Sunday, September 06, 2009

Interview: Ramadanman

Hello there, neglected Tapers. You thought we we're gone, didn't you? Well, I can't promise regular updates like the old days, but I've been fishing through some of my transcriptions from earlier in the year, and seeing as they haven't been printed in full before, I thought you lot might like to have a gander. This one comes from Hessle Audio co-founder Ramadanman and was recorded just before Christmas 2008 (some of our conversation found its way into my Hessle "Label Of The Month" feature for RA.)

What sort of stuff were you listening to when you were growing up?

Well, I listened to quite a lot of pop before I was ten, and then I got into hip-hop. I was really into euphoric trance actually – I still am! I remember when I was eleven, I got this double pack CD called Euphoria. They did loads of compilations, and I bought one of the first ones and thought that it was wicked! (laughs) So, some hip-hop like KRS-One and Beastie Boys... Both of my parents worked, so there was a girl that looked after me and she'd listen to a lot of hip-hop like Gangstarr, Beasties, KRS-One... I can't think of many more names at the moment...

When did you first get into UK bass music?

I guess it was probably jungle. I never really got into it that much, but I bought an LTJ Bukem CD when I about 12. I guess that was about 2000, a kind of retrospective CD. I'd never heard anything like it before, and that was how I got into jungle. I didn't really get heavily into it – I just knew about LTJ Bukem and that was it. I was still into a lot of UK hip-hop like Lewis Parker and Skitz, Jehst and stuff. It wasn't until I was about 15 or 16 that I got into... Well, I was never really into garage. Of course, I knew about the pop stuff in the charts, but I didn't really know about the darker stuff. I knew all of the Craig David, Architects, Artful Dodger, Oxide & Neutrino and So Solid Crew, but I didn't know about El-B and Artwork. I think that it was probably because a lot of the guys in South London, it seemed to be a bit more entrenched in their culture.

Where exactly did you grow up?

I grew up in Highgate, which is a really nice area in the North London, so there wasn’t a lot of garage around me when i was growing up, unlike the scene founders in south London where it was more popular perhaps

When did you start producing your own material?

I had piano lessons when I was younger, music theory stuff, and I guess I stopped that when I was about 11 or 12. I kind of did it for five years when I was young. You know those really small kid's keyboards? Well that was my favourite toy when I was 7 or something. I used to record those into tape machines and that was something that really interested me. I'd create tapes, and record stuff, and do pretend radio shows – stuff kids do, anyway – and that kind of progressed eventually.

When did that start getting serious for you? Making music to put out?

To be honest, I was always making music for myself. I don't think it started getting serious until I put my first tune out. I used to just make music for the sake of making music; to play to my friends at school or to just listen to myself. I don't actually know really – I've never really thought about that.

What sort of stuff did your first tracks sound like?

The kind of stuff that I was making when I was 12 or 13 – I started using computers around then, so that was a progression, I guess. I had a demo version of this software which you couldn't save on, so I had two hours after school or an afternoon to make a tune. I had quite a strict time limit to make these tunes, so I never really got anything substantial finished. I couldn't even export .wavs on this program, so I had to hook it up to my minidisc recorder and do a live take, often leaving the mic plugged in so you can hear me chatting over the top by accident. It's really cool though – it's nice to have imperfect memories of these tunes that would otherwise be lost. Anyway, I'm digressing: stylewise it was a lot of trancey stuff, quite housey.... I guess it's sort of that grey area of electronica; a bit noodly, synthy, and also quite breaky as well. I was into DJ Shadow a lot as well, so I was almost having a go at what he was doing. As I got older, I was making a lot of hip-hop. I was actually kind of making some minimal house, without really being aware of it. I was listening back to some of the stuff that I was making back in 2004, and I didn't listen to any of those records at the time, but it was actually in that sort of style. Besides making drum'n'bass – it's a bit silly really, quite stupid – listening to it now it's quite Clipz-y sort of wobblers. I think I just found it quite funny. When you're young, sometimes you try and make the most extreme music possible, so I was trying to out-wobble everyone else – kind of what's happening in dubstep now! (laughs)

When did you first start getting into the dubstep sound?

