In a short space of time, Alexander Nut‘s gone from the guy who did the Saturday afternoon show on leading London pirate station Rinse FM to one of the city – and the world – ‘s most hyped DJs. That transition owes much to Rinse 08, the CD he recently compiled for the station’s label.
A 22 track mix of abstracted funk, off-kilter hip-hop, house, dubstep, soul and everything in between, it’s arguably the best CD that Rinse have put out. As Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark states in the sleeve notes, “nothing stings like a sucker punch”, and with Rinse 08, Nut’s come from the shadows to show up past Rinse CD-curating luminaries of London’s bass scene – Geeneus, Skepta and Skream to name three – with a release that’s not just thrillingly current, but also has clear lasting power and a timeless feel that past Rinse CDs have lacked. But all this hype is long overdue; Nut’s been pushing the likes of Hudson Mohawke and Morgan Zarate before it was fashionable to do so, and shows no signs of falling behind the curve – every day he introduces new heads to likes of Mr. Beatnick, 2Tall and Nadsroic, and his Eglo imprint is dedicated to putting out material by new artists like Floatingpoints, Fatima and Shuanise.
So where’s Nut been hiding all these years? In typical FACT recession fashion, we took Alexander out to Soho Square for a can of beer in the park, and talked his background in Wolverhampton, skate videos and hip-hop culture, and his constant quest to join the dots between the disparate – but acutely linked – music he plays.
Nut: “…It’s funny, ’cause when I was at school I was listening to Smif-n-Wessun, Slick Rick, A Tribe Called Quest, and that was laughable. You know what I mean, people were like “who the fuck is this?” Even though Biggie had just started to come out – people weren’t listening to that [in Wolves]. If anything, they were listening to drum and bass.”
That’s weird – cause when I was at school in London everyone started off being into hip-hop, then got into drum and bass when they were like sixteen.
“Thing is, in the West Midlands, there’s not… well, in Birmingham there’s a little scene, but street music in Wolves was all drum and bass – at least until the garage thing later on. Snoop was probably the first hip-hop artist kids at my school were into – the street kids were just like “Slick Rick, who the fuck is that?”. And I used to skate too, I was into skate culture when I was like twelve – going to old sports shops and finding old Sambas and Gazelles and all that shit, you know what I mean? I’d walk around the town centre and people would be like “where the fuck d’you get those trainers from?” People used to freak out and shit.
“Street culture in Wolves was more ragga and drum and bass, the garage thing didn’t come ’til later – not ’til about 96. I’d have been fourteen and fifteen when everybody started to catch up and listen to hip-hop and that. I mean bear in mind Wolverhampton’s a pretty backwards place…”
So when you started DJing hip-hop, were all your mates doing drum and bass?
“I didn’t have any mates who DJed. My first initiation into being around people actually doing stuff was through graffiti – I used to go cycling round the city looking for graffiti ’cause that was about the most exciting thing there was for me to see. Obviously Goldie’s from Wolves, and the original B-Boy crew were from Wolves, so there is like a hip-hop history there. My friend Tempa introduced me to graffiti artists; I was like thirteen and they’d have been about thirty. So I got more into the graffiti side of things, and I would sneak into nights with them and meet DJs through that.
“So come about sixteen, I’m sneaking into clubs listening to people like Daddy Gee, Mushroom from Massive Attack, Ashley Beadle… there was a night called Stump Juice, and it had these DJs called the Capoeira Twins. And they used to go through funk, soul, jazz, hip-hop, all sorts; and that definitely formed the basis of my DJ style. ‘Cause I wanted to play there, you know what I mean? Even though it’d closed by the time I was eighteen or nineteen, all I’d think about is that I wanted to make an eclectic mix – a set I could play there. And also both my brothers skated, so skate videos had a huge influence on me – you’d be hearing everything from soul, jazz, to hip-hop and what not, so I’d be hunting down all those records. I’ve always had hip-hop as my foundation, but overall it’s eclectic.”
Do you still reckon that applies now? ‘Cause that’s the vibe I get – not just from your sets but also the Eglo thing, the way it branches out into soul, etc…
“It’s funny, ’cause some people it freaks them out a little bit. I remember doing the launch night for the CD [Rinse 08] – I’d got really positive feedback, so I had a look on Dubstep Forum, and although it was mostly positive, you had people saying “I can’t believe he thinks you can mix this tune with that tune and it goes together…””
That’s what I liked about that night to be honest…
“My attention span’s too short I guess.”
