Removed from Grime’s London epicenter, Bristol’s Bandulu records have spent the past few years pushing a darker, more minimal approach to the genre’s instrumental resurgence.
Equally informed by Bristol’s sound system tradition and grime’s original wave of spare, functional riddims, the label’s vinyl-only releases have not only carved out a unique space in an increasingly competitive landscape, but have also served as a launchpad for a new generation of local producers.
While label co-founder Kahn is a known entity thanks to his success producing dubstep on labels like Deep Medi, little has been written about his production partner and label co-owner Neek. An equal hand in the label and a longtime grime listener and DJ, Neek’s influence looms large in smashes like ‘Percy’, ‘Chevy’, and ‘Can’t Look Away’. He’s also a man with much to say about functionality in dance music, genre, his hometown and plenty of other topics that make one wonder why he flies under the radar. I met him in a Bristol pub to have a chat about all the above and more.
“DJing changes how you make beats, it gives you a different insight into how the music works.”
Are you from Bristol originally?
Yeah, I’m from here and Kahn was born in London and moved here when he was a little kid.
In terms of sound system music, were you exposed to much of it when you were young?
Yeah, going to St Paul’s Carnival in Bristol at age 9 or 10 with my parents, and not really knowing much about it – that was the first time I saw a what a big sound system was. Reggae music was always a big part of my growing up and my family – my aunt and my uncle and mum were always quite into reggae and dub. I just connected with it cause I grew up with it around me, and it’s quite popular in Bristol.
That was the 90s right? Bristol was already really popping then – there was a lot of music and energy coming out of the city.
Yeah in the mid-90s, you had everything – you had all the drum & bass stuff… Actually, even 10 years ago when I started clubbing, it was still massive. It comes and it goes but it’s always there. I used to go to D&B events with a dubstep second room cause dubstep was really small then, in 2004-2005. It is to an extent, still a drum & bass city – you can pack [Bristol club] Motion with 2500 people with drum & bass.
Drum & bass is weird – it never really goes away but it doesn’t affect the outside culture either. You’d hope dubstep would get to that point 10 years from now, at least.
Definitely, for Bristol – it’s just so tied into the city and its history, it’ll never go away.
So at the start, how did you get involved in music then?
For the DJing side of it: When I was growing up, my uncle was a DJ and he always had turntables in his flat, so I always knew what they were, but I didn’t really get into mixing and buying records till I was 15 or so. A couple of people around my area got turntables and we started buying a bit of everything. They were buying some jungle, I was buying grime records cause that was what I was listening to on MP3 at home.
So I’d buy odd bits of grime, odd bits of jungle and d’n’b, and then when dubstep came in I started buying that around 2005. I think that was my way in, just mutual friends all into the similar sort of dance music. Plus being in Bristol we had Rooted Records so we could go and they’d have everything up front, which made for a lot of new music to sift through and take in. Bristol’s a good place to be from if you want to be exposed to good music at a young age.
You said you started listening to grime quite early, was that common here? A lot of the people I spoke to in Bristol said it was quite London-centric and didn’t fully pop off here.
I didn’t go out to any events but I’d download stuff off Kazaa or Limewire back when MP3s were first available. Rips of Rinse FM shows that were uploaded there, that’s how I got into it. That and Sidewinder cassettes: Kids where I grew up on my road listened to garage and as I got into it, the music was evolving into grime around 2002 or 2003. I’d get copies from older kids on my road who were almost old enough to go to raves.
I always find it interesting that our tastes end up being guided by whatever the older lads listened to. For me in North America, it was really hip-hop. Where I’m from, if you were into UK music, that meant you were an alternative kid. The only thing I heard was So Solid and I thought it was way too fast.
With that So Solid album and all of those singles, that was just a mad time for British music. It’s mad how the roots of grime are pop music but it was still raw as well. It wasn’t overproduced or polished and still hitting number 1 or number 2 on the pop charts.
That space is interesting. I saw JME perform last night and a couple of thousand people having it, spitting back his lyrics – we were asking ourselves, “is this mainstream or underground?” Cause he’s a millionaire off music.
