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Pretty Ugly: Scratcha DVA

Scratcha DVA is an easy interviewee. Following our photo shoot in East London, I’m treated to breakfast in a local greasy spoon by the foremost DJ on Rinse FM, and one of the most unique talents on the bustling UK bass scene. I’ve had breakfast with DVA (real name Leon Smart) many a time, yet never actually in person. As the much loved host of Rinse FM’s Grimey Breakfast show, over the past 6 years the talkative DJ and producer took a bustling, supremely amiable and frequently hilarious charge to the capital’s pirate radio listeners, displaying a keen intellect, love of banter, and above all, complete connection with his audience that his counterparts on far larger, state funded stations couldn’t come close too.

That’s not to mention the indelible dent the mans productions as Scratcha DVA have made on the scene. With his debut album ‘Pretty Ugly’ set to drop in March, DVA builds on his successful grime career (as simply Scratcha) and continues his increasingly unhinged experiments in UK funky, bass music, house and more, with a pop sensibility, keen ear for melody and sparkling vocal contributions from upcoming soul vocalists like Eglo Records own Fatima, South African star Zaki Ibrahim, electronic funk man Viktor Duplaix and more.

Over two plates of full English, and accompanied by a Friday morning jungle soundtrack drifting from the cafes battered radio (incidentally, the same Friday of his final breakfast show on Rinse), we chatted about jungle, critics, his time spent in grime, love for South Africa and feelings on heading up the new Hyperdub show on the station.

Recalling a set DVA had played for Hyponik in Brixton back in 2009, Scratcha notes how his own approach to DJing has changed in the intervening years; “now I’m comfortable playing ninety per cent of my own tunes in a rave – I do not give a shit – where as before I’d play one of my tunes, twenty of Roska’s, twenty of Lil Silva’s, now I’m fully comfortable and people get it – I think.”

So does he think it took people a while to get around to his new styles? “I’ve always just done this thing, I’ve always just made music, it’s always been a little bit on the stranger side – that’s what people tell me – I don’t think it is but it ends up being that way. I’ve never thought ‘ah man I need to drop that off and sound like this’” – which is as close as we get to examining just what it is that makes Scratcha DVA’s music stand out from the crowd. And that’s the beauty of it – it’s just Scratcha. This is a man who turns up to the shoot with three pairs of next level sunglasses, and takes note of the shots the photographer’s taking – not out of vanity, but out of a strong will to be different. Which is exactly what dance music needs. There’s enough underground warriors out there, but someone who’s willing to push things slightly to the left – not only in their approach to melody, or how they may build a beat, but also in the way it’s presented – that’s something different.

And something different is what Scratcha DVA has in excess, as is evident on his fronting of the new Hyperdub show – essentially an outlet for the more leftfield sounds on Rinse FM. Though this doesn’t come without it’s annoyances; “I’m doing the Hyperdub show now, I like to talk alot, playing Burial tunes and all that. It gets ripped, put on Youtube – then you get a major amount of comments on there like ‘why is he making jokes on a Burial tune – this is wrong’! I mean – what are you talking about?? So I can only make a joke on a Wiley tune, but I can’t on a Burial tune?! It’s pathetic”. And then comes the key to Scratcha’s success – “but y’know, I’ll just do what I do.“

“[On the album] I just went in, I didn’t care about tempo, time signature, key, I didn’t even think about vocals, I just made, and it organically got done, and that’s why I’m happy with it”. In the deeply sycophantic world of dance music, where bloggers, other producers, forum haters and a world of people willing to smother their half-baked opinion’s across someone else’s creativity, just making and ignoring the constant assault of media, opinion, pressure and anything else that may sway your creativity pays dividends.

The twin themes of just doing and in that itself, being different, run throughout the album, and also into current forays into a live show, where again striving to produce something as colourful and outgoing as the music results in taking in performers, dancers and more; “I don’t want it to just be some ‘look at me – some Apple Mac screen – look at me I’m a scientist’ type thing, it has to be a show, so I’m gonna be involving the artists on my album, as they’re artists who like to be up in the thing [show]”.

Scratcha DVA – ‘Where I Belong’ (video by Dean Blunt)

Though Scratcha’s former incarnation as a grime producer carried the same motif’s, DVA is happy to point out that the original influence for his marrying of sounds came from one of grime’s original pioneers, and now fellow Hyperdub album artist Terror Danjah; “Collaborating mad sounds, and harder sounds, with nice vocals [came about from] hanging around with Terror [Danjah] as I’ve always been into r’n’b, but hanging round [him] was when I first realised you could actually collaborate the two, as I think he was the first person actually doing something like that.”

Currently turning ears are the township sounds of South Africa, a country Scratcha’s has already visited twice (once just to get in the studio with guest vocalist Zaki Ibrahim), and more recently, to play a set of dates over the new year with Kode9 and LV: “It was amazing. It’s like a big trance festival, and it was the first year that they had something else, so they had dubstep there, and all electronic bits and bobs, some people doing live sets, then we come along playing what we play, and they loved it – it was sick.”

Though when we talk about finding new tracks from SA artists like DJ Clock and bow-tied township duo The Ruffest, the lack of distribution and industry within the township scene proves frustrating, with “the maddest thing [being] – you go out there and they’re playing Night Slugs – it’s so annoying! The DJ’s are playing Night Slugs, French Fries, Hyperdub and it’s like ‘actually I come here to hear your shit’. It’s weird.”

What ‘Pretty Ugly’ has as an artist album, amongst the glitched-out house beats, rolling UK funky basslines, grimey synths and morphing, surprising melodies is a boatload of soul. And soul is something DVA is pretty emphatic about. “Yeah I’ve worked with Wiley, all these MC’s, but at the end of the day [banging table to accentuate each word] I. like. Soulful. Music. And that’s that. There was no way I was going to make an album without having some soul on it – it wasn’t going to be any other way.”

Tracks like ‘33rd Degree’, ‘Fire Fly’, a third version of the Fatima showcase ‘Just Vybe’ and Mark Pritchard DJ staple ‘Where I Belong’ are drenched in a hi-tech, futuristic soul language, where snapping drums and disorientating synths meet with r’n’b attitude and smoothed out emotive vocals. Which boils down to a full representation of the artist – exactly what a debut album should be – and one of the strongest debut long players from the dancefloor focussed UK bass scene of recent times.

Interview: Louis Cook
Photography: Jimmy Mould

’Pretty Ugly’ will be released via Hyperdub on March 19. You can catch Scratcha DVA at the ‘Pretty Ugly’ album launch on Friday March 16 at fabric, London.