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Robofunk: An interview with Plasticman (Autumn 2003)

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Steve Goodman
London Hyperdub HQ
Originally published Autumn 2003

Currently assembling his sonic robots in the dark cracks between the east London grime and the south London dubstep scenes, Thornton Heath based producer Plasticman is perfectly placed to comment on the cross fertilization between these two Mc led and Dj led movements. Hosting a primetime (Saturday’s 7-9pm) slot on pirate radio, Plasticman is a typical example of the interchange that can been found on the east London based station Rinse Fm. Plasticman started spinning garage as Dj Darkstar, although he would rarely play vocal tracks. He got his first real insight into the scene via south London’s Taste FM, and then spent some time working at Streetsales distribution until their demise at the end of 2002. Now a member of the Virus Syndicate with Manchester’s Mark One, Dre, CB, Goldfinger, Rimic Mc, Nika D, Shadow and Sheffield’s Oris Jay, Plasticman, with the industrial swagger of a Transformer, is engineering a unique artillery, unconsciously joining the dots between Kraftwerk, Front 242, techstep drum’n’bass and the frisky syncopations and swing uk 2step. Check for the twisted 8bar of ‘Hard Graft’ on Mark One’s Contagious Records, all interlocking cogs, and sick bass laughter. While not a term usually used to describe post-garage urban minimalism, Plasticman’s sound is phat. Liquid concrete basslines, that make his electro predecessors’ low end sound as thin and flimsy as chipboard. He appeared on the post-garage stage with the ‘Venom’/’Shockwave’ 12 on east beat dubplate maestro Slimzee’s label ‘Slimzos’. This was followed by a hyper-grimey three tracker on the label Road featuring ‘Sandstorm’, ‘The Lift‘ and ‘Printloop’. ‘The Lift’ arrives as the sound of clunking metal, and morphs into an 8 bar anthem which is as jovial as it is dark. With the bassline, gelled as it is to the clunking rhythm machinery, it sounds like this rusty old elevator has found sentience and is mocking you. ‘Sandstorm’ is a militant steppa, rigid robofunk on the march. And continuing the concrete aesthetic, ‘Printloop’ opens with a printer on loop [surprise], and drops into an electroid wobbler. The Plasticman sound carries concrete block by concrete block of urban affect [grime] into sound. But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. There is a cockney cheekiness to the Plasticman sound which most self-consciously dark music usually lacks; a drum edit here, a pitched down stab there, in fact little sonic jokes and pokes in the ribs everywhere. On the recent hardcore drenched release on Soulja, ‘White Gloves’, the bassline becomes increasingly comic as its convulsively spasms out of control. Now, with a barrel full of ammunition floating around on dubplate [watch for ‘Safari’ and ‘Camel Ride’ for his take on grime orientalism], and interest from labels like Haywire and Rephlex, and his own label Terrorhythm on the verge of debuting with Mark One’s ‘Fight’ with Plastic’s remix, we belatedly caught up with industrial’s latest machine part.

When did you produce the Slimzos 12?

Plasticman: I produced shockwave/venom around the autumn 2002. I put them on the net first and most people were saying that they weren’t very good. So I started arguing with people and asking what was with wrong with them and stuff. I put them the Uptown forum in particular. A lot of people replied to the clip telling me the tunes were crap, and I was like, fair enough, but tell me why you think it was crap.

Typical garage heads were never going to feel your grimey industrial sound.

Plasticman: Yeah. No one could come with an answer, so I thought I’m going to get this tune out there somehow.

What were you listening to at the time?

Plasticman: I was listening to 1999 2step, and I still love that stuff. I listen to all sorts, on the radio, whatever. Used to listen to breakbeat a lot when I was younger. I used to buy those cds, FSUK, the Future Sounds of the UK, mixed by the Freestylers. They used to put together these downtempo mixes which would move up throughout the mix until you get full on drum’n’bass at the end of it, stuff like Urban Takeover while all my friends were still listening to jungle. I wasn’t really too interested in that, but more the downtempo stuff ‘cos I really liked Speed Garage at the time. I still listen to them now, I really liked their robotic breaks. If I could stick that into a tune now, with a proper bassline that would be amazing. It’s just working out how to do the beats properly.

