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Interview with Horsepower Productions (March 2004)

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Martin Clark
London Hyperdub HQ
Originally published March 2004

Buried deep south on the outskirts of London is Croydon. There you’ll find a hotbed of talent, a sound heard across the London pirates and known as dubstep. Hatcha, Benga, Skreams, Menta, Jayda Flex, Plastic Man, Kode 9, Digital Mystikz: there are many key players. But none make dubwise sounds and textures quite like Benny Ill and Lev Jnr aka Horsepower Productions…

“I and I could take you to a place/far, far away. You never been there before…”

Benny Ill is not old enough to be called a “wise old man.” Older, maybe than your average garage head, but not “old.” He’s most definitely a man however and undoubtedly wise, so the expression has some resonance. You know it’s relevant if you ever speak to him, in depth, about music. The conversation is never rushed. Ben speaks slowly and surely. If you listen, you’ll notice a stream of sense and insight. And that’s why he, and his Horsepower Productions are so highly revered in the Forward>> scene. Because they are the original dubsteppers.

Garage hasn’t had a great track record with albums recently, what with Donae’o, Heartless and Pay As U Go’s not coming out. So it’s big for the garage scene as a whole when Horsepower release not just an album but their second album. Entitled “To The Rescue,” it drops at a time where garage is going in a million directions at once (and really not selling much in any of them).

Horsepower are just made for albums however. Where other producers make big riddims that merk the dance but would sound boring twelve times on a full length CD, Horsepower make you tread the line between listening and dancing. They fill their dubstep with found sounds from all over the globe, dialog from films and beats from the full history of rhythmic music. Brought together it tingles the ear, excites the brain and empowers the feet. The one thing it doesn’t do is destroy raves with ear-shattering bass.

“I don’t like really hard records. I’m into more mellow myself,” explains Ben gently. “I’d rather sit on the line between really hard dancefloor bass stuff and complete listeners stuff. I’m not a fan of electronica, all that kind of thing. I think it’s alright but I’d rather listen to dance music even if I’m at home.”

For this reason you won’t hear Horsepower dubs at Eskimo Dance. You won’t hear them played by East Co, Mac 10 or DJ Maximum. EZ probably won’t be cutting vigorously between two copies of them. But does that matter? When you listen to a Horsepower tune it questions what garage is for. Is the only point of a UKG tune to smack up the dance? Or can it be an enjoyable and complete listening experience in its own right?

“If you think of things like ‘Eskimo’ it’s minimal but it’s better to be mixed around with by a DJ. You wouldn’t exactly go home and put the record on,” elaborates Ben. “Something like that needs another element like a DJ mixing or a MC. Our stuff you can mix but it doesn’t need MCs.”

The way Horsepower bypass the need for MCs is to fill their productions with intricate sounds, dialogs and moods from around the globe. On the new LP Horsepower take in the textures of Persia, the Caribbean, Italy, France, Haiti, China and Brazil. They even recreate outer space: which is pretty impressive since there’s no sound in outer space (there’s no air to bang together to spread the sound innit!).

If you listen to a tune like Wiley’s “Igloo” or Terror Danjah’s “Creepy Crawler” you’ll hear the sound of slick studio production. Complex synths, samplers and drum machines all digitally mixed together. But clean and polished, it’s not until you hear it loud, with an MC over a crackly pirate station or in a rave that you hear it in its true natural environment. Before its there it seems synthetic, electronic and almost lifeless.

Horsepower records are different though. Buried in the background there’s subtle textures and sounds. “We use winds or atmospherics to cover up our beats. It’s very rare we’ll have just a beat running on it’s own. If it is we’ll find a natural sound, wind noise, vinyl scratches, static from vinyl or fucked up sounds and hark back to the [seminal German dub-techno outfit] Basic Channel ethic. We’ll add hiss in the track and effect it ­ to make an element of it rather than it being there unwanted.”

These effects are designed to take the ear to new places. The samples they use take you away too. Haiti, China, Brazil ­ all the countries listed above, that’s where you go through his new LP. Most noticeably is the album’s climax, “Classic Delux Part 2,” which is set deep in the Brazilian rainforest.

“It’s easy to say yeah we just sampled the rainforest, but when you’re hearing it you’re kinda taken to that space. The size of the space, the shape, the animals making their noises: you’re actually taken there,” explains Ben.

Almost unbelievably, Ben often takes this concept a step further. “I’ve got this CD of 70 mins of Brazilian rainforest sounds. In the past I’ve played DJ sets and ran that all the way through it ­ quieter, louder, in the background – and it creates its own vibe.”

There is, of course, another more practical reason for the background sounds. Horsepower don’t want their carefully constructed drum breaks sampled by someone else. Fair enough, you might think, except that the vast majority of Horsepower sounds are already sampled from other people’s records.

