Monday, February 04, 2013

Blackdown's 2012 roundup


  • ^^^ listen to a playlist of most of my end-of-year finalists while you read!
It’s that season when people do end of year round ups... err, well it was when I started writing this, but hey ho, better late than never. 

I’ve read some and been asked to contribute to a few: a couple of things struck me. Firstly I noticed how hard it is to summarize 2012 musically in 10 records, especially since I’ve released eight. Secondly I’ve noticed how many of the magazines’ lists didn’t reflect much of the music that excited me.

Now this is a theme that Dusk and I have remarked on many times last year, how that as DJs and label owners we’ve come to feel increasingly isolated from peers and contemporaries, while at the same time finding a closer bond & common cause with a bunch of under exposed people we collaborate with. But rather than worry about it, we’ve come to enjoy it.

That’s because last year was, for us at least, one of the most exciting years musically, one that returned a sense of focus where recently there’d been a dispersed archipelago of ideas. Every month it felt like we’d stumble across some exciting sounding new producer who was overlooked and underexposed in relation to their potential and more often than not we’d have found that producer by a recommendation from the producer we found last month. In other words, they were connected. But all that was fine; we’d just have a word and play their beats on Rinse.

So anyway, that’s a circuitous way of saying this is my end of year roundup as a DJ, as a label owner, a producer and as a blogger – pretty much in that order. I don’t think it will reflect much on where other scenes or sounds went to, but it’ll be where we’re at.

Implicit in all this is that I can’t really talk about 2012 without mentioning artists I’m actively working with or have released music by. Honestly, I only sign – i.e. waste time, money and love on – music I strongly feel. There will be records I am strongly connected to in this list and I’m flagging that loud and clear now but if that causes conflict of interest concerns, click away now.

If you are interested in hearing some of them, I added as many of the tracks as I could find into one playlist (above) to make it easy to. Enjoy.


LHF “Keepers of the Light” [Keysound Recordings]
Cooly G “Playin’ Me” [Hyperdub]
Mala “Mala in Cuba” [Brownswood]
LV “Sebenza” [Hyperdub]
Dusk + Blackdown “Dasaflex” [Keysound]

These are my albums of 2012. "Keepers of the Light" an  "Dasaflex" I don't know if I need say anything more about. For my thoughts on "Mala in Cuba" read the official boxset sleevenotes. My review of "Playin' Me" was published by Fact and "Sebenza," well it was my album of the summer, no question. Simply next level.

House & UK funky

House was everywhere in 2012 like it was a new idea. Like it had just been invented. Like it had something new to say! Sadly, as someone who first discovered house several decades ago (rather than just when dubstep fell off) none of these felt true and its stiff, stifling formula sleepwalked waves of former bass-heavy advocates into a sea of mediocrity.  Rather than drown in it, I broadly chose to swim elsewhere.

That said often the best DJ sets are about dynamic tensions and so it’s been fun to keep a touch of the straighter 4x4 in our spectrum to play off of, especially when the rhythms were suitably corrupted or there was something offkey about the textures. When that was the case then tracks in this vein injected a great deal of energy into sets. Zig zagging between groove and drop, between horizon rollout and negative sub bass implosion suddenly became possible again in the same tempo continuum for the first time since Mala v Loefah sets at DMZ.

So the three tunes that were closest to classic house & garage that made my end of year list were:

Moony “Borrowed Time” [Tenn Music]
Presk "Kook" [Fourth Wave]
Altered Natives "Allwhere" [Tenement Yard Volume Three]

Now Moony’s “Borrowed Time” might as well be called “Borrowed Todd,” such is the debt it owes to Todd Edwards’ (and hence MK’s) trademark vocal sample manipulations. But Moony does it well and it’s fun to play out – I mixed it out of “High Road” in Heidelberg late in December as the first two tunes of our set and it really worked.

