Established back in 2008 by Ruben Platt and Balraj Samrai, Swing Ting was a club night that defined a new era in Manchester, blending disparate styles like hip-hop and dancehall and offering a refuge for the city’s more adventurous ravers. Now a label and a production outfit, Swing Ting have released their most definitive statement to date, Junction; John Twells catches up with the duo to find out how it all came together.
I missed Swing Ting by just a few months. I left England for good in 2008, emigrating to the US after living and working in Manchester for a few years. While I was taping up endless boxes of wax and wondering where I’d be able to locate Bovril once I’d jumped the Atlantic (it’s technically illegal over here – I wish I was kidding), Balraj Samrai and Ruben Platt were laying the foundations of a genre-blurring club night that would quickly become one of Manchester’s best.
“We started in a really small venue, literally a 50-100 person spot,” Samrai says. “People like Conor [Thomas, DJ and Death of Rave boss], Mike Fallows [Swing Ting designer] and Jon K were at that first party. Loads of those people are doing different stuff now, which is interesting.”
Platt and Samrai were studying at Manchester University; Samrai was slinging 12”s at local record store Fat City and had linked with Platt to experiment with bedroom production and spin at house parties. “We did student events and then Conor booked us for a few things,” says Platt. “Then there was another night called Format. They were probably our first gigs together.”
“Swing Ting at Soup Kitchen is where we go to test new music. We never ever approve a release without giving it a go”Ruben Platt
Prior to university, the duo had already developed a passion for music and production. “I did music all the way through to A-Level, my dad’s a musician as well and had kit that I could mess about with,” Platt says. “He was a music teacher but he retired early. He brought home a computer from school that had a really old version of Cubase on when I was 14, 15 and I was just making terrible Dr. Dre-style pop beats.”
Samrai, who grew up in the Midlands, had a similar background in music theory, augmenting it with “the same Westwood and Trevor Nelson shows” Platt had been poring over in West Yorkshire. When they eventually crossed paths, the two bonded over a shared love of crate digging – just not the kind of digging that involves bickering over valuable Japanese house 12”s on Discogs. “You know when you don’t have a lot of cash? We were finding loads of garage,” Samrai admits. “We were digging for soundsystem music – any dancehall 12”s from King Bee, garage vinyl from shops that didn’t rate it. Grime and stuff – people were giving it away for 50p. We cleaned up a lot of garage collections out of Manchester.” Platt interjects: “I found Donaeo’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ brand new in a bargain bin for 50p. It probably never got played, just got sent to the shop as a promo.”
At this stage, Platt and Samrai were playing mostly vinyl, using a CDJ to insert their own productions and dubs seamlessly into sets. “Even then, we wanted to use the club as somewhere we could play our own stuff as well,” Platt says. “We still have that mentality now. Swing Ting at Soup Kitchen especially is where we go to test new music. We never ever approve a release without giving it a go.”
This ethos came to define Swing Ting as a production outfit born from a club night: the duo still head to Manchester’s beloved Soup Kitchen venue – where they currently run a popular monthly Saturday bash – during the daytime to test out tracks on the club’s system. “That was something I remember reading about back in the day – arrange to get there a bit early,” adds Samrai. “You can go back and refine the mix – you don’t need amazing gear at home for that, or even a great monitor setup if your club is the testing ground.”
Swing Ting’s star began to rise nationally in 2011 when the duo released their first 12”, Creepin on the Fat City label and were tapped to produce a remix of Mosca’s ‘Tilt Shift’. What had been mostly a local phenomenon was suddenly visible to those outside of Manchester for the first time. “With the Mosca remix, because it was a remix it felt more like there was a goal,” explains Platt. “Something clicked – it was the first serious thing we did as Swing Ting but it kickstarted us getting our heads around working together.”
As the night became more notorious and the duo’s productions more sought after, the Swing Ting family grew considerably. Local MC Fox is a key component of the sound, acting as host at the raves and appearing on a number of the releases. “Fox was involved from quite early, and when he came on board that was when the club stuff got more serious,” says Samrai. “Having a host means that you can easily blend between different styles more easily. There was nights on that would just be playing dubstep or just be playing hip-hop or just be playing house and techno – we just wanted to bring it together a little more and it takes a while to get that right.”
