Before the masked DJ sets, the fights at XOYO and the reputation as dance music’s most beloved troll, Zomby was a ghost in the machine.
Though he first caught the world’s attention a decade ago, making music at the margins of dubstep, he always seemed intent on refracting the style through the UK’s longstanding dance music tradition – the oft-debated ‘hardcore continuum.’ For casual listeners, this was mostly heard through his hardcore love letter Where Were U in 92?, but like his pirate radio heroes, Zomby’s official releases only tell a fraction of his story.
If you kept an ear to Rinse and a bookmark on Barefiles in the late aughts, there’s a decent chance you’d hear one of his countless unreleased gems played by peers like Skream or patrons like Kode9 and Dusk & Blackdown. These unmastered and sometimes unfinished tracks spanned from odes to classic jungle to frost-kissed grime to headache-inducing drill ‘n’ bass, seemingly swallowing rave music whole before spitting it back up with added air horn samples and his trademark “ZOMBY!” tag. If anyone lamented the fall of pirate radio at the hands of Ofcom and the internet, it’s Zomby. Might explain the Twitter rants as well.
Even now, Zomby continues to tease us with what often seems like a limitless stash of music, leaking snippets or even entire tracks to SoundCloud, sometimes with a Sendspace link to a heavily compressed 128kbps copy. Diligent listeners and those of us he hasn’t blocked on Twitter grab them while they can to archive on YouTube, and the resulting shadow catalog of over 100 tracks goes far beyond the romanticism and contemporary concerns of his albums, deviating into intriguing experiments, tributes to forgotten heroes and the occasional indescribable slice of weirdness that will leave you wondering why it never got released.
These dubs reward a deep dive, a late night and a bit of herbal enhancement, so the following selection isn’t meant to be a comprehensive overview. Like fellow netizen-gone-rogue Lil B, half the fun of Zomby’s uploads comes from clicking from one link to the next, wondering where you’ll end up. But even the wildest journeys need a roadmap sometimes, so to give you a sense of how vast Zomby’s range of material is, we’ve rooted out some personal picks from the micro-genres he works in most often, along with his most outstanding one-offs.
Some of Zomby’s most beloved dubs see him slip into the skin of Wiley, another prickly musical genius. Cribbing the grime innovator’s Korg Triton presets years before every suburbanite with a cracked copy of Massive wanted a go on Gliding Squares [the Korg preset behind Wiley’s trademark bass sound], Zomby’s take on the classic eskimo sound is a reverent one, sticking to Wiley’s minimalist palette while shifting the mood darker. Tracks like ‘Ice Lake’ and ‘Eskiwinter’ more than match up to Wiley’s best, while ‘808’ is an exercise in subtraction, reducing the eski formula to little more than distorted drums and a few clicks. Even when he goes where Wiley didn’t on M.I.A. mashup ‘Eski Flu’, the results toughen up M.I.A. rather than diluting the instrumental. C’mon Zomby, what’s the harm in giving some of these a real release? Where Were U In 02? needs to happen.
Dusty, hissy samples. Syncopated yet unfussy programming. Sci-fi synth pads that sound equal parts ancient, alien and futuristic. Zomby’s take on jungle refracts the genre’s futurism through the grit and texture of cassette rips years before the hauntologists made a side career out of old radio recordings. Most importantly, Zomby understands that the best jungle is about keeping things balanced: the reggae samples keep the spooky synths from veering into moody white boy territory, while the nimbleness of the drum programming keeps the high tempos from getting exhausting. That said, he’s not afraid to explore the genre’s weirdest and speediest outreaches: tracks like ‘Dreams of Heaven’ go far beyond tasteful D&B’s 170-175bpm speed limit, accelerating into a zone too fast for all but the nuttiest dancers. That’s the joy of this stuff though – the heart-attack drums and ominous pads aren’t meant for the floor so much as zoning out in front of your PC with too many tabs open.
Then there’s ‘Vertigo’, a track that forgoes drums and dance music altogether in favor of a minor key piano composition. OK, so this won’t be keeping Philip Glass up at night, but it’s proof that Zomby’s love of arpeggios and feel for darkness translates to acoustic instruments, or at least their preset VST equivalents. There’s nothing else quite like this in Zomby’s online catalog, and it’s enough to get you excited about Zomby-scored experimental cinema, perhaps in the gothic horror vein. Guillermo Del Toro, if you ever want to remake Frankenstein, you know where to find him.
This one’s heartbreaking because it was meant to get an actual release as part of the Plasticman Remastered project but slipped through the cracks. In any case, Zomby’s take on the Plasticman classic doesn’t mess about, substituting the original’s sparseness with a buzzing sine/square bass pulse and enough gunshots per bar to get Trident on his case. It’s a rare nod back to the period that Zomby made his name in, and one that makes perfect sense considering Plastician was one of the few other producers drawing links between dubstep and grime in an era where both genres were shifting away from each other.
