[Jason x section]
*Download the mix here
Despite having been an integral part of the dubstep scene since 2006, when his now-legendary plate “Kalawanji” kick-started the Deep Medi Musik label, Kromestar has remained relatively mysterious and ‘in the back’. Having toured and released extensively over the last six years, he’s no Burial; however, he’s maintained an aura of distance, if you will, by letting the music speak for itself and remaining low-key online and in real life. A favourite of fans thanks to a solid understanding of the music’s key tenets, he has taken people by surprise – this writer included – in the last year by moving away from dubstep’s rigid tempo towards more fluid hip hop-indebted ground, while keeping up the sub bass pressure he’d become known for.
Signs of this new direction first began appearing on Jay 5ive’s Anti-Social show on Rinse FM. A long-time partner of Kromestar, Jay would often open the show with a selection of bass-heavy, slow beats from both the Anti-Social camp and beyond. The beats blended hip hop and dubstep aesthetics in a way that wasn’t much of a stretch if you’d been paying attention to what was happening in various parts of the dance and hip hop undergrounds. And then in 2011, Om Unit – who by then had become a regular fixture within Jay’s selection – announced his new label, Cosmic Bridge, with a split single alongside Kromestar. From then on, the label has served as the primary vessel for Kromestar’s new sound, alongside his and Jay’s own Bass N Love.
Earlier this year I started hearing productions from an outfit called The Immortalz, and while there was nothing public on who The Immortalz was or were, the sonic cues made me think of Kromestar almost immediately. That feeling only cemented the more I heard the music, and sooner or later, with a little digging around, I learnt that The Immortalz was indeed Kromestar alongside a young producer called Jason X, originally from Birmingham. Curious to find out more and inspired by the music and ideas he’d been playing with for the past year, I hit up Kromestar and arranged for a chat with Jason and himself alongside a mix for PlayGround’s ongoing series. What follows is a discussion with the pair at their studio, covering the project’s genesis, comic-book influences, hip hop science, generational divides and more.
The mix is split half and half between the pair, with Jason X kicking it off in a hip hop stance before Kromestar takes over for some serious bass pressure.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet The Immortalz…
How did the Immortalz start?
K: (turns to Jason) How did it start?
J: Initially just a common interest in making music.
K: I met Jason through a friend in Birmingham, the guy who runs the Dubmatic parties. Jason was a guy who was into his hip hop but still came to the parties. He was always on this strictly hip hop trip when I first met him and I wondered why he was coming to the shows, to see people like me DJ.
J: For me it was his style, it was old-school. There was always some hip hop influence in his music for me in some sense. He was always diverse style-wise. Originally I used to DJ at dubstep raves too, but I’d try and flip it up and play hip hop. It used to get strange reactions; people didn’t always appreciate it so much.
When was this?
J: About two, three years ago. Slowly we started getting more people producing dubstep with a bigger hip hop influence, which made it easier for me to DJ.
K: But yeah, that’s where we met. Then Jason moved to London and called me one day to come over to his. I’d just moved away from South London.
J: We were listening to Eazy-E that day, I remember, just sitting around.
K: Yeah, Ruthless Records stuff, and also a group called Raider Klan. I grew up on Bone Thugs and Wu Tang and that stuff, so moody rap was always my thing. We just decided to get down and try to do something like that. But what really got me was all the records (points to stack of records in the corner of the room). All from, like, the 50s to the 70s. It bugged me out. This kid’s 22 and I was like ‘how does he know about these tunes?!’ [laughs]
Did you get into those records from listening to hip hop?
J: Yeah, it’s just a sampling thing. You can listen to Alchemist, Premier, even Dilla, and it’s always the essence of people crate-digging—for me, anyways. It made sense to do the same thing. Not everyone always gets it, but for me just grabbing lots of samples can be a way to learn from them, like education. Just treating the vinyl as a way to get knowledge.
Did you find yourself listening to the music you were sampling then? Listening beyond the most obvious parts to flip.
J: Yeah, definitely.
I was thinking on the way here that your early tunes (Kromestar) – especially “Kalawanji“– for me really had a hip hop something, especially in the drums. It was also that period when Loefah’s Mud was really big and a lot of the half-step stuff had a hip hop flavour in the drums.
K: It’s funny you say that, because I do the drums for all The Immortalz, and he samples. That’s how we work, that’s the contrast. He’ll always be working with the samples, and he’ll come up with strange stuff sometimes, but it always somehow works.
J: We’ll use our initiative, in a sense, because we’re sitting together making music. But also because we’ve got this deal where he does the drums and I sample, we’ve already got a formula to begin the beat. After that whatever happens is open, it gets crazy.
K: I bounce off his ideas a lot. The way he samples reminds me of when I used to make grime. I used to muck about with the samples a lot more, like he does.
I can’t remember exactly, but didn’t you have an alias for hip hop productions when you started?