But your stuff is ‘swung robotic’, post-2step robotic. A lot of breakbeat or breakstep stuff around is rhythmically pretty straight.

Plasticman: Yeah, Oris [Jay] calls them ‘straight snares’. They love that abroad. Oris plays abroad, and he said that they don’t know how to dance to Hatcha’s tribal stuff. No one quite knows yet. People are starting to pick it up a little bit, but they’re just bubblin’ to it just now. When he goes abroad Oris says he can’t really play that cos they just want to dance and rave to techno music. So if he plays straight snares, they can hear the repetition to dance to.

So was Slimzee the first Dj to get on your stuff?

Plasticman: Yeah, after reading all that stuff on the net, I wanted to prove them all wrong cos I knew that the tune was as good as stuff getting played out there at the time. One person gave me some good feedback, and told me to change the intro, so I did that and it sounded 10 times better on the Venom tune. I sent Slim the Venom tune [Shockwave wasn’t made at the time] and gave it to Youngsta [from Blackmarket] at Forward cos I knew he was on that sound as well. He got back to me the next day saying that he really liked it, and then he told me that his sister was Sara who runs Soulja, and I didn’t know that at the time. He said I should put out Venom with another track of mine called ‘Life on a String’ which some people are still playing on dub. . .it’s a bit like Venom, but more simple, the beats don’t roll along as nicely as Venom. So, a week later, Slimzee texted me and said that he wanted it exclusive, and I said cool. He phoned me 2 weeks after that and said that he wanted to put it out on his label, and could I do a b-side. So I did Shockwave and they really like that. Slim started playing Shockwave more than Venom, and it got quite big. He was playing at Sidewinder and people were relating to it. He pressed up 1000. He could have done more cos I still get younger people asking me for it now, more so than some of my other tracks.

Were you playing much grime stuff at the time? You are strangely situated in between the grime scene and the dubstep scenes just now, but don’t exactly fit in either sound.

Plasticman: I was having the same conversation with Skream. Hatcha has his sound locked down, he’s got his conga/tribal thing going on, and has his own audience. I like it all, and interlink my tracks in between. Like ‘Pump Up the Jam’ is dubstep influenced, but too hard to be dubstep. At the same time its not grime, its not breakbeat. What is it. It’s just different.

Do you have a problem with people calling your stuff ‘grime’?

Plasticman: A little bit. It depends. I still do make grime tracks and enjoy making them. The only reason I don’t like calling it grime is because some Djs who I don’t respect in the scene will label anything they don’t like as grime, and so I’m a bit wary of that. But I still love making grime.

People still beat around the bush on this, but grime is after garage and not a style of garage.

Plasticman: Yeah. . .I don’t want people to think of it as garage. I remember what garage was like and I liked it, and still do. But the garage scene now is pretty much done. There is not enough people making proper garage tracks anymore or buying them, or clubs supporting them with garage on the bill. If you want to start a night playing grime or dubstep, you can’t put garage on the flyer, cos the clubs won’t have it. They just don’t want to know.

Its been like since 2001. It’s even worse now.

Plasticman: I reckon so, especially with all the violence since then.

So why does nobody dance at raves in London these days?

Plasticman: I don’t know. [laughing] Well here is my theory. . .people who were raving at garage clubs are now being spoon fed r&b and so are into that now. R&B is slow tempo and you don’t really rave to it in the same way. So people are more used to standing around just grooving to the music instead of raving. But abroad, you know people are dancing to the music cos they don’t care so much exactly what kind of music they are dancing to. I think London is very pretentious and people are too worried about what people are thinking about them. I think the girls will get interested in it though. I’ve been to Eskimo Dance which is the only grime rave of note. It was just like Forward in the sense that you have the people standing round the corners, and then the people in the middle who don’t give a shit dancing. It was much more about the mc, with a lot of people just standing, staring up at them. There wasn’t so much of a reaction when a tune dropped but rather when an MC dropped a lyric. It was just like 8mile.

The rewinds happen when the MC drops.

