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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