K: Not really. I made grime as Ironsoul and then the Kromestar stuff. Hip hop was my first love, though there were obviously the odd reggae tunes too. I actually wrote hip hop beats for a group I used to work with time ago. It was more sample-based, old-school-type stuff.
Is that why your drum programming evolved the way it did?
K: Yeah, could be. My dad also played the tabla when I was younger. I used to watch his fingers and how he wasn’t always hitting it on point. If you try and be stiff and on point, it doesn’t work, you can’t be a robot. The soul comes from there (points to heart), so you’ve got to let it flow, you know? I used to watch my dad’s fingers move on the tabla and also the EQ of the lights on our stereo system. The tablas were the deepest drums for me, there are different tones and you can get really deep. His fingers would be bouncing across the tabla and the EQ would do the same in the back. So I’ve always had that in my ear, and drumming was always really important for me. When I’m drumming I have to (moves about a little, dancing)…
Make your body move?
K: That’s it. And the way it moves drives you.
J: Every sound has that potential to make you move, too, I get like that when I work with samples.
I didn’t think the story behind the project would be quite like that.
K: I said to Jason when we first put stuff out that people would just think it was me! (laughs) And that’s exactly what happened!
J: People originally thought it was Om Unit and Jay 5ive as well.
K: That wasn’t so bad, because they’re family. It was nice that people saw the similarities, but still.
[To Jason] So how do you approach the sampling?
J: A lot of the samples I’ve got are Bollywood stuff, a lot of strings, which isn’t always easy to use. But now Kromestar’s put me onto finding stuff online and flipping it that way. In a way he’s educating me to digital sampling, which also works well with his style of making music.
K: I’ll pick up a vinyl and show him the credits and tell him about finding out who played what, who engineered what, etc…
J: It’s a great way to learn.
It’s strange that you (Jason), being the youngest, are now going from sampling vinyl to digital, it’s a reverse of what you’d expect, really, as Kromestar is the older guy.
J: Yeah, it’s mad.
K: We wanted to do something different with this project. For a start, the CDs we’re putting out aren’t albums as such, they’re more like beat tapes. It’s just the music we’re making. I listen to a lot of mixtapes, hip hop mixtapes, DOOM…
J: Madlib also.
K: Yeah, so we got the idea of doing a story. We were checking this old-school sci-fi movie from the 60s. That’s where the whole idea for the project comes from, in a way. The movie that started it was Killer Clowns from Outer Space. That’s where all the movie snippets come from for the first project.
J: When we watched it, the timing was perfect, we’d started making the music already, and so when we sat down to watch the film, casually, we looked at it in a different way. And that’s when we got the idea to bring it into the music.
Are you guys continuing with the beat tapes idea, or do you want to work towards something that’s more like an album?
K: Yeah, the idea is to continue like this, it’s almost like a comic, you know? There are no limits to how many releases we might do; we’ve already finished the second one and started on the next. It’s like a comic in that sense, the stories keep coming out.
J: Music is thrown into people’s faces a lot these days as well, so we’ve decided to have a different approach. Give it to people in a way that makes it perhaps more interesting and makes them want to come back. We just put it there without trying to make too much noise about it.
What has the reaction been like since the first official release a couple weeks ago?
K: It’s been mad; I didn’t expect it to be like that. Soundcloud’s been busy, and people we’re meeting are also really enthusiastic.
J: It’s been quite overwhelming, it’s nice.
K: It’s nice for him as well because he’s younger, so I’m happy he gets to experience that. Also with our approach of just putting the music out there and letting it speak for itself, it’s like the comics, you don’t really get promos, you know? It just comes out.
What’s the label releasing the music, then?
K: The label is Nebula Music. And that’s myself, Jason, Immortalz, Dark Tantrums, Team Starfleet. It’s just one whole, Team Starfleet is all of us together actually. But, yeah, it’s a crew thing as much as a label thing, and people we’re affiliated with are part of it in a sense too, you know? Like Om Unit, for example.
J: Jay 5ive also.
Like old rap crews?
J: Yeah, totally.
K: The first team that inspired me to do something like that was No Limit. Their designs were also a big inspiration. Jason looks after the label too.
J: The business side of things I find very fake, to be honest. That’s where I find you have to be stronger, balance that with making the music. I think the best thing I’ve learnt so far with that experience is to just stay in my lane; it’s something Krome says to me all the time, actually. This way you avoid confrontations and problems. It’s basically being true to yourself, but it’s not always easy.
How has it been moving away from the dubstep world, or at least transitioning towards some other stuff, for you, Kromestar?
