When London DJs Elijah and Skilliam graduated from university in 2009, they stared at an uncertain future. On the one hand, grime — the music they’d been celebrating as DJs and fans on Butterz, a blog they’d started two years earlier — was in a creative lull following the ascendance of its twin London sound, dubstep, and failed attempts at major label growth. And on the other hand, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the ‘30s was unfolding around the world. “The choice was do a job that didn’t pay much and you didn’t like, or do something you like and don’t get paid a lot of money anyway,” Elijah recalls today, wearing an all-black outfit in the slickly designed lobby of Red Bull Studios in Manhattan. However, times of crisis can also be creatively fertile, and the pair, then 22, were ambitious and dedicated. The choice, they decided, was obvious: “Let’s try build this up and if it doesn’t work get a job.” In 2010, after honing their DJ and selection skills, they expanded their Butterz blog into a label and club night. The odds were stacked against them — grime had moved away from vinyl as a release format (favoring mixtapes, CDs, and digital files), while dedicated grime club nights were almost non-existent due to pressure from police and local government officials, who made racist associations between the music and violence — but that didn’t stop them forging ahead.
Today, Butterz is a trusted and influential name in the increasingly global grime scene. The label has released music from established artists (Terror Danjah, Trim, P Money) and new talent (Swindle, Royal T, Champion) alike, and there have been hundreds of Butterz club nights in the U.K. and abroad, from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Through hard work and dedication, Elijah and Skilliam have helped foster a new generation of grime fans and musicians, pushing the scene forward while never forgetting its roots. As the music industry continues to find footing in a digitally-driven world, the pair have sought to initiate a public discourse about the realities of being an independent artist. As Elijah told me when we first met the day before our interview, “If we don’t talk about it, how is the next thing going to be better?”
“We want people to enter this like a profession and know that you can make a living but it’s not gonna be easy.” —Elijah
From the start, Butterz has always been a vehicle for its founders to grapple with the status quo: Elijah wrote with passion about grime and the issues it faced; their early mixes challenged grime’s MC-led culture with a focus on instrumentals; and their vinyl releases and club nights reminded the scene that where there's a will there's a way. In 2015, they shared their risk-taking ethos in a short-lived podcast series called Rhythm & Cash. The show took often private conversations — how to make a living as an artist, the inner workings of online publications, and the growing importance of technology — and gave them a public platform. By giving working DJs, producers, MCs, and media people an opportunity to discuss the realities of their lives, Elijah feels Rhythm & Cash was able to make the matters facing grime and dance music “more realistic” for audiences. His fear, in grime and beyond, is that the music suffers from an “attitude that you can’t, or it’s difficult to, make money." As we’ve seen over the past decade, that’s resulted in a culture of free downloads and, in the specific case of grime, an emphasis on bootlegs. If there’s no income to be gained by doing something innovative, then it becomes more attractive to rehash old ideas or copy popular styles in order to get by. Clearly, being able to make a living is crucial, but Elijah believes the focus should also be on creating the right environment for creative individuals to flourish. “Most [people in creative industries] are struggling and their friends and audiences might not know how they’re able to make a living,” says Elijah. “People don’t pretend like they’re not [struggling] but they’re also not saying they are.” He lets out a nervous laugh. “It’s a weird thing.”
In a world where the old top-down music industry model of selling products is fighting to co-exist alongside a myriad of new options for independent music distribution, promotion, and consumption, the decision to turn a creative interest into a full time job remains a risky gambit. “We want people to enter this like a profession and know that you can make a living but it’s not gonna be easy and there isn’t someone waiting to give you money,” states Elijah. Skilliam, wearing a grey hoodie, is the quieter member of the duo; he listens intently and interjects only to elaborate: “You need to know you have to apply yourself.” For the pair, the path to success has meant recognizing the need to create their own opportunities, not wait on someone else.
Over the past five years, Elijah, Skilliam and the core Butterz artists — Flava D, Swindle, and Royal T — have each turned their passion into a living by doing just that. The seeming lack of potential in grime in the late 2000s provided them with the chance “to build this thing ourselves,” says Elijah. “We often wondered when we started why we had to do everything but in the long term it’s made Butterz and our approach stronger.” While Butterz proved the music could sustain vinyl releases and grow its audience, the artists took their own leap of faith. “[Swindle, Royal T, and Flava D] saw the opportunity and approached it like a job even if it wasn’t going to pay them straight away,” Elijah continues. “It’s not a luxury everyone has but they made it work.” The club events also proved important in this regard. Flava D has been making music for ten years but she only began DJing in 2013. By using Butterz’s Jamz residency at The Alibi, a small basement venue in London’s Dalston neighborhood, as a practice space she was able to gain the confidence and expertise to become a touring artist. Similarly, Swindle, a seasoned musician, put together his own band to realize new live visions for the music.
“Everyone should create their own opportunities.” —Skilliam
In 2016, grime is in a better place than it was ten years ago thanks to the commitment and ambition of collectives like Butterz and Skepta’s Boy Better Know, along with a new generation of artists, and profile boosts from Drake and Kanye West. Yet challenges persist. In major cities like London, nightlife is under constant pressure from the real estate market while an increase in attention is still not a guarantee of economic success. So what’s the answer? “Everyone should create their own opportunities,” repeats Skilliam. “If we book someone and they start a night and book us back it keeps feeding, it’s fluid.” A large part of the Butterz ethos has also come from the pair’s dedication to genuinely engaging with their audience through live events and social media conversations. “It’s a big part of it,” Skilliam admits. “It means you can throw a party and 500 people turn up. People are speaking to each other and to us. We know what they want. There will always be a business element to it, but it doesn’t have to be the focus.”
Despite all the globetrotting and industry respect, Elijah and Skilliam are still the same two boys from London doing what they love. “We could go and get a [real] job now,” says Skilliam. “But why stop? We have the forward motion and this is our job now.” Today, independent artists and creatives have to choose from a variety of customizable models to find the one best suited to making a professional path for themselves. It’s a process that requires perseverance and commitment, skewed by the continued persistence of old industry myths about “making it.” As I turn off the recorder at the end of our hour-long conversation, Elijah half-jokingly notes “it sounds like I’m just complaining.” He’s not, but it’s an understandable feeling when there aren’t any clearcut answers to the problems at hand. It’s only by asking questions and starting conversations that we — DJs, promoters, producers, publishers, fans — can create a better tomorrow for the music we care about.