Meet the new stars of one of the UK's most important labels
Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in London. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.
Since releasing its first record in 2005, Keysound Recordings has developed into one of the most important labels to carry the torch for UK sound system music. Established by DJ, producer and music journalist Martin Clark (aka Blackdown) and production partner Dan Frampton (aka Dusk), Keysound’s releases have consistently pushed the envelope of the various permutations of the UK’s bass music. And while any label that has had the likes of Skream, Burial and Wiley grace their 12-inches over the years deserves plaudits, it’s in 2013 that Keysound seem at their healthiest. Following the release of their This Is How We Roll compilation earlier this year, Keysound seem to have hit a new stride, putting out EPs and albums from some of the country’s finest dance producers, all the while adhering to a loose rhythmic template that suggests a renewed vigour not just for the label, but for the UK’s dance underground at large. “Keysound’s arguably been through three phases,” says Clark, “The first was as a vehicle for music by Dusk and myself; then, while we were writing [our album] Dasaflex, we opened it up to people around us that we were into, like Skream, Geeneus, Scratcha DVA, Grievous Angel, Kowton. And now this is the third wave.”
This month sees the release of the latest Keysound album, Logos’ Cold Mission. It seemed a good a time as ever to speak to some of the players who have released on the label recently and see why it’s an exciting time right now. Like a mini oral history of Keysound today, I spoke to Clark along with rising stars Logos, Etch, E.m.m.a., Moleskin and Wen. Clark is keen to stress that this is only the tip of the iceberg, though, and that Keysound's community stretches way beyond these six artists. To focus purely on them would be to ignore the multiplicity of talent that surrounds them. Clark cites a handful of other artists worthy of just as much attention, such as Beneath (“people will look back on Beneath as a pioneer in this thing, I’m sure of it”), Parris, Mumdance, Luke Benjamin, Rabit, Damu, Facta, Epoch and Murlo, as well as LV, LHF and Sully, who have all released full-lengths through the label in the past.
DUSK + BLACKDOWN
Martin Clark, aka Blackdown, was once better known for his role as a music journalist, most notably with his grime and dubstep column at Pitchfork, which ran sporadically from 2005 until 2011. As producers, Dusk + Blackdown have released three full-lengths and a handful of 12-inches, but their role today is perhaps a curatorial one first and foremost, showcasing new talents on blogs, their radio show on Rinse FM, and, of course, through their Keysound Recordings imprint.
Blackdown: "We met way back when. Dusk was DJing and dropped a Stevie Wonder tune; I thought he must be alright. We became friends, we’re still friends, and we’ll be friends after this music. Stevie Wonder’s still a don.
"Surrounded by the emerging dubstep and grime scenes in the early part of last decade, Keysound Recordings started like most labels do: from the realization that either we did it ourselves or no one would do it for us. I think that’s a crucial personal threshold within underground scenes: the moment when you stop accepting how things are, or hoping someone will do it for you, and get on and do it yourself. Once you grasp that realization, you have to hold on to it and just keep going.
"Dusk and I were there at the beginning of dubstep. Like, the very beginning, i.e. 2000: El-B & Ghost Camp, Horsepower, Artwork, Zed Bias, Steve Gurley. The beginning. We were at the first FWD>> night and saw dubstep evolve, from being the most creative, diverse, experimental, tightknit but underappreciated community, to becoming this international but unlistenable moronic “success.” We also watched grime expand, then plateau. In the aftermath of dubstep, as we knew it, people went different ways: brostep, house, techno. UK funky had shown great potential, but all too quickly it too went house. The focus from London’s MCs shifted to road rap—grime, but without the club energy or inclination. Dusk and I started to feel really isolated. But the tools of creation, distribution, and presentation were in our hands now. Instead of seeing our situation as a disaster, we chose to see it as an opportunity. The more our path diverged with others, the more it made us distinct.
"Becoming more distinct brought a sense of purpose. We very deliberately sought out sounds that we connected with, and it just so happened that many of them came from a small new wave of under heard producers. And as we found some producers, played them on Rinse, wrote about them on blogs, made under-the-radar online spaces to help incubate ideas, offered them 12-inch and album deals, distribution and press exposure, more came forward. Things began to grow. There’s been quite an organic relationship between people who’ve released on Keysound in the past, like LHF, Sully, and LV, and the newer heads.
"And this is our role, really: to help people we see eye-to-eye with musically fulfil their potential, individually and as a collective. I do want to do everything that I can to provide space and platforms for this sound to flourish. Whether what binds us in this community is music, or something deeper, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a sense of purpose about what’s possible."
