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Southside Bass Pressure #2: Ghost Trax & El-B (2001)

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Steve Goodman
London Hyperdub HQ

Originally published 2001

As we like to keep reminding you at the Softwar Agency, Hyperdub replication cycles in London over the last 15 years keep pulling us back into deep springloaded skankstep. The genre and speed may vary, but something persists in the constantly mutating vibe, something edgy, moody and sinuous. A sonic hologram lurks in the twisted rhythms and rumblism of the London underground, impossible to capture as simply one strain of audio virus. In the last 3 years this spirit has cloaked itself in a hyperswingin’ camouflage, taking 2step garage’s slinky syncopations into the immersive warmth of low end pressure. An underground network of high quality imprints has emerged including Ghost Trax, Shelflife, Tempa, Bison, El-Breaks, South West and Scorpion.

Functioning as a switch into the darkside, producer El-B, a.k.a Lewis Beedle (formerly Groove Chronicles engineer) has proved catalytic. With his crew of producers including DJ Jay De Flex, Roxy, Nude, Blaze and MC Juiceman, the Ghost crew are pushing a spooky yet warm dub step vibe, maintaining all the dynamic syncopations that 2step garage innovated, without falling back on the vibeless rigid ‘bloke step’ of much now filed under ‘breakbeat garage’. While uk garage has now passed through the critical media hype threshold which allows journalists to designate it as history, and major labels reconstruct its geneology according to quanta of consumer demand, the Ghost crew sound has been lurking, brewing up a deep moody skank step reminiscent of early Metalheadz in flavour. In a recent interview with DJ Magazine, El-B is quoted as saying “Let’s be the RAM Trilogy of the garage world”. As with Lemon D & Dillinja, El-B shows a certain nostalgia for the Metalheadz Blue Note Sunday Sessions where “everyone was kickin back on the aggressive flow but it was all to do with the music – no bad vibes.” From their Streatham studio in the depths of South London, El-B’s crew literally can’t produce fast enough to meet the global hyperdub underground’s thirst for paranoia exorcised via beats and bass.

S: “So tell us how the Ghost’s got into the garage.”
E: “All my friends who were unemployed at the time, they’ve given me a bit of time to get a studio together, and then I brought them all in. There is a studio full of 8 to 12 producers now. There are several labels. I’ve got El-Breaks which is for left over tunes. I’m on volume 2 at the moment. These are tracks that I can’t put on Ghost because there isn’t another release due for a certain amount of time. Then there is Ghost of course and then Scorpion, which is a P&D with Vinyl. We’re on the 3rd one now. All the tracks on Scorpion are full vocal based with a little bit of a dub on the other side. Then there is the more leftfield kinda reggae based stuff and Shelflife of course who are takin care of a lot of my artists, man”

S: “So who are your artists. . .there is Roxy and who else ?”
E: “Curtis, who goes under the name Blaze. . .you’ve got Nude, who has just done the Kosheen remix for Slip’n’slide called Moshka, Jay Da Flex of course and Es-G. . .he’s bad. Also a couple of MCs started making tunes that are on DAT but haven’t been released. There are about 6 on the go now with 4 to come.

S: “So obviously I’ve heard and played a lot of your stuff around town. How do you hear your sound? I’ve read interviews with you where you talk about the vibe of the early Metalheadz Blue Note sessions. Neither of us would be doing what we are doing now without that vibe, but what’s your angle on that?”
E: “I’ve hung around a lot with the Metalheadz crew. What I was doing before the garage was the drum’n’bass, but neither Goldie, nor Raymond gave me the fuckin chance with the drum’n’bass. They would take the demos and say, yeah that’s great but it was quite a locked in thing, you know what I am sayin. It was closed off to newcomers. If someone had brought me the demos that I was takin to ‘Rider for Prototype, I would have stuck with them. It was only when I hit it from a garage angle that Clifford just opened up. Groove Chronicles was the only garage release ever to come on Metalheadz and it was like, full treatment after comin’ with nothing. We did a remix of ‘I Believe’ and it blew up. From then on it was open loving arms from the crew but they shut down shortly after with arguments about money going on, all the artists left and so on so it just got slack. I think the the venue for the club changed too many times.”