I dunno what people want, ’cause you have to be a pretty good DJ to go to Plastic People, where the dancefloor’s so dubstep focused, and play [Class of 3000’s] ‘Banana Zoo’ and have everyone shocking out…
“That was pretty nuts – I mean that was a cheeky move. ‘Cause I love that tune, and I always listen to it, and Fatima was there with me saying I should play it that night. And I’m thinking fucking hell, I’ll get lynched, I’ll get tomatoes thrown at me and that. But it got to a point in the night where it just seemed right to drop it – like it made sense; it’s got that 808, it’s got the bass, big kicks, the sub-bass rumbling underneath it. I looked round and saw Benga going crazy, so I thought I’m alright…”
So what were you doing by the time you left Wolverhampton?
“Well the move to London was partly due to the fact that… Wolverhampton had ended me really; it’d ended any creative juices I had. I used to paint – I still do – and I make a bit of music and stuff, but by the time I was at my peak, when I should’ve doing loads of stuff in Wolves, it had turned into a proper ghost town. All the club nights had closed down, and it was a really violent place. It’s unfortunately to say, but nothing really goes on there now… It used to be really cool, there used to be loads of underground spots, but by the time I should’ve been doing my thing, it had dried up.
“And a few of the DJs I knew, who I looked up to, they were just jumped up fucking cokeheads – they weren’t interested in bringing anyone through. I was just working in factories; you know what I mean, cutting steel, making fruit machines and doing roof tiling and stuff like that, and it nearly ended me man. It was like “alright then, this is the life for me – just gotta get through, make money, forget about what I actually wanted to do…”
“Just about last year, the one remaining record shop there – Ruby Red Records, which has been there since I was a baby – that closed down. If you walk past Stump Juice now there’s bullet holes on the floor with chalk; you can’t put nights on there anymore. As soon as something opens up it closes down. So all you have is a beer and football hooligan culture. I mean the reggae thing’s still there. The Skyline, that’s all fine, but much as I love reggae I’m not a reggae DJ, so there’s nothing I could do there, you know? [laughs]”
So you moved to London…
“Yeah, and as I got here the grime thing was really kicking in, and I found that really fucking exciting. Back in Wolves I’d heard a few little bits, but back then the MCing was pretty fucking terrible, and that put me off. But I’d heard More Fire [Crew], Wiley, Pay As You Go and stuff – and it had planted little seeds with me. So I’d moved to London, and I was living in East, and seeing Lord of the Mics and stuff, that blew my mind – Scratchy, Kano, D Double and that… I loved it. And at the same time, I was going to [UK hip-hop parties] Kung Fu. But that UK hip-hop thing became really ignorant. Like when I first heard Wiley, I thought he was one of the best MCs that I’d ever fucking heard. And all the big UK hip-hop guys would diss him, and say he was rubbish. And I’m thinking “hang on, you just do Nas impressions…”
It’s funny, ’cause I had the same thing. Like that’s what turned me off UK hip-hop – people would talk about grime, saying the production’s shit, but they were listening to stuff that just sounded like Pete Rock.
“That’s it – if you’re gonna do that you can’t diss somewhere making really original sounds; just coming out of nowhere. I believe you can make whatever music you want – like as long as you’re being genuine to yourself, that’ll come through. But music that reflects an environment, or a time and space, it’s got more substance to it a lot of the time. It’s more likely to connect with people – to trigger their emotions. Like that’s where my enjoyment from music comes from – it’s not a superficial or stylistic thing.”
Where were you DJing out in London?
“Well I used to DJ under the name Peanut, right? And I was doing hip-hop sets, and working a little bit of grime in there, and you could kind of get away with it; going from mainstream hip-hop and R’n’B to more UK street sounds – it works. But at the same time it was doing my head in a bit; it wasn’t completely me – I wanted to get pretty deep; a bit abstract, a bit challenging. ‘Cause I like to listen to music that challenges me, and I don’t like playing on shit soundsystems either. The time I stopped, I played a place called Ruby Blue, which is near Leicester Square…”
Mate, that club’s fucking horrible.
“Well after that night, I was like “fuck this, I’m never doing this shit again. It’s not for me.” When I was at home DJing I’d be expressing myself – trying to make connections, and express myself, and my personality and my taste, but when I was doing traditional party sets it was more in awe of my idols, and the DJs I respected. When I was a kid I wanted to copy Funkmaster Flex, but at the end of the day, I’m not Funkmaster Flex, I’m not from New York, and I’m not DJing at The Tunnel. It’s good that I can do a decent impersonation, but that’s not me, I had to be myself.”
So around that time did you try to reinvent yourself as a DJ?