It’s just good that people have gotten to a level of fame and being able to do their own music while sticking to their guns and doing it in their own way. Not many people are able to stick to their guns, never change their sound and then eventually get to the level of JME and Skepta. They’re essentially pop stars in the grime scene, that’s not a bad thing – they’re at the top of the grime scene, with a lot of fans and deserve it. They’ve worked so hard to get to that point.
From playing and listening to records, in terms of production – how’d you move to that?
Really through Joe [Kahn] – when we became mates he was the only guy I really knew that used Logic, other people messed around on Fruity Loops but he was quite proficient as a producer in terms of how to use the software. That’s where my knowledge started – I was always interested in making music, but when I started out I really liked DJing and wasn’t fussed about making tunes. And I think DJing changes how you make beats, it gives you a different insight into how the music works. I have friends that are producers and not DJs and their tunes work in a different way. They don’t work in a set quite as well. As a DJ you know what you need to do when you make a record so you can mix it.
I’ve spoken to label owners and producers who’ve been adamant about the opposite as well. The “I don’t care if this fits in a set, I believe in it so I’m going to put it out” crowd. But Bandulu has always felt like a label that was explicitly geared towards DJs and making sure the tunes hit their goals and “worked” for lack of a better term.
I think it’s DJ tool music. It’s club centric and not bedroom listening music. The records we put out are meant for vinyl because they’re meant to play in a club or smashed out in your bedroom with your mates. You’re not meant to show them to your mum. It’s to the point, that’s just what it is – we’re not trying to hide behind being clever. People like music that makes them dance and that’s what we like putting out.
It’s great to see someone unabashed about that. I feel it’s getting rare, people who make adventurous music that’s really meant for the club without falling into a standard formula.
I feel it’s important. That’s where the music comes from. The energy from that music comes from hearing it in the club, with an MC live over it. That’s why for me, listening to grime records, they don’t always have the same impact. I’d much rather see an MC live in the club in front of me – that’s the purest form of grime. So the records, even if they’re instrumental, they’re made for a specific reason and setting. They’re not for contemplating. This works in the club and people get into it. And I say, why not have that music? It doesn’t need to be so serious or conceptual.
You put out the first two records – ‘Percy’ and ‘Chevy’ – those really set the tone. It was the first I’d heard of you and it felt like a bit of a reset for Kahn as well. They were strong statements – how were those tunes made? How’d you decide to put them out? ‘Cause you have labels that have those instant identities like DMZ or Skull Disco, but others develop as they go along: with Bandulu you guys seemed like you had a vision from the start.
Those came really quickly – they were quick 1-2 hour studio sessions for each of those beats. I’d been listening to grime for years and hanging out with Kahn, and as he got into it more and more, we’d swap records. Those were the culmination of years of listening to grime and being into it, but never experimenting and making it. Mostly what we’d done together was dubstep or music in that vein, but I was like “I want some grime tunes to play in my sets, as dubplates no one else has got.” He agreed and so we just made them as dubs to play ourselves – we wanted some new fresh stuff to play and we didn’t feel there was much coming out on vinyl that would fit into what we wanted to play. Stuff that would mix with the old material I already played in my set.
“I don’t like that idea of Discogs bandits selling stuff for really high prices.”
In hindsight, those first two Bandulu records kicked off a lot of other projects as well. Now Hi5Ghost has Paper Planes and Lemzly Dale and Boofy have Sector 7. Those guys released on Bandulu and their subsequent productions all have that darker edge that’s become associated with your sound. Was cultivating that aesthetic a conscious decision?
Maybe that’s just one of those things about Bristol music. It’s quite moody. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but we just wanted to make really dark, heavy records because even when I was playing dubstep, the dark Grime stuff always worked in that context anyways. I like my tunes more stripped back, more raw. That’s why we signed tunes from those artists – they worked in that context. They would send us dubs and if they worked in sets, we’d sign them. That’s a really simplified version of how we run the label: Test the tunes in the club, whether ours or Boofy’s or Hi5’s and then if it works, put it out as a 12″.
It’s an efficient process to have, if you have enough gigs you really get a sense of how functional a tune can be. It also ties into genre and that’s another spot where you’re different – you seem quite happy to compartmentalize by genre. So many producers today scream bloody murder about not wanting to be boxed into pre-existing genres, but you guys have Kahn and Neek as a grime project, Gorgon Sound for your steppers stuff. It’s all separate.
