Toddla T has always been one of club culture's most engaging figures.
With his roots in Sheffield, the producer sat outside that London circle, forging his own sound through a love for dancehall's future-facing, ultra-physical riddims.
Debut album 'Skanky Skanky' was followed by Ninja Tune full length 'Watch Me Dance', both featuring a huge array of ideas, sounds, collaborators, and special guests.
But then he seemed to step back a little. Becoming a father, Toddla T opted for the family life, eschewing large-scale projects for one off releases, club shows, and a myriad of other projects.
Surging back into the limelight at the beginning of the year, new album 'Foreign Light' is a powerful return, one that showcases a producer whose creative spark is burning brightly.
Out now, Clash caught up with Toddla T to uncover the ways in which domestic bliss have sparked his rejuvenation...
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You’ve focussed a lot on Djing and one-off tracks, was there a point where you thought you might not actually release another album?
I mean, I don’t know if I literally thought I would never do another record again, but after my last one I definitely felt like I would stick to one-off tunes and playing out. To make an album you’ve kind of got to have that fire in your belly, and I’d got it back. So that’s why it happened really.
And it’s funny, because I actually want to do my next one already! So I need to act on that while I’ve got the vibe. For me, anyway, you’ve just got to want to do it, and then you’ll do it. You can’t really plan that. And for some reason it took me three years to get that back. But yeah, man – I’m ready!
How did you get that fire back, do you think?
It’s funny, I speak to a lot of producers about this, and sometimes you feel so creative and sometimes you really struggle. And due to having kids, and having that domestic routine in my life, I feel like that’s really helped me out in terms of having my mindset right and having a healthy lifestyle. That’s all allowed me to be more active in terms of creativity. Having kids in a way has helped me out, it’s given me more drive and routine.
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I need to act on that while I’ve got the vibe!
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Has it supplied you with renewed focus?
Definitely. I drop my kid off at school at half eight in the morning… and there’s no choice in the matter! He’s got to be up, he’s got to be dressed, he’s got to have his teeth clean, he’s got to have his uniform on. So by the time I’ve dropped him off I’m in my studio a half hour later. And I’ve got until 5pm, 6pm and then I’ve got to go home.
For me, personally, who’s really unorganised as a person, that’s really good and really helpful in terms of getting stuff done. So even though I’m busier than ever because of my family, I’m more productive than ever. It’s kind of weird, man. It’s really shaped me for the better.
Some of these short tracks feel almost like DJ tools to play out.
I guess so. I think a lot of the short tracks are due to some of my favourite albums having short skits inbetween songs. Like Biggie’s first record, or Snoop’s first record, or Pac’s record, or even the latest Kendrick bit. Skits – for me – were as good as some of the tunes, and just as memorable. And it felt like something that would fit the album. I played the other night, and I played that ‘Tribute’ record as a nice segway from house into grime. They can definitely be used as that, as well, which is kind of a bonus, I suppose.
Which studio was this mainly recorded in?
I’m in West London now. I’ve been here for five years, in this unit. It’s right in the thick of, like, the West London community. I’m sat here right now, and I’m looking at this massive block of luxury flats, and that basically sums up London right now. It’s very frightening, the gentrification and social cleansing that’s going on. And I’m looking at it right now as I speak to you.
I love this area so much but it’s been really sad over the past few years seeing all the studios shut down, and all the decent places to live have been turned into flats that only rich people can buy. It’s a very changing area, but I love it round here – I always have. It’s the centre for carnival, I love where it is, I love the history of it, the culture mix. And it’s my home now. Even though it’s changing – not for the better in a lot of cases – I still think it’s my base.
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It’s very frightening, the gentrification and social cleansing that’s going on.
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Did your daily routine turn being in the studio into a focussed, 9 to 5 affair?
I guess so! I’ve only got a certain amount of time in my day, so I’ve got to make my music, I’ve got to prepare my radio show, I’ve got to make sure my clothing line is up to scratch. I’ve got to speak to people and organise shows. It’s more concentrated. With this album, though, I’ve built loads of ideas, and I’d go meet Benji B every month or so and he’d help me out by being those second pair of ears. Someone outside of my own bubble. In terms of guidance and direction he was integral to this album, man. It was so necessary. I didn’t really think that anyone around me at the time understood what I wanted to do with this record, so I’d get in a tube to him at Kings Cross and he was integral to this project. But in general, I’ve got a window and things had to be done. For me, personally, it really works, and it’s a blessing to have that in my life.
There are a few guest artists on here, did they help guide the path of the record?
Well, Andrea Martin is the sole voice on the record, and everyone else got added later. When I met Andrea a few years ago I was blown away, and knew that I wanted her to be the voice on this album, as she could deliver what I was trying to do. But with my studio, people come passing through all the time. We’re always working, hanging out – every single day.
The guests on the album are just people who were around at the time, it wasn’t like it became this thing to get guests on it. For example, Stefflon Don – I was working on her stuff, she’d been doing stuff for me on my carnival shows. Coco is my little brother, and he’s here just as much as me now in this studio. It was all leading into the bigger vision. People had their own flavour, and that helped make it complete. I was really lucky that it all fell into place in one point.
All the artists you’ve mentioned blend different elements, they don’t just sit in one genre. Is that something you seek out in collaborators?
