Pablo Fox Caha
In the first in an occasional series of columns on developments in the UK underground, Keysound boss, Rinse DJ and FACT contributor Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark sits down with much-loved Manchester soundsystem/production team Swing Ting. To accompany the piece, we’d recommend listening to Swing Ting’s mix for Blackdown’s blog.
Blackdown: So how did Swing Ting begin and why?
Ruben Platt: Easy, might as well answer this… Me and Samrai started Swing Ting as an entity in 2008. We’d been messing around with stuff for a year or so before that, but I don’t think we really realised how much common ground we had until we started talking about how much we loved that whole jiggy period of hiphop/r&b from the early 2000s [Jay-Z, Timbo, Neptunes, 112 etc]. By this point we were DJing pretty sporadically and it made sense to give ourselves a base – I don’t think what we were trying to do was really accommodated elsewhere in the city. I think this is probably a common theme for a lot of the more memorable nights – offering something different and finding a space for themselves in the scene.
We had this concept of ‘street rave’ music which was just an umbrella term for all these areas of music we wanted to play. Essentially ‘urban’ – bleugh – music that works on a soundsystem. We never wanted to lose the club focus of the music we were playing – people were there to dance. And above all, we wanted to present this with no irony attached. You see it a lot now with people playing token r&b ‘classics’ like it’s a massive novelty that they’d be so outrageous to draw for something along those lines. Swing Ting has always been as sincere an event as possible, we just wanted to play the music that we loved in a space where people are ready for it.
Anyway, long story short, Swing Ting didn’t exist until around two months before the first event, for which we hired a tiny 90ish [I think?] capacity venue, stuck way too big a system in there and had the best time. We’ll be five come December this year. Production-wise, we’d been doing stuff individually for a while, but we got the opportunity to remix Mosca’s ‘Tilt Shift’ which we decided to tackle as a Swing Ting project in 2011. I think once we realised that we worked well in tandem, we moved onto original stuff, which is how ‘Creepin” and ‘Hold Your Corner’ were born – they were made pretty soon after the remix if I remember correctly.
Pablo Fox Caha: Well, I wasn’t there for the start – but I’m sure I started it.
Deejay Samrai: To add to Ruben’s points; I think coming from Yorkshire (Ruben) and Northamptonshire (myself) respectively it leaves you with a void for the sounds that are born from the concrete and bleakness of the city… the name was born from a little radio show where we’d play our favourite sounds: soul, jazz, funk and reggae music as well as ruder, street styles: hip hop, garage, grime and a little jungle. Soundsystem music with depth, swing and ruffage. We’d play a mix of these styles at house parties and a few clubs. I remember throwing house parties, hiring in systems, getting guest selectors to come down and building a bit of a following, yet we annoyed a lot of neighbours and had a few moments with police shutting us down. So it was time to take the sessions into a stable venue.
The first dance was a success. I remember a good mix of people – lot of music heads / promoters came out as well as good friends we studied with. We had met some great people through being regulars at the city’s record stores and from heading out to nights such as Hotmilk, Hoya:Hoya and Friends and Family and I’d been working at Fat City Records for a few years so I feel this stopped it feeling like just a rent-a-crowd session. We wanted to steer away from it being a straight student party as felt the vibe was always so much better when there was that slight tension between different groups of people from a diverse pool of backgrounds.
The first flyer said “hip hop, bashment, bassline, grime, house and funky” on it which weren’t a particularly trendy amalgamation of sounds. However, we had a lot of love for this stuff and wanted to change the negative associations that seemed to have developed, particularly around bashment or garage/grime or bassline nights being moody. I remember Starkey’s ‘Gutter Music’ went down at the first dance and I think our last tune was the ‘Message is Love’ by Silverlink / Badness.
Deejay Samrai: We loved this one from Mykal Rose – a 125 bpm bashment tune that could be doubled with a Funky tune like Sirens or African warrior:
Blackdown: So Ruben, really interesting you mention the word “sincere”…it’s something I’ve always pondered, mostly because those are my kinds of clubs. Because people can and do argue that dance music should be fun and hey, who am I to argue with that? And blokes stroking their beards watching a DJ and not dancing, where’s the fun in that? Yet I know exactly what you mean because there’s so much cheese or ironic clubbing etc and some of my best nights (FWD>>, Sidewinder, Metalheadz) have been “sincere” but really fun. So, for you guys, how does sincerity equate with fun in a clubbing environment in a Swing Ting environment?