“Allwhere” was a really pleasant surprise. I’d not played some of the earlier Tenement Yard tracks by Altered Natives, perhaps because they were too tracky for me but this one massively hit the spot, with its offkey sour Kode9esque synths and Richard Pryor sample. We played it on Rinse and one of our longtime listeners started freaking out in a hail of Tweets: it’s always nice to see actual debris of people’s heads imploding in real time haha - job done! Oh speaking of Tweets and make sure you follow Danny Altered Natives on Twitter. Recommended.

Finally there’s Presk’s “Kook,” the kind of house track that makes tens of thousands of house producers look like they’re stiff morons who aren’t remotely trying. The track’s genius is twofold.

Firstly there’s the sample, explaining the dammed-if-you-do-dammed-if-you-don’t paradox of teenage girls becoming sexually active. Actually the genius isn’t the sample choice, though it is pretty seductive, it’s flipping two tiny fragments of it after the drop as if the confused teen has made her call, and got, ahem, stuck right in.

The other touch of genius is the shaker. Now I’m no mnml fan but I’ve been at places like Sonar where after 8 mins of kickdrums the hi hat comes in again and everyone goes meeeeental but that doesn’t tend to do it for me. But 90 seconds into “Kook” the funkiest set of shakers skip in, riding off the stiffer groove, and its electric; fun like the biggest bass drop you’ve ever heard. So damn funky… speaking of which…

86 Baby "Word of Mouth"
Funkystepz "Bizzaro," "Royal Rumble" and “Shocker ReFix”        
Jook10 "Ghost Hunter" (Soulserious)
Brackles “Walkin' Out” [Rinse]
Mickey Pearce "Socks Off" (Swamp81)
Roska "You Dun Know" [Rinse]
Champion "1994" [unreleased]

Because it’s still the most interesting set of rhythmic ideas I’ve heard in many years, I’m sorta trying to pretend UK funky didn’t tail off and for people like Funkystepz from an artist point of view, they never did. This year’s seen them release a slew of bangers, my favourite of which were "Bizzaro," "Royal Rumble" and “Shocker ReFix”. The latter two are simply highly compressed synthy bangers but they do that so well – we added “Royal Rumble” on our RA mix.   

We also played quite a few Jook10 tracks this year, like “Ghost Hunter” but also "Funky Junky," "Jump Up," "Riddim Teacha", "Tribal Lord." His flex is route one dark and abrasive UK funky, a bit like Bogey Man’s (aka Twisted Individual     early dubstep. Actually we found this stuff worked best for us on Rinse but in clubs felt too hard, too direct, if that’s possible. Funny how that plays out.

86 Baby’s “Word of Mouth” was probably too odd for the mainstream house & funky crowd, who by now had migrated to the linear tech house of the Circle/Mark Radford variety, but it’s strange dubbed out, almost 808-y skeleton with these playful samples of Murdz86’s guttural mutterings bounced all over it.

Champion had a great year but it’s “1994” – the refix of the jungle classic  - that we were still playing a year on. Roska seemed to take some flak for his second album (*cough* XLR8R *cough*) but I really liked a whole bunch of tracks off it, “You Dun Know” being one of them. Also inspired choice reaching out to UK dancehall and garage legend Sweetie Irie. And finally Brackles’s “Walkin’ Out,” and Mickey Pearce "Socks Off" both had the more most bonkers percussion in a really good way. Was it me or did the best bits of the Brackles album get broadly slept on?

DJ Pantha Ft Shantie "Love To The Max Hate To The Minimal" (Jackin) [weRBass]
Rudimental ft Shantie “Deep in the Valley (Woz remix)”

The jackin’ scene emerged this year out of the north of England, spurred on by Marcus Nasty’s support. I remain a bit on the fence about it: I can recognize the creative energy and irreverence to samples coming out of it and there are some decent bassy tracks on that thread but equally lots of stuff I’ve encountered is near indistinguishable from stiff, generic electro house – and it’s hard to get excited about a scene who’s key point of differentiation is it’s not afraid to remix Faithless or Gorillaz. But I’m keeping my eye on it: very early (US-reverent) UK funky wasn’t for me – and look where that ended up.

