork piece last August was this:
“[Funky house is the] soundtrack to hundreds of sterile trendy wine bars, ‘avin it in Ibiza, eight years of “Stardust”-clones, commercial compilations production lines like Defected, Ministry of Sound cynically buying up the Salsoul back catalogue so they can factory-farm radio-friendly chart house “hits” with slappers in bikini’s in the videos. We’re taking an endless stream of one-hit wonder acts (two DJ/producer nerds, one bolt-on token busty diva for the camera) who can have the biggest “choon” at the Miami music conference and licence it to umpteen “Now That’s What I Call Limp Coffee Table House Vol 217” but can’t get an album in the top 40 and get dropped after the second single. It’s all the bland DJ culture the grime MCs worked so hard to bypass…”
Now don’t get me wrong, feed me a few beers and I’ll skank around to Daft Punk ft Romanthony and I do love a bit of dirty Theo Parrish, but feed me enough seamlessly mixed “funky” in some plastic West End bar with the soundsystem EQed on the tinnitus setting and I’ll start to choke. It’s not just musically either, the whole industry machine of mainstream dance music, with PRs and marketing managers sending out hundreds of meaningless promos, made me choke so much I headed off into urban London (circa 1999/2000) to investigate UK garage. With force fed PR fodder, it basically boils down to the fact that if I’d wanted to eat foie gras, I’d have signed up for some gavage. Instead I fled. Funny thing is I had some food with Woebot (plus Stelfox, Marcus@Warp and a few other Dissensians) in Dalston recently. We had some Turkish mixed grill including, oddly, quail and he was saying the same thing about choking on PR fodder – as you’d expect from a blogger. And you know what? He didn’t mention funky house once…
Martin Clark for instance has made great play of it being geographically rootless, and this has been widely picked up by just about every other commentator. But hang on a minute, we're supposed to applaud Dubstep when it hails from Canada or New Zealand or somewhere else notionally "Global", but that very same quality in Funky House makes it despicable? Come on!
Woebot’s clumsy point about global music hides a distinction though. Dubstep has experienced massive expansion in the last two years, a delocalisation from being a tiny, local niche community to a global underground movement, a pattern which mirrors house’s growth from Chicago in the late 1980s. The distinction is that commercial house is now a truly global organisation, farmed out by PRs, marketers and radio pluggers worldwide so that when someone does a remix of Pink Floyd with a disco beat, it’s a simultaneous hit in 25 “territories” and gets played at 25 identical clubs. It’s corporate globalisation masquerading as youth culture.
Instead of following house’s pattern, my hopes for dubstep - a grass roots, collaborative, DIY movement - are that it’s less “global” more “glocal”, and if people follow the example (and not just the production styles) of the scene’s current top boys then this is entirely possible, with local scenes taking on some general dubstep ideas (bass, tempo, edge, but not necessarily all three…), mutating them with regional influences and finding their own sound. So when Woebot calls dubstep “notionally” global, I disagree. In interview with Loefah this January he talked about how he enjoyed seeing New York DJs drop Pinch’s “Qawaali”, an anthem to their crowds. He enjoyed it because it was dubstep on NYC’s terms – “Qawaali” while appreciated, was never an “anthem” on dancefloors in the UK. This was local pressure.
Returning to Woebot’s piece, there’s definitely a kind of musical category error as to what he means about “funky house,” or at least a large degree of imprecision as to culturally who it refers to. Even Simon Reynolds agrees:
“trouble with invoking "funky house", Matt, is that people think you're referring to this kind of thing (Louie Latino on bongos!) ie. a sort of default-option vaguely classy soundtrack to a dressy crowd into getting expensively drunk and chatting up the opposite sex.”
House, as Woebot points out, is very fragmented. Instead though, he tries to lump all the strands together:
“Funky House is interesting in this context because it's quite self-consciously an umbrella term to draw together a mongrel coalition of Electro-Techno-Disco-House whose sole shared agenda which is to drive the dance-floor.”
Is it though? In the mid 90s, funky house meant house with a filtered disco influence, think Cajmere, Daft Punk and Pete Heller. This isn’t a new musical sound, it’s the best part of 15 years old. Now there’s the techno-house-electro axis that’s the bastion of the mainstream Dance Music Inc DJs like Pete Tong n co, and the more electro-y you go, the further you head into Shoreditch. And there’s all the minimal/micro stuff, and more interesting people like Theo Parrish but the reality is they are vastly outnumbered.
