Image via: Jimmy Mould
Flowdan’s personality seems quite a bit like his vocal delivery.
Not so much in the sense that it puts the fear of god into you, but in a sense of patience and steady momentum. From the earliest days of grime, in Roll Deep, he has always provided a stark contrast to the berserk energy of his peers, in his deep, dread tones and sense of ancient menace. This also made him perfect to inhabit the dark sonic chambers of classic dubstep, with his and Killa P’s threats making The Bug’s ‘Skeng’ one of the defining tunes of the genre’s breakout era.
Since then his career progress has also been slow but inexorable. Building on ‘Skeng’, he formed a lasting creative partnership with Kevin Martin, and also proved adept at keeping feet in both the dubstep and grime camps, avoiding scene hype and (a falling out with Killa P notwithstanding) infighting that have dogged other MCs of his generation. Now there’s a solo EP in the works for Hyperdub, which draws together his various threads, including productions from The Bug, grime godfather Footsie, young grime talent Masro, and one particularly apocalyptic contribution from DMZ’s Coki.
We met in Soho one morning recently, and though Flowdan had the air of someone who’d rather not be up and out quite so early, he was extraordinarily punctual by grime standards and downright cheerful in conversation. His replies are always carefully-phrased but direct: whether we were talking about Norris McWhirter or jungle, it seemed that this is someone who considers his every thought and move well.
So let’s start with the EP – why Hyperdub?
Obviously ‘Skeng’ came out on Hyperdub… that’s a good few years ago now, but The Bug’s got a good relationship with the owner of Hyperdub, and through doing shows and festivals and so forth I do see Kode9 quite often, so I’ve always been in contact with him. Now, it’s just a part of my career where I’m supposedly taking it serious [quizzical smile] so I thought, OK, put together an EP, and the first person that took interest was him really, so that’s it – it’s coming out on Hyperdub!
And what did you want this EP to say about you?
Well, I’ve put together quite a few tracks over the last year as a solo artist. Some of them have been coming out, some are just sitting on a hard drive, and I thought I need to get myself out there, start trying to build the profile and the brand and show people that I’m doing stuff alone and this is my sound. So when the Hyperdub idea came about, I thought, ‘That’s a good way of doing it’ – not just for the ‘Skeng’ connection, but for them being the type of label that does that sound, that mad, out-there music.
Can you say what’s provoked this wanting to be more serious careerwise?
What’s provoked it is just that I’m working alone now, really. When you’re working with a group – I’m talking about Roll Deep obviously – you just need to play a role, and it’s quite easy to be part of a successful team by playing your role. When there’s no team, I have to do it all myself, and as soon as I start doing that, I start taking it more serious.
You have also worked with Kevin Martin for a long time though – did you ever feel you might just gravitate into being part of his wider crew?
Well, that is about two entities coming together, but they are separate too. We always make good music together but at the same time I’ve always got my own brand and identity, and aside from that I just want to do more. I always will work with The Bug, he’s helped me come this far because obviously ‘Skeng’ was a big smash, ‘Jah War’ and so forth, he’s give me that opportunity to do that stuff and put me out there on another platform, so I always will be working with Kevin…
And you’ve done a load of shows with him over the last couple of years, right?
The last SIX years! Six years, just continuously touring, we don’t ever stop really – he’s got new material, I’ve got new material, all the time so we’re just always on the road touring and performing that work.
‘Dirty’ seemed to be a big track for you two recently in making audiences sit up and take notice…
Yeah, ‘Dirty’ was a good one for us, because Kevin just takes long to put out music because he’s very particular. So people was waiting for something from us, and when we gave them ‘Dirty’ it was well received, couldn’t have asked for much more. And it’s definitely somewhat going towards where I want to be going towards, sounding-wise: just more unforgiving, tear-out but with a conscious message at times.
Well it definitely works in a rave – it seemed to be THE track of DMZ’s 8th birthday last year, it was played over and over.
Was it? Yeah, Mala does support very well – big up to him, definitely.
One thing that struck me about that track was a similarity in vibe with that moment in the early ’80s when reggae met punk and experimental music in the form of 2-Tone, The Pop Group, The Slits.
Well, I wasn’t around in them times of course, or not making music anyway, but them people you mentioned had a big impact on people and I want to do that, certainly. And yeah, if you can make your own sound from what you hear, that’s what I want to move towards. Be a leader of your own sound as opposed to being part of a scene because sometimes a scene can die and you’re left standing there still ready to do music but nobody’s interested. I’ve learned from that, that you have to lead and just be unique in every way.
Talking of scenes, how much involvement do you have with the grime scene now? You still do grime shows, right?
