Features I by I 16.05.14

“I’m hanging up my headphones”: Zed Bias to retire from DJing, opens up about future plans

zed bias - retirement - interview 5.16.2014

Zed Bias has something to teach everyone about the art of adapting to circumstance. 

He’s already had several distinct acts in his creative career, starting with drum’n’bass, breakbeat, reaching a first major peak in the UK garage years (while remaining an outsider to the scene), being key to the early years of FWD>>, having some relatively fallow years following a move to Manchester in the mid 2000s, then picking up again as he began to be recognised as a “godfather of dubstep”.

All of this was covered in quite some detail in an epic interview I did with him back in 2010 – but even since then he’s been through further changes, his DJ career in particular kicking up several notches, including a tour of the states with Pearson Sound and a regular alliance with Loefah and Swamp81 which led to his The Boss album for Swamp last year.

He remains seriously in demand, and his recent parties at Fire in London – for his birthday and then the launch of his new Biasonic label – have been immense. But then a couple of days ago he phoned up FACT to say he’s retiring from DJing. Knowing what a sharp operator he is, we guessed that there was more to the story, and were keen to know what this was all about – so we got on Skype with him to ask about his plans, life lessons and thoughts on the state of the industry.

So we heard you had an announcement… what’s happening with you? 

Well, I’m getting older, aren’t I mate? Being 40 this year made me think, and I started seeing it as a bit of a crossroads. I’ve been in the game producing for 20 years now – this is my 20th year – and DJing has gone hand in hand with that. DJing is a love of mine, it’s part of what I do with Zed Bias, but I’d really like to see what it’d be like if I could dedicate 100% of my time to the music itself, having the studio as my main focus. So what I’m doing is hanging up my DJ headphones on New Year’s Eve. I’m going to go hammer and tongs until then, I’m really going to work and do the shows, but then next year I’m going to concentrate on other things.

The studio will come first. There’ll be another album on Swamp81 – and while I don’t want to bracket it, it’ll be more of a listener’s album, less club-orientated, going back to some of my soulful inspirations that weren’t in the most recent body of work. Then if I manage to find the right team, I’d like to get a live act together for that – that’s a big thing for next year. But on top of that, I’ve started some masterclasses down in London: in mid August I’ll be doing some intimate masterclasses in collaboration with this clothing range, Crooks & Castles, who are LA based. This will be sessions for three people at a time, who can come for a couple of hours and I can divulge all my secrets too – and I’ll have guest lecturers there too.

I’ve been doing a bit of this in Manchester already. I’ve now got the Zed Bias Scholarship at the Manchester MIDI School – which is a 12 month course, fully accredited, I’ll be marking and evaluating the end of year coursework, which is basically a track. I’ve always had at least a little bit of involvement in education over the years, but this is taking it a step further in the right direction I think. And I want to go a lot further and syndicate the idea of the masterclasses worldwide.

Well talking of workload – how much time was DJing taking up for you then?

Too much time, really. I’ve DJed more in the last two, three years than I have in all the time before that. Anything up to 15 gigs in a month, that was my busiest month – which is quite a lot. As I say, I’m hoping to do a live act, so I do fully expect to be touring in some way, but the Zed Bias gig – go and see Zed Bias in a nightclub – that won’t be possible again. Another factor is that the launch of Biasonic has really brought home how much time and attention is needed from me to get the ball rolling and steer the people I’m signing to my label in the right direction and help them into a better position. There’s a lot of energy I’m going to have to spend on Biasonic to get it into a good place and give these guys what they deserve – because they’re exciting people!

Is this all going to be relatively new talent, then? 

It seems to be. Though I have done some work with Roy Davis Jr [laughs], which I have to finish with him – geography’s dictated how we can work together – but apart from him everybody’s early 20s to mid 20s, really really good at what they do, and feature heavily in my DJ sets. That’s what they all have in common: they’ve sent me demos, I’ve taken them away and road tested them for months and months, and that’s what’s really spurred me on to do the Biasonic thing. I just thought “how many more demos am I going to get that I can play next to the best Disclosure tracks and the best big name dubplates and they’re standing up, and how can I ignore that and not put something back in?” So that’s what I’m doing!

