The man who's done more than most to promote the bassline genre shares some thoughts on the past, present and future of the scene
The 99th mix album in the long-running FABRICLIVE series landed in stores this week - and it's a belter. At the controls for this one is DJ Q, who serves up a high-octane trek through the various territories of the post-garage bass music landscape, with all but one of the album's 32 tracks exclusive to this mix. If there's ever been any love in your heart for this often most maligned of genres, you need to check it out asap.
There's always been love in iDJ's heart for bassline, of course... dating right back to the early-mid 00s, when we were the first of all the UK dance mags to really start talking about the new 'bassline house' sound - a melting pot of speed garage, two-step and house tropes - that was quietly fermenting in the clubs of Sheffield and Birmingham. And it was around the same time that the scene took a big step forward when an 18-year-old kid called Shollen Quarsie from Huddersfield got his own show on 1Xtra.
That show helped bring the nascent style to a wider audience, which would pay off for the man himself when the scene properly exploded in 2006, giving him his biggest hit to date in the form of 2007's You Wot! By then, though, 'bassline house' had become simply 'bassline', absorbing influences from both grime and electro and evolving into something far gnarlier and darker. Which is where it's mostly stayed since.
So what's most interesting about FABRICLIVE 99, for us, is that in this instance the music's garage roots are clearly showing, with plenty of two-step beats and sugar-sweet female vocals to be found among the warping basslines and MC tracks. There's even a Todd Edwards exclusive on there, taking us full circle all the way back to New Jersey, where it all began.
It's been an interesting 15-year journey for sure. So with the album just out and an appearance at Birmingham's MADE festival coming up this very weekend as well, who better to discuss the current state of bassline than the man who's been there every step of the way?
Let's start with the album. Nearly every track on there's an exclusive...
"Yeah. At first I was just gonna make it like a normal mix CD but then I thought, nah, let's make it something special for the supporters, and everyone else listening, where they can buy the CD and not have any of the tracks previously. I know a lot of people tend to do compilations where the tracks are available already and they're just mixing, so I thought I'd give people the best of both worlds, mixing and new tracks."
Is that partly because it's fabric - because it's such a landmark series, does that inspire you to go the extra mile?
"Definitely, because fabric is a place that's special to my heart. I've been playing there on and off for the past 10 years. I think I've played every room in fabric, for a lot of different events and promoters, and it's always a good vibe. So yeah, I had to pull it out of the bag for this one."
And you've got a Todd Edwards exclusive on there, which is a bit of a coup...
"Yeah yeah yeah! I'm a big fan of Todd, and what happened was, a few years ago I was over there and me and Todd went in the studio and did a few tracks. We tried to finish the tracks that we started for this compilation but we never managed to link up, we were never both in the same place at the same time. So Todd just said, 'I'll give you an exclusive track instead.' That was an honour, man!"
What struck me most about the fabric mix was that it's really quite garage-y, almost as if bassline has come full circle after getting quite grime-y for a long time. Is that the scene in general, though, or more just your take on it?
"You know what? Bassline is a very broad church now. At the moment, a lot of people are making a certain style of bassline that's very hard and harsh, and it works in the clubs. But I noticed there's a lack of vocals and bubbly tracks in the scene, so I thought I'd use this CD as an opportunity to showcase the other side of bassline as well. The vocals and the two-step beats rather than the 4/4 beats."
Is that your preferred style, rather than the harder, aggro-y stuff?
"No, I like both styles, and I make more or less everything, I've dabbled in every side of bassline. But it's the side of bassline at the moment that's not really had a light shone on it as much as the harder stuff, so I wanted to shine a light on that side of things as well."
Historically, bassline, grime and dubstep all variously emerged out of garage round about the same time. How do you see the relationship between those styles today?
"There's a lot of crosssover still. You get a lot of grime vocals on bassline tunes and you can hear the bassline influence in a lot of grime stuff. A lot of the artists came up together, so while grime is more concert-based at the moment and bassline is more about the clubs, I think the two styles can still mix well, definitely."
So with grime having a bit of a back-to-the-roots resurgence lately, does that feed the success of bassline, do you think?
