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Two decades in, and still in total control

2018 Apr 20     
2 Bit Thugs

Digital has been turbo-charging D&B with soundsystem-melters for over 20 years, and he’s about to drop his fifth album. This is where he’s at....

You don’t forget the first time a Digital tune truly hit you. Whether it was the blissful ripples of his Metalheadz debut Niagra in 1996, the paranoid off-beat riff on 2000’s Waterhouse Dub or, much more recently, his tribal scattergun tub-thumper Robber on Rupture in 2014, he’s been shelling jungle drum & bass floors consistently since he first emerged on Certificate 18 in 1994. Go back even further, and he’s been operating soundsystems since he could first reach the turntables. Denting the dance is in this man’s blood.

These dents having become even more commonplace in recent years, as Digital (real name Steve) has rebuilt his Function imprint, reunited with old ally and fellow Ipswich head Spirit, built a new Void Acoustics soundsystem (which he's set up in a dedicated room next to his studio to test tunes on) and started hosting his own Function functions (with said system). He’s released and remixed on a whole gamut of labels from C.I.A to Dispatch to Nomine Sound, and is just about to drop his second album in as many years.

Total Control follows his 2016 collaborative LP Synthesis (his first album since 2009’s Red Letter with Outrage). A self-described ‘spit and sawdust jungle album’, it's a no-holds-barred adventure containing some of the rawest, most startling beats he’s cooked up in years. Designed for ultimate dance-denting, it’s the sound of a man who has indeed taken full control of his life and explains how he’s feeling more inspired and motivated than he has in years. Here’s why…

Nomine once described you as a bassline bully. Do you have a bit of a reputation like this with other artists?

"Ha! He especially knows me as one because for the first few years of him producing I felt his bass was a bit off. I wasn’t into them at all. And he’ll be the first to admit it. He’s learnt so much now, no one can touch him."

He’s a professor!

"I bullied him onto that path and I’m very happy to have helped him in that way. I think he’s the only person who knows me as a bassline bully. But I’m known to a lot of people as someone who moans about basslines a lot. People like a big sub that just hums along but I want a real bassline."

What’s better: a tune with a perfect bassline and rubbish drums, or a tune with perfect drums and a rubbish bassline?

"Really? Neither. You can’t just have one. It’s like salt and vinegar. You don’t have chips with just one. That’s the challenge for producers: to have the kicks cutting through and the bass sitting in the right places. It’s not about perfection either, by the way. it’s about them coming through in the mix. Think about that track on my album, Just Another Bline: the bassline is all over the shop, jumping through the octaves, and those drums are rough. But they work together."

Yeah, I was going to say about that tune. Great way to start the album!

"That’s Response’s massive keyboard. Until recently, when I got my studio sorted, I’ve just had tiny MIDI keyboards but Response has got this long-arsed keyboard and we properly went through the notes. I was really happy with that."

I know you use to move around the house, producing in different rooms on different speakers. Do you still do this now you have your new studio?

"No, I’m much more studio based now but I use different speakers to A/B all the time. So right now I’ve got Yamaha NS10s which are quite sensible, and Tannoy Berkeley 15” monitors which are ridiculous. That’s a good balance and I’m sure I’ll change that every month to keep things fresh. Then next door I’ve got the Void system set up, which is nice to play some tunes on. My new baby, really. It’s great to have a system again."

How’s it coming along? Are you still building it?

"You never stop building a system, mate! Right now it will do 300-700 people. I’m taking it to Lightbox later this month. I’ve also linked up with the guys at Void Acoustics and the main engineer is coming up to the party and making sure I’m all right. If I need anything bigger they’re at hand. There’s a Void Acoustic community. If you need something, they’ll find out who’s local and I can rent it off them. If they need me, I can hook them up. Get this: the first time I was meant to use it the system, it hadn’t arrived in time so they came up and sorted us out with their system. They stayed for the whole party!"

Now that’s customer service!

"Yeah, it’s fucking huge man. It’s ridiculous. I had to set it up for my Sunday Sessions, DJ Storm & Friends show for Radar Radio which we did at Function HQ. It was the first time I’d set it up proper so one of the technicians called me up for an hour and went through everything so we had it set up perfectly. Void Acoustics don’t fuck around mate. Proper awesome people, the sound is wicked and over-the-top customer service."

Proper soundsystem culture...

"Totally. I’ve grown up with them since my dad had one, then I was part of a system, then used my dad’s for a bit off and on throughout the late 90s. I didn’t have one for around six or so years and felt wrong without one, so I’m getting back into again."

It sounds like a dream to run a system with your dad?

"I was playing records on it for as long as I can remember. That’s me from time. When I was 10 or 11 I was lifting speaker boxes and I’d watch them all, see what they’re doing. I could wire things up by the time I was 12, setting it all up so my dad didn’t have to do it. When I was 14 I joined this soundsystem called Ashanti from Ipswich with my mate YT. I spent a lot of time with them, then I ran my dad’s old system for a couple of years.

