All day on FACT, we’re celebrating The Bug! For more, check out Kuedo, Mala and more on their favourite Kevin Martin records, Maya Kalev’s in-depth interview and the full stream of his new album Angels & Devils.
Two and a half years in the making, London Zoo is noise veteran Kevin Martin’s second album working solo as The Bug, and the follow up to last year’s triptych of brilliant singles, ‘Jah War’, ‘Skeng’ and ‘Poison Dart’.
Zoo‘s far from an easy listen, and its danceable moments are outnumbered by those of ominous production and uncompromising MCing, but like Burial, Martin is another London-based producer who’s successfully defined his own sound, and even when his vision appears narrow it increases in inimitability. FACT spoke to Kevin about the collaborative process behind the album, how it relates to the vibes of the capital, and the pressure he felt following his previous album, 2003’s Pressure.
So how do you feel now that your album’s finished and almost out?
Relieved! It’s taken two to two and a half years, and taken way too long. I got lost left, right and centre along the way, but ultimately now I can see it as a finished item: artwork, titles, music, the mastered cut… And I think it’s alright! [laughs]
What do you mean you got lost along the way?
It became a real challenge; I had an original idea where the album would just be me, Warrior [Queen] and Ras B – the people I’d dealt with as regular vocalists. That changed after the Mary Anne Hobbs session, where I had a lot of guests and found that a really interesting way to work… And then I guess seeing the popularity of ‘Jah War’, ‘Skeng’ and ‘Poison Dart’ within dubstep land, I felt a certain amount of pressure that maybe I’d have to emulate those with other tracks like them, and I started stupidly trying to make tracks in a similar fashion.
At the turn of the year I had a few personal revelations, like I wanted to finally do an album that would stand up as an album, as a narrative, something with emotional impact that feels like it’s got depth of sentiment in it as opposed to a collection of dancehall singles. It definitely went through different periods of change; I mean I’ve got a whole other album’s worth of material that isn’t on here, so there was a lot of editing and revocalling and rewriting the rhythms… It became a really intense endeavour, more so than I imagined.
You’re right that it stands out as a cohesive album; it feels ominous and even apocalyptic on tracks like ‘Murder We’ and ‘Judgement’… Is that a fair reflection of the vision you wanted to get across?
It just became obvious the more I was working on it that it tied in with my views of London; it owed so much to London and my experience of the city in so many different ways. I mean, my personal experience over the last couple of years has been pretty raw, having to live in a single room, which was my studio and had neither shower nor kitchen. I had to join a gym for a shower and had to eat out all the bastard time; it’s been intense, and that’s reflected very much in the record.
Anyone who’s got their eyes open right now can see what’s happening to Britain and America at the moment, it’s like the fall of the Roman Empire seeing capitalism finally come up face to face with the repercussions of its rampant greed. Anyone I know living here – maybe I’m mixing in the wrong groups, but everyone I fucking know is struggling to pay the bills or the rent, or are up to their ears in debt… Just suffering really, and that’s definitely reflected in the feeling within this record, and me coming to terms with my time in London, because this is the first time I’ve actively thought that maybe I should move away from here, and that’s still on my mind.
I’m in the same situation – I’ve been toying with moving up North.
Glasgow’s got a great feeling going on; people are a bit warmer up there, you know? London’s a very severe city – it’s a city that’s got so much to offer and has so much beauty in it, but…
It’s a double edged sword.
Yeah, it’s absolutely ugly at the same time. I know a lot of people in London, but I’ve got very few close friends and I think people, generally in a city like this, they move to it to take what they can – to try and make what they can in a short period of time, so there’s this really exhausting sense of friction and conflict all the time, and intense relationships; fast, fucked-up relationships with people and with the environment.
I think London’s an anti-social city – it’s not even a twenty four hour city. Everyone when they move to London expects it to be twenty four hour, but it’s not at all. Berlin or Tokyo or New York, they all come across as twenty four hour cities, but London’s not remotely like that, and it’s policed to the max.
I don’t know where this idea of London as a twenty four hour city comes from anyway, if you’re in Shoreditch on a weeknight there’s nothing to do past 3am. It’s a complete myth, and when I have friends visit from out of town they’re always surprised at how little there is to do at that time.
