Two innovators of UK bass culture go head to head.
Alongside Matt Horsepower, Benny Ill makes up one half of seminal production duo Horsepower Productions. Responsible for much of Tempa’s early catalogue, Blackdown refers to them as “the original dubsteppers”, as their famed UK garage experiments took the sound into much darker, dubbier terrain and ultimately paved the way for grime and dubstep. Whilst the dynamic of the unit has shifted over the years, Benny and Matt have remained at the forefront of UK bass culture, running with crews like Deep Medi and Swamp81 and most recently dropping a mighty 12″ of breakbeat pressure via Bristol’s Sneaker Social Club.
Another favourite of the rave-heavy imprint is Laurie ‘Appleblim’ Osborne. An original driving force behind the fusion of dubstep with house and techno, Laurie of course co-ran one of the most striking labels of the last decade Skull Disco alongside Shackleton. A regular home for his own productions, Laurie went on to curate Apple Pips – the deeply missed imprint responsible for pushing the early (and now classic) experiments of figures like Peverelist, Martyn, Joe and Pearson Sound. Delivering his debut album some ten years later, Laurie’s long-awaited Life In A Laser LP of last year explored the possibilities of contemporary rave via the various movements he’s so expertly traversed through throughout his career.
Managing to catch Benny Ill and Appleblim together for a rare moment, we let them go back and forth as they dive into their early musical entries, sound techniques, the infamous Plastic People soundsystem and more.
Appleblim: So Benny, you know I’m a massive fan, and we’ve sat and chatted about music and life before, but I’d love to pick your brains on your earliest musical efforts. I know you did the Bill and Ben project on Harthouse, and had worked with Bill on acid and ambient projects in the early 90s..were these the first electronic things you did? What were your very first forays into making music? Any bands? Any early equipment or instruments you tried to make music with? Were you a Hip Hop / Electro kid in the 80s?
Benny: Safe Laurie, thanks for being a fan – I’m not sure I knew that, but I suppose someone out there’s got to be ! glad to know it’s you. Seriously though, it’s interesting to note that many of our compliments do come from other producers or musicians, possibly due to the fact that our often unorthodox approach to writing and production can be lost on some of the civilian population. Returning to my answer, and the subject of early musical efforts, and efforts they were, my earliest bits, luckily largely confined to now corrupted cassette tapes, were made on an Alesis HR-16 drum machine occasionally combined with live audio from records (in the absence of a sampler). When I met Bill, who happened to have a decent pair of technics, and more importantly an Amiga home computer, we began experimenting with various of the tracker softwares that were popular at the time. The very first forays were breakbeat hardcore, often with acid line and reggae samples. I’ve never been in any bands, although at school I took piano and violin, but I’m quite good at recording them. My own live playing leaves a little to be desired, but I guess I’m not too shabby on percussion if it came to it. Now, the 80s – I was young so those “halcyon days” are a little hazy – but I definitely was into hip-hop and electro. Luckily I lived in South London so it was easy to listen that music for free via the medium of pirate radio, mainstream radio did not specifically feature it at all – not until later.
B: So Laurie, I’m not the best at questions. Better at answers, but I’ll have a go at this. From your question about hip-hop and electro (can we finally call it that again without having to specify against electro house or other later messes?) I gather you must be/have been a fan too – who were and are your favourite artists in the field?
Now, I don’t know a great deal about your musical background but I do know you were involved in skull disco, so can you tell us a little bit about what that was about and how it came to be – and what were the influences that led to that project?
Now without trying to copy ALL of your questions (I did say I was bad at this) I really would like to know a bit about the earliest instruments and equipment you chose and mastered. Nerd that I am, this stuff interests me (sorry, reader!)