It excites me when someone is drawing on different things because that makes that person individual – rather than rappers that are influenced strictly by rap, or rappers who rap about rapping. It can feel a bit stale. When someone brings their own style or distinct flavour it makes it a bit more truthful. But what happens with me, I tend to make music that is kind of all over the place, so I need artists who can bring their own flavour to the pot.
Steff does that – it’s very kinda Jamaica vs. England, but with the track it wasn’t that at all, she just added more vibes to it. People come to the studio with me, and ultimately that’s going to be the ethos of the session anyway, because that’s what I do. I’m not going to trace the biggest grime track of the minute, or the biggest reggae track – we love that, and we’re going to nod to it, but we’re going to do our own version. Every artist on this record has got this vibe, and it’s works – it’s great.
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When someone brings their own style or distinct flavour it makes it a bit more truthful...
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It’s quite a short record – did you wind up with too much material?
Totally. 100%. I literally dropped two tracks just before it came out. It’s a short record, but then a lot of my favourite albums are really short. I think nowadays, new music can be a bit overwhelming, with 15 songs or whatever on an album. My last album, a lot of my regrets were that it was too long. So with this one, I just wanted to refine it down.
And also, it’s about all the songs hanging together I the right way. I crafted this like a 30 minute tune, rather than 10 sections. And that’s why a couple of tracks went, because it didn’t feel like it went with the rest of them. I’ve still got loads of bits that are sat there, and we might do something with them. That’s what we do with music, you pick out the bits you like the music or that work together the best.
Were you tinkering all the way to the finish line, then?
Literally, yeah. To the last minute. One track was going to be a bonus tune, but I didn’t want that as it wasn’t in the sequence, it just didn’t make sense. It felt like a random tune lobbed on the end. And I was so mindful of it being the start to the finish, and here it is as one piece of material, rather than separate tracks. That was quite important. If it could be done, of course. It’s always weird to get rid of tunes. But then ‘Magnet’ - which is the last song on the record – seems to be reacting best, and it was a last minute addition. So things went all the way to the last minute.
Coco has that Sheffield connection, do you head back up there a lot?
Yeah, man! Coco I actually met in London, randomly, even though he’s from Sheffield. I’d been trying to meet him for years, I’d always wanted to work with him but it had never really happened. And then, next thing he moved down here and we just got on like brothers. He’s in my studio and he brings such great energy – we started making records together and he’s one of the best artists I’ve ever worked with. I just love the fact we’re two Sheffield lads in London legging it around, like this little weird Sheffield contingency in the middle of this big city.
I go back as much as I can, of course, because family is just the most important thing. And I’ve still got my eye on the music scene because I’m really passionate and interested about what’s going on up there. There’s so many good rappers, there’s so many good beat makers, there’s so many good photographers, there’s so many good streetwear brands and so many good film-makers. It’s amazing. And it’s so good, and so DIY. It’s just a joy to watch it from the outside, man, Sheffield’s firing and it’s great!
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Sheffield’s firing and it’s great!
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What’s Coco like in the studio?
Coco’s great. He’s so much fun, such a great energy. If I’m feeling down or tired, as soon as he walks through the door… that’s gone! I almost want him to live in my studio. Every time he goes there it’s a total vibe. If the spirit’s right in the studio we can get things done in under an hour. He’s easy to work with.
I’ve worked with so many people over the years, so I know the level and he’s up there with the best in terms of his attitude, and how he wrote, and how he delivered, the confidence. To me, he’s A Class. He’s wicked. I’m so glad he’s here. It’s like a ray of light in the studio, it’s great.
The record’s out now, and it’s being warmly received – what does that positive reception mean to you?
Definitely. It sounds a bit weird or almost arrogant but I’ve not done an album for so long, and I’ve been making music for so long, and so many people are doing it, that to get a massive reaction right now, when dance music and street music has crossed over so far… I wanted to make something that I really loved and believed in – one with Andrea Martin, and certain sonics, and wasn’t what people would (a) expect or (b) want from me.
I didn’t play it to anyone – apart from Benji – before it was mastered. I didn’t play it to my agent, to my manager, even my partner, because I wanted it to be mine, and not influenced by people going ‘oh that wouldn’t work in rave’ or ‘that won’t work on radio’ because it’s not about that. And for people to be with it as well it just unbelievable because I feel like this is my most honest work. But also, the fact that people have given me such kind words, and radio is playing, and people are playing it in clubs is just a massive, massive bonus.
So the last few days have been amazing. It’s wicked. It’s all a bonus, but it’s great.
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I wanted to make something that I really loved and believed in...
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And it’s all lift off – carnival is at the end of the month! So will you be bringing this out on the road?
Yeah! I’ve actually just finished a club edit of ‘Magnet’ that I’m going to get mastered later, this eight minute long version. There’s going to be some dubplate mixes of the track, and I’ll definitely be playing it out. I’m not going to be touring it as a live concept because Andrea can’t make it and that’ll make it really tricky to tour as she’s so integral I just couldn’t do it without her.
The next project I’ll do a bit more live stuff, but right now it’s all club-based, DJ-based. If you come and see me DJ that’s what you’ll get!
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'Foreign Light' is out now.
Catch Toddla T at House Of Common, London on August 28th.