I was into some grime, like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and stuff, and I was kinda making a budget Fruity Loops-style grimy stuff. I was using the Rewind magazine forum, and posting some of the stuff that I'd made up there. It's really annoying, because they deleted their database when they did an upgrade, and I'd really like to go back and view my posts. There were people like Plasticman (now known as Plastician after legal threats from Richie Hawtin) posting on there at the time, and it was quite a good community on there before it got kind of strange. Anyway, I was posting all of my stuff on there, and one day someone posted some feedback to one of my tunes saying that it sounded like dubstep. I was like "I've never heard of this music," so I looked around for it. I use the internet quite a lot, so I found a thread on Dogs On Acid, which was actually started by Forsaken. In late 2005, it was so niche that there was actually a thread on Dogs On Acid saying "dubstep producers, post your efforts here", and there were only maybe three or four people who posted clips, but every single one made me go "wow!" One of them, in fact, was by Luke Envoy which ended up coming out on Hot Flush, but there was this thread that was really interesting and made me really excited about this music, so I listened to some of those tracks and got really into it. I'm not sure if it's something about my personality – when I find out something new I just have to find out everything about it and get really excited about it. I started making beer once, and once I'd decided to do it, I read loads of books and found out as much information as possible. I'd been into dubstep for a few months, and then I decided to go down to FWD>>, because that seemed to be the place to go. Back then I was still 17, and FWD was on Thursdays, so I could only really go at half-term or on the holidays. I finally managed to get down there in April 2006.

Who was playing the first time you went to FWD?

The first time I went it was Mala, N-Type and Geeneus. N-Type played first, which as my first dubstep clubnight was really interesting. I was with my friend Ben – well, he wasn't really my friend at the time – I actually met him there in the queue.

That was the first time you met Ben, then?

Yeah, he was more immersed into the scene than I was at that point, so when N-Type was playing he was telling me about these new tunes that he was playing which were by Caspa, and I don't think anyone at the time knew who Caspa was. It was all quite exciting, and I was just in a club and not knowing any of the tunes, which were apparently big tunes. Mala was incredible, playing stuff like what I now know was his Alicia Keys refix, Fat Freddy's Drop refix,
10 Dread Commandments VIP... It was a perfect introduction really, with the best soundsystem – just a really good night.

So how did you meet Kev then?

Well, Kev was living with Ben at the time at university, and they lived together for two years so I met Kev through Ben. I think he might have even been there the first time at FWD>>, but I didn't really stay in touch. When I came to Leeds that summer, that's when we kept in touch better.

So you all went to Leeds at the same year?

No, Ben and Kev were in the same year, and I was two years below.

How did the idea to start a label come about?

I'd wanted to start a label – I don't know why, really. We're fast forwarding a bit to the end of '06. I wanted to start a label and I raised the idea to the other guys and they were into it as well.

You had the radio show beforehand though?

The radio show actually started after the label – I think the first show was early January 2007, so that was after we'd decided to do the label. We actually got the first release mastered in January sometime, and it came out in April '07. We just felt like doing it really – I guess it was quite natural. We sat down one evening and decided on the details and the logo, and it was quite an exciting time.

Who was responsible for the design then?

Kev had the computer with Photoshop, but we all decided on the logo – we spent quite a bit of time on that. It's Kev that's responsible for doing the artwork though. It's quite uniform and not especially flashy. Speaking for myself of course, I think it does the job without being boring. For example with number 5, we used a photo of mine to vary it up a bit. We've got some different ideas, but I don’t think we're too interested in a huge art project for the time being... If you start spending more time on the artwork than the music, then it's not quite what we're into. I think it was Jason from Transition who said "no-one's not going to buy a record because of the artwork," and that stuck in our heads, I think. We don't worry about it too much.

