Basic Rhythm’s contribution to the electronic music scene, specifically in the UK, is far-reaching. Coming through in the 90s when every aspect of the hardcore continuum was exploding, Basic Rhythm is closely connected with the community in East London, having spent most of his early days at record shops such as Boogie Times in Romford, Music Power in Ilford and Total Music Records in Bethnal Green. He was also most notably a resident on the pirate radio station Rude FM.
Now with three albums under his belt, with the third being released last year on Planet Mu, Basic Rhythm launches new label Raw Basics with a split EP alongside Parris. Ahead of its release on the 5th June, we speak to the legendary artist about his experiences growing up in East London during the early days of hardcore and jungle, the impact of your environment, finding your identity and class issues within the electronic music scene and how the current global crisis is highlighting the inequalities.
There’s not a lot of information on Romford/Essex and its history of the hardcore scene online and I’m really interested to hear that side of history as it’s where I grew up, can you talk about your experiences from those early days and some the most memorable moments from those years.
The thing is that Essex as a whole gets a bit overlooked when you talk about the history of dance music and everyone wants to go “it’s a London thing, it’s a London thing” which is true to quite a large extent but what they tend to forget in the early days you had Strictly Hardcore, Strictly Underground, Suburban Base, Boogie Times Records as well as the record shop they had their label, Out Of Romford Records and Boogie Beat Records. There was loads of stuff coming out of Essex and Romford but generally when people talk about that era, the hardcore, proto-jungle era, they tend to talk about The Prodigy because they come from Braintree. Or they talk about those kind of awful tunes like Smart E’s ‘Sesame Street’, those more sort of poppy-oriented things. But there was loads of great stuff coming from out there. I mean even DJ Hype’s early stuff was through Suburban Base.
When I used to shop at Boogie Times regularly you had the likes of Danny Breaks and DJ Ash from Kool FM working there. I was like 12 or 13 when I used to go there during the early days, 92/93 and they were just lovely, really enthusiastic. I used to go and collect all the flyers, buy records with my pocket money and you had so many people pass through. It was also the place I tested out the first track I’d ever made. I used to beg, borrow and steal money and with those savings went to a studio in Ashford, Middlesex which advertised that Farly Jackmaster Funk had recorded there. But with the track I made, which was terrible, I got to play it to Danny in the shop on the big PA system and he gave me advice on how to sequence and arrange the intro to my tune.
You don’t really get that experience anymore, I don’t mean to be all rose-tinted, but there was just such a buzz. It was the same in every single area in London, there was a radio station and a record shop with a scene around it such as Music Power in Ilford, Total Music Records in Bethnal Green and they were tied to Pulse FM and Kool FM. There was Paul’s For Sound in Whitechapel, De Underground in Forest Gate and of course Boogie Times in Romford. So everywhere you went, you would hear it blasting out of cars driving down the streets, they were blasting out Kool FM, Weekend Rush or Pulse and Unity. I think unfortunately that kind of thing has kind of disappeared. Scenes are very different now because they’re all online. I’m going to sound like an old man, but I’m not saying this in a negative way, it’s just changed. I’m actually very active online as well but I do think that I miss those days a little bit. Getting the bus out to Romford, spending the entire day in Boogie Times and more often than not, you’d have a proper DJ / producer rinsing out all the new tunes they’ve just got in the shop and you’d just stand there for hours saying you want that one and they’d put them in your pile. I’d come out with a huge stack of records and I’d just be buzzing you know.
You’ve listed a few artists already but during those days who were the formative figures in your life? Was there anyone mentoring you at the time?
The person who really got me into it and I looked up to was my older brother because he already was a DJ. He started DJing in the late 80s so his record collection kind of ends where mine starts because he went off to do other stuff. He was living in East London/Essex, putting on warehouse raves, whilst me and my siblings were living in Hastings and he sent this mixtape to my sister which I stole out of her room. When I first listened to it, it was a brand new listening experience as it felt like it was ours, our generation’s music. It wasn’t like listening to classical or the Rolling Stones which was what I grew up on, my mum’s record collection. Obviously we didn’t have pirate radio stations in Hastings so when we moved back to London I started listening to them and it was sort of a big influence on me. The people I listened to the most were probably DJ Brockie and Det and The Weedkillers. There was also Danny Breaks at Boogie Times who gave me a bit of advice and that stayed with me forever. In the later part of the 90s, Goldie was quite a crucial figure for a brief period, before he became a bit of a celebrity, I was buying everything that came out on Reinforced and Metalheadz. He was also doing these interviews where he was talking about his family life and I related to a lot of the stuff he was talking about vicariously because he was talking about his experiences as a mixed-race kid and my older brother and sister are mixed race. He was also a working-class guy and you didn’t see a lot of that on TV, you didn’t see a lot of that representation in music. I mean you see even less of it now. So Goldie was quite an important person at that time I think. Not just for me but for a lot of people.