But this Pantha and Shantie tune is incredible; totally direct in its delivery but really fun to play out: “These shots make the ladies shake bum…” Apart from the rump shaking, I think it’s the old school analog bleepy bassline which does it most for me.

Walton "Cool It VIP"

Finally there’s Walton’s “Cool It VIP” which we released as a part of a Keysound Allstars 12”. I Include it here because its beat is pure UK funky, though given the Wiley sample is pure eski, it could well fit in another section – and that’s exactly why I rated it so much. Tracks like this were the tip of an entire new iceberg for us this year…

Dark 130

2013 => ‘013 => 130… too perfect right? 
Balistiq Beats “Concrete Jungle [Yardman riddim] (Beneath remix)”    
Bassjackers & Apster "Klambu (Beneath refix)"           
Beneath "Prangin'"   
Visionist "Just A Quick Reminder"
Visionist, Beneath & Wen "New Wave"            
Wen “Nightcrawler”
Wen "In"
Trevino "Under Surveillance" [Applepips]   
El-B Ft Juiceman - Buck & Bury (Caski Remix)   
Double Helix "LDN VIP"
Blackdown "Apoptosis"       
Facta "Montpelier"    
Mista Silva ft Skob, Flava & Kwamz "Boomboomtah (Hagan remix)"    
Epoch "The Steppenwolf"
Della "Young Kid"                    
Mumdance & Logos "In Reverse"
Samrai "Hear Me Now”
Bombé "Tell (Riffs Remix)" [Full Fridge]

This section was for me the real heart of 2012 and in truth it’s a flex I’d been long since feeling around for – check my remix of Bias & Gurley “Roll” which I did in 2010. This is because for someone who’d loved UK garage but loved it more when it became a bit darker (i.e. dubstep) it was a bit of a no-brainer that while UK funky was fun in that vibey way, people might want a darker take on it as an alternative – an alternative to both UK funky and to the dubstep that now was unlistenable – in the way that early dubstep was an alternate take on UK garage’s sonic balances. Now that neither dubstep, (ahem) post-dubstep or UK funky are providing huge returns, the darker alternative seems even more pertinent.

(Now I know all the critical arguments around this issue, indeed against this parallel path, but… I don’t care. In fact I do care, and enjoy that it’s divisive: you’re in it or you’re not. I really, really don’t buy the line that you should over-ride what your heart tells you just because someone else’s critical head tries to tell you. So I make absolutely no apologies for liking underground music with a sense of darkness and edge: it feels so unequivocally right to me in the way that tepid tech house or bait electro house remixes of Faithless sound so wrong, that everything else is pretty unimportant to me right now. This is where Dusk & I are going; this is our flex. If people want to tell me this is UK funky but worse they're missing the point of what I'm saying.)

This sound - this collection of sounds/producers/ideas - centered around 130bpm is THE most exciting space for me right now and has been all year. It’s getting ignored by large sections of the club going public – looking at the techno dominated end-of-year-charts – and yet it feels more cutting edge and has whiff of mutating danger and possibility (rather than predictability) about it. Anyway its tiny and it’s early days but Dusk and I are up to our necks in it right now, dealing with VIP versions and funneling dub after dub by a hungry new wave of producers through our Rinse FM show, many of who seem in part to hark back to the early Forward>> and Sidewinder times we lived through.

But wait, hang on: looking backward, that’s hardly progressive is it, no better than those re-making tech house? Well, I think the nuance is these new producers are aspiring to the values of those earlier eras, an era that is now tantalizingly just out of reach. They’re aspiring to an era of experimentation but also of constrained dynamic balance in the tracks: dubstep tracks that sounded dark and heavy but contained their range within certain tensions rather than coming across like a toddler having an uncontrollable flailing hissy fit. Grime tracks whose deadly unstable synths exploded in a direct blast radius, rather that trying to be brostep or the next top 10 hit.