Definitely, definitely I do, but because grime has its issues regarding media, regarding being held back, then you get held back too if that’s all you do. So I’ve learned from that, and also my style and my creativity is a bit more diverse… I don’t mean more diverse than grime, because grime can sound like anything it wants to, but more diverse than what it’s been pigeonholed as – people saying this isn’t grime or that isn’t grime, saying “Flowdan doesn’t do grime, he does dubstep now”, when to me it’s all grime.
Can you expand on what you mean about grime’s issues with the media? Because in my experience that’s a two-way thing – for example, people in the media can’t get a handle on it because grime seems to be in a constant state of argument with itself.
That alone is us holding ourselves back, because we can’t decide what we’re meant to be doing or even what it is, everyone’s got their own criteria and it’s not clear to people from outside it what it is. Regarding the media, I can’t really elaborate because I don’t pay much attention, but I can certainly say that years ago it wasn’t held in the best light, and it seems like this still happens, because just recently Just Jam and JME had their show cancelled. I don’t know why, but I’d imagine it’s the same old reasons. But regarding us as a scene, if we came together and did what we’re meant to be doing, decided the criteria and so forth, then we’d move forward quite quickly.
Of course you might say that the constant disagreement is one of the things that makes grime great, that stops it getting stuck in any formula…
Organised chaos [laughs]. Yeah, it’s always had that organised chaos vibe. But you can’t really package organised chaos, you can’t really sell it to people.
You say that, but Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager, had the slogan “cash from chaos”!
[Laughs] OK then… yeah that’s good – but you still need to have a head of business for that, you can’t just be random and sporadic and think cash is going to come like that.
OK, so what else, aside from the grime scene and the people you are working with, has been feeding into your musical direction?
Well it’s not so much about musical influences or anything, as being sure that I’ve got something to offer and allowing myself to really express that unlimitedly. Obviously I do have my influences but they’ve been set – I don’t think anything I hear nowadays influences me. I mean it might subconsciously, but I know that what I draw for is what I’ve been drawing for since I started when I was 12, which is dancehall and drum’n’bass: that type of energy, that type of delivery, that type of rhythm. They’re my only influences. My peers, that meaning other artists around me that I work with and respect, they influence me not creatively but just influence me to keep me fresh, and keep me thinking, if they want to do that, then I want to do this because I think that’ll go well against that. I like listening to my peers because they stimulate me, but not necessarily inspire me.
Interesting you mention drum’n’bass – do you think the influence of that on grime is under-appreciated, because a lot of people still see grime as having come from garage?
Definitely. That was my first – well, I was going to say platform, but it wasn’t a platform because it was in the bedroom after school! But that’s where I learned microphone control, or at least started to learn microphone control, and delivery, and stamina. I used to listen to radio sets that were two hours long, and tape an hour and a half of it because that’s what fit on a tape, so having that as a template to go from, you had to last. You had to be at it for a long time, to do it for that two hours, so it was good training and good preparation for this now.
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Well, the drum’n’bass MCs had as much energy as the music – I remember seeing sets where the DJ would drop out for 32, 64 bars, or more and the MCs would keep going and maintain the energy of the the dancefloor by themselves.
Yeah yeah yeah, some people don’t understand that. That is a big talent, it’s a big thing. I just say it’s a generations thing – these days you can get away with doing less, so you do.
But in grime, didn’t it become more of a “show”, with people pushing to the front and looking at the MCs, rather than MCs doing their thing for the dancers?
It was just energy. If I looked at those kids at the front, if I was performing in that situation, I would think, rah, that was me if I was seeing Stevie Hyper D or Shabba or Det one of these people, that was me, definitely. It was about the flyer, about the names, about me having my favourites, and waiting until they got there, and now I’m going to go mad now! So when I saw people doing that [for me], it felt like, woah, I’m at that stage now! Now, I don’t know if it’s like that any more, it’s been taken away, the energy, so many aspects have been taken away so it’s hard to relive that. But did people dance? Definitely. It’s expression to the expression, so you move to the music that you feel comfortable with and related to. There was dancing, I definitely know there was dancing at those grime events, but then when it came to stage-show time, then there’s no dancing, because it’s showtime. The music gets played, you dance to that – but when it comes to stage show time, they just want to react to the performance, and that’s up to them.
You make it sound like a sporting event – people picking sides, investing in it, then all eyes on the contest.
Yeah it’s like that, but that’s what I grew up seeing. I think when it comes to stage show time with a more conservative audience, they’re doing the same thing, but just internally expressing, because they’re not comfortable with saying [yelping with excitement] “Fuckin’ hell that’s the shit! Yeah!” They’re not really comfortable with that. They don’t do that, they’re just watching and liking. It’s not the same thing, but it’s appreciation.
Probably a lot of those people would love to be drawn out of themselves and react more strongly…
That’s all down to the performer then!