If your hard gigging has fed into the label, but you’re giving up gigging, will the label then change because of that? 

I think it’s going to take on a life of its own. What we’ve done is committed ourselves to half a dozen acts who tick all the boxes for me, and as they go further in their journey, write more material, we put it out, that roster’s going to be enough. We’re going to get a lot of people sending us stuff but I’m going to concentrate in the first year on those people we’ve already committed to. People like Almost from Glasgow, Beat Corporation from Manchester, Chunky and Paleman have got a little double act that I’m putting some music out by called CMP, Terror Danjah and Champion are going to be contributing to the label as well.

And Applebottom, can’t forget Applebottom, that’s our first release – really nice lad, I can see him going very far, he’s turning a lot of heads for someone as young as he is. He played an absolute blinder at our label launch recently; the whole roster were down in fact and everyone did really well. It’s nice that we can come down to London from Manchester as a label and cause a ripple, put on a bit of a show.

What’s your general feeling about the creativity and receptiveness of the UK scene at the moment? 

I think it’s in a good state, as long as you can appreciate change, and how considerably it changes in just a few years. If you can have an understanding of that constant change and how to make your way through it then it could be the best it’s ever been. There are ways to earn from it and have a stable business model in music now – but it’s well different to what it ever was before. The music itself, I feel there’s a little bit of anticipation in the air, waiting for a new something. There hasn’t been a new dubstep, or funky, or trap or whatever for a while. So I’ve started keeping my ear to the ground a bit more, going on Soundcloud a bit more, just searching and clicking on links and keeping eyes and ears open, because I’m sure the next thing’s just around the corner – it always is isn’t it?

By coincidence the last couple of dance music people I’ve interviewed are Marcus Nasty and Plastician, both of whom said something similar about there not being a dominant genre now, so they keep their ears open to as much as possible and enjoy the cross-fertilisations… 

Yeah… there’s two ways of looking at it. The cynics would say that it’s all homogenised and you can’t define one sound from another, it’s all some indistinguishable bass music and it’s all slopped in the same pot – and it’s true that it’s harder to sell in that respect, genres have always had sections of a record store, you can go to them very easily on iTunes or whatever, whereas if you put a million things in the same pot then they’re harder to find. But on the other hand, that situation is when, as you say, the cross-fertilisation happens, and that’s what creates the new sound. So I’m all for it. I’m excited about what next year brings, I’m already looking forward to next year, I always have done.

The risk in this kind of situation of things being mixed up is that people chase the lowest common denominator, all the major labels go looking for the next Disclosure with their Clean Bandits and Route 94s, and every young producer thinks they need to make the same kind of bass-house-techno-garage hybrid…

Yeah – and they’ve missed the boat [grim chuckle]. It’s horrible to say that, and people don’t want to believe you, but you’ve got to understand that if you want to be front and centre in that sort of world then you’ve got to be ahead of the curve. Disclosure were operating on a higher level a few years ago, in the underground, when they really were kids, young kids. They were making tunes to a really high level, and that’s what brought them through – on the quality of their stuff. They’ve been marketed massively and they’re geniuses at marketing around the world, and every opportunity that they’ve been given they’ve taken with both hands. I can really only take my hat off to those guys. House music’s always going to be there, and they used that as a vehicle to pop success, but then the bandwagon follows – but what’s next is what’s exciting, as always.

