One of Dublin's finest exports, Zero T has just released his 3rd album; the sublime 'Little Pieces' on DnB powerhouse Dispatch Recordings. Emerging as a resident in the 90s for the legendary Bassbin crew, Zero T reminisces about the scene's progression over the past 20 years; from cutting house politics and dubplates to social media and USBs.
How healthy is the scene in general compared to 5, 10, 15 years ago?
It's difficult to compare different periods, as the parameters that define each one have a huge effect on things. What I would say is that DnB in 2018 is as strong, if not stronger, as at any point since the early 2000's. Im judging that by some of the following factors: Clubs are still stuffed to the brim with ravers getting down to DnB all over the world - I can attest to this first hand! The next great track I get sent is as likely to come from Odessa or Sao Paulo or Ghent as it is from London or Bristol. The internet has democratised the whole scene - which is definitely a healthy thing.
Other scene's have come and gone since DnB was born and I think this is largely due to it remaining only at its source rather than spreading worldwide. Another health check is the fact that DnB regularly features in the pop charts (Rudimental, Sigma, C+S etc) and has become accepted by the general music listening population as 'normal'. This, in turn, has lead to untold sports and TV programmes using DnB as backing music, which again helps the form become normalised to the public's ears. If I think back to the 90s, I can't see Des Lynam and Alan Hansen (UK 'Match of the Day' TV soccer show presenters from 90s) discussing the upcoming match with 'Brown Paper Bag' or 'Inner City Life' playing in the background, but it's par for the course to have Rudimental or something playing behind Gary Lineker (current 'Match of the Day host').
Describe the most positive things happening in DnB today
The last 8 to 10 years has really opened up the DnB spectrum. Before 2008 - 2009 there was Jump Up, Liquid, Neurofunk and that was pretty much it. A DnB DJ would never play anything of a different tempo or genre (ok - maybe a half-time rap or reggae acapella). I credit the dubstep scene and the Autonomic (dBridge and Intramental) with getting DnB to open up what was 'allowed'. Now there is a thriving half-time scene, elements of trap and footwork bleeding in. Crowds are much more willing to be surprised by a different direction now. I think this development has given DnB a new lease of life and without it, it may well have shrivelled up.
Describe the least positive things happening in DnB today
The lack of diversity. When I first started coming over to London from Dublin in the late 90s one of the main things I loved about it was the vast array of people of all genders, races, colours and economic backgrounds on both sides of the turntables. Over the course of the last 20 years its become more and more homogenous. I think there are many factors feeding into this. One of the main reasons is that it simply isn't the music of the streets anymore. It began as that in the early 90s with Jungle, then UKG took over whilst DnB was becoming a different thing, now its Grime.
Its also partially due to the sonics of the music. From about 1998 onwards, the tempo settled at about 174/175 BPM and the format changed from the bass being a bed for the drums and samples (as is the way in Jungle and earlier DnB), to the drums being an engine for the bassline / riff. In this new format, the beats are anchors around which the tune fires, more like house or techno. This, combined with the tempo reaching 175, is what lead to the dominance of straight 'two step' snare patterns and a emphasis on heavily twisted bass lines and a more house/techno like structure in general, with huge kick roll build ups and massive drops etc. All these factors (and more) have narrowed the 'type' of person who listens to DnB, while simultaneously expanding the numbers of people who listen to the music.
Is there still a ‘dubplate culture’ within DnB?
Sadly there isn't. I first started flying over to London to go to Music House in 1999, so i only really caught the tail end of the golden era of the Music House scene when it was located off Holloway Road. Its hard to describe how magical this place was - it was basically a Mecca for DnB. No frills, no hierarchy. If you are first in the queue then you are first. There were only two cutting rooms, and you could be waiting all day for one to become free. It also cost £30 for 2 tracks on a 10" plate, so you were a lot more discerning about what you played.
The most important part was the social aspect though. I met Bryan G, Randall, Loxy and loads of other big name DnB heads for the first time down there. The added bonus was that they had to hear whatever you were cutting if they were behind you in the queue (or just hanging out for the day) which could lead to anything from them cutting it, to it being signed up. Once Mp3's came in, there was no reason to cut anymore and Dubplate culture went digital. At first it was directly transferred to AIM, where we all chatted and transferred tracks to each other as we made them. File sharing and other ways of communicating (Facebook, Insta, Twitter etc) took over and AIM died off.
Nowadays there is little to no Dubplate culture. Everyone keeps their tracks to themselves until a few weeks before its released to keep it fresh. While I totally understand this, I think something has been a bit lost in that mystery of Dubplate swapping. I still really miss it though. The Chue Family (who own and run Music House) are absolute dons! Bossman Paul and his son Leon, and of course Jason aka Wookie. It still exists (in Tottenham Hale) and I try to call in from time to time to see Leon, but nothing will match that old Holloway Road vibe.
How has the format of performing and playing DnB changed from the 90s to today?
Well, as I just described, in the 90s you had to get your arse to North London with your tunes and stack of cash if you wanted to play unreleased music. DJing with vinyl is obviously an entirely different skill to using CDJs or another digital format, but DJing with 10" dubs is a different skill again. Its very difficult to manipulate without affecting the sound and also a huge variation in sound quality/volume that you had to compensate for on the DJ mixer. Nowadays everything is limited to maximum volume, and with rekordbox -- and other similar tools -- you can auto-match your BPMs and even key group your songs. Some may argue that this diminishes the art of DJing, but for me the main aspect of being a good DJ is playing the right song next....thats it. How you play it, or what you play it off, is irrelevant to 90% of the people in the club, they just care if it sounds good out of the speakers! Technology can level the field in terms of technicalities, but no software can read a room and decide what tune to play next. In the end of the day, its still the same thing: play music, make people dance!
Do you think producers write DnB differently today than they have in the past?
DnB, more than most genres, is obsessed with technicality and is constantly in an arms race with itself to outdo itself. Each era has its stylistic nuances, and the techniques change all the time, but the basic concept remains the same as ever: 2 bars of beats for one bar of bass/music. Thats the fundamental concept of Jungle, and it still applies.
With so much quality around today and new labels and producers emerging all the time, do you think Drum & Bass is currently in a golden era?
I think it's as strong as its been at any time outside of the initial 90s heyday (Mercury, MOBO awards, major press recognition, A-list celebs (Bowie, Bjork et al at clubs etc). The most heartening this for me is the emergence of new young producers like Phase, Satl, Phaction, Signal and many others who seems to have the DNA of the 90's flowing through them. I'm not sure how that happens, but I am very grateful that it does.
Where / how would you like to see the scene develop?
Mostly I would love to see the diversity come back, on all sides. We need more women and people from all sorts of backgrounds and circumstances back involved. I'm not sure how this is going to happen, but people need to see themselves represented to be aspirational. But in general, us in the deeper end of DnB can't complain. We have a robust and healthy circuit and are being featured at more and more big festivals as the years roll on, and we have not compromised our music to do that. Huge props to the likes of Outlook and brands like Star Wars, Let It Roll, Liquicity, Boomtown etc - their ambition is essential in continuing the growth of this weird noise we call music!