On the 25th anniversary of Selected Ambient Works 85-92, hip-hop producer and Danny Brown collaborator Paul White remembers how Aphex Twin’s heady atmospheres turned his world upside down back when he was a Nirvana-loving teenager.
When Richard D. James first visited R&S label boss Renaat Vandepapeliere in Belgium, he brought with him a box full of cassettes. On those cassettes were tracks that James, then in his early 20s, had been writing since the age of 14, a haphazard collection of electronic music sketching the contours of a mind both brilliant and unpredictable.
Vandepapeliere had first heard of James via a white label of his 1991 Analogue Bubblebath release. From the cassettes James brought to Belgium, they picked out 13 tracks to become Selected Ambient Works 85–92, the first official Aphex Twin album and the inaugural release on the Apollo label, a subsidiary of R&S through which Vandepapeliere had made a name for himself as a champion of electronic dance music.
SAW was released 25 years ago, on February 12, 1992. As Vandepapeliere himself has admitted it wasn’t an obvious album for many. But it was the right album at the right time, a manifesto for electronic music situated somewhere between the dancefloor and the bedroom, free from the shackles of tradition and expectation. It is one of those rare works that feels unbounded by time, as capable of surprising you today as it was then and perhaps in another 25 years — a quality that has made it one of the most beloved works of an artist who still refuses to conform to expectations.
Like much of the music James released in the 1990s, SAW had a profound effect on some of its listeners. One of those was Paul White, who back then was a hopeful musician and artist entering the BRIT School, a performing arts and technology college in south London that has trained scores of famous alumni, from Katy B to Imogen Heap and King Krule.
While he’s best known today as a hip-hop producer and the go-to beatmaker for Detroit’s own enfant terrible, Danny Brown, White’s formative years at the BRIT School were shaped by his discovery of SAW, the album that first turned him on to electronic music.
“This was when I started experimenting with going out, discovering acid, and this album was the most perfect soundtrack for it”
“I discovered Selected Ambient Works when I was 16, maybe 17,” says White. “It must have been 1997. I met this guy called Tim at the BRIT school who was way ahead of his time, ahead of me, a massive record collector. He showed me the record and it became the soundtrack for the next three, four years of experiencing life: partying, raving, and chilling out. It was very important both personally and musically.
“I’d just come out of your typical, boring secondary school and the BRIT school was this really creative place, a free environment. I went there to study music technology and art and design. It was an exciting time in my life and I was finally able to really focus on music. Up to that point I’d been listening to hip-hop and rock mainly, all raw and rough stuff — Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, lots of Wu Tang, Pharcyde. [SAW] introduced me to electronic music, especially the more ambient and atmospheric side. This was the first, “Wow, what is this?!” album. It opened me up to ambient and led me to listen to people like Brian Eno and Boards of Canada.
“I couldn’t get over the first two tracks [‘Xtal’ and ‘Tha’]. I listened to those two tracks relentlessly. I had a tape and back then you’d make a whole side of a tape with just a song, record it over and over. I think I did that with the first two tracks from this album. It’s not that the rest of the album wasn’t good, but these two tracks were so good I had to keep going back to them. This is also the time when I started experimenting with going out, discovering acid, and this album was the most perfect soundtrack for it. You couldn’t get any better comedown music.
“Selected Ambient Works and meeting a few specific people at the BRIT school is what led me to writing electronic music. Before that I’d just been writing songs on guitar and piano. A lot of the music I wrote then was ambient based, it was all atmospheres. I wasn’t writing hip-hop yet. I started writing trance and happy hardcore with another guy I’d met at the BRIT School but stuff I did on my own was all trying to be like Aphex Twin, like that first album: tons of pads and lush drawn out notes, MIDI beats going off in the background. I loved drum and bass and I could hear that in his music. And there was also breakbeats, which I understood from hip-hop. I bought my first synth and sampler at the time too.
“I wanted to achieve those atmospheres and worlds he could create, and I don’t know if I ever have”
“Aphex Twin was pretty much the guy I wanted to be like. I wanted to achieve those atmospheres and worlds he could create, and I don’t know if I ever have. This idea of atmosphere is perhaps the main thing that remains in my music today from that time. I always want to create worlds for people to go into. You’re not necessarily going to hear it on the tougher hip-hop stuff I do, but for me it’s always there. I still want to get taken away by the music I write.
“And I loved that the music came from Cornwall. It’s a special place for me, I’ve been going there since I was a kid. I think the music Aphex and others made in that time sounded British, in a sense. I couldn’t pinpoint how but it felt like it was from your home. It didn’t feel like it was from some sort of foreign place. It really felt like home, really warm.
“I never knew how to pronounce any of the titles but that first song, ‘Xtal’, has this lovely female vocal in it. I didn’t know anything about sampling at that point in my life and years later I found the sample he’d used for it. It blew my mind. It was on a Chappell Music library record. The track is called something like ‘Haunted Voices’ [actually ‘Evil At Play’] and I cracked up when I found it because he made it sound beautiful to me, not haunting at all.
“I remained obsessed with Selected Ambient Works for at least a good five years. And today I work with R&S, the label that released it, so that feels pretty magic and special.”
Paul White and Danny Brown’s Accelerator EP is out now. Watch the video for the title track below, starring Keith from The Office.
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