James Blake’s earliest releases were the sound of the pendulum swinging back.
At the end of the 2000s, while dubstep’s superstar generation and the clones that followed were burning themselves out on wobble, Plastic People’s FWD>> club night was incubating a new generation of producers inspired by DMZ’s use of space and sub bass. What was once a Croydon thing was going global, and on its way it roped in a clutch of artists willing to push the genre towards techno, house and even vocal pop, launching the career of a singer who would long outlast the lurching bass then taking over the student nights worldwide.
At a glance, James Blake was a latecomer to the party, but his fractured, angular compositions foreshadowed a wave of new ideas that would surge through the genre. Rather than go down the path of his DJ peers by focusing on form and function, Blake made a beeline for emotion and songcraft. Alongside peers Mount Kimbie, Darkstar, Sampha and Jamie Woon, Blake borrowed from dubstep’s early morning dimness and quaking sub-frequencies, but married these elements to ambiguity, self-doubt and preciousness. On paper it sounds like an unlikely marriage, given dubstep’s urban roots and brash peak-period flashiness. In practice, though, using Burial’s fractured, hypnagogic take on the genre as a starting point for pop proved irresistible to scene outsiders who were interested in bass music’s futurism but turned off by the testosterone.
The post-dubstep cohort of producers and vocalists would soon take diverging paths, with most quietly shifting towards more established forms of electronic pop, but Blake has both stayed true to his original aesthetic and pushed it the furthest. There are still echoes of FWD>>’s space and bass formula in Blake’s work, even as he’s embraced his role as a singer-songwriter at the margins of R&B and underground pop. He still drops instrumental experiments on his 1-800-Dinosaur label, even as he’s called on by huge US acts like Beyoncé and Chance The Rapper. His fanbase is likewise split, with a sizeable portion of his followers in awe of his crooning, while a substantial minority insist that early classics like The Bells Sketch and CMYK are Blake’s high-water mark.
In truth, Blake is one of the rare artists who can play both sides, and nowhere is this clearer than on his B-sides and rarities, which include everything from true-school dubstep miniatures to remixes of TRL-era anthems to experiments in dance music and tape hiss.
In the wake of his new album The Colour In Anything and its embrace of vocals and capital-P pop, we’ve dug up the 10 best deep cuts which show off the range and breadth of his influences.
Listen to a playlist featuring all of the tracks.
‘Sparing the Horse’
(From ‘Air & Lack Thereof’, Hemlock Recordings, 2009)
The immediate buzz of debut single ‘Air & Lack Thereof’ introduced Blake as a producer able to emphasize the moodiness and darkness of club music over its brashness and immediacy, a revelation in 2009 when Rusko was still a going concern. But while the lead track was a fully formed example of Blake’s tilt towards hauntology and skewed pop, ‘Sparing the Horse’ shows off its stitching, with Blake’s influences on clear display even as he seeks to assemble them into new shapes.
Mala’s percussive gallop underpins the whole intro, and those sour, modulated synth lines reinterpret Joker’s purple leads for music that’s weirder than it is funky. The sampled vocal and skippy garage hi-hats are a clear nod to Burial, whose two albums had already set the stage for Blake’s combination of emotion and impact, but the combined effect is less “rave remembered” than “rave re-built”. The resulting track is dubstep for listeners who discovered it from their bedrooms rather than the dance space, a significant audience as the genre hit its peak.
‘Stop What You’re Doing’ (James Blake Remix)
(Hemlock Recordings, 2009)
Another FWD>> attendee who contributed to expanding bass music’s parameters, Untold was James Blake’s first supporter, putting out Blake’s earliest single on his label Hemlock and signing him up for a remix. Reworking ‘Stop What You’re Doing’ would give even the most confident producer pause; Untold’s original merged Pulse X bass blasts with a UK funky synth lead before collapsing into the murk, painting a pan-genre picture of London clubbing at its most open.
