It's been a long time coming, but the D&B star has finally released his debut album. So, time for a chat...
"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them". Not my words, Carol... the words of William Shakespeare! But swap 'greatness' for 'D&B stardom', and Crissy Criss arguably fits into all three categories.
Born great? Having jungle legend Kenny Ken as a stepdad probably hasn't hurt his career any. Achieved greatness? A discography that includes releases on such esteemed drum & bass labels as Back 2 Basics, Technique Recordings and V Records should testify to that, because when it comes to A&R and quality control, those guys don't mess around. And having greatness thrust upon him? Well, no matter who you are or how far you've come so far, getting your own 1Xtra show at the tender age of 20 is going to give any DJ's career a turbo boost...
Introduced to the decks by Kenny Ken aged just five, by the age of 11 he was playing on Kool FM, and guesting with DJ Zinc at The End. But child prodigies are ten-a-penny: the real trick is converting that into success as an adult. And the man known to the authorities as Chris Williamson has done that with bells on.
But it's only now, some 15 years into his production career, that he's finally releasing his debut album. War On Silence was worth the wait, though: while rooted firmly in hard-edged drum & bass, the album features a host of collaborators and embraces a wide range of influences, from dub to hip-hop to shiny-suited 80s soul (see the mangled vocal samples on Karl Williams collab' Lost) to out-and-out pop. It's an album that'll appeal to the D&B hardcore, but that could also have real crossover appeal… more importantly, it's an album that feels like a stroll through the many corners of his musical mind.
So what took him so long? Only one way to find out…
The obvious place to start is with War On Silence, which has to be one of the most eclectic D&B albums of the year. Was that something that just came about naturally, or was there a conscious decision made to embrace a wide range of influences?
"Wow, that means a lot – thank for you for the kind words!
"To be honest, though, I wouldn’t even class this as an album, it's more of a compilation of tracks for me. When I play out my set is compiled with so many styles of D&B from across the board. When I'm in the studio, I'm unpredictable, one minute I can be making a tear-out techy track, then 20 minutes later I'm playing chords on a soulful liquid track, so I couldn’t really give this album one kind of sound. I guess I just wanted to put together an ‘album’ where I can take a listener on a journey through different styles of what you would hear in a DJ set."
Do you think that stylistic variety will make the album more accessible to people who aren't regular D&B fans, or is that not a concern?
"I've kinda tried to get a good balance on the album where I've got some nasty underground tracks on there, some rollers, some liquid, then the chance of drawing in some non-D&B fans to the genre with a few dancefloor crossovers. The only goal for me was really to have a non-D&B fan listen to the album and enjoy at least one track.
"For instance Real, which is a collab with WiDEAWAKE, has been doing well as a crossover track in radio land. We’ve had Annie Mac smashing it, René LaVice and also MistaJam rinsing it on Dance Anthems every Saturday daytime. That's really boosted the track to new listeners you wouldn’t usually get, which is a bonus.
"It's never a concern for me when something is more accessible. It's like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit: by the time the rabbit finally gets the carrot you’re in D&B Land, this whole new world of new sounds, artists and music you never heard before. If it was saturated with accessible music then I would probably be concerned, but it's never been like that – D&B is raw to the core!"
The album features numerous collaborations and guests, some of whom aren't people you might automatically think of, such as Heist or FuntCase. How did you come to hook up with them?
"I've known Jim (Heist) for years now, I used to live in Colchester for a bit where he is also from, we’ve been in studio together a bunch of times and thought the best time to get a track out together would be my album. And before FuntCase was FuntCase he was called DJ Dose... while I was at the BBC he sent me some tunes that were really good, so I played a few of them on the show and he kinda just took off from there, just before dubstep really took off massively. Me and James (FuntCase) have been doing remixes/dubs of each other's tracks for a few years now, so it was time to actually get something done together, and the track on the album is what came of it."
Talk us through some of your other partners-in-crime and what you feel they've brought to the album?
"Trust me, there could've been a lot more collabs on this album, but I really needed some solo tracks on my own album, ha ha! I think this album is pretty much made up of just friends and people I've worked closely with in different corners of the music scene.
"Breathe is with my former radio producer Dan Moss: he’s in a band called DEMS, and when I found he could sing I got him on the track. Karl Williams is a new artist myself and my label partner Sammy Porter have been working with at my other, multi-genre label. Also, going back to Real with WiDEAWAKE, I sat on that track for a couple of years because it was missing something, I had a an idea for a D&B/trap hybrid (which you can hear on the single) where the first drop was trap and then the second drop was D&B, so I hit up WiDEAWAKE and we got busy with it. They actually already had a vocal laying around they had recorded and just dropped it on top and that was that, pretty much!
"I've also been working with Malux and Erb N Dub a lot, so it was only right I had them guys on a couple of tracks. I had nearly finished the title track War On Silence and hit up Teddy Killerz for some tunes and ended up just sending them over the stems for it and we finished it over Facebook and email. And Upgrade is another great talent to emerge in the last couple of years, a really talented guy, so I thought it'd be good to work on a track together."
