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Ghost Chaser: El-B

Ghost Recordings boss, godfather of dubstep, one half of Chroove Chronicles, mentor to Burial – a lot has been written about El-B over the past few years, since his reemergence into a scene he helped set the mold for.

With now classic tracks like ‘Stone Cold’, ‘1999’, ‘Buck & Bury’ and his game-changing remix of Zed Bias’ ‘Neighbourhood’, the South London producer kick-started the dark garage genre, offering up an alternative to the short-lived ‘champagne and shoes’ sounds that garage became renowned for, and instead marrying dark and complex drum patterns with obscure jazz samples, warm vocals and a deep sense of space. His imprint on both garage, dubstep and London music is unavoidable, having turned a generation of listeners onto the rhythmic possibilities of 140bpm bass music.

Having dropped out the scene in the mid-noughties to concentrate on the Ghost studios, El-B returned to releasing new, updated productions in 2007, following the dubstep explosion of the previous year. A 2009 retrospective ‘The Roots of El-B’ curated by Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark and released on seminal dubstep label Tempa in 2009 saw him reaffirmed as one of the noughties most visionary yet underated production talents, with last years Nu Level’s compilation (with Jay Da Flex) demonstrating the fruits of his efforts with artists like Burial, Zed Bias and MRK1 all lining up to be featured.

2011 sees the re-upping of the Ghost label, fronted by an all new album of El-B productions entitled ‘Ghost Chaser’. On a rainy afternoon in central London, we caught up with the now legendary producer to discuss the past, present and future of Ghost, the importance of jazz fusionists Weather Report, and how the marketing man wins hands down.

What have you been up to since releasing the Nu Levels comp last year?
Righting my wrongs. Yeah righting my wrongs because the Nu Level’s album was fairly disappointing for many, because having my name on it I think they were expecting to hear some of my material – y’know or something Ghost-y – which there was nothing of at all on there.

You feel it lacked the Ghost sound?
Yeah – but it wasn’t supposed to [have the Ghost sound]. It was a compilation of surrounding friends and family y’know?

El-B, London, January 2011

You had mentioned to me the other day about there being too much ‘wobble’ in the dubstep scene…
Yeah my point was that I think you need a good balance of everything y’know – keep it all there. Anytime one whole scene bleaches out one thing too much it’s gonna revert and go back the other way, or go off in a different direction, because there is no dubstep without that wobbly shit. That is now the cliche sound of dubstep. But don’t say wobble is dead – it would leave mans out of a job. It would leave man like Bar9 and Datsik right up shit creek!

So where would you say Ghost is in 2011? What would be your hopes for the label this year?
Nothing more than to root right back to the original sound, bring that right back – and maintain regular releases. That’s all that’s expected of Ghost as everything else is in place and always has been in place – we’ve just got to maintain that sound, don’t stray from the expected agenda if you like – just keep that shit comin’!

What would be at the heart of that sound format for you?
The original Ghost format? Ahhh man… Boy… That original ‘conga’ feel as we used to say – music off the corner block style man – rim shots, wood blocks, y’know those classic sweet intros that drop into those heavy, nasty basslines after a minute and a half y’know. Typical Ghost style man!

There’s definitely a ruggedness that people associate with the Ghost sound…
Yeah all the drums – especially the drum patterns that man brought back – those drum patterns that only me and Burial and maybe Slaughter Mob at times, could manage to deal with. It’s those drum patterns that you don’t hear that much anymore – the old sounds we used to use man.

How would you say your aims are different now, to how they were ten or twelve years ago – what do you think you’re aiming at now with the experience you’ve got behind you?
I’d imagine to utilise the brand more. I’ve dabbled in branding the Ghost thing with t-shirts and keyrings – but now I’m gonna do it properly. That and just bring the original, unique sound back.

How did you find the process of putting together the latest album – is it a mixture of old and new material?
I’ve been back in the studio – it’s all fresh – there’s a handful of tunes I’ve been testing in the club for the past 6 months, a handful, but it’s all fresh to the listener, and even to the djs, so it’s still fresh.

And with the new artists – who have you been looking at? You’ve got Opus on the album…
Yeah me and Opus used to own a studio together – me and him co-owned one of the Ghost studios, so he’s been there for years but he’s just got some new style of music together which I wanna be the first to premier it. He calls it G-hop. It’s a mix of grime and hip-hop and its definitely unique.