This past/present, old school/new school set of paradoxes is most apparent in the producers involved. On one hand you’ve got the new wave of Beneath, Visionist, Wen, Facta, Etch, Macker, Brunks, Batu, Hagan, Epoch, Caski (not to mention the more colourful/synthy/grimey producers like Logos, Fresh Paul, E.m.m.a. and Moleskin). Then you’ve got more experienced guys like Double Helix (LHF), Threnody, El-B being remixed, ourselves and Trevino (i.e. veteran d&b player Marcus Intalex… I’m not sure how much of his techno fits here but "Under Surveillance" is pure Metalheadz ‘95). Sure the bulk of the output is coming from the new wave but there’s an interesting sub-interplay between those who hark to the past by imaging the values or learning about them through archive material and those who are making beats and were actually there. But the fact that a significant part of the new generation are seeing past the releases in their immediate surroundings/timeframe, past the formula DJs getting hundreds of bookings playing generic euro tech house to euro tech house clubs (+/- some token trap) to seek the future half of the roots & future dialectic, well that’s really inspiring.

So, who’s with us?

(One aside is Mista Silva ft Skob, Flava & Kwamz "Boomboomtah (Hagan remix)". Hagan is someone recommended to us via Beneath, but this is a remix of an afrobeats track. I’m not immersed in afrobeats but I’m pretty curious and would welcome any additional interplay between the UK funky & percussive 130 stuff we play and afrobeats, it sounds fun and fits nicely with LV’s output).

Eski Grimey ish

Terror Danjah "Dark Crawler feat Riko Dan" [Hyperdub]   
P Money "Dubsteppin (Club mix)" [Rinse]
Davinche "Eyes on U (Moleskin edit)" (unreleased)           
Bloom "Quartz"  [Gobstopper]
Slackk “90 Years” (from Raw Missions EP)” [Local Action] 
Samename "Okishima Island"    
Rabit “Satellite”
In previous years in our Rinse shows and club sets, we tended to have a UK funky/130 plateau and a grime section and they were distinct. This year there have been some great grime records, not least “Dark Crawler ft Riko” and and P Money’s “Dubsteppin’” but what’s become most exciting for us this year as the line between “130/uk funky” and “grimey” has totally blurred, in an interesting way. As grime began to solidify into a genre, it began becoming more and more suited a concert or a show, rather than club music. And as MCs focused on mixtapes, back when that was the thing, the halfstep beats became more prominent. It’s around this point that some of their early audience, brought through from UK garage, began to migrate to house (which would go on to become UK funky and then the minimal tech club circuit we see now). At this point it was clear that “danceable grime” might be a useful thing. In essence this is part of what Elijah and Skilliam have been doing, making grime work in club contexts again (with or without MCs) but this year we’ve found a bunch of records that fit into the 130/UK funky groove but are overtly grimey. Now I’m not saying this is some grass roots uprising comparable to grime itself, but its undeniably grimey 130.  These include…

D Double E and Donaeo "Not Having That"            
Logos "Kowloon"
Gremino "Rupi VIP" [Keysound]   

To me this is another piece of the puzzle we’re enjoying putting together right now, another style and flavour we can blend into fluid coherent sets. Because the wider the diversity of the sounds – as long as they are wanted sounds (bun out trance, yeah?) – the more interesting, diverse, evolving and ultimately hard to define they are.

What’s also fun is that the 130 grimey stuff blurs nicely into the synthy stuff…

Synthy ish

Walton "All Night"     [Hyperdub]   
Mr Mitch vs. Clipse "It's the First Time" (free DL)   
Swindle, Toddla T & Sam Frank "Need to Know" [Forthcoming swindle productions]   
Fresh Paul "Sunblazed"
Scratcha “Polyphonic Dreams"    [Hyperdub]
E.m.m.a. “Dream Phone” [Wavey Tones]   
Moleskin "That Time we…”            
Benin City "Baby (LV remix)"        
Girl Unit  "Ensemble (Club Mix)" [Night Slugs]           
Evian Christ "Fuck It None Of Ya'll Don't Rap" [Triangle free download] Damu "Echelon (original & vocal)"        
Jam City ft Main Attraktionz “The Nite Life”

Now hopefully with this cluster you can see how on one end of its spectrum it connects with grime (Fresh Paul, Swindle, Mr Mitch, Walton) yet the synth space is wider and more expansive such that you can soon find yourself sweeping through epic vistas into tracks like LV’s “Baby remix” or Evian Christ’s "Fuck It None Of Ya'll Don't Rap." Damu’s “Echelon” is pretty much house – Dusk thinks of it as a Balearic record. But it’s all synth ‘ish – and that’s the fun of this space.

