April 20, 2011

Mary Anne Hobbs isn’t a Radio DJ. She’s an international ambassador for bass. Beginning as a roadie for a British rock band, and transitioning to a print journalist for NME and Sounds Magazine, Hobbs will tell you first-hand what an uphill claw it’s been to get to her current station. At the same time, she makes it seem predestined, inevitable steps taken to serve a larger cause–exposing new and emerging genres of electronic music to an international audience.

At this point in her career, there are very few corners of the world that haven’t been introduced to dubstep or electronic music, either by their local DJ or more likely by the sultry, inviting voice of Hobbs on her weekly BBC radio show, which ran for nearly 14 years and ended last fall. The show served as a place where Hobbs dedicated herself to the mission of breaking new artists (Flying Lotus, Kode9, Skream), many of whom have gone on to start their own sub-genres and labels

With her “Dubstep Warz” special, Hobbs transformed her program overnight into an entirely different beast.  Her dedication to the-then incipient genre had a symbiotic impact on her own career.. Through the program she nurtured an American fanbase, one grew steadily and become even more loyal on her multiple US tours.  Though she’s currently touring (she plays tonight at the Low End Theory and throughout America and Canada over the next ten days) and helping expose talent like Joy Orbison, Gonjasufi and Roska to a wider audience in the US, Hobbs will return to radio in July with a 3-hour Saturday night program on XFM. O- recently got a chance to chat with her about the new program and her storied history with dubstep shortly after one of her biggest US performances to date at this year’s Coachella. Aaron Frank


AF: Being that you were and still are a journalist, I was curious as to your initial inspirations to get into the music business?

MA: When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a writer, but I always found the process very agonizing. I never took to it in any kind of a natural way and I still to this day find it quite difficult to write something that’s sound and meaningful. But obviously I was influenced as a child by John Peel. I grew up in a very tiny isolated village in the northern part of England. This is decades before the internet was ever in place, and I guess John Peel was the only genuine evidence that another world existed beyond the parameters of this very tiny restricted environment that I grew up in.

Music was completely banned from my house when I was a little girl and it was hard enough to get ahold of anyways. If you wanted to buy a 7-inch single you would have to lay your money down at the local toy shop and wait 9 weeks for that record to actually show up at the shop. But I used to buy records even though music was banned at the house and everything my father found he found he invariably smashed it to pieces. The only thing he never found was this tiny transistor radio I had that was about the size of a can of tuna fish. I used to lay in bed with the covers pulled over my head at night and scroll across the dial to try and find John Peel’s show. And to me he was this person standing at the gateway to this phenomenal alternate universe, so I always imagined that as soon as it was humanly possible I was going to try and reach that place. Peel was a huge inspiration for me.

AF: So how did you eventually transition in to DJing then and getting involved with broadcasting?

MA: I ran away to London when I was 18 years old and lived on a bus in a carpark with a rock band for about 18 months or so. During that time, I put together an issue of my own little fanzine called Crush, and I sent that off along with this CV that must have been the most amazing CV the editor of Sounds had ever seen at the time. It was detailing all of my responsibilities to the band on the bus. I was the lighting engineer when we went out on the road, and I used to design all their costumes and record sleeves. I was also the bus mechanic. He must have seen the CV and glanced at the zine and just been captivated that this 18 year old girl would go through so much to get a pathway in to this industry. I think something about what I sent him captured his imagination and by the time I was 19 I was a freelance writer for Sounds Magazine, which doesn’t actually exist anymore but it was a very similar format to NME and I transitioned along to NME.

Along the way, I started contributing to various radio programs, and I’m happy to announce that I’m returning in July, but I began my broadcasting career with XFM when they were just barely beyond pirate status, and we actually used to broadcast through these temporary license for four weeks a year. We did it for a total of five years before we won a permanent license, but it felt like a revolution at the time. We literally felt like we were changing the way that people talked about music, and this was years before the internet is what we know it as today, and to be part of the primary group of people that launched it was just incredible. It was so exciting and incendiary at the time. It was an absolutely phenomenal experience, and it was as a consequence of working at XFM that I got poached by Radio 1, so it was lots of small steps in between. You have to contribute a lot of passion and energy to embryonic work in its formative stages, and prove yourself as a broadcaster and the big hitters like the BBC will come to you, which is essentially what happened with me.

AF: You mentioned returning to XFM in July. What will the new format be like and how much will it differ from your BBC program?

