Pied Pipers is THUMP's monthly grime column by noted grime heads Elijah, of DJ duo and grime label Butterz, and Slackk, the boss of the Boxed club night, and an NTS Radio regular. As our very own Pied Pipers, Elijah and Slackk will head up artist-to-artist interviews, preview the new music that's breaking in the scene, and cherry-pick the best mixes that show grime in its characteristically forward-thinking and raw form.
This month, Elijah speaks to producer Wen about his excellent, forthcoming LP Signals, and Slackk runs down the Boxed 1st birthday, their just-dropped compilation, selects some classic grime mixes, and talks about forthcoming releases.
Elijah: Every few years, the terms "new wave" and "next generation" get attached to emerging producers. Some release a couple of records, and then fade into the abyss. Others, like Wen, embrace it - and use the spotlight to push out some great music. With his debut album Signals landing on Keysound only 18 months after his debut release, 2013's Commotion, I spoke to Wen about family, grime, 130bpm, and using voices as an instrument.
Elijah: Easy Wen. How does it feel to have a debut album about to land? It doesn't feel like that long ago Commotion was just coming out, what has the journey been like from then to now?
Wen: I think with the EP, it was just really good timing. There was a gap in the spectrum of the 130bpm thing that Dusk + Blackdown were pushing, and I got lucky. It really snowballed for me from the moment that record dropped in terms of me taking DJing seriously, but production wise its been quite a natural process moving forward to doing the LP. Some of the tracks are only a month old, others date back to 2010, but I think it's coherent. It's been a nice opportunity to show my versatility properly. I think a lot of people have preconceptions of my music because they only have heard either that EP, or the single I did a few months, after which my sound was much warmer. The album bridges that gap quite nicely.
Elijah: Working with Keysound, you were ushered into quite a big family of artists. I remember when we did the Rinse show we had Logos, Moleskin, Parris and Mumdance all pulling in a similar sort of direction. Has this impacted your production specifically for this album?
Wen: Yeah, for sure. They've been honed in on a similar direction which does give a sense of focus, but it also drives me to push my stuff out away from those guys a little bit. I think i speak for all of us in saying we want to keep our own identities and individuality. I get inspiration from within the Keysound camp for the album, but I've tried hard to put my own spin on it.
Elijah: Why did you choose 130bpm? Typically grime and dubstep has been in and around 140bpm, and your music has really helped people open up to slower bpm's that don't want to transition to House music. When you are DJing in the clubs, are you mainly staying in around 130bpm?
Wen: When I first started making beats all I did was 140bpm stuff, and I was quite stuck in my ways with that tempo for about 3 years. There was moment when I felt I had raised the level of my production and was really pleased with what I was making - and then I had an accident with my harddrive and lost everything. I was devastated, but I picked myself back up, sourced new samples and started writing again. Something remained with that broken harddrive. I wasn't so passionate about the music I was making anymore.
Not long before this all happened I was listening to Dusk + Blackdown on Rinse regularly, and heard Kode9 playing a similar strain of slower stuff I couldn't quite put my finger on at a rave in Matter. I got that same jarring buzz and uncertainty to what I felt when I first heard the awkward energy in grime and dubstep - but it was rolling, danceable. I sat at the back and watched the people in the dance. Everyone was kind of confused, but were still compelled to dance. I really liked that vibe, and started making stuff I imagined would bring that mood. When I DJ I try and do that too, I move quite gradually through tempos. Recently, I've been starting at the lower 120bpm end and close out nearer 140bpm, but 130bpm has a gravity to it.
Elijah: The album feels like you are scrolling across the dial on the FM through different pirate radio stations. You grew up outside of London, so what were your first introductions to MCs, sets, and the kind of voices you've sampled on Signals?
Wen: I'm from Kent, so when I was growing up most things from London always filtered out to us quickly. This isn't so relevant today with the accessibility of the internet, and live feeds on Twitter, but it was definitely key when I was growing up. We relied on the forums and the Rinse, 1Xtra and Kiss shows bringing in crews for sets on a weekly basis. I was hooked on that.
When I was old enough I went to the FWD>> and Rinse raves at Matter and Fabric, and saw Plastician play with BBK and OGz a few times. Those crews were always at the forefront of grime for me. I listened to them a lot as a result of seeing them live. I think it has a big impact when you experience it properly. One of my best friends has always been on point for this. He was getting passed down these CDs of very underground grime, I was really into this crew called Gipset. It's bizarre, because Krept and Konan were part of it and they toured with Skepta last year, so the underground guys I heard on badly recorded CDs, and the more exposed artists I watched live, have properly crossed paths years later.
Anyway, the voices and phrases I sample are pretty much my favourite or most memorable moments of the sets. The bits I really connected with usually happened at a pause or intro, or after a rewind. The MC's are still full of energy, and carry on their bars or just say something quite styled out - which I always imagined would be perfect to reinterpret my own way.
Elijah: The MCs sound like another instrument. What is the process: do you find a phrase you like and build tracks around that, or is that more for the finishing touches?
Wen: The vocal is usually the first thing in the track. I chop it out and try to understand the mood of what the MC is saying based on the meaning of the phrase, and the way they deliver it. I always write my drums with the vocal; try to weave them in and out of each other, and hold the groove with the vocal and drum combination. With grime there is usually a sense of urgency, maybe aggression too, and I guess that seeps through in the energy of some of the tracks.
