We talked to Dusk + Blackdown to know more about the genesis of their four-years-in-the-making second album, “Dasaflex”. In the process we learnt about how London sounds in 2012 and the mother of all questions: what is a flex?
When dubstep exploded from its London incubation chambers and onto the wider world in 2006, few could have predicted how far, and quickly, the sound would go. By the late 00s, dubstep was no longer the free and exciting London sound it had once been for many of its original practitioners, founders and fans. Instead it had found new audiences and, arguably, new potentials which were rarely aligned with the artistic interests of many of those who were there when it started. Slowly but surely the original community that had formed around dubstep in its early years began to grow up and move on, reflecting the music’s overall changes.
Perhaps one of the few people who did see where things were going, or at least attempted to envisage it from the inside, was London journalist Martin Clark, aka Blackdown. In the early to late 00s Martin was one of dubstep (and grime’s) foremost scribes, documenting the scene on his blog, in his Pitchfork column and across a variety of publications and mediums, including compilations for one of the scene’s founding labels, Tempa. This work also evolved to encompass his own label, Keysound Recordings, which he runs alongside long-time friend, DJing and production partner Dusk. Together they released their debut album, “Margins Music”, in 2008, a release that was both indebted to the city they loved, London, and the sound and community they’d been a part of for many years. Much like their individual work as producers and, in Martin’s case, journalism, the album offered a different take and approach on a sound that by its release had already started to change and which, in some cases, was heading in directions neither of them felt particularly comfortable with.
Nearly four years on, the pair have reconvened for a second album. In that time the original scene and community they were a part of has radically changed: dubstep has become a ubiquitous worldwide dance music commodity, Rinse FM is no longer a pirate radio, UK Funky settled in as another potentially defining London sound, while grime (according to the mainstream) blew up and died a few more times. Basically things were no longer the same, and this was reflected not just in Dusk and Blackdown’s regular Rinse FM show, but also in their A&R for the Keysound label, a label that over the last four years has established itself as one of the few to truly represent the city’s ever-changing dance music melting pot. The new album, entitled “Dasaflex”, therefore unsurprisingly also reflects these changes. Gone is the strict tempo that defined “Margins Music”, gone are the overt London references, gone are the grime MCs, and in have come influences from UK Funky and jungle, alongside a desire to show more clearly what defines the pair in today’s ever-fluid and evolving musical landscape. While the music may be different on the surface, pay closer attention to what’s happening sonically and you’ll soon hear that this is quite clearly a Dusk and Blackdown album.
I met up with the pair in East London last week to discuss the new album. I’d forgot how hard it can be to find somewhere quiet to record a conversation in Shoreditch, yet despite the background noise and 80s soundtrack, Dusk and Blackdown proved to be, unsurprisingly, an interesting pair with whom to engage beyond the superfluous issue of promoting their latest release. Read on for a lengthy chat about the genesis of “Dasaflex”, how they have attempted to define themselves in the current musical landscape, the intricacies of drum programming, values and identities, why letting go is a good thing, making mistakes to do something right and Terry Francis on the pitch at Luton in 1986. What’s the flex?
You cover the genesis of the album briefly in the press release, but I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on how it happened?
B: The quote is easily reduced. It’s not that we didn’t want to do another album, but after the first one we felt pretty knackered, pretty drained. It was a long time ago, but we felt that we’d given everything to it that we could. It was a lot of work and it felt like there was no way we could that again. That coincided with tectonic changes in scenes we’d been part of and so what we did is try to find a way through the new landscape, and that landscape was changing really quickly. We were writing “Margins Music” towards the big peaks, the growth of dubstep. I remember giving Mala the final masters in the queue at DMZ when it was stretching all the way around the park, it must have been early 2008. That period was one of explosion for dubstep, and then things changed. So what we did is to try and investigate new places and new ways of doing things. I think in a way it’s symptomatic of what a lot of people have been trying to do, which is find out where they’re going with this music. In a nutshell, a lot of it is our attempts to look at different ways of potentials that were there, almost like if you’re going to go that way then for us we might go this other way. We looked at different possibilities; some we knew weren’t for us. We tried 110-bpm house things, I still think it’s possible, but we never quite finished the track.
D: No, it didn’t sound right.
B: To be fair, the issues with that track were less to do with its tempo and more with the sounds we were using and how we felt about them. But we haven’t spent a lot of time making other tracks at the same tempo really. We tried a whole bunch of things, a bunch of tempos, which I think is really reflective of what’s been going in the last few years.