““We never really wanted Swing Ting to be too high-brow”Balraj Samrai
Fox also urged Samrai and Platt to spend more time on the production side, encouraging the duo to work with vocalists instead of fixating on instrumentals and edits. It helped that they had a steady stream of producers rolling through each month to perform at Swing Ting – producers that were more than willing to share tips. “Brackles and Murlo, for instance, were very keen,” says Samrai. “I was like, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing’ and they’re like, ‘lets just do it anyway’. You learn collaboratively.”
In 2014, Swing Ting became a proper record label and the first release, Skank, was produced by Brackles with Fox on vocals. Two years later, they’d notched up a slew of releases from the extended family: Florentino, Famous Eno, Zed Bias and Jamaica’s Equiknoxx Music. Samrai and Platt had also found the time to put together a couple of their own releases, building on the sounds they explored in regular DJ sets and cementing a style that hovered around hip-hop, funky, dancehall, soul and garage but felt fresh and vibrant.
“We never really wanted it to be too high-brow,” Samrai laughs. “We wanted it to be new music, but you could just walk in and still enjoy it. I think that’s something we tried to maintain. So sometimes there’s a certain depth to certain releases – like a Carl Craig album or a Theo Parrish or a Moodymann record or whatever – and it’s not that we don’t appreciate that but we’re going for something else.”
“We’ve always said we wouldn’t want to put anything out on Swing Ting where there isn’t a scenario where you couldn’t play it at Soup Kitchen,” Platt adds.
“Junction is bringing together a worldwide family without sounding like Womad or something”Balraj Samrai
By this time, Samrai was working full-time as a teacher and Platt was doing shift work at Manchester Airport. “I did end up working for quite a long time in schools for 5-6 years but we managed to juggle it around stuff like that for a while really,” Samrai admits. “I got to the point where I didn’t really think music was going to be a focus, it was more for the labor of love, a hobby really. But the club just started to go nuts – I think it was because of the music, and the brand.”
“I was working in the airport for three years and quit a few months ago,” says Platt. “It was shift work and it was intense – I don’t think it’s healthy to do shift work that long. I want to see if music can sustain me fully.”
And that’s how we get to Junction, their debut EP and most definitive statement to date. Described as “make or break” by the duo it represents the seriousness of their commitment to music at this stage in their career, and their dedication to building a locally-focused, global scene. “There’s Fox and Tyler [Daley] on there and they’re from Manchester and rep the city,” says Samrai. “Then there’s the two tracks we recorded in Jamaica last year and that comes out of that worldwide connection a little bit – Shanique Marie [from Equiknoxx] being on there, Gemma Dunleavy from Ireland – we met through Murlo. It’s bringing together a worldwide family without sounding like Womad or something.” Platt’s dad even makes an appearance, playing keys on interlude ‘Gavsborg meets JP’.
In six tracks we rush through their biography surprisingly succinctly: ‘Turn It Up’ twins Shanique Marie with a garage-influenced rhythmic shuffle; ‘Addiction’ finds Gemma Dunleavy cooing over the kind of jerky rhythms you’d more likely expect to find on a Timbaland record; ‘Contagious’ is an end-of-the-night anthem buoyed by local heroes Tyler Daley and Fox; ‘Can’t Wait’ is cool, sparse dancehall with a modern, pop lilt. In a fairer world, any one of these tracks could propel Samrai, Platt and their team of collaborators into the mainstream.
“To me, they’re all proper songs,” Platt says. “Everything’s been such a big collaboration with the artists, it’s not like we’ve handed them an instrumental – it’s super hands on, lots of back-and-forth. Obviously we love all those old garage tunes where it’s just like someone’s thrown someone a beat and it’s recorded in their bedroom but there’s definitely a time and a place for that. Because everything’s been so involved with the artists who have done vocals on the tracks, they’re going to bring their own stuff to it as well.”
He’s absolutely right – nothing feels tacked on or out of place. There’s a sense that the Swing Ting family were all involved with Junction and it’s far more than just an artist EP. It’s a statement that represents a time, a place and a jumping off point for the brand. The pair laugh when I ask them about the title; I want to deduce a deeper meaning but there’s a much simpler explanation. “The true reason is that the photo on the front is taken at the old Junction pub,” Platt says. “We had this SoundCloud playlist for quite a while and I’d just put this image of us playing pool,” adds Samrai. “You know when you get used to seeing it? Something’s just working – let’s just leave it cause it seems right.”
John Twells is FACT’s Managing Editor. Find him on Twitter.