Moving the Movement: an interview with Slackk

Son Raw interviews Slackk about coming up in Liverpool, his debut album Palm Tree Fire, and literary track titles.
By    October 9, 2014

Son Raw
‘s throwing up the gunfingers.

Slackk is a busy man. When he’s not breaking new producers through Sulk Records and his monthly radio show on NTS Live or promoting Boxed, the club night that’s brought a new generation of London instrumentalists into the limelight, he’s producing fantastically strange instrumentals or just generally hyping up a scene that owes a lot of its current attention to his efforts. He’s also a man of strong opinions and his passion for the scene is deep rooted – back when Grime was all but barred from the clubs, he was uploading rare radio recordings to the web for the love of the game. Off the back of Palm Tree Fire, his official debut and our album of the month, I sat down with the scene leader to discuss Liverpool, London, blogs, production and everything in between.

The other day you were on twitter asking if you were the only Scouser who’d ever played on Rinse – how’d you get involved in underground music growing up in Liverpool? You’re known as a guy who archived tons of pirate radio broadcasts but you were pretty removed from that.

To be honest, underground music in Liverpool doesn’t work in the same way as in London. The underground electronic scenes in Liverpool are more on a House or Techno thing, and the pirate culture was never really there in the same way. The London music like Grime and Funky, which I came through producing, that stuff only really came about through my association with London when I started throwing my music at everyone. It’s not something that existed to the same degree in Liverpool at all.

I knew the music. I was already in London by the time the Funky stuff was picking up, but as for Grime, there were little student nights in Liverpool I’d go to- though they were mostly Dubstep – and I was back and forth to London at the time. So I’d record bits of sets when I was there, buy some records, and try to stay associated with it. But in terms of an active involvement, it wasn’t until I came back to living in London 6 or 7 years ago that I got properly involved with it.

I’m always wondering how people got into it back in the day. Even when I spoke to Oil Gang, I asked if he’d get Pirates back in the days and he said there was nothing at all, and he wasn’t even that far from London.

No, don’t get me wrong, you could keep abreast of what was going on but unless you’re actually in London you couldn’t be a part of the scene in any way shape or form. It’s changed now with the Internet, not to the degree that it needs to I guess, but back in the day – I was an outsider and an observer for quite some time until I moved back down to London. That’s when I started pushing my music towards DJs.

Were you already DJing by the time you moved to London?

Yeah, I’ve been DJing since I was 14… though I wouldn’t say that it was always good music. My dad was a DJ on a very small amateur level in the Acid House days when I was a kid growing up, so I always grew up with club music in a way, among other things. I think it was Christmas when I was 14 that I got my first set of decks. And yeah when I started out, it was playing terrible, terrible House music in Liverpool.

I think anytime you look back at the records you bought as a teenager, unless yo were really lucky, there’s going to be some awful stuff. I sold my wax a few years back and it was just terrible Hip-Hop, neon pink Foxy Brown records and bait Def Jam promos.

To be honest, I cleared out a lot of my records when I was 18 or 19 and I could barely get rid of them.

You never know which ones will be worth money though.

This was before Discogs even existed but who knows? Maybe there’s a really active market for Hard House or Scouse House but I sincerely doubt it to be honest!

So in between pushing your music out and moving to London, you started the Grimetapes blog, which archived classic sets and documented the scene. How did that happen?

I’d been into this music for a while, accumulating tapes. I had various bits from when I’d been in London the first time round and then sets I got from the Internet and what not. I started the site just before I moved back down here, whenever that was. I set it up mainly because I had all these sets and I wanted to get more but I needed a reason for someone to give them to me. To a lesser degree, unless you browsed forums to look for Sendspace links before they expired, they were unattainable. This was just after [classic pirate archive] Barefiles got locked off. I just started to name stuff and upload them. For a few months after I’d moved to London I didn’t have much money so I’d just lounge around and upload tapes – plus I was living with a girl at the time and was really trying to dodge her. [Laughs] The Grimetapes thing was fortuitous in a way cause it did bring me attention before my production was anywhere near up to scratch. People knew who I was because I’d go around and meet people like Spooky in Hackney central to collect tapes and talk to him, or see people in the raves and that. People did kind of get to know me a bit more before my sound was big enough to be played on pirates, so that was a helping hand. It was an accident though, more of a hobby. Then I lost the domain name and that was that.

Always wondered what happened to that. I figured you ran out of time to update it once you started working on production…

I mean, I wasn’t updating the site but I wanted to keep it up for posterity. The domain name was linked to a defunct email address so I kept missing the reminders to renew it and then someone bought the domain and tried to auction it off to me for £500. I was like f-ck this – at one point it was a p0rn referral site but now it’s almost like a fake mirror of the grime tapes blog so it’s almost as if the guy who bought the domain is taunting me but I don’t give a shit about it, those days are long gone.

