If you scan London’s airwaves these days, or trawl the various forums and YouTube channels associated with the capital’s nightlife, you’ll most likely find two things: house and techno.
London’s club scene has a rich history of spawning its own musical forms, running from UK hardcore, through jungle and garage to grime, dubstep and UK funky. But recent years have, for better or for worse, seen young British producers look increasingly to Europe and the US for cues.
A sea change might be on the horizon, however. Alongside the recent resurgence in instrumental grime, a new clutch of producers are reworking the sensibilities of dubstep and grime at a house-friendly 130 bpm, and putting a fresh spin on London’s sonic signatures in the process. The nascent movement is spearheaded by influential dubstep blogger Blackdown and his production and DJ partner Dusk through their Rinse FM show and Keysound label, but at its forefront are a triumvirate of young names: Beneath, Visionist, and Wen. Of the three, Wen, aka Owen Darby, is perhaps the least known. He’s also—as the Commotion EP, out this month on Keysound, reveals—the most promising. Darby brings a distinctive grime flavor to the table, fragmenting its signifiers and redistributing them in cold, weightless space. With a Keysound compilation, This Is How We Roll, set to shine the spotlight on this emerging sound, Angus Finlayson caught up with the producer to discuss his formative experiences with dubstep and grime, and the lasting appeal of darkness.
First of all, whereabouts are you based? Am I right in thinking you’re outside of London?
Yeah, I’m about an hour away from London, in a place called Thanet. Which is a collection of 5 towns, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate, Westgate and Birchington – I grew up in Ramsgate, I currently live in Broadstairs, but Margate is the most recognised so I tend to say that’s where I’m from.
Given you weren’t living in the capital, how important was pirate radio to your musical upbringing? How do you feel about the changes that pirate radio has gone through in recent years?
Rinse was the main one I listened to live ‘cos they had the internet broadcast and it was the biggest station for the kind of music I wanted to hear. I listened to quite a lot of grime from pirate radio but it was short, ten minute recordings from Deja [Vu FM]or Pyro [FM] that I got sent by infra-red at school. So, it was short, gritty glimpses that I heard, which probably has filtered through to my music now. When I use three word vocals or short synth stabs it’s a nod to that, I guess.
Then I started listening to Logan Sama and Westwood on Kiss and 1Xtra, which was probably Bluetooth era [laughs]. I think it was 2007/08 when the scene was really strong; every week there was a crew going into one of the studios and freestyling for about an hour, sometimes there were two crews and it was kinda tense—fighting over the mic to announce their new mixtape release date, which basically got really heated and escalated into a clash. Hearing that on the radio was exciting. The videos got uploaded a week later too—so visually it became interesting. Grimeforum and Puregrime [web forums] were really lively then; you could go on there and ask for instrumentals from the sets. Most of the producers were on there while it was broadcasting, so you could rely on finding out, or being told, “Nah that’s a special for so and so’s mixtape.” For me, this was more of an influence than pirate radio.
I feel like it’s come back around recently, ‘cos I get just as excited listening to Dusk and Blackdown on Rinse and hyping with all the producers on Twitter. Chances are I’m eagerly waiting to hear my track, which samples that previous time—the vocals all come from that ‘07/’08 era in grime – so making music is a bit nostalgic for me at the moment.
Your music feels to me like it’s reviving the spirit of early dubstep to an extent. At what point did you start going to clubs? What’s your relationship to that scene and sound?
I’m 21 now. I first got into production when I turned 16, so that was late ’07. Dubstep was established but it was probably just blowing—as in getting well rowdy—then, I’m not really sure. I think I was lucky at the time I heard about it. I was listening to Youngsta on Rinse, which led me to his [Dubstep] Allstars CDs, then I heard Hatcha’s one and Kode9’s. The further I went back to ‘early dubstep’ the more I liked it. The first proper club I went to was a FWD>> & Rinse night at Matter, which was the first night that came up once I was old enough. They had the new under-floor sub system in there, Youngsta, Kode9, and Plastician were playing. Plastician had most of the grime scene with him in room two—it was crazy. So yeah, I went away from that night and wanted to make stuff that would create an atmosphere in that situation.
In relation to the music you, Beneath, Visionist, etc are making, darkness seems to be a prevalent theme. Did you follow & enjoy the more colorful music coming out of, say, Hyperdub and Night Slugs in ’09-’10, or have you always carried the torch for darker sounds?
[Laughs] I do enjoy a lot of the synthy colorful stuff. It’s just not me, though—that’s why I don’t make much of it. There’s definitely color in my tracks, but it’s quick, vivid, and abrupt. Dark has always been cool to me—speaking literally too—I like music that sounds cold. I don’t like being in clubs when it’s sticky. Certain music feels cold in that environment, when the beat is empty and has some haunting sounds, you get some space to yourself.
You seem to be trading ideas and tracks with a lot of like-minded producers at the moment: Beneath, Visionist, Epoch, J-One, etc. How important is it for you to feel part of some coherent scene or musical movement? Would you be doing what you’re doing if you were the only person doing it?
To be honest with you, I feel like I am the only person doing my style at the moment and that’s probably the reason my music has been voiced by a respected label like Keysound. I’ve done my imitation stage in production. It was useful to reference tracks when I was starting out, but when I got to a stage of feeling confident in my beats, I got tired of people saying it sounded like other producers. If some producers emerged doing exactly the same thing as me, and I lost my identity, it would slightly put me off that style. Although I imagine it would give me some fire to evolve it—so it’s all positive really.
But yeah, spot on with the like-minded producers you listed, it’s definitely coherent, but there’s a strong individuality at the same time. All of those guys are the only ones doing their style, which I’m sure they want to keep that way. Anyone can climb on a bandwagon—truth is you’re only gonna get noticed if you’re the one driving it.
The This Is How We Roll compilation seems like a statement of intent for you guys. Where do you see this sound going in the coming year? Are you trying to take it in any particular direction?
The sound is flourishing right now. The compilation only provides a glimpse at some of the moments in the scene, there are so many producers at the moment that are a part of it. Just check the track lists on Blackdown’s blog, him and Dusk must have had a tough time deciding which tracks to include—but that’s positive right? I don’t think we’re trying to force anything with it; it’s just a way of showing what we’re doing, currently—which is a really exciting time.~
Wen’s Commotion EP is out now via Keysound Recordings.
Published February 26, 2013. Words by Angus Finlayson.