As Jay-Z (almost) famously said, the rulers are back. Horsepower Productions, progenitors of the dubstep movement and a group revered in UK underground music circles, will return this month with their first new album in six years.
The group’s past two albums, To The Rescue and In Fine Style stand as two of the most original and satisfying full-lengths to come out of the UK garage explosion, and helped bridge the gap between the silken, poppy sound of early 2-step and the roughness of grime and then dubstep, drawing inspiration not just from heavy-duty reggae but also techno, breakbeat and jungle.
Nassis and Lev Jnr would eventually leave the group, and Benny Ill operated Horsepower slow and solo for half a decade, before recruiting newcomer Jay King for the ‘Kingstep’ 12″ on Tempa last year. For their new LP, titled Quest for the Sonic Bounty, Nassis and Lev Jnr return, making Horsepower a four-piece.
Joe Muggs caught up with Benny Ill to discuss a revitalised Horsepower, the raised profile of dubstep and more.
How are you doing Benny?
“Good… good… just finishing up some bits for the bonus track on the album, which is Katy B doing a new vocal based on one of our old tracks, ‘Classic Deluxe’ from the first album – and doing a lot of promotion.”
So you finding there’s more press interest this time round? Is the raised profile of dubstep impacting on you too?
“[exhalation] Yeah. Without doubt I would say. I mean, we’ve been working on this album two years so no-one could predict what would happen when it came out, what the climate would be or whatever. So we just carried on and did it without much thought of the publicity situation, and it’s just kind of convenient for us that things are like they are. Definitely we’ve had more promo off this than we did off the first two, I mean we did have a fair bit of magazine coverage on the old albums but there was nothing like all the internet and radio interest and all of the stuff that’s happening now.”
You say you couldn’t predict what’s happened in terms of dubstep’s high profile in the past two years – but you’ve been fairly well at the heart of things with connections to DMZ, FWD>>, Tempa etc, has each move towards mainstream acceptance surprised you, then?
“Well… I always knew it was a good thing, I always knew there was potential, and what with it being based around the Big Apple people there was always a strong thing there. So I just knew that was totally a bunch of people that was diverse, and that had a strong connection, and that could definitely be big – so it doesn’t surprise me at all on that level to see what’s come of it – but the specifics, where it’s going to reach to, what it’s going to change to: that’s what’s hard to predict. But it can go in this direction or that direction, but because it’s based around those original people that were magnetised to the Big Apple place and to the people there, it’s still got that certain something that was there from the outset.”
Well it does seem to have grown in a different way to previous movements – if you compare it to jungle or garage, they kind of exploded then burned out quite quickly, whereas dubstep has been all about the steady growth…
“Yeah… yeah, there’s no knowing how these things work, and obviously there’s quite a lot of luck involved – I mean if you look at La Roux, or at the Katy B things, those are clearly two very talented artists, so there’s an element of luck in the fact that they connected with dubstep and brought it to that pop audience, you can’t overlook how important that is. Magnetic Man have worked hard, though, to build and reach out to more people with vocal tunes and all of that…”
But rather than just reaching towards the mainstream, it’s expanded in all directions, so 2005-2006 it was the techno and drum’n’bass scenes that started to pick up on it, and it’s kept spreading…
“Definitely, then you get the hip-hop guys, the kind of alternative scene like Gaslamp Killer and all of those, they picked up on it, started playing all these records out of London and having that affect their sound.”
And does that influence work both ways – like, you’ll hear someone in a completely different scene play something of yours and it’ll make you hear it in a different way?
“Not so much really, heh. The one thing that was really interesting was a while back and someone told me, oh this band have done a live version of the tune ‘Classic Deluxe’, some band out in South America, can’t remember their name now – but we were like, “oh yeah, this is bad man”, getting something like that was inspirational, you know what I mean? It was pretty good knowing someone was hearing our tunes as a piece of music that they could play and interpret in their own way – and that was just at the time we were deciding on getting started with the new album, so having a fresh take like that was inspirational… Yeah, there were a few things like that around that time that made us get into it properly.”
“Yeah yeah, we like it to be a bit of a story, a bit colourful, that’s all a part of it.”
So what else set your creative juices flowing then?
“Well funnily enough, the Katy B vocal thing. I’d just come back from the States, and by a fluke chance I ended up the next night after getting back going to Cargo. This must’ve been 2007, 2008, not sure. Anyway, I’d just come back, I’d gone down to Cargo with N-Type, and this singer comes on – she goes “OK we’re going to do this thing, it’s a beat you might’ve heard” and, y’know, she sings it. I knew nothing about her, nothing about this version, and I just thought “wicked!”, it really works, really fits it. So things like that is what inspired us to think, hmm, we can still fit in here, we can do something new that will work here.”
