Uniquely in modern Britain, Sheffield is (still) a city unto itself.
Urban regeneration has been slow and piecemeal. Sheffield still has its rough edges. Culturally and politically, the fabled People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, is still distinct and separate. No more so than in its music.
Post-punk, Sheffield’s tight-knit music scene has produced pop stars (Human League, ABC); Peel-favourites (Pulp, Long Blondes); underground icons (Add N To X); local legends (Chicken Legs Weaver); one-hit wonders (Baby Bird, I Monster); cult concerns (Fat Truckers); rave royalty (Moloko). All of them, however, have shared one key characteristic: wilful individuality. All of them did it their way.
Now, add 23 year-old Tom Bell, aka. Toddla T, to that illustrious, awkward list.
A lanky streak of gabbling enthusiasm, through 2008, Toddla’s Fill Up Mi Portion, Soundtape Killin’ and Manabadman singles, not to mention his brilliant Ghettoblaster No.1 mixtape download, announced him as British dance music’s brightest new talent. His influences – that “clangy Sheffield electronic sound” first minted by Cabaret Voltaire; local speed garage variant, bassline; early Warp Records’ bleep techno – may be peculiarly South Yorkshire, but Britain hasn’t heard party music this raw and vibrant since early Basement Jaxx. “I was conscious people might find it a bit ‘aggro’,” says Toddla. “But when I DJ, there’s so many girls into it. It’s mad. I thought I made boy music, but no, luckily.”
Consequently, Toddla, who recently inked a long-term deal with 1965 Records, is a man in demand. His DJing schedule, which includes a monthly residency at Fabric, is packed; he’s involved in numerous side-projects, such as HervÈ and Sinden’s Machines Don’t Care collective; and, often working with his friend and studio mentor, Ross Orton (the man who reinforced MIA’s early work with Sheffield steel), TT been busy remixing the likes of Esser, Little Boots, Ladyhawke, Hot Chip and Tricky.
The son of two college lecturers, Toddla grew up in Sheffield, on the same road – “Bleep Street,” laughs Toddla – as Warp co-founder Rob Gordon. As a kid, Toddla loved “Biggie and right boyish hip-hop”. Aged 15, he was already making rudimentary bedroom beats, and cultivating his love of reggae and dancehall.
Toddla’s transforming moment, however, came a few years later. Then working in a local clothes shop, Sumo, the older staff (who nicknamed him Toddla) would take him along to “little parties” run by legendary Sheffield DJs Winston Hazel and Pipes. “It opened my mind,” he says, of the pair’s Steel City eclecticism. “I didn’t like techno or house until I heard it put together in that certain way. It’s the electronic sonics of it, I think. They’d play garage, dancehall, techno, whatever, but the music would always have a bassline, and it’d be quite tough, but still wiggly for the girls. It was amazing.”
Pipes and Hazel took Toddla under their wing and, remarkably, aged 19, he started to play Kabal – an irregular series of raves in warehouses, churches, morgues – alongside his new heroes. Not that that was the only Sheffield influence seeping into Toddla’s music. Simultaneously, he was absorbing the rise of niche, or bassline, and also exploring another side of Sheffield’s love of “tough riffs and bass”. If the Kabal lot were the club side of the Sheffield sound, musician/ producer Ross Orton (Fat Truckers) and Parrot (Sweet Exorcist, All Seeing I, White Trash) were their close sonic cousins, who had taken the same sounds in a more pop direction. Mixing punchy, shunting ragga basslines, wired electronics and Human League hooks, they had honed a uniquely Sheffield electro sound: tough, compact, discordant, poppy.
Orton, who knew Toddla through mutual friends, was one of the first people to spot his potential. After seeing Toddla – who, at the time, was one-half of duo, Small Arms Fiya – work his fast-fingered magic on a laptop, Orton recommended him to Kenwood, a local Sheffield studio who were looking for a resident engineer.
At Kenwood, Toddla, who had previously dropped out of a Music Technology course at Leeds College of Music, worked with everyone from Roots Manuva (Toddla would later contribute three tracks to Rodney’s Slime & Reason album) to pop band 411. It taught him one valuable lesson: “In the studio, pop stars fuck up like your mates do when you’re messing about. It doesn’t matter if you’ve sold a billion records or ten. Everyone’s the same. That’s what I learned.”
It’s still barely 18 months since Toddla wrote the Do You Know? “riddim” – all his tracks start out, reggae-style, as riddims, which are then versioned by different vocalists – which became his first 1965 release. Fill Up Mi Portion (a ragga-tronic romp about a desperate, hungry man) and the Lilly Nash/ Kate Winehouse-teasing Backchatter, which is barely recognisable as the same track, marked Toddla out as one to watch. Seismic follow up, Soundtape Killin’, and its hilarious DIY video – think: Daft Punk, on a budget, in Broomhall – heralded another sharp spike in interest, with Toddla grabbing column inches everywhere from NME to The Guardian.
Unashamedly, Toddla wants his music to be fun. Manabadman was wildly misinterpreted in some quarters as a comment on UK knife crime. In fact, the vocal by MC Serocee, Toddla’s hype man when he DJs, is a classic piece of ludicrous MC boasting. It puts the ill in silly. Like Toddla’s other regular vocalists, Trigganom and Mr Versatile, Serocee has a rich sense of the absurd, hence the references to Louis Armstrong and oompah loompahs. “Sonically, I’m right serious about the music. It stresses me,” says Toddla. “But it’s gotta be a laugh. Otherwise, what’s the point? I might as well work in a bank.”
That attitude will, undoubtedly, feed into Toddla’s debut album. But, it’s also an album that, in its genre-smashing irreverence, laugh-out-loud rhymes and jump-up, energy, will have something significant and positive to say about modern Britain. “I want it to represent how I was brought up, where it, literally, didn’t matter who you were,” explains Toddla. “My neighbours are Jamaican, British white, an Asian kid. I want it to represent that. Which is why I’m so happy about a track I’m working on with Joe [Goddard, Hot Chip] and Benjamin Zephaniah. It represents that total mix: a geek from London and a right deep British Jamaican geezer.
When it drops, mid 2009, that album could well turn Toddla T into a crossover star. There is no danger, however, of it going to his head. Not in Sheffield, anyway.
“I’m definitely staying here,” says the man who, walking up Division Street, bumps into a mate every few feet. “If I moved to London I’d just start playing fucking electro in Shoreditch.” In Sheffield, by way of contrast, Toddla’s tight network is already working hard to ensure that he doesn’t turn into, well, a “knobhead”. Toddla smiles: “It’s healthy. Pipes is already caning me. When I told him about Manabadman being single of the week in NME, he just went, ‘don’t get too big for your boots or tha’ll get a clip’. Cheers? Congratulations? None of that shit. It’s just not happening.”
Don’t worry. In the coming months, Toddla will be getting enough plaudits elsewhere. That’s guaranteed. Ladies and gentlemen, say “ey up” to Sheffield’s ambassador to the planet’s dancefloors. Now, watch him tear them up…