When I wrote the How Drum’n’Bass Got its Groove Back feature for FACT last year, my motivation came from a combination of excitement for the music as a fan and personal engagement with it as a writer.
This engagement arose primarily from my friendship with Jim Coles, known by then as Om Unit, and the fact we shared a flat together in London around the time he began the Philip D. Kick project. There was also something in the air, and we all felt it and lived it in different ways. Writing the feature was my way of contributing to what was being shared in the music.
The ideas discussed in the piece still feel valid a year on. Instead of the bubble bursting around this new movement, as part of me feared, artists like Om Unit and dBridge have continued to do their thing in a very natural way, inspiring and fostering others around them. Coles’ work has captured the attention of other drum’n’bass godfathers too, like Ray Keith and Goldie. The latter invited Coles to contribute to Metalheadz’s Platinum Breaks series in 2013, inadvertently sparking a relationship that has since led to two more releases. First was a short three-track 12” of brooding and icy drum’n’bass in late 2013, followed by a longer EP this November – eight tracks across two 12”s – that acts as a statement from Coles on both his junglist roots and his current state within the scene.
Titled Inversions, the release has been in the works for most of the past year, and comes with a rather telling endorsement from Goldie: he gave Coles DATs from his archive to use in the recordings. Considering Goldie’s legendary status within drum’n’bass, you could easily see this as a sort of generational torch passing, however Coles isn’t one to be so easily pigeon-holed. Now that we no longer live together, I caught up with Coles during a recent US tour in support of the record to discuss the music, the legacy he was entrusted with, his newfound position within a scene that inspired him as a youth, and the repercussions of the ideas discussed in last year’s feature. (Note: Om Unit’s also just dropped a rattling FACT mix, touching on many of the sounds namechecked below)
Can you discuss how you connected with Goldie, and how you ended up with some of his old DATs to use for this record?
Initially I was hit up by the old Metalheadz manager, Chris, to submit a tune for the Platinum Breaks compilation. That ended up being ‘Timelines’, the first track I made for them. And it just worked out that it took a while for it to come out, and in the meantime Ant TC1 took over running the label. We’d spoken a little, connected, and I made more stuff I felt… all this stuff I’ve done for them, I’ve kind of had the MHZ hat on. So the last record I made, the 12” with ‘Sleepwalkers’ and ‘Grey Skies Over Chicago,’ that was sort of the next step.
Throughout all this process I’d been speaking to Goldie about meeting up. I think he’s one of those spontaneous people and he was also super-busy with his life, so it didn’t work out. I really wanted to get in the studio with him and I think he figured out he was just too busy, but he wanted to help me out in a way. He opened up, we spoke about my take on what d’n’b is, I confided in him about my life as a teenager and how much his music meant to me at the time. And it felt like he definitely wanted to make this happen, I think he felt perhaps a connection of some sort. We just got to know each other, a personal relationship, and he wanted to help to foster that creativity. So I got access to some old DATs, and he gave me extra bits and pieces too, things re-recorded back in from old sessions. So I’ve got these folders full of sounds. As it goes, I didn’t use too much, just little touches.
You talked about using them as flavouring in the press release.
Yeah, salt and pepper. I had a lot of the stuff already made, and it was a question of finding the right things to add. Came out good, I think. On ‘Bardo Realms’ it’s actually Goldie singing. The vocal is him in the studio back in the 1990s with lots of reverb, just singing. It’s cool that it features Goldie’s voice from 15, 20 years ago, you know?
When we saw each other in the summer, you mentioned feeling happy to have written this record more freely, with less sense of having this ‘hat’ on that you’ve mentioned.
To a certain extent, yeah. I still had the hat on in terms of the aesthetic of it, but I definitely felt that after the last record I did for them I needed to go my way a little bit more. Just to explore that deeper, and I think I got there. I didn’t know what the record was until after I finished it, and I realise now that it’s more of a statement of my own reflection on what d’n’b meant to me as a kid, and what it means to me now. And how these two things can be married. Yeah…
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How did you get the idea of having Jehst on there?
I wanted to do a vocal tune and I’d been speaking to Jehst since the Project Mooncircle Boiler Room. We’ve known each other for years, but we reconnected then. That was last summer. I had this idea, very spontaneous, of getting Jehst on a d’n’b type track for Metalheadz. I thought it’d be a mad thing to do, not that out there but kinda…
It’s pretty nerdy in a way, especially to those of us who’ve followed your career.
Yeah. He’s a legendary vocalist, and doesn’t necessarily move in those circles at all. So trying to marry those two things is… I don’t know what the word is. I did it just out of curiosity too. His cadence on the beat is interesting, it throws you at first – if you listen a few times you understand where he’s coming from. It’s an odd marriage but it works. And then there’s a quote from Alan Watts at the end of the song, a long one, from his legendary talks from back in the day.
