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Underground Implosion #1: From No U Tur

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Steve Goodman
London Hyperdub HQ
Originally published in 2001

There has not been a more succinct summing up of the sonic dynamics of the London underground in the last 10 years than the transition from Nico Syke’s No U Turn drum’n’bass label to his Turn U On garage imprint. If you were locked into the sound of No U Turn in the mid-nineties then you’ll be accustomed to their ‘hurters mission’ and ‘sci-fi noir’ flavour. With his DJ stormtroopers Ed Rush, Fierce, Trace and MC Ryme Tyme, No U Turn’s punishing robofunk unleashed the mutant junglist strains that we now know as techstep, neurofunk and noisecore, into an unsuspecting sprawl populous. In 1997, after 5 years of oscillating at the frequency 160-170bpm, Nico declared that he would “never be able to go back down to 120-130 b.p.m. Although it’s much groovier and sexier, it’s not the future. Something got hold of me, the beats got in my brain.” But what happened? A spot of audio forensics reveals that by the time No U Turn’s apocalyptic audio vorticist ‘Torque’ compilation was released, jungle & drum’n’bass was disappearing from London’s pirates. The most virulent strains of the hyperdub virus, twisted breakbeat science, bass hydraulics and vocal mutation had begun the migration into garage allowing drum’n’bass to recycle it’s millenial sim-eschatology until well into the zeros.

So what is this Turn U On business? Has Mr.Sykes’ audio aesthetic drifted from the infliction of pain towards the ‘dreaded’ infliction of pleaure? On the Turn U On label’s lush first release, ‘One U Need’ by Horsepower Productions, the word ‘sexier’ is emblazened on the cover. With Turn U On it appears that audio excitation is still the priority, but through a different tempo and mood.

The Horsepower Productions crew has already released 2 tracks on the immaculate Tempa deep-step imprint. Following on from ‘When You Hold Me’, Tempa 2 entitled ‘Gorgon Sound’ is probably the most seminal dread garage track yet released, and is essential hyperdub in flavour. In the bass, you can hear the ghost of techstep, the rhythm follows on from El-B’s skankin innovations, and the delay echoes somewhere between Mad Professor & Maurizio.

The producers behind Horsepower Productions are Nassis(Yannis), Lev Jar (Matt) & Benny iLL(Ben). Nassis co-runs their studio with longtime production partner MC Ryme Tyme. Their studio is located alongside No U Turn’s HQ in West London. We sent our Hyperdub Softwar Agent on the trail of the Horsepower Productions Crew, to report back the story of an underground implosion.

SG: So tell us a little about the Tempa Label.

Ben: Yeah, Tempa is Neil’s (Neil Jolliffe runs also deep step label Shelflife among others) label. We’ve done the first 2 and we’re doing the third as well. That one is called the ‘Do What We Do'(remix) and there maybe a forthcoming Tempa release with something from Noel from the Ghost Trax crew.

SG: Noel, as in Roxy?

Ben: Yeah. . .I don’t know if it will be called Roxy, but it will be dubby garage anyway.

SG: Cool. So what about the next Turn U On track after ‘Electro Bass’.

Matt: We’re not sure yet.

Ben: Yeah, we’re not at liberty to mention.

SG: Why? You will have to kill me if you tell me?

Matt: We just don’t know.

Ben: The first one has only just come out and it has been rather a long process.

SG: Are you doing anything on Shelflife?

Matt: Well, we are supposed to be doing an album later this year, but not on Shelflife. Could be on Tempa. If we can, we would love to do something on one of El-B’s imprints, either Ghost or El-Breaks. At least we would like to anyway.

SG: So you’ve talked a little about the way the three of you work together in the studio, about how Yannis has been making tunes in the studio for ages, creating a vibe, and how your role has been to help him finish some of the stuff off, to cut vibes down and make them into tracks. What is the Horsepower division of labour if there is one, and if so, who does what. It’s clear that Horsepower is greater than the some of its parts but who does what?

Matt: Ben is head engineer as such.

Ben: It’s not really rigid.

SG: So you all engineer?

Matt: To a degree and to varying levels. Out of the three of us, I probably know the least but I have the jist of it all. We just do our thing. We can all use the equipment, the sampler etc. but when it comes to the recording of the track, Ben will say we have to run it all through this, or we have to level this out, and so on.

Ben: Yeah. I’ve had a bit more recording experience.

SG: How long?

Ben: Since about 1992/1993.

SG: What kind of stuff?

Ben: From dub to mid-tempo dubby break styles, but generally on an experimental, deep tip. I’ve made different experimental hybrids taking elements of techno and house. I’ve done about 40 records and worked on a couple of albums. We were called Sonar Audio Research and then Lost Sector on Fishtank Records, and then Hothouse Records in Germany working under the name ‘Bill and Ben’. We’ve also done some drum’n’bass. Then there was the Benny Beats project.

