By Joe Muggs
A torrent of colour has been streaming out of Scotland this year. A series of 12” releases covered in neon tessellations has emerged on the Numbers label, with artists like Taz, Kavsrave, SRC, Mr Mageeka and Deadboy dropping a series of stone-cold bangers that are being picked up by DJs across scene boundaries. Forcing together the best of hip hop, grime, electro, techno, dubstep warping and a dozen other multifarious electronic tendencies in the white heat of dancefloor peak-time, these releases fuse them into something unique and bizarrely coherent. It might be manic, it might be teeming with influences, it might be of and for the dancefloor with no pretensions beyond getting people raving hard, but Numbers’s aesthetic is extraordinarily clearly defined. In just one year of existence, it has proved two things beyond doubt: first, that a record label can still be highly desirable and collectable in its own right in the second decade of the 21st century, and second that a clost-knit local scene can still create something with global appeal.
To find out where this aesthetic comes from, you need to return to the source: to the scene where Numbers emerged first as a series of parties around 2006, then as a label. Without wanting to sound too much like a tourist guidebook, Glasgow is culturally unique. Although the rugged hills that surround it are an ever present reminder that you're in Scotland, its wide streets and tenement blocks make it look far more “European” than any other British city – while, as a port town, it has also always spiritually looked out across the Atlantic to America, from where it has adopted musical forms wholesale over the years, from country & western to The Velvet Underground, Chicago house to 21stcentury R&B. Glasgow is not huge, though, making its musical scenes literally close-knit: people are in close proximity to one another, and key connections are as likely to be made in bedroom studios or at the kitchen at house parties as at big events in major venues. And Glaswegians, as is very well documented, like to party very, very hard.
All this has been great for club music over the years. The city's best club nights have tended to run for many years with a passionate local following that crosses generations, and which is as keen to hear the resident DJs play as big-name guests. Pressure, Subculture, Optimo – all are names known in the international stage, and loved by artists and punters alike – and equally important was a club called 69, in the basement of a curry house in the Glasgow suburb of Paisley. Run by staff from the Rubadub record shop, its musical policy was defined by one man, DJ Martin McKay. All of the Numbers crew spent many Saturday nights dancing to Martin's music over the years, and all cited it as the launching point for what they do now. Indeed, as Jack “Jackmaster” Revill says, “There's not much more in Glasgow that has really had much influence on us, as much as we respect those others who came before us.”
“I guess the whole sense of build and progression over the course of a night stems for us from 69,” says Calum Morton, aka DJ Spencer; “where you’d turn up when the doors open and Martin would be playing some beatless drones, then 15 minutes later there’d be some slow brooding hip-hop-ish stuff. This build would continue through disco, house, electro, techno until about 1.30am when everyone would be going properly mental then you’d have 30 mins of proper strobe light action till the club shut at 2am. Yes that’s 2am - stop dancing and you’ve missed out. There was a feeling that Martin would play whatever the fuck he wanted, so then as a punter it’s all about getting yourself into it and setting the scene. The point is that growing this atmosphere within the club means a lot to us. It’s one of the core principles I think we adhere to.”
Though they were all of different clubbing generations, all the members of what would become the Numbers crew eventually gravitated towards Club 69 – and bonded over this shared love of a club that was more about its sense of community and unique vibe than about any one style of music. Given that, like so many Glasgow clubs, the night finished so early, their musical discussions would inevitably continue late into the night at the house parties that would follow Club 69 discussions, and then on into the next day over the counter of Rub-A-Dub where all of them were regulars or even worked. Thus, although the club was all about the single, self-contained Saturday night experience, its influence was etched into the day-to-day lives of everyone who attended – the perfect example of the “family” nature of Glasgow's music scenes.
The cross-generational nature of the Numbers crew is also illustrative of the way Glasgow's scene avoids fixation on currently-hyped sounds and scenes that may be making waves in the wider world. While all were into many different flavours of house, hip hop, techno and disco, as you can see from the musical choices of the different crew members in our questionnaire, the unifying factors that brought Numbers together were above all intense love of Prince, and obsession with the sub-aquatic Detroit electro-funk of Drexciya and all their spin-off projects. As Neil, aka Nelson, puts it when asked about how Numbers fits with recent developments like grime and dubstep: “I live in London and love it, but I come from Glasgow and that makes me appreciate that not everything revolves around the London scene. Personally, I feel I am part of the Drexciyan resurgence.”