"The track “Dasaflex”
is a good example
of a track I don’t
think we would have
written during the
first album because
it’s overtly warm and
clean and happy,
and in places quite
Did you ever do that before? In terms of experimenting with tempos and stylistic ideas?
D: Well, at the period we wrote “Margins Music” dubstep felt really free, there were no rules apart from there’s got to be a lot of subby bass and it’s got to be roughly 140 bpm. If you accepted those two constraints, and they weren’t big constraints, you had a lot of freedom to do what you wanted. In a way that was a rule, but it felt free. As the scene coalesced around a specific sound, we thought that exploring different tempos was the most interesting thing to do. I think a lot of producers have done that too, relaxed their ‘rules’ and taken influences from a lot of different places and it’s been cool.
B: As a point of detail, “Margins Music” was exactly the same tempo all the time. Even the rain track, even the MC tracks, they were all 138. And that was indicative of what Dusk describes as the potentials that tempo held at the time within the community, but also of it being us wanting to be part of a tight-knit community. And that community is now in a diaspora.
I meant the question more with regards to playing with other tempos and ideas while learning your craft as producers, so even, say, when you were younger and just learning?
D: I definitely did that, yeah. It’s definitely stuff I wouldn’t want anyone else to hear, but it’s how you learn things that you can only find out by going down strange paths that you wouldn’t necessarily want to fully embrace or explore, maybe more like dipping your toes.
B: Now we’re using this diversity as our primary focus rather than a private form of exploration.
Do you find that the exploration you’ve been engaged with for this album is similar to the exploration you engaged with on the first album?
B: It’s exploring through different mechanics. While you talk (pointing at Dusk) about tempo and bass, I’d also add edge as another element important at that time, so what we tried to do with “Margins Music” was explore within that, which isn’t easy to explain. I went to Japan while making that album and bought a lot of classical Japanese stuff, we were buying a cappellas from dudes in the Punjab… literally, we legally bought the vocal that’s on the album; I’ve still got the paperwork. There was also Detroit stuff. Me interviewing inner city London kids. So while there was a circle around the scene, at the time we were pushing outwards, whereas now there isn’t that constraint around what we do. Now we’re looking at it like ‘what does it mean to be us?’, ‘what does it mean to be doing what we do?’ To a certain extent you’re flooded with options today, so it’s almost like we’re narrowing our focus and these are the values we believe in, these are the things that make the music we both like. I think that’s the challenge we had with this album; it’s a different challenge from the first one. We’re not pushing outwards anymore, we’re narrowing the focus. And the focus isn’t necessarily on one thing, but it becomes clusters of things… or certainly has recently.
Was it maybe a case that because the scene you identified with had evaporated by 2010, you focused on those values you mentioned were important to you in order to fashion a new identity?
B: To me values and identity are tied, one informs the other.
You identified with the dubstep community because you felt you shared the same values, right?
B: The same values and physical proximity. We stood in a room with them for six years and they were people we learnt from and exchanged ideas with. We were a part of it, though the longer it went on, the less it was the case, as you well know. So then it becomes… it’s an exploration of ‘what music do we like?’ and ‘what can inspire us again?’ I was very determined to not write “Margins Music 2” and be those blokes who sample Indian records. We did a bit of it, it was maybe a third of the first album, but still I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into that one thing. It was fun and it still is, though.
D: I think the thing about dubstep is that it’s like growing up with four or five brothers or sisters, a big family. For ten years you’re all in the same lounge, the same front room, and then one by one you all move out, grow up. But then at Christmas you might all come back and see each other. It’s a bit like that. If you bump into people from that era it’s lovely to catch up, but you know that you won’t be seeing each other as much as you used to because things have changed.
Isn’t it almost like when you’re a teenager and you have a tendency to strongly identify with one musical scene or genre, I know I did, ignoring a lot of things in the process? Then you grow up and open yourself to new ideas, new potentials. To me it sounds like maybe you’ve come out of those teenage years, artistically speaking.
B: Maybe, certainly with regards to the community. There’s more of a purism approach when you’re into specific music as a teenager, whereas there was a lot of diversity in that community we were all a part of back then. The community thing also relates to musical elements, and what musical elements we relate to. So, ok, things have changed: ‘what can we lose, what can we gain?’ The track “Dasaflex” is a good example of a track I don’t think we would have written during the first album because it’s overtly warm and clean and happy, and in places quite feminine. That tune came from the influence of UK Funky and me talking to people and thinking ‘well if you’re going to do a funky tune why not go all the way?’ Then we had to think about ‘how do we do it our way?’
D: So it doesn’t sound like everyone else.