Ruben Platt: I think Swing Ting has always been about having fun… it’s a party. I think we do sometimes play tracks that might be considered cheesy by some, but we play them because we love them. A prime example would be something like ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’ – I’ve seen people play this track like they’re almost embarrassed by it, that they have to hide under the veil of being ironic because it’s a novelty track to them. Why can’t they just own their enjoyment of it? I’ll play it because I think it’s such a great example of the mixture between the sickly sweet elements of vocal garage but it still has that roughness. The bassline is pure junglist. I’ll play it and it’ll get a great reaction – not because our crowd is laughing at how outrageous I’m being for playing it, but because it’s presented in a context where it can be appreciated for what it is.
We don’t play entire sets of vocal cheese and by the same token, we don’t play sets full of future-whatever with one ironic r&b selection shoehorned in there to show ‘diversity’ or how fun we are or whatever. It’s just all about balance. Thinking about it now, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of our peers, especially in the more developmental stage of Swing Ting were multi-genre DJs. Hoya’s Jon K is the obvious one I think – he’s someone we’ve known/gone to see play since our first year of living in Manchester, he’s a master of drawing from all areas of music and bringing them together to make a coherent whole. But you’d never hear him described as a ‘mash-up DJ’ – of course his sets can be and are great fun, but there’s a consistency in the quality and there’s nothing insincere about it.
Blackdown: Samrai, interesting to hear you mention such a wide range of genres. So you think it’s important to your style to have established a foundational understanding of these types of music; to have gone back before you go forward?I (and I’m sure Bal feels the same way) would never play something just for a reaction, I want to be able to justify why I feel it’s such a great piece of music. If I’m playing something like “Laundromat” by Nivea, one of the most R Kelly of all R Kelly productions, I know people might see that as being ironic, but that is a piece of music that I genuinely love so much and I think the crowd at Swing Ting understand that. In a way I think it’s nice that tunes that were relegated to novelty nights/DJs can be appreciated in a new light. I’m not trying to educate anybody, but it is nice to re-contextualise things sometimes.
Deejay Samrai: Yep, I feel it’s been important to go back and learn as well as experience a wide pool of different sounds, and build a foundational knowledge of club and soundsystem music to be able to move forward and open up the scope for longevity. I think this leads into the production side of things. We felt more comfortable understanding what we liked hearing/playing out and what would hopefully work on the dancefloor from the reaction of the crowd at our party. We wanted to strike that balance, as not to alienate people but also be true to our own taste – it’s helped to create a focus and well as being a great testing ground for productions.
I would say style comes into it but more in terms of a DJing style that we were inspired by – as Ruben mentioned before, guys like Jon K managed to play these amazing sets that had you fiending for the next selection yet covered a wide variety of styles incredibly smoothly. Always maintaining a balance between personal taste and feeding off the crowd, It’s a great skill to be able to thread a coherent vibe like that and we wanted to at least attempt to learn how to do it. I think that you can incorporate a lot of different sounds / styles into a set that doesn’t shift too much in tempo but I think it takes a lot of courage, access and possession of a lot of great selections or dubs to do this and programme it smoothly. We didn’t have access to this so we widened the pool of sounds so we could keep the quality control high as well as give our crowd a broad yet consistent sound.
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Ruben Platt and Balraj
Blackdown: Murlo, I don’t feel like I’ve explored your involvement with the night. How did you become resident and what does the night mean to you?
Murlo: I was first introduced to Balraj through Ralph (Wifey) back in 2011. We were sending each other our tunes for ages and chatting and he invited me up to play a set at Swing Ting in March of 2012 and I had a wicked time. It was a few months later, around July / August, Bal and Ruben asked me if I wanted to join them as a resident. I go up every other month or so alternating with Joey B.
As for the night I think its pretty special, like Ruben mentioned we all just play the music we love, I look forward to playing every time ’cause the Swing Ting crowd is always so responsive. They are amazing. I think longer about what tunes I might play at a Swing Ting show than most other shows ’cause I know I can play anything there. The only crowd like that I play to is the HDD crew in London who are on the same wavelength. It’s wicked knowing I can draw for r’n’b or grime or even soca and knowing that the crowd will respond. As well as playing, though, I’ve produced with these guys as well. I refixed their tune ‘Head Gone’ in 2012 and earlier this year me and Bal sat down for an afternoon and produced a tune thats coming out later this year with Fox again on vocals.
Ruben Platt: Still can’t spell my name right though, can you “Kris”?
Murlo: I have no idea what you’re talking about mate [laughs]
Blackdown: Can you guys describe your progression from DJing & the club to production?