And now for the inevitable question, sorry! You're 15 years into your production career, so why has a debut full-length taken so long?
"Radio, that's the only answer I think! Radio was a massive chuck of my creativity during the time I was there: it's a lot more than just turning up, playing some tunes and having a chit-chat. There's a large amount of tracks that get sent weekly that I'd have to go through (and still do), which really crushes your musical creatively in the studio, because the majority of ideas you'd come up with would probably be what someone had already sent over in the last couple of weeks!
"With touring and life on top of that, every time I would get back in the studio I felt like I forgot or lost skills, so it felt like I was already relearning everything and it just wasn’t exciting for me. But when the title for the album came to mind, it gave me a massive kick up the arse and inspiration in the name itself, and that's when the project started. Now its finished I'm really excited to get back to making more music."
Your music and DJing career dates back much further, of course... I read that you played your first festival at the age of just 10! Obviously that could be said to give you something of a 'head start', but is there anything you regret about having such a music-focused childhood, or anything you feel you missed out on?
"The only thing I regret is not starting even earlier! I'm truly blessed to have been a part of the D&B scene from such a early age, although I'm getting on bit now, ha ha! But I actually wish I was able to witness the acid house, Detroit house, jungle ‘rave’ parties in the very early 90s. I listen to a lot of acid house, breaks, hardcore, jungle from that very early era and I just love it so much, what I need is a time machine just so I can go back and witness it all for myself!
"I've been focused on music since I got my first pair of decks at about age 10/11. That's really all I wanted to do, my friends just wanted to play football (which I did do) but majority of the time I wanted to make a mixtape. During secondary school I started making tracks on the PlayStation game Music and doing gigs, including some that were in other countries, including Canada where when you leave on Sunday and land back Monday. So I'd have Monday off school, then I'd go back in on Tuesday and the teacher would ask why I was off yesterday. I'd tell them I was DJing a gig in Canada or Germany and they would just look at me like I was lying! But it was all I wanted to do, I didn’t care for anything else – I was gonna make it work either way without anyone’s help, and that's what happened I guess."
About the time your career really started to take off, in the mid-00s, it seemed there were quite a few DJs' sons following in their fathers' footsteps, but the only two that really seem to have gone the distance are yourself and, in techno, Dantiez Saunderson (son of Kevin). Why is that, do you think… and have the two of you ever crossed paths/swapped notes?
"Nah, I've never met Dantiez, but I'm obviously a big fan of his dad and that whole Detroit house legacy. I think it's down to the music tastes of our parents, obviously other than jungle my stepdad Kenny had his own influences which then would be played around the house/car, exposing me to music I'd never heard before at a young age.
"Then there’s my mum, my dad, friends and so on. It all gets put in that melting pot in the back of your head and all this music you hear through your childhood just gets cooked into something wild. If you saw my playlist you wouldn’t know what to do, ha ha! When I was young, Kenny would take me to under-18 gigs he would play, so that really was my entrance to what he does and what ‘clubs’ are, and that was really inspiring – to see people dancing and screaming for your father on stage!"
For many years you had a 1Xtra show that was axed in 2014. I know there was a campaign to get you reinstated – what was the story there? And are you currently doing any radio, or do you have plans in that direction?
"It's a part of my life I do miss. Everyone who followed me from early kinda knows I arrived there as a kid and left as a man! But going back to what I said earlier about radio, it does take up a lot time and right now it's all about working on my own music.
"That campaign was started by a listener, it was all really overwhelming. I actually shed a few tears from reading comments from listeners, artists and labels thanking me for what I'd done for their careers and what it meant to listeners, getting them through work and hard times, I was lost for words and I still am. I mean, BBC Radio 1/1Xtra.... how was that even possible?! It truly was a life goal ticked off the list and I'm thankful for everything I had the chance to experience there. Who knows, you might hear me back on the radio in time!"
Finally, what else is going on in Crissy Criss's world right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Well, I'm about to become a dad within the next week so I'm gonna be changing nappies with one hand and promoting my album with the other! This year its all about the War On Silence album, touring and taking the label to the next level. I'm gonna be doing War On Silence sets with special guests here and there at various festivals and clubs this year, so get yourself to one if you're in the area!
"There's also a lot I can’t talk about right now, so make sure you keep an eye on everything thats happening on social media!"
Words: Russell Deeks
War On Silence is out today (5 April) on War On Silence Records. You can hear/buy the full album here.
Tags: Crissy Criss, Chris Williamson, D&B, drum & bass, DnB, drum n bass, jungle, Kenny Ken, Technique, Back 2 Basics, V, DJ Zinc, Heist, FuntCase, Erb N Dub, WiDEAWAKE, Annie Mac, Mistajam, Dan Moss, Karl Williams, Malux, Teddy Killerz, Orange Hill, Nature, Inja, Upgrade