B: So we put in textures, offbeat snares, champion sound reece every 16 bars, Joker-like wonky synths etc… and those are all things that we like, now and in the past. Those are the values. We lost some stuff and put some of us in there. To be honest, I thought we’d get more flack for that track, but people seem to like it!
"We were a bit more
conscious that if you
try different things,
it’s good to balance
them out. Almost like
but with sounds. So if
something is a little
bit rude then balance
it out with something
What would you say are the key things you lost and the key things you kept in between the two albums?
B: Tempo is one thing we lost to a certain extent. More like varied it maybe, there’s about 10 bpm of difference between all the tracks on the new album. I think there’s more light and colour in the new album too.
D: There’re more tunes where we’ve tried to balance things out too. The “R In Zero G” tune that Martin did is quite floaty and then gets brought back to down to earth quite rudely with the bass in the middle. We were a bit more conscious that if you try different things, it’s good to balance them out. Almost like contrasting colours, but with sounds. So if something is a little bit rude then balance it out with something sweeter.
B: Yeah, we’re quite obsessed by those ideas. Another thing we did do is a 4x4 tune. For years I’d said I’d never make a 4x4 tune, proper four to the floor. I thought it was a trap. I’d see DJs playing it and once you get into that on the dance floor there’s no way back. But then I interviewed Geeneus for a piece on UK Funky in 2007 and he said the same thing that Kode had said about dubstep to Dan. He said that the only rule for UK Funky is that it had to be four to the floor and then you do whatever you want, anything you want as long as you have that four to the floor. So it’s the same idea as those basic dubstep rules of being at 140 and having sub. That rule is in fact deceptively liberating. And I thought that it would be interesting to go against my own claim that I’d never do four to the floor, yet how can we still make it us? So we found ways of corrupting those rhythms.
D: It’s like what you were talking about when you’re a teenager and you’ve got this set idea of the music you listen to.
Talking about balancing things out, the way you use GQ’s voice on “Wicked Vibez” was quite surprising. You’d never expect to hear him on something like this.
B: That’s what I was talking about. From a technical point of view, the first bar is four to the floor but the second bar is three on with the fourth one corrupted, I’ve made it lazy. I can’t bring myself to have a straight four to the floor all the time, but then what’s liberating about that metronomic structure to a degree is that you can go bat shit with the snares. With that tune, I heard the recording it came from and I wanted to recreate the vibe of a jungle rave at a UK funky tempo, which is why I ended up using those samples. I’d actually been listening to a lot of Omni Trio again at the time, and I got to thinking that instead of having the funky snare I could have the jungle elements be the vocal as well as the snares. I wanted to see if I could get the snares to start out like a funky track but then edge towards jungle so it feels like a jungle track without using a break. I worked on it with that in mind and I think the freedom to do this crazy idea while having the underpinning 4x4 beat is what was so liberating.
You managed to capture the vibe of a rave for sure. When the crowd voices come in.
D: I like the way he did it so the voices seem like they suddenly go up. That is how it actually goes; you don’t get a steady increase in noise, as it’s a sigmoidal shape. Just all of a sudden everybody is yelling.
B: That was a mistake, actually, but then I left it in because it felt like the rave slamming in. I could have made a nice fade on that, but it sounded right as it was. We were talking about those sorts of mistakes the other day. One of the bass notes in the ecstasy rave bit is actually out of key, but loads of those old records were out of key because they’d sampled things and sped them up and they didn’t quite fit. It almost felt better, and it resolves itself when you get the second bass line, but the first one is a tone or a semi-tone out. And it still has that ‘hands in the air’ vibe; the imperfection makes it feel more authentic to me.
It reminds me of a famous Sun Ra quote Mochilla once recounted: ‘make a mistake to do something right’. I did wonder about the meaning behind the album title actually, I tried to look it up but found nothing.
B: It’s not very profound but there is a meaning. There’s two parts to the story. One is JME on Twitter. When we first started doing our Rinse show and Twitter got really big, there was this open dialogue with grime MCs for the first time and you could banter with them. Before that if you wanted to get something from them you had to go and sit on a wall in Mile End and wait for a week for Wiley to turn up. Suddenly with Twitter, they were really close, and a consequence of that is a lot of the banter they used on record and radio shows was even more accessible, in a way. A lot of grime MCs bend language and move it around, and at the time JME was saying ‘Dass a par’, which I always thought was really funny. The other side of the story is when we were doing the Rinse shows back when it was a pirate. The funky stuff had started coming through and there was this return to groove that by then had gone out of dubstep. One time Dusk said on the radio ‘listen to the flex on that!’ and just to wind him up I grabbed the mic and said ‘what’s the flex bruv?’ and he replied with ‘dass a flex’. Later we were walking down into the Rinse studio one day and it came to my mind that it was a really good word. It was also the time we were writing tunes that had a certain ‘flex’ to them and so that was the word to describe them.
