Simple as: if you don’t know Darren White, you don’t know drum’n’bass.
From early transmissions with Future Forces to his stint with legendary d’n’b hit machine Bad Company, White – or, as he’s best known, dBridge – has always been on hand to shape, push and interrogate the genre. Following the latter’s dissolution, he’s continued to set the pace, founding the vital Exit label and ramping up his solo output. At tail-end of the the ’00s, a productive partnership with the now-defunct Instra:mental also resulted in the highly influential Autonomic label-cum-podcast-cum-club night – an axis whose impact continues to be felt. With a Bad Company reunion in the pipeline, Joe Muggs sat down with White to talk Autonomic, the “threat” of dubstep, and why you won’t see White near a breakdancer any time soon.
I’m hearing more and more interesting drum’n’bass that slips easily in and out of the half-tempo grooves – that Om Unit v. Sam Binga thing you put out being the latest and best – do you feel like work you’ve put in is bearing fruit now?
I’d like to think so, but at the time we started with what became known as the Autonomic sound, there was actually a lot of people doing it and we really just wanted to centralise it all. It’s definitely nice seeing the influence we’ve had on people, that I enjoy, whether it’s them just exploring that tempo or exploring possibilities. Coming from a d’n’b background I’ve always, always felt that there’s more potential in it, and that was shown with the whole Autonomic and half-time thing, that there’s a lot still to be explored. What I really like about Om Unit’s thing, though, is that we always found it difficult making it work on the dancefloor – now, in one sense that didn’t matter, because that gets in the way of musical development sometimes, catering for that, but at the same time when you’re going out touring it you don’t want to be all like “cuddlecore”, you don’t want to send people to sleep… OK, there was a few tracks, like when we did “Acacia Avenue” [with Skream], “Detroid”, “No Future” things like that – but with Om Unit, and especially that latest EP, it feels like he’s gone where we should’ve if we’d carried on doing it.
I love that he’s brought grime synths into the equation; this seems to be an overlap that’s becoming more fertile if you think of ‘Marka’, some of the new Alix Perez stuff…
Well what I like about it is it’s a space, and within the space that’s there people can find their own voice. D’n’b as a whole has been that over the years: Virus had their voice, Reinforced had their voice, even though it was all based around a single tempo, and it’s good to see that again. Instra:Mental and what we did together, we had our own sound, so it’s good to see people forging their own identities within that in turn.
You talk about always seeing the potential within drum’n’bass – it’s now 20 plus years that the scene’s existed… There must’ve been some moments you doubted it or thought “mmm, this has run its course”?
All the time, mate, all the time. In some ways I still do, you’ll constantly feel “wow, they’ve got to call time on this sometime!”, but it’s a very resilient scene, it’s taken some massive knocks and survived it. When I left BC, though, I was lost for a long time – this was 2002, 2003 – it felt like a long time, though it was probably only a year, I had no idea where I was going or even if I wanted to make it. But it was good taking stock, drawing influences and ideas from other people who were pushing forward and doing their own thing. People like Calibre really helped me, he probably doesn’t even realise how much, just listening to what he was doing… The problem I had, I think, was that thing of not knowing whether you’re relevant any more, and the sound drops off or repeats itself and gets boring – so when I did my stuff, I just didn’t feel relevant within my own scene, and that’s a real struggle. So instead I just decided I had to keep myself interested, and that’s why since then I’ve chopped and changed all the time…
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And did you look to any specific influences outside of the scene for inspiration?
Hmm, 2002… I tell you what, I got into a new relationship. That was probably the biggest influence, because that’s when I wrote “True Romance” and “Bellini”, things like that. Being with someone who gives you confidence in yourself and your abilities, that had a major part in making the leap and branching out a bit.
If you’re loved-up, you’re probably less inclined to care about making macho angry tunes, too?