Not so much a micro-genre as a meeting of minds live on air, Zomby briefly aligned himself with Dusk & Blackdown around 2008-2010, sending them clutches of unreleased music for their monthly Rinse show. Happy to oblige, the Keysound duo curated mini-sets and singled out exceptional tunes from the zips, offering a tantalizing picture of what a Zomby EP or album on Keysound might have sounded like. Tracks like ‘Parrot Stew’ and ‘Earthbound’ feature bleepy work outs, 2-step drums and an energy somewhere in between dubstep’s weirdness and funky’s roll. Elsewhere, ‘Fuck your Mngo’ spits on Joy Orbison’s breakout moment and ‘Blueberry Cheese’ hints at the dour romanticism that would come to dominate album-length Zomby down the line.
“If you ever want to remake Frankenstein, you know where to find him.”
Who else but Zomby would even ponder mashing hardcore piano stabs, the chorus from Kanye’s ‘Power’ and 200BPM jungle drums into a mutated dancehall riddim? And before you answer, who would think of flipping those same samples twice, and giving both tracks ungoogleable track titles? Both of these throwaways somehow predict both Kanye’s no-fucks-given industrial badman approach to Yeezus and 2015’s wave of industrial-bachata club music, but save for a couple of random YouTube videos you’ll find no mention of them. It’s a pity, because these two, along with a few more 999MPH experiments uploaded with similar titles but without the King Crimson samples, are absolute face-melters, examples of dance music disregarding convention and dissolving into a euphoric mass of bad drugs and strange ideas. I enjoy With Love as much as the next man, but surely these could have been collected for a white label?
Zomby’s been promising us a sequel to Where Were U in 92? since the first one dropped, and based on the amount of breakbeat-based material he’s leaked over the years, there’s plenty to draw from. ‘XTC’ is a down and dirty cut-and-paste job merging rudebwoy chants to blatant MDMA endorsements – the sort of sketch Zomby can probably write in his sleep by now. Early rave might be making a comeback thanks to DJs like Special Request, but no one’s touching breakcore yet, which makes ‘OMG’’s drill ‘n’ bass overload all the more interesting. It’s the kind of uncompromised, ridiculous banger we need more of, even if someone with a bad haircut will probably start claiming this stuff’s cool within the next five years.
An ethereal pop-trance vocal chipmunked to high heaven and layered with machine gun hi-hats, ‘Standing In The Rain’ draws the maximum amount of emotion from the cheesiest sources, smashing together pieces that just shouldn’t fit. It’s important to note that Zomby’s love of hardcore goes beyond the obvious signifiers present in the genre’s early pieces, as tracks like ‘Standing In The Rain’ avoid any obvious nods to 1992. ‘Gaffling Breaks’ pulls a similar trick, compressing musical ephemera never meant to be heard together in a strange synthesis more at home on YouTube than in any conventional DJ’s set. Stuttering vocals float over a queasy synth line, the titular breaks are nowhere to be found and the general vibe is a devil mix gone very, very sour. As Blackdown mentions on the radio rip, “this is pretty off key, but… it’s how we like it.”
Few people bear more ill will towards the rubes that ruined dubstep than Zomby: a quick look at his Twitter feed invariably turns up one or more rants calling fire ‘pon brostep, sellouts and (not unfairly I suppose) US producer Zomboy for almost-but-not-quite ripping off his name. Listening to his old dubstep plates, it’s easy to see why he’d take the genre’s hijacking personally – at its best, dubstep felt like a synthesis of all of Zomby’s favorite tricks: a massive reggae influence, offensively upfront bass lines and smothering darkness. ‘Sunshine 2’/’Sunshine 3’ fits comfortably in the genre’s center, while ‘Unreleased’ gets a bit weirder, introducing the sad pads from Zomby’s best work into the mix.
Then there’s the bleeps and the arps; the bread and butter of album-length Zomby writ large across the internet’s infinite canvas. There are enough variations on these tracks to amass a double disc compilation at the very least, and almost any journey spent exploring Zomby’s unreleased music will involve listening to these looping, hypnotic pieces. Describing the variations would be pointless: some have breaks, others don’t, almost all of them feature a circular, twisting melody that’ll get stuck in your head as you play it on repeat. Admittedly, this is the one type of Zomby track where you might be better served buying an album or EP, but without bizarre, quasi-eski fusions like ‘Mercury’s Rainbow’, occult mood pieces like the ‘Entropy Sketches’ and psychedelic weirdness like ‘Balloon People’, Zomby just wouldn’t be Zomby.