Wisely avoiding the opportunity to compete on this turf, Blake instead retrofitted the track’s melody to a steadier rhythmic foundation somewhere between techno and the sort of rollage deployed by under-appreciated dubstep journeymen like LD. The result, if more conventional than Untold’s cross-genre madness, was a perfect fit for a UK club space now looking outwards for inspiration and for a European techno scene enraptured by dubstep’s rhythmic energy, if not its grim aesthetic. If it betrays no hint of the singer-songwriter role that would later shift Blake’s career away from dance music, it shows off his ability to synthesize seemingly incompatible elements into accessible new forms.
‘Give a Man a Rod’ (Second Version)
(From 116 & Rising, Hessle Audio, 2011)
The Bells Sketch EP is when James Blake began to come into his own as a producer by casting aside what was left of the dance music conventions that anchored his earliest work. The title track and ‘Give a Man a Rod’ are equal parts electronic pop and electro-acoustic art, bombarding the listener with what sounds like a half dozen broken radios playing at once, and not always in unison. The second version, which was released on Hessle Audio’s 116 and Rising compilation, is a look behind the curtain at the process of deconstructing club music to such abstract ends.
In contrast to the single’s halting start-stop foundation, ‘Give a Man a Rod (Second Version)’ is bouncy enough for an adventurous DJ to drop it in and test the crowd’s tolerance for the unexpected. As homemade handclaps collide with 808 snares, the track maintains the uneasy juxtaposition between organic field recordings and treated samples that makes Blake’s beats from this era so disorienting.
‘Maybes’ (James Blake Remix)
(From Remixes Part 1, Hotflush Recordings, 2010)
Blake moonlighted as a touring member of Mount Kimbie early in his career, and the two acts were often always spoken of together, given their propensity to flip bass music tropes into low-key pop. They recorded a clutch of material together, though much of it remains unreleased or confined to radio rips.
Blake’s remix of ‘Maybes’, their sole official collaboration, actually strengthens the track’s dancefloor appeal, speeding up the tempo to 140BPM and straightening out the original’s loose drums. For two acts best known for divorcing bass music from its DJ-led origins and bringing it into the world of laptop-performance and live vocals, this is a definite curveball. Taken as part of a swathe of Hotflush releases navigating the territory between dubstep’s rhythmic experiments and techno’s depth of sound design, however, it fits right into the intersecting spaces then defining bass music.
‘Bills Bills Bills’ (Harmonimix)
(White label, 2010)
Predating Blake’s surprise appearance on Beyoncé’s Lemonade by a half decade, his remix of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bills Bills Bills’ also launched the Harmonimix series through which he distorts and degrades mainstream pop. Brilliantly, both the original and Blake’s remix are unapologetically futuristic – they just predict vastly different futures. While The Skek’spere-produced original evokes the shiny, airbrushed spaces we imagined might spawn from the internet at dawn of the millennium, Blake’s Harmonimix is the sound of information overload, what happens when the computers can render grain to accentuate rather than gloss over the human voice’s imperfections.
In his hands, the song takes on a homespun quality and more than a little cowbell, at once reconnecting the track to its ancestral rhythm and blues while also pushing the vocal’s surreal quality. It’s not surprising that Bey would eventually nab Blake to provide a coda on her most ambitious album to date.
‘Half Heat Full (Old Circular)’
(Atlas Recordings, 2011)
A vinyl-only exclusive from the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ 12″, ‘Half Heat Full (Old Circular)’ is not a million miles from the material on Blake’s self-titled album, the project through which he transitioned from beatmaker to full-fledged vocalist. A minor piece, this B-side emphasizes an under-examined part of Blake’s musical DNA, a hauntological strain closer to the creepy, degraded recordings of The Caretaker than anything taking place in the dance or R&B scenes.
Coating Blake’s voice and piano in a haze of tape hiss, distortion and reverb, ‘Half Heat Full (Old Circular)’ is just as focused on form as Blake’s dancefloor recordings, but his impulses are redirected towards uneasy listening music, and the whole track sounds recorded from three rooms over. This sort of thing was briefly described as night bus music, designed to soundtrack a return home from the club, but for Blake it often seemed like these experiments were meant to evoke the lonely nights where you never reached the dance in the first place.
