Ever since her first Butterz release, the producer born Danielle Gooding has been making waves, but has never before done an interview and generally appears in publicity pictures and behind the decks glowering from behind the lowered peak of a baseball cap. When I meet her backstage at the Red Bull Music Academy SónarDome stage at Sónar she seems wary, too, despite having just set a crowd of mainly Spanish ravers leaping around to a set of whomping bassline house before handing over to Butterz bosses Elijah and Skilliam. Initially the Butterz trio only want to do interviews together, and even when she agrees to it being a Flava D interview, Elijah still sits in (and occasionally chimes) in on the conversation.
As it is, though, there’s nothing difficult or confrontational about her. Rather, she’s just very direct and matter-of-fact in her style – there’s no pauses or filler in her conversation and she’s almost never lost for words, yet you can see her replies are carefully thought-through, with just the occasional moment when she checks herself and corrects something earlier. Her thought processes seem precise and analytical, which very much chimes with the clean lines but deceptively complex structures of her tracks on Butterz, on Champion’s Formula label, and on her own Bandcamp download series. And as becomes clear, if she is wary then – well – this is someone for whom things are now happening very fast after years of work behind the scenes, and who is still processing her position and options.
How do you introduce yourself if someone asks you what you do?
I say I go by the name of Flava D, I’m a producer-slash-DJ, I basically make anything I like depending what mood I’m in, I don’t put myself in a box, I base my DJ sets around my own productions with a bit of whatever else I’m feeling at the time…
You say producer first, then? Your music-making is how you define yourself above all?
Yeah. I’ve only really been DJing now properly for about a year and a half, whereas I’ve been a producer from the age of 16 – that’s eight years.
How did that start?
I’ve always been really musical from a very early age. I used to have little battery keyboards, the Casio ones, when I was a young kid. Then I worked in a record shop from the age of 14 to when I was 16, and my boss was the one who got me into Ableton: he was a DJ as well, and I’d see him working on things for his sets in the back of the shop and be intrigued by what he was working on, how he was creating music. It was always something I’d wanted to get into, but he was the guy who actually gave me the program – then I self-taught every night for a couple of years, and built myself what I am now.
Every night? That’s pretty focussed, most 15-16 year olds would be busy drinking MD2020 in the park…
Yeah, I was a bit of a recluse as a teenager, very stuck in my music, I didn’t drink alcohol, I wasn’t rebellious. In them days I was between Birmingham and Bournemouth, but mainly Bournemouth. I was listening to a lot of DJ EZ’s Pure Garage CDs – that was probably my number one influence at secondary school – and a lot of pirate radio, all that got me into what I do.
There was pirate radio in Bournemouth?
There was actually! Fire FM… there was this one DJ on the whole station who had a slot once a week and used to play speed garage and quite a bit of really original, non-commercial stuff. That’s what got me into garage in the first place.
What were other people around you into? Most seaside towns seem to breed a lot of ravers…
Yeah, Bournemouth’s a party town, very definitely. Them days, it was all commercial stuff, the Trance Euphoria sounds, bait stuff in the charts really. All my friends would be listening to the chart stuff and I’d be at home listening to EZ, or to Nas or Pete Rock or something really underground and different.
Where did the desire to dig deeper come from? Did any of your family play cool stuff at home?
My auntie, actually, was really into her garage – and the really 2-steppy, underground kind of garage like you’d hear on a pirate radio at three in the morning. Thinking about it, she’s a big part of how I got into it, even before the radio that I would listen to. She was definitely cool. My mum’s not really a musical person, my dad’s definitely not really a musical person – really most of all I just got myself into stuff though. I had my own tastes.
Pete Rock is an interesting reference point, because he’s super-musical – definitely more than just banging samples together.
Yeah, he’s maybe not appreciated, but he’s like another J Dilla to me.
Different though – where Dilla’s often quite weird and even off-key, Pete Rock’s really smooth in his constructions…
Yeah… everything’s blended very nice, yeah I get that definitely. Everything those guys would do I learned from, like flip the sample, pitch it up, reverse it, equalise it out so it sits in the background – I loved the way they’d take one tiny bit out of a sound and build something really soulful. One guitar note, say, then pitch it and stretch it an make your own melody out of it.
At what stage did you think this was something to take seriously?
Ever since I was a kid, like a really young kid, I wanted to make music seriously – but I didn’t know how until I worked in that shop and saw someone for the first time actually doing it. But even before that with my little Casio keyboard, I was making beats in my room when nobody else was in the house, I’d put it on loop and build stuff – this is when I was 9, 10. I was teaching myself even then.
But what about the idea of releasing, putting your music out into the world?
Well to be honest, I’ve only really now properly done a release with Butterz. In all these years I was making beats, I wasn’t releasing them as myself. All that time I was making music for the love of it, I really didn’t know, or I didn’t have anyone to show me, how I could actually have output of my own, or what I could do in that sense. It was just something I liked doing and I didn’t think too much about any other side of it. But you can only give away free beats for so long before you need to push it further! I always knew I wanted to make a proper career of it, though. I went to college for a year when I was 16, doing music, media and stuff, but I didn’t really get a lot out of it. I think I gained a lot more from teaching myself, getting production experience, working with more equipment and just getting a reputation for my music than I did from college; I was just finding myself a bit I guess.