If you look at those labels that have been propping up this kind of UK house pop movement – PMR, Black Butter, labels like that, and see what they’re putting out now, that’s kind of exciting, isn’t it? PMR putting out Meridian Dan, that’s a nice big door open for grime, a nice big light shone in that direction – and Black Butter with My Nu Leng, they’re really good, coming in with a new sound but again a cross-fertilisation. ‘Masterplan’ I think is my favourite track I’ve heard all year. Obviously I’m a bit biased because it’s got Fox on it and he’s my mate, but it’s really good. It feels like a lot of doors are opening to the urban side of the music; it makes sense in the commercial sense anyway of course because MC-based music is very visual, you’ve got all these formats like SBTV and YouTube in general that gives a platform, but a top ten single for real grime? That’s fucking great isn’t it. ‘German Whip’ is a proper grime tune isn’t it, or am I getting old?

Well, it’s got Big H on it! 

[Laughs] Yeah, well there you go. So all of this is a very long-winded way of answering the question and saying that yeah, I am very excited by music right now. I think it’s massively exciting at the moment. Lots going on, and lots of potential.

And where does Manchester fit into this? You called Biasonic “a Manchester label”, you’ve been there for a good while…

Ten years this year, yep. It’s a big year for anniversaries for me this year!

And if we’re talking about cross-fertilisation, Manchester seems to be the place, but a lot of it’s maybe underappreciated still – all these people like Dubphizix, Chimpo… 

Chimpo, mate – Chimpo’s a ledge. He’s a don. Of course he is. He’s Chimpo! I live in Manchester, and anyone in Manchester knows him. He’s like Bernard Manning on that level of being in the fabric of things… No no, I don’t mean he’s like Bernard Manning in THAT way, I’ll get a slap for that – but he’s part of Manchester is what I’m saying. He is intrinsic to what Manchester is now. Like Shaun Ryder and Bez are, he’s on that level. All he needs is a little bit of a hit to bring him out into the mainstream and he’s away, seriously. You’ve got to agree with me, all the music that’s coming out of his studio and all his collaborations is ridiculous. The new stuff that follows on from dubstep but goes into breaks, reggae, dancehall, jungle zone – jungle stuff with Dubphizix, rootsy, souly stuff with Fox, the Levelz stuff which is a massive collective – ‘Bow Wow Billionaire’ and ‘Gotta be a Drug Dealer’, mate, that’s some of the best stuff I’ve heard in years. This stuff deserves to be heard.

I think there’s less discrimination up here between genres. Not that people can’t do the individual genres brilliantly – they can – but just because it’s a little bit of a smaller city than London and there’s quite a bit more just hanging out goes on between camps, there’s no real fast divides. We all know each other from years, we all have love for each other, there’s no beef that I know of, everybody’s applauding each other when they do well – and I think a little of that goes a long way, providing an atmosphere where you can go have a cup of tea round someone else’s house, start a collab and before you know it you do have a new style of music! I’ve collabbed with Marcus Intalex, and Chimpo, and quite a few rappers, got involved with house music and grime up there, so just on a personal level I’ve taken it right the way around just working within Manchester, and that’s got to speak for something hasn’t it?

I do travel down to London to work, but I couldn’t leave Manchester as a base. Musically it’s got to be my home, I set roots down here, and just knowing that I haven’t got to look outside Manchester if I need a certain something on a track, a certain sound or even a remix, if I need a gig, anything – even some of the busiest DJ agents are up here now – it’s just such a nice feeling. And this has changed, you can do all this without a hell of a lot of travelling to London or moving to London now – now people will actually come from London to here. I’ve noticed a lot of people migrating north to collaborate, do tracks and so on. It’s great, really.

OK, so looking forward, do you have a five year plan, so to speak, or are you going to make this leap and see what happens? 

Well basically – moving forward with the Biasonic lectures with Crooks & Castles is the long term plan. I want to hone it down, get it working and hopefully actually take it international. This is teething stages right now, very early days, and I won’t really know what’s possible until next year when I’ll have the proper time to dedicate to it having hung up my headphones – but yeah, this is something I believe in and want to make happen. And other than that… music, mate – making lots of music!

For info on two days of Biasonic Masterclasses in BlueBox studios, London, contact lesley@theblueboxstudios.com

For info on Biasonic Scholarship (1 year course at Manchester Midi School), contact info@midischool.com



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