‘A Case of You’ (Joni Mitchell cover)
Blake’s oeuvre is full of leftfield covers, from his star-making, sub-heavy take on Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’ to the ‘Wilhelm Scream’, a version of his father James Litherland’s ‘Where to Turn’. His quivering, quasi-androgynous voice is unique, and so tackling other artists’ material inevitably reveals hidden nuances to the compositions, even without substantial changes to the arrangements. On ‘A Case of You’ he tackles Joni Mitchell, substituting guitar for piano but leaving out the electronic flourishes one might expect from a contemporary update.
The results are admittedly divisive: if you came to Blake via BBC Radio 1 and don’t know your dubplates from your drops, this is a great contemporary songwriter giving a well-deserved nod to a master. For those who instinctively go for their headphones when entering a coffee shop to avoid overhearing anyone singing about their feels, it might be a step too far.
(Deep Medi Musik, 2013)
‘Changes’ remains one of Mala’s most beloved creations, popular with everyone from Chestplate industrialist Distance to Compton rapper The Game. Leave it to James Blake, though, to push all the way to the left, as he adorns the original melody with music-box melodies, miniaturized percussion and a triple-time barrage of kicks before ratcheting the tension ahead of an anti-drop where the bass actually falls out completely. The track does eventually build back up into a truly frightening crescendo, complete with massive orchestral sweeps, but by then everyone but the most forward thinking of audiences might be left scratching their heads in confusion.
An easy-to-mix DJ tool this is not, but it’s nevertheless a startlingly original and disorienting piece of music which rethinks Mala’s minimalist take from the ground up, zeroing in on the emotional highlight before expanding it across the entire track. It not only earned a DMZ cosign but eventually a release on Mala’s own Deep Medi imprint.
‘Confidence Boost’ (Harmonimix)
Anyone who remembers Trim’s Roll Deep civil war with Flowdan had to do a spit take when it was revealed the grime MC had recorded with James Blake. There’s a world and a half between the MC’s home in Isle of Dogs and Blake’s Goldsmiths University music course, but a deeper look into Trim’s series of Soul Food mixtapes reveals a truly fearless MC, one willing to stand apart from his peers and find new avenues for self-expression. If any of grime’s first generation was to find a kindred spirit in Blake, it was Trimbal.
‘Confidence Boost’ is an ode to self esteem and overcoming adversity, and Trim’s flow, which doesn’t land on beat so much as dance around it, would be powerful even without the vocal science twisting his voice box into the kind of alien tones Kendrick Lamar would become famous for. On his end, Blake masterminds an almost naked minimalism that puts the entire focus on Trim’s words, building to a soaring, distorted wall of sound enveloping the entire audio spectrum – a favorite trick of his. A unique entry into both artists’ catalogues, ‘Confidence Boost’ is the sort of success that’s all the more rewarding because there’s no way it should have worked so well.
‘Building it Still’
(From 200 Press, 1-800 Dinosaur, 2014)
More recently, Blake has used his 1-800 Dinosaur label as an outlet for the sort of dancefloor-adjacent club tracks he was initially known for but which never quite fit into his album-oriented work. Taken from the ultra-limited 200 Press EP, ‘Building it Still’’s growling bass and steady pulse bounce off the chopped up piano lines, highlighting how Blake’s live instrumentation and live recordings could intermesh with early interests in dance music.
It’s an effort that found a happy home in the sets of like-minded musicians such as Four Tet, an artist equally passionate about making music with a wide emotional range and more extreme sonic possibilities. It’s also allowed Blake to keep one foot in the experimental world while forging ahead with his vocal-led work on records like The Colour In Anything. For an artist whose success in the pop sphere still feels unexpected and happily inexplicable, ‘Building it Still’ is a reminder that, should the A-list calls stop coming, there’s plenty of interesting territory to be mined underground.