El-B ‘Ghost Chaser’ (Ghost Recordings) Album Sampler Clip by Hyponik

Who else do you see coming through in the next 12 months?
After the Ghost Chaser album there’s gonna be a full album from Caski – we’ll go straight to it [after] as its a 6 tracker mini-album…

So tell us about him – who’s Caski?
Caski’s a young kid, fresh young boy from Bedford, and his style of production is exactly what we were doing back in 2000 when we started the Ghost label. I said to him, if he was there, if he was old enough to be there back in the day, I would have just had me, him and Roxy as that’s all that would have been needed because the way he programmes the drums are so similar to how I do my thing – perfect for the clubs. It makes up about 30% of my dj sets his music – he always pleases.

You mentioned in your Wire interview with Joe Muggs the ‘grit’ that a lot of Europeans and British have in their production style – why do you think that rawness is so important to you personally?
I think we have that in everything – in everything we do. But that’s down to the weather (laughs). It’s the climate. you go to LA tomorrow its all big t-shirts and shorts and as soon as you turn on the radio its all laid back music like (beatboxes G-funk rhythm) “bmmndt-clampt-bnd-de-bmmndt-clampt” – it’s all Roger Troutman, Snoop Dogg shit, and you can see exactly how it gets done out there – the climate’s hot, shades out, slow walkin’. Out here it’s big coat, intense, stressed out, gritty music. And that’s what makes us, us.

If you were to think back to your early career – do you think you realised how vital the music you were making was to become?
Yeah I suppose I knew what we were doing was different at the time, and that it would stand out, and if it would stand out then it would probably stand out in 10 years, I just didn’t know it would still keep me in pocket to this day – I can still earn a living outta this shit, it’s crazy.

The last Nu Level’s album featured Burial – have you got any further plans to work together again?
Yeah man – me and him are like spiritually connected y’know – he’s like a little brother to man. But the thing is with Burial is he’s a one in a million guy. He’s really deep – like a Shaolin monk or some shit. When he disappears he just goes under the carpet and you will not be able to contact him – you can only contact him through Kode9. And that’s the contact I’ve got for him. But definitely we’ll be doing some material together, definitely.

Going back to the branding, for me, three labels of the past two decades would have to be Hyperdub, Ghost and Metalheadz – as the sort of family mentality, and the logo and everything – those labels really push the branding home I think.
That’s a big compliment, a big compliment man – well I was influenced, when I was sitting there with a pen and paper trying to think of a logo for this style of garage I’d come up with which was very heavy and drum n’ bass orientated – you never knew nothing like it in the club at the time. But I wasn’t sure y’know, running through names on a list, and I was very influenced at that time by Metalheadz. The way he (Goldie) branded his shit, the way he put it on t-shirts, the way he made everyone feel like they were part of the clan – I loved it. The same as Wu-Tang. It’s just good marketing.

And it works to this day…
Yeah I mean back in the day it was strong as there was 8 of us, so when we were photographed together it looked good – it was something to buy into.

So are you looking to build up a new crew?
Yeah – but I mean last time it all just went shit-shaped, it all went down the pan the way a lot of bands and group units do, so you gotta think carefully the second time around. So it’s one artist at a time now.

It sounds like you’re quite into the marketing of brands – do you not think brands can detract from the music?
I think if the marketing is strong enough, if the branding is stronger than the piece of shit music product, which it is with a lot of the American artists at the moment – in my face! – then good on ‘em, coz it fucking sells! I mean, I’ve watched one-by-one each and every member of the Ghost crew back in the day fall victim to [Def Jam-signed Wiley collaborator] Juelz Santana, just that one man – at a glance, on that first listen they’re like ‘what a dickhead’, but gradually, gradually, they got into it because… I mean I wouldn’t go down the street dressed in the colours he does, BUT when I look at Juelz Santana I wanna be fuckin’ Juelz Santana. Because the man’s ooozing with swagger. I can’t understand a word he’s talking about half the bloody time but the way he says it is fuckin’ fabulous. When you look at that, you buy into it, you cop the record – bang. If it’s heavy enough to detract from that then good on it – that’s money. Alot of this music game is just shifting product innit? What can I say…

‘Ghost Chaser’ will be released in the spring on Ghost Recordings.

Words: Louis Cook
Photography: William Biggs