Ruben Platt: I’m pretty sure both me and Bal were making music before we started DJing. I can’t say anything I was doing was too successful though. It was always part of the plan, although it wasn’t really until I bought Logic and made a conscious effort to do things a bit more properly that things started working. The Mosca remix was the first thing that me and Bal did as Swing Ting – there were a few things previous to that of which I have no intention of anyone ever hearing – and I think that it was the first time where things started to click for us in terms of making music that was informed by all this stuff we listened to. Even though the production levels weren’t as high as I would’ve liked, I still feel like we were making music that didn’t really sound like anything else and we just kicked on from there.
I actually feel like ‘Hold Your Corner’ [which came out not too soon after the Mosca remix] is the most successful thing we’ve done in terms of bringing together all these influences to make something new. It’s definitely the track that I’m personally most proud of and probably our most well received.
We never really set out to make a particular kind of tune – they’ll inevitably lean towards one style or so by the end, but there’ll be influences from all over. I think that if you look at our discography at the moment, it might not seem all that coherent, but I’d hope that once we put more things out and they become part of a bigger picture, things will make more sense. Nothing that we’ve put out would sound out of place at a Swing Ting club night, which I think is important.
Balraj Deejay: I’d had some experience of production / co-production, working on programs like eJay and Fruity Loops, but took it more seriously after taking a break, concentrating on DJing and putting on the party for three, four years and soaking up those foundation sounds, as well as developing a better ear for club music through going out and seeing people play / checking vibes. At some point we were just ready.
I feel my sense of arrangement for a tune came from playing, enjoying and listening to DJ-orientated production. the way you have to think, “can you can mix it?’, or, “the intro needs to be this long,” or, ‘this breakdown could be a great tempo changing moment,” or maybe, “start with drums here and have a big section at the end to mix out,” etc. Of course, a tune needs to have to have more than a functional quality – it needs to be special in its own right, but often it’s the experimental / exciting sonic elements of tunes combined with their usability that keep them in the record box dance after dance.
Around the time we came to building our own sounds, it felt organic – I got a buzz from that feeling of creating something from nothing. I think with the Mosca remix we could solidly identify and recognise the sound we wanted to create. It felt right, yet it felt smooth and natural. Like Ruben said – maybe the production values weren’t fully airtight at that point, but our ideas were overflowing and we were on the same page and could be honest if we were into or not feeling a particular pad or hi hat or whatever! That lack of love-loss was definitely important in the early stages.
All the tunes we’ve released definitely suit the party at times even built with it in mind and hopefully in time it will make sense in a bigger picture bringing together other elements of music we want to represent. Like I mentioned in the last question, we have the long-term in mind, we don’t want to just spring up and disappear in a flash. There’s a rich club and soundsystem history in Manchester. We’d feel honoured to form a part of that, hence it’s important to take your time yet to build that loyal, respectful following yet at the same time to maintain a steady work-rate to keep things simmering.
‘Hold Your Corner’ is definitely a tune that I feel marries the different styles we’ve always been pushing and it gets played at almost every Swing Ting party either by me, Ruben or Joey B. I remember having a conversation with a mate who was working on production a few years before we made the step from DJing to writing who described DJing like crack: it’s great and you can’t get enough of it but it’s a quick fix and when it’s over there’s no memory of it, it’s just about the next hit. Whereas the feeling of playing your own tune, in your own club and to have it go down a storm is a different level of high…and I have to agree. Parties are amazing but after great parties only a memory remains. These memories fade. Having a soundtrack of releases that were broken at a club and formed part of that memory keeps some of that magic alive and bottles it…
Blackdown: That is a sick insight Samrai. I feel the same. Some of the parties like FWD>>, DMZ or Sidewinder or Metalheadz that changed my life… I wish I could relive every moment but they’re gone now. DJing is even more hyper accelerated, because you’re in the mix and the adrenalin is pumping… 90 mins can go in the blink of an eyelid, like an augmented time-frame. Thinking out loud, I wonder if it’s actually the same for live music, like bands and stuff, because there’s something uniquely transitory about rhythmic dance music, like its propulsion directly mimics the sense of movement… high speed movement… whereas indie/rock etc doesn’t have that pulse, for me. Perhaps it has to be about that pulse… or maybe adrenalin gives you the same feeling in any style of music…
Deejay Samrai: Yeah, I feel you. I didn’t go to Sidewinder or Metalheadz but feel through listening to the records that are associated with the parties or the frequently featured artists that released music at the time that I get a sense for what the dance epitomised. I feel recordings from nights or radio sessions from a certain period are another way of preserving some of the memories and that intensity. I’ve always been fond of hosts at parties and on recordings; it cracks you up when you hear a funny moment on a soundtape or radio set from an MC. In a rave a skilled host can create a great dialogue between the dancers and the DJ. It’s one of the reasons we always have to have a host at our parties and we’re blessed to have Pablo Fox Caha as a resident!