Is there a certain ethos behind the label?

When we were starting it, I seem to remember it was more of a thing of stuff that wasn't getting heard, but now it's a different situation. Now you can easily hear... I don't want to call it... well, the sort of 'other' style of dubstep. Now there's a lot bigger variety of stuff than when we first started. What was being played out was good, but you'd never really hear for example a Geiom tune, or many other tunes that weren't by big name producers. That's my memory of it – it's a bit hazy – but that's what we wanted to do. It's the same with the radio show, we wanted to push different stuff that was interesting to us.

With regards to the ethos of the label – I guess if you're asking what makes a tune come out on Hessle, it would be.... well, we're not really interested in disposable music. What we'd like to put out is just stuff that you're still going to be listening to in ten years time - stuff that doesn't really sound like anything else. Looking back on our catalogue, I don't think that any of it really sounds like anything else that's been released. For example, number 1 (TRG's "Broken Heart"/"Put You Down") was updated garage. I don't really think anyone even now, apart from another TRG tune, no-one's really done that kind of updated garage thing like him. Also, with the Untold tunes, they just sound completely different to anything else out there. I guess that's what we're going for... We're always open to new stuff though, if someone sends us a tune we liked then we'd obviously consider putting it out, but it just so happens that now we're at the stage where we're getting a roster of our own. We just want to put out stuff that you're not going to stop playing a after few months because it's been rinsed – I think that's my interpretation of what the label's about. I think there's a lot of good music out there, but not a lot of really good music, and I think that sometimes not every tune has to come out just for the sake of it.

Do you see the label as 'experimental'? Doing something that hasn't been done before?

It not as if there's nothing new under the sun, and we're not actively thinking "let's just put this out because it's so strange." You could put out 4 minutes of oblique noise and sub-bass, and it'd be different but I think it still has to conform in some way. I'm not really interested in trying to categorise ourselves off into some little sub-corner, saying "oh we're Hessle Audio and we do experimental, deep dubstep." When I got into dubstep a few years ago, I think that most people would agree that dubstep as a genre was really open, and I'd like to think that we're carrying that way of thinking on. I think that even with our label, everybody does sound different. There's the garagey stuff, you've even got a half-step wobbler from Untold, and then there's the Martyn remix which is not really what people would usually think of when they think of dubstep. We do have a wide variety of stuff, and...

Do you see your own music, or Hessle's music as 'dubstep'? Or maybe something else?

Well I think obviously it originated from what was the dubstep scene, but I think that now there's definitely a big movement of cross-genre, cross-tempo producers; from Rustie to Brendon Moeller to Instra:mental. I think there's always a big link – even with the funky people – it seems like there's a big movement of people who are willing to mix things up. For example, now you could go to FWD>> and listen to funky house followed by techno, followed by more traditional dubstep and stuff. I think that's what's happened, where people now take influences from a wider range of sources.

Who's responsible for the A&R – how do you decide what to put out?

It's not so much an active process – maybe before it was – but with A&R, we get sent a lot of stuff either through the label, or the radio show or because we're DJs in our own right. We do get sent quite a bit of stuff, but we haven't really signed anything that's been randomly sent to us. Then again, Untold and TRG had been sending us stuff for a few months, otherwise we wouldn't have heard of him. I think you've got to be careful though – if you get sent so many tunes, you've still got to listen to them, because you just never know who's going to be sending you a really interesting tune. Even if you listen to ten tunes in a row and nine of them aren't great, the last one could be right up your street.

Some labels – like Modern Love for example - like to have more of a hands on approach with the tracks they put out. Did you give any feedback to the producers, or did you just like the tracks as they are?

I think we gradually just got convinced. We could hear that there was something interesting about his stuff, and I think we asked him to try something out... Then again with the TRG tunes, he did just send them to me one followed by the other... and the Pangaea stuff, obviously Kev is a friend of myself and Ben's so it was just a case of listening to what he had and throwing an EP together. It's still really early days yet, so we haven't really got into any specific way of doing things.