At this point they’d have to put your sets on it so…you win by default I guess.

Funny enough, I had a rule on the site where I’d never upload a set after 2008 so I’d never do that.

Interesting point – I guess my cutoff was 2009 when Butterz came about. I know there was a change but I’ve never seen anyone verbalize exactly what the difference is.

I see it as a different sort of progression. I can see why you’d cut off at Butterz but to me that’s one very specific style. To me, up until 2008 you still had active sets on places that weren’t just Rinse. You had say, Axe FM to a lesser extent… you still had an MC presence in a lot of places. After that point, though it still existed in pockets, the only place you would really hear MC sets would be Rinse or Spooky’s show on Urban, Score5 on Pyro. So I viewed the site’s scope from 2000-2007 or 2008, before there was a shift away from MC sets.

Moving on to you as an artist, you started producing around then as well. Was your first release on Numbers?

Kind of. I had little self released online things before, and there was 1 white label but the press fucked up and a lot of them ended up getting scrapped and 1 side got used on the numbers release. If you’ve got that white label…I don’t even have a copy of that one anymore so there you go. The first proper one was the Numbers one though, yeah.

Was that around when you also started [Boogie/Juke sideproject] Patrice and Friends?

Nah, that came afterwards in late 2010 maybe. Patrice and Friends was a bit of a spur of the moment project. The Numbers stuff was just born out of trying to make Funky tunes and getting them played. It was probably too early I think, I don’t think my production was up to par – I’m grateful for it since it brought me name recognition though, at least.

That 2010-2012 period, I had some of your tunes and I’d never thought of them as Grime. It wasn’t until the Local Action release that they really had an identity to them.

Yeah, that was the first. Don’t get me wrong, there were tunes before like Double Indemnity or Coaxhead that got played by a few people. Butterz played some of them, they’d crop up here and there. But I’d probably say Polar Bear was the first Grime tune that was good enough to get played. Raw Missions came after that but that was a long time in the making really. Basically I came through on the Funky thing and got disenchanted with it the way it went very quickly. Patrice & Friends was in between those stages – Funky and Grime. I had to get out of that 130-133 Grimish House type thing because it wasn’t going anywhere, certainly in my head.

That was a bit of a weird stage for London music in general and I think that’s why Raw Missions stood out so much. It felt like there was zero compromise to it, no Funky edge to cater to that crowd. Even in the Grime scene, no one was releasing tracks that sounded anything like Blue Sleet – it was more on the Garage tip.

I’d been bouncing these Grime ideas back and forth with [Local Action label head] Tom Lea for a while. The idea wasn’t necessarily a homage to oldschool Grime but a lot of people framed it that way on its release. I just knew that if I was going to release that EP at that time or a Grime EP in general at that time, I couldn’t do it so it was pandering to different sounds where one track would possibly be played at 130 by a House DJ. Those tunes can be wicked and there was a lot of tunes getting released at that time where you could play them in non-grime sets, but I wanted to make an uncompromising record. Part of the reason I gave up anything prior to the Grime stuff, there was a release on Diskotopia, and I found myself compromising what I was making in an attempt to get associated to or played by other people. I really resented myself for that release. So for the Raw Mission release… I was almost reacting against myself and trying to make as true a record as I could.

That attitude definitely set the stage for the next releases on Local Action and Unknown to the Unknown and then the album. When did you start writing Palm Tree Fire?

I started writing those tunes a good year or so ago. The earliest one on the album is Puma Walk which might even be late 2012. Obviously you write tunes all the time, I wasn’t necessarily working towards making an album per say for the first ones but as I got closer to the idea of the album being done, that sort of style of weird ambiance was kind of falling into place. Probably a year to 15 months.

So after the Failed Gods EP.

There’s probably a bit of a crossover since that EP was finished 3 months before it was released, but that’s when I started working on those sort of tunes.

One of the things I liked about it is that it didn’t seem to take a whole lot of influence from “electronic music”. Instead it seemed to be drawing from weird pop or film music but was still REALLY Grime. Was that cinematic quality something you were going for?

Not initially, I wasn’t writing the tunes or framing it as a cinematic experience but at the same time, the last thing that I wanted was to make an album that was like every other Grime album or electronic album. The further I got into making the album, the more I got into the beatless or introspective bits and those are things I wouldn’t have necessarily have released on an EP. But then when you start framing them in an album context… That’s the freedom with an album, you can create a narrative or a flow you can’t necessarily do if you make Grime music or electronic music with its normal reference points.

I listen to a lot of older Jazz stuff and a lot of those albums are mood pieces, the ones I like the most anyway. I like the idea in relation to this album, whether I pulled it off to the degree that I’d like to, I don’t know. But it is a series of mood pieces instead of a collection of tracks.