MA: Well for me, I have to say that I’m eternally grateful and humbly so for the almost 15 years of freedom they gave me on their network. It was probably the most primary experience of my entire life. I was completely committed to the shows I did for the BBC and I really feel like we did so much over the years, breaking artists as diverse as Slipknot and Burial. But I came to a point where I kind of became frustrated that with radio, artists are elevated on the basis of commercial success. So there will be a few artists that find an earlier time slot and find the patronage of bigger DJs, but it happens at the point to which they’re already proven. It happens on the basis of record sales as opposed to any great artistry. I kind of got to a point where I felt like I’d probably gone far as a possibly I can in that 2 AM dead-of-night timeslot.

I wanted to see whether or not there was a possibly or raising the whole platform, raising the game for everyone concerned, every artist I cared about, and not just the artists but the live listeners who are so passionate about everything that I do and all the music I play. And I just thought I had to take the chance at this point and see if I could do this, and I was lucky to have XFM leap at the opportunity to offer me a primetime slot. They completely understood the opportunity and value in elevating the entire platform to a Saturday night primetime slot. So I’m delighted to have this opportunity.

It feels like a victory for everyone in this scene that I care so passionately about. As far as international listeners are concerned, you can still listen live on at xfm.co.uk and the show is archived. So for all of listeners, especially across UK and Europe, to win a primetime slot is such a victory. I have to say maximum respect to Andy Ashton and to XFM for understanding the value of this and for their ultimate belief in everything I can bring.

The creative agenda is completely my own and will remain so. They’re not imposing anything on me in terms of boundaries. Of course it is a commercial station so there will be advertising, which is the only real difference, whereas the BBC is able to operate without advertising because it’s a publicly funded service. That and the fact that it’s going to be three hours long as opposed to two at the BBC. So I have primetime and I have three hours on a Saturday night and that’s just like a dream come true for me.

AF: So I imagine you will still have plenty of guest mixes and interviews?

MA: Absolutely. There will be guest mixes and interviews and special features. They’ve given me a completely free format and I will shape it as I see fit every week. I tend to get carried away with emerging new sounds and new scenes so there’ll be lots of focusing on different trajectories and labels within the scene.

XFM have also been very supportive in terms of everything I do with international DJing as well. They’ve been supportive of this Road Warriors tour that I’m on now and I’m doing a series of audio postcards. So they’re very supportive and they understand the value of everything I can deliver to an international audience in the framework of touring for live audiences as well.

AF: I was recently watching the Bassweight documentary, where you talk a little bit about the genre as it was first starting out. Was there any experience or artist that made you instinctively want to get behind dubstep in the beginning?

MA: You know what it was, I’d come across some music on dubplate and white labels, and I was beginning to play those tunes on my show. But it wasn’t really until I crossed the threshold to DMZ for the first time that I understood that this music would change my life fundamentally and would change the entire format of the show as it did. And I think I responded to it the same way John Peel did to punk. I mean it literally changed the show completely overnight. And for me, it was just seeing it set in the environment that it was actually built for: a dirty, great soundsystem in a pitch black room surrounded by like a foot of weed smoke and all these heads sort of meditating on the sound.

Throughout my career, there have been these key clubs that have been involved in my progression through sound and have almost provided like a spiritual and a physical home for the artists to develop within a particular scene. And that would stretch back all the way to the Hacienda in Manchester back in 1989. It would move through Metalheadz in Hoxton Square when I first discovered jungle and drum n bass. It would definitely move on to DMZed and FWD in London, which were both just meccas for dubstep in its embryonic stages.

And then obviously out to Low End theory in Los Angeles, which I first discovered in 2009. I came deliberately to experience it after hearing so much from Gaslamp Killer about it. I had to come visit and check out what was happening because I felt like it was very special. This is will be the fifth or sixth time that I’ve played at Low End Theory, and they have been some of the greatest experiences of my life without a shadow of a doubt.

AF: It’s starting to influence popular music on the radio in the US now as it has in the UK for some time now. Do you think dubstep is getting watered down or losing credibility by going commercial?

MA: If you look at Magnetic Man for instance, Skream and Benga have given their entire lives, since the age of 12 or 13 when they first started building tunes, to this pursuit and this great passion. And I think at this point, to see them become so successful with Magnetic Man, to see them headlining in front of 30,000 people at festivals across the world and to see them in the Top 10 on the charts is really wonderful for me. It makes my heart burst, and what I believe they’re doing is creating a gateway for a younger and less-experienced audience to step through.

