In an era when dubstep is used to advertise soft drinks, it's often difficult to imagine how unstable, how penetrating, how strange the genre seemed when it first oozed out of the speakers.
Dark, sparse and unlike anything else you had ever heard, dubstep seemed to carry with it an overwhelming sense of spirituality. Rooted in soundsystem lore, the scene was small enough to allow interaction between each figurehead on a one to one basis.
Leafing through his lesser known cuts, Bristol producer Pinch has provoked some strong memories. 'Pinch: MIA 2004 - 2010' is a compilation drawing on what many would term the peak years of dubstep - it's formation, categorisation and ultimately its splintering into the many faceted beast known as UK bass.
It's a compilation which, in treading upon lesser explored regions, seems to remind us of exactly why dubstep was so potent in the first place. Tracking down the producer, we spoke to him about the compilation, his work and that much rumoured collaboration with U-Sound lynchpin Adrian Sherwood.
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What prompted the new compilation?
I suppose a few months back I was flicking through YouTube and you know how obviously videos link to other videos. Somebody sent me something to check and I saw in the list one of my old tunes, which I had kind of half forgotten about so I clicked on it. I don’t use YouTube a huge amount but I was quite pleased to see that there was a big number of viewings on this old tune which was just a B-side that came out in 2007. I looked at some of the comments on the page where people were talking about it, it had only been uploaded a few months beforehand and people were talking about it as if it were a new tune and it made me think “oh – maybe there’s some legs in these older bits and pieces that maybe slipped through the net a little bit”. I started thinking that there are actually a few which people might not know about but I’m quite proud of, I’m happy to put my name to but maybe came out in the earlier days when there wasn’t such attention on the scene. I just thought: yeah, time to gather together some of my favourite tracks from off the Tectonic label. That was it really, the sole impetus came from there.
From a fan’s point of view there is something interesting in looking at an artist surveying their own material.
Yeah. I mean, I definitely don’t want to – and haven’t in any way – presented it as a kind of Best Of. It’s certainly not a Best Of. It’s very much not a Best Of but in a way it’s a Best Of the obscure, if that makes sense. It’s funny when I talk to people and they have their favourite tunes because quite often some of my favourite tunes are different so I can see that people perceive things differently from how I would perceive the things that I have made. I guess we’ll see if anyone actually likes my own choices.
It feels like an album, rather than a patched together collection - was that intended from the start?
I guess so. I mean, it was in my mind that I wanted it to flow from start to finish but at the same time the tracks are in chronological order, I didn’t really sit around thinking about how they would be ordered. I guess perhaps there’s a natural continuity and flow by the very fact that they are in chronological order so maybe there is some kind of hidden narrative in there. It wasn’t super planned out or anything.
It opens with ‘Qawwali’ which for years was perhaps your signature track.
It’s actually the VIP version which is quite different from the original. Again, the ‘Qawwali’ original is a track which has had a lot of attention for me, and I guess a lot of people would associate with me. The VIP I suppose didn’t really get mentioned so much and I guess for that reason I thought we would put it on there. I guess it made sense to start off with that, it’s a good place to start things.
How did the Nusrat Fati Ali Khan remix come about?
Well that funnily enough.. someone approached me in 2006 about that simply off the back of the fact that I had written a tune called ‘Qawwali’ and the obvious link is there. I’m sure you’re aware of Nusrat and his prestigious status in the world of Sufi music and Qawwali music. He’s reported to have sold in total more albums than Elvis Presley but on the other side of the planet and over a much larger number of albums, as well. I’m not going to profess to be a specialist in the field of Qawwali music, I think in Qawwali he is about as pop and as well known as it gets. To be asked to work on a remix like that for someone as prestigious as Nusrat was a very early career highlight. The label was based in San Francisco and specialised in world music, it was so much outside the dubstep world.. the release only ever had a digital release so that one very much did get swept under the carpet a little bit. The tempo it’s at – 116 BPM – was the tempo of his voice, the idea of time-stretching and messing with this legend’s voice was something I was quite sensitive too so I decided to keep it clean and build around it. I mean, I quite like the track it’s definitely different to some of the others on there.
Are you a particular fan of Qawwali music?
If I’m very honest with you I do like some of it but I like the idea of what it is and what it represents far more so. I like the idea of spiritual music, I like the idea of people communing and entering into states of spiritual consciousness through music. So for me, the idea of Qawwali is more true to my heart than perhaps the scene itself. I do, when it’s sung well it’s hard not to like.
Do you make a parallel to bass culture with this sense of spiritual consciousness through music?
100%. That’s the exact link that I would relate to in that situation. The Qawwali track is not Qawwali music – to me, it was this is bass music this is my Qawwali, if you like. I don’t get as many opportunities and I don’t think that the general bass music scene is organised in such a way to make it as common now but certainly in the early dubstep days and a good dub soundsystem night or maybe even a good techno night.. there are times when you can lose yourself on the dancefloor. I hate to say the word meditation because it has these connotations which are very much attached to religion, New Age spirituality and what have you but the way I think of it is: I have nice and interesting thoughts while I’m there. It makes me think of things and approach ideas in a way where you have these almost Eureka style moments, just thinking about stuff whether that be in your life or music or whatever. It’s thought provoking is probably the better way of putting it – or good thought provoking.