It also worked in terms of pacing. Unlike DJ-centric tunes, these ones never go on to the point where you want to mix out of them.

I think the thing is, if you’re releasing club 12’’s then it’s a very different thing. You’re pitching them towards someone in a DJ set. I haven’t had any releases prior to this that I’ve viewed as an album. Even the extended the version of Minor Triads – there’s still plenty of tracks there that are DJ Tools or very loop driven. With Palm Tree Fire, certainly when we were finishing up the track listing, I was trying to create a full mood instead of it being a functional 12’’. I love functional music, that’s what I DJ, but if you’re doing an album you may as well do it properly.

One of the really interesting things about the record is that there’s no real words. Particularly compared to a lot of Grime that draws from MC samples. There’s a couple of “hey’s” and the R&B vocal on “Hope you got a” but it’s not really something where you can make out the words. Even the speech on Ancient Dolphin is kind of obscure. Was that conscious?

Yeah, to an extent. Outside a couple of tracks that never really got released, I’ve never really done music with MCs, and I’ve never used MC samples in that way either– there’s the occasional one I will play [as a DJ] but I don’t like it as a concept, I would never have a release of mine with an MC sample on it. I think it’s a ridiculous thing. I didn’t really want this album full of blah blah blah because to me that’s something that masks what you’re doing. I almost feel like sometimes I get sent tunes and they’ll have a Chronik sample and I’ll recognize the set where it’s from and I think “that MC sample’s going to get a bigger reaction that your fucking tune! People will recognize the Chronik tune and throw up gunfingers!” So I don’t like it as a trend at all.

For Palm Tree Fire, it’s my album. I didn’t want to frame it with vocalists, or try to get an MC on it. It’s my project and it’s got nothing to do with anyone else. For the speech at the end, the only reason it’s there is that I needed something to frame the drop in an early version and I never found anything better.

At the same time the track titles are really evocative and because there’s lack of words, it’s our only clue into what the music might “mean”. “Wash your face in my sink” is brilliant because it can mean so many things… And going back to the Liverpool connection, you bring up spots like Bootle and Litherland in your titles fairly often. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about them?

Some of them yeah, some of them no. I mean, people always go at me about them. When this came out people were like “these are the maddest track titles” but to me, I dunno. I read a lot so sometimes it’s just something that I rob from a book or other times… I write most of my music at night when you’re fucked or you’re stoned or half awake and I’m like – “yeah that’s good title.” Not to sit there and compare it to the Aphex Twin thing but all the weird titles and cryptic things, that’s his style. I just prefer them to be a bit flowery and literary. I suppose you could read into them but I don’t really have an explanation for it.

For the Liverpool references, the one on Minor Triads is Bootle No Yoru No Ame which means Night Rain in Bootle. That comes from a Japanese tune that I sampled called Night Rain in Shanghai. I was like – fuck that! I’m Scouser, it’s from Bootle! And then Litherland, the track was called something else, I won’t say what but another album came out with that title earlier this year. I said, well fuck it, it’s the most emotional one on the album, the most personal one to me, so it’s Litherland – where I grew up basically. It is a homage, unintentionally to Liverpool. I don’t give it to much thought though, I think I just have a strange way with words which affects how people see my tracks.

The album also stands apart a fair bit from your DJing which tends to draw on a really wide variety of producers these days. With OilGang mostly drawing from Dullah and JT and Logos and Mitch having their own directions, it seems that on radio you’ve really become the guy repping for straight up Grime…

Fuck me mate, I play hundreds of different producers! I think because I’m quite prolific with the mixes – I did the monthly mixes, I’m on NTS a lot and I play out a lot… I like to keep my sets as varied as possible. I don’t want to go out and play the same sound every single night – I’d get bored with myself if I did. I also think I get sent a lot of tunes, possibly more than anyone out of the crew because I’m known better as a DJ than I am as a producer. I’ve become known as someone who plays a lot of people’s tunes and now I can’t help but play varied sets. My approach is kind of restless – that’s the word I’d use. I don’t like DJing the same sets or the same tunes and I don’t think my album sounds anything like my DJ sets.

As for radio, I’m doing NTS for now cause I have a few solo shows I still want to do so I’m not involved with Boxed’s Rinse FM show at the moment – I leave that to the other three. You can’t do both at the same time – Rinse needs you to be exclusive but I have my own ideas I want to follow through.

It’s an amazing time that you can do that as well. You can play 5 sets in 5 styles and it’s still all fresh Grime.

Honestly I could play new stuff for 10 hours and not have to repeat a tune, no question about that. When it comes down to it, not that I don’t think that Palm Tree Fire is a part of the scene, but I didn’t want the album to be 12 tracks specifically suited to the clubs or an album that says “this is what’s working the rave”. I just think there’s a lot going on and to be at the front of that and receive this music which is quite a privilege, really.

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