Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Traditions and telling your own story: "Rollage vol 6 EP"

I've interviewed 100s of dance music producers over decades & I've spotted a pattern. 

Unlike, say, songwriters there's usually more stories behind the music, titles and art work than is immediately obvious when simply listening to the track. 

I think producers should do more to tell those stories, so walk the walk, here's some thoughts about some of the thoughts behind our new EP "Traditions". 

As ever the idea behind the rollage series is simple: all tracks are the same tempo (130 bpm) so they can be easily mixed together but each is different in intensity, mood, structure. For us, that tempo is a balance point between drop/groove, swing/driving urgency & more that allows creative unity + diversity. 

That sense of creative freedom (from) within constraints is perhaps the series’ own sonic tradition, drawing from styles and eras, while at the same time optimistically looking forward to embrace new traditions as they emerge.

But like many of the rollage EPs, all the tracks are made from the same bank of sounds. So we started with one, then spawned another project file and went in another direction. It means the tracks are like close family members: both similar and different.

The title track "Tradition" came first. I came across the vocals in a video and just had that producer "lightbulb" moment. 

The funny thing is, while his patois sounds super serious, in the video it's a joke -  he's going around a room laid out with food for friends and family, and massively overhyping ox tail stew or mac 'n' cheese. Being absurdly "serious" about eating way too much food with loved ones.

Sooooo... obviously from patois about mac 'n' cheese, my brain's like "ok, so I wonder if we can make a 2004-style youngsta halfstep dubstep tune but at 130bpm, to keep things interesting!" 

The sample "tradition" initially spoke to us because it just sounded great - it had instant identity and intensity. But the funny thing is once you hone in one sample in a track ("tradition") for how it sounds, as you use it, it starts to take on these other resonances. 

So I looked it up: traditions are long-established customs or beliefs that have been passed on from one generation to another, often orally. The roots of the word join fragments relating to “giving” and “across.”

And I thought: you know, there's a lot of what I love in music that are traditions, and about giving of particular emotions between producers, DJs and communities. 

And then I added a small detail: the tracks are variants of "Tradition" but the EP is called "Traditions" - the more I looked at it, the plural felt more inclusive: traditions from now, from then, to come. Our traditions, yours, theirs.

Being a producer is a curious thing with regards to traditions: when you write music you have to make thousands of micro decisions. "Does this sound good or not if I add this or take it away?" "Is this better if I turn that to the left or not?" "Is it boring in those 8 bars?"

And I think in part you make those decisions based on your past traditions - music you've loved, hated, absorbed as part of who you are and what you listen to. Each new track becomes both a reflection of what came before and the new traditions you want to bring into the world.

Like, here's one micro example of a tradition that runs through these EPs. Dusk + I don't make jungle, but will always be junglists at heart, amongst other loves of course. 

A while back we found this stand alone free bit of software that allows you to replicate the original, iconic Akai timestretch effect so beloved in jungle. There's still something so futuristic sounding, 30+ years after it was first used, of having a sound stay at the same pitch but being stretched out in time until it decomposes into grainy fragments.

We used this throughout the "Rollage Vol 6" tracks, especially on the weightless mix. It gives this amazing sense of future/past, now. Obviously could have downloaded some 160 bpm breaks, whacked it over the drop and been literally junglist, but that's not what we as a duo are trying to do here.

Another tradition we loved is pirate radio -  now diminished as a driving cultural force since smartphones democratised self publishing and DAB came in. But that sound of FM crackle, sonic distortion still resonates. So when I was wanging some controls around on a plug in and it started to sound like a radio being tuned, Dusk and I could feel the resonance, the tradition.

I talked about it when I put out my weightless LP "Those Moments" in 2017: the weightless epiphany for me came when Mumdance started an amazing series of free nights at The Victoria in Dalston - a pub with a secret back room with a function 1 system. 

A weightless producer was doing a set and he was like "oi, come here and listen to this!!!" Hearing music over heavy soundsystems was long since a beloved tradition of mine but suddenly all made sense.

Once Dusk and I had finished the weightless version, we could just feel the itching to have a percussive version over those pads. Layered over the warm sub, they sounded so jungly and it made me think of some of Marcus Intalex's 130 work like "Taking Over Me", or earlier jungle classics that had a lush pad in the long intro before falling into a dark contrasting drop. The pad roller remix was born.

When I listen back to the pad roller remix, it reminds me of listening to an early version of it the summer of July 2021, just as the UK was emerging from lockdowns. 

We'd tried to go away with mates, but they'd called us while we were driving there to say there was covid near them and they couldn't risk it. We zigzagged between light and the darkness.

A tradition Dusk and I have maintained for nearly 20 years now, is writing music together on Monday nights. Why Mondays? Because no one wants Monday nights - they're dead time in the week. The first "tradition" track was started before the pandemic and the versions were worked on sporadically when restrictions would allow.