Do you think because you were unsettled growing that had an impact on who you are both as a person and as an artist?
Obviously that’s going to yeah but how that manifests itself I don’t know if you ever really know. The thing is I have another project, East Man, that’s much more politicised, I talk about class and identity, and I try to stay away from saying the sort of things that I would say if I was doing an interview for that project but I think when you look at certain scenes and genres of music that have ended up becoming a thing from hardcore, jungle, drum and bass, grime, garage, house, and techno, all these things came from areas where people were economically deprived. It’s like you put people under pressure, they’ve got to find a release for it somehow right? Nowadays, you look at these scenes and they’re all predominantly occupied by white, middle-class people but that’s not the origins of any of these styles of music. Yeah, I think there’s something about that kind of pressure where if you’re squeezing hard enough for fucking long enough you’ve got to find a release. Now some people find that release in different ways, some go on quite bad paths and other people try and use creativity. We could have quite a lengthy conversation just about that but I do think that your environment contributes, I think that’s quite an obvious thing. But in what way it manifests itself, I don’t think you’re ever really going to be able to know.
With the Basic Rhythm project, it’s meant to be a bit of a release, it’s just meant to be fun. It’s more about capturing that spirit. I jokingly call it ‘modernist hardcore’ and I say jokingly because hardcore was always modernist. With this project, Kate Bush and Grace Jone were as much of an influence as Goldie and Brockie. It’s about trying to capture the ethos and spirit of hardcore and pirate radio scene I grew up in. New artists like Gage for example or Parris who’s on this release on my new label, they’re also quite a big influence. I look at what they’re doing and I take from that as well. I sort of fold it all together and hopefully try and make something that is contemporary but in the spirit of hardcore and jungle.
Yeah I was going to ask you if there are any new artists that you have your eye on at the moment and appreciate what they do.
Yeah, Mickey Pearce, Gage, Scratcha, Parris, Lamont, Cassius Select, like I fucking love his stuff. His stuff is really wonky and actually he’s working on a remix for me at the moment. If you listen to my DJ sets as Basic Rhythm, if I’m not doing an old school set, for example, I’ll always be playing stuff from these kinds of people.
And with your different monikers like Basic Rhythm, East Man and Imaginary Forces, how do you differentiate between them?
I mean they sound very, very different. You know you could listen to a Basic Rhythm track and anything goes, it just needs to be chaos or fun. The East Man project is very grime focused but it also takes influences from very specific areas of dancehall, techno and drum and bass. Also the East Man project is much more political in its presentation. For example, the first album I had liner notes by my friend Paul Gilroy who writes about race, class and identities and is now the founding director of the new centre for the study of race and racism. I befriended him before I realised what an important figure he is in particular circles. The photo was a very specific photo taken in a very specific location, with me and all the people who worked on it. The new album that comes out in July I’ve got Les Back who is a lecturer at Goldsmiths for the liner notes who also writes about race and class. He wrote a really interesting book with Paul’s wife Vron Ware called Out Of Whiteness. So yeah the project is very narrow with what it’s trying to do and very politicised in its presentation. And everything I tend to present is in black and white as well. With Basic Rhythm it’s a full-colour project, like a kaleidoscope, it’s meant to just be fun.
