*Download the mix here
I’ve known Wrongtom for a few years now, originally meeting him via our mutual acquaintance Mr Trick with whom Tom used to present the Trick & Tom show – a sorely missed hour of musical madness that aired on Resonance FM and flew solo online before dying an untimely death. From the off it was clear that Tom was not only a deft producer but also somewhat of a music nerd and aficionado for the stories behind the music, the little things that are today too often ignored in place of hype and press release regurgitation.
Coming to prominence in the late 00s as the tour DJ for Hard Fi, for whom he also produced, Tom then worked on projects for Trojan Records and Pama International under a variety of solo and collective guises. All this reached another high – a more underground one perhaps – when he produced the Duppy Writer album for Ninja Tune’s sister label Big Dada in 2010, a project that saw him rerub Roots Manuva’s back catalogue to great effect. Released under the name “Wrongtom Meets Roots Manuva” this was the latest incarnation of a moniker which Tom had been using for a few years when handling remix duties that went beyond mere functionality.
He reprises the ‘meets…’ guise this year for “Wrongtom Meets Deemas J In East London”, released on Tru Thoughts in late September. Aside from being the first ‘meets…’ project that has nothing to do with remixes, “In East London” is perhaps one of the finest reggae albums to come out of England these past few years, rightfully praised as such by a variety of outlets including The Wire. Born and raised in South London, though currently located in – you guessed it – East London, Tom’s work with Deemas is not only a great slice of back-to-basics reggae and dancehall it also shines a light on Deemas, a well-known freestyle MC on the London scene whose vocal chops on the album further prove that hype is far from everything.
I recently met up with Tom in East London (where else?) to talk album and beyond. In between bites of a tasty and messy burger (Lucky Chip at the Sebright Arms in Bethnal Green for all you burger fiends out there) we covered everything from the album’s origin and realisation to last year’s summer of discontent in the capital, innovation through limitation, the benefits of being a positive cynic, driving people to insanity with the Stalag riddim and his new label venture and fascination with music history, which includes some amazing nuggets of information about the post-punk scene. Tom also gives you his five ‘things to do’ in East London, because there’s more to the East End then hipsters.
Oh and don’t forget to check out Tom’s exclusive mix for PlayGround while reading, of course.
Why did you make an album called “In East London”?
It’s quite simple, as simple as we made it in East London. There’s a lot more to it but ultimately we were just looking for a name, you need a catchy name, and we thought that if we went with the artist name, Wrongtom meets Deemas J, we’d need something that follows on as a sentence rather than a separate word. It’s such a long winded name for an artist anyway that we might as well just make it into a long winded sentence! We were going to call it “At The Dancehall” at one point, as one of the tracks is called that. However when we finished the album we went out for a curry and I was playing this track by a punk reggae band called Blank Students and Deemas just started name-checking stuff that he was looking at outside the car, he was just pointing out people and doing a little chat and going “in East London, East London” and I said “this is a tune, we should go back and record it”. So we went for food, met up with some friends for a bit and went home, looped up the track. I left it going for fifteen minutes and let Deemas come up with freestyles. We took the best bit and made that into the final track for the album. Then we’ve got your good self at the end as well and my mate Shep, he’s hassling some guy outside a bagel shop I think. It stuck and when I listened back to it I said “we need this title, In East London”. [Ed note: full disclaimer, Laurent is indeed featured on the last minute or so of the record, sneeze and you’ll miss it.]
You made the last track after the album was in effect done?
We thought we’d finished it. We had another track we left off in the end as well, it’s called “In Ibiza”. So that could be the next album, “Wrongtom Meets Deemas J In Ibiza” [laughs]. I don’t know though…
You’d have to go to Spain for a start.
I don’t know if I want to go back to Ibiza, it’s not my kind of place.
Get lots of drugs and make… what kind of album would you make with lots of drugs and a villa in Ibiza actually?
Horrible euphoric house or something? We’d have to get Danny Dyer involved in it. It wouldn’t work let’s face it. Neither I nor Deemas take any drugs, we’re both completely clean so…
It could be like a sober guide to Ibiza.
I actually did one of them years ago, I wrote about it after spending a week out there. It was hell on earth.
Are you purposefully turning the “Wrongtom Meets…” into a series then? You had the one with Roots Manuva for Ninja a couple years ago, now this.
