The year is 2004 and dubstep hasn’t yet broken beyond a core following, mostly around London’s FWD>>.
While the scene has already attracted its share of eccentrics, from Kode9 to Kevin Martin, the sound is still perceived as grime’s weird cousin, created by moody, skunk-smoking lads in hoodies. Move closer to Plastic People’s DJ booth on a Thursday however, and you’re likely to see a couple of odd-looking misfits flailing to the rhythms in complete abandon, completely subverting the stereotype of the moody, urban raver. So begins the Skull Disco story.
Shackleton and Appleblim were among the first to bring an outside perspective to the rapidly growing dubstep scene. Appleblim was a musical omnivore who’d both attended Metalheadz’ seminal D&B nights at Blue Note and played bass in a post-rock band. Shackleton emerged from a DIY scene with roots in punk and anarchist politics, launching Skull Disco as a semi-legal party in Hackney before deciding to self-release an early production, with an Appleblim track on the B-flip.
From this first release, Skull Disco would not only push dubstep to its breaking point, making records darker and weirder than their peers, they’d also introduce the genre to an audience unfamiliar with London’s urban music scene thanks to their unique aesthetic and affiliate Zeke Clough’s eye catching artwork. Then, as dubstep evolved, expanded and later calcified, Skull Disco found kindred spirits both at the genre’s fringes – serving as an inspiration for labels like Hessle Audio and Hemlock – and also beyond them. Berlin’s storied Hard Wax record store was a particularly vocal champion, and Skull Disco records soon found a warmer reception among techno DJs than in dubstep circles.
Perhaps most crucially, the label knew when to quit, wrapping things up at a concise 10 singles (and a few helpful compilations) and avoiding much of the confusion and mediocrity that followed as dubstep dissolved. Here, we look at those 10 releases to highlight just what the label did differently and how it shifted dubstep’s path to the left at a time when so many contemporaries were moving towards more accessible sounds.
Special thanks to Blackdown’s seminal interviews with both Shackleton and Appleblim and Red Bull Music Academy’s lecture with Appleblim for filling in certain historical details.
Shackleton / Appleblim
‘I Am Animal’ / ‘Mystical Warrior’
Released in 2005 as dubstep first began to expand beyond the nucleus of Croydon producers that birthed it, the first Skull Disco single saw FWD>> and DMZ attendees Shackleton and Appleblim go from ravers to contributors, a leap that would define the genre’s second generation. At this stage, the Digital Mystikz influence looms large in both Shackleton’s rolling, percussive workouts and in Appleblim’s ultra-heavy, half-step crawl, but both producers also bring in ideas then radical to a genre that was just beginning to develop its own identity.
Shackleton’s ‘I am Animal’ takes the re-engineered jungle rollage of early Hatcha sets to its (il)logical conclusion, negating the garage vibe entirely and replacing it with obsessively detailed skunk-fueled tribalism. Even at this early juncture, he’s already pushing forward in his own direction, toning down DMZ’s dub reggae influence in favor of the hyper detailed drum programming that would become his hallmark.
On the flip, Appleblim’s ‘Mystical Warrior’ is a classic proto-wobbler, combining one of the genre’s signature bass lines with minor key chanting half way between an evil cultist and righteous rasta. Though comparatively easier to mix in a set thanks to its tech-step influence and half step drum pattern, it still stood comfortably to the left of genre-standard Tempa releases thanks to a 2 minute long intro and a darkness that was more terrifying than sexy. When early critics dismissed the FWD>> sound as nothing more than “slow drum & bass” they might well have been speaking about ‘Mystical Warrior’, except you couldn’t dismiss it.
Shackleton / Appleblim
Perhaps the most startling thing about Shackleton’s ‘Majestic Visions’ is just how organic it sounds. Whereas Digital Mystikz and Loefah sought to stretch the definition of garage to its limits through dread, darkness and unconventional rhythms, ‘Majestic Visions’ took those innovations as a mere starting point, barely sounding like club music at all. The Middle Eastern melodies, unusual percussion, and influences from dub reggae and techno all come together to create a truly surreal sonic environment, anticipating Shackleton’s success among experimental music heads.