Blackdown: Yeah, you need that agent of connection between the DJ and the crowd…
Deejay Samrai: The time definitely does fly when you’re in that rolling, adrenaline-fuelled DJ mode. It’s a massive rush! I actually used to play in a band a long while ago but I don’t think I ever really had the same natural high that I’ve had through DJing, perhaps because it wasn’t as close to my tastes as my current ventures with ST. Although I’m sure live performers seek the same addictive rush.
What I find frustrating is when people try to claim one is greater that the other. The concept that something that’s ‘live’ or made with ‘real instruments’ or even dance music that’s made or performed with ‘analogue gear’ is more superior. I feel it can be a way of disregarding and discounting a whole generation or producers and writers that maybe choose to do it their own way. Surely it’s the end content that matters? Some of my favourite ever music has been made using solely a computer. Anyway, don’t mean to go off on a tangent here!
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Blackdown: Murlo, can you describe where you’re at production wise right now? What’s inspiring your sound…
Murlo: My head’s a bit everywhere right now. Depending on the mood I’m in when I open up Ableton it seems like I’m making either 140-ish music or dancehall inspired stuff at the moment. Right now I’m listening to a lot of grime bits, new and old. Really enjoying Slackk’s monthly mixes he’s been putting up on Soundcloud. Also been listening back to bits like John Carpenter and Zomby, I’ve always had a big soft spot for OST synth tunes and I’m kinda seeing parallels in some of the non-club orientated stuff I’ve been making at the moment. As for other music, I’ve been listening to a bunch of new dancehall and also a few Nigerian artists such as Burna Boy and Ms Chief. I’d say I’m probably being influenced quite a lot by R’n’B, and the softer sounding dancehall right now too.
Blackdown: Right, that lot makes some sense. I think what I’m drawn to in your music at the moment is the sense of colour through the melodies. What is it about dense melodies that is important to your sound, rather than, say, emphasizing just percussion, a sense of space/emptiness or cleaner textures as other producers might? In addition, how do you see this interest in colours/synths fitting into the wider Swing Ting spectrum, which in lots of cases seems to be more bashy or bass orientated? Am interested in the connections and how you see them…
Murlo: You see, when I write a synth hook I kind of imagine it as being a vocal, so I guess some of it stems from not having access to a studio to record vocals and that. Before I started to produce the genres that spoke to me were rich in melody and had a lot of catchy vocal hooks. Don’t get me wrong, I love experimenting with percussion and playing around with ways of making the music sound cleaner but I’m still learning all that as a producer, making the melodies were always the most fun thing to do, guess its the easiest way for me to put my own stamp on a tune.
Some producers I know have a naturally keener ear for the subtle sides of production but I find I can just sit there and get frustrated at all that sometimes. I just prefer to get on my MIDI keyboard and play about. I think also with Swing Ting, we have parallels in our sound, like take ‘Hold Your Corner’ for instance. I heard that track before I spoke to either Ruben or Balraj and I can remember going nuts for that horn section in the tune. Their sound is darker but not necessarily any different to mine because we have so many mutual inspirations. I can see us working on more tunes together in the future.
Blackdown: Question for all: a bunch of you have done great refixes (Murlo’s 160bpm Dizzee refix, Samrai’s recent SLK refix) – what is it about refixes that makes you guys do them?
Deejay Samrai: I’ve got quite a few different answers for this. Fitting a beat around a vocal can also be a great starting point for a new tune, but often the vocal ends up staying in! Also, sometimes the track’s half-done but needs somethin – if I don’t have a vocalist right then and there (often the case!) and an acapella fits really well over a riddim I’ll keep it in as a little party tune for the people. I’ve never wanted to better the original track, but it’s cool giving a tune a fresh interpretation – such as taking a ragga vocal and putting it on a funky riddim. It can help to connect the dots between different sounds a little more fluidly, especially if you’re trying to mix up styles.
It’s also cool to take a few elements from a tune you really like and extend that into its own thing that puts it into another space; such as Murlo’s Igloo refix that transforms it into a 160 road-soca-grime monster! With the “Straight” refix I’d always really liked the first few bars from Shizzle as it drops in but found it a real nightmare to mix out of so had the idea to make a quick dancefloor-friendly edit of it. However, I think it’s important to choose your source material wisely as some tunes have been refixed too many times already or just need to be left alone.