Photo by Cristabel Parker
London’s pirate radio stations haunt Logos’ debut album, Cold Mission. Ghost chatter of MCs lingers across the record; phantom rewinds fade into the ether. As on Wiley’s “devil mixes,” Logos uses drums sparingly (if at all), but the suggestion of momentum is there. “It’s partly the challenge and fun of implying forward movement and groove without the obvious signifiers,” says Logos of his rhythms. “Even 'straight' grime did this, let alone devil mixes. I'm listening to a Strict Face track as I write this, and it’s loads of bass pulses and some grunts. They are the rhythmic components.”
Logos: "I'm not sure I ever really have the dancefloor at the forefront when I'm working on solo material, but the album at least gives you the chance to experiment with the slower unfolding of ideas within a piece. I'm thinking of tracks like 'Surface Area,' which I would happily nod my head to in Plastic People. Others, who are used to maximalist dynamic changes, might lose interest.
"My first experience with pirate radio was One In The Jungle, which was BBC Radio 1's attempt to replicate the pirate experience on legal radio. I actually think it worked pretty well. [Exposure to] genuine pirate radio was, at first, just random stations in Northwest London, where I lived for a year when I first moved here, then the odd South London pirate, and then Rinse FM when I could pick it up. I actually dug out a great minidisc of Musical Mob on one of the NW pirates in early 2003 recently. Loads of Youngstar productions and a bit of hosting from the MCs in that crew. Wonderful.
"I managed the balance of working full-time and working on an album mainly by having a very tolerant family around me. In concrete terms, getting a studio and learning how to write music quickly and settle on the good ideas—rather than spending a lot of time trying to engineer what ultimately turn out to be bad ones.
"London has influenced me most directly through the music created here. Grime was one of the first true inner London musics. Large amounts of jungle and garage were made in the suburbs or the “surrounding counties”, to use ’90s pirate jargon, although most of the club nights were in central London. Large cities can be anonymous places, which isn't the same as isolating—although they can be, of course.
Photo: Nathan Greenwood
21-year-old Zak Brashill, aka Etch, released his Old School Methods EP through Keysound in September, bringing hardcore breaks to the label and building a sound that sits somewhere between the old school production and sampling methods of classic jungle and the producers he's surrounded by today.
Etch: "I discovered a lot of my influences primarily through what my uncle left behind when he moved to America. He was a raver back from ’90 to ’93 and was always interested in developments in the UK underground, so I inherited a lot of his records—stuff like Manix, Joey Beltram, Altern8, all the Moving Shadow and Metalheadz stuff. Also, my mum was always playing stuff like Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Forms, and downtempo and trip-hop stuff from the ’90s, while I was growing up. I’ve always loved that sound. And of course, once I got on the internet, it was a journey of self-discovery.
"Prior to moving to London, I lived in a tiny two-bedroom house with my mum in Brighton. I could never really blast sounds and fully sculpt them and hear the clarity of them. I really just can’t produce on headphones; I need that physicality of hearing sound in an open space, so my tunes always sounded a bit flimsy and weak before moving here.
"I love old PS1 games. I’ve sampled stuff like Resident Evil 3 and the first Spyro game in my tunes, but I tend to twist it beyond being noticeable. I’ve also sampled lesser known games like Re:Loaded and Tomba. You’d be surprised by what you can drag and create from the atmospherics of these old games. I’ve also been sampling all sorts of VHS tapes, I love the old video nasties and body horrors, like David Cronenberg, and Italian stuff like Fulci and Argento. I’ve also been getting into Italian library music a lot, it has a lot of untouched breaks and sounds. Since getting some Technics I’ve upped my vinyl sampling game quite a lot.
"I’m not sure if I pine for the past. A lot of the music that I really love comes from the past, but I love everything coming through from the fam at the moment. Everything Wen does is ridiculous—same with Epoch, Filter Dread, Acre, Gantz, E.m.m.a., Facta… everyone, really. I try to think more about drawing my favourite parts from my favourite sounds into one place, whether that be jungle, hardcore, grime, garage or dubstep. My music’s a bit of a historical patchwork of the past 20 years."
Photo by James Clothier
E.m.m.a. released her debut album, Blue Gardens, through Keysound earlier this year. While many of the label’s artists operate in murky territories consumed by sub bass, Blue Gardens brought primary colour and melody to the fore. Her new party, Emerald City, makes the subtle links between these seemingly disparate styles overt. “Everyone on the lineup brings something different to the table.” E.m.m.a. says, “[But] it feels like we’re occupying complementary spaces. This night is an ideal opportunity to explore where we can take things. ‘The movement moves on’, as Dipset once said.”
E.m.m.a.: "I took some time off to clear my head of my album and have a think about what I want to do next. I’ve started a 'synthetti western' project, amongst other tunes, which I want to try and push to its limits, so I’m looking at ways in which I can do that with a vocalist. I gave myself quite tight parameters for my album, with the equipment I was using and the tempo of the tracks, to induce some kind of continuity, so I’m now keen to think differently—bump the tempo down and have a bit more room to experiment with my synth work.