S: “How old are you?”
E: “24”

S: “How did you end up hangin with the Metalheadz crew?”
E: “Goldie’s keyboard player lives in the next street and I was going to the clubs. When I met her she took me down to the studio and I just kept my face familiar.”

S: “You have a very distinctive sound, especially with your beatz and basslines. It’s dark and warm at the same time and certainly doesn’t fit in with what has been labelled by certain mags as ‘breakbeat garage’. You seem to be pushing the 2step sound further instead of simply resorting to older sampled breaks.”
E: “Yeah, the old breaks are getting sampled again and it’s starting to sound like hardcore or early jungle.”

S: “But your rhythm patterns and some of Zed Bias’s patterns are drifting in another direction.”
E: “Zed Bias and that lot are like an extended family. We work to the same formula. We are totally linked, we do projects together and there is stuff coming out later in the year.”

S: “So when did you get into garage?”
E: “I was trying to crack it on the drum’n’bass scene, I knew everybody already and I come from the techno days, not bangin stuff but Mad Mike, all the scientists, you know. I was shifting techno beats on those demos. I was 17 with a rucksack and was just shiftin them round. Nothing was going on, just a whole load of talk. Then one of the demos I gave someone slipped into the wrong hands which was Noodles. He got a couple of demos, signed them off and got me some money, struck a couple of deals for me and then we got down to the garage. It took me a fuckin year and a half to 2 years to really grip the garage sound. From techno to garage you’ve really got to make an adjustment, make the beats a lot lighter and give them a real skip. You’ve got to get into the quantize and give it a live percussion feel.”

S: “And make it swing?”
E: “Yeah. Swing it all out. I used to love Basic Channel. They used to take me deep because their beats had some swing to them so after a couple of years I started gripping it, but never really did feel the garage, the original Chicago garage feel with a full song in it, you know, Grant Nelson style. A nice mature sound. I can grip it now but I always used to curse SG for going to the clubs, because I was into hip hop and techno and that’s when I started flippin’ tunes like ‘Stone Cold’, back in 1997.”

S: “That’s got a huge bassline.”
E: “That had the Aaliyah accappella. Noodles & I were working in Unity Records and they’ve got a hip hop section which used to get loads of imports.”

S: “So that was Groove Chronicles?”
E: “Yeah, that’s what happened when Noodles went on holiday and left me to my own devices. I thought no one would like it, with the jazzy sax and the bassline. It was the first jazz to come with a big b-line. I only put the b-line in so the boys would play it, so the young ones would get into it. But the b-line bit is the bit I don’t like. I like the jazz at the beginning. Since then I’ve done shit like Dru Hill, Entice and then it all started changing. It’s weird, slowly but surely things started getting heavier. We just watched it happen. We watched what we had created and it was off key. It was bizarre. The whole turn around happened in about a year.”

S: “But you knew it was coming though. It’s only a matter of time before the skunk seeps back through and the basslines get bigger.”
E: “Drum’n’bass was fizzling out badly and all the punters, they’re like ‘it’s not about drum’n’bass now, its dead. All the girls are at the garage raves’. MJ Cole was fresh out and everything was buzzin’. . .and then we fucked up the scene. Zed Bias broke it with ‘Reflex Action Like A Snake’. And that was it. That tune just sparked everyone off into doing that, and when I finally met Zed, and he said that he was doing drum’n’bass until he heard the K-Klass remix and ‘Stone Cold’, and he said ‘fuck it’ and made the switch, but taking it one step further and making it wild. So we kind of spurred each other off. And I thought, well if he’s going to do that, then I’m going to do this. . .”

