Interview: Terror Danjah

By , Sep 2 2009
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Terror Danjah ranks alongside the likes of Wiley, Jammer and Dizzee Rascal as one of grime’s most innovative producers, and he’s also arguably the genre’s most distinctive.

Armed with a penchant for wildly altered synth sounds and ‘The Gremlin’, a signature cackle that you find on nearly all of Terror’s tunes, the Londoner has provided production for Roll Deep, Kano and members of his own now-defunct (sort of) Aftershock crew in the past, and grime heads count tracks like ‘Boogeyman’, ‘Cock Back’, ‘Code Morse’ and ‘Zumpi Hunter’ amongst the genre’s all time classics. He was also a pivotal figure in the short-lived ‘R’n’G’ movement, providing some of London’s most underrated slow jams of the past decade in ‘So Sure’ and ‘Love is here to Stay’.

At the end of the month, long-standing electronic tastemakers Planet Mu (home of IDM touchstones like u-Ziq, Luke Vibert and Venetian Snares as well as current producers like Starkey and FaltyDL) will release Gremlinz, an 18-track compilation of Terror’s greatest instrumentals. On the eve of the release, Simon Reynolds talked to Terror about his background in drum’n’bass, and his pivotal role in grime’s 21st century ascendancy.

You started out in the late Nineties with Reckless Crew, an East London jungle/drum ‘n’ bass collective of deejays and MCs. How did that come about?

“I formed Reckless in 1998. The other members were D Double E, Bruza, Hyper, Funsta, Triple Threat, DJ Interlude and Mayhem. We came to fame from being on Rinse Fm and playing at local clubs and raves including One Nation, Telepathy, World Dance, Garage Nation, and Slammin’ Vinyl.”

What did you learn, as a producer, from those drum and bass days? Who did you rate at that time and would consider an influence?

“I wasn’t much of a producer back in them days. I was absorbing the musical sounds from Roni Size, Dillinja, Shy FX, Krust, DJ Die, Bad Company, Andy C and DJ SS. I learned a lot from listening to their music – jungle was the first British music we could say was ours. I’d grown upon on reggae, R&B, soul. And also house music, on account of having an older brother. I was deejaying on the pirates and I got into producing drum ‘n’ bass, because I wasn’t getting a lot of tunes from producers. They’d be giving me one or two dubplates, but they had the big DJs like Brockie to service first. So I started making my own “specials” and did loads of tracks. But I didn’t put them out, just played them on the radio. My own personal sound. But DJ Zinc and a few others cut my tunes as dubplates.”

When did you make the transition to UK garage and that MC-fronted 2step sound that was the prototype for grime?

“I did two garage tunes and they blew up so I decided to stick with that. In 2002 I did ‘Firecracker’ b/w ‘Highly Inflammable’ on Solid City, Teebone’s label. For a while I was part of N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, because I’d been at St. Bonaventures [a Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Forest Gate, London E7] with a couple of members of N.A.S.T.Y.  But all the time I was doing my own thing and eventually just branched off.

“Then in 2003 I formed Aftershock with this guy called Flash, who I’d met at Music House where everyone goes to cut dubplates. The first two Aftershock releases were Crazy Titch’s ‘I Can C U’ and N.A.S.T.Y.’s  ‘Cock Back’.  That got the label off to a flying start – everyone was buzzing after those two releases. Then it was Big E.D.’s ‘Frontline’ and then in 2004 I put out the Industry Standard EP. That’s the one where people thought ‘this label is serious’.”

Industry Standard is where you can really hear your three-dimensional “headphone grime” sound coming through, on tunes like ‘Juggling’ and ‘Sneak Attack’. With those tracks and all through your music, the placement of the beats, the way sounds move around each other in the mix – it’s very spatial.

“Some of that comes from listening to a lot of Roni Size and Andy C and producers like that. Lots of abstract-y sounds rushing about, coming out of nowhere. There’s a sense of more life in the music. That’s what I do in my tunes.

“Drum and bass gave me ideas about layering sounds and placing sounds. But it also comes from studying music engineering at college, doing a sound recording course.  I learned about mic’ing a drum kit and panning.  You’ve got the pan positions in the middle of your mixing desk, and the crash should be left or right, the snares should be slightly panned off centre, the kick should be in the center. So you’ve got a panoramic view of your drum structure. Obviously I went beyond that, started experimenting more. The bass stays central but the sounds always drift. So each time you listen you’re not just bobbing your head, you’re thinking “I heard something new in Terror Danjah’s tune”. So it always lasts longer.”

Industry Standard was the breakthrough release, in terms of people realising that here was a producer to reckon with. What came next?

