Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Elijah & Skilliam v Blackdown part 4

#butterzisthelabel from Circus Family.

After parts one, two and three of my epic interview with Butterz head honcho's Elijah and Skilliam, and in the week that both their Rinse:17 mix CD came out and they got nominated as one of the top 10 labels of 2011, we conclude the interview with part 4. 

But before that, please enjoy an exclusive video documentary shot in and around the time of the interview.

Elijah & Skilliam v Blackdown interview part 4

M We talked about conflict in grime before, and obviously grime has this huge legacy of internal conflict, but focussing on clashing and aggression and so on. So it always struck me that the bigger you got, the more you may encounter guys that were more negative. Have you encountered any?

E We’re not born into it.

Sk We're not always around them. We can decide to step out and watch it happen as outsiders.

M You are and you aren‘t though. On one hand you live differently but then you say one of Fire Camp lives at the end of your road. By geography you are here East London, but by friendship you're not part of that.

E It's weird. Lethal knows that we're putting out a Trim record and we're cool, and I'll see him in a couple of weeks in Ibiza, and it won't be "a thing". Its music, isn't it? Personal is different. But I don't have a lot of friends in music, proper people I went to school with, but they do, so you know that when you have people like Trim and Ghetto arguing, they've known each other for seven years in and out of music. Whereas we've only been around for two years.

Think of the amount of opportunities we’d have to pass by people? I can tell you the number of times I have met Trim, dates, times, because there’s no club nights no radio - people can’t just turn up to Rinse like that. So you’re not coming  across these people where you can have qualms.

M And I’m not saying you should do but I'm saying grime has an appetite for conflict and I’ve had issues when I’ve tried to help people out and they have been very aggressive to me, so I just wonder how you avoid it?

E Its the people that we have chosen to work with I guess. it makes all the difference. Aside from “Woo,” we've had a relationship with the people way before we put out a record.

M A bit more trust.

E We’re all in it for the long haul together. I can't have an argument with Terror Danjah, because the thing doesn't stop at the record, that wasn't the end point of what we were doing. If we were putting out the record to try and make lots of money from that record, then we can have a qualm. Same with Royal T and Swindle and stuff. But we're still so close to each other. And there’s not one person - Royal T, Swindle, Terror Danjah - who has blown up like say Joker has, way more than Guido & Gemmy.

M I would put money on it, because you’re good enough at finding talent, that you will eventually find someone who blows up that much.

E If it does happen, even then, everyone is so integrated in what we do, everyone would have helped them get to that stage. Even when Swindle plays in Norway, he is still playing all our stuff, because we helped him get there. He's on Elastic and we're on Elastic and Terror's on Elastic. We've all helped each other get there.

M Have you felt like "wow, we're really far from home?" Not distance, specifically, but that it felt like this is a very different place we're in - country or environment?

E It's wicked to see how they consume music in these places, that's interesting to me, but most of the time you're only surrounded by the enthusiasts. You're kind of living a sheltered way for the 24 hours you're living in the country. Everyone could be into the music, based on the impression those people give.

M Where would you like to play that you haven't yet?

E A few places, just because I want to go there: I want to play Japan and Jamaica. America doesn't really interest me - it does as a country - but not for what I do as music. More of Europe, man. We still haven’t done a full circuit of anywhere.

M  It's funny because you are on a booking agency.

E Yes but then it's like product.

M The CD might be a step up for your profile. I think with the States you might quite like it, and they might quite like you as well. Just pick and choose the dates that you play. Just ask other DJs where they went down well. We did six dates in the States last year and they were radically different experiences. Some of the worst gigs and some of the best gigs. We did Hollywood and it was horrible, and we did Austin Texas and it was five time less people and it was amazing.

E I know, but even saying that, I want to just play in England. Most places in England are really big. I've been seeing more of Europe more than England - that's a joke. It sounds really ignorant, but to have kind of what we do really integrated to what’s going on in the UK would be sick, rather than spread out as a really niche thing... Even if we didn't go and do shows with 200 people in Europe, I'd still rather stay here. EZ: I don’t know if he’s broken in Europe but he still plays everywhere in this country. He’s busy.

M What you are talking about is getting popular and playing in regional cities? But I think that's less about you and more about specialist music... On a Friday night in  a sleepy Herefordshire town do they want to hear chart hits or RnB? This may be little to do with how well Butterz are doing.