That brought me back to your 2tall roots, the work you did in between being a kid infatuated with jungle and finding a place in d’n’b as an adult.
For sure. It goes back to the work I did with Foreign Beggars too, all the 2tall stuff. It touches on it for sure.
That track almost feels like you tipping your hat to those 2tall years.
I think so. I suppose I’m bringing a little of that into… it’s more using my experience perhaps to bring something else into the picture I think.
Whose idea was it to interpolate Mobb Deep’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ on the vocals?
That was me. I sat with him and told him. It’d been in my mind for years, “there’s a war going on inside.” I feel like… you know, that’s today. People struggle with, so much, being true to themselves and how… I called it ‘The War’ because we are at war with our natural selves. Anyone who scratches the surface of life can see how completely fucked things are. So it’s a little bit of a statement, but I didn’t want to make it too preachy. I think it’s still radio friendly, but it’s also obscure, and I love obscure hip hop. I love… you know me, I’ve got no time for MCs who leave you depressed!
Was the label supportive of it?
They were. Ant kinda loosely knows Jehst, I think, or certainly knows of him. Metalheadz have given me a lot of free range with the record, very open to… they’ve respected me and my vision. Goldie was giving me feedback through the process but even he was really hands off, they let me do my thing. I’ve been fortunate in that respect I feel.
Do you think that’s perhaps due to your outsider position, the way you came into the scene from a different angle to most people?
I guess so… I suppose I am an outsider in that world, but then I also have… I seem to be getting a lot of appreciation and a lot of love at shows from people who’ve been d’n’b heads for a long time. Saying I’m bringing back elements that people missed, which isn’t something I did intentionally. All I did really is put in stuff I like, and people just share in that. I suppose you can do that as an outsider. If your bread and butter is being a d’n’b DJ for example, if that’s how you choose to label yourself – if you’re happy in that box and it works for you, that’s cool, but it’s never been my thing. I’ve never liked being categorised, and it’s kept me moving and inspired. It keeps things more natural for me, and perhaps Metalheadz recognised that. They’re happy having this outsider guy. I feel like a hired gun in a way.
Well, you’ve never been the sort of person to settle into a groove for very long. And it’s perhaps why you’ve helped to catalyse some of the things I discussed in my d’n’b piece last year.
Yeah it’s part of the journey for me, part of my personal… it’s a personal record, a reflection on the past. There’s a nostalgic element to it all. And at the risk of sounding like a culture vulture, it’s part of my journey. I could easily be labelled that…
Right, but you were a fan 20 years ago. So no.
Ha ha, yeah fair enough. I was chopping up amens in 1994, so… (laughs) deal with it! I’ve had no negativity on that front anyways.
I wanted to touch on the core idea behind that piece from last year: this perfect storm of influences and ideas since the late 2000s with Autonomic, footwork, the Philip D Kick bootlegs and how it has been brought to life by yourself and others like dBridge, Mark Pritchard, Fracture, Sinistarr etc… do you feel that there’s still energy in that confluence or is it perhaps starting to run a bit dry?
I think that nothing ever stopped moving. I think that perhaps we’ve all inspired people in different ways. I definitely hear a lot more music that fits in with that template we helped create. And to me that template includes using hip hop as a cadence, infusing footwork elements, programming stuff in a footwork way, definitely bringing back breaks, and also using more synth lines, approaching things in a different way. So I’m hearing more stuff that fits within that, and likely it’s because we’ve inspired people, by virtue of some of us being outsiders.
Sam [Binga], I think he was inspired by the collaboration we did. I wanted to get in the studio with him and I suggested 160/170 as a tempo. He comes from house/disco with his collaboration with Behling, but also breaks with the Baobinga name. He was already trying to open that up into different things, playing with sublow, grime and dubstep influences as he lives in Bristol. He had all these influences that he wanted to bring up, and I think when we did the Small Victories EP for Exit it helped him solidify those ideas and run with them, develop his own take. Charlie [Fracture], I think he was turned on by footwork and ran with it. And when we met up, we did some work together but really we just have a mutual respect for classic jungle and again taking it forward. He took Astrophonica and used it to break himself out of the box too. I know he was fed up with doing the same old thing. So there’s certainly been a synergy that has helped to refresh things a bit. I don’t want to say we’re a new school or anything because I always… people give me credit or try to say I changed d’n’b, and it’s like no, no, no! It’s all about dBridge. He’s the godfather of all this, he was pushing the envelope way back and really he’s just the godfather of this whole switch. He might not admit himself but…
Well, dBridge and Charlie are in that position where d’n’b has been their bread and butter for a decade or more. They’re in a position that people like you, Sam or Machinedrum aren’t in. They have to find the necessary wiggle room within the scene to do new things without endangering how they live.
Yeah, I don’t know if they really feel like that, but I get it. It might be an easy thing to feel but that in itself is part of the problem. It’s a mental trap. It’s a trap bro!