S: “How did you meet Zed?”
E: “Through the music. After ‘Reflex action’, he was signed to the same label as I was, Locked On. There was a Groove Chronicles Nu Birth remix on that. It was sick. I love that track. I don’t like listening to my own stuff but I think was ahead of its time. It fucks me up. Then there is DPR. Groove Chronicles had a sound which was jazzy and we didn’t want to fuck with people. So that’s why DPR happened.”

S: “Hence the sinister Black Puppet?”
E: “Yeah. When I started with my boys, Blaze etc, I knew they didn’t want to do that jazzy stuff. . .So DPR was me with Blaze.”

S: “So how are you feeling if, as you say, you fucked up the scene?”
E: “Well when drum’n’bass went dark, that’s when I was really feeling it. When Telstar finished doing all their compilations, and the big raves started fizzling down into little raves, and Metalheadz started and it started getting deep, and they started fuckin off the breakbeats and coming with the 2step, Alex Reece and so on. That’s when I could really feel it. It’s like garage of today. The producers are getting into their equipment now, drawing the frequencies out of the machines and keyboards.”

S: “What drum’n’bass are you still into?”
E: “All the guys that I wanted to be, if you know what I mean. Want to be them, earn their money, roll with their friends. I know them now, through the garage. I went with Roxy and Blaze to meet Lemon D & Dillinja the other day and the outcome of that is that we are going to get a project together in the summer.”

S: “When we spoke recently, Lemon D & Dillinja emphasized that their major gripe with drum’n’bass was it was too fast and that they were trying to pull things back down to 160bpm. And then they suggested that in 2 years time, Zinc and Hype’s breakbeat stuff would have accelerated from 140bpm to 150 and Valve will have drifted down to 150 from 160bpm and they would be like, ‘what the fuck are you doing here?’ So for that collaboration, what are you thinking. 2 remixes of the same track or some kind of mutant style synthesis?”
E: “That is exactly what is stopping us, right now. This is the question. These are the choices. . .do we get together and just create something from a vibe that’s just in the room and whatever comes out comes out. You don’t try to force it or categorize, but make it a full song and a big production. Or do we sit down together and do some garage, because I’m not doing drum’n’bass. Do we sit down and do something fresh with them on the garage feel or do we just put garage and drum’n’bass tracks on the same albums and shit. That is what is stopping us from making a move now. What the fuck is going to hurt the most and make the best impact? And they’ve got albums dropping in the next few months so I’m not on the case. I’m not hassling.”

S: “So who produces rhythms that you check?”
E: “Steve Gurley. But good luck if you meet him, if you can squeeze a sentence out of him. It’s like he is sleep walking. Most of the talented people in the world are a little insane. It’s like Steve, he’s so talented that he’s loose. He needs to stop smokin weed or something. But there is not many out there that cut the mustard. You’ve got to slice it hard. That’s why I’m building my crew. Oris Jay is deadly though.”

S: “Are you feeling the clubs just now?”
E: “Yeah, kind of, but the crowd always ruins my night”

S: “Are you looking to start a Ghost night?”
E: “Yeah but it’s on the back boiler. I’m not going to do anything without full knowledge. Like a publishing deal or something. We’ve got to know what we are doing. I need education on that front. Until then its just like a Wu Tang set up. A bunch of DJs and producers and vocalists. Jay Da Flex DJs and I do, but I haven’t seen any bookings yet that I would accept, where I am free to play what I want.”

S: “I was slightly surprised for some reason when I saw you played live with an MC at the Big Apple party.”
E: “Urban music scenes are intense and really competitive and when you play live you tend to get a gang round the decks staring ‘I want his dubplates, I want his money, I want his BMW’. So when we played the Big Apple night, we had some MCs to just vibes it up a little, deflect the attention and make it sound more like the DJ was playing. It can get tense like with hip hop in the US. Out of the capital, except maybe Manchester, things mellow out a bit. We’ve been to a couple of nights with Jay Da Flex in Manchester and fuckin’ hell, I’ve seen MCs who would cap you if you didn’t turn the mike up. Its rough.”