“Yeah, people were ringing me, asking me “Peanut, can you come and play?”, and I’d be like “nah, I can’t do it anymore, it’s bringing me down”. And Peanut was just a nickname I’d had since I was a kid – I never chose it myself – and it felt a bit like that with my DJing. So I killed the whole Peanut character. My name’s Alexander, so I just put the Nut on the end, and started making mixtapes. I made a series called Something In The Shape Of, and some called We Love Radio. I probably made about 200 copies of each, just handing them out to friends, and people I wanted to connect with – music heads, pretty girls. So that was the start of it really – handing out mixtapes that were a genuine reflection of what I wanted to do. The Something In The Shape Of ones were hip-hop and grime, and bass culture stuff, and the We Love Radio ones were more Dilla-esque stuff. ‘Cause at the time, I didn’t quite know how to connect the two – we’re talking like 2004, so I hadn’t heard any Flying Lotus yet…”
Yeah, it’s only in the last few years that those dots seem to have been connected…
“It’s great though, ’cause it’s all come together naturally. Like I say, at the time I had the hip-hop and soul thing, and the bass culture thing, and I knew there was a relationship there, and that it correlated, but I didn’t quite know how to present it, and I didn’t want to confuse people by playing Sa Ra followed by Kode 9 – at the time, it would’ve fucked with people’s heads and they wouldn’t have listened to it. I think it all comes back to the roots of where that music comes from, and how they relate to each other… But it started to come together naturally, with people like Benji B.
“I didn’t listen to Benji ’til about two years ago. When 1xtra first came about, I used to listen to it all the time, like Skitz and Rodney P and that, and I felt the shows were going down the pan. And then I looked at Benji’s playlist, and straight away I was like “fucking Hell man, this geezer’s on it!” I didn’t know who he was. And then I listened to it, and realised there was someone else out there on a similar tip. His show was a massive influence – even if it was just a matter of seeing someone on there who was on a similar tip to me, it gives you more confidence, you know? It was just nice; a familiar face doing a similar thing.
“I think it’s part of a series of things – you pick things up as you go along, and it all becomes part of your character. So like I say, Funkmaster Flex would’ve been the first thing, then I used to listen to loads of soundclash mixes; the whole Jamaican style of DJing, dropping ten bars and wheeling the tune up. So I was drawing influences from Mighty Crown and all them, and even people like MK and stuff. Actually, a major thing was watching Plastician – I used to go to FWD when it was on a Thursday, and that was a big change in my life – hearing the Plastic soundsystem for the first time…”
Plastician in that period is still my favourite DJ ever.
“His sets from that time were just… I mean, he’s still a great DJ, but he’s on a real tearing the club up kind of thing – he’s got a fanbase, and he can go anywhere and blast them with stuff, and people go nuts, which is understandable. But at the time, when he was lesser known, his sets were real musical journeys…”
There’s a two hour set with him and Skepta on Rinse from early 2006, and it’s ridiculous – he’s playing everything from Slew Dem plates to Digital Mystikz stuff, half the tunes on it I don’t think even came out…
“That was a big thing – Plastician, Skream and Digital Mystikz are big influences on me from going to FWD. It was really dubbed out at the time, and as I say, I had a bit of a reggae background, so I really connected with that. When [dubstep] got industrial and metal-sounding in the same way that drum ‘n’ bass did – really in your face… Like, I appreciate it, but I don’t want to play that stuff, it doesn’t interest me. But yeah, Plastician, as a DJ he fucking influenced me so much – those sets, the mixing was seamless…”
So how did the Rinse thing come about?
“That came about – well, I’ve really gotta give it to this guy, Charles Holgate [MC Nomad, also Tempa/Ammunition’s PR]. He’s an old friend of mine, and he was in contact with Plastician and all those guys. He was getting my mixtapes, and coming to some shows I was doing, and he knew the kind of tip I was on. And again, this was before things really blew up with LuckyMe and that – that wave, wonky, whatever you wanna call it. At the same time, I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but he saw it, and said I should give a mixtape to Rinse. Straight away I was like “Rinse, they aren’t gonna fucking have me on Rinse!”. Obviously I really wanted to be, but I didn’t think it would ever happen…”
What’s mad with you and Rinse… Well, it’s two things. ‘Cause first, it’s the only hip-hop show on the station – all you used to get before was Target playing the odd bit during the day, or some of the morning guys. And second, Rinse is so localised and synomonous with London, you’re the only person with a show that’s really global…
“Yeah, but at the same time, because Rinse influence the world so much, it’s become a global thing. Like if you listen to any of the dubstep guys – I mean the funky stuff’s still pretty UK based, but if you listen to the dubstep shows, everyone’s playing Martyn; it’s not UK-centric playlists. I guess they’ve brought it all together – made sense of it.
“When I first spoke to Sarah, she’d heard my mixes and really liked them, and she wanted me on there, but she was a bit bemused by it – like what exactly is this guy fucking playing? So she asked me to play some more broken bits – like broken beat and that. So I just told her I would… I didn’t though, and it just turned into what it is now. Which has been a really nice journey, because as I’ve been doing it – like I don’t even know who was listening for the first few months, but as I was doing the show, everything else just fell into place at the same time… Then the whole scene started picking up – and it became acceptable to play a hip-hop tune next to a dubstep tune, and people wouldn’t question what I was doing.”
How did the [Rinse] CD happen?