“Funky ‘ouse”, as a new urban, post-grime phenomena, has some broken beat but no electro nor techno in its recent DNA, as far as I can hear. It seems to be the odd situation where house’s audience has migrated from “dance” to “urban” but without the music mutating, a point that Dave Stelfox calls a “reclamation” on Dissensus. Personally I’m more interested when the reclaimed music gets mutated, rather than the existing commercial house simply being played in places like Nappa or Sheffield’s Niche club, but that remains to be seen and isn’t what Woebot is referencing. Nonetheless the fact that DJs like Roll Deep’s Target and the 1Xtra playlist team will even touch it does suggest some kind of sea change in urban music culture, as I suggested last August. Here are the house tunes Target’s been play most of recently, while talking about Sheffield’s bassline/Niche scene a lot:
Enur / Natasha – Calabria
Sounds raw and urban, but given I heard it while on a French Alps ski lift recently, hardly Niche...
Hollis P Monroe – Lonely
Wasn’t this released in 1997?
TNT – Funk Patrol
Is this produced by Target’s old jungle partner, Trend?
Groove Armarda / Lady Stu$h / Red Rat – Get Down
Groove “corporate festival in Capham-r-us” Armarda?!
Fish Go Deep Feat Tracey K – The Cure & The Cause
Anthem from Irish deep house producers on Defected aka House's Microsoft…
I don’t see many of them on Woebot’s list. So which funky house is he listening to? But then… I’m not sure which dubstep he’s listening to either.
YOU DON’T KNOW DUB
“I couldn't argue an aesthetic case for 90% of Funky House, but even that faintly crap 90% … is about, ooh, lets say 1000 times more interesting than most Dubstep just by merit of having a pulse, by aiming to be entertaining… you can't imagine people losing control or getting sweaty”
I don’t know if Woebot’s made it down to Forward>> or DMZ recently… or ever… but I can’t see how he’s arguing from a position of informed accuracy here. The more he talks about dubstep, the less he seems to know or actually have witness himself, rather than having read about it online and reacted angrily. If he had actually witnessed a Skream, N Type or Hatcha set recently, he might change his mind on this point. Sure during the 2005 halfstep era, when Youngsta was experimenting with frighteningly sub freezing rhythmic temperatures, he could have been forgiven for saying, like everyone else did, that it left him cold. But now when raves like DMZ happen, it goes off! It’s chaos, girls screaming, rudeboys shocking, hands in the air, sweat dripping down the walls: the lot. For example, here's a video of N Type at that Dubstep After Hours squat party on Friday. If Woebot can find the cocktail stick in it, I’ll poke it in my eyeball and then swallow it sideways.
Returning to the issue of abandon in dubstep, the irony is to me the pendulum has swung so far from the halfstep era it concerns me for the opposite reasons, namely that DJs might get too used to it “going off” and might no longer find the balls to take the breathtaking risk taking that has given us Kode9’s “Sign of the Dub” or Shackleton’s “The Stopper refix”.
It’s also ironic that Woebot creates such a divide between house and dubstep at a time when they’ve never been closer, with Mala’s pursuit of the crazy kickdrum and euphoric “broken dub house” anthems like “Lean Forward,” “Blue Notes,” “Anti War Dub,” “Forgive” and “Changes”. But then Woebot was the one who’d famously dismissed the whole of dubstep before he’d informed his decision with any of the ten or so awesome DMZ releases, so that’s not surprising. £77 quid for “Horror Show” on eBay… ouch! So Woebot, wanna buy my entire Ghost collection? At these prices, only £2310 for the lot…
Dubstep’s also never been closer to dubby Main Street style house either, with Pinch, Peverelist, 2562 and Martyn working on dubstep/Basic Channel mutations. Lets not forget Villalobos’ mixes of Shackleton.
“And there's none of that twatting around with the lower frequencies either,”
OK so Woebot can’t handle his bass, fair enough, each to their own, I admit it can all be a bit much and, when the bass is pressing on your vocal chords, a bit scary. Dubstep’s bass has a tempered, edgy, masculine physicality to it, it’s tangible like the concrete walls in the urban margins that spawned it, but if that’s all a bit too much for some people, a cup of cha, a sit down and a nice slice of funky it is then. More tea vicar?
“Funky House at its best makes a complete mockery of the portentous riddimic theorising of Dubstep or Micro-House by actually out-stepping it in practice without resorting to drawing the listener into a state of emotional torpor.”