S: “How did you get in to producing beats?”
E: “When I was 17 my decks and tunes got nicked and I was on a depressive vibe sittin in my house. What am I going to do? I’ve been kicked out of school and my dad had just done this tour. He is a jazzman, playin saxophone with Incognito, and one of the bands he played with didn’t have any money to pay him so they cleared out a studio to pay some of these musicians So he ended up with monitors, a computer, a drum machine and a little sampler. All this stuff is sitting there in the corner of the room and I’m looking at it, listening to my dad doing these dry little rhythms on it. And he kept saying to me, ‘I can’t do anything, and you aren’t doing anything so when you going to do some proper stuff on here. That was it. I was in there studying Goldie and all these people.”

S: “So what is the score with R&S?”
E: “Way back, when Joey Beltram came with Energy Flash, R&S records were the first ones to come with that bassline shit. Just like today’s equivalent in garage. House and techno with wow-wow-wow over the top, before the breakbeat stuff. All that Ibiza stuff for example. Anyway, when Lemon D first signed the album to R&S, that’s when they met Groove Chronicles and we signed an album about a year and a half before Noodles and myself split up. We had already spent a little bit of advance money. We didn’t take much because we knew we would spend it and not get the product done for them. At the time, we were concentrating on busting London only, whereas R&S are more Europe and Japan. So we split and after that, the geezer shits himself and is like, ‘what the fuck am I gonna do now. . .six grand out of pocket?’ So Jim stepped to me and said, let’s turn the contract around and make it an El-B album where you can flex your musical muscles and all that shit. I’ve lost contact with this guy. I think he is concentrating on Lemon at the moment. I’ve been doing good business with Locked On. They don’t pay the most, but they are tight and are pushing boundaries. So Locked On were into taking the album.”

S: “What about the Lemon D connection?”
E: “I’ve got a P&D at Vinyl Distribution so Neil said, look, you guys are always talking about each other, so somebody take the fucking initiative and ring. When we did actually speak it was like, ‘yeah, come round and eat food, we should have done this ages ago’. So we just had to meet ”

S: “What remixes have you been workin on recently?”
E: “I don’t even know who half these people are that I do remixes for. The next place I’m concentrating on is America. All I listen to is American music.”

S: “Where are you’re beats going?
E; “Can you hear the latin?”

S: “Yeah. . .you do deal with quite rattling percussion? What do you think of Wookie’s Latin influenced stuff?”
E; “Check this. I was having an argument with my girlfriend about this. First thing in the morning. She really likes him and she had the nerve to tell me that she thinks he is the best producer in garage and I got offended because I’ve pushed so many boundaries and there isn’t a Mercedes parked up outside my yard, you know what I mean. At the end of the day I know that when you hit the charts and a certain level of success you also get a date stamped on your forehead. That’s you at your peak right then and everything from now is going down. We are button pushers. You are in fashion now and gone tomorrow.”

S: “So you want to keep it underground?”
E: “No I’m alright. It’s like Todd Edwards. I’ve never met him and stuff but he’s pushed out so much material and he hasn’t had a major record deal yet but has still had a couple of underground albums which he pushed out through his own label. I’m sure he doesn’t cruise around in a big fuckin Mercedes with the jewellry and shit and that man will still be working when he is 50 and 60. From when you are reliant on getting your underground publishing deal. . you’re high rollin. You can’t go from Alfa Romeo to Fiestas. You have to keep there. I know a lot of people who are singers and musicians who have struck deals, and once you have one, you have to go for the next one and the next one. Personally I would prefer to be like a Bryan Gee, start your own little syndicate, hence the Ghost thing. We come like Wu Tang. We own everything yourselves.”

S: “So which collectives like Wu Tang do you model yourselves on?”
E: “They is a few. Metalheadz, V Recordings, UR. Anyone who has got a studio together, and then the artists and materials and pushed it out with sweet artwork, clubs and videos and so on. Everything is you and you let the majors buy into you. You don’t take a piece of the major’s arse or whatever.”