But do you want to concentrate on developing the artist rather than just putting out one track from someone?

I think so, yeah. I do get a sense that some producers aren't quite being pushed to their full potential. Maybe waiting a bit longer and developing their ideas and refining their sound, and then having a great debut 12" at the end of it. Having said that, I didn't really do that as I had a few digital releases which weren't particularly amazing and then ended up finding my place a bit more, so I can't really talk! [laughs] I think that it should maybe be more of a two-way process with the labels, and we like to be a bit more personal with our artists.

Speaking of two way processes, you've been doing a lot of remixes of late. Do you find it easier to do these than produce your own tracks? Do you have a different approach to producing them?

With remixes, it kind of depends what place you're in. If you're in a particularly uncreative phase, then often getting a remix pack can sometimes bring some fresh ideas and make you quite inspired just by having some new sounds to work with. I think remixing can be quite fun in that respect. The majority of the remixes that I've done, I don't listen to the tune beforehand. I'll listen to the parts that are given in the remix pack and then listen to the original once I've finished my remix. It's interesting to see how differently you've approached the sounds compared to the original producer. There was a time where I was probably doing a bit too much remixing and needed to focus a bit on my own stuff, but now I'm a bit more in balance, I think.

Is sampling something that's important to your production style?

I don't really do a lot of sampling, to be honest, but when I do it, I do find that I get quite creative. Sometimes I buy records specifically to sample, but I'm quite an advocate of just sampling from anywhere. For example, I've chopped up stuff from Youtube clips, and the sound quality is crap but it adds a certain feeling to the track. There's just so many interesting sounds on Youtube, and I also recently bought a portable recorder which is really fun. I use it for things like field recordings, atmospherics, or maybe some speech or a poor quality vocal. That's quite a useful things to have for just picking up sounds, but I quite like that idea of just adding a certain texture to tunes, which adds a certain something. I read somewhere that a field recording really can conjure up an image of a place, and such a small thing can really alter the mood of a tune.

You've been embraced within both the techno and dubstep communities. Was this something you had in mind when the label began?

I'm not sure, really. We all are into our techno, but personally I come more from the house side kind of background, but we all like it so it's flattering that techno fans are embracing our stuff. I think that at the moment there's a lot of middle-of-the-road dubby techno that doesn't really do a lot, and whilst you might describe it as dubsteppy-techno, it's not what I'm really into. I prefer stuff that maybe takes a few different influences, like Pangaea's "Router" which borrows from quite a few different genres and creates something new rather than a Basic Channel rehash at 140bpm. The techno-dubstep crossover is something that has been much talked about, and I think there was a time where it was something new and interesting, but I think that has time has been and gone. That’s not to say there aren’t good techno influenced dubstep tunes though!

What sort of music is really inspiring you at the moment?

I'm quite into some of the funky stuff. I've heard quite a bit of it, and as I'm quite into my house, some of it isn't doing anything that's different to stuff that was done better ten years ago. There are a few bits here and there that are quite interesting to me, and it's generally the stuff which is just beats and bass really. In all kinds of genres, especially house itself, I find that the version of a tune I like the most is the dub, or just the groove. I think it's very easy whack a Rhodes and a female singer on top, and that sort of spoils it for me. I've always been listening to drum'n'bass, but that's about it really. I don't really listen to music as much as I should in terms of sitting down and listening to music. It's kind of the case of being a bit picky and always changing between stuff. At first I thought "is this bandwagon jumping?", but then I thought that good music is good music.

Are you playing much of it out?