A: Yes Benny! So yeah man, I was still at Primary School when Electro Funk came about, people were bodypopping and swapping the Streetsounds Electro tapes and playing them in the playground – on boomboxes! I was far too young to understand what the music was, it sounded like computer game music, totally futuristic full of bleeps and crazy vocodered voices. Now, us growing up in UK at that time were exposed to the Pop charts, and so Herbie Hancock ‘Rockit’ was hard to avoid – so I think it’s kinda in the DNA of anyone who was around at that time – esp with that video – it was like – what the heck is going on?! It wasn’t until my brother bought me the compilation of the Best Of Streetsounds Electro in ’95 that was compiled by Sean P that my love affair with it began in earnest – I still have it on cassette tape! The music on there blew me away, Hashim ‘Al nayfish’ , Egyption Lover ‘Egypt Egypt’ , ‘Party Scene’ by Russel Brothers, Cybotron ‘Clear’ – oh man!…and the liner notes by Sean were an education, describing the routes into that sound from soul, boogie, funk and so on…strangely enough I ended up working alongside Sean P at Record & Tape Exchange for years later on, and had to give him props for putting me onto this Electro sound – I still play it to my students now and watch their eyes light up at the still futuristic sounds of ‘Clear’…’Clear…your mind…‘ shhheeezzz
So I met Shackleton through a mate at the record shop and we started raving at FWD>> – at the time as you know it was a small, underground scene, sometimes only 20 people through the door! We were hugely influenced by what all you guys were playing and making – Hatcha, yourself, Benga, Skream, Artwork, and then Digital Mystikz… really I’d say we were fanboys. We found you lot a nice bunch, people would talk to you at FWD>> it wasn’t like D&B scene where you got ignored by DJs or looked at like a fool if you wanted to talk to them about their tunes, or music in general. I found it very welcoming. The label started as a direct result of our experiences in front of that damn Plastic People soundsystem! I still say we were spoilt having that rig, nothing else stands up to it in my experience – when it was tuned right it was so clear, so tight, and so loud and bassey – I had out of body experiences just from the power of the music! As you know when trax like ‘Horror Show‘ by Loefah dropped on that system it was no joke!
Earliest instruments and equipment… Ah now this is where I fall down – unfortunately I am not a technically minded person – cables, mixing desks, samplers and outboard gear freaks me out – this is because I never learnt it in the ’90s. I jammed on it, mates of mine had Akai S950s (which was a big thing saving up for those things back in the day!) but I never figured em out technically. I would wait til the guys had loaded stuff up, and then play it using the keyboard skills I had from piano lessons! My other mates would go on to run and operate soundsystems, and were much more ‘techy’ than me. I was a bass player for many years, so had that musicality in me, as well as arrangement skills… it wasn’t until much later that I started making my own music music as a direct result of hearing Dizzee Rascal on the pirates, and going to see Hatcha playing yours, and Skream and Benga’s stuff, and reading that they used Fruity Loops to produce. A mate gave me a cracked copy and I was away – but only ever ‘in the box’ – all software and samples. It is only now I have had to learn techniques to teach them that I have tried to my head around analogue and outboard stuff – I find signal flow, patchbays and routing on desks etc very hard! It doesn’t come naturally to me. Give me an arpeggiator and a wafty emotional pad though and I’m off!”
A: So your reply prompted something I was gonna ask in a way… you said in South London you were pickin’ up Electro and Hip Hop on the pirates… seemingly a big influence on Horsepower’s sound?….. do you think South London was a big influence on you musically? The Dub Reggae, the Techno, that melting pot of sounds? Or am I romanticising it? Do you think what came to be known as ‘dubstep’ could have happened anywhere else? It seems like such South London music to me….
In connection to this, where were your first London raving experiences? Were you going to hardcore clubs? Techno nights? Before my obsession with Metalheadz/Jungle/D&B I used to go to Final Frontier, Club 414, Drum Club, Megatripolis, and lots of illegal warehouse raves, but I missed Lost – were you a Lost raver? Sabresonic? Analog City? Eurobeat 2000? Bagleys?
B: Well you’ve hit the nail on the head there. The fact of living in southside is basically the key to it all, as far as musical influence goes. Although of course all sides of London had pirate radio in the 80s 90s, south was particularly rich with good stations and as a youngster (believe it or not I was once young) I listened all the time, recording tapes and swapping them with mates. Hardly anyone my age could afford records. This was the basis of most of my music education, as these stations not only played the latest sounds of the time – such as hip-hop, soul, and dancehall reggae – also they featured a pretty full spectrum of other genres. So I got a good grounding in roots, dub, revival, lovers rock, disco, house, jazz fusion, rare groove, funk and others.. and as the new musics came out the same stations were playing them, acid house – techno – hardcore – jungle etc…
As far as dubstep is concerned, sure it could have happened anywhere as its influences stem from many different types of dance music, but facts is facts and that’s where it started. Actually, if you ask any of the pioneer artists in the field you’ll find it actually had a lot to do with the nature of one music store, Big Apple records. They stocked an unusually wide range of music at the time and you could pick up U.S. and UK garage, house, techno, disco, dub, jungle, d&b and more in the same store, and I strongly think this influenced many of the people who went on to create the sound.
On to the matter of my background in raving, as soon as I was old enough to have a fake i.d. I was into the clubs, initially places that played rare groove, hip hop and such. Then, as the different genres came out – house, acid, techno, and so on, then there started the big warehouse and field raves around the M25 – and the associated nightclubs that were most usually on weekdays. That was a big time then for underground music – and there became more places to hear those type of sounds. Still though, things hadn’t gone fully mainstream and your average nightclub even in London would be mostly pop music – even rock and it would be full of your average joes with pints of lager and girls in white heels dancing around handbags. The raves, and places I’d go were a different kettle of fish – as is now pretty well documented (though not always accurately). After that I continued to follow dance music in one form or other, the big ‘illegal’ raves got locked off in the early 90s but some legal/semi legal ones sprung up and clubs too. then there were the squat raves after that which weren’t always my cup of tea but had their moment in the history of things and were important to many.