Sort of… I’ve used that ‘meets’ thing for years. I originally did it for a Hard Fi remix about seven years ago. It was the title of the track in fact. It was originally called “Middle Eastern Holiday” and I did a rotten, murky old dub version of it and I called it “Wrongtom Meets The Rockers East Of Medina”, as a tribute to “King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown”. I never really thought anything more of it. It was just a funny little track that I thought no one would hear. It ended up coming out on a separate 7” with two versions I did that came free with the album if you bought it from HMV, which is funny cos I’m sure most people bought it on CD and ended up with this 7” they probably couldn’t play. I mean who out of indie rock fans has a record player these days? Anyways I think at the time it fell on a lot of deaf ears maybe. It wasn’t the first reggae or dub track I’d done but it was the first where I felt like I’d really made the sounds I wanted to make. It carried on from there really, where if I did a dub or version that was almost like a new track in itself I would use the ‘meets’ thing to title it. I did one with Pama International and when the Roots Manuva one came along I thought it’d be a good way to title it.
This is the fourth one then?
There was another one for my mate’s band Phantom. They’re a rockabilly band and I did a dub track of it which ended up being called “Wrongtom Meets Nosferatu In Murderland”, or something like that [laughs]. I like doing remixes that have a little bit more to it than being just functional. Here’s an indie pop record and here’s a house version, that’s not very interesting. Remixes are ultimately there to sell more records, but I exist in between that. There isn’t really a market for what I do, not many people buy my records so I can get away with doing what I like.
Is this the first ‘meets’ that isn’t remixes?
Yeah it is. I wanted to do it pretty quickly, which is ironic because it took a year to come out in the end. I had some rhythm tracks together and I just wanted to do it real old dancehall style. Get these rhythm tracks up there and let Deemas freestyle it because I think that’s what he excels at. One of his main things is that he’s a freestyle MC, doing jungle nights and garage nights. I just thought it’d be a good idea to have him come stay with me for a couple of weekends, let him sleep on the couch and whenever he was up, set the mic and let him come up with something over the rhythms. I played him about 15 or so rhythms I’d done, and we were still making some while he was going. I probably had six or seven finished tracks to give him and after that it was a case of finding stuff to use or finish. We even ended up using a couple of offcuts from the Roots Manuva album. “Riot Ting” was the original rhythm track I’d done for “Juggle Tings Proper”, I played it to the label but they weren’t that into it so I kept it to myself because I really liked it. So we dug that one out and I got the horn section on top of it and I think that really brought the whole thing out and made it into what it is now. I really love the DIY aspect of dancehall, I think it really goes hand in hand with punk and all that. If you haven’t got a lot of money you just end up reusing stuff, versioning it.
So Deemas was with you for an extended period of time while you made the album?
Yes, it was about a year ago this weekend I think actually. We did a whole weekend, four days, of recording. We did a second session a month later, tidied up a few bits and that was it. A couple of the tracks are completely freestyled, actually. “Jump, Move, Rock” was done in one take, for example.
Talking of DIY aesthetics, the music on the album feels quite stripped back and bare bones. It’s got all the bits you need but nothing extra, which is part of the appeal.
Sometimes I stick vinyl noise on tracks just to make it sounds a bit older and when I listen back I realise people might think I sampled it off an old record or something. Originally when I did “Duppy Writer” the idea was to make it sound like I’d taken old dancehall 7”s and cut them up. Then people started asking me what I’d sampled. In one sense I was quite flattered because people thought it was authentic but then I did play all the music myself and no one seemed to know that [laughs]. I can’t really get precious about it though, if people like it that’s the most important.
That approach you’re talking about though takes it back to how the music was made in Jamaica, outboard gear and a DIY ethic which kept things simple. Rhythm tracks and chats.
Re-use the rhythms as many times as possible too. I’ve lost count of how many versions of the Stalag rhythm I’ve got. Most people just think it’s “Ring The Alarm” and “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy or something. I’ve got over a 100 versions I think. I’ve done whole sets of them before, hours of the Stalag rhythm. Some people were going mad, like “make it stop, I can’t take it anymore”, while others are just dumbfounded that there’s that many versions. I did a night in Tooting years ago where I did a whole set of Stalag rhythm and this woman came bounding over. She introduced herself as Winston Riley’s publisher and I couldn’t quite believe it. Someone told me she was a white witch, but she also works as a publisher down in Brixton.