Yeah, there is that… When BC split, Dan [DJ Fresh] went off and did his thing with Breakbeat Kaos, the others left, and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes as we’d made with BC, I wanted to start again and find my own voice – that thing again of your own voice… So I listen back to the stuff from that period and think, ah, that’s probably from when I was down at Swerve hanging out with Fabio, or down at Bar Rumba or whatever. But specific influences… Hmmmm…
Were you aware of what was happening at FWD>> at that time? My assumption when I heard the Autonomic stuff for the first time was that this was a D’n’B parallel to dubstep – half-step, loads of space and so on…
No, not at all. All of that came about more because I was starting to get bookings at Swerve… that’s where I met Instra:Mental down at Swerve, and it was literally just hearing their music that freaked me out and turned my head, especially that track they had on Soul:R, umm, ‘Naked’ something – ‘Naked Zoo’ – when I heard that, I was totally “wow, what the fuck is this, I have to meet these people, I have to get more of these tunes”. And they were just finding their feet again too, they’d come from the angle of having been caught up with all the bullshit that was in d’n’b of keeping up with the technological race, with all the plugins and whatever, but they still had all their old kit. And I did too, and I missed that, I’d gone into the laptop but I had all my old kit gathering dust in a corner and it was great to finally meet people of the mindset that you could still use that gear.
And they were bringing a techno influence along with the analogue gear, right?
Hmmm, it varied – I’m sure Al [Boddika] would say different…
Really? I’ve seen him out and about in his Underground Resistance t-shirt!
Heh, well he’s on that now… [laughs], but I’d say his roots are more hip-hop. Damon [Jon Convex] was always the electro, the techno, always playing us early Autechre and Boards of Canada and that sort of thing. So truth be known I’d say he was more of an influence on Al, but Al would probably refute that. Anyway, they asked me down the studio, and straight away seeing their gear it was “oh I’ve got that, and I’ve got that, and I’ve got that” and listening to all these tunes they were doing I was gone. Then it was like two or three tunes in my set would be theirs, and it just got bigger and bigger, a five minute section, then ten, then fifteen, and it was brilliant watching people – it would throw them, but it’d dawn on them that “hm, this isn’t what we’re used to hearing but it’s… um… good!” So it literally started from a seed of playing two or three Instra:Mental tracks in Swerve.
The FWD>> thing, I had no clue – I was really surprised to find out how long that’s been going in fact, because I was so much a part of d’n’b, so locked into that world that even when dubstep started to kick off, like so many d’n’b producers I was a bit snobbish about it – which of course was really “oh OK, here comes another threat, will it kick d’n’b off its pedestal?” And it did! It was funny watching everyone panic, but I wasn’t fazed by it at all. I do admit I was a real snob though, just listening to it, like “REALLY?” But after a while it grew on me, I realised it was like when we started, the rawness of it and that you just couldn’t deny the vibe. I don’t think Damon and Al were into dubstep either, so no, it wasn’t a massive influence. But what did happen was that once we did more of the 170 half-tempo stuff, people from that scene were able to get with what we were doing – we were getting sent stuff from like Pearson Sound, Scuba, James Blake, people like that all sending us 85/170 things, I’ve still got a lot of that that’s never seen the light of day, some really great stuff. And that did help us in a lot of ways because dubstep had become an established genre, and in a weird way we were then accepted into it and started to get bookings over there as well as in d’n’b, we had all bases covered… We did alright!”
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Yeah, that definitely closed a circle, it was a bit like a return to 1996 when techno guys like Claude Young or whoever were into D’n’B – in fact if you look at something like Dimensions festival, that brings D&B, dubstep, techno all back into the same loop… It seems more natural to see Scuba next to you than to see him next to, say, Benga…
Yeah yeah, and we had a great time at Dimensions too, we had an Exit stage there last year and I’m really looking forward to doing it this year. And yeah you can see the cross-influences, and there’s no real hang-up about it, where there used to be in d’n’b, the same snobbish attitude that you almost didn’t want to let on what you were into, it was weird but everyone was so guarded… That was definitely something we addressed on our podcasts where we’d open people up to what it was we were doing, we’d do these “influence” things on either side of the mix, that you could directly correlate and connect to tunes within the mix – stuff that Damon and Al were into and how that permeated into the music, and the same with me.
The podcast was obviously super important in bridging different listener groups. Was doing it a conscious effort on your part to take action to reach outside the drum’n’bass clique, or was it just fortuitous that it reached out the way it did?