E It depends. We don't put out any music geared for that. If we released five “Boo You” type records rather than difference records each time, it would go that way. A lot of people like yourself release music like that, so you’re not going to have that result and it’s not the result you’re looking for. but it wouldn't take away from what we do if we did have music out like that.

M “Boo You” is right at the limit though, right? That's the genius of the record - It has the potential to be mainstream and chart hit but it has every credibility in what it does as a great grime record. But that’s such a rare balancing act and for every attempt at one of those you get something terrible like Masters of Ceremonies. The lyrics are so rude too.

E P Money said to me in the studio: "A lot of these verses are explicit, do you want us to change it or do you want us to do a clean version?", and I said "nah", not thinking of any consequences - "What’s the point? I like it like it is." And then Mr Jam asked for it, and made us a BBC clean edit to send to a couple of people for us. And when he started playing it I was like "shit, the record's 5 minutes long, Black’s verse has swearing,” all these things that you don't hear in a typical pop record. But this is the effect of not listening to commercial radio.

M But how would you know that there are a list of banned words you can't say at BBC radio? Mary Anne had to get written permission as an exception to play “Bullet A‘Go Fly.” It's a bit backwards to be honest, especially at night time, when kids are asleep. I understand in the day time when kids are awake.

And the thing is also that a lot of the stuff is in local slang. We talked at the beginning of this conversation about you finding people not knowing what “wha gwarn” means. So if you asked Mr Average Radio Listener guy what “Buss all over you girl” is, they’d tell you that a bus is a big red form of transport. But it’s something completely different if you decode it.

E it’s funny because all pop records are coded sex anyway. You have all these Rhianna songs that are the rudest things.

M I heard someone playing “Slippery When Wet” by Bon Jovi in a shop the other day and it reminded me with that title how much they’re really not talking about water and pavements or street safety signs. And they’ve got away with selling tens of millions of copies in the '80s of an album with a very sexual title. So why does it matter if Blacks is "bussing all over your girl" or not now?

E Good grime club records, we had a few last year, “Street Fighter,” “Slang,” “Ho Riddim” but this year: none. And we noticed that when you go to see a DJ play, sometimes you waiting for them to play a certain record, but with us I wouldn't know what they’d be waiting for right now. And before we did “Boo You” I thought that was shit. They were waiting for the moment where you play that song but there wasn't that song this year. All these talented MCs , the “New Wave,” they haven't made anything where I though "wow this is amazing, I've got to play it."

M Me neither. I wrote about this in my Trim piece because if I was a new grime MC coming through I’d be quite depressed because the gods of grime are quite difficult to touch, and you haven't got a new wave that are inspiring.

E Imagine for us, we are being the Granddads, at 24, putting out Trim whose been in the scene for ages, and P money... so we're not even crossing any new ground with the MCs, which is kind of like a shame. One of the things I can criticise Butterz for is that we haven't brought an artist to the forefront. You can only do so much in 18 months, but that would have been pretty cool. Imagine if with all this music you got a new MC that was pretty good.

M But you’ve got to work with what there is. If there aren't new MCs coming through, you've got to be honest that they're aren't good enough. When I hear the new wave MCs I don’t think they’re better than Trim or D Double.

E And that's just us being honest as well. Imagine if we tried to do that but with not full confidence, it would come out half arsed.

M: I thought they might be in funky

E nah but funky MCs are terrible generally.

Sk Yeah, they've dumbed it down.

E It's like they've seen how it's gone, and then gone back to garage. They don't need to do that, there should be some kind of intermediate point where they don't get too lyrical. They can still entertain you, but not get stupid with it, like: "Go to the shop, bop, der der der" - you don't need to do that, we've been through that already with garage.

But that's us - I keep having to remember - that has been through that. I keep referring to the 18 year old, and they control the traffic.

M In some points in this discussion I've seen you quite explicitly talk about thinking about what the listener wants, and giving it to them. And there's lots of other times where you've made a lot of headway in what you're doing by thinking about what you want, and having the singularity of vision of thinking in that "if I can make me happy, then I can make other people happy". I think the second one is more powerful, as anyone can just play bangers and prove crowd pleasers - the bait move. But what you guys have done great is to still imagine what it's like to walk into Rhythm Division to buy records. That if you put the bar high for yourself that people will see that it’s put high for the music that’s getting to them.

E People ask why there's two of us, and I think it because you talk to people about music... When you have someone to go through records with them and talk about tunes that you like, you think "oh it would have been sick if I did this," and you dream up another situation for yourself. And that’s how the Silkie and Swindle situation came about.