Yet, grime's versatile. I think the aggression thing is a bit of a stigma. There's calmer, more reflective moments too, and I tried to push that in the intro. People like Logos and Visionist are doing this really well at the moment. I really like to use female vocals when they fit as well. It's cool to get a sexier touch to tracks, and it's a nice contrast to the dominating male presence. We need more girls in here...
Elijah: Rinse & FWD>> at Matter was a good night to start raving. It had grime, dubstep, funky and other oddities in the big room back in 2010. How have your own personal club experiences been from behind the decks?
Wen: I had some amazing opportunities over 2013. It's been a blessing to travel around the world and play for people. Australia was amazing. I met some really nice people out there, and it was interesting to see how the vibe in the clubs differed to here in the UK. They seemed to really love the curve-balls in my sets, which I usually use to bring things down for a moment - and it just did the opposite. I really enjoy playing in Bristol too. They seem to just get the vibe there. The Keysound takeovers at Fabric are always going to be up there as well. I really relax when I play in that room with the crew. I think when your DJing it's easy to chill in the booth, and there was a patch when I did that for a bit, I like to take it in from the dance floor when I can before I start to play. I can feel the energy in the room, and take notice of what people are doing.
After hitting the milestone of an album, what comes next? A lot of artists after dropping an album struggle to maintain momentum. Have you made many 'life after album is out' plans yet?
Wen: Surprisingly, I've still been really productive with other music during and since I got the album finished. I'm sitting on a lot of stuff people haven't heard yet. It's quite different to the style of the album. You can still tell it's me, but I feel I'm maturing a bit with it; new motives and ambitions. I'm keen to collaborate more, both with vocalists and other producers. I'm making quite a lot of music with Parris a the moment, experimenting with different tempos, and moving in and out of my comfort zone. There are plenty of milestones out there to come.
Wen plays Rinse at FABRICELIVE on April 17th. More details here.
Slackk: This month is the first birthday of the grime night I co-run - with Logos, Oil Gang and Mr Mitch - Boxed. We’re running a party on March 7th with Inkke & DJ Milktray, at Birthdays in London - appropriately enough. Initially, I think people thought we were a bit daft trying to do a night of just instrumentals: given the fact that MCs have played such an integral part of the music from the start, and with Butterz leading the way in this regard, of course. The impact they’ve made, and in a manner that didn’t compromise what they were doing, has certainly been an influence on making a go of the club night, but there are different styles within the sound, and I think that was an important part of us starting up. We all felt our styles and sounds were different to each other’s, whilst still retaining some of the core ideas.
Release wise, there are some good things coming up this month. The Gage - 'Telo'/'Shiftin' release is out on Crazylegs soon, and though it’s a bit slower than most of this stuff, around 128bpm I think, it’s a great 12”. 'Telo' especially. It's so raw, man. There’s a great VIP of that as well. For the spacier end of things, Strict Face's 'Fountains'/'Highbury Skyline' coming out on Gobstopper is another really good one. 'Highbury Skyline' is one of my favourite tunes from the last year, and I’m really glad someone put it out. Coyote Records have a Spare 12” coming out too - I’ve been playing '1BLT' from that one.
As part of our Boxed birthday, we’re giving away a little compilation of tunes from people we’ve been playing over the last year or so. You can listen to it below, and download it here.
For this edition of Pied Pipers, I've also picked a classic grime mix from the vaults that I think deserves its proper dues. I’d never try and compare myself to him, because at his peak I think he was the best DJ in grime, but early-era Mak 10 has always been the strongest influence on my own style; in terms of what I play, and how I try and approach a set. Though I wasn’t born here, pirate radio in London grabbed me almost as soon as I got onto it and, trust me, I’ve listened to a lot of grime sets. I used to run a site called GrimeTapes, and I’ve listened to an awful lot of grime DJs, but I can always tell a Mak 10 set above anyone else because of how he approached a mix and the styles he’d play; the rapid fire mixing, the flow of it, his selection. Everyone always says Slimzee - and I love Slimzee too - but for me Mak 10 was always the one. Technique wise, he was the best. Some of his chops, man.
This is a set I always come back to for DJ Mak 10 and N.A.S.T.Y. At their respective peaks, it’s between NASTY, Roll Deep and Essentials in terms of who was the best grime crew on the pirates for me. Mak 10 DJ’d as part of NASTY, alongside Marcus Nasty and Jammer at various points, and this is a good one. The first 20-30 minutes of instrumentals on here before the MCs turn up is just perfect. Obviously the fact that there are loads of unknown, early ‘03-’04 beats are a great part of that, but there’s just something about the selection in this particular set that really hit hard for me. I dread to think how many times I’ve listened to that first half hour. There are plenty of great MC performances on it too, but Sharky Major is probably the standout. Mak 10 is still on it - and still sorely underrated, too. He’s on Nasty FM these days, and was a hard part of the initial funky come-up through his sets on Deja. That one's for fans of that whole lineage of pirate radio.
Radio is obviously still a big part of the sound, even if some MCs these days act like it’s Twitter then YouTube which is a more important platform. There were a few really good sets this month. In terms of proficiency on the decks, I think Spooky is probably the closest we have to a Mak10 these days. Ask anyone who’s ever had to DJ on the same line-up as Spooky how depressed about their abilities they felt after watching him. His show on Deja is consistently great, but I thought he was particularly mental on on his Feb 17th show. Great set and as usual, terrifying. We had a Boxed show on Rinse the other day as well. Logos and I couldn’t make it but Mr Mitch & Oil Gang went b2b. There are loads of absolutely ridiculous dubs from our camp and associates in that one.