I think there was conscious effort in as much as me coming from BC, and seeing the way drum’n’bass had been going, it felt like painting by numbers, like there was a formula to it. A big tune would come along, someone would reverse engineer it and suddenly there’d be a million copies. The dancefloor dictated so much, and that’s OK, but our thing was, that doesn’t matter. Just because it doesn’t tear up a club doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it. So that podcast was deliberately to show the other side of what people can do, I’m not saying it was “more musical” because of course it all had musical value, but just to show that there’s more to what D’n’B could be. You can smash up the dance? Great, that’s wicked. But what about the other stuff? What Instra used to say is “we want to go back to ’97, and when drum’n’bass went in that direction, we want to go in that direction instead.” And they kind of actually did, because they had all the same kit they had back then, and they were trying to use all those synths, all that outboard, and move it on, take influence from what was happening at the time and move it on.
Now a really interesting contrast is to look at the way you went and the way Fresh went after BC: he also didn’t want to just make gnarly macho bangers, but his reaction was to move into pop – which again was something D’n’B wasn’t allowed to be… Yet there’s been a pretty radical shift in the past five-odd years with all that Hospital stuff, trance synths, remixes of Adele and whatever…
You know what, the funny thing with what Fresh has done is that it didn’t surprise me one bit. And when he got his number ones I texted him to say “proud of you, mate” because I really am. He achieved what he wanted to achieve, and even from back in the BC days I knew that’s what he wanted, and that’s no mean feat. For anyone to get back-to-back number ones in any genre is no mean feat, that’s pretty commendable!
But did you see a parallel in that he was diverging from ‘the rules of drum’n’bass’, albeit in a very different way?
Yeah… that’s very much what BC was about though, he was way over here, and I was way over in the other direction, and that’s one reason why BC worked at all. But the whole Hospital and Ram and all that stuff, I get it in a certain respect but really I don’t watch that stuff. The funny thing is, when there’ve been changes in the scene before, there’d be a name for it, you’d have jump-up, or darkside, or whatever. But now drum’n’bass is this all-encompassing word, but I do feel that the stuff I make has no connection at all to any of that – but if I say to someone I make drum’n’bass, they think instantly of that stuff. So much as I hate boxes and genres and all that, I kind of wish there was one. Which I suppose we indirectly did with Autonomic – it out of nowhere became a genre which was in no way our aim. I suppose it’s cool and it gave us that separation, I dunno. I don’t want to be bitchy here… Loving music is like a curse sometimes, or knowing how it’s made when you listen is anyway, because I hear things and the ridiculous simplicity of them just winds me up, like “I know you can do better, mate!” But ok, you chose to do that. I guess my roots lie in drum’n’bass, but I don’t actually make that if it comes down to it.
But you’re getting the band back together! Is there a part of you that really wants to reconnect?
You know what, we discussed it a while back and I was always the sticking point. Dan was up for it – this is before he had his number ones and all that – he’d be “ahh we can do this tour and that festival”, and I’d be like “nnnnmmmm…” It was around the time of Take That getting back together, and it just didn’t feel right, I didn’t want to get bundled into all of that, all that “it’s cool for bands to get back together” bollocks. Then this party came around, and I didn’t even think of it – it was actually the missus that suggested it, and I thought, you know what that’d be pretty cool. With this lineup especially I wanted it to represent everything that had influenced me over the years – the Blue Note, Bristol, Speed, No U-Turn – and obviously BC was a massive part of my life, so I though yeah, it’d be good to do, so I rang em up and they were all into it. And I didn’t expect the reaction to it that we’ve got, but then now Fresh has had to pull out of it which is disappointing, a bit weird because it’s like [laughs] “ah fuck! I wouldn’t have done it if I knew he couldn’t… but fuck it, let’s do it, it’ll be good.” I haven’t seen those guys for a long time, I haven’t played those tunes for a long time – people will ask me to play the old BC tunes and I just flat out refuse, I’m stubborn like that. Some kid the other day, this made me laugh… I was in Birmingham the other day, he went “play ‘The Nine’!”, I went “no!”, he went “go on, Dad, play ‘The Nine!’” – I thought “you cheeky bastard!” But yeah, shit, those tunes really are that old, I really could be your dad!