And I think once you’re beyond that gateway, it opens up a whole world and universe of sounds to explore. It’s up to the listener if they choose to explore beyond their primary entry points with anything, but I think for me, dubstep has become kind of a metaphor. It’s hard to actually center in on a primary sound. I mean, if you asked me “What is dubstep?” I would still say Mala and Digital Mystikz without hesitation. I would say he is the purest representation of dubstep in its primary form. But I think what’s really fascinating to me is how that whole generation of DMZed and FWD inspired so many young producers that are now making a myriad of sounds, but if you traced them back to their origin, it would be Loefah, Kode9, Mala, Benga, Skream in 2006 that originally inspired these people. It’s amazing to see how sound moves forward in like a thousand scattered sets everyday across the planet. The diversity and this sort of rainbow of colors and textures that we’re hearing now is a really wonderful thing.

What I think is interesting about the whole ethos of dubstep is that there are no boundaries and there are no restrictions sonically. Right at the beginning of the genre, if you wanted any kind of status as a top ranking producer you had to come with something that was very individual and a unique interpretation of the dubstep sound. I think in many respects other genres have had much more clearly defined boundaries over which producers have not been able to step, and yet from the earliest days, you’d hear people like Distance and Vex’d talk about their love for heavy metal. They liked bands like System of a Down and Korn and you could hear that in their tunes at the time. That’s just to give you an example, but with other genres like garage or drum n bass or minimal techno, there’s a very clear parameter that you can’t really step out of very easily, whereas with dubstep it’s pretty much completely the reverse.

AF: It’s also talked about in the documentary a little bit, but the whole progression of the music industry has basically left a lot of artists starting their own labels. Do you see that as a good thing or do you think major labels still have a place?

MA: I think the funny thing was really how dubstep gathered so much momentum completely alone, without any sort of patronage from the traditional music industry whatsoever. And it was a traditional industry that came begging and wanting to be a part of dubstep at the point where it was already proven. It was already huge when the majors decided to become involved. But I think it’s up to each individual artist to determine what is right for them and their career pathway.

It’s not for me to cast judgement about those types of things. It’s entirely an individual’s decision. Every contract, every A&R, every label is completely different and you would just hope that artists have the opportunity to create something themselves that they have complete control over, or if they’re in a point in their career where they feel it would be beneficial to hook up with a major, then you just hope they’re in a situation where they can retain almost 100% creative freedom.

I think dubstep fundamentally changed the entire landscape of the industry really in that it was the first scene that was totally self-supporting, totally self-sufficient and successful to the level that it was before any traditional music industry became involved and they are really late. They are so late it’s unbelievable, but it’s almost impossible to talk about major labels as just as a breed. They are a breed and yet within that breed there are very passionate individuals that work tirelessly to support and facilitate and nurture their artists, whereas there are other labels that are much more mercenary, the ones that are really only interested in the financial return. So it’s impossible to talk about them as clones, or as one entity. You would have to look at each individual case, which is why I’m saying that it’s complex and it’s up to every artist to determine what’s right for them.

AF: You recently started working at Sheffield University as well with students in the media department. What exactly were some of your duties there and has the experience made you hopeful about the younger generation?

MA: Well I have already completed almost one academic year and I’m going to leave at the end of the year, just because obviously I have a lot of plans at XFM and I need to really recommit to the radio show again. I have had an absolutely incredible year working with the Sheffield University Student Union and about 700 students. They are involved on a volunteer basis with the TV station, the radio station, the website and they also produce a bi-weekly 48 page newspaper, and it’s been such a pleasure and a privilege to work around this young group of people mentoring. And I’m not really involved in an academic sense at all. I’m more their mentor and I teach them all these practical applications, and hopefully guide them with a bit of wisdom and give them confidence to become fearless broadcasters.

But it’s been a wonderful experience for me because I’m frequently confronted with media establishment who want to dumb everything down for their audience, and who don’t really appreciate how intelligent and how passionate these young people really are. It’s really brilliant for me to be able to say I’ve spent an entire year with this age group and demographic that I’m trying to reach as a broadcaster. Now I really understand what it is that they’re passionate about and what it is they care about and what turns them on. And what I’m happy to report is that they are all incredibly intelligent people and what they’re looking for is media that’s really aspirational. They don’t want you to dumb anything down. They want you to raise the stakes and that’s a wonderful thing for me to have experienced first hand.

AF: Well that’s certainly a good thing you’re so hopeful for them. It sounds like quite a fulfilling experience.

MA: They get really bad press in the UK. People see them as lazy and selfish, just game-show consuming, iPod obsessed, and ultimately insular and not really concerned about the greater problems that the planet is facing or that art is facing. But quite the reverse is true. I find them to be fantastically sophisticated, deeply intelligent and really an incredible group of people to work around without exception. And like I said I’ve dealt with about 700 people and I’m among them almost every single day. So it makes me very hopeful about the future. It makes me feel like all of my own instincts about my listeners on Radio 1 were correct.