Plasticman: Yep. . .Your tune could be catapulted as the biggest tune in the scene because the MC has spat a certain lyric on top of it, just by chance. That Venom tune was like that. Slim told me the other day that he remembers when Riko started cussing someone out of More Fire crew or something like that, and all hell went loose on the phones and the tune kept getting reloaded. So that was how it got big. It was mad. I thought the tune was alright. So as long as the tune has a bassline and a beat, it doesn’t matter so much. They call the music Eskidance. I have respect for what they are doing. They are doing their thing. I like it. I used to listen to Roll Deep on Rinse and they were really interesting. Strange stuff. There hasn’t been many crews doing off key interesting stuff like that. Good Mcs, good ideas and they didn’t care what the scene thought. I remember listening to Eskimo 2 with no beats. I was waiting for the beats. But the bassline was hard enough. Then Frostbite. . .beats and bass on one side, and then separate beats and bass on the other. Are they asking to be bootlegged or what. They are talented guys and it is good that they’ve got their own rave to hold it in, just like Forward. But if you like Mcs you go to Eskimo Dance. It really did remind me of 8 mile though. Just everyone standing there watching the lyric, nodding their head to the tune. They hang on every word he says. They’re listening to every word. And then when another Mcs name is dropped into the lyric, it goes mad. As soon as another MC gets involved it goes mad. It was good, but it wasn’t a dance, if you know what I mean. I think people in the crowd just need to realize that some of these clashes are staged and are a way to hype the crowd up. So they shouldn’t take the beef so seriously.

So its like Mc vs. Djs, and the Djs are winning at Forward, and the Mcs are winning at Eskidance.

Plasticman: Definitely. The Djs at Eski are only as big as who is spittin’ on their set. The Djs don’t get rated so much for their mixing skills. Slim hasn’t been doing his show on Rinse without an Mc for that long. I think its great. When a Dj is playing without his Mc, he is in total control and you hear what Slim is really into. He really is getting into the sound. I was at Forward with him, and he was really feelin’ Hatcha’s set. Every tune that he dropped that he didn’t know, he was like, ‘what’s this?’. You can tell he is feelin it. I know Geeneus has been into it for a long while now. And Dugs as well. It’s the only place to go really. I played in Harrow the other night, and that was ok. We just need a few more little nights popping up.

How do you think the vibe would change if there were more Mcs at Forward? On a good night, Slaughter Mob really lift the vibe up.

I think the way an MC portrays themselves can do a lot. When Dynamite was down there last time, she smashed it. You could tell that Rodney P wasn’t really feeling the vibe. Crazy D on the other hand loves the music. I was arguing with someone on the internet the other day, who was saying, why don’t Forward book someone like Doogz to chat over the tunes. And I was saying that those Mcs don’t care so much what tune they are spittin over, so long as people are hearing what they are chatting. With Crazy D, he will take a back seat when he needs to. If you listen to him with Hatcha, nearly every tune that drops, he will tell you the name of it. He won’t even have to look at the deck. He knows what tune is playin’. He’s making beats now as well. That’s quality. When an MC can take as much interest as he does, that cool. If we had more Mcs like they would be welcome. Sometimes Mcs need to remember that they also need to help the crowd have a good night, as well as force them to listen to their lyrics. That’s more like hip hop. I do think a lot of the Mcs lyrics are great, but if you want to go out and have a good time, with the crowd getting involved. . .

How did the Road E.P happen? And when did you make ‘The Lift’, ‘Print Loop’ and ‘Sandstorm’?

Plasticman: Probably after I left the distribution company at the beginning of the year. I just wanted to see my tunes out there. If I’ve got vinyl and don’t have to cut a dubplate of my own tune, then that is a touch. I’m all for those little 3 trackers like that. Its good that it is on a proper label as well. Its nice to have proper artwork. That tune did me the world of good. Slim was playing Sandstorm on dub for a while. My friends on the radio were playing the Lift. And then Neil gave it to all the Forward heads. I heard Shorty play some of the tunes there. Hatcha played the Lift and even I was surprised. I didn’t really think that it was his thing. Andy Weatherall was playing the Lift for a while. That was mental, since I’ve never really listened to any electro.