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I saw “MY OLD MAN’S A JUNGLIST” t-shirts on sale at a Planet Mu party a couple of years back…
[hearty laugh] This is why, with all the chart side of d’n’b, I just feel too old for all that nonsense. I can’t imagine myself up there with all kids doing breakdancing around me… Nah, let them get on with it, I’ll stick to my emo fucking shoegazing drum’n’bass, that’s my style. But yeah, looking at the party, it’s almost sold out, might even be by now, I’m nervous – nervous as hell – but I think it’ll be good, I’m looking forward to it. I’m still working on Fresh too, I’ve got, what, two weeks to convince him, “I don’t care who you’re in the studio with… just c’mon!” But you know, if he can’t then fair enough, I can’t begrudge him that.
It’s going to be an interesting party to pace, with the different energy levels of all the different acts and diverse sounds…
Yeah, programming is the tricky bit now, who’s going on and in what order. We’ve been working on it the last couple of days and I think we’ve nailed it. I hope so. But I’m also trying to do the lineup from a selfish point of view so I can see all the people I want to see… They don’t know that yet… “what do you mean I’ve got to go on from five to six a.m.?” “Well… y’know… take it as a complement!”
So whoever’s programmed at the same time as you can take that as slightly less of one…?
Yeah the reasons behind that… [penny drops] shit! “I bloody hate yer!” Argh, it’s difficult. It is, though. I’m not really one to read posts on forums and all that, so it’s very hard to gauge what people are going to want to see most…
That’s probably for the best.
It is, though. When we started Dogs On Acid, I just looked and thought “nah mate, this forum shit’s going to get us into trouble” – and it did, on many occasions… Many a time I’ve seen people’s weeks ruined with just one comment, I’m not getting drawn into that shit. But anyway… fingers crossed, fingers crossed!
So aside from trying not to offend anyone with your party running order, what’s taking up most of your time now?
Loads. Signing artist albums to Exit, we’ve got the label compilation coming up, I’m literally just committing to finishing my own album – which is the next big nervous step for me, because again it’s rooted in d’n’b but it’s not what you’d even consider to be my brand of d’n’b. But actually more parties, I think, is the thing. I don’t think I could consistently put on something of the scale of this do, but little parties around the country, around the world, and yeah, I’ve just signed Skeptical for an album, I’ve got this guy Joe Seven doing an album for me, and I’ve got this whole thing with Velvit [his own techno project] which is picking up pace, and I’ve been talking to Damon about how we could maybe revisit Autonomic without it being Autonomic if that makes any sense… Me, Damon and Joe Seven have pretty much written an album so we’re just working out how to present and package that…
You just can’t get away from those supergroups, can you?
Yeah, I can’t! [laughs] You’re right! What it is is I just enjoy working with people, I get a lot out of it, and I’m very much a believer in people working to their strengths. There are certain things that I just hate doing in the studio that they’ll be good at, I love twisting dials and things – you can sit in front of the computer doing fiddly shit if you like, I’ll turn these dials! I got that from Nico I think, me and Fierce when I was at Renegade Hardware and he was at No U-Turn and we started working together, Nico would engineer for us and I learned so much from him that I found myself going back to when I met Instra:Mental and we had all that outboard gear: it’s just nice for everyone to have a keyboard to press, or have a mixing desk to move, instead of everyone huddled round a fifteen inch screen pointing over each other’s shoulders and going “can you move that there”… nah I don’t really get off on that.”
And Nico was from a rock background, right? Used to mixing non-computer instruments…
Yeah, and what I loved was how that lot [No U Turn] – they were the exponents of that distorted Reese thing, that was their signature, but you listen to their records, and I don’t think any two of their Reeses are ever the same. We live in an age of presets and saved settings and press a button and there’s your sound, but you listen to those records and you can hear that each time they used different EQ, different effects, that each time they went in from fresh and just sculpted. I love that aspect, that each record had its own individual tone and sound, and that’s really stuck with me. Everything I do now is Moog and Pro-1, I’ve got 20-odd synths here and it’s all going in to any track I make, I love it!
dBridge will play the Exit Records Morning Afterparty at Vauxhall’s Lightbox on April 13 – head here for tickets and further information. That follows the sold-out Exit Records party at Fire, which will see Bad Company reunite.
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