M Dreaming like that is really healthy. It’s not some hippy thing, it’s trying to imagine the best possible thing and then going out and making it reality.

E There are so many ideas, especially with all these people involved, and you don't ever have time to realise them.

Sk Now you can get in contact with them slightly easier. Let's say Twitter - everyone's your mate. They're not, but everyone can say stuff to you. That's how a lot of stuff happens.

E Diddy and Skepta happened by Twitter. It's funny, with us now I feel like we have influence with DJs, and we can make things happen for the greater good. The other night I was up and Preditah was online. I said "What you doing?"... "Nothing". I added Royal T to the conversation and said "What you doing?".... "Nothing." I just left and they got started on something.

M But that's what you guys have been doing in a really genius way for some time, like catalysts. So, have you played around with production?

Sk I have a little bit. It's quite time consuming and frustrating.

M  Yeah, that sounds about right. But did you get a taste for it?

Sk What will happen is I get an idea, and I voice note it into my phone, but I won't do anything until I get about ten of them... But it's a next thing putting it down, and I don't really ask for help from people. So it's really just me trying to do it from scratch.

E Imagine feeling the pressure of having to write a tune so we get more bookings?

M I recommend asking people for help, to get over the barrier that the technology presents. The first phase of music is conquering technology, and that takes ages... making noises that you like it to make not the noises it likes making. That phaze takes ages. Anyway, that's not a very insightful tip: ask people to give you help.

Sk I do have a grasp of what everything is and does. I will eventually one day just say "Terror, let's sit down, seriously" but I do it because I enjoy it, I‘ll hear some little drum rolls and want to do it like that.  It's really just experimenting, and has no direction to it. With the grime that's coming out, I'll hear a live instrument and try and make it [work]...

E You did the bass for “Mood Swings.”

Sk Oh yeah... because I play bass at my Church.

E That's a big musical thing! I'm not musical, I'm just a listener... The guy that knows the beat from the first second. An enthusiast.

Sk I'm fully not a foreground type of person.

M No, that's what an MC is for.

[Skilliam plays video of him playing live bass over “Moodswings” on the iPad]

M  How long did that take you to learn?

Sk It took about three hours [laughs], and I got a blister.

E He didn’t even tell me what he was doing. That's the first time I'd seen him play as well, that video!

Sk No one knew apart from my church group.

M In terms of producing, what you're trying to do is create variations from loops... with a live instrument, you can make a lot of “mistakes,” and the good “mistakes” you keep. Swindle plays his stuff in live, right?

M So, to questions from people on Twitter. What do you think of the criticism from some people that just want to listen to aggy 8bar?

E That's a good question. For me personally, grime was never just one way - I don't know if you could ever find a set that was just aggy 8bar, so I don't know why they expect me to do it. That's what is exciting about it - that there is loads of styles and patterns put together, and that's what we're trying to put together now.

Sk And 8bar is for MCs as well...

E Yeah, yeah. Imagine when we first started all the tunes were all moulded this way so you had to mix quickly, but now we're finding that we can give tunes a bit of room.... Most of the tunes now have got variation and progression going through them, whereas before if you listen to like a lot of Teddy and Rude Kid and Maniac and DaVinci, it's just a loop.

M And again that to me was the mix tape era, because they knew that an MC was going to cover the lack of variation part...

E Or people are not going to hear the end, because it's only played by the DJ.

M I reckon they shot themselves in the foot with that - it was lazy, you didn‘t need to bother with an arrangement. You've got to listen all the way through and not get bored - not get to 64 bars and go "OK I've heard this." Because then it can be sold or appreciated as a finished, complete object.

E But people are still doing it now. This is the back and forth that I have with Logan, he is like "Oh, who are you intending this music to be listened by?", and I said it's got different purposes - that's what all good music is like.

When we did “Moodswings VIP” I was listening to Kanye West’s album and there’s a tune on there that’s 9 minutes long and I thought I want to do a Butterz tune that’s that long. So I told Swindle to just take it out of the context of a DJ playing it in a set and make it like a movie soundtrack. Go as long as you want. It’s 8m18s that song and there’s nothing else like that from our area. “Err, why’s the intro two minutes?” Well, why not. No rules innit. Especially when he’s done loads of urban remixes where there are rules he’s like “oh shit, Elijah’s said I can do whatever I want, cool…”

Imagine if this Butterz things creates 20 offshoots? Well then you’ve got a scene then innit. What we started as a humble thing has created all these different little opportunities and inspired people to go on and make this, and come out to rave again. Imagine that - there's people saying it's the best rave they've ever been to:.