With the lead track, while it is structured like a 2004 halfstep track (albeit at the "wrong" tempo) I wanted to find a way to use that new school iconic sound, the drill snare. Each era has its own iconic sound - the timestretch, FM radio crackle, Wiley's eski click, the bed creak in Jersey club, Donk's erm donk. 

I'd been listing to bits of drill for a while - Loski, Unknown T, LD, Headie One, iLL Blu "Dumpa" and as well as that amazing warping FL bassline, these dons had found some distinct drum sounds. 

Then I saw Ikonika (a producer on FIRE right now!) half mention the "Young Chop snare" or something and thought, "oh, so that's what it's called?"

Putting sounds from one context in another is definitely a tradition of ours. And while using a popular snare is hardly some radical statement, it's these little touches & new contexts that inch things forward for me towards an optimistic future, rather than just fixating on looking backwards.

I've found gqom is amazing to work to - relentless drums and so upbeat - and my go to is the #GomFridays Mix on Afrimusico

Obviously at amapiano is popping now (HousSupa label of the year?), with UK producers taking their twist on the South African sound, just as UK producers did on the NY garage sound in the 90s. 

Gqom producers have this tradition of using vocals in a relentless way, so we took bits of "tradition" audio and messed around with then.  I don't think we're qualified to be gqom producers per se, but happy accidents sometimes occur when you try something and don't get it quite "right". 

This is why we named it the "gqom wrong" mix, because we tried some gqom influences (MOAR toms!!!) and it's all gone wrong. And hopefully that's OK. 

Respect to afrimusico and all the gqom pioneers. We played two DJ Lag tracks on last night's Rinse show btw.

Anyway, that's a lot of musical producer waffle. Bass heavy music has a lot of other great traditions, from the meet up at the pub beforehand to people who DJ with their shoes off, like the don Joe nice. 

What are yours?

Friday, March 10, 2023

François K inspiration but wrong

Went to see François K talk about his musical journey at the British Library last night at Classic Album Sundays. 

And I’m reminded: here’s how he accidentally inspired a track I made, “UKD”.

François K’s been involved with so many musical moments: being in the room to see the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet reform (including Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams & Wayne Shorter). A&R/production at legendary disco label Prelude. Or DJing as part of the foundations of house and garage Walter Gibbons, David Mancuso and Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage... yes where the word “garage” comes from. 

Producing for Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk. Or starting Body & Soul with Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit and the Deep Space night at Cielo that welcomed people like Mala DMZ into the dubby house world. He mentioned, but didn’t namecheck Dub War bigup Dave Q, Ken Sekkle, Joe Nice, Juakali & all the gang.

Anyway: you might remember a Reel I made recently when “Rollage Vol 5: eM-PLT” EP came out and I talked about imagining influences and getting them wrong. Well seeing François K reminded me of how his “edits” technique accidentally inspired creative sideways step in a section of a track I put out called “UKD”.

Obviously the main idea of this track is the middle point between UKG (garage... Paradise Garage) and Detroit techno, hence “UKD.” And admittedly there’s another “imagined influence, but wrong” in the kick pattern for this, because Dusk and I have been using rippled Jersey kicks without really knowing much about Jersey club. On beat in the first half of the bar, counterpoint in the second half... funky!

But here’s how thinking of François K, but not actually listening to his music at the time, inspired a section in “UKD”.

Last night he described how his DJ career accelerated when he turned what Walter Gibbons would do with two copies of a record and decks - then a very forward thinking idea - into an edit recorded to a dubplate. See the clip above “Happy Song (The François K & Walter Gibbons Edits)“, complete with dubplate cutting lathe equipment in the background. It might not sound much on your phone now, but the bass in the congas sounded like THUNDER in the British Library over a system, and like the future in the ’70s, I’d imagine.

Cutting up edits of the tape, literal tape, in 1977 to loop the most intense parts of organic disco records into these more inorganic, intense drum tracks was ahead of its time and the start of house music. This technique of collage, of contrasts of organic/inorganic, live band/drum machines, working only with a master always stuck with me, esp when you add dub inspired FX as he did to make it sound otherworldly.

So as I got most of the way through writing “UKD”, which is pretty inorganic to me - halcyon clear pads and crystal shards of zaps - I suddenly had a lateral François K-but-wrong-inspired idea. What if I layered in organic sounds for a section? I began jamming with some horn and vocal samples from some old afrobeat records, and found they fitted as this strange coda to the track. LDN > Detroit > NYC > NJ and now Nigeria, in one.

Was this a “reel to reel edit?” No, I’d got that wrong. Was this what François K was doing with disco into (early) house with a dub influence? No, wrong. But look what the happy, accidental influence did! My sideways “imagined influence, but wrong” had ended up somewhere else entirely.

I need a better phrase for “imagined influence, but wrong”, but for now bigup François K and anyone with as much passion for music as he still has, to this day.