There’s some belters in it: Scratcha took it there, beyond there and way out there with “Polyphonic Dreams" [Let’s review that sentence eh Scratch? 7/10 shall we say? Nice.] Walton’s “All Night” is a masterclass of tough Wiley snares and cascading euphoric arpeggios. Swindle’s “Need to Know” is a sexual Rodger Troutman jam; the perfect balance between sleaze and comic genius. E.m.m.a and Moleskin are on some next kind of plane.

Finally a word about the Jam City track. I know a lot of people loved the album this year, from within the Keysound camp Logos especially felt it. But I suffered from expectation alignment issues. The two early Jam City mixes – for Fact but especially for Bok Bok’s old Dot Alt blog – were perfection to me. The later remains one of my top 20 podcasts: like kwaito, Rapid, UK funky and screwed and chopped rap tunes in a blender. Oh and that Ecstasy refix! There was something so euphoric about his work of this ear, beyond their obvious freshness and abundance of ideas, that I fell for so hard.

Now artists move on, I know this, but I couldn’t get out of my head what I wanted the Jam City album to feel like. Yes he’d upped his production game, I could hear that but he’d also lost some of the euphoria and melodic joy. Instead it was cold – well made & cold – but cold nonetheless, and that didn’t hit me as hard.

For some reason it got stuck as one of the three albums on my iPhone, so I’ve come back to it this year and the one track “The Nite Life ft Main Attraktionz” really hits the spot. Like the devil mixes of Roll Deep vocal tunes, there’s something amazing about how the voice interacts with the synth when they’re left space to breathe. For me this bonus track was the album’s standout. Well worth a listen.

Dark & percussive 140ish
Djrum 'Turiya' (Tessela Remix) [2nd Drop]           
Tessela "D Jane" [Punch Drunk]   
Kanvas "Forget The Future"                    
Mickey Freeze "Carbon"       
Oris Jay "Heavy ft Rodney P"    
Buzzin10 "StringTing" [Frijsfo]
Sepia "Observer"    
(see also the Mala in Cuba album, above)

This year we found ourselves pitching 140bpm dubstep down, a strange state of affairs compared to some of these faster-harder-more-compressed wobble bros, but the dark 135bpm cluster of beats had some quality (if not quantity) stuff in it. Most of the dark dungeon halfstep didn’t do much for me this year – it’s not better than Loefah’s “Mud” in ’06, sorry – but people who did some interesting percussive stuff included Tessela, Mickey Freeze, Sepia, Kanvas and of course Mala.

I said my piece on “Mala in Cuba” on the official CD/vinyl sleevenotes, so you should check them. I still think my favourite Mala work is his 12” tracks like “Learn,” “Forgive,” “Neverland” and “Chaimba” but “…In Cuba” works so well as a longplayer.

Other madshit

Carrion Sound "Channel" (unreleased)               
MssingNo "Skeezers"            
Octaviour v LDM (LHF) "Retitled"            
I’m not sure where these records fit… and that’s why I like ‘em.

PS Carrion Sound is someone you may know already… ooooops did I say that out loud?!

160 ish

Dizzee Rascal “Brand New Day (Murlo Remix)”
Om Unit ‎“Traum” [Om Unit Edits Vol.2]           
Sully "Simple Things"
Patrice & Friends "Patron on Deck" [Free download]   
Joss Ryan "Melancholy Dreams (Slick Shoota remix)" [DVA Music]   
Octa Push "Glimpse"
Deft “Eskilusive”
Danny Scrilla "Hunch (feat Om Unit)" [Cosmic Bridge] 
dÉbruit "Ata (LV Remix)" [Civil Music]           

After the 130bpm pocket, I’m most excited about 160bpm. In the era of Serrato, or in our case CDJs, you can do some pretty large tempo changes in sets without it sounding terrible (pitch bend). Gone are the days of being constrained to vinyl’s +/-8.  So it’s fairly easy to edge up the energy levels.