Well you definitely resisted the temptation to chase any new rhythms or trends or anything, that’s for sure – you did a “Horsepower-sounding” album.
“Well, you say that, but there’s a lot of collaborations on there – there’s the Lee “Scratch” Perry remix that we did, there’s a track with Loefah, there’s a track with a guy called Orson out of Germany who runs the Version nights out there, and then there’s two, three tracks with Jay King, one with Matt [Matt HP aka Lev Jr], so our production team is kind of split in different ways, it’s a lot of different approaches to production.”
There’s certain sonic touches that are consistent throughout, though – the film samples being the most obvious. Are they part of a deliberate attempt to aim for a sense of drama?
“Yeah yeah, we like it to be a bit of a story, a bit colourful, that’s all a part of it. The film dialogue is part of it, but we try and do it so there’s the potential for it to go differently each time, so when you go between the tracks it tells a different tale – it’s all part of the quest, you know?”
Ha, so it’s like an interactive adventure?
“Well to a degree yes. There’s a whole bunch of literature that comes with it, there’s something over 4,000 words on the cover and that, there’s quite a complex theory of it going on behind what you hear, quite a lot that went on in the inspirational phases of it.”
So you did a fair bit of talking and pulling ideas together as well as just getting sounds together for this?
“Yeah, the conceptualising bit is led by a theme in each particular case.”
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So was the “quest” idea your starting point?
“Ah no, that’s just the name of it man… It’s related to, how shall I put it, sample usage being a form of piracy, so that’s the relevance to the whole theme of the album. But the samples, the way they’re used, the mood of each track, all of that – it’s all tied up with the narrative that’s written on the record sleeve, there’s a little theme for each track, I think each one aims to take you somewhere. It’s not like some big concept album working out all philosophical ideas or anything like that, but it definitely ties together the sounds and the ideas behind them, I’d say that much.”
And Tempa were fine with you mapping out a complex album like this? They didn’t say “just give us a load of wobbling dancefloor bangers” then?
“Heh, no, they were cool with whatever we wanted to do. And actually that was another inspiration: the fact that Tempa were wanting to re-press our older stuff, the first ever 12” which we did, and Tempa’s first ever release, Tempa 001 – so we dragged that out of the vaults, remastered it and all that. So their decision to re-release that, and our other ones later on, that again made us feel like we still had something that we could do. ”
So much of that early stuff fits with the resurgence of garage-influenced rhythms that’s been happening recently – do you hear early Horsepower played out much?
“I have heard one or two people play ‘When You Hold Me’ from Tempa 001, yeah, notably that one will just crop up as standard. But it depends, because if I’m there and I’m on the bill then another DJ might spin one or two if he’s got them in his bag, just a sort of little tribute thing. It’s interesting to have reached the point where I’m in that position for other artists – not that I see it that much, though, [laughs]. I do see our tracks listed in mixtapes quite a lot more, when people put together little tapes of “classics of dubstep” from 2000 to whatever. And surprisingly some of them, I do think they’ve aged pretty well, they still sound reasonably fresh – particularly that Tempa 001, we put a lot of effort into that track and it’s good to look back and feel like that effort was worth something.”
“We’re at home in clubs – and home is where the heart is!”
Have you been constantly DJing yourself, keeping a presence on the scene as it were?
“Yeah, pretty much. We’ve always had other projects on the go, there’s a hip hop thing we do, we’ve got other stuff going on like a track for Katy B’s album, some other remixes – and I went to America for a fair while, to manage a studio out there and partially to get myself better-acquainted with the recording side of the business. Obviously I knew about that but the more practice you get, and the more general experience you get the better you understand recording techniques and that’s something that we wanted to bring into it, to improve on that level.”
Well there’s no doubt that it’s got a load of production finesse, and a lot of people are picking up on that – but are you conscious that you also have to avoid losing the rawness and immediacy that is a part of being soundsystem music?
“Well, you know, the Lee Perry “Excercising” thing is a bit more hi-fi, a bit more softened and a bit stereo kind of thing, a bit of a headphones tune maybe. There was another version that On-U Sound put out on their twelve that was more of a club mix, the drums were a bit louder, the guitars had more effects on them and so on, so there was that more of a soundsystem thing – but the actual original original mix that we did, that wasn’t on that On-U record, is what features on the album.”
But do you find you have to consciously keep true to your roots in club music rather than making “headphones tunes”?
“Ahh no, no, it’s part of our lives, innit, we’re at home in clubs – and home is where the heart is! But we all have our inspirations, and ours come from a multitude of places; a lot of ours are from 70s and 80s music, not just from soundsystem culture but from recording culture, all these classic albums of the past, the classic recordings in the big studios, all that is part of our sound, it’s not just one thing or another.”