It seems fitting you’d come up with a word that has meaning specific to you, considering you’d separated from that community which drove so much of the first album.
D: It used to be the case that if you went on Twitter and said ‘that’s a par’ there was a That’s A Par Twitter account that would reply and say if it was or not (laughs). You could test it out.
B: I think it still works, let’s try it [ed note: Martin tried and it does indeed still work, there’s a bot out there that judges pars].
I saw the video for the track “Apoptosis”. I hadn’t really thought of looking at the track’s name meaning until then, so considering that and the images in the video, it feels perhaps like a musical love letter to that era that’s now gone…
B: It’s more like an attempt to describe what happened. The beginning of the track has a lot of stuff in it that are places and spaces that we’ve been to and have loved: Ice Rink, DMZ, dubplates, loads of these things that we cared and still care about. They were like a foundation. And then towards the chorus, which has the ‘pop’ word in it, it starts to show visually how things have become. That track is just by me and I wrote it because I was interested in the mutations and twists and things that were happening at the tempos I was into. So it represents grime and 8-bar but also UK funky; I tried to flip between those things in the rhythmic structure. Then I found the pop sample, which is from a grime a cappella. And it was fun to play with because the MC whose voice it is has gone pop since. In the grime context, though, pop has a double meaning, and as I played with the word I thought about what I could call the track. I always like the idea of apoptosis, which is cellular death. For a long time we didn’t think cells died and had a lifecycle, and the guy who found out that they did was considered a heretic. Then he was proven right, cells do have a programmed life cycle, and if they don’t, they become cancerous and are far more damaging. So the question I guess I was trying to ask with that is not ‘oh look how the scene’s gone’, because I think everyone knows that. It’s more about whether or not there can be a rebirth out of what happened: ‘is it inevitable for scenes to die?’ and ‘is it actually healthy because from the ashes new things can come?’ Like a track such as “Apoptosis”—it’s a hybrid of grime and/or 808 Swamp stuff and/or UK funky, but none of the above exactly. I think people bemoan scenes dying and I can understand why at an emotional level. We saw this period as an opportunity to try and react positively to it.
D: And things can’t expand forever as well, right. For me, when Martin came up with the name, “Apoptosis”, that was another element of it. For example, you have different fingers on your hand and when the hands are developing there’re a whole bunch of cells that die to allow for the digits to form. If they didn’t, you’d have big, lumpy hands. So you’ve got different fingers all part of the one hand and it’s probably a good idea it happened that way, so cellular death doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Otherwise you’d be pad hands [laughs]. That’s one side of how it can be healthy, and then also things just can’t expand forever, really. That’s not how nature works. Multi-cellular organisms tend to be the most complicated, it’s very different to a great big amoeba trying to contain all sorts of stuff inside it. It’s healthy for things to divide. I guess people wanted to keep the whole church of dubstep the same and keep everyone in it…
B: And grime too.
D: Also. There’s another element, too, I think, which is some of these MCs have been in it for ten years or more, they’ve been shot at, stabbed, had problems with police, all sorts of crap. And so they’ve been grafting away and you can see that it must be very tempting to get on some electro house thing and give them 8-bars.
B: That’s why I’d never take a shot at Dizzee. I don’t like his music anymore, but he’s come from a shit life and he’s made something of himself. And I can respect that.
D: You can’t really expect someone to just carry on for the rest of their life.
There’s another parallel with hip hop there too. Take Wu Tang or Mobb Deep, I may not like what they do now, but I can respect how they got there. It also reinforces this idea that grime is the real UK hip hop that people were banging on about 10 or more years ago, before grime started. The penny really dropped for me when I realised that you go anywhere around the world and play grime and people will know it’s the London sound. UK hip hop was always in the shadows of its US counterpart because it was the same language, unlike, say, the French rap scene, which managed to distance itself from its US origins because MCs could use another language and play with that. That’s not to say there wasn’t interesting stuff coming out of the UK, but until the grime kids came, it was never quite there.
B: See, I think what you’re talking about is happening right now all over again, and that’s something I’m pushing against. A lot of the energy of grime lyrics and the MCs has gone into UK road rap, and for me the biggest problem of that scene is that it is beholden and subordinate to its parent genre. It hasn’t yet got its own identity. And also all the dubstep dudes who didn’t want to be wobble have gone into fairly generic house. And I can’t tell if those records are made this year, five years ago, or fifteen years ago. It’s all Terry Francis on the pitch at Luton again.