“Payback was the biggest. That EP of remixes was one of Aftershock’s top sellers. It was getting caned the most, especially my ‘Creep Crawler’ remix of ‘Frontline’. That cemented it for us.”

Basically you took Big E.D.’s ‘Frontline’ and merged it with your own ‘Creep Crawler’ from Industry Standard.  It’s got a really unusual synth sound, harmonically rich, with this sour, edge-of-dissonance tonality. It makes you feel like you’re on the verge of a stress-induced migraine. A sound like veins in your temple throbbing.

“It’s a normal synth, but where many people would just use it straight out of the module without any processing or texture, I’ve learned some techniques to give it more. I add that to it. I can’t tell you how, though. Certain producers might go “ah!”

Those sort of wincing tonalities are a Terror Danjah hallmark.  Another are the bombastic mid-frequency riffs you use that sound a bit like horn fanfares, and that sort of pummel the listener in the gut. They’ve got this distorted, smeared quality that makes them sound muffled and suppressed, like their full force is held back. But that just makes them more menacing, a shadowy presence lurking in the mix. Like a pitbull on a leash, growling and snarling.

“That’s like an orchestral riff.  Again, it’s all about the effects I put on it. If you heard it dry you’d think “Is that it?”  It’s the same techniques I use for the giggle.”

Ah, your famous hallmark: the jeering death-goblin laughter.  How did you come up with the Gremlin?

“I had a lot of drum and bass sample CDs back in the day and I had that sound from time.  I used it a couple of time in tracks, just to see how it sounds.  Then I stopped using it and everyone was like, “Where is it?!?”. I was like, “I don’t want to use it no more”.  But everyone was going like “That’s nang! Use it!”. So I switched it up, pitched it down, did all sorts of madness with it.”

But Terror Danjah music is not all dread and darkness. You do exquisite, heart-tugging things like ‘So Sure’. your R’n’G (rhythm-and-grime) classic. Or ‘Crowbar 2’, a really poignant, yearning production draped in what sound like dulcimer chimes, a lattice of teardrops. That one reminds me of ambient jungle artists like Omni Trio and LTJ Bukem.

“I used to listen to Omni Trio and all that, when I was 14 or 15. That R’n’G style is more me.  Everything you hear is different sides to me, but that sound, I can do that in my sleep.  One day I can be pissed off and make a tune for deejays to do reloads with. And another day I’ll do one where you can sit down and listen and relax, or listen with your girl and smooch her.”

Do you see anyone else in grime operating at the same level of sophistication, in terms of producers?

“I don’t think none of them really. [Aftershock producer] D.O.K. is the closest in terms of subtle changes, and Davinche. You’ve also got P-Jam.  But I don’t really look at anyone and think they’re amazing. Wiley at one point was the guy whose level was what I wanted to get to. But I don’t think there’s anyone now who’s doing anything different. They’re being sheep.”

After the very active 2003/2004/2005 phase, Aftershock went pretty quiet. There were just a few more vinyl releases and then a couple of full-length things. What happened? And what have you been up to in recent years?

“The label went quiet due to the change of the climate – the introduction of CDs in the underground market place. Because we were so successful with the vinyl format, but it was time to move with the times.  So I released a CD called Hardrive Vol 1, which had ten vocals and ten instrumentals and featured artists like Chipmunk, Griminal, Wiley,  Mz Bratt, Wretch 32, D Double E, Scorcher, Shola Ama.  I also put out an instrumental CD called Zip Files Vol. 1. And I’ve been working on Mz Bratt’s album.”

I’m told this compilation was selected out of some 80 instrumentals. Which means 62 weren’t used! Does this mean you are sitting on a vast personal archive of unreleased Terror Danjah material?

“Definitely. I got billions of tunes stacked on a few Terra Bytes hard drive.”

You have Industry Standard Vol 4 out on Planet Mu, and you recently returned to DJing with the Night Slugs appearance – does this mean you are back in the game full force? Do you feel like grime is still an area you want to work within or are you being drawn to other areas, like funky, or the more experimental end of dubstep?

“I’ve always made music what I like, and most of the tracks on Gremlinz were made before there was a genre called grime or dubstep. I started off in jungle, so I’m not afraid of change!”

Talking of the wacked-out end of dubstep, I can see a lot of your influence with the nu skool producers like Joker, Rustie, Guido, and so forth. Can you hear it yourself and what do you think of this sound people are calling things like “purple” and “wonky”?

“It doesn’t bother me, but I personally think a producer/artist should just make the music and let the record/marketing company name it whatever!”

Industry Standard 4 is out now, and Gremlinz will be out at the end of the month, with further sleeve notes from Simon Reynolds. Both are on Planet Mu.

Simon Reynolds

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