“I don’t mind people sampling our stuff as such. It’s just that some people are not very creative and they sample whole pieces,” elaborates Ben. “Because it’s already been sampled already they could get it from where we get it, it’s no secret. But someone could take a whole beat from us and use it. We don’t wanna appear superior but there is value to the idea that sampling is just modern computer music and it’s easily done. You just press a button. There’s some reality to that statement and you have to fight that if you’re making this kind of music. You have to bring something to it. To change it slightly or to go in a bit deeper than just making loops.”

Horsepower do take things a bit deeper than just making loops. Their productions are immensely detailed sonic collages, heavy dubstep riddims constructed from hundreds of samples.

They even have another level to add. It’s a concept that comes out in their tracks “Classic Delux parts 1 & 2” (the climax of both LPs). While musically unrelated the concept ties these two tracks together. The idea is simple: “we use things from celebrated sources in a different style, bringing together different things people have heard many times and try to present it in a different manner.” The genius, of course, is when Horsepower fuse a soca rhythm with the Apache break, Rat Pack horns over a deep house synth, these disparate elements sound like they were made for each other, not plucked from the history of recorded music. It’s like Ben’s conducting an allstar orchestra of the greatest musicians of all time using his sampler.

“When James Brown’s drummer hit the snare from the “Funky Drummer” they recorded it then and there, once for one record,” muses Ben. “Now some time in the future that same snare has been reproduced millions of times. A million times it’s been re-hit, not physically hit but replayed over and over again. It’s a mad concept. The drummer could never have known and if he’d hit it slightly late it would have never been used. It’s kinda odd: when you make sampled music you are re-living the past but you’re also bringing something new.”

Back too the “old wise man” expression, Ben’s remarkable because of his seemingly vast knowledge of music. His loft, which doubles as his studio, is rammed with crates of records. Horsepower themselves originally formed as an ‘80s soundsystem, named after a reggae hit called “Horse Move (Giddi-Up)” by The Horseman.

In a garage scene that’s relentlessly now, where you’re old school in six months and there’s even a club’s called “Forward>>” it’s different when a production outfit like Horsepower also look back. “There’s always people who are upfront, they’re on the future. It’s not about the past to them. Because we’re older we’ve seen it all before, from an overview. For example Jon E Cash. Not knocking him but I shouldn’t think that most people who listen to garage know that there’s an original Johnny Cash the country singer. Not that matters at all but it’s an example of how we’re older and how we see other things. I just think it’s funny.”

“I don’t think you can ignore the past, though. It’s easier for some young kid to do something that’s already been done, blind. But it’s also alright to look back to those things to see how it’s done different, or have that background in your head.”

There’s one final element that makes Horsepower: the influence of films. ”Cinema is a whole part of the process of the track. Not just as a source of samples but how the director has done it, the soundtrack, how they’ve shown the different emotions in film through the music. Films have a lot of atmosphere and so you can take that and use it in a track without actually sampling it.“

In practical terms the use of film dialog in tracks is a useful solution for an underground producer. On one hand singers are complex to record and it’s too easy to go down the “song” route. On the other hand instrumental records don’t speak to people like vocals do.

“It’s not singing but it’s bringing another kind of human appeal to it. Plus there’s the cult appeal of a film. Someone might know a film and think ‘wicked that comes from there.’ Maybe even better, at a later date they’ll realise what film a sample came from. Someone rang me the other day when they’d been watching some Orson Wells film we’d sampled. My friend said he saw it for the first time and it gave him an insight into the track. It’s a very atmospheric film. Some of these films are forgotten so it’s bringing them to light for new people.”

If you take films, sounds from all over the planet, sounds from the history of music, together they make Horsepower’s dubstep. Suddenly the “dub” in dubstep almost makes the term a bit limiting. Perhaps it’s more “dub” as in the instrumental mix, not just exclusively reggae-influenced.

“Our music does contain elements of reggae and soca, but the defining term dubstep doesn’t need to be so specifically accurate, there’s different sides to it. But if you look along the way, a lot of that influence has been used ­ Ghost, Kode 9, Digital Mystikz ­ they do feature Jamaican voices. The influence of reggae is more the system of making tracks. The bass and the drum. The beat and the bassline. That’s kinda critical to it – everything else is kinda thrown in.”

Horsepower: stone cold masters in the art of throwing them sounds in.

Martin Clark
5 Horsepower records to kill for
1. Horsepower “Classic Delux part 1”
2. High Planes Drifter v Goldspot “Sholay”
3. Benny Ill v Hatcha “Highland Spring”
4. Horsepower “Gorgon Sound”
5. Elephant Man “Log On (Horsepower dub mix)”

All on Tempa records www.tempa.co.uk

Horsepower Productions “To The Rescue” is out March 22nd on Tempa

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Copyright © Hyperdub 2004 – 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).