SG: So what was the album?

Ben: It was a very mixed album. Every tune was different, a different speed. A couple of tracks would get played at Jockey Slut’s Bugged Out night in Manchester.

SG: So what about you Matt? When did you start producing stuff?

Matt: I started with Ben a few years ago.

Ben: We got in touch because we used to work for a guy who did visuals for the Orb and other big events, Eat Static, the Ozric Tentacles dance thing, and Matt Black from Ninja Tunes. I used to drive the van and Matt used to do the video mixing. That was 1996/1997.

Matt: But I’m sure we would have been raving in the same club before then and just not known each other.

Ben: Yeah we used to go to the Pirate club back in 1991.

SG: What about Yannis? When did you meet him?

Ben; I was doing this hip hop stuff with some guys in South West London (J King and Bassim) who is on the new Virus album, called the Creeps. I met him through friends of theirs. At the time, Yannis and Ryme Tyme were doing drum’n’bass. Sean was releasing stuff. He was pretty prolific and has had about 80 releases and Yannis did some of the work on alot of those.

SG: So what were you guys into making when you came across Yannis?

Ben: 2step and garage.

SG: When did you start getting pulled into that?

Ben: I got jaded with what happened in drum’n’bass because I used to like jungle. I followed it through what Dillinja was doing and reggae based stuff like Dubtronix. I was into a bit of the jazzier stuff when it came out, and maybe a bit of Photek. But then it just went to the tech step sound more but I had already been there with techno.

SG: It’s interesting that No U Turn was obviously so core to tech step, i.e. the sound that turned a lot of people off drum’n’bass.

Ben: They didn’t come from there though. They started out doing jungle, it’s just that the scene was drifting in that direction.

SG: But if jungle hadn’t ended up in 2step drum’n’bass, would 2step garage ever have happened? It seems like a totally interconnected phenomenon. If the beats hadn’t gone towards ‘kick-snare-kick-snare’ then where would garage have got that rhythmic impetus from?

Matt: Totally.

Ben: It’s in house though as well. The monotonous beatz that pull you in.

SG: So what kind of garage pulled you in?

Ben: It’s when they started putting the basslines in. I wasn’t really into the early UK stuff like Nice’n’Ripe. Certain tracks I would like, because I always had a bit of a taste for the New York garage and that was what was being emulated really. There was alot of very average stuff. But it was when they started to put the basslines in and it became more dubby, without full vocals and with a little more energy to the beats. Then the 2step came out of that.

SG; So this is around the time of 187 Lockdown?

Ben: Yeah.

SG: So was it the clubs that turned you on, or just the tunes.

Ben: No, the music really. I’ve been going to a few of the garage clubs but it really was the music. Once they started putting the basslines in. It was a little ‘blacker’, a bit deeper and more soulful. Carnival was a big influence on me as well. A friend of mine is involved with a sound system called Confusion. They started with jungle and then went to garage. Alot of people went down this route.

SG: Yeah, the genres can conceal the real connections and continuum between the music. At Hyperdub, its all about speed and mood.

Ben: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Categorizing is usually counterproductive and simply enables the press to talk about something. People like what they like, and they don’t want to have to go into the shop and say, ‘have you got something at 130bpm?’ But you actually need a certain degree of categorizing whether you rise above it or not.

SG: Is that strange for you that you were into the music more than the clubs?

Ben: Well no, because we’ve always been into the music more than the scene.

SG: But has that changed for you? For example, you going out to raves, whether it be hardcore and jungle.

Matt: Yeah. For me it’s about becoming disillusioned with the whole scene. I just didn’t like paying money to hear what I’ve got at home. I was into going out and taking drugs. Alot of people would be going out to pull girls. For me I would go out to hear new sounds and I started getting disillusioned with the whole thing, from the MCs to the girls etc. I like being at home smoking weed and chillin out, talking shit with friends. I love going out. If I do, I still love to go and hear drum’n’bass. I was going out raving from the age of 16-20 and then I kind of knocked it on the head. I’m aware that the people in the clubs now are going though what I did then and it was baaad. But for me, I’m gettin a bit old for that. I just can’t wait for Carnival this year, when I can be out in the street, smokin some shit and hearing some bad sounds coming through good systems. That’s what it is for me now.

SG: So where do you go out?

Matt: Just drum’n’bass things really. Either Fabric or Movement at Mass.

Ben: I usually only go out when I am playing. Sometimes I drive Ryme Time around when he is MCing. Also my friend does a hip hop night in Camberwell. He is MC Bassim.

SG: Do you play out?

Matt: Not really unless we do our parties.

SG: Are you just playing 2step just now or do you drop any 4beat into your sets?