But that’s exactly why this area is so fun, because like ‘06 dubstep you can do intensity switches while keeping the groove. Then it was 70/140bpm whereas now it’s 80/160bpm. Now I haven’t given it that much thought but anecdotally it feels like 80/160 is more extreme a shift. I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between 70 and 80 bpm – it’s essentially mellow hip hop speed, but 140 -> 160bpm is the difference between uptempo and explosive hypeting!

Anyway moving past the DJ tempo nerdery, on a dancefloor this 160 stuff has amazing energy and people are building on the framework laid down by juke producers to do some parallel creative things. Really enjoyable are the 160 eski flavours like Deft’s “Eskilusive,” Danny Scrilla "Hunch (feat Om Unit)"and Murlo’s refix of Dizzee’s “Brand New Day” (we played the original on dub on Groovetech fresh from Belly of The Beast Studios… yes I’m hyping and wot?!!!).

Then there’s the juke/jungle dialog that rides the tempo/intensity flip perfectly. LV’s “Ata” remix is insanely powerful, I think that got slept on and has hype snares for days. Sully’s “Simple Things” is a dub we’re playing and is pure ’93 choppage; Dusk does this great key-mixed blend with Octa Push’s "Glimpse" that works time and again.

And finally Patrice & Friends aka Slackk’s sleazy alter ego. I think my favourite is "Patron on Deck," both for its name and vibe.  What I like about this stuff, apart from it’s comic value, sense of sexual drama and total irreverence, is that it re-connects – via sampling – with black music’s history in a context that’s more interesting than Dilla clones or yet another disco house, yawn, “re-edit.” These days so much music is built using synths and has this really inorganic, inhuman quality – which I really like in a myriad of cases; eski to name but one. But Patrice raids black music’s slinky ‘70s and ‘80s wardrobe and it sounds almost alien it’s that differentiated from today’s compressed, synthy soundtrack.

Offkey songs

Zebra Katz “W8WTF”       
Brenmar “Comatose”       
Tinashe "Boss (Ryan Hemsworth Remix)" [RCA]   
Funkineven & Fatima "West 2 East" [Eglo Records]   
Jeremih "Fuck U All the Time (Shlohmo remix) (free DL)       
Destiny's Child "Say My Name (Palace remix)"
Luna Beduin (LHF family) "The Island"    

This lightly random final section is where you’ll find my favourite “songs.” I say “songs” because in many cases I need a twist or dash of weirdness to counterbalance full vocals but when you get those delicious contradictions and oppositions, like a ruff bass with a smooth vocal, or a mandem stab with a seductive temptress pad it’s near perfection. “Boss (Ryan Hemsworth Remix)" was one of the most asked about records of our recent Rinse shows, “West 2 East” sounds like 80s New York but feels so London. "Say My Name (Palace remix)" is twisted in a frankly unhealthy way (it sounds like a man) and as for Zebra Katz well that has a very healthy dose of “what the f…” factor about it. The sense of waking up cuffed and full of utter dread because he smelt a wiff of “c*nt” on him is… utterly striking.



fractal said...

this is such a great piece. thank you for taking the time to put it together, it was really nice to be able to play the music while reading! Big up!

Blackdown said...

bigup fractal you legend, i see ya!

towr said...

what'd you think of the kowton / alex coulton / livity sound stuff? I find a lot of parallels between that and the 130 stuff that beneath and you are pushing, other than, like, uh...tempo

Anonymous said...

Great read, i always wonder in sections about dark 130 why My Nu Leng never get a mention though! Those guuys are really doing it atm.

Anonymous said...

Great piece. I just keep going back to it. Will probably still be digesting it all in 6 months time. Love the new comp too. Just writing a little something about it now. Cheers. Oli from colectivo futuro.