“I was so happy about that. Obviously Rinse and Ammunition – they’re not fucking daft, they’ve been running things for many years; they’re major pioneers. I guess once they saw that what I was doing was making sense, and that there was a scene and a community bound to the kind of music I was playing, it was only a matter of time before they felt it was right… I mean, they’ve got all these massive DJs on the station – they could’ve done a Marcus Nasty one, ’cause funky’s massive at the moment – but they’re on it, they know their shit, they just went with it. I think they were thinking low-scale at first – that they’d do less CDs, but it took off. I’m super happy with Rinse – they didn’t take the easy option; they’ve taken a risk.”
When you were asked to do it – bearing in mind it was the first hip-hop one, and bearing in mind that you weren’t as well known as Geeneus or Skepta – how did you want to approach it? Did you have any specific aims or intentions for it?
“I wanted to keep the Rinse people happy, so I wasn’t gonna be selfish with it. It was a natural thing to do anyway, but I did keep it in line with the whole UK bass culture thing. Ultimately it’s more of a retrospective; like when they asked me to do it, I thought I could wrap up what I’ve been doing on the show for the last few years. It’s almost like a greatest hits package – like if I put those tunes on the CD, it establishes I’m down with them, but I don’t need to play them out anymore.”
“You know what, I think soul is maybe the element that connects all the dots anyway. Whether it’s house, or hip-hop, or electronica, or jazz – I think maybe the soul thing is what connects them. When I first started doing the show, because I didn’t know how I wanted to promote it, or what I wanted to call it, I used to call it sub-low soul. I used to send a little email out saying future beats and sub-low soul.”
It’s like Omar-S – there’s that whole vibe to his techno that it’s just an extension of soul.
“Yeah, and Underground Resistance, they used to call their music hi-tech jazz. It’s a similar thing – it’s techno, but to the people making it, it’s that sort of expression… Like if you’ve been listening to John Coltrane all day and then you go to make some music, even if all you’ve got is an 808 and a 303 to do it on, to you it’s still jazz I guess. It might not come out that way to everyone, ’cause they’re just hearing the electronics, but if you listen to it with the right mind, and you get it, then you’ll see it’s there…”
Likewise when Kode 9 plays a Cameo track and a Joker track in the same set, you realise that they’re coming from a similar place.
“He’s actually a lecturer of the University I was at [University of East London]. I didn’t know when I was first there, but when I returned to finish my degree obviously I knew, and had a chat with him. Hyperdub’s a big inspiration as a label, in terms of having that freedom to put out what you want and people still loving it because of the quality control you’ve maintained. I think there’s always some element that links [the releases] as well, no matter what style they are. I mean if he put out a fucking Euro-pop trance record then maybe I’d think it was a bit strange, but ’til then everything just makes sense, you know?”
What exactly’s this thing at the Roundhouse coming up?
“Well this guy Dave Gamble, who’s a fan of the show – he’s in charge of some stuff at the Turning Point festival. He asked me if I wanted to curate part of it – and this is the Eglo ethic, we turn down nothing. We’re like the A-Team – you give us a baked bin tin and we’ll turn it into a rocket launcher. So originally he was like “if you wanna DJ, and get a vocalist down and sing, let’s do it”, and then a week later we’ve got a full live band and string section and all that.
“I’m DJing, so I’m doing Floatingpoints’ drums from the turntables. We’ve got a four-piece string section, Fatima’s doing vocals and effects pedals and stuff. And Sam [Floatingpoints] is dplaying the ARP, keys, there’s a bass player – it’s something we’ve always wanted to do. Me and Floatingpoints are of the opinion… like, we like exciting new music, but at the same time we both like things on quite a grand scale. Like we could put out a Floatingpoints album tomorrow, and it would be all beat stuff; sample based stuff. But that’s not what we’re about – he’s a classically trained musician, who does scores and writes arrangements – I mean he’s a sick DJ too, but the classical thing, that’s really him. This is where we want to take it; in a few years we want to be able to tour around. And we can do it – like I told Floatingpoints about the Roundhouse thing, and within a night he’d written all the music for a four-piece string section. And for me – ’cause I manage him as well – knowing someone like that’s amazing. I mean I love mp3-based music, but if you’ve got the capability to go beyond that, let’s fucking do it.
“Because I love pop music – I love traditional songs. And as much as I love the radio show, I loved it because it was new – there was new, interesting sounds there – but I knew I wouldn’t be listening to a lot of the stuff I was playing five years down the line; it wouldn’t have the legs. So if you can’t make something really special; if you’ve just got an album of 18-bar loops I’m gonna get fucking bored of it. We can all pass beats around, and that’s fine, I love that, but I’m putting money into a record label; I’m putting all my time into it. The plan is, as regards me and Floatingpoints… Well, in five years’ time it’s gonna be fucking crazy.”