We started out doing that because we had all these different ideas and despite the fact that they come from the same root, they’re all different things. We want Kahn solo playing dubstep to be separate from Kahn and Neek playing grime. Obviously he plays grime solo as well, but us together is more fierce and upfront. Gorgon Sound is another area of our taste that we wanted to explore and to be honest, they’re all separate things for us. They don’t mix. One day we’re in the studio and we’re in a steppers mode, and the next we might want to make a grime tune. At least in our own heads, it helps to keep our sanity.
I think even in the steppers stuff we do, in the sound palette, there’s grime and dubstep elements and all those elements add to each other. But for us, it’s good to have a different mindset when we’re going into a set or a release.
When you reached to outside producers – how did you guys decide to expand beyond what you and Kahn were doing?
The idea was always to expand and have other producers. At that time, all the tunes we put on that sampler, music by Breen, Boofy, Oatz and Gemmy – those four dubs were tunes we’d been playing in sets for nearly a year and they were just smashing it. They fit in with our vibe and we figured why not solidify that and make them part of the label. Those guys still all send us tunes – Gemmy I’ve known for years and years. We used to DJ together as part of another crew when we ran a night. He started off doing grime and that tune he gave us [‘Roll On Tips And Toes’] was from 2007, maybe 2005 even. That was before he was even doing dubstep, but he already had his own mad sound that translated to that world. All those guys are cool people that we knew from going out, and they passed us dubs that fit in with our aesthetic.
It’s mad that Gemmy tune is so old, that’s practically a lost dub.
That’s why we wanted it! It’s one of those tunes, we wanted it because it was on this old Bristol Grime DVD called Who You Reppin, which was like a Bristol version of Lord of the Mics. It was one of the soundtrack tunes and always wanted it but Gemmy had lost it. Then he found it again, we started playing it out, he re-edited it and that was it.
The last record you guys put out sold incredibly fast – did that surprise you, that both pressings went so quickly?
I didn’t expect it to go that quick. Just because we’d been so quiet for a while. We’d been gigging and certain tunes were getting love on the internet but people didn’t know what the track list was going to be. But yeah, even the second edition was gone within the week. We’re going to get the money back and hopefully we’ll do some represses, but we’re not sure which yet. It depends on the demand.
You don’t want to get stuck with 500 copies sitting there. Has that made putting wax out more difficult? On a technical level? ‘Cause then people re-sell them for loads on Discogs.
I don’t like that idea of Discogs bandits selling stuff for really high prices. That’s what makes us think we should repress records to make them more affordable. The wax-only thing isn’t snobbery, that’s just how we like to listen to music. We’re not doing it to annoy people. There’s loads of vinyl-only labels but in grime, the vinyl scene died off for a while so maybe people aren’t used to it? In a sense, we want it to be a small thing and we just don’t want to deal with the digital side.
Growing up, in terms of emcees or producers, who were you into who doesn’t get spoken on nowadays?
In terms of instrumentals – Wiley, Footsie, people like Kid D and Ironsoul. That’s the vibe I really like – stuff that can lean towards R&G even. Our tune ‘Can’t Look Away’, that’s our nod towards that sort of music. It doesn’t get much of a look, there’s no labels releasing solely that. I think that’s quite a big part of grime that’s lost. It’s still there if you look for it though.
A lot of the recent R&G stuff hasn’t grabbed me as much because the tunes they take from are so obvious. It’s just putting the original under grime drums.
The problem now is that the software’s better and it sounds a bit too polished. I just like the rawness of the old stuff. It sounds like it was made on an MPC and it was badly done. You can’t knock it but the new stuff doesn’t always have the same vibe as the originals.
Anything else to disclose?
We’re planning the next couple of releases, it’s quite new stuff. We’ll probably have another four tracker by various artists out by the end of the year. I’ve just released a cassette as part of a group project under the name Awesomeasm and we’ve got a 12″ coming out on Idle Hands. It’s very experimental and quite removed from the stuff Kahn and I do.