I seem to remember dBridge saying there were periods in between his leaving Bad Company and Autonomic starting were he got a bit disheartened in a way. And the Exit back catalogue shows that, how they tried different things. It’s all of this that helped bring this switch about. But then these movements have a habit of solidifying sooner or later, of becoming a thing instead of an alternative to a status quo.
I have to also mention others like Stray or Alix Perez, a whole bunch of people. Everyone has their own unique sound still, and that’s the great thing. You know when it’s an Alix Perez tune, or a Chimpo track. Or maybe that’s me… But in terms of a movement or whatever, I don’t know if it’s really that. It’s still under the umbrella of d’n’b, and I know what you’re saying about how things solidify and become the next thing, but this stuff is pretty weird! It’s a little too… people that are into d’n’b want to rage at 170. That’s the life. D’n’b fans are high-octane people. The stuff we do is always going to be a niche pocket within that. I don’t think it’s a case of being accepted, we all get the nod from fans and artists, but the bottom line is that it always goes back to the uptempo and classic styles. So we’re safe in that respect, I don’t think anyone has pretentions of being the next big thing or next new thing. It’s not “aspirational” from our side. And it’s also not necessarily a big deal. It’s just a cool thing that’s happening and I don’t think it needs to be the next thing. I could be wrong but I don’t see it happening.
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What we define as a ‘big thing’ or the ‘next thing’ has changed from what we meant ten, fifteen years ago. D’n’b, and most other big umbrella genres have grown to worldwide movements, the industry has changed, the relations between artists and fans have changed – so it’s true that something like what you’ve been involved in is more about niche movements under these bigger umbrellas, which is really applicable to so many other movements of the past five years or so.
Things are broad now, they’re in parallel. There’s perhaps an element of curiosity. And to a certain extent it’s also excitement about something that feels fresh. So it’s working out. I’m having a good time and I’m busy. But the cool thing about the shows I’ve been doing is people coming up and requesting more obscure remixes, older tunes, and I’ll play them and they get a good response. And I think that speaks volumes about the change of the landscape. Some people are tribal about d’n’b, it’s their life, but the majority of people, especially older crowds, are more open minded, and happy to listen to whatever’s good.
A lot of the feedback from that piece followed a similar line of thinking. And it’s worth pointing out, because you can’t always namecheck everyone, that there have always been people within d’n’b trying to push the music like that. There have always been people not wanting to be stuck in the ‘this is what works, let’s cut another 12” of it and sell it’. Amit was one I didn’t get a chance to mention.
Yeah, Amit from day dot. For me, I don’t think it’s useful to put a start on ‘it.’ Like this is the latest embodiment of an old idea. We all have our own individual journeys, I don’t think there’s necessarily a period of time that you can pinpoint as a start. You could argue 2010, 2011 was a starting place but then go back a bit and you have people like Genotype, whose Exit album is to me like the shit we do now, Amit who we mentioned. Digital is another. Loxy. There’s quite a few.
Well, the one starting point is when drum’n’bass comes into being after rave split off. For me, the idea was more to try and tell a self-contained story and that requires marking some sort of beginnings, some sort of temporal boundary.
Yes, but loosely. People do like a linear story, a narrative, but I’m trying to disrupt that in a way by underlining that it didn’t come out of nowhere. I have to give respect, and especially because of this outsider position I’m in. I feel like… it’s almost like I made a backdoor move. I never sent a demo, I was approached by the label… I never really hustled for this, it just happened, I don’t even know how I got into the position. Just naturally. I got to acknowledge and name these names because they’re the people that were – and still are – doing their own thing in the face of expectations, perhaps. And without disillusionment too. It’s funny… there are a lot of people in the d’n’b world who have been around for a long time and are quite disillusioned by it all. And I think that there are a few people that have been at it for a long time who are happy to just be doing their own thing. People like Digital. He’s a good example. He’s a good case study of someone who’s free with it.
A telling thing about many of those who are outsiders so to speak – you, Mark, Boxcutter, Machinedrum – is that you’ve all got personal histories with jungle and d’n’b. And it’s how things collided in a way in these past few years that allowed you all to express your love for the music at the right time, alongside those who were in the thick of it all along.
Totally. There are people embedded within the scene who get what we’re trying to do.
And perhaps there’s a similar story in the whole beats thing that happened in the late 2000s.
Yeah, that’s a good parallel to draw. People who made hip hop that was considered elsewhere, out of the frame, weird shit.
To see someone like Prefuse get the props he does today for seeding the new generation reminds me of what you just said about Digital. And I also felt it when I met Mad Mike in Detroit, or Waajeed. People like that are still on a very personal journey. It’s a universal story in a sense, a story of creativity.