"I think it does, especially with multi-genre line-ups and events, because a lot of people will come for a specific genre but then end up getting into stuff like bassline just from hearing it out. It works hand in hand. I know people that have gone to check out grime artists because they've heard them on a bassline tune as well, so it works both ways."
You think the bassline scene's in a pretty healthy place right now, then?
"Yeah it definitely is, there's a lot of good things going on. Everyone's doing their own stuff but it's all coming together nicely."
What are the best and worst things about it in 2018?
"I think for bassline over the past three-four years, the best thing is it's gone to a bigger crowd, it's reaching out to a younger, wider crowd because for a while it got very niche, and if people were going to a bassline rave, a lot of them were going just because that was the rave that was happening, not really for the music. But I think now they're more for the music, so that's healthier.
"The worst thing? I wouldn't say there is one - I'm enjoying it! Other people might have different views but I think it's healthy at the moment."
There was a time when the clubs could get quite dark and moody...
"I wouldn't say dark, I think when it got really big and everyone was going to the raves, certain things might happen and I guess some people might find that a bit intimidating. But I always saw it more just as a music thing, I didn't really pay any attention to anything else that was going on."
In the early days of bassline there were two distinct styles: the Sheffield/Niche sound of dark bassline warpers and the Birmingham sound which was housier and more organ-based...
"Yeah, in Birmingham it was more of a house n' garage thing, whereas up north it was more speed garage-led. But even in Birmingham it was speed garage-led as well."
Yeah, you got the warpers in the Birmingham clubs, but you got the organ tunes as well. And that organ house thing still goes on in Birmingham, so is there any crossover there still, or do you see them as quite separate things?
"Nah, it's all one. Leeds had an organ scene as well and that filtered into jacking house and now it's all come full circle, everything's back into one melting pot."
And of course in house music there's currently a resurgence of garage-y sounds that some people are calling 'garage house', again is there any crossover there do you think?
"Well... for me, I came from garage in the first place, so anything that's an offshoot of garage I'll play. But I can see where it wouldn't crossover with some of the harder styles of bassline. I mean, it can work, and I personally make a point of trying to play everything in my set, so for me it does! I tend to see it more as a tempo thing rather than a genre thing."
That leads me to another question. You've been in this for quite a while: you started at 1Xtra when you were 18 and you're 32 now. But I can remember when DJ Q was the new kid on the block! So if I'm 48, you're 32, and there's kids coming through that are 16, you've almost got three generations of garage and bassline heads...
"Yeah, it's funny cos the kids that are coming up now, they're not necessarily familiar with what I did before. Some of the kids' first entry point for me was like You Wot! but that was like a big mainstream single. The underground stuff they weren't really aware of, until recently anyway."
… so do you see yourself now as getting on for an elder statesman of the scene, or you still feel aligned more with the 16-year-old? Do you feel any responsibility, being that bit older, towards the young kids coming through - and to the sound?
"Well, I think the sound that I'm in is still a pretty young sound, it still appeals to the younger crowd, and I make a point of trying to do that. But I try and educate the youth a bit as well! I always try and shed light on where the origins of the style came from. I do all night sets, where I play for six hours and I'll play everything - my influences, what I'm playing at the moment, where I feel the sound's going. Like you say, just trying to educate."
Yeah, I read about the all night sets. How's that been going?
"That's been going well, I really enjoy them. Last year I did 11 all night shows in 11 days straight across the country, and we're gonna do a phase two where it's more of a live thing as well, bringing in drum machines and stuff. Just giving people a better experience all round."
The other big thing you've got coming up is MADE Festival in Birmingham...
"Yeah, I'm excited about that, I can't wait! I've never played there before but for the past three, four years I've been there just as a raver, it's one of my favourite places to go. So I'm excited about actually playing there this year."
So there are still new mountains left to climb?
"Of course! There's never no mountains to climb, man. There's always new sounds, new energies. There's always new ears to hit. There's always new stuff on the horizon all the time."
Words: Russell Deeks
FABRICLIVE 99 is out now. DJ Q plays MADE Festival in Birmingham this Saturday (28 July)