Features I by I 19.04.14

“Engage the inner neck-snap”: Stray on the freedom of writing at d’n’b tempo, hip hop and mindfulness against neurosis


As part of dBridge‘s boundary-pushing Exit Records, London-based Stray has quickly become one-to-watch.

Much has been written in the past year about the freedom certain producers have found in the 160 to 170bpm range – including Mark Pritchard, who told us all about it last summer. Among those responsible for this newfound sense of excitement in drum’n’bass is dBridge and his Exit Records label, whose growing stable of artists are arguably leading the charge.

Among these is London producer Stray, who in recent years has risen through the ranks of the d’n’b scene to become a favourite with fans and those enjoying the more varied experiments coming out of the stable’s preferred tempo range. He’s also been notable for delving more into half-time hip hop productions, such as the track ‘Matchsticks’ on his last release for Exit.

With a new EP, Chatterbox, due out on the label on April 21, we caught up with the young producer over email to talk about the freedom he finds in the tempo range, his avowed love of hip hop, and more. Alongside this chat Stray also gave us an unreleased track, ‘Triangles’, inspired by the Autonomic vibe that dBridge pioneered  – you can hear that below.

Your new EP is a varied affair, pulling at the possibilities of d’n’b. In previous discussions with Mark Pritchard, Om Unit and others, a reference kept coming up to an inherent freedom that lies in the 80-90bpm (and 160-180bpm) axis. How would you describe this freedom or the possibilities you feel within that tempo range?

There can surely be a real degree of freedom to writing at any tempo range, but the freedom felt writing at 80-90/160-180 has perhaps only more recently been somewhat re-discovered. For me, this freedom manifests itself as a joyful blurring of lines between d’n’b, jungle, footwork and hip hop.

I think it’s safe to say that a huge number of d’n’b fans and producers initially came into the genre either through metal or hip hop (think tempo range, mood, use of samples). I fall into the latter category. So the real joy here is a feeling of going back to your roots and feeling with each track that you write, you’re being a bit more true to yourself and your musical upbringing without having to stick to a set of rules as to what will and what won’t work on the dancefloor.

Almost everything I made before around 2008 was basically wonky hip hop instrumentals, and I really love that I can now go back to doing the same on occasion (albeit with some brushed up engineering that I’ve picked up as a drum’n’bass producer). I tried playing bits of hip hop here and there in my DJ sets at drum’n’bass nights a few years ago and it didn’t go down so well. Nowadays it does. This alone really helps me to enjoy playing DJ sets.

How do you go about trying to exploit it?

It’s all about coaxing people by keeping some common thread between what’s familiar to many and whatever new sound it is you’re trying to push with a track. For example, a standard intro/build/drop structure to a wonky, half-time, danceable hip hop track. Which then picks up with a vocal and a shaker, say. It’s not something I explicitly think about when writing, it should obviously happen naturally, but I guess there’s some subconscious awareness that this fusion of ideas will help attain that magic formula of familiarity and accessibility coupled with the gratification of innovation.

Does working with Exit give you a sense of being able to further indulge ideas and possibilities considering the label’s been such a great testing ground for producers like yourself?

Releasing with Exit feels great at the moment, there are so many exciting and like-minded producers on the label who are experimenting with the sound. I think that dBridge has managed to cultivate that kind of friendly competitive environment (where producers are trying to outdo each other) that can be so healthy to the progression of a sound.

Being such a fast genre, there’s naturally always been various efforts to slow things down throughout the history of drum’n’bass (by which I mean exploring ~85 bpm). Perhaps most notably in recent times was the Autonomic movement that started around 2008/2009. As far as I’m concerned, a track like ‘Matchsticks’ was essentially just a somewhat more dancefloor-oriented effort at doing the same thing.

There are always going to be tons of d’n’b producers who love a lot of other music, myself included, who will all periodically grow weary of the genre. That’s to be expected. The question is whether you jump ship entirely (and I don’t want people to read into this that I’m trying to slate anyone who may have been perceived as doing this) or whether you try and shape what it means to be a drum’n’bass producer insofar as what can be made and played out at a so called ‘drum’n’bass’ night to a happy crowd.

Talking to someone the other day, we hit on this idea that life has tension, and that music that somehow exploits this hard-to-define concept of tension is the one that feels most exciting (for example, early sampling experiments in the ’90s where by virtue of pitching something you’d make it go out of tune, creating this sensation in the listener).

Arguably d’n’b exploited this idea of tension in its early days too, and w0 years on it’s now a case of finding new ways to access it, to put your finger on it. As you’re part of a new generation of d’n’b producers, when was the last time you felt this kind of excitement in music and how do you as a musician try to find it for your own work?

I take pleasure in keeping a mindfulness about me that can act as a natural anecdote to neurosis – as in, to question what really matters and to avoid wasting mental energy providing negative emotion towards things and people that don’t. People often fail to credit ‘playful’ music with the power to cultivate this sort of philosophical discipline. Engage the inner neck-snap.

You’ve gone on record to state that you’ve sometimes been too harsh with what you let out into the world, keeping your work close to you and not out in the open, as is becoming increasingly the trend with the internet and rise of accessibility to music making tools and knowledge. What would be your advice to someone starting up today who’s dealing with this sort of dilemma and issues?

My views on this have changed a little bit – I think there is just more than one way of going about things these days. Some people are Soundcloud sensations with tens of thousands of plays, sometimes this translates to DJ income and sometimes it doesn’t. Some people are completely silent online apart from throwing up the odd snippet here and there, and people love their shit. Again, sometimes this translates to DJ income for people and sometimes it doesn’t. Some people are really active on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Likewise, this can either prove meaningless to your career or in some cases it can greatly help or hinder it.

I guess my point is not to get too worried about the correct protocol for how to act online. Focus on the music and try and keep an objective ear of your work. I get sent so much music that I listen to and just think, ‘I have no idea how someone could have made this, listened to it, and not realised how bad it sounds even when directly compared to the exact type of track its trying to emulate’. So clearly objective listening like this is easier said than done, in which case fuck it – fling some bits up online and see what happens. Maybe make an alias, have a Soundcloud, gauge interest, then ‘start again’ with a new alias to make that, ‘oh, who the fuck is this guy, he’s made two tracks and they are stupidly tight considering how long he’s been around’ impression on people. How’s that for an idea?

You’ve mentioned Busta and Q-Tip as favourite MCs of yours. What did you make of their recent mixtape? And which are better – the Busta and Q-Tip of previous decades or the rap legends of today?

The Abstract and The Dragon? I loved it but I’m pretty certain there isn’t really any new music on there, is there? Either way, what I will say is that part of the reason I respect those guys so much is that they’ve stayed on fire right through to 2014. Right now, I’d be just as happy to stick ‘Twerk It’ on as I would ‘Wooo Ha’.

And to close it off, what’s the last album you listened to and what did you make of it?

New Teebs record on Brainfeeder. Lovely as expected, though not quite as instantly gratifying a listen as his previous two. I’d say this will probably prove to be a good thing as I get my ears sunk into it more.

For more on the renewed vitality in drum’n’bass, be sure to read our full-length feature from last summer about how drum’n’bass got its groove back.



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