The reason why they came about was because of the previous project, Imaginary Forces, I was kind of all over the place. I’d been so entrenched in doing you know drum and bass and whatever for a very long time under another name but when I kind of fell out of love with that which was the start of the 2000s, it sort of dragged on from about 2003 to 2007 and I stayed involved with it because I didn’t know what else to do. In the end, I went off into more experimental areas like noise music and drone, what I thought would turn out to be a very liberating and exciting experience, turned out to be a very pretentious musical cul de sac full of chin-stroking middle-class boys. I really didn’t fit in so I started to kind of return to my roots in a little way. All the stuff I was doing with Imaginary Forces was all over the place but one part of it started to coalesce and come together and start to become coherent. I was like oh these are kind of two separate things really, so let me start again. Basic Rhythm came before the East Man project but if you listen to the first Basic Rhythm album you can actually hear a couple of samples, one of which has become my sort of regular ident for the East Man project. But I ended up differentiating the two because they had their own sonic identity and I just wanted to draw a line under Imaginary Forces.
I guess it’s been a way of streamlining your approach and also having a visual identity to both projects as well.
Yeah, I just think it’s about finding your identity and is something I talk to a lot of younger producers about and because I’ve obviously been doing this for a very long time as well but I think a big part of it is when you first start you try and copy the tunes of the people you like and you inevitably fail. You’re not going to sound like somebody else. And I’ve said this a million times, hopefully, you fail in an interesting way and then you can pursue that failure. That’s how you start to develop your own sound. I think the thing with me is that I had so many disparate influences, it was trying to find a way of putting these things together and shedding the unnecessary stuff. Just because you listen to something and you like it, doesn’t mean you have to make it right? I listen to a lot of classical and jazz music but I’m never going to make any of that stuff. It was just I finally found my voice and I think a big part of that is actually accepting your voice as well.
And that also comes with confidence and truly believing in what you’re doing.
I guess that is part of it and it comes once you’ve found what it is that you’re doing and accepted that is you. There are three albums by Kate Bush for example that I fucking love, if I could get my hands on all the separate parts to the tracks Basic Rhythm would just be that from now on but I’m never going to be able to. I listen to it and I’m like, this is emotional music. I have an emotional response to it, a very particular emotional response but I’ve had to accept that I don’t make music that resonates in that particular way. I think if you try to fight against it, that’s when you’re unhappy with the end result.
With your new label, Raw Basics, you’re launching with a split EP alongside Parris. How did that collaboration come about and what inspired the launch of the new label?
I’ve been doing Basic Rhythm for a bit now, with my third album being released on Planet Mu last year, and my distro suggested launching a label for this project as I’ve been working with them through my Hi Tek Sounds label which is for the grime stuff. Originally I intended the first release to be newer stuff but my distro said these two remixes from myself and Parris would be a great way to start the label. With the Parris remix, we’ve been chatting for years, he’s a really lovely guy and I love what he does. He originally made the remix when the first album came out as an exclusive but when the offer came about to set up the label I asked Parris if he would be up for me releasing it. So he went back into the studio and gave it a fresh lick, making it sound even better than it already did.
I thought with this label it would be nice to dig a little bit deeper and I also want to release any and all forms of dance music as long as I like the tracks, I don’t want there to be any restrictions with this label. I’ve got a track from a mate of mine who used to be part of a group called Kodiak and it’s this really lovely piano, vocal, deep house kind of thing. I want to try and open up the label and open up what I do as Basic Rhythm.
It’s really exciting to hear about all these plans and my next question was going to ask what else you have in store for Raw Basics?
We’re still in the early stages so I’m still looking about at the minute so who knows man anything can happen with this. I’ve got the next release lined up, and that’s going to be a solo EP from me. These really deep summery techno records with a proper sub bassline. I’d like to explore and get creative with this label as well as putting out stuff from other people as well so we’ll see what happens.
I wanted to touch on the topic of class, I know you mentioned it’s more linked to your East Man project but in the DJ Mag interview you mentioned how there was a change in demographic due to things like the prices of club and now obviously there are no clubs and everything is going online with live streams, Q&A’s, workshops etc. how do you think this has impacted the issue?