It's being anchored by those very specific reference points that allows Numbers – as a club, a DJ team and a label – to roam so freely in what else they assimilate into their sound. Prince and Drexciya both created their own approaches, their own mythologies, their own utterly distinctive sound-worlds, but both were absolutely infused with the rich histories of funk and electro – and thus it's possible to trace from them links out into all the modern forms that are also informed by those styles. From the mammoth claps of Atlantan crunk and Outkast to the juddering bass buzzing of east London grime, the deranged euphoria of 1990s pop-rave to the inhumanly smooth surfaces and sci-fi luxuriousness of R&B producers like The-Dream, to Numbers it's all extensions of a long and deep electro-funk continuum; a continuum that is still fertile enough to provide the source material for endless new innovations.
As Richard Chater, the oldest of the team, says: “It's neither about rejecting the past nor about being overly respectful of it. When I first started going to clubs in the 90s, one of things that excited me the most, and still does, was that musical styles evolve week in, week out: you’d literally hear the innovation before your ears. This is something that has always stuck with me. Personally I’d be pretty gutted if I spent a night dancing to the same tunes I was dancing to 10 years ago. It’s important for a club or a record label to expose people to new music, and you need to do it for the right reasons. So one of the main reasons we like to play a lot of new stuff such like Rustie or Untold, is that it gives us the same feelings as when we first heard UR, Model 500, Drexciya, Public Enemy, early Black Dog or whatever. The same goes for certain commercial R&B records, which to us can sound just as Techno as Derrick May. But it's not just newness for the sake of it: all in all I guess it’s fairer to say that we’re building on the past rather than breaking with it.”
So, however much tempos and sounds may vary, there is a strong beating heart to Numbers's sound, a sense of being plugged into the source – and this allows them to draw in diverse producers and genres to the label, while keeping it distinctly itself. Slackk, for example is a Liverpudlian obsessed with old-school grime, while SRC – he of the brilliant video-game bleeping “Gold Coins EP” – is a new generation grime producer, although Neil plays down any sense that they are pioneers in bringing grime to wider audiences. “I think it’s maybe a bit of a misconception that we’ve been instrumental in the resurgence of instrumental Grime,” he says. “We are all big fans of the sound, but although there will always be grime tracks dropped at Numbers, we don’t tend to play loads of it at the club. Really the credit for the new lease of life that’s being breathed into grime has to go to crew like Butterz, No Hats No Hoods etc.” In fact, the grime and grime-influenced sounds that are signed to the label and played by the Numbers DJs are chosen not because of where they have come from, but because they have sounds and energy that resonate with the core numbers aesthetic.
That aesthetic is not only musical either. Anyone who has seen the club's projections or any of the sleeves will know how the explosive colours and geometric tessellations of Numbers's artwork doesn't so much represent the music as extend it out into the visual realm. Adam Rodgers, aka Goodhand, is responsible for much of this artwork – and has helped the Numbers aesthetic seep out into wider underground culture thanks to design work for WARP, Hyperdub and Planet Mu, too. “Visuals are a huge part of the Numbers identity,” he says; “and help illustrate the enthusiasm, laughs and diversity each member of the Numbers crew brings to the table. Our visual style has grown organically over the years. We never made a conscious decision to create a specific style or go in any particular direction, it has grown up itself in that sense. Visualising and representing the music we currently listen to (and subsequently play and release) plays a massive part in this process. Right now it may be colourful, bold and contrasting but this time next year it could be something else. It's transient and is driven by the music.”
So all of this – the shared influences, the shared clubbing experiences, the shared aesthetic – brings together something with an astounding coherency, and thus a really robust identity that sets up Numbers to hold its own in a constantly shifting global underground. Numbers's continued growth and influence on the world around it, while keeping both feet on the dancefloor at home in Glasgow, is a gleefully raised middle finger to those prophets of doom who say that the ever-more connected world, with ever-faster flowing information, can only lead to confusion, information glut and ever more bland facsimiles of what came before.