It is. And it’s about individualism in a sense. Some people are happy to be part of a big family, and being in it, and some people are just perhaps more reclusive and want to maintain autonomy.
Is an element of that also about developing your own self as an artist?
Definitely. This is a stop on my journey. And I want to emphasise that isn’t meant to devalue d’n’b or what I’m doing. Life always keeps changing, there are many different approaches to art. Some people like the comfort and longevity of being part of a thing, and certain people don’t. Myself, Mark Pritchard too, it’s perhaps more about a personal reflection upon the music. There’s a word for that…I can’t place it. Like being a voyeur and keeping things at arm’s length to a certain extent. Reflecting all the time upon the changing landscape. I see what I’ve been doing as almost reinterpreting the landscape in my own way. I feel like I’m drawing from, and contributing from, a tertiary perspective, you know? That’s how I feel.
What do you make of the idea that limitation breeds innovation? It’s something you know from your own experience, learning to make music and produce at a time when things weren’t widely available, so I wonder if you still tap into it, if you still draw from those lessons.
I just bought an Akai S1000 recently. I think it’s important to limit yourself in a technical way. In a way, back in the day we had no choice. You had to learn, you had to make do with what you had. When you put boundaries around things, choose certain goalposts, and discipline yourself to stick to it, it will foster a kind of… if you put limitations on something, it makes you having to maximise elsewhere. It’s like having too much money, what the fuck do you do with yourself? If you’re in a studio with all the plugins and all the hardware, you can get lost in that. It’s overwhelming. Mentally. Considering the options. People who use analogue gear, synths and drum machines, they tend to stick with the tried and tested means of writing music that have given us many of the classics. Machines, mixer, press record and go. You jam out, dub things out in a way. Once it’s in the can, it’s done. And original jungle had this too. Stories I’ve heard, people would go into the studio with a lot of samples, throw them together, using a desk and it had to be recorded to DAT through the desk. No audio editing, it had to sound good, ride and work. And because of those limitations you come out with something that’s frozen in time and is done. Technology has definitely changed that in the way you can always go back and edit. Forever. But in my experience that makes you lose the vibe, it’s harder to be spontaneous. You can either disappear into your head, or overproduce…
Or also just toe the line too much. Learning to produce the sound/genre you like perfectly instead of stumbling towards that goal more haphazardly.
Some of it is great, it’s not all bad. There’s nothing more to it. We can still enjoy music from 30 years ago. Good music stands the test of time. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. A lot of it is the illusion of convenience. It doesn’t help artists to make things more convenient. And everybody has a choice, you can choose if you wanted to, to strictly work with only three machines. It’s self-discipline. You can be spartan with your set up and creativity over having it all. The choice is cool, and that’s it. The status quo right now, there’s an emphasis by those selling the gear to get all these things. But as you mature as an artist, you quickly look into different ways of doing things. For everybody it’s a personal choice. And there’s so much choice now, which is a positive and negative thing. Perhaps too much choice. Ultimately it’s the responsibility of the artist to find their own way.
I wanted to close with your label Cosmic Bridge and the work you’ve done on it these past few years. It’s been three years since you started it, so how you feeling about it all?
I feel we’ve been slow. We’ve done about three records a year. But it’s been quite natural. No rush. Next year it’s something I’d like to emphasise more. Pick up the pace with it. I see the label as a means for me to foster talent, outside of my own work. I’ve definitely felt like I wanted to keep things separate between the label and my own stuff, it can be risky to mix it up too much. That statement is based on self-doubt more than anything else. Having an outsider to help you choose your music to release can be more useful in terms of packaging a product. That can be hard, packaging a product. I’m getting better at it, but having that external voice helps, whether it’s tracklisting or whatever. Thinking outside the box on your behalf. Now though I feel like perhaps the time has come to do some solo stuff on the label. I’ve fulfilled my deal with Civil Music, so we’ll see. I’ve got a lot of autonomy now, so perhaps I can take a risk now and change things up. I’m working on new stuff that’s different to the recent work, not hugely different but freer. I like the idea of seeing how that goes.
Is the idea still to keep the family small or…
Couple new faces actually. An EP from a guy called Grafts, coming out in December. Announcing that soon. He’s next up. And then we’re expanding for sure. I don’t see the label as having a set roster. Each record has its own vibe for me. It’s a funny one. It’s weird… I feel like I can’t do people justice by keeping them on the label or having them be associated with it too hard. That’s why I’m happy for the artists to do their own thing elsewhere. I’m happy for people to use the label as a stepping stone, I don’t try and own anyone.
It seems a more realistic approach to what a label, especially one like this, should be today.
For sure. It’s an outlet for which I A&R basically. If anyone comes to me with new stuff, I’ll consider it. But there’s only so much I can offer people, so that’s why I consider it as just a way of helping to break new stuff more than offering a career to anyone. Over time we’ve developed an identity but it’s a slow process.