Well, some people rely on drugs to loosen up their audience, some people use lights and production – look at Coldplay lighting up the whole crowd at Wembley, what’s that but trying to get people to break their reserve?
Yep, they can do that, people use their techniques, but I’m from using the microphone and the voice. No, not “from” that: I’ve seen that and I want to do that. I see it done and I’m stimulated by that, I think yeah, that is where the talent is at. When it gets the stage when I have the option to have Wembley lighting up, if I have that option I am going to use that [laughs], but I’m still not going to forget what I’m here to do and what I like to do.
Actually there’s another kind of technique for breaking a crowd’s reserve, and that’s using soundsystems as big as The Bug likes to play on…
…then people get lit up in a different way, still!
…but that’s another challenge to your vocal technique right? To work against that force of bass?
That’s what I’ve learned on the road with The Bug, it’s more training. The guys I look up to, they’ve got power and presence, so there’s no soundsystem or no amount of people they’re going to be dwarfed by. That’s what it takes and that’s what it’s about – matching and then trying to rise above, owning the situation.
Who’s been your favourite person of the other regular Bug vocalists to bounce off on stage?
Fuuuuuckin’ hell, Daddy Freddy. Obviously. [laughs]
He is insane on stage, sure – and how old is he?
Well he must be the same age as my dad, so over 50. Wow. But he’s a legend to me. When he was doing his thing in, I dunno, early ’90s, he lived in my dad’s building in Brixton. I didn’t know who he was, and my dad was like “I live near someone famous”, so I was like, “So?”. He went “I’m going to get you a record signed by him”. “So?” So he got me this record signed by him: “Never heard of him, Dad”. So I had it, then one day I saw him on Record Breakers [kids TV show based on The Guinness Book of Records – Daddy Freddy appeared as the world’s fastest rapper]! So I thought shit, I know this guy, and I was telling everyone, look, look, I know this man, he lives near my dad in Brixton, look, I’ve got his record! Then 20 years later, I’m working with the man, it’s weird. Obviously when I tell him who my dad is, he can’t get over it, so he loves doing shows with me and I love doing them with him. The energy is good.
Something about dancehall, reggae performance seems to keep people young, I mean he’s pretty limber in his moves isn’t he?
Heh, he can look younger than me at times, right? Yeah, I think it’s music full stop, music and making music keeps your energy up. I don’t know about young, but it keeps your energy up.
I saw Jimmy Cliff once, who must be knocking on 70, and he was doing dance moves I definitely couldn’t manage without hurting myself!
Haha yeah, but I honestly think only while performing can they do things like that. I don’t think you can do that normally – which is why I think there’s something special about the energy of our artform.
Do you consciously think about the musical dynamic between you and Daddy Freddy on stage? Because he’s got the hyper-speed thing, while you are more about the deep voice…
Yeah but he’s got all that dynamics – he’s got depth, speed, clarity, he’s got all that. So I just learn from him on stage, then try to take it elsewhere by just bringing me to it as well.
So going back to your own recordings, how did you pick producers?
Well, right now, because I feel more in control of my sound, I pick producers who I know I can have a rapport with, and somewhat control – meaning ask them for what I want, and hopefully they respect me enough to want to do that. Obviously that’s easy with The Bug because we’ve had a working rapport for years. Footsie’s someone I’ve known as a friend and in the music for years, so it’s easy to get music I like off him. Masro’s a new producer who’s coming up in the grime scene today, which obviously is hard work because it’s a mess – but I heard him standing out, sounding how grime used to sound in 2005-7, and that’s the sound that I think’s my favourite style of grime, so I’ve been working with him and I’ve got more tracks with him. And Coki, there’s mutual respect, we’ve known each other through music, and he’s sending me music; it took a while to find the one that I liked, that’s the one I liked, I jumped on that and that’s the product we’ve got.
How was it working out your part – because Coki beats don’t really obey normal musical rules?
That’s what everyone says! Because this is the first time I’ve done a Coki song, I’d not come across it, but all the engineers I’ve come across have gone, “Woah this is hard work” when it comes to time to engineer it – because engineers want to obey the rules of how things are supposed to sound. So I though, OK, cool, but I liked it – and what I can say is that he sent me about nine beats and not one of them sounded the same so… Well, he’s just quite a random person innit, so I don’t think I’ll get another one like that one ever again. Thing is, it’s important to me to use producers that’ve got quality in their sound, and depth, and have got their own sound, and when I come together with that then it’s going to sound like a good product that people are hopefully going to like.
So where are you going to take this next? Is there an album lined up?
Possibly. There possibly could be an album lined up, but I’m just going to continue to work with producers that I can take the light into. I’m choosing not to say who now, because I don’t think it’s relevant, I’m just focusing on these four producers that I’ve chosen to work with on this EP, and yeah… definitely… possibly… might be… everything! Maybe.
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