Ben: I wouldn’t play alot of 4beat in a set. But I’m not that fickle. I like both. If anything I prefer the 4beat stuff for listening at home. Todd Edwards and that stuff. A little bit of US but not that much.

SG: So you are obviously coming from lots of different angles. From dub and reggae, house, techno, drum’n’bass and you’re making garage. What other stuff is important to your sound.

Ben: Rare grooves as well. There is alot of funk in that studio up there of the aromatic variety. Whether it is samples or 2 day old cups of tea, that place is funky. It’s all based on the funk and the blues and African rhythms. All that comes from being jaded with the scene and originally going out raving when you had to phone the phone line and meet everyone at Brands Hatch and drive round the M25 till you are dizzy and end up in some field with a green lazer and a fucking Ice Cream van. And they are playing 40K of some record from Chicago and throwing in hip hop and everything. Back in the day it was more tempo based like what you have been saying. They would play up tempo hip hop next to even the Happy Mondays or the Stone Roses’ ‘Fools Gold’ next to 10 minutes of babies bubbling sound. Totally off the wall stuff. It went from that and you lost the excitement of going out and finding these illegal raves.

SG: Yeah. That ‘raves to clubs’ transition was pretty key in relation to the general disenchantment.

Ben: But that’s why we looked deeper into the music. We were going out less. The music was still a love, you know what I mean. There is a deep side to most kinds of music, whether it be reggae, off key hip hop or drum’n’bass.

SG: So do you bring you’re own distinct flavours to the studio?

Ben: Yeah. Yannis likes to program basses and adds a certain something to the breaks.

Matt: But we really do all play off each other at every stage of the process.

SG: What is really interesting for me, with the Horsepower stuff and with El-Bs stuff and so on, is the beats. How do you work up your drum patterns?

Ben: I come from a way of programming using the 909 drum machine. Now we use Cubase on the Atari. Some of our stuff is sampled. We don’t use many loops.

SG: That seems crucial in what makes your rhythms, and El-B’s rhythms that bit more interesting.

Ben: Yeah. There is a bit more thought gone into the patterns. We use breaks but chop them up, use the hits out of them and filter them. We only use them sparsely like that. We use very few loops, maybe the odd fill from here or there. We generally sample pre 1990 stuff, whether it be hip hop or electro or jazz or funk.

SG: So how would you describe your sound. Are you happy with it being called garage?

Ben: Yeah. Very much so. This is our style of garage, 2step if you must. Its a conglomeration of the types of music we are into. It’s designed to be used on a garage dancefloor. We don’t categorize it as dark or hard or anything in particular.

Matt: The music kind of leads us. Each track we do is breeding the next track.

SG: Of all the labels to start doing garage under, Turn U On is kind of perfect because the concept is there in its relation to No U Turn and the whole transition of drum’n’bass imploding into garage. It makes total sense. In hindsight you could easily say that that was always going to happen. Is there a weight of responsibility here in the sense that the label sounds good before you have even heard the music.

Ben: It’s not a pressure. Yannis heard a tape that me and Matt had done when we were doing hip hop stuff over in Wimbledon. I gave him a tape and he said he would give it to Nico because they had a studio in the same units. Nico was into it. It was a track we had done sampling Beverley Knight. But we couldn’t get the sample cleared so nothing ever came of it. It was a long time before we got something off the ground with Nico and it was him who approached us. All the while, he had been interested in it but was just waiting for the right track.

SG: Did the idea for Turn U On come before or after he had heard your stuff?

Matt: I don’t know for sure, but I think he heard our stuff, and then came back with this idea for a label. Everyday he would pop his head in the studio and say that he liked what we were doing, carry on the good work etc. Then one day he came in with this idea, and asked us how we would feel being involved with this.

Ben: He is a very visionary guy, Nico. He conceptualizes everything and has clout in the industry. At the heart of it, is the proximity of our studio to his. He saw that it was something different, that it was sexier in some way.

SG: With the disenchantment with the various scenes that you have talked about, is that ‘sexier’ sound and flavour flooding back in becuase you felt it was missing in some way.

Ben: Yeah. It all went a bit dark and hard.

SG: How did you perceive that in the clubs.

Matt: It was a moodyness.

Ben: It was the music and the clubs.

SG: Which clubs did you pick that vibe up at.

Matt: When I was about 18 and was going to Superstition, I would always try to get my girlfriend to go but she had never done a pill, or any drugs. Raving to her was just a drug thing. One night I managed to get her to go to Superstition and I was so happy. It was in Russell Square. And these blokes just nicked her sisters gold chain off her neck. Just robbed her on the spot. That was it for me. I was going to little events, not the big raves, but after that I just knew that the vibe was over, that it was dead. When was that? That must have been 1989 or 1990. I didn’t stop going to raves or anything but you knew that when those raggas were nicking stuff that the vibe had been killed.

