“Especially in the 140[bpm] music, I know what you mean. It’s like, who can make the strangest, trippiest, underwater banger?”, says Commodo as we discuss the recent rise of experimental productions within the dubstep community. Weaving ‘70s soundtracks, Ethio-Jazz and who knows what else into his latest release, the Sheffield producer is arguably front-and-centre of this shift away from the standard template of ‘functional’, hard-hitting stompers.
In nearly a decade, Commodo has become one of the UK’s most celebrated underground producers, releasing grime, dubstep and several undefinable styles on labels such as Deep Medi, Hotline, Bandulu and Black Box. His heavily percussive and melodic productions are recognisable to many, but in recent years, Commodo has moved towards atypical beats and far-reaching influences, particularly on his debut LP, How What Time, released on Black Acre in 2016.
Continuing this trajectory, Commodo returned to the Bristol-based label for his latest four-track EP, Dyrge, a short but intricate release that’s more ‘nuanced bass music suitable for home listening’ than ‘dancefloor destroyer’.
Following the EP’s release, we spoke to Commodo about working with Black Acre for a second time, his painstaking production process, and the twelve-track vocal project that never was.
Let’s talk about Dyrge – that’s how you say it, right?
You know what a dirge is, yeah?
It’s a funeral song.
I don’t know why I spelled it the wrong way, but yeah that’s right.
When I looked online, it said that that’s the Shakespearean spelling of it.
Is it? I didn’t even know it existed. It’s not such a big…[laughs]…yeah, it’s just a deliberate misspelling for no reason at all. It makes easier to Google as well.
Who or what do the track names refer to?
The first one called ‘Bitch & Moan’, is kind of split into two, an A and a B section. The B section’s the bitchy one; it’s quite harsh and disjointed. The other section is a bit more moany. With ‘Dyrge’, I went through a few names before settling on that one. The music is based on an Ethiopian scale, called Tezeta, almost like their version of blues. To me, it sounds funereal. With ‘Leeroy’, I was making loads of beats that were specifically meant to be with vocals and gave them all names of people depending on what I thought it sounded like. I thought, ‘That sounds like a Leeroy’. Same goes for ‘Yuliya’ as well. The whole thing was supposed to be a vocal project, but it ended up getting longed out, then it made more sense to release the tracks as instrumentals.
It’s weird to think that the EP might’ve been a vocal project, because I thought when listening to it that it suited being without vocalists. I couldn’t imagine someone spitting over those beats.
It’s funny you say that, because the intention was vocals, but maybe it’s good it didn’t happen. We’ll see.
I’m sure you’ve seen people say it’s cinematic, or it seems like it’s got a story behind it. The tracks aren’t the usual, repetitive 140 [bpm] tracks…
Yeah, that was something I wanted to do, because it wasn’t really intended in the project. It might break the illusion of it, but it’s just how it happened. It was supposed to be a longer vocal project and it just wasn’t happening, so it’s what we worked with. I know what you mean. The tracks themselves, some of them work more like songs as opposed to beats or club tracks.
Would you say that you might not put these tracks in a set, or maybe you would?
I try to, it depends on the vibe. A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing has been a lot more cookie-cutter, in the sense that I might only have an hour, and it’ll be on some big line-up with loads of people that’ll be playing more functional stuff. I guess if I had the courage I’d probably just play loads of weirder stuff, but I don’t know.
I think you should!
I try to play a few bits, but it doesn’t always go well. If I’m in Europe or somewhere like that, or if I have a longer set, I really will try and play a lot more left-field stuff.
It’s true, in most UK clubs when people go to a grime or dubstep night, that’s what they’re there for. Throw something a little bit wonky in a set and some people appreciate it. Others go off to the toilet because they don’t know what’s happening anymore.
I’ve seen it happen a few times. You very quickly go, ‘Okay, I guess there’s no point trying this’.
Yeah, but a lot of the time people are there to see you, and I imagine you’re big enough now that you can throw a load of random shit in a set and people will be like, ‘Yeah, Commodo!”
I might try that on your recommendation then.
You’ve said in a previous interview that on How What Time, you wanted to make it a beat-tape style experience. Was there a similar intention with this EP, or was it free form?
I guess there’s a little bit of that. This is with Black Acre again, the label I did the album with, and I feel like I’ve started a thread there that I want to continue, something that’s slightly different, to reach maybe different people. Before we did that album, I was speaking to the guy Ian that runs the label, who I’ve known for years. We always stay in touch. I kept him up-to-date with what I was doing. He was saying to me that this music could reach people outside of the insular UK 140 scene, because it shares similarities with a lot of what’s popular in rap music at the minute, instrumental-wise, and the more experimental, Low End Theory kind of thing in Los Angeles. Mainstream audiences were a lot more open to off-kilter beats and stuff like that, those sound system type beats. It was more about reframing that in a more beat-tape-type context and pushing further that way. Even if this record we’ve just done didn’t sell or nobody liked it, the fact people from other scenes appreciate it makes it worthwhile for me.