I love the idea that she’s a witch and a dancehall publisher.
It is pretty amazing. Where does your infatuation, and I mean that in the nicest way possible, with Jamaican music come from?
I think it started really early through my dad. He had funny tastes when I was little… He liked a lot of comedy music and he really liked Calypso records for that reason, they tend to be quite funny. The lyrical content was also a big part of it. Calypso was entertainment with a story. A lot of Calypso tracks were almost like the news, people talking about current affairs and that sort of thing. And that’s carried on through dancehall as well. So my dad used to play quite a few of those records, and one of them was a track called “Zombie Jamboree” which fascinated me when I was a kid. Then it goes on from there. When he was younger my dad used to look a bit like Sean Connery in early James Bond films, and the first film was “Dr. No” which was set in Jamaica. There’s a great soundtrack to that by Byron Lee and the Dragonairs, and I absolutely loved it. The opening track is a Calypso version of Three Blind Mice. And I think these things add up when you’re little. It goes in subconsciously and becomes part of your make up. Every time I see that film I’m still fascinated, I get the feeling of being three years old and not understanding what music is. I didn’t know it was something that was going to ruin my life for a start [laughs]. Leave me broken, destitute and… but yeah it’s amazing and I get that feeling again when I watch it. So it stuck with me, a lot of that music. I keep up with current events and what’s going on but I think there’s a certain point where you start to become really aware of music and it stops being quite so mythical… I think that I’m always trying to recapture that feeling I had, probably from the age of 14 backwards, all through the 80s. The music I heard then ends up in the stuff that I make now.
It’s interesting because to me your music quite clearly has that looking backward element to it without suffering from it either. And I got to thinking that it’s perhaps because not only are you a fan of Jamaican music and its techniques, sonic qualities etc… but you’re also a fan of the history, as evidenced by the other work you do.
I love a good music story. If there’s a story behind it, it’s far more fascinating.
The stories behind the music are always the best thing. Ideas and concepts about music are great, but ultimately the human stories are the most fascinating. I was listening to the album and thinking that you’ve kept something in the production that’s authentic without being a pastiche. The way you make the music is closer to how it was made back in the day, and that seeps through I think. It’s interesting also because so much modern music is indebted to Jamaica and to dub.
Well another dodgy term but one that covers a lot of music today is bass music, and the fact that people are using that term now is funny to me. The main theory with dub is that you lead with the bass whereas in rock or a lot of western music bass comes behind, it’s not at the front. People laugh about the bassist in rock bands. They say he’s the guitarist who can’t play a guitar properly. There are lots of jokes about them. Whereas in Jamaican music they are the most important people in the band really, if the bassist isn’t working, the band ain’t working and you’re stuffed. And now you’ve got festivals like Outlook and Soundwave which are all about different types of bass music from old steppers stuff to the latest whatever that has bass, and if you don’t have the bass in any of those tracks you’re fucked. It’d be a very empty festival as there’s nothing else on the tunes half the time.
True, though I guess that’s an entire other debate. And I know you’re a pretty good cynic, which I’ve always liked about you…
I like to think of myself as a positive cynic.
I’ll give you that.
I can be moody about stuff, but I’m moody because I see a positive direction for something and… for instance the way I was moaning about the Red Bull Music Academy soundclash thing a couple years ago. I spent a long time taking the piss out of it and I just don’t think that’s a positive thing at all. The soundclash aspect of it was such a PR stunt, especially when you’ve got groups there that don’t even own a frigging sound system or understand what a system meant in Jamaica. I think that’s what most people don’t really get. The reason why Jamaican music and the whole sound system thing happened was because people were trying to sell beer and fags and stuff like that. You gathered a crowd and sold them stuff.
That aspect is still there ultimately though. Clubs have a system because they want to attract people to sell them alcohol. They’ll work with promoters so that they bring people. It’s still happening, just differently. There are elements of what companies like Red Bull do that can be borderline, but it’s still part of that tradition ultimately… it’s funny you mention it though as I saw the trailer for the new culture clash this morning.
What happened to Don Letts?