As dubstep arose from very particular points in Croydon, London and Bristol, as grime sprang from particular postcodes in London, and spread around the world, even as the footworking sound is spreading out from Chicago after years of incubation, so Numbers – and other genre-melting collectives like fellow Scots LuckyMe, Manchester's Hoya:Hoya and London's Night Slugs – are able to innovate wildly and be completely of the 21st century, yet remain centred on specific clubs, specific friendships, specific times and places. So while their podcasts, artwork and tracks may flit around the virtual world, dissolving Numbers's music into the ether, at the heart of what they do, on the sweaty dancefloor, by the over-worked speaker, Numbers are keeping it real in the truest sense.
The Numbers crew, one by one Name: Calum aka Spencer Age: 26 Before Numbers: I was working part time in a five and dime, my boss was Mr McGee, he told me several times he didn’t like my kind cause I was a bit too leisurely... First record ever bought: Michael Jackson – “Bad” on cassette All-time stone cold classic: difficult to pin myself on this one Favourite producers: Timbaland, Drexciya, Shep Pettibone, Model 500, Aphex Twin, Prince – among many others. One of my favourite vocalists: Leroy Burgess DJ I’ve never seen but wish I could: Ron Hardy Numbers in three words: boom bap beyond Name: Jack Revill aka Jackmaster Age: 24 years of age Before Numbers: I was running Wireblock with Calum and Neil Morton, running Dress 2 Sweat myself and working at Rubadub in the wholesale department. First record I ever bought: was probably a dodgy old Trance record but I can’t remember which one exactly. I’ll say at a guess it was on Positiva. Stone cold get on the dancefloor classic: Chaka Khan: “Aint Nobody”. My favourite everything (music wise) is Prince. But we could say favourite producer(s): Drexciya. Favourite singer: Prince. A DJ I've never seen but wish I could: I’ve never seen Westwood DJ but I’d fucking love to. Numbers in three words: Numbers, Nombre, Zahlen. Name: Neil aka Nelson Age: 29 Before Numbers: I was working as the chargehand / clubs manager in Ad-Lib, the venue where Numbers held its first parties. First record ever bought: My Dad probably bought me something from Echo on Byres Road in Glasgow. It’s a guess but it might have been The Blue Nile – “A Walk Across the Rooftops”. Always gets me on the dancefloor at weddings: Prince – “Controversy” Favourite producer: RZA, fav period 1990 > 1999, with an honourable mention for DJ Premier Top 5 vocalist: Gregory Isaacs in his prime Person you wish you had seen DJing: King Tubby Sum up Numbers in 3 words: GETT. ING. LIVE. Name: Richard Age: Too old. Before Numbers: running Stuffrecords and previously to that the nights Mystec and Spanner with Adam Goodhand and a few of our mates. First record ever bought: “Deep Heat Vol.1” bought with my paper round wages out of the newsagents in Aviemore. All time stone cold classic: Hell Interface – “Midas Touch” Favourite producer: Drexciya, Mantronix, Jam & Lewis. Favourite vocalist: Don't know A DJ I've never seen but wish I could: Jellybean Numbers in three words: pushing things forward Name: Rob Mordue aka DJ Bobby Cleaver Age: 28 Before Numbers: I’d just moved to Glasgow from the cold north east, Aberdeen, and was busy discovering Detroit techno while pretending to be a student in my spare time. First record I bought: “Do the Bartman”......Bart Simpson was a baddaman. Favourite Producer: All time - it would have to be Drexciya.....currently I’d say Floating Points Favourite vocalist: Q-Tip or any of the cats from De La Soul Stonecold Classic: Shannon - Let the Music Play DJ I’ve have never seen but wish I could: Cottam – I’ve missed him 4 four times in Glasgow now and i’m going to miss him again at NYE.... it can’t be that difficult to sort out!! Numbers in 3 words: Glasgow party shitEl sello Numbers ha traído al frente de la escena de clubs un sonido poderoso que hunde sus raíces en el electro-funk y lo rebaña de dubstep, grime y techno. Una cascada de color que ha inundado las calles de Glasgow (y el resto del mundo).