There are a huge amount of tangents on display here.
I think that’s just the way it unfolded. In my own progression as a producer and development of interests I was conscious to pursue this idea of progression and experimentation. Those were just the routes that I ended up going along with my journey so far on these things. When I was picking the tracks it was more a case of me thinking about some of my favourites which I like or would like to listen to myself.
There’s a Swamp81 cut on the album, is that available digitally?
No it never will be – the Swamp81 track is CD only. That is still grounded in the hands-on physical world that Swamp81 likes to be in. I might have been able to bend Loefah’s point of view on that one if I’d pushed it but I think, y’know I respect the philosophy of the label, I appreciate where he’s coming from so let’s keep it in the world of the real and hands on. That one’s just for the CD, it’s not for the digital.
As a label owner do you like to have the best of both worlds?
Well absolutely. For me, vinyl is a more rewarding format to own and to listen to but I appreciate that you’re not going to get very far on the Tube with a record player and a pair of headphones so we’ve got to compromise in this contemporary world we live in. For me, I think if you listen to music on an iPod to be honest you’re going to be hard pushed to tell the difference between an mp3 and a Wav file. It’s just the level of reproduction of the sound. I think for me the warmth of vinyl shines through and is my personal preference but at the end of the day when it comes to iPod you’d be hard pushed... you need serious fox ears to pick ‘em out. So I don’t really have a problem. I don’t have a problem with the format, I don’t have a problem with the notion of digital it’s more about the relevant application of use. Certain situations it works, through a pair of headphones – fine. Whack it on a big soundsystem – I think that’s the wrong place to be playing mp3s.
Did any of these tunes begin as soundsystem only cuts, as dubplates?
I think as a general process – certainly in the earlier days of dubstep it was a lot more common – but I run by this general method of operation which is, y’know: you finish a tune, you cut it – I still play dubplates, vinyl only.. I cut the tune, play it out to see how it goes down, see how the response is, see what the feedback is when I give it to other people and they want to play it out and if it’s good enough and passes that first tastemaker test then it’s worthy of release. There’s tunes which don’t get further than that and you think, well OK this is a system which works for me. The other thing is that it’s nice: when I’m DJing, there’s an anonymity to all the new music you’re playing. I always leave my dubplates blank and unmarked – even if you lean over you can’t see what it is. If someone asks me what tune is playing I can just say ‘dubplate’. There’s an anonymity to it. You can kind of play your tune, see how they go down, safe in the knowledge that no one actually knows what it is.
There's been a lot of speculation about those Adrian Sherwood dubplates
Well it’s gone a bit further than that we’ve got a full on album that will be coming out next year at some point which is nearly finished. It’ll be a full album.
Generally, when we were working together we recorded at his studio. Most of the time what I would do is prepare some parts at home. It started off with the idea that we would just make a couple of dubplates so I took a couple of tunes that I had which were unreleased, starting working and putting some extra bits and pieces on. Essentially, we worked together really well and in a short space of time we got a lot done and it just seemed like the obvious thing was to turn it into an album project. As a general method of collaboration I would spend a couple of nights building some parts, bring them to Adrian’s – we would dismantle it a little bit, get some studio session musicians in, add some samples and sounds from his side.. move things around a little bit. Essentially, the last part of the whole process is him running the parts through his desk and giving it that On-U Sherwood lick.
He’s got some kit..
Yeah he’s got his Midas now. That’s there. Looming away in the room, it’s about two and a half times the size of the one he had before. It’s good.
Did the process of piecing together this compilation inspire different routes?
Yes and no. I mean, obviously this is a retrospective compilation. My general philosophy has been more about moving forward rather than fine-tuning a single idea or something, which I think is more interesting. The reason that the period there is 2006 – 2010, that’s the period that the tracks were released rather than when they were written. They were written six months before they came out, at least. That represents a period in my production life which contains the heart and soul of the dubstep scene which I was most involved with and attached to. So in the last couple of years I’ve been trying out stuff at a slower tempo, trying more house tempo based productions have come out on Swamp81 mainly so far. At the moment I think it’s a funny time in music. The tribalisation of dance music that prevailed in the 90s – people would be very much into Jungle and drum ‘n’ bass but not into house and techno, or vica versa. It’s all homogenising a little bit, sounds are more readily borrowed between scenes. Music is sounding a bit more and more similar. Now is a time where there is a longing for a new dubstep or a new movement in dance music to emerge. I don’t know what it will be. Usually these things happen with a tempo shift and then other things cement around it so I’m kind of in that position myself – trying out different things, seeing what sticks and hopefully can find something with an excitement and a buzz about it which will be along similar lines to the dubstep scene which I fell in love with or the Jungle scene which I fell in love with before that.
There is a resurgence of that dark, dubstep sound.
Definitely. I think it always seems to happen at a point just before something new emerges and cements itself people start looking back to other things that they loved. So y’know, whether it be.. it’s often house and techno because that’s such a solid industry but when in doubt you start looking around, looking at the things you were into just before that. I guess it’s like a re-grouping for inspiration before something else cements. I’m not sure if I’m putting this in the most grammatically accessible way but I think you probably get a vague idea of what I’m trying to say.
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'Pinch: MIA 2004 - 2010' is out on Monday (November 19th).