I haven't played any funky out, actually. I've played some of it on the radio show, but it took a while for me to be convinced by it all, mostly because of the fact that some of it is kinda just average house music. Eventually I saw Marcus Nasty at FWD>> and heard his radio shows, and I found the stuff that I find really interesting, and got myself converted. I haven't started playing it out, but I've been making some myself and I'm playing at FWD>> this Sunday so might drop some of it there. The difficult thing is most of the time you're just playing for an hour and if I want to play some of my drum'n'bass stuff as well, going between three tempos in an hour can sometimes feel a bit disjointed. It's kind of the case that I'll take it, and worst comes to worst I won't play it. I think that the 'dubstep crowd' as such are quite receptive to it, especially at FWD>>. If I was playing in Holland for example, I probably wouldn't play it because it wouldn't quite fit the vibe, as at the moment it's quite a UK thing. I don't know... I might even try, because at the end of the day you're just playing for yourself. It's early days yet...

You said you were making your own funky and drum'n'bass tracks. Are they for your own pleasure, or will they see the light of day?

Yeah, some drum'n'bass ones will be coming out. Well, I say drum'n'bass, but it's just stuff at 170bpm. I don't think that the label quite wants that announced yet, but that should be some kind of double pack thing. The funky stuff is very much in its infancy, but Marcus Nasty played one of my tunes last week. What I like about the funky stuff is when I'm making it, I'm quite relaxed and just having a laugh - it's almost like I'm making it for myself again. If I sat down now and made something at 140, I'd be a bit more conscious. Does it sound like anyone else? Does it sound like something I've done before? Is it interesting? If I sat down and made a funky thing I'd be a bit more free and get my idea out without worrying too much, so it's quite an exciting time for me and I think that I've got to make the most of it, and make some interesting stuff. The tracks that I have made, it sounds a bit like me and it's not just like a generic UK funky record, if there is such a thing.

Will you be putting those tracks out as Ramadanman, or under a different name?

I do work under a couple of different names, but I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing with it yet so I'm just going to see what's going to happen. I am interested to see what people think of the music without maybe being familiar with the name. In terms of the name Ramadanman, I'm not hugely happy with it anyway, so I may be gradually moving away from it. I'm a bit confused! (laughs) I'm just weighing the options up at the moment.

Do you find yourself playing out at mostly dubstep nights?

The majority would be dubstep nights, I guess. I've done a few things where you play for two or three hours and you get to play all sorts of things which is fun. People respond well to the stuff you're playing because people like it, and it's cool. I think even a lot of the time at these dubstep specific nights you might get 20 or 30 scene-heads, but the majority of nights, the rest of the audience are just people who go to the clubs, up for having a good night. Perhaps one of their mates has said "do you want to go to so-and-so tonight? There's some dubstep on," and the other person goes along and loves it. I think that's a really good feeling though, with people enjoying music that they haven't heard before. If you played them a CD in the middle of the day, and asked them if they liked the music, they might say "not really," but most nights, apart from DMZ and FWD>> are full of these people.

Do you have a favourite release on the label?

I really like number two. I still think that nothing sounds like "Coiled", and maybe nothing else will ever sound like it. It's a really amazing tune, and the b-side is equally atmospheric. We had quite a lot of problems with the release, and it was a huge relief to get it out and released. I don't think that we'll repress it, so it feels like quite a special release. I don't want to say that it's a favourite, as each one has a bit of history. It's like they're all our children, each one with a particular character and memories associated with it. For example, I had loads of hi-hat problems with my side on HES 004, or on number 6 (Pangaea's "You & I"/"Router") where we mastered it after having no sleep and flying to Berlin and being really tired and grumpy.

How did the D&M hook up come about?