Um. Right. Torpor eh?
Dear Mr Woebot,
Please meet me at 3am next DMZ (Mala v Loefah set). Please bring your “torpor” quote written on edible paper, you might feel a bit peckish,
Sunday, April 01, 2007
On Friday night, tempted by a Kode9 double bill, I rolled through Old Street. First up was Forward>>. Arriving outside Plastic People at about 11:45, I found myself faced with a queue of around 50 people and the bouncer saying “one in one out”. How times have changed. For years there were months when Forward>> limped by. I remember one Slimzee set, right towards the end of his reign as the grime DJ, when the only, and I mean only, person on the dancefloor, was Philip Sherborne, whooping, hollering and waving his hands above his head at some gritty grime dubplate. As I say, how things have changed.
Inside Forward>>, Appleblim was in mid flow. It’s the second time I’ve heard him play recently and on both occasions I’ve been really impressed. Of all the DJs who’ve really made their mark on dubstep (Hatcha, Youngsta, N Type, Mala…), when they’ve truly come into their own is often when they’ve come to a strong sense of what their “sound” is. Any old DJ can pull together some unreleased (or often unfinished…) tracks, but only when they form some coherent whole, does the DJ really go clear. As Appleblim’s set progressed, I began to get the sense that he’s really forming a sonic identity.
If you happened to be confused about what that direction was, a hint was written across his chest. It read “Hardwax,” the legendary vinyl emporium owned by Berlin’s Basic Channel. It’s said the Hardwax boys are pretty enamoured with the Skull Disco sound and Shackleton in particular, and Appleblim seems to be returning the admiration through his sets of dubbed out BC-esque beats. There were a few percussive moments that felt distinctly “oingy boingy” (god how I miss that element to Hatcha’s sound…) and others that had hints of jungle, but on the whole it’s how subby and tempered Appleblim’s sound is, compared to the mid range wobble onslaught of N Type and co, that makes it special. Oh and he dropped Plastician and Skepta’s “Intensive Snare” – that has bars written especially for Forward>> – that had me hollering the lyrics like a goon. And what?! Loveit.
Next up Kode. For years Mr 9 was the default warm up DJ at FWD>>, which more often than not meant playing to the bar staff. No doubt this was the perfect time to drop the beatless “Sign of the Dub” but those sets had an effect on Kode because he’s long since been focused on maintaining energy levels in his sets.
This time, his set was definitely special not for sense of whole, the way Appleblim’s was, but for the individual selections. Favourites like Mala’s “Forgive” and Loefah’s “Jah War” remix got dropped as did Kode’s lushly drummed MF Doom remix. The Peveralist 12” had me locked in a eyes-closed rhythmic groove. His “Find My Way” remix is still next level but I’ve never noted that the pull up moment isn’t when the sub bass drops on the first switch, but on the second when the grimey synth gets it’s wobble on.
Also a revelation was the new Kode9 v Warrior Queen riddim that seems to have her practicing her swear word repertoire, which was quite a contrast with what must have been a new Burial track. Oh and Skream’s “2D” is still a thing of exceptional beauty, pulling off that trick he did so well on “Request Line” which was to make the melodies fluctuate so much they become part of the rhythmic propulsion of the track.
Following Kode was N Type v Youngsta with special guest MC JME. Personally, I get next to nothing out of the N Type/Hatcha/Benga/Coki-clones/Skream-in-hard-mode axis these days: the riffs are inanely atonal, the mids too noisy, there’s few melodic components (warm, dissonant or otherwise) and the overall dynamic balance between emotional response and dancefloor energy has been lost. N Type pulled his first tune within 8 bars of the drop. JME spent most of the first three tunes fighting to cut his voice through the mid range wobble. I’d much prefer to have heard him over a grime set… but there you go.
It didn’t matter, however, as the second phase of the night was about to begin. Lead by Kode, a convoy that included Shackleton, The Bug and assorted partners wandered its way out of Forward>> and towards the Dubstep After Hours squat party.
The idea of a Hackney dubstep squat party had instantly piqued my curiosity, and it had been in my phone diary for a month or so before Chantelle wrote about it in The London Paper, causing some exchanges on the Dubstep Forum. Advertising on forums is one thing, put putting it in the free “newspapers” they give out on the tube network to over a million London commuters is another, in terms of exposure to certain demographics and risk of comeback. Frankly it all added to the hype which made it all the more reason to attend.