Then again he got fried for giving it to Metalheadz in that first clash. I still maintain DMZ should have won that.
I don’t think any of them should have been there doing it in the first place to be honest.
They had Channel One for the second one at least.
There’s a funny story about what happened the day after they won that second one. It sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet but I was just dumbfounded. I was playing down at Jamm in Brixton, and this was the night after the clash. I saw Channel One were on the bill and was looking forward to seeing them after my set. So I finished my set, I was doing the front room at the venue, and it was pretty busy in there. As I came off I asked the promoter what time Channel One were on and he looked at me slightly worried then said “they were on same time as you, you stole their crowd”. I was gutted to be honest. I wanted to see a wicked sound system but to me that sums it up, the winners of this Red Bull clash show up and lose their crowd to a chump like me, it’s quite hilarious. I suppose though, as you said, Red Bull selling their drinks through sound system culture heritage does take the whole thing back to its origins. I think though that back then it created a culture and a way for people to approach things differently in Jamaica, whereas I don’t think Red Bull will do that here, especially when you’re putting your event on at the Wembley Arena. That’s going to exclude a lot of people for a start. When you’re playing records to people rather than having a band and you’re doing that in the street and collecting a crowd, letting people dance for free, that’s an amazing thing. Even if they were just trying to sell booze it’s still an incredible thing, they created a whole culture from that, almost inadvertently. Whereas do you think that sticking a lot of people in Wembley Arena listening to Tim Westwood shout is going to do much? Tim should stick to selling Halford’s bikes. Those were good ads.
A lot of the music and associated cultures born in the last century, like dub or hip hop, had real social meaning and connotations as they were birthed and grew up. Whereas today, to go back to the cynicism thing, when you look at how certain music scenes are ‘born’ that element is often lacking, things are just being rehashed. The last music I saw being born that had something really meaningful attached to it was dubstep. I saw it go from something that had no name to what it is now. Beats also to a certain degree, but that had been around for a while and people didn’t seem to want to put two and two together and look at its hip hop lineage.
It’s such a broad name anyway… I always felt that Mo Wax and the scene around them were real champions of this early form of instrumental hip hop. I thought what happened with a lot of these guys is that you had people making beats who couldn’t find good MCs and I think at the same time you had a lot of British MCs who couldn’t find people making decent beats. I remember thinking at the time when I was hearing tracks “why aren’t you working with RPM or Attica Blues” or someone like that. Attica Blues are perhaps a little different, as they were a collective and they had a singer.
The best stuff Mo Wax did with MCs was the Krush albums, and he worked with mainly American MCs. A lot of those classic records remind me of your work in the sense that you’re not trying to make your music sound modern.
Yeah that’s something that’s important to me. It’s where you can lose it. A lot of people who I guess I have to call my peers, I always find their stuff is a bit squeaky clean. There are a lot of artists out there making music that’s great but it’s too slick. They lose that dirtiness that reggae had by virtue of people using all they had.
Innovation through limitation?
Going back to the album, is the “Riot Ting” track about what happened in London last year?
We made it just after, and I think Deemas wanted to say something about it. It came completely by accident. I would just fire rhythms, put them on loop and let him come up with something. He came up with the “Riot Ting” chorus almost instantly and I thought we had something. It took about one evening to write and we pretty much had the track. The riots were quite an important thing for us both, actually being there, on the edge of it, and watching it. I live a little bit out of East London, on the cusp of Essex, and I think a lot of people from my area were going into Hackney and going to places to riot. People from Leyton, Walthamstow and Stratford were going out there and causing trouble. I remember looking out of my window at one point and seeing about 30 kids on BMXs burning it up my street the wrong way. They were all laughing and having a good time and I found out the next day that the one thing that got hit in Leyton was the bike shop. There wasn’t a lot else that happened there I think. But yeah being on the cusp of it all and watching it happen and not being able to do anything was my experience of it. And then watching a lot of people, a lot of people I respect, that suddenly had this Daily Mail attitude. You’re watching the riots unfold on the TV and at the same time on Facebook and Twitter, with people commenting on it all. I was listening to people who I really didn’t think thought like this, talking about kids acting like this, or bloody rude boys… What it came down to is that when they put everyone in the docks after the riots, the first person that was up to be charged was a 30 year old teaching assistant. And I think that really frustrated me. And the same for Deemas, he also felt helpless. He grew up on the Ferry estate in South East London and he’s come up from nothing and he’s lived on the street for want of a better word. He’s really been down there with hood rats and every kind of hoodlums you can think of. And I had a lot of hoodlum friends growing up too. So to watch these people and see them get a bad rap for the general frustration of modern living…
The helplessness is something I think a lot of people felt ultimately.