When I spoke to Zed Bias for FACT recently, he said something similar, and that he’s into trying to recapture the “big album” idea of the 1970s and 80s.
“Well that’s brilliant isn’t it? I think that’s something every artist should aspire to; obviously people detract from the ’70s and ’80s depending on their taste, but money-wise, that’s when serious money was spent on recording and mixing records, and it’s fractional now in comparison nowadays, even for mainstream music – so that’s a golden era right there, you know?”
The counter-movement to that, though, is that technology makes really high-end recording techniques available to people who could never have had access to them before – do you think we’ll reach a point where people could make the equivalent of a Michael Jackson album or whatever on small budgets?
“Yeah, all the time the recording process is advancing in its own way, and yeah it’s available to people – everyone’s got computers, you can get the plugins, and if you know what you’re doing you can do a lot of fancy stuff. But only if you take your time to build your mix, if you can afford to take the time then you can do it. But of course a lot of fancy outboard gear that you kind of need as well, that aint so attainable for people – but even that is getting that way: you can buy single channels at a time of expensive gear, you don’t have to have the big old mixing desk console any more, they sell those individual channels and you put them in a rack unit. So it’s a lot more affordable, a grand or something instead of a hundred grand. And people are resourceful aren’t they? Or that’s how they should be anyway, they should know how to use what they’ve got to the fullest of their ability. If you know a way of combining a bit of outboard gear with the computers to its advantage then there’s no reason you can’t do something really special, but you’ve got to work it really hard you know?”
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Damn It’ (2009)
And is there anyone in the current crop of UK bass musicians who are pushing things in interesting ways, who are making the technology they have work to their advantage?
“Ahh, Mala definitely – I’m always behind Mala, man. He’s a superb producer, I’m into mostly anything he’s behind, and the Deep Medi label is really broad-reaching, so many different voyages into different styles, but always with this absolute quality of sound, I think that’s really healthy. Obviously the people I always mention are Magnetic Man and the individual producers that are part of that, they’ve all got it in them to go the whole way as recording artists, but they’ve all good good personalities and all that charm and that kind of shit, hehe.”
Well that goes right back to what you said about the original circle of dubstep people: all three of Magnetic Man are able to combine what you might call star quality with remaining down to earth; they have total willingness to embrace mainstream ambition, but keep one foot in the underground at all times: Skream will still do his tunes with dBridge, or dark tunes for smaller labels, or whatever.
“Definitely, and I think it has to be that way, it gives them a bit of separation, and it’s only a good thing – it aint gonna be healthy if it only goes into one region or another, whatever that region might be. If it all goes underground, then it’ll just slope off rapidly in a downwards fashion, but of course if it goes all to the commercial side then it’ll fry, it’ll burn itself out, so it needs to sustain those dual outlets, in fact the more outlets the better. If people are gonna put vocal music over whatever beats, then it’s going to be poppier, and it’s naturally going to draw attention to the singer, the personality, the imagery and the whole shebang, so it can’t only be about the producer and the sound, and that has advantages as well as disadvantages.”
Do you think the dubstep generation have learned from the lessons of drum & bass and garage, in particular, where D&B maybe tried too hard to keep itself underground, and garage had this big split between the slick, housey side and the grime kids?
“Well we’ve all seen it happen, garage went one way, drum & bass went the other, we know this – but maybe if people are clever then dubstep can steer the middle path that avoids what they did, I dunno. Definitely being not too underground and not too commercial is key to it, but I also think development is key, if you listen to dubstep over the years it’s developed all the while, the styles just keep coming, it’s nothing like it was two years ago now, and before that it was different again – so it hasn’t been given a chance to stagnate. The people leading it are trailblazers, and remain that, and that’s how it survives, I think. It was too easy for drum & bass and garage both to a degree to rest on their laurels, to go “ok this is our sound, boom-tish-boomboom-tish, that’s the rhythm we’re gonna be on from now on”, so yep the development aspect is key to it. So when people come out and say “ah this aint a dubstep record here, this Deep Medi thing, this isn’t dubstep” that’s healthy right there, that’s the sign that the people at the forefront are leading by their own development, by their own changes. That’s key to it, man, if you can still keep the underground people happy with the new and dope and fresh developments that are happening, then you can maintain the commercial side of it too and know that won’t stagnate things. The detractors will always complain, each year they announce that it’s all dead or that so-and-so sound has killed it, but they’re short sighted – they’re not looking at the big picture of it. They should look back, they should see that what they’re complaining about is part of how it’s always been – of like minded people saying “we can do this differently”, of taking a new influence from something else, of wanting to bring change. It’s subversive as much as it’s creative, you know?”