K: It was just a case of getting inspired by other sounds really. I remember being at an Outlook rave at Elephant and Castle and No Names, the DJ for Foreign Beggars, played Om Unit’s mix of Joker’s “Digidesign”. I was skanking and a bit tipsy and I was like (pulls funny face) ‘who the fuck is this?’ Then I heard the riff come in, but I knew it wasn’t Joker, it was some next dude. So I phoned Joker and asked him, he told me the name Om Unit, and then I remembered hearing Corridor too, so it made sense. I remember Plastician playing that, it was a tough tune. I didn’t know what to call the music, the sound. I was scratching my head, ‘what is this!?’ I knew I had to meet him, though, because at the same time I was making new stuff… when I was a kid I used to make these little fucked-up riddims, I can’t really explain it in words, though. Anyways, I’d started making beats that had these weird rhythms in them; I can see it, but can’t explain it, and for me Om Unit was on a similar thing. He has funny sequences. I realised that no one was going to make this hook-up happen for me…
J: You have to go in and do it for yourself.
K: Yeah, I hit him up after thinking about it and trying to get Jay 5ive to do it for me, and it was live. Actually I think I ended up getting the link up through Alex Nut. He was the one who done the hook-up by e-mail, and it went from there.
I can hear parallels in the Immortalz music with what’s happening in the US at the moment in parts of the hip hop world. Yet it still felt distinctly UK in a sense, but it felt warmer than some of the US stuff.
K: I engineer everyone’s tunes in the crew – Dark Tantrums, Immortalz – and the way I do it comes from my experience with dubstep and how I learnt to engineer that. I think that’s what gives The Immortalz stuff its own sound, too. Also I’ve never worked on these speakers (points to the monitors on the desk in the corner of the room).
J: Thing is, even though he’s never worked with them, he can still make stuff sound good on it really quickly, he’s a monster.
K: When I was young, I used to buy these little tweeters and then go to a car radio shop and buy speakers, four of them. I’d stick them to my bed, to the metal frame and work the frequencies, push it from my stereo. But there were no mids! Growing up, I then wanted to buy a hi-fi, like a good one. I got some money and when I got it, I realised it had the mid-range and I just didn’t want that (laughs).
Today the mid-range is what a lot of people go crazy over, though…
K: For me it was the whole jungle thing. I used to play jungle and there was never a lot of mid-range. Lots of breaks, high rides and low bass. I’ve been using high rides since jungle days because it was always in my ear. I never felt the need to worry about the mids, though. Then I heard stuff like Josh Wink and so I had to go and use my dad’s tape player in the car to try and understand what was going on in the riff, and it was the first time I heard mid-range being used in a way that actually made me go ‘fuck off’ (laughs). And then Warhead, by Krust. That was a transition for me as well.
Do you guys share a lot of music between yourselves? Try and put each other onto stuff?
K: I’ll play him stuff I don’t think he might know and he’s always on it!
J: At the same time, his knowledge of rap is also a lot deeper than mine, gives me a chance to discover or even rediscover stuff I already knew in a different way, which is what I want to do.
K: I just come back from Outlook. I dropped an Eazy E tune during my last set and I hadn’t realised before, but I swear the bass they used on that tune is a Reese! It came out really nice on the system and I was tripping onstage. People were moving differently.
Did you do an Immortalz set at Outlook then?
K: Nah, just me, but I played a lot of stuff I like: Kendrick Lamar, Spaceghost… people were feeling it, asking me what the stuff was. I’ve always tried to play music I like, regardless. I’ve always considered what I do to be bass music too, since the beginning. I don’t really feel comfortable saying hip hop or dub or reggae. It’s bass music to me.
When you said you didn’t know what to call Om Unit’s music, to me that was always hip hop, or at least an evolution of it. I think we’ve all got our ways of looking at music in certain specific terms. Ultimately, as long as the artists are honest about who they are and the music they’re making, it goes past any name or scene.
J: Another personal reason for why we’re doing this is also to represent our generation. I think there’s a lot of bandwagon-jumping in the UK; people imitate glossy aspects of the US rap scene, all that stuff. We’re flooded by that and I think it’s important to have an outlet of music that’s going against that.
K: For me as well, I’ve never really listened to the radio. I only ever really had a computer to work on, so even during the dubstep days, I’d only hear tunes when I’d go to shows or hang out with some of the Anti-Social boys.
J: Whereas I’m more of a listener. So from early I just observed, and that’s how I got frustrated with what I was saying before. It’s another way we bounce off each other.
K: Last time I really listened to stuff like that was at school. My friend Tyrone would put me onto stuff, that’s how I discovered Wu Tang. He flooded my head with hip hop.
What’s next for the project?
K: We’ve got the next beat tape ready to drop. We’re getting the artwork done now. The guy who does our artwork is another old school friend of mine, he’s actually an architect. It’s been another great relationship as well, because we learn a lot of stuff from him and the guys he works with. It helps us tell the stories. I want the music we make to be able to impart something to people that’s like teaching, whatever the reason for them listening to it. We don’t want to bring a negative vibe.
J: We try to stay open-minded.
K: At the same time, we don’t want to open people’s mind 100% because you know that would be a bit loopy. Eyes wide, talking all numbers! (laughs)
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