I think this unfortunate, that word seems a bit of understatement, but this unfortunate situation has actually highlighted the issue. I’ve seen people having these conversations on Twitter and these Reddit posts saying shit that I’ve been saying for 20 fucking years now because it’s suddenly dawned on them. This has really highlighted the inequality in society across the board, including in the arts and creative sector. But I think the problem is that these issues are still with the same places. I’m not going to go on specifically but I think the state of music journalism today is pretty fucking dire, right? There’s a lot of people out there where it’s about connections but they also have an impact upon it. So you’ve got very privileged people in a very privileged position that say, you know, a couple of years ago they’re writing for Red Bull but that went under and all of a sudden they’re writing for The Guardian about the same people. You notice the same people that are connected to the same editors and it’s the same with DJs and producers or whatever, there are these little cliques. Also so much of this stuff with artists who have these massive teams behind them. There are certain artists that I’ve never heard of who suddenly pop up everywhere, who are they? They’ve got a manager, they’re in all the magazines and I look and they’ve got 1 MP3 release out. How does that work? And it’s because they’ve got these finances, they’ve got connections and it turns out they’re mates with this person who works for that magazine. There was a DJ a little while ago and I’d never heard of them before and then all of a sudden they are fucking everywhere. They’re on Boiler Room, they’re in Mixmag and DJ Mag and they’re touring the world. There’s all this hype, hype, hype. I listen to them and all they’re doing is playing like old speed garage tunes at the speed of drum and bass. Like what is this? Oh and then you find out that they used to work for that magazine and they’re connected to those people that are a part of that scene. Oh okay, I get it. That kind of stuff hasn’t changed. That is still the system we’re experiencing as most of that stuff is online anyway. Then promoters see all that and book off of that.
There are also other barriers in place such as funding for example. When this crisis happened, there were two record labels that were supposed to be paying me for releases and this is how I make my money, I don’t have a regular job. I sell tracks to people to get a bit of money. Both labels ghosted on me and haven’t paid, I was really counting on it. I see these people talking about all of their bookings having been cancelled but you’re a pretty big name who’s been playing several gigs a week, I know you’re pretty cosy. Then you find there was all this funding like the Art Council and musician emergency funds so I started to investigate as I could really do with some money to get through this but I’ve missed all the deadlines? Now loads of other fucking people had already applied to this shit because they are you know forgive me for being so blunt but they’re middle class, they know these systems, they know where to look. They know about Arts Council funding, they know how to fill in these forms quite easily. For someone like me, I know a bit so I can kind of navigate it to a certain extent but as it turned out I was too late. But if you’re a young working-class kid on a council estate, you don’t even know any of these places exist so how are you going to find them to ask for a bit of cash to help tide you over? Some of these young MCs I work with on my other project where are they supposed to go at the moment? They live at home, they don’t have a job, they can’t get into a studio and you know their lyrics are their trade, that’s their money. They don’t have the money to have a studio set up at home so how are they going to earn any money? Well some next big DJ that’s got like you know 30,000 fucking followers on Twitter or whatever is whining because they’ve had a gig fucking cancelled but they’re still sitting pretty in their yard, they’ve got a studio and they’re live streaming mixes from their house so they’re still keeping their name out there. But I haven’t got a studio in my house, I can’t record people’s vocals. I make my tunes on a tiny laptop on headphones. Yeah I’ve got my turntables, but I haven’t got CDJs so all the new tracks being sent to me I can’t even put in a mix unless I do a shitty Ableton mix but even if I did have CDJs I can’t really mix out loud often as it disturbs my neighbours. So I don’t think it’s been an equaliser for anybody, I think all it’s done is serve to highlight these inequalities further. The only difference is that now a lot of people who didn’t experience the precarity of the day to day life that people like myself and a lot of other people that I work with experience are now experiencing that precarity and then now like oh shit. I think that’s the only difference that it’s made.
You don’t think anything will change?
No, I’m very cynical in that respect. People talked about the digital revolution years ago and getting rid of major labels and that whole system because it was entirely unfair. All that’s happened is that all these shitty little labels and little magazines have replicated that system anyway. You know we get mugged off everyday by Spotify and all these other companies. Magazines use us for content. They don’t even bother tagging me in the posts of my own fucking shit because they don’t care about driving traffic towards me. It’s not a mutual thing. I’m just a bit of content for them to take and dispose of. This is a system that if you’re middle class or you’re a bit more comfortable, you can afford to take those kinds of risks. If you’re working class you can’t really these days because you ain’t making money off of music and I don’t think this has changed that situation at all. I just think it’s highlighted it. I don’t think it’s made it worse but I think it’s just still the same situation and I hope there will be some kind of change afterwards but I doubt it.
‘Raw Basics (Vol. 1)’ is out on the 5th June – pre-order here.