Appleblim’s contributions are again more indebted to the rave, reflecting his passion and enthusiasm for a scene Shackleton kept a safe distance from. As strange as it is to think of in hindsight, it’s easy imagine both ‘Cheat I’ and ‘Girder’ landing in a particularly heady Skream and Benga set, given that Appleblim repurposed the duo’s cold, metallic bass lines – then a shockingly new sound. This exchange of ideas – centered around FWD>> – was a key element of what made the dubstep scene so vital ahead of its fracturing into opposing factions. It was also the only place where you could merge ‘Girder”s gothic dancehall to dissonant drones and get a positive crowd response.
Soundboy’s Nuts Get Ground Up Proper E.P.
Up until this point, Skull Disco was a dubstep label; it was a particularly freewheeling one with one hell of a punk streak, but nothing could prepare listeners for Soundboy’s Nuts get Ground up Proper. An all-Shackleton affair, the EP removed the build ups, introductions and concessions to DJing and mixing; in their place, listeners were thrown headfirst into sounds completely divorced from London dance music. The record drew on drone, spoken word, ambient, and anti-colonialist rhetoric – not quite music made for a night out – and yet it still retained the essential traits that made the FWD>> sound so gripping.
A meditative poem set to rolling South Asian tablas, muted textures, and all enveloping sub frequencies, ‘Blood on My Hands’ sounded like nothing else out there, and to be frank, it still doesn’t. The label’s signature tune was also a political statement in a genre that rarely sought to comment on contemporary issues. The lyrical references to “seeing the towers fall” didn’t spell out an explicit agenda, but instead forced the listener to contemplate reality outside the dance at the height of Britain’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan – though they were more likely to hear it played by clued-in dub techno enthusiasts than dubstep heads (more on that later).
The rest of the EP continued to flesh out Shackleton’s personal vision, pushing past his previous experiments with the DMZ sound into more idiosyncratic territory, with a particular emphasis on the Levant. ‘Naked’ and ‘Hypno Angel’ again reference the Middle East through their percussion, vocal samples and melodies, but they also includes the heaviest drops in Shackleton’s career, and both are absolute gut shakers if heard on the right system. After the A-side’s massive curveball, they were a potent reminder that Skull Disco occupied the same shelves as Dub Police, even as Shackleton evolved into one of the genre’s most singular producers.
Shackleton / Gatekeeper
Soundboy’s Bones get Buried in the Dirt Volume 1
After the sharp left turn that was ‘Blood on My Hands’, we’re back on surer footing with Soundboy’s Bones get Buried in the Dirt. Shackleton’s ‘Tin Foil Sky’ is a constantly evolving mood piece built around pulsing blasts of sub bass and his signature drum programming, and its structure is more fitting of a dance performance than anything played in a club. Nevertheless, there’s a resurgent Mystiks influence in its sparseness, and even as dubstep slowly began to calcify, its more adventurous ideas still proved a fertile well of inspiration.
‘Tomb’ is an anomaly for the label, the sole original track from an artist outside the core duo. Produced by Bristol’s Gatekeeper, the track features a space-echoed rewind crushed into a wall of noise, a sound that fit in perfectly with the skunked half-step put out by the likes of Pinch and Loefah at the time. It’s one of the rare moments where Skull Disco reached out to the wider scene, but it also hints at Appleblim’s later role as a curator for his own Apple Pips label.
Appleblim / Shackleton
Soundboy’s Bones get Buried in the Dirt Volume 2
After two singles dominated by Shackleton’s rollage, Appleblim returned with ‘Fear’ to master his version of half step once and for all. Built around acidic squiggles and reverberating vocals, it marked the last time his work owed a direct debt to the Croydon sound and from here on end, as both a DJ and producer, he’d push dubstep in an entirely new direction with the help of a new generation of devotees molded at FWD>> and DMZ. Fittingly, ‘Fear’ was a hell of a last hurrah – it’s the most direct banger the label has ever released. There was also a Riko Dan vocal floating around for a while, but that’s sadly lost in the ether.