Forward to the eras you’ve mentioned, and the nights and events you namecheck, yes I went to all of them at one time or another – drum club, lost, bagley’s, sabresonic, eurobeat, blue note, etc. I could mention many more, basically I followed whatever twists and turns music took, made my choices but gave a lot of things a try. some I liked others – not so much.
B: It’s a lot easier writing answers than questions but we’ve reached question 4 so here we go! Now, I’m participating in this little Q+A (which is rapidly turning into a small book) in promotion of our new Horsepower record which is currently in the process of being released by the fine folk at Sneaker Social club, so first of all let me write a little about the tunes therein. Produced alongside Horsepower’s own Matt HP at the newly established double 5 recording facility, the A side ‘Stranger’ is a lil workout in the general realm of ’90s hardcore, ourselves being inspired by the work of local hero Benton who pioneered an updated version of this sound several years back. For the flip, AA side we’ve included something from our most popular dubplate archives, an edit based upon a straight rollout of the celebrated amen brother drum break, seasoned with a dash of the Eastenders drum roll and combined with a strongly featured well known film sample, along the lines of the formula set by a certain masterful NY house duo all those years ago. This is our respectful take on one of the classic dance tunes that have excited many a dancer in clubland over the years.
So Laurie, on this subject – and hoping that you’ve been furnished with a promo copy by now – perhaps you could give us your comments and opinions on the tunes we’re presenting here? And furthermore, can you tell us a little about what material you’ve got coming up and what projects you’re currently working on?
A: Yes Benny, so one of the things I love about Horsepower over the years is the way you combine elements and influences into something fresh. I still hear tracks like TGS ‘On the Run‘ (in my bag for forthcoming gigs) and ‘What We Do Remix‘ and hear a distillation of the kinds of vibes coming from the peeps you quote as just a selection of yr influences but twisted into new forms. Take ‘What We Do ‘ – you know its got the King Tubby, its got the soul / boogie influence, its got the US Garage / Masters At Work, the film and dialogue samples.. but feels natural to mix em together. Its amazing to have a Horsepower release on Sneaker it’s an honour to have you on a label that is close to my heart in the sense its run by a friend, has released music by my friends, and has repped new efforts from legendary producers such as Neil Landstrumm, 2 Bad Mice, and now you guys… it feels like a good fit. The tracks feel like a continuation of those melting pot vibes, the rolling, classic breaks are worked up fat and choppy, there’s some wicked processing on the MAW sample, which makes it sound almost like a Metalheadz twisted up Mentasm or something… would love to know what…. both the tracks have a feel to me like Smith & Mighty or RSD also, not in the sound but in the sense of, we can roll out different tempos, different styles, but this is a take on the breaks – a bit like the way Rob Smith came with ‘Pretty Bright Light‘ or something.. .it makes me excited for more to come.
In terms of my stuff, I have finished my second album for release on Sneaker, so am excited for peeps to hear that. There is a variety of vibes on there, using different processes and equipment to the previous LP. I’ve been jamming on synths that previously I didn’t have access to – Korg MS20, Arp Odyssey, Roland System 500, Modular systems. This is due to me teaching and utilising the gear owned by the college, as a way of learning it too. So big long jams then editing down into chunks… but keeping some of the ‘chaos’ of the jams. This method produced 3 or 4 tracks on the LP and gives it a different sound to my previous efforts. Also i’ve been sampling again, using unusual source material, blowing glass bottles, hitting bits of metal, then putting stuff through Vocoders etc I have got an album ready with my mate Wedge/Adam Winchester which we jokingly called ‘The Album That Wrote Itself’ when we were making it as the tracks would just form and we can’t even remember how they took shape! It’s very psychedelic.. .some of it is very heavy. But then some of it sounds like a lo-fi Dillinja!
Then I have an album of my own on a noise/ambient/drone kind of tip. These tracks were a form of therapy for me as I was going through some difficult times, so to simply use distortion, drones, wild noise, improvising with no boundaries was a kind of release of frustrations, and cathartic, and a way I could lose myself in the music, stop my brain working overtime for a while. I’ve also got a bunch of separate EPs pencilled too which are a mixture of new and older stuff that I’m pleased with. I feel I’ve turned a corner with worrying about whether the music is good enough and am just making it… finally!
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