Murlo: Yeah I agree with Bal, theres a few reasons I do them too. Like he said, it’s never about trying to better the original but just putting your stamp on it, making it your own. I think refixes are a good way putting your own original productions in context. I generally make them for for my sets, making the tunes sit beside my own productions better.
Blackdown: So, you talk about the long term – what do you hope for the future of Swing Ting? could there be a Swing Ting album? A whole movement, like Soul II Soul?
Ruben Platt: I don’t know about a movement, that feels a bit grand, I definitely see us progressing in terms of the creation of music. I think there will be a Swing Ting label sooner rather than later, it’s just a matter of finding the right time. What I really want though is for someone to let us do a production album – say 10 tracks, each with a different vocalist, all styles. I don’t think there’s a label that would give us the budget to do that at the moment, though.
In terms of the club, I don’t want it to get bigger – venue-wise, at least. If we were anywhere any larger than Soup Kitchen, I’d worry about losing the vibe. Manchester’s so saturated anyway, that I think going bigger would be too much of a risk. I’d love to be in a position where we can get acts that should be playing much higher capacity venues inside Soup Kitchen. EZ would be a dream, for example. Or Westwood b2b Goldfinger. One of those is much more achievable than the other I imagine!
It’d be great if sometime in the future we start getting booked as a full crew. Be able to go out and have Joey, Chris, Fox and us two all play somewhere other than Soup Kitchen. Swing Ting soundsystem kind of thing. I think we all want to just keep our fingers in as many pies as possible and if we can do that and have the clubnight as a base, that’s an ideal situation.
“It’s wicked knowing I can draw for r’n’b or grime or even soca and knowing that the crowd will respond.”
Deejay Samrai: Following on from Ruben, yep a label would be nice thing to do. We just want to make sure we don’t rush into something too quickly. Labels pop up and disappear quickly when they’re not clear about their direction. A lot of the stuff we’ve done over the last few years has happened pretty organically so I reckon we’ll know when we have the right dubs to put out. We’re enjoying developing our production sound and I’m enjoying experimenting with different styles and tempos, collaborating with people, learning tips and techniques – along the way it’s starting to feel like a little community forming. We’ve been really blessed with the guests we’ve been able to feature over the last few years and I think they’ve helped to spread the word about the party. It’d be great to be able to have more people to touch down and play and join the family – whether it’s a current producer or a legendary local selector. Yes Westwood or Max Glazer or Goldfinder or EZ would be amazing, however, some of the best parties have been when it’s been the residents digging deep and really programming wicked sets.
To be booked as a crew would be great. To perhaps play a venue all night in a soundsystem style. Me and Ruben used to love going to HOTMILK when we first moved to Manchester – a night Joey B Guiding-Star runs where they’d play load of reggae, dancehall, bashment but also would select a helping of UK dance soundsystem-influnenced styles like garage/grime/bassline etc. The vibe was amazing with a massive soundsystem in small venue, often the best dances were just Joey and his fellow resident team Irish Mash, Riddim Master and later Amanlikesam selecting riddims with local hosts and MC’s passing through to toast a verse or three (although, there were some great special one-off’s with the Heatwave playing with Warrior Queen, Tippa Irie doing a PA and Toddla T smashing it up).
Joey always really impressed us with his tight juggling and impeccable taste and it was one of the reasons we really wanted him on board. Representing that soundsystem angle and wanting to pay tribute as well as incorporate that into what we’re doing. Pablo Fox Caha also comes from playing on sounds as well as being involved in hip hop in the US. From Jamaica to New York to playing in a sound in Manchester (he can fill you in a bit more!). Whenever we play any dancehall or ragga, Fox will just know all the words without even having to think! A lot of hip hop stuff too.
We’ve discussed perhaps doing a soundtape cassette pack or mixtape series, I reckon that would be a nice summation of what we’re about. However, an album of styles as Ruben suggested would also be a great thing to do. I’ve got a rough recording setup at mine, so it’d be great to get more demos cuts with MC’s and singer. I really enjoy working with vocalists and love playing vocal tunes so it’d be great to feed some of that back into the music.
Pablo Fox Caha: Whatever happens with Swing Ting I know staying fresh musically will always be at the heart of it. I agree with Ruben, sometimes bigger isn’t always better. Swing Ting is a vibe ting for me and if we can keep that and get bigger, great but its more about sustainability, I think. As long as we can provide that vibe without going broke then I’d be happy. As for an album/EP who knows, why not? We all express creatively in music, are all committed to progression and have put some tracks out already so anything is possible if we keep at it. If it happens it will be organic, and I think the music will let us know when the time is right.
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