I’ve had exactly the same experience, with people coming from Europe and wanting to go to a bar, and I’m like ‘well there’s no bars open now, but we can go to a shit club with a fucking rank sound system…’ For the rampantly rich London is paradise I guess, because you can take it for what it’s got, but unfortunately I’ve never been in that position [laughs] and neither have the people I hang with. It torments you and tortures you in that it promises you so much…
But it’s out of reach.
Exactly. So I think a lot of those sentiments shine through on this record – obviously when you finish an album you tend to look back on it and think ‘what was this getting at’ and ‘what was I trying to do’ by selecting certain tracks and leaving off certain tracks; it’s very much like when you’re trying to put a picture together.
I’m really aware that people have attempted to suck me into dubstep – and sure there’s a lot I like about dubstep; I’ve made some really cool friends and I really admire a lot of the producers – but this isn’t a fucking dubstep album. It exists in its own sphere; I wanted it to be much more than just a collection of dancefloor singles. I love it when Bug tunes are going off in a club; it’s been fucking brilliant to see people’s reactions to some of the singles, but I knew I wanted much more than that.
Records like Public Enemy’s albums meant so much to me as a production thing, and a political thing, and a stylistic thing, and as a reflection of where they came from. I remember the first time I heard Yo! Bum Rush the Show it gave me a fucking headache both sonically and mentally; I didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about; the lyrics were so geographically and socially specific, it was like a transmission from another planet and it really intrigued me. I want everything, I’m greedy with music in that I like the instant appeal, but also I like something that stands up to listens and that you won’t get bored of two or three listens down the line.
What’s always struck me about your music is that it sounds like there’s more to the collaboration between producer and MC than just you making a beat and then giving it to someone to rap over. But then I remember reading an interview with you a couple of years ago where you said that apart from with Cutty Ranks on ‘Gun Disease’ that’s basically what you did. Has that process changed since then?
I think I’m even more interested in on-going collaborations with the MCs I’m working with – it’s just finding the right people to work with who I believe have a special voice and have something to say. I think that’s a crucial part of what I want to do. Even Tippa [Irie], who was the only one on the album whom I had no prior collaborative relationship with, we were still able to get the message across to each other in terms of me calling him, talking about the project and the kind of sentiment I’d want from him, and he came in with the most incredible lyrics that surprised a lot of people that know him. I’ve played that track to a lot of Tippa fans who were stunned by the direction he went in with it.
It’s nice; it feels like a two way dialogue in that respect. I don’t want to end up in that sort of rent-a-rapper situation; it feels like these are friends on the album, it’s not just a fucking cold producer’s album. Most producer-led albums fall really short for me; more often than not they try and lure in people who cost a lot of money and seem to have gone into the studio and given them their weakest lyrics and weakest performances, and you end up with this half-instrumental, half-lame vocal album. I obviously didn’t want to end up with that sort of record, and it was a real challenge to make this feel cohesive in mood and sentiment and continue the collaborations with these gifted vocalists. I feel really fortunate man, that the core vocalists I work with, like Warrior Queen, Flowdan and Ricky Ranking, they’re incredibly talented at what they do and that makes me work harder.
Similarly with Loefah, sharing studio space and running BASH at Plastic People, that was intense for me, you know? I met someone from a totally different area but with the same hunger for coming up with stuff that was innovative and heavy and intense, and more to the point he was coming up with amazing productions that made me look at my own production and think I’ve got to pull my finger out…
I remember talking to Flowdan a while ago, and he said that you’d originally wanted to work with Riko…
That’s true, I’d called Roll Deep’s manager to ask for Riko and he said they couldn’t get him but that I should try Flowdan. I liked Flowdan’s stuff; I wasn’t aware of all his verses but I’d definitely clocked that he was good, and then I checked him at the Mary Anne Hobbs session and he had exactly the right intensity for my style of production… It’s ridiculous how his voice and my style seem to compliment each other; it’s bizarre. For me he really is like a British Cutty Ranks, and from me that’s major praise, because Cutty’s one of my favourite MCs ever and I think Flowdan’s got that same special ingredient.
