Last week Keysound reached their landmark 50th release, which arrived in the form of the label’s second showcase compilation – ‘Certified Connections’. It’s been almost ten years since Blackdown (above, white t-shirt) and his partner-in-crime Dusk kicked-off the imprint with their own productions ‘Drenched/Submerge’. Exploring the label’s back catalogue from then forth is a history lesson in London’s musical underground of the last decade.
The buzz-phrase ‘hardcore continuum’ gets thrown about an awful lot, but it could hardly be more relevant when discussing Keysound’s output. With an understanding of the trends from the previous 15 or even 20 years of UK dance music, their aesthetic (visually encapsulated superbly by their regular photographer Nico Hogg – see a selection of his work within this feature) is intriguing – with obvious echoes of Dubstep, Garage, Funky, Grime and Jungle all bundled into something decidedly present.
We caught up with Martin Clark, aka Blackdown ahead of ‘Certified Connections” release…
It’s hard to talk about your music without discussing your relationship with Dusk. How did the two of you meet?
We met DJing in the late 90s. He was playing a Stevie Wonder record and I thought he must be all right – he’s got that on wax. We’ve been mates ever since – we started going to FWD, DnB and Jungle parties together as friends.
Were you both making your own music respectively prior to writing together?
No, FWD made us want to contribute. FWD was a scene dominated by people who were contributing. Hatcha, Oris Jay, Zed Bias, Horsepower, their records… We wanted to be part of this, we wanted to contribute. It just took us a long time to get any good!
Were you initially designing tunes specifically for FWD then?
Yeah. The first thing we ever finished was the fourth Keysound record – ‘Akkaboo’. Amusingly its 130 BPM. If you listen to it now, it’s got this weird African vocal and these broken beats to it – it’s quite mellow. To us, that was our contribution to FWD but actually it was way too polite.
When did you first hear your stuff played out?
The first time I heard a tune of mine played by anyone was Kode9 on Rinse – he played ‘Dis/East’. The first time I heard my tune played at FWD was when N-Type played ‘Lata’. I think Joe Nice and Pinch were the other people to play our records relatively early on dubplate.
This is about 2005?
Probably, maybe ‘06.
So around the time you started the label?
Well, these are related – we felt we were ready. For whatever reason we couldn’t get on to the labels we liked at the time so we just did it ourselves. So it probably helped getting our music out there.
What’s your writing process like as a pair?
Generally we work on something together when we’re both in the room. When we were writing ’Wot Do You Mean?!’ which is coming out on ‘Certified Connections’, I said I was really convinced we should do something that had no percussion in it and Dusk just looked at me like ‘what’? I went away, took the same sound bank and made a version that had no percussion in it and was much harder, less swung than what I would normally. That’s an example where we just did our own version and versions together, and that’s fine. Different people work differently, but mostly we do everything together.
You’ve described Keysound as having three chapters: the first period when it was just you and Dusk’s output, the second when you began to release external records and the final, present chapter. How did you move into the second one?
We work really slowly – we just don’t have the time and we write slowly even if we do have the time. After ‘Margins Music’ we knew we had to re-group, get re-inspired and find new things, move on. Either the label was going to go dead – ‘cos before that it was just us releasing 6/7 years of work through the first 10/12 releases – or we could put out other stuff. I could see how the vision I had for Keysound could work with other people rather than just us. We could move beyond the manifesto of being London orientated – for example signing a record by someone in Philadelphia…
Did that Starkey release feel like a big leap?
I came to a place where I saw I could expand the aesthetic of the label without breaking it. Elijah called it the best Grime record ever made in London, it was just such an amazing Grime record. Why should I let the fact that Starkey is from Philadelphia stop me putting it out this great track? You have this paradox with the label – you’ve got to keep it going in a way that it makes sense, but you don’t want to release the same record over and over again for the rest of your life.
Was this around the time you started the show on Rinse?
Yeah, and all the Keysound records come through Rinse first. People send us music and we put it in a folder. Coming up to the show we listen to everything once – even if it’s just two bars of it. We’ll each bring about 35 tracks to the show and from that we’ll play most of them in 2 hours. We’re living in an information overload age, everything’s connected at any point and at any time. You need filters, and that’s ours. The forcing function of doing the Rinse show forces us to listen to all the demos and tracks and think which will work for us.
On average most records are average, but you can very quickly spot someone doing something different. What I really enjoy is seeing people emerge from the pack. In the last few weeks we’ve had stuff from Atlas, Matt Wizard, Xero and Loom. Those are dudes that I’ve noticed over the last month where they’ve just elevated themselves outside the pack..