AF: So how did the Road Warrior tour that you’re currently on in the U.S. come about?

MA: It’s a wonderful experience for me. I’ve toured America a few times at this point. Ordinarily it’s like a solo mission, and I’m like a lone wolf out on the road, but this time I’ve had the opportunity to share the stage with a lot of the performers I really love and believe in. Joy Orbison played alongside me the other night in San Francisco, which was his first ever out-of-UK show. Terror Danjah had never played here either, so it was wonderful to be with them when they had that first primary experience of American audiences.

And to be able to go out with a lot of the American artists that I’ve supported for so long in the UK through my show, it changes the experience fundamentally when you share it with others. It’s much more meaningful in a lot of ways and it’s a lot of fun so I’m very privileged. I’m eternally grateful to my manager Sara just to have an opportunity to share it and do things differently this time.

AF: You’ve released several excellent compilations in the past. Do you have any more plans for those types of releases in the future?

MA: Not right now to be honest. I did some really fascinating work with Darren Aronofsky on his new film “Black Swan”. I was involved with sourcing the artists and having all of the dialogue with Darren for the club scenes and the bar scenes in the film. And I would love to do a little bit more sound design for cinema. That would be wonderful.

AF: Chemical Brothers just did the soundtrack for “Hanna” this year too. Is it this sort of a trend we’re seeing now with these electronic tastemakers scoring Hollywood films?

MA: Let’s hope so. That would be great, because Daft Punk did “Tron” as well didn’t they. It came about for me by freak accident I have to confess. I’ve been friends with Clint Mansell, who scores all of Darren Aronofsky’s films, for about 25 years, ever since his days in the 80s when he was in a band called Pop Will Eat Itself, and I’ve stayed in touch with him over all this time. He’s now a very famous and successful Hollywood film soundtrack designer, and he had spoken to me about “Black Swan” and basically explained the concept of what he was trying to do with the soundtrack, all of which is a deconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake. And he deconstructed it and then reconstructed it for “Black Swan” in various different stages, but he explained to me how he was struggling with the club and the bar scenes because he didn’t want to lose the theme and the sense of that reference back to “Swan Lake.”

So what they wanted to do was find electronic producers who could work with elements of the original score, but infuse those in to pieces of electronic music that would sit very naturally within the club scenes and the bar scenes. So that’s what we did effectively. I gave Darren and Clint a heap of music, lots of different textures of sounds, out of which they chose 10 producers to work with and they explained what they loved about the original pieces I had submitted. Then they gave them three samples from the original “Swan Lake” score and said we want you to work these samples in to a new piece of electronic music and create something fresh for the film. And it was a very high hurdle, but I’m delighted that four of my artists, Jakes, Sepalcure, Al Tourettes and Kavsrave all had original music featured in that film.

One of the most wonderful moments of my career was going to the London Film Festival with the British producers who had worked on the film with me and just watching their hearts explode at the moment at which their music dropped in the film. It was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever experienced in my life, sitting with the boys in that cinema. So I have to say big up to Darren and maximum respect to Clint for their belief in me and for their belief in the artists I brought to the table, many of whom are very young and very new to the whole industry. So that was a really wonderful experience for me and I would love to do some more of that. That’s kind of where I would go now beyond radio if possible.

AF: Aside from the originators like Skream and Mala that you mentioned before, who are the people you think are sort of pushing electronic music and dubstep forward right now?

MA: Everything on the Night Slugs label. Everything on Loefah’s label Swamp 81. Everything Appleblim is doing is absolutely mind-blowing right now. Obviously Hyperdub, I’m very excited to hear Kode9’s new album. Kode9 is my hero. It’s been five years since his last album, and it’s still one of my favorite ones in life, so I’m very excited about that. Hessle Audio, Ramadanman’s label are doing some awesome stuff. Be sure to check out Joe on the Hessle Audio label. Girl Unit on Night Slugs. ? on Swamp 81.

It’s just endless really. There’s never been a more fascinating time than right now I don’t think. I think with the advent of very cheap production software, pretty much everyone can make tunes. Unless you live in Central Africa, most people have access to the type of software that you need to build tunes, and that means that it’s no longer the preserve of the very few people can afford equipment. Anybody can do it, and that’s really liberating, and it means that things are progressing at this phenomenal speed. We’ve never seen progression or advancement in the human race move forward so quickly. It’s a wonderful time as far as I’m concerned. Things have never been more exciting.

Download:
Stream: Mary Anne Hobbs – Dubstep Warz (left click for Mixcloud)
MP3: Mary Anne Hobbs – Dubtep Warz (left click to download)

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