S: “You build it up slowly then?”
E: “Exactly, you don’t get rich but you stay tidy until you are 60. You die with a smile on your face. But Wookie man, I’m not sure. I bought the album. I’ve got respect for certain people pushin’ the sound. I want the money to go through the system and end up with him and register on the sales. The ‘Back up, Back up” track was a ground

S: “Do you still check drum’n’bass?”
E: “Yeah, I still have love, paticularly if it’s not amen stuff. I’ve never liked the way that sounded on club systems. I like the separates. I like the low frequencies of a bass kick, the mid of a snare and the high frequencies of the high hats. I think the only reason that the amen is coming back is because they know it is selling to the students.”

S: “The ‘breakbeat garage’ article in Mixmag sounded like it was saying, ok, we’re going to rebrand garage for white students. But Hype in particular is coming with a strong sound.”
E; “Yeah, Hype sounds wild right now, I wouldn’t mind doing a track with him. It’s heavy but still groovy. The best thing is to keep the song but put the most devilish backing track so you still have the two working together. The hard and the nice.”

S; “What about the Wideboys stuff?”
E: “Production is tight and shit, but they don’t get no respect from me. Just like Zed Bias doesn’t get my respect. I don’t even give myself respect. Because we just haven’t done our time. It’s people like Grant Nelson who have served the ‘prison sentence’ in the garage world, who have been ‘fucked up the batty and shit’ that get my respect. We’ve just stormed into the scene and said fuck that. Shit man, you can play a Todd Edwards track in a club now and everyone will stop dancing. But in the less young clubs when you play a couple of 4/4 tunes it’s like a breath of fresh air”

S: “It’s interesting that it used to be the other way round.”
E: “Yeah, they used to stand still to my tunes. The Dru Hill bootleg ‘How deep is your love’ blew up and sold about 10,000 copies but yeah, people used to stop when Noodles played my tunes.”

S: “So how do you see this age divide thing?”
E: “Well its like any kids scene. You’ve got the white kids scene and the black kids scene. The white kids scene (like Croydon and Surrey and Reading etc) drink alchohol, like the Discotheque vibe. Pop in one room and garage in the other.The black scene is like, they want some underground b-line cuts and don’t step on my trainers cause they are brand bloody new and I spent all my wages on them. It’s more serious and a more tense vibe. The DJ has to please and the MCs will not shut up. It’s a heavy vibe. All their girlfriends fancy EZ and they all want to be DJs and MCs so it’s very tense.”

S: “Do you play on any pirates ?”
E: “Not really but I guest on Taste or Upfront occassionally because we’ve got people up there and it’s just hassle. There is always a fanbase in the station and it’s often hassle. They will shout the mike down, El-B El-B El-B. It’s cool because you want that promotion but not all the time. I would rather stay in and chill.”

S; “So how ‘musical’ are you?”
E: “I’ve got a pinpoint hear. I’ve been trained on keyboards and shit so I can tell when something is out of key. My ear is too precise for my own good. If you make certain noises, it will hurt my ear. Trust me, a bus stopping at the bus stop with those breaks, that causes me serious ear pain. If there is a mix down and there is a tiny little flicker in one of the samples I’ll be like, ‘stop the tune!’ I hear to the last milli digit. I’ve never really been a full clubber, so I can still hear properly.”

S: “Do you want to be doing the rounds, getting out and about DJing and stuff? Or are you happy in the studio and keeping your distance.”
E: “Well I don’t drive and I’m not heavy, you know what I mean. I’m not ruthless. I can stick up for myself but I can’t take a big man out. And all that ‘waiting till the end of the night to get paid’ shit. Fuck that.”

Watch out for the incoming El-B release ‘Serious’, and an album dropping at the end of the year. (Both on Locked On)

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Copyright © Hyperdub 2001 – Reprinted with permission.

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