Not to be outdone, Shackleton drew his own line in the sand with ‘Hamas Rule’, a spiritual successor to ‘Blood on My Hands’ that stood as the peak of his obsession with Middle Eastern melodies and timbres, while also featuring one of his most traditionally dubby bass lines. Though Shackleton’s rhythms were always more idiosyncratic than Appleblim’s and harder to blend with the work of other producers, they nevertheless stuck to dubstep’s tempo and framework, an approach he also put to rest here. Five singles in and with the label finding a more receptive audience among the wider underground dance music community than the rapidly shifting audience for dubstep, Skull Disco was now ready to move forward, one way or another.
Appleblim / Shackleton
Soundboy’s Ashes Get Chopped Out and Snorted
Hardcore continuum trainspotters love to wax on about the moments at the intersections of genres: 92-93 when hardcore begat jungle, 97-98 when d’n’b begat techstep, 00-04 when 2-Step begat grime and dubstep. It’s time to consider dubstep’s cross-pollination with techno in 07-09 among those rarified moments, and Skull Disco did more to spread the FWD>> sound to techno enthusiasts than almost anyone. Fueled by both an exchange of ideas between Bristol and Berlin and dubstep’s increasing online presence, the don’t-call-it-a-subgenre served as a welcome alternative to the original wave’s increasing focus on the drop, and Appleblim’s ‘Vansan’ marked the sea change.
From the Detroit-inspired chords to the prickly arpeggios and UKG-influenced hi-hats, ‘Vansan’ was a world apart from a typical dubstep banger, but neither was it a meditative roller in the DMZ mold. The snare still lands on the third beat but there’s a return to the shifty, swinging slinkiness of the El-B era, reconnecting dubstep to a dance music history DMZ had turned inside out. Meanwhile droning pads that once evoked voodoo rituals now resemble Basic Channel’s influential run of 12″s, an influence that would grab the ears of acts at the edges of dubstep’s margins including Peverelist, Ramadanman and Martyn. While dub techno was always a part of Skull Disco’s arty DNA, ‘Vansan’ marks a definitive shift away from bassline crushers for Appleblim, and the start of an approach he’d fully explore on his landmark Dubstep Allstars mix CD for Tempa.
Next to ‘Vansan’, Shackleton’s ‘You Bring me Down’ is more of a small step than a giant leap, but the whispering vocals and heavily panned percussion would have been revolutionary in any other context. It also highlighted the differences between the two label mates’ approaches; whereas Appleblim was becoming known as a tastemaker DJ curating a growing community of international artists, Shackleton’s music became increasingly insular and distinct from anything else out there. Having found a unique sound from the start, he was now refining it, and molding it into increasingly darker shapes.
‘Blood On My Hands’ (Ricardo Villalobos’ Apocalypso Now Mix)
Having heard that minimal techno superstar Ricardo Villalobos had been playing ‘Blood on My Hands’, Appleblim & Shackleton, rocking their Skull Disco apparel, walked up mid-set to give him a CD of stems in hopes of a possible remix – or at least that’s how the story goes. Putting aside the hilarious imagery of Skull Disco as hoodie clad misfits at a proper techno night, it’s a decision that changed the course of the label, as the resulting remix went on to sell over 8000 copies, introducing Shackleton to a brand-new audience and precipitating the label’s shift of focus away from FWD>>. For an insolvent label at odds with its own scene, it was nothing less than a godsend.
Spread over a whopping 18 minutes and two sides of vinyl, ‘Blood on My Hands”s Apocalypto mix is the kind of psychedelic excursion that defined Villalobos’s aesthetic and had practically nothing in common with the rest of the label’s output; it’s a true oddity, which of course made it perfect for Skull Disco. Whether you enjoy it or not, nearly a decade later, depends strongly on your level of patience, choice of mind-expanding substances, and opinions regarding the words “micro house.”