D: I find it a bit cynical, actually, because a lot of it is being played to kids who wouldn’t have heard Terry Francis on the pitch at Luton and think it’s a new thing [laughs]. To clarify what we’re going on about with that quote by the way, Jockey Slut once had a tech house phenomenon article or something… it was from the 90s, and there was a photo of about 20 guys, bomber jackets, shaved heads, all just lined up.
B: Mister C, Terry Francis, all those guys. Anyways, it’s a funny photograph with all of them looking well rude.
D: And there was a letter the next month which said ‘don’t ever publish something like that. It was scarier than the pitch in Luton in 1986’. Luton was renowned for having a plastic pitch and players would get injured really badly on it. And to be fair, it was quite a scary photo.
B: So that’s the Dusk and Blackdown euphemism for well rude, basically [laughs].
D: It’s one of those things where you have to be there…
B: So, yeah, the issue there was being subordinate to a parent genre, and I think the one thing that the hardcore continuums guys have done well is that they understood ownership and needing to take, copy, copy badly, mutate, find your own twist and take ownership. Find your own language, whichever way you want to look at it. You make the music yours.
"It’s true that “Dasaflex”
isn’t as overtly a London
album as our debut.
Weirdly unlike a lot of
we’re still here
in London, though"
Going back to the idea of “Apoptosis” and cells needing to die, it reminds me of how a lot of the people involved in the birth of dubstep had this common love of jungle, yet didn’t identify with what it had become, so instead decided to take it upon themselves to do what they wanted. It’s a similar idea, you let it die and move on to something else.
B: I see the breakdown of dubstep in many ways like a divorce. I’ve used that metaphor before. The wobble guys can have 140 bpm and the half-step snare, they can have that. And if it’s a divorce what I want to take from it is the spirit of creativity that was around in those days. There was a diversity of sounds in that time and I think we’ll always try and take that with us. That’s a big part of the album too: how can we do things our way? I think it’s a really powerful idea.
D: And you’ll definitely make mistakes along the way, but that’s part of the fun, I guess.
The first album was quite obviously London, and this one seems much less overtly so. Was that a conscious move, maybe because you were focusing on what you found exciting musically, as you said?
B: It doesn’t scream London like the first album did, but I still think it has a London vibe and spirit to it.
Is it maybe a case that the London focus has moved more towards the label? I’m thinking not just the music, but also the artwork you’ve used on a lot of the releases.
B: I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, but it’s true that “Dasaflex” isn’t as overtly a London album as our debut. Weirdly unlike a lot of our contemporaries, we’re still here in London, though.
D: Yeah, and I think a lot of the sounds on the album you can hear in London.
I always felt the first album was London in how it represented the city’s diversity. Being an adopted Londoner of over ten years I really do feel that it’s the sort of city that can embrace you if you let it, and that the best way to represent it is this diversity of people and backgrounds.
B: The true London is definitely like that, not the tourist parody. I think one of the things I fought against in those early days was abstraction. I listened to a lot of electronica in the 90s, and part of that left me with a great sense of love for melodies, but on the other hand, it irritated me when people refused to give their tracks names, or giving them numbers, as if people didn’t want to impose anything. And I was like ‘Fuck that! I want to impose, I want people to know what I’m thinking about’. So I fought against abstraction a lot, a lot of vocals and sounds in “Margins Music” were about that. And I think to an extent I’m now more comfortable with abstraction. The front cover of the new album is a blurred photograph, for example. It’s not in focus like “Margins Music” was. They are related photographs too, so… but, yeah, that choice was deliberate for once. The album cover also has to do with this idea of evolution and change. The cover had to look like a Keysound cover but also had to look different; I wanted the visual narrative to move too. I don’t want the release artwork to become a parody of itself. I don’t impose Keysound visuals on people, but with ours it had to be more tied into things. That photograph was an off-cut from the photo shoot for the “Focus” 12”, which was, like, nearly 25 releases ago. And I’ve always loved that photograph and it’d been on the desktop of the computer that I make beats on. We looked at it and there was a realisation that the way the interlocking circles and colours on it is almost symbolic of the archipelago of the different sounds we were trying to deal with. And also symbolic of the Keysound roster as a whole, not everyone shares the same influences as each other, but there are overlapping influences. So that image became increasingly important as to what this whole album was about, connecting different, unrelated things and it’s also still London, it’s north London.
Albums Dusk + Blackdown - Dasaflex
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