Ducking down some side alleyway and round a decaying Victorian factory building, you were presented with twelve foot high steel gates, topped with razor wire. They’d been tied half shut using chain with such chunky links you'd think a tank couldn’t be able to snap, so there was just enough room for one person to squeeze through. Currently about thirty people were trying to fit through that hole, and a bouncer of sorts was having none of it.
Entering the building was total buzz. There are few moments in life that actually feel like you’re experiencing scenes from a film, but rolling into an illegal underground club is one of them. As we passed through the front door, it became apparent that this was some kind of abandoned office space. But one thing was wrong… it was deadly quiet. Had the police locked off the rave already?
We rolled through fire doors and down below ground. Down, right through corridors starkly lit by neon strip lighting, led us through another set of fire doors. Suddenly the lights went down, the music came up and an entire underground dubstep rave opened out before us.
It took a while to adjust to the space. It became apparent that we were standing in what had been a square open plan office space that was now lit only by a set of technicolour rave lights. The ceiling was low and built from the kind of cheap Styrofoam squares you see in, well, offices. At one end, there was a red neon clock, which seemed to only tell the time upside down. The energy was tangible, with people dancing wherever your eyes could focus.
With Kode due on the decks and Shackleton happily skanking at the front, I decided to take a look around, not least because I had my camera with me. It soon became apparent that this was in fact a room within a room, as a corridor surrounded it. The only difference was that much of the partition wall that formed the inner wall had been smashed out above waist level, so that throughout the night people would just as happily climb through the walls as walk through the door, adding the to the edgy sense that hoards were descending from the darkness of the night.
The soundsystem lost its impact towards the edges of the room, and having heard Kode once that night I began to be more interested in investigating. The more I looked, the more I noticed that the outer room of the rave had doors leading off it in multiple directions. Some doors lead back to other doors along the corridor. Others were filled with mangled electronics, leads pouring out of battered server stacks or phone exchanges. All of the rooms were lit with stark neon strip lighting again, which made for this extreme contrast when the doors were opened, as if you were stepping across an abrupt barrier that switched you from a dark, night time, weekend illegal dubstep rave to a light, daytime, weekday corporate 9-5 job. People were slumped on the floors and depending on the light they’d change which side of the barrier they were on.
In the pitch darkness of the rave room itself, the lack of light meant what was underfoot was very unpredictable and occasionally unstable, something that only added to the sense of edge to the night. On one occasion I tried to pass through a doorway only to find myself stumbling over a large moveable object. Fairly surprisingly for a club environment, it was a large bull mastiff.
While the rave didn’t feel like your full on, rural England, traveller/crusty free party crowd, the presence of free roaming dogs certainly distinguished it from your average London night. The outer gates, where a fire burnt in an oil drum, definitely had a free party feel to it (the people around the drum fire were clapping our their own beats: the drugs do work…) but largely the demographic seemed mostly the kind you’d find at a breakcore/electronica night, except for the odd gang of road kids. And while there was a core of dubstep fammo (The Bug, Shackleton, Coki, Pokes, SLT Mob, Chef, Boomnoise, Melissa Bradshaw…) inside, it felt on the whole like a new mix for dubstep.
I drifted into a really good conversation with someone I’d chatted to on email a bit before. By his own admission he’d only been listening to dubstep for around two years, but had also developed strong love for the stuff that had gone before too, like Horsepower and some of the more swung 2step. I forget how the conversation came around to it, but at one moment we came to the issue of how all the rapid developments within dubstep can continue to retain its sense of identity.
I’m not sure when I started to feel this way, but I’m now sure it probably can’t in all cases. In fact, clearly in some cases it already hasn't. Given the Life of Brian principle (“I’m dubstep and so’s my wife”) seems to apply to everyone under the sun these days (Time Out described Ben Westbeech’s work with DJ Die and Clipz as “ a chart friendly take on dubstep” this month… hmm), many of the values and attributes that signify dubstep won’t necessarily be retained (i.e. the central importance of quality soundsystems, the avoidance of drugs apart from weed/beer, the quest for new rhythmic or sonic ideas…). As the scene expanded, it’s come into contact with so many other scenes and styles (electronica, desi, hip hop, breakcore, d&b…) that to retain all or many of the core elements of the scene in all cases is near impossible and also no bad thing. From Forward>> to illegal squat parties, the hyperdub virus has broken out: let’s celebrate the mutations.