"But by 1990 we realised no one gave a fuck about reggae or system parties any more, because everyone was at the raves. I started checking them out myself, and the rest if history. But then I kept the system going on for years off and on. It’s never gone away. I’ve always been massive into speakers full stop. I even like that Cliff Richard song, Wired For Sound!"

Ha! Really?

"Check those lyrics mate: 'I like small speakers, I like tall speakers. If they’ve music they’re wired for sound.' Can’t fault him on that one."

Okay, that's enough Cliff.... take us back to your rave awakening?

"The whole of Ipswich had a rave awakening. The whole of the UK, didn’t they? So much of that was down to the drugs. Let’s not fuck around here: basically there was a lot of nasty racist shit going on in the late 80s, National Front and all that, especially in Ipswich. Fast forward a few years and I see these racist idiots out and about and they’re all like ‘how’s it going mate?’ All hugs and that.

"It genuinely changed a generation in Ipswich. These were awful people before and it took Es to show them it was possible to see things differently. Unlike the reggae scene at the time, I have to say, where there was fights all the time. Raves were so much friendlier. Everyone was raving. Everyone. Not just old racists but policemen, solicitors, teachers, every fucker mate.

"That was 1991 and when I first took an E myself I started to really dissect the music. I could start to break it down and understand it, like hip-hop records and funk records and samples. Eventually I was like, ‘I need to know how to do this!’ Danny C was starting to make a few bits around then, so he let me use his studio. That’s how I ended up with that Certificate 18 12-inch actually. Listen to it and it sounds like me. I’m chuffed about that."

Certificate 18! More D&B came out of Ipswich than people give it credit for…

"D'you know what I mean? Spirit, gamechanger. Photek, gamechanger. Klute, Certificate 18, Source Direct weren’t completely Ipswich but they were nearby. Gamechangers. I am proud of that, yeah. I’m proud that some of us have never gone away. Spirit. He’s a top boy. He’s got so many things on. We’ll never go anywhere. 25 years and we’re still doing this thing."

Yeah, you made a very vibey Facebook post about this - how the OGs are killing it more than ever...

"These people - Storm, Kenny Ken, Blackmarket, Grooverider, Fabio, Randall - they don’t fuck around. You see them play and it’s like they’re playing their first ever gig. You can have your pop drum & bass favourites but these are the originators and they’re still keen as mustard. 25 years deep or even longer, and it’s supposed to be a young man’s game!

"These guys ain’t getting sore thumbs from pressing buttons, they’re mixing and blending and creating drama for minutes on end. There’s a new trend in DJing where it’s drop, drop, drop. Just cutting them and no blending. No tension in the mix. I like hearing things slipping and sliding a bit and seeing the DJ work them. I like hearing mixes that roll on for what feels like forever. And I like them best when I hear them through a good system!"

Has having the Void Acoustics changed the way you approach making tunes?

"Not yet but it will do. I’m doing slower stuff, 140, 165, slow it down a little bit. Maybe a bit of techno. Slow things down, they sound fatter. More room. Nothing fussing and fighting at 175. I can try things out on it, and I do, but it’s just as important to try other speakers, try the car stereo and test it in as many speakers as possible. It’s a bit of a bonus. I’m a lucky boy."

Let’s chat about the album for a moment. What are the biggest differences between where you were at with your last album Synthesis and Total Control?

"Synthesis was all about making a project in the studio, having a buzz with a few mates. With Total Control I wanted a spit and sawdust type album. None of this, ‘Oh my god listen to his perfect snare!’ thing, just rough and ready jungle bangers. Clubby. Nothing over-thought, straight-up D&B.

"There’s some mates on there: John B who lives down the road and has been vibing with me a lot, Response who I’m working on a bigger project with. But the main intention was to do the jungle thing where you don’t give a fuck. You do what you want to do. Don’t follow people. Don’t think about which DJs. Don’t follow anyone. I don’t get any producer who does that. You’re an artist because you don’t want to follow anyone. That’s what the Total Control tune is about for me."

I thought it was about you doing everything DIY and having control over everything you do?

"Oh, it’s totally that too. I’m over reaching out to people and sending out this and that. I know who I love working with and who I can rely on and I’ll continue to work with them. I’m sticking with them. I’m not sure en masse unity works."

No, it’s more like a unity of crews. We can't be this massive homogenous blob of junglists: we gravitate to certain people, kindred spirits...

"Yeah, a unified scene of crews. I like that. That’s what my Functiona:Al night is all about. Getting friends and people who I admire. Proper DJs. I want Kenny Ken to play. Groove. Fabio. I got Dillinja coming this month. There’s not a huge amount of people on my label so they’ll all play, but some of my favourite DJs."

We started with a Nomine question, we’ll end with a Nomine question. He played B2B with Outrage at your last party. How was that even possible when he's actually Outrage himself?

"With a massive cardboard cut-out of himself. I bullied him into it, didn’t I?!"

Words: Dave Jenkins

Total Control is out on Function Records on 27 April - order it here

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Tags: Digital, Function Records, Metalheadz, Rupture, Void Acoustics, Ipswich, Nomine, Outrage, Response, Storm, soundsystems, soundsystem culture, Danny C, Certificate 18, Photek, Klute, John B