M If you inspire a new generation it will the first few raves they've ever been to.

E Yeah. And what I found before, with grime producers especially, how are you going to be inspired to make something for a rave if there's no raves?

M It’s self-fulfilling though....Well, I don't know. A lot of grime got so aggressive that it caused a lot of problems in clubs, and also with the police not allowing grime to be in London clubs kind of killed the infrastructure. But also the focussing on mix tapes and it being a kind of concert thing - and not very danceable - doesn't help clubs either. I love some of the mixtapes, but it's not club music.

E I think there's some space for it now. “I Am” is like that. I could play it in a club but… These things are one step at a time, do a single. If anything else comes afterwards then great, another one.

M Yeah, but I think if you do enough of them you'll start to know what the move after the one you're about to do is.

E We've still kept a core of everyone who worked with. Everyone who is on first four is on the next four, which is wicked. Even like TRC. He phoned me up moaning saying he's not getting out there as much... He's made two of the stand out tunes “Boo You“ and “I Am,” and he's not standing out, then it's not straightforward.

M But if you bring a lot of talent through and try and keep it under one umbrella, ultimately some of them will either not be happy or you can't sustain them because of the nature of their success.

E That’s why, people ask me if I'm going to put out a Predator or Faze Miyake record and I say no. Not because they're not good but because we've got enough on our plate. I don't want to gobble up the whole scene. That’s not the point of what I want to do.

M Also I find all the time that its easy to get excited and sign record you really like, but then you can't make a commitment to put it out because you've got so many in the pipeline already.

I'm sure as a label you should be looking at people like Numbers or on that artistic level, but as for the people you're choosing you've kind of got free reign. But I think you'll inspire people - I've heard people say "I wanted to put this out because Elijah and Skilliam did." That's friendly rivalry.

E I'd rather hear that than someone be like "I want to be on that label," if you know what I mean? Personally, I'm someone who did business studies, and I wanted to be like Richard Branson when I was growing up, so I'm more inspired by someone who wants to do it themselves.

That sounds weird what with working with all these people that seem to be underneath me or whatver, but I feel like we're all at Butterz together. There's no chief executive. At Cable it wasn’t me and Skilliam’s night, it felt like all of ours.

M You have seemed to have nailed that family vibe, the community spirit. And that's impossible to fake.

  • Read parts onetwo and three here. Rinse 17 mixed by Elijah and Skilliam is out now


everythingscatter said...

Much respect for this series of articles and the insight it's offered into the process behind the music. As mentioned at a couple of points, the number of people buying records has fallen off massively in recent years, and I freely admit that I'm part of that problem.

I could probably count on my fingers the number of records I've bought in the past couple of years, even though I'd like to think that I do something to support artists through getting to as many club nights and dances as I can. Hate if you will. What makes a difference for me is writing and interviews like this. What makes a difference is hearing from artists whose approach to music and the music industry is forward-looking and remembers what it's like to be a member of the audience. Rinse 17 has gone on the short list of records I've paid money for in recent times, and it is the attitude and community of forums like this blog and labels and organisations like Butterz that convince me to hand over my hard-earned, rather than just hitting up the torrents and rapidshares every time.

Love to Blackdown, love to Butterz. Keep making records that change how the game is run and what it sounds like. I, for one, appreciate it massively.

Unknown said...

This series of articles has been the best bit of music writing I've read this year. They've proved that Butterz are absolutely worthy of this kind of intense focus.

What they've achieved has been amazing. Effectively turning round an entire area of UK urban music (or so it looks to me). Not only that but one of the most creative scenes the UK has ever known but one overflowing with aggy vibes and resentment alongside the creativity. Grime seems fun again. Massive achievement.

Elijah comes across in particular as a fascinating personality. An architypal soundman he's got wisdom, vision and enough cynicism. He's as sharp as a flicknife. And he keeps talking about the little kid going to the rave for the first time and making their experience as good as possible. He sounds life he has a heart of gold beneath the toughness.

Its easy to imagine him being disillusioned in years to come but not before he's achieved a seismic shift in UK culture and cleared the way for many to follow. I just hope he's enjoying the ride...