What about the Plastikman issue? There was several journalists making an issue out of the fact that you almost shared your name with techno producer, Richie Hawtin. So they were forcing some connection between the musics, even though you had never heard of him previously.

Plasticman: Yeah. That is causing slight problems. I am very wary now that I’ve found out about him.

Its an old comic character as well. I don’t know if he got hassle for that, and so changed his spelling to use a K. You could always change it to a Q.

Plasticman: Yeah. . .that’s what I’ve done on that cd I’ve just given you. . .look.

. . .Plastique?

Plasticman: Yeah. . .I’m just testing the water on that one. I was speaking to John at Big Apple about that, cos they are big techno heads. I asked him if anything had come up about it on the scene and he said not yet. I don’t want to change my name right now. I’m just starting to break. The scene is still fresh and new, and in 5 years time I want people to be able to look back and see that I was doing my thing from the start.”

. . .but you’ll probably have about 6 names by then.

Plasticman: yeah. . .but I’m a good talker, so if anything does come, hopefully we can deal with it, and sort something out. But as I said, it wouldn’t be a problem for me to change it to a Q or something like that.

How did you find out about the name issue.

Plasticman: Through John at Big Apple. I started writing reviews for Rewind mag. And they asked me what I wanted to review as? As a Dj? I was like, ‘not really. I’d rather keep it anonymous. Just call it Plasticman cos I’d be reviewing vinyl and that kind of fits.’ And then I started making the tunes and that, and joined a few web forums using the name. And then I put those tunes up that I told you about. So it just stuck from there. So had that tune not done anything, and I’d stopped doing rewind, I wouldn’t be called Plasticman now. You know what I mean. It’s all chance. I certainly don’t want it to go to court or anything like that. There is certainly not enough money involved in it.

What about the Virus Syndicate / Mark One connection?

Plasticman: Yeah. . .Mark is totally on it. Bang on it. Anyone who will travel from Manchester to East London to do pirate radio, you’ve got to respect. He is down pretty much every other week. Sometimes it will be 3 times in a month. You’ve got to big him up for that.

What did you think of the last Rinse studio in Bow?

Plasticman: Yeah. . .that was dark. There was always loads of cars parked up, and lights on in the flats, but no one about. It was like just waiting to get jumped.”

. . .it was pretty dusty.

Plasticman: I’d come back and have to wash of the bottom of my bag and everything. I remember once, I was up there and the next Dj, Blender was coming on. He belled me and said he would be up in a minute. I went to the front door which was a bit wobbly anyway. I found a lead pole and I thought I’ll hold that just in case anything dodgy goes on. I was looking through the peep hole waiting for him to come up the stairs. As I walked to the door, he kicked it open. . .it didn’t take much. And I’m ready to fling this pole at him. Luckily I saw it was him, but fuckin’ hell, that was a bit much. There was no lights, the lift was horrible. My heart sunk when that door got kicked down. I thought that was it, I’m gonna get shot or something. I tell you, I was out of there like a flash after that.

What do you produce on?

Plasticman: I use Fruity Loops and Reason. I’m still trying to get to grips with Reason. I can’t really see my stuff getting over musical. I prefer to do atmospheric stuff. I’m more interested in the engineering side of things, the sound. You know that bit in 1984 by George Orwell. . .the way he had that feeling about the paper weight. That is the way I feel about a dirty old dub. Its like having something that no one else can have. No one’s dub sounds quite the same because they crackle differently. I can’t explain it any other way. I don’t think everyone will move to using cds. I like the smell of new dubs. It feels good.

While there is loads of fresh material floating around on dub right now, there is not much getting released.

Plasticman: Yeah. . .it’s the first time I’ve been involved in a scene like this. Its like everyone is building their own sound. I’m trying to build myself a little industrial sound. I’ve never really been into techno, so I’m not sure where my sound comes from. I don’t really like 4 beat.

Check Plasticman’s site at www.terrorhythm.co.uk and a dj mix here.

Incoming Plasticman tunes:

‘Safari’ on Oris Jay’s label Hard Livin
‘Spring Roller’ on Femme Fatale’s label Fatale Attraction
‘Rush’ on Rossi B & Luca’s dark 4beat label

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Copyright © Hyperdub 2003 – 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).