So how did you releasing come about – did you go seeking labels eventually?
No, Butterz contacted me. I had the tunes already – it was ‘Hold On’, and Elijah just got in touch and asked if I’d like to put it out with them. I think he heard it on DJ EZ, because he was playing my tunes regularly and people were starting to pick up on them, ask “is it released?” and stuff.
Did you find it odd that a label known for grime wanted what was essentially a garage tune?
It was funny because I’d basically only been making grime for two or three years at that point, heavily into the scene, not making anything else. I probably worked with the majority of MCs in the scene, put my name out there, getting recognised for what I do.
Which was tough for a producer at this time, right? This would’ve been quite a way after the time when grime producers could shift a few thousand white labels as standard…
Yeah [grim laugh].
[Elijah chimes in]: And she wasn’t credited half the time – I didn’t even know her tracks were by her. When I met her, and went through her tracks, I kept going “I didn’t know you did that!”
And were you still outside London at this time or did you feel the need to connect with the scene in person?
Well from a very early age I’ve moved around a lot. Birmingham, Bournemouth, Essex, different parts of London. At the time I was making grime the most, I was living in Kent – two years I was there, and there wasn’t much going on there, so again I just used to stay home, make beats. That was my life.
So Butterz did a lot in terms of swinging the spotlight back round onto the producers; how did it feel when the focus came onto your tracks in their own right rather than just as backing beats?
I’ve learned a lot since being on the label, especially about it being a platform to do a lot more with my music and get it out and presented in the right way – vinyl, good packaging, things like that. It’s just about reaching out to the people, doing more with it in all ways, being able to go to new places, new audiences, people outside the scene picking up on what I do. I’m really proud of all that, actually.
And now you’re known as an artist in your own right, do you feel like you need to stick to a sound, or do you want to broaden your musical horizons?
Nah I’ve never stuck to just one sound. Even when I was really doing grime, I was actually doing a lot of hip hop too for people like Black The Ripper, and obviously I’ve always done a lot of garage too, and bassline. I’m always up for experimenting with different ways of how I do everything, I like to come up with new things to do with my productions in my DJ sets, I definitely like to think out of the box in anything I do.
Electronic production is still massively male-dominated – have there been any barriers to you doing it as a woman?
Nah not really. Early on people would go [sucks teeth] “who’s this girl?” and “you can’t make beats” but I don’t mind if they underestimate me, you know? The music speaks for itself. Even now I get people saying “Flava D’s a girl??” – not so much now since my picture’s actually been online or whatever, but a bit. But I never said “heyyy I’m a female producer” – I was just sending beats out, and all they’d see was the name, Flava D, nothing to say I it was a female. That’s probably a good thing in a way, because people might think if you’re a female you’re using it to your advantage or something…
From other producers’ experience, girls are damned if they do and damned if they don’t – if you look one way you’re using your looks, if you look another you’re trying to be a man…
Mmm, it’s a lot more judgemental in some ways. I don’t really let that affect me though.
Elijah: You don’t have that problem that much anyway, because the music is the answer if people say this or that. Someone might have that problem if they’ve just got one or two tunes out, but if you’re doing ten new tracks every month or two, and they’re good, then it speaks for itself and it’s not judged on whether you’re female or male. We played on that with the first release, in the picture all you could see is the hat and the hair, and we didn’t allude to male or female.
[Laughs] Yeah, “Flava D the producer”. I liked that.
So what are your ambitions in the short and long term now you have this platform?
That’s hard, because a lot of the things I set out wanting to do, I’ve achieved, I am doing them now. I always wanted to DJ in different places and now I can – up to about six months ago I’d never even flown in a plane before, then the first time I did was to Israel for a DJ booking. That was cool. I’ve been to quite a few places already in just that time and that was a big, big goal for me. I’m kind of enjoying being in this position at the moment, because it’s where I’ve always wanted to be – seeing new places, playing to different people, having them enjoy and understand what we make.
I’m sure you’re not resting on your laurels though – you must think about practical next steps?
Yeah yeah, I do, I’m always thinking about building my brand and stuff, keep expanding what I do. I’d like to have my own club night, and I want to work a lot more with vocalists – like, in the studio, not just them emailing me an acapella and me building something. When I play on a keyboard, I want to have a singer there with me to create… I don’t know what the word is…
You want to jam in the studio!
If you do a proper Flava D album, packaged, released on CD etc, do you have an idea of what that would be like?
It would be a lot like the Volume 5 download I’ve just put out – obviously UK garage based, with a mixture of UK bass and soul all merged into one, experimental electronic bassy stuff. That’s pretty much it, that’s my sound. [laughs]
And do you feel that the scene and industry are receptive for the kind of thing you’re doing right now?
Definitely, definitely, the current producers seem to be experimenting now, they’re making slower tunes, making things more bassy – My Nu Leng, Development, Hybrid Theory, they’re all doing bass-housey slower stuff with grime elements, that kind of thing. And that’s me all over: I’m trying to make slower more experimental stuff, with house and garage beats, but with the original grime elements in. You can please more than one crowd, house heads and grime heads; if you flip the grime sounds and slow it down then you can win: you can get those different crowds and bring them together on liking the same thing – and that’s why it’s popping off right now I think.
Flava D plays Butterz’s takeover of Fabric Room 1 on August 8th. Details here.