It must be rewarding to know that you are in a position where you can help deliver new producers the attention you feel they deserve.
It’s simply rewarding. Sometimes we get people their record played for the first time on Rinse and it’s a really big deal for them. They write to say thank you and it’s almost the other way for me – I thank them! Producers are often plagued by self-doubt, they often don’t like their own records – they’ve heard it too much and they’ve over thought it. You have to go “look: I’ve been doing this for like 12/14 years – you’ve got it mate, just keep going”.
The ‘third wave’ of Keysound, when do you think that started? I thought perhaps Logos’ ‘Kowloon’ EP a couple of years ago was a turning point…
It’s around then. The first of those was probably ‘Roll’ by Bias and Gurley – that set the template. It’s 130, it’s dark, it’s swung, its rolling…
It’s funny you say that, I’d just considered it a UK Garage record?
Yeah, except percussively it’s not normal Garage. Snare-wise it’s not built like a 2-Step record so it’s got this degree of imprecision about it. Even the Kowton stuff… when he first sent me ‘Stasis (G Mix)’ it was Techno and I said to him “I just can’t put out a straight Techno record”. It came back the next day as a more 2-Step version that didn’t sound like 2-Step Garage – it was too dubby and synthy, and it didn’t sound like a Berlin record ‘cos it had 2-Step beats. This was more interesting to me because it sits between the two camps, the same with ‘Roll’ – I didn’t really know what it was…
From there sure, it’s the Logos 12” and then we started to really feel like there was a point to this. We’d come through Dubstep only to see it get ruined by idiots, but I didn’t want to be the bitter outcome of that. A negative attitude is just as regressive. To us, the ‘third wave’ of Keysound was kicked off by a desire to react positively to quite boring musical surroundings. The more we looked the more we found a common cause and common purpose.
Was that the thinking behind ‘This Is How We Roll’? To showcase that common purpose, where elements of former UK dance music strands combined in a new context?
We did that show in 2012 with us, Visionist, Beneath and Wen. They made that tune together for that show and after that I really felt like there was a threshold for, as you say, elements of Grime, Dubstep, Funky, Garage and Jungle all in one place. It felt like what we’d been looking for since Dubstep fell apart. But we also felt quite alone – we didn’t feel like anyone else was doing it. So after that August I was like “we need to present this to people”. I’ve got all the tools in place, let’s do a compilation of original material.
I’ve enjoyed you’re previous ‘round-ups’ of the year posts. I hope it’s not too early to start reflecting on 2014. What did you make of the scene this year?
It’s been as good as I hoped it might be – it’s been very fertile. What I want is a sustainable, creative space that works at a certain club size which is like 100-200 cap where the people are really into the music. For that it’s been great – Outlook this year felt like a tipping point, 500 people there from 11-4/5 in the morning, responsive to all the weirdest music. The boat party was just ridiculous in terms of the outpouring of energy. There’s always a risk that things could fizzle out, that the vibe could go some place else but I don’t feel that – right now I feel it’s just getting stronger.
Is it a scene or is it not? I spoke to Parris about it and he came up with the rationalisation that maybe this is more of a label thing – a coherent cluster of artists. Maybe that’s the way now with everything being connected but decentralised. Night Slugs, Hyperdub – maybe it’s just these very strong label camps. Hyperdub isn’t a musical scene – it’s like 17 different genres all at once, but you know what Hyperdub means.
And what about predictions for 2015? I thought we’d be drowning in breakbeat stuff by now but perhaps that’s yet to come…
I do worry about that, but I suppose that should have happened with the Special Request album… We’ve had this before where Dusk and I have said: “We really like this tune but if the whole scene was this it would be bad”. As a flavour in a wider pot it’s brilliant. Etch, Special Request and Detboi are guys that are using that Jungle stuff really interestingly. If it was just the bangers it was just be bait cloned Jungle, but I want to have these things as part of something bigger. A lot of what Parris does, Beneath and to an extent Wen and Facta – they have that way of building tension. There’s that satisfaction of holding people back with tension, and things like the Detboi and Etch stuff – they just release that tension.
I hold my hands up – I put out that Sully record. That was pure from the heart, I couldn’t say no. So I think Jungle will be part of next year but it’s already part of this year too. For us next year is centred on albums.
I think the next one will be LHF and then some more newcomers. There’s gonna be more Damu next year – he’s doing this really sour, weird 130 Grimey stuff that’s been staples in our club sets for a year now.
Words: Jonathan Kambskarð-Bennett
Photography: Nico Hogg