How long has your EP been in the making? Because there have been a load your dubs floating around online for a while.
It was a totally different project to begin with. I’d say the tracks were about two years old. They’ve been out for a while, and the only reason they ever ended up online was because I got broken by people relentlessly. They didn’t want those tracks in particular, it’s just I hadn’t sent anyone anything in ages. Obviously, you immediately regret it when there’s so much time still until something is going to see a release. It’s not such a big deal, it’s only a few people that are ever hearing things anyway, most of the exposure happens when you actually go ahead and release things, but yeah, it’s been around for about two years.
With this project, was there a brief discussed beforehand or were you given free reign?
Oh yeah, that’s the relationship I’ve got with everyone is pretty much like that. If it’s good, they’ll put it out. We’re talking independent labels here. They’re not gonna try A&R you. If it comes to things like vocals, there might be some input from the label about what might work. There’s limitations as well, you can’t just work with anyone that you want. Generally, it’s just free reign, and I generally just say, ‘I want to do this, does this work for you?’, and they’ll go, ‘Yeah’.
Would you ever start your own label?
I’ve been thinking about, I really have been thinking about it, but then also the flip side of that is so many people are doing it, do I need to do it as well? I think that’s probably a no, unless I’ve got something exciting that I need to share, which I don’t think I do right now.
You probably see it differently, but as someone who’s listened to your music since your early releases on Deep Medi, I’ve noticed a change in your sound from around the time Vol. 1 came out.
Yeah, I don’t know what it was, it’s the same with Gantz. We both went through a similar thing. I spent a lot of time with him as well, around that time. We both got a bit tired with the stuff we were making and what was coming out at that time. I don’t think it was a conscious decision. Sometimes we’d be working on our own tracks in the same place, so you just bounce ideas off each other. We were definitely sharing a lot of what we were doing with each other.
You’ve mentioned you take a lot of your samples from ‘70s music, was that the case with this EP?
Yeah, a lot of it. Because my music’s so sample-based, my work sessions are split up into two distinct things. If I feel like I can’t make anything or write anything or build anything, I’ll go on a big sample hunt, which usually involves buying the worst possible record I can find in a charity shop or second-hand record store. It’s usually things with really garish artwork, some horrible prog rock or jazz fusion or soundtrack, and literally sitting through the whole thing, making little notes of places where it sounds like I could use it. I might sit there and record six LPs, and then go in and chop loads of bits out and make folders from it, so next time I want to make something I’ve got loads of source material I can build from. They tend not to be big chops, I do tend to use them as just sounds or textures and build melodies from everything else. Lately, I’ve been getting into a lot more traditional hip-hop production way of taking a big chunk of a track and looping it. That ‘Leeroy’ track, I won’t say what the original sample is, but it doesn’t sound that much different.
What kind of stuff do you listen to other than those records you use for sampling?
I don’t usually listen to that stuff for enjoyment. I don’t get excited by specific genres I come across, it’s more I’ll just find artists. Quite often it’s older artists I didn’t know anything about when I was younger. Like rock bands from the ‘70s. I got pretty into The Smiths last year, which was weird considering it was a hugely important part of people’s musical lives when they were younger, at least in the North where I’m from. But when I was growing up, that music was the antithesis of cool. It did not sound good to me, but now it sounds fucking fantastic to me. It’s stuff that maybe is obvious that I missed out on. I was really into hip-hop when I was growing up, and that’s really a rhythmic music style, there tends not to be much in the way of melody, or at least complex melody, but now a lot of the stuff I’m now enjoying is super melodic.
I know you’re not one for genre labels, and especially the word dubstep. Black Acre referred to your last album as’ Mystery Crunk’…
Yeah, I really like that label, because a lot of the sample sources I use tend to be soundtracks tend to be from the ‘70s, and there’s always this mystery/suspense element in those things, and it’s something I’ve always liked, like stakeout music.
There’s a lot of that in this EP, that mysterious, ‘someone-hiding-in-the-corner-about-to-get-you’ kind of thing. If you were going to, what would you file ‘Dyrge’ under?
Round the time I made that track, I was listening to loads of OG dubstep dubs, old Mala and stuff like that. It feels quite orthodox personally, but also it might work as a rap beat. To me, that is the most dubstep thing on there, but I appreciate not everyone might hear it the same way.
I know you shouldn’t read YouTube comments, but I’ve seen some interesting labels from fans for your EP, like ‘NYC detective’. My favourite one is, ‘Luigi’s Mansion’.
That’s great, I’ll definitely take that.
Dyrge is out now on Black Acre
Words: Isa Jaward