"There’s certain moods that only old music has which appeal to me, whether it be something like the Rolling Stones’ 'Paint It Black,' or classical music. So when I write melodies and they sound a bit retro, that’s not me being nostalgic—because I didn’t live in those days, and I’m not yearning for musical days gone by—but it’s me trying to place my modern tunes in the mood of a different time, through a prism of how I relate to older music. DJ Parris summed it up when he said to me that our new collaboration, 'Purgatory,' with Etch, was going to be on a Back to 2013 CD in the future. We’ve got breaks in there, but all our tunes have the present tense written all over them. We’re the future’s nostalgia.
"Each person on Keysound makes tunes that take you to a certain place. Like, you can’t put on an Etch tune on in the background—it demands your attention. Same goes for the Logos record, the temperature in the room dropped when I was playing that. I think we all have that in common. My stuff is at the more colourful end of the spectrum—it’s not murky, but it can be quite dark at times. Maybe they’re more the London skyline at night, and I’m more Las Vegas."
Photo by Oscar-Yoosefinejad
A relatively young producer and one who has only a handful of releases to his name, Moleskin is nevertheless an important producer to watch. His “Burst,” which closed Keysound’s This Is How We Roll, carried a strong emotional weight, though his bootleg remixes of classic grime tunes, notably his “Pulskimo” refix, show he’s got no qualms tearing up a rave.
Moleskin: "I was a DJ for a couple years and felt like producing was the next logical step. One day, three years ago, a mate set me up with a cracked copy of Logic and it went from there. I dropped out of uni about a year later and spent every day for six months working on Logic. I think that probably helped.
"I sent Logos some music ages ago and he played one of my tracks last in his set at Fabric. Everyone seemed to like it. From there, Martin got in touch, and a year later it was me playing at Fabric. Regarding where I fit in, I think I’m probably meant to stay with E.m.m.a.—both of our projects for Keysound are very heavily based on melody and synthesis.
"I started off really being into bits of UK funky I found on blogs, some Baltimore club. It was really hard exposing myself to dance music before I moved to university, actually. I was living in Somerset and there wasn’t really anyone else who I knew that was really into the same things as me. Moving to university and listening to gross amounts of music in my first two years completely changed what I was listening to and playing. Kuedo’s work on Planet Mu was pretty influential. A lot of the dreamier rap, I’d never been exposed to stuff like that before. Night Slugs was also pretty important. I was introduced to grime properly by someone I met at uni, I spent a lot of time digging back finding as much grime as possible and that consumed me for a little while as well.
"I haven’t released a lot of music. I really don’t like putting things out until they’re finished, or they’re put out in the right context. So I guess I’ve just been waiting for the right tracklist, the right time, the right label. I’m happy with what I’m making at the moment. That’s something that’s really only happened in the last year. I think there will always be new things I learn that will change my production as I’m 100 percent self taught, but I feel like I’m on to something."
Photo by Duncographic
Wen’s rhythms are perhaps the darkest and most twisted of Keysound’s new crop of producers. One only needs look at the track names on his Commotion EP from earlier this year to see the most evocatively shady names: “Nightcrawler,” “Spark It,” “Road.” “Darkness is just what I personally like to hear, especially in club environments,” Wen says, “I love when dark, cold, sparse music brings some breathing space to the dancefloor. It clears the air.”
Wen: "I live in a place called Thanet. It’s a collection of seaside towns east of London, it’s pretty chilled out here nowadays. There’s been a lot of funding into the area recently, basically pushing Margate back up into being a tourist destination again. When I was growing up, there were minor gang territory situations happening. I guess everything London MCs were talking about was rubbing off on people here, and the postcode dispute became an issue. I related to what the London artists were talking about to an extent—it wasn’t so serious here, but there was a connection, and I liked that they put the energy into music.
"I didn’t travel to clubs in London until I was 18. Before then, I went to free parties and illegal raves run by this crew called Skank Nasti in Thanet. They did them in warehouses, out in the woods, even on the beach. Every year they threw a birthday bash for one of the guys that runs it in the basement of a bar. They brought their own sound system in, which got bigger and better each year. I knew one of the DJs who ran my early productions at these parties. He pushed me a lot and gave me the opportunity to hone my sound so that it would bang on sound systems.
"The forums were the only places that made that music accessible to us. There were and still are no pirate stations or clubs playing grime music where I’m from. Forums were the only way to reach it. It was like a community on there, you could post up a clip of a radio show asking what the instrumental was and a lot of the time someone would ID it within a day or two. Not long afterwards, YouTube became the best way to discover new MCs and producers. If I'm honest, I still use these methods to find music, which is mostly rap now. The UK is really healthy for that style, and all the artists are hungry to boost their reputations. Shooting videos for tracks on a weekly basis that string together to form mixtapes every four or five months… Crazy work rate. It’s really inspiring."