Were there any MCs you wanted to get on the record but couldn’t?
Yeah, I’ve been trying to work with Roots Manuva for a ridiculous amount of years – for my last three albums I’ve tried to get him on but I’ve been blocked by various people.
Even with the Ricky Ranking connection?
Well Roots Manuva’s very much his own person, you know? Ricky played him ‘Poison Dart’ and ‘Murder We’ off the album, and I know that Roots was really feeling those tunes, which is fucking brilliant as far as I’m concerned. I’d love to make a tune with Dizzee Rascal, but I think Dizzee’s too stellar now. Unless he heard my stuff and went apeshit for it, I don’t think he’s even worth approaching.
And at the moment I’d love to do a tune with Taliban Trim. Trim’s just fucking next level, but with what happened on his latest Soulfood mix [Trim’s track ‘The Low Down’ where he has a pop at Flowdan] I’d feel like that was a knife in the back to Flow…
Trim’s incredible though, no one can touch him right now…
At the moment he’s incredible, he’s like a mad mixture of Roots Manuva, Tricky and Lee Perry or something. And he’s chosen really well in his producers which makes the album stand up well; I don’t think the dancehall tunes he picks are the sort of things I’d want in a DJ set, but for listening to at home or on an iPod I’m loving them.
I don’t know if there are any other grime MCs who’ll put out a mixtape with them rapping over Radioclit dancehall remixes and Dusk and Blackdown tracks.
I think [Soulfood] Volume 3’s fucking brilliant. The last six months, because of the workload, I haven’t been able to listen to as much music as I normally do, but that and the latest Erika Badu and Flying Lotus records are really floating my boat. And it’s funny, because I feel more in common with those records than I do the Skream and Benga albums – those two have got amazing tracks on them, but with Trim and Lotus and Badu, it’s like you’re entering their world. And it’s coincidental that these records have come along at the same time as mine’s finished – I mean Flying Lotus has called his album Los Angeles, and I’ve gone with the London Zoo thing… It’s a funny parallel.
I’m loving this whole bleep-hop shit too: Rustie, Zomby, Hudson Mohawke… Finally, tripped-out trip-hop! That stuff’s blowing my head off, and it’s part of the lineage of hip-hop, pushing it forward. But it’s difficult at the moment to find stuff that’s stimulating.
Going back to your album, it feels like an accumulation of your work under the Bug name so far. Maybe not so much Tapping the Conversation because that seems so long ago…
Well that’s like an aberration…
I like it, but it doesn’t feel like a Bug record to me.
I’m glad you’re picking up on what I feel, which is that this is definitely an extension of Pressure. I mean, Tapping the Conversation, you’re one of the few people who know that record, and that was an all out experiment for me to learn how to engineer my own material; it was really a functional experiment. Where as when I started Pressure I was trying to find my own solo voice, and I wanted to join the dots and make it absolutely clear to people how much everything I’d ever done owed to dub. I had this soundsystem that I’d walked away from a deal on Warner Bros with, and I wanted to make music that would sound good on that system. I wanted to do something that I hadn’t heard anywhere else; no one else I knew was into ragga. Everyone around me was totally shocked when I started working with that sort of shit, but they were into it. I surprised myself; it’s not totally logical but that was part of the appeal in itself, it was a challenge.
I think Pressure was me discovering my own voice, and this one is like ‘okay, I know what I can do, how can I extend that, and build on it and make it better?’ For me it was really important to work with song structures on this. I come from a background that’s anti-song and I’m enjoying the challenge of that; working with songs and still being interesting rather than fucking predictable.
There were a lot of challenges for me in trying to make this record, and when you asked earlier about crisis within making this record, well I felt a lot of pressure because of Pressure. Pressure blew up way beyond my expectations, not just critically but also in the manner that producers and artists who I really respected suddenly started to vocally pay tribute to it. It was like how do I make a record that’s better than that, and I did get a bit fucked in the head about it at one point; worrying beyond belief whether it was possible for me to make a better record than Pressure. But now I honestly, genuinely feel like this is the next step onwards.
Originally posted in 2008