Yeah, and Dee had something to say and I was supportive of what he wanted to say. I knew he’d be able to put it in simple terms and approach it from the point of view of someone who has grown up with the sort of people who are being targeted as the causes of this. I know he’s dealt with that a lot in his life, being a black youth growing up in South East London. And he’s a good guy, like I said, clean living. He loves his mum, looks out for his friends and those are the important things to him. He’s got a good heart. So I think he was one of the best people to tell the story.
It’s nice to hear music that still has a social message to it, goes back to the roots of the music too in Jamaica, as we were saying earlier on.
Yeah. Deemas has a mixed background, with Jamaican heritage, and my dad has Irish and Indian heritage so we’re both people who have grown up with parents that came from another land.
Those post-colonial roots always trickle into who you are as an adult and potentially what you do. As you were saying about your dad’s musical tastes influencing yours.
Even going beyond that I’m just fascinated by music in general, not just Jamaican music. My mom was a big jazz head.
That reminds me you’ve just set up a label haven’t you? And you’re releasing a compilation of punk songs?
Well punk and post-punk bands making reggae and dub. I’m really into crossovers in general and I think this is one that’s still largely untapped. It came from doing a mixtape a few years back of disco tracks made by punk and post punk bands. At the time there had been a few comps, “New York Noise” was one of them, Soul Jazz had really delved into the whole no wave thing, but no one really looked deeply at the British bands that were doing it and there were a lot of them. So I made a mixtape and there was a band, the Blank Students which I mentioned before, who’d made a quasi-punk disco, funk track called “I Want to Be Happy” but on the b-side of it was this great dub record. And that got me thinking that every punk or post-punk band must have had a go at making dub and reggae at least once. I started sifting through my collection and looking further into it and sure enough so many of them had this one sly track. Sometimes it’s just a little bit of a skank that nods to it and other times you’ve got a full on dub workout. A Certain Ratio did a double-sided 12” that was originally going to be on one of their albums but someone at Factory must have decided it wasn’t going to fit so they changed their name to Sir Horatio and another label put it out. You can barely find it anywhere and not many people have the record. I think one side ended up on a compilation and I got the rights to release the other side, which will be on the compilation.
How many tracks have you got on there?
13 or 14.
You did all the curation work?
Yes alongside Ed Zed, who played a little bit of guitar on “In East London”.
How did it feel to put this compilation together?
Scary. I do worry myself sometimes that I spend too much time delving into old music, and I find myself detached from what’s going on. Especially during the making of the album, I didn’t want to be distracted by current happenings. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it, I just wanted to focus. And at the same time as I was making the album I got involved in this compilation, and I’ve actually not bought more than 1 or 2 new records a month which is unheard of for me. For years I’ve spent a minimum of £50 a month on new stuff and recently I just haven’t been doing that because of lack of time and patience to sit through new stuff. I think it’s a really important thing to have archives though. And from talking to a lot of these artists I don’t think even they realise that it was a particularly significant thing. Only a few of them did. You had people like The Clash who really got into their reggae and it became quite an important aesthetic, and others like The Ruts who did a whole album of dub stuff after their singer died and got Mad Professor to engineer it. So some bands were really tapped into it while others were just like “oh this will be fun”. And when I got in touch with them they were like “oh you want to release that crap?” as if they were almost embarrassed about it. It’s been an interesting experience basically. That’s the first thing on the label and I’ve got the next one ready to go as well. It’ll be a re-release of a post punk band called The Offs who were originally making ska punk before Two Tone. Obviously The Specials came along in 79 with a mix of punk and ska, giving ska a new name and a new image. But it turns out there had been this band in San Francisco that were releasing records in the same vein for three years prior to that and I don’t think they even knew. The weird thing about this band though is that they had a gay singer who was really into reggae, which seems bizarre when you think about Jamaican music and culture’s attitude to homosexuality but I think it’s amazing. And one day I think him and the guitarist got bored of the scene in San Francisco and moved to New York and got involved in the post punk scene there. They made an album that had bits of dub, disco and ska and they had Basquiat wanting to be in the band. I think he wanted to be the drummer but they got him to do the artwork because he wasn’t good enough, and that turned out to be the only commissioned cover that Basquiat ever did. And the album just bombed. The lead singer died of an overdose just before it came out so they couldn’t tour it and they had an album which at the time no one wanted. It’s been lining fifty cents bins ever since. The only review they got was in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Warhol actually got introduced to Basquiat because of this album and wound up working with him on quite a few major pieces, so the album was almost like a catalyst for that as they met through the band and the guy who released the record. I used one of their tracks as the opening track on the compilation actually and then through that I got the rights to re-release the album and got another couple of tracks they did for Max’s Kansas City, which was another punk venue in New York that was actually right opposite Warhol’s factory and is where Velvet Underground started actually. So I got hold of the guy who ran their label and who’d produced this 7” for The Offs and he allowed me to use it. And I’ve also got rights to dub versions of three of the tracks, all of which will make up the second release.