I'd cut some dubs there with Ben (UFO) beforehand, and we were just really impressed by them. I think you've got to change a bit – Transition are fantastic and did our first five releases, that sounded very good. If you take a tune to a bad mastering studio, it could sound a bit flabby and Transition just understand the music and it originated from that. Why did we switch? It's not even a switch, but you've just got to see what else is out there and if you only use one place, then you don't know what the others are like. We thought like maybe having a little change and we were amazed at the results. It (HES006) is just one of the best sounding records that I've heard as far as quality is concerned. It got pressed in Holland, but I'm not sure how much of an effect the pressing has on the sound. Obviously the pressing plant affects it a bit, but I think that it's more down to the mastering. The guy who did it was Helmut, in fact. I'm not sure how many people actually use him, but we used him for our dubs. It's almost like when you go to D&M, it's like a doctor's appointment. You sit down in your chair and they ask you "what are we doing today, then?" You have a little consultation and then talk about what you want it to sound like. It's very much a two-way process, he did his thing. We said "change this", "do it a bit more like this," and we'd probably go round in circles a couple of times and eventually get a result before doing the cutting. It was a fantastic experience though – really, really good.

Will you be using them in the future, or maybe seeing which mastering house suits what style of release?

Kind of, yeah. I don't really know. For our next one we're trying out Precise and seeing how that goes. We're definitely going to use Transition again, and I think it's just a case of having a wonder around and see what's happening. We were really happy with D&M for #6, so I think we'll use them again as well. It's a very important thing though, mastering. You could spend £500 on 500 white labels and just chuck them out, but mastering, as you can hear, affects the record so much. I've bought a lot of records in my time where the mastering isn't great and it just sounds flat because of that, or there's distorted hi-hats. I think mastering, especially on vinyl is crucial, as it can affect the vibe, or the feeling of the tune so much. I definitely think that different tunes suit certain mastering houses.

Is vinyl really important to you?

Yeah, I think that something hasn't really come out until it's come out on vinyl. Just the amount of time and money that you have to invest to put something out on vinyl, I think that's the ultimate thing about it. Even though there are quite a few bad things about vinyl, it's just a good medium and I love it and buy loads of it. I think it's actually doing quite well at the moment, especially in our scene. Pressing plants are closing down and things like that, but from where I'm standing, everyone's doing quite well for themselves.

What's coming up on the horizon for Hessle?

We will have a new twelve early this year, and there are a couple of other ideas but nothing 100% yet. It would be nice to be sitting on a load of finished copies of something, but unfortunately we're just working it out at the moment. We should have quite a few new bits and bobs out next year though. I think that the last few releases have been quite anthemic, but I think that maybe with the next ones... I mean that with our label, it was the first release for TRG, the first release for Pangaea, the first release for Untold, and I think that we're going to do quite a bit more of that and bring some new names in with some fresh stuff. Nothing 100% though.

How did you find working with Soul Jazz?

Yeah, they were wicked. I got to know them through their Sounds Of The Universe shop, and I'd been selling them a few records, maybe even some Hessle stuff. They heard some of my stuff on Rinse, asked me for a CD and it all went from there. I spent a long time getting a few tunes together and was really happy with them, and they ended up signing a few of them. One of them ("Every Next Day") came out on the Box Of Dub CD, and then they asked me to do a full single. They're just really professional, they've got a really amazing discography and great taste in music, and it was a real honour. There are a lot of people who got into me through hearing it recommended in Sounds Of The Universe, as they've got such a good reputation. I've done two twelve inches for them which both seem to have been quite well received, and they're a great platform for me.

You moved to France recently, right? How are you finding it there?

It's just part of my degree. It was a bit strange at first, moving out here, but I'm not staying out here the rest of my life! I'm here to work, and learn a language. All of the people here in Lille are extremely friendly and there are a lot of music people who are interested in dubstep...

Do you not feel a little detached to the UK scene, living out there?

It's probably healthy to be honest, because I'm not really very far away in France. I'm only an hour and twenty minutes away so I have been back a few times to play FWD>> and go up to Leeds. It's nice actually to be somewhere a bit different, and I think it's good to have a bit of distance. Then again with the internet, I can have the DJs on AIM, e-mail people, and use Skype for the distributor and there's also Myspace, so the technology has really opened it up. If anything it makes it better, as I can just go back on Sundays to FWD>> and meet up with friends in a really nice atmosphere. So far so good, anyway.

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