Appleblim & Peverelist
Soundboy’s Ashes Get Hacked Up and Spat Out in Disgust
Appleblim’s final Skull Disco transmission furthers the techno crossover he began on ‘Vansan’, teaming him with kindred spirit and Punch Drunk Records founder Peverelist. The sound design on both tracks is fathoms-deep, with chords and percussion bouncing in and out of focus, even as the foregrounded bass and half step snare keep things rude. It’s a tension that would be sadly missing from much of the “future garage” that followed in its wake, to say nothing of the brostep that would finally push Appleblim and the acts he shepherded away from dubstep for good.
With tear-out tracks spelling the end of dubstep’s first era, it became easier to place Appleblim’s music in a wider context. Whereas his early work felt as singular and insular as Shackleton’s, ‘Circling’ and ‘Over Here’ both hint at the UK’s later renewed interest in conventional house. Tellingly, 6 months after the single’s release, Appleblim would release two Brendon Moeller remixes reconfiguring ‘Over Here’ for 4/4 dance floors, and his Apple Pips label would take in a much wider scope of influences than Skull Disco’s dread darkness.
As for his collaborator Peverelist, his later work as Livity Sound would draw influence from Skull Disco in countless ways, from its restricted roster, through its left of center genre deconstructions, to its early tribal artwork. If Skull Disco has a spiritual successor, Peverelist has a stronger claim to the title than anyone.
‘Death is Not Final’
‘Death is not Final’ revealed what Shackleton might sound like after dubstep, and while the results were just as deeply percussive as his previous work, this time they were unrestrained by tempo and genre. There are quite a few firsts here: the tempo dips to around 120 beats per minute, it’s a rare Shackleton production underlined by a steady kick pattern, and it’s his first official release with vocalist Vengeance Tenfold, whose lyrics would become a prominent part of the subsequent Shackleton catalog (which received mixed reaction). Yet despite these changes, there’s an undeniable continuity at play here; taking over two months to program, the track continues Shackleton’s quest to make the electronic sound natural, stitching individual drum sounds to create a truly surreal audio space.
While Shackleton would never take an interest in music scenes in the same way as Appleblim, he did find kindred spirits in Berlin, including techno legend and Hard Wax employee Torsten Pröfrock (aka T++). His remix of ‘Death is Not Final’, in a sly inversion, actually speeds the original up, turning it into a shadowy end-of-rave anthem. It’s a mix that owes as much to Burial’s early tracks as Shackleton’s, and stands as one of Berlin’s finest nods to the FWD>> scene.
Soundboy’s Suicide Note
Oppressive, claustrophobic and intensely paranoid – the final Skull Disco release saw Shackleton stretch out to both slower and faster tempos, full vocal performances, and the intensely dark atmospheres he’d later explore in his work for Perlon. ‘The Rope Tightens’ is the star of the show – it’s the sparsest Shackleton production yet, but the empty space is filled by Vengeance Tenfold’s apocalyptic ranting, often processed and edited beyond understanding. It’s hard to connect to either the early Mystikz tunes that first inspired Skull Disco, or even the music made by his subsequent admirers in Berlin, but it’s this refusal to fit in that makes Shackleton’s music so engaging to listen to.
Elsewhere, Shackleton’s drum constructions continue to stretch out now that they’re unrestrained by a BPM range. The variety of approaches highlights the creative freedom he’d be afforded by his increasingly celebrated live shows, and he became the rare FWD>> alum to embrace the creative possibilities of live performance and Ableton, something he’d later document on Fabric 55. Fittingly, it’s a technique that somehow gets dubstep completely wrong while getting the FWD>> spirit entirely right, and it took someone from beyond the scene’s immediate reference points to reinterpret it in such a radical way.