Yeah I just need to get some sleep at some point…
Are you touring the album?
Sort of. We’ve got a few gigs coming up, all in the South. Brighton, Oxford and London.
Are you bringing the gear out for it?
Not too much gear. Just playing instrumentals with a few tricks up the sleeve and Deemas will be performing and freestyling. The London show will also feature some other MCs, including a guy called Mark Professor who’s a deep rock steady collector but is also really good at chatting. And we’re going to record a single with him called “Oyster Card”. Look it up on YouTube, he came and MC’d for me one night when I was supporting Rodney P and someone filmed it and put it online. It’s him doing “Oyster Card” over the Sleng Teng riddim. I’m remaking a new rhythm for it at the moment and that’ll hopefully be the first 7” on a dancehall imprint I’d like to set up if I’ve not gone crazy and bankrupt from the compilation. That label will be called Rongorock. So yeah, you know gotta keep busy…
And here are Wrongtom’s top five things to do In East London
1. Bangarang @ Strongrooms, Shoreditch - While the press quite rightly raves about reggae/dancehall nights from the likes of The Heatwave and Reggae Roast, there's a few hidden gems lurking in the basements and backrooms of the East End, and one of East London's best kept reggae secrets is this monthly session which always has queues around the block. The Wreck It Up crew hold court with the perfect balance of rare wax and timeless classics, and what's more, it's completely free.
2. Cigarette Burns @ The Rio, Dalston - my mates started this film club a few years back in a little pub in Islington, playing B-movies, bizarre shorts and all kinds of cinematic oddities. They now run double features at the Prince Charles off Leicester Square and have a monthly residency at the Rio in Dalston, which is worth visiting simply for the building itself, but there's rarely a better time to drop in than when the CB gang are screening films about melting tramps or lesser known Mario Bava outings in the middle of the night.
3. The Nag's Head, Walthamstow Village - If you don't like cats, jazz, vintage pop-up shops and leopard print velour table cloths then I'd steer well clear of this place, otherwise I can't recommend the Nag's Head enough. Fantastic jazz sessions on Sunday afternoons, an overly in depth pub quiz which I sadly haven't made it to yet and a beer garden plastered with signs warding off anyone with pushchairs and crying children.
4. The Big Ten Inch @ The Book Club, Shoreditch - Jump jive, rhythm n blues, rockabilly and a smattering of ska masterminded by dapper don Count Skylarkin. Every so often I drop in with a box of doo wop and RnB bubblers but there's always great guests like Jerry Dammers, DJ Scratchy and Andy Smith to name a few. Plus there's table tennis upstairs if you want to be like almost everyone else in East London at the moment.
5. Westfield - Stratford City - Nope this isn't a wind up, I love wandering aimlessly round this mecca of consumerism. One thing which always amazes me is how few shops I actually want to look in despite its magnitude, but don't let that put you off, there's something quite mesmerizing about Westfield, particularly if you're a fan of “Dawn Of The Dead” or even “Logan's Run”. Whether marvelling at overly tanned people lording it up at the champagne bar, pondering how a structure so grand could also contain so many escalators which don't work, or simply buying stuff you don't need, there's something for everyone at Westfield.
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