Ben: There was strains of darkness all along. I remember I used to go to AWOL and it got abit cracked out for me, even though I loved the music.

Matt: Then I used to go to Roller Express, and again I loved the music and stuff but I would be hanging around in corners with crack heads. So it was moody but not moody, if you know what I mean.

Ben: You can still have a laugh if there is a moody element. The garage scene at the moment is a little volatile with lots of fights kickin off.

Matt: You can’t go out and just be happy. You have to be really aware or your surroundings.

Ben: We are not dancing in a field anymore. There are obviously people on the dancefloors who aren’t on Es.

SG: When we talked to El-B he was pretty clear about the influence of the Blue Note Metalheadz nights on his sounds.

Ben: Yeah. It was good down there but I never really liked the venue. I’ve been ravin in there but the venue itself was certainly no inspiration. If anything it was better as a jazz club. It had its moments, but it was too cramped. It wasn’t a major landmark for me even though I was totally into what Dillinja was doing at the time. They lost the vibe a bit when they moved it.

SG: Where do you sense things are drifting to just now?

Ben: Well we see our thing as deep 2step with a dubby flavour. You can’t really forcast but I supposed by making new hybrids and breaking a few barriers down we do act as forecasters a little bit. Yannis prefers the openess of garage at this stage to drum’n’bass. I think he feels that d’n’b has become formulaized and therefore closed down to new comers and new variations of the sound. There are other styles like Fabio’s stuff. I think he is calling it ‘cool step’ now, whatever that means.

SG: Which other artists do you check?

Ben: Obviously El-B and Roxy and all the Ghost stuff. I love that NS & David Jay, the Acetate record, Jay Da Flex, Ride it Riddims, Chris Mac, Steve Gurley, Zed Bias, Dem2 and M-Dubs, Sticky, Wookie, Exemen and some Todd Edwards.

SG: Do you see your stuff doing better overseas than in the UK?

Ben: Well that is what is happening right now. We sell more in Germany, Switzerland, to some extent Japan and in the US, particularly New York. It’s not an amazing amount, but significant. On Gorgon Sound we sold a bit better in this country. We would hope for more of that, because fuckin’ hell, we’re from England.

SG: So what is that all about then?

Ben: Well for us it’s a South London vibe that goes back a long way. There are people out there who would be into it.

Sg: For you, what is it about South London?

Ben: Well it’s so mixed up in terms of races and attitudes and close knit in a way. Everyone is loosely linked together. It’s the same in any area of London but my experience is in the South. It depends on the different communities. I think the communities are blended together alot more in South London generally. You know, Asian, white and black all mixed up. The vibe of alot of the original shit that went down still lives on through the reggae in the South. There is a great South London tradition (in the West as well to a certain extent) of having 4 scoops with 18 in them and a load of Motorolla tweeters up the top and that sounds bad for dub reggae, man. That music is designed to be played loud, preferably bassily. Most dance music has that bass with the sparkly high hat and runs along at a steady pace. It’s all linked like that. Usually it’s a steady groove and across the board that is the root of it.

SG: You obviously play abit of the Zinc stuff and the other more breakbeat influenced stuff. Is that a direction you see yourself moving in.

Ben: It may be, but the quantize kind of clashes a little with the way we do stuff. We wouldn’t want to just copy it.

Matt: It would have to come through with our own distinct sound.

Ben: Yeah. I don’t really see us doing that stuff too much. Alot of people such as El-B haven’t been swayed by distributors saying ‘make it harder and faster and you will sell more’ and we respect that. We made the bpm slower deliberately, or at least semi deliberately. You’ve got to keep that subversive element to the sound. They want the music to be like this, so we will do it like that. You can see it from Underground Resistance to Metalheadz etc. Our drum programming sounds good at that speed and at 138bpm it may not. So if we speeded up, then we would rather come with a different flavour rather than just speed it up. We don’t tend to use quantize but move the beats individually. I know alot of people are using the MPC3000 sampler and rate the grooves on there. Then I know a lot of people on Macs and Pcs are nicking grooves off famous breaks. Full props to that shit, but we have our own style which we vary.

Beware of Turn U On 2, ‘Electro Bass’. In part 2 of this article, we speak to Nico Sykes himself about where the concept for the Turn U On label came from and ask him why it took so long to come through with some fresh deep 2step pressure.

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Copyright © Hyperdub 2001 – Reprinted with permission.

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Riddim.ca was founded by DJ/writer paul autonomic (aka Mr. Bump) in February 2005 as a hub for North America's nascent grime and dubstep scenes. Since then we've helped promote events across the continent and made friends around the world. Mostly dormant now, we're host to one of the web's largest collections of writing on the late-Garage dis/continuum as well as a growing collection of rare audio and scans (coming eventually).