The Way This Music is Supposed to be Heard: Dusk & Blackdown Talk RollageLive

Son Raw speaks to the London DJ/producer duo about technique, their label Keysound, and the online community of More Cowbell.
By    April 30, 2020

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Son Raw is spending his quarantine listening to old DJ mixes

For 15 years now, Dusk & Blackdown’s Keysound label has engaged and helped develop the further reaches of the bass music universe. Starting off as a way to release their own dubstep productions, Keysound has since released leftfield grime, UK funky mutations, and several unique strains of dark, rolling, 130BPM dance music. On RollageLive: Nightfall, the label and DJ duo come full circle, presenting a streaming-ready mix of their own productions, which investigates the wide ranging possibilities of contemporary UK dance music. I spoke to Dusk & Blackdown on Zoom (where else?) to discuss the mix’s genesis, the label’s place in dance music today, and finding community online.

You guys have been working around that 130BPM tempo for a few years now. So in terms of this big statement mix, why now?

Blackdown: Dusk and I kept writing music and that was great, but for around a 2 year period I wasn’t certain what format made sense anymore. This isn’t an album because it’s pretty dancefloor-focused, so because we didn’t understand how to put this out, we kept writing tunes. I kept trying to play with formats in my head. I’d regularly ask [Dusk] about different ways to release this music. Tapes are a bit silly – people are affectionate about them but I made one and it isn’t as cheap as they said it’d be and I do not like going to the post office, and Vinyl doesn’t have enough space on it.

Dusk: Vinyl doesn’t work for this kind of release because the loud tunes end up on the outside [of the vinyl record] and the quiet ones in the middle, so that automatically then dictates the way the sequencing flows, and if you don’t do it that way, you end up with a big tune that’s too quiet. Vinyl isn’t the one for mixes.

Blackdown: Meanwhile I’ve got lots of CDs sitting here in the studio and I don’t listen to them very often. I just couldn’t see how it was an album. We’ve put out about 15 of them now on Keysound and they’ve got a shape, they’ve got a form and this didn’t feel like that. A lot of what we were experimenting with is percussion and it all rolled together, but at the same time, I didn’t want to finish 2-3 years’ work and then just chuck it as a mix on a Soundcloud link for it to disappear to the bottom of the Internet. I needed it to have some hope of lasting permanence to it. This was more important to us “than I just made a mix today and I’ll do another tomorrow”. The Fabriclive mix CDs and other mix CD releases like [Jungle classic] Fantazia or Coldcut’s Journeys by DJ were really cool. These are not artist albums, they’re statement by DJs but they have a permanence. So I was trying to figure out a way to understand how people consume music today while find a form of expression by producers and DJs that has a little bit more lasting impact, a milestone or a catalogue number so it stays in your Spotify.

In terms of listening and DJing formats, from your journey early on in Dubstep to today, you’ve seen vinyl go from a DJ format to an art piece, how are you engaging with music [as listeners]?

Dusk: I am probably going to sound really old fashioned because I listen to MP3s mostly. My work is done on a computer so it makes it easier, but we’ve both got huge stacks of records. So I’m a bit schizophrenic in my listening habits because I end up divided by the formats. If I’m listening to vinyl I’m in a completely different room than I would MP3s, and we get so much stuff through the Rinse.FM shows, that I regularly find myself listening to music people sent in months ago. One thing that’s stayed constant is I still love downloading and listening to mixes. I have countless MP3s that are a hundred MBs long from say, 2010 that I’ve half listened and I never will again and that’s why it’s important me to not just stick RollageLive out as an MP3 or a WAV and just say “here you go” as a download. Because even I get super keen and download loads of them like you would a Podcast and then listen to maybe 3-4 a month? 1 a week, maybe?

Another aspect of the mix that separates it from your Rinse shows, which really emphasize new talent, is that it’s almost entirely your own productions. What led to that choice?

Blackdown: There are producers that write really quickly and start lots of stuff, but what we’ve always done is write slowly and finish tunes. So having a large stockpile of music is extremely rare for us, it’s only happened a couple of times. It got to the point where I was maintaining a private Soundcloud link of 20-30 tracks and for us, that’s several years’ worth of work. So it came from a point where we had all of this material and wanted to tell its story properly. And also the point of this simple idea we’ve been riffing on with [130BPM music] is its possibilities. I’ve certainly never stopped believing in those possibilities but for the past several years, we’ve felt a bit musically lonely, and I felt like one of the ways to express that in a positive way was to go: “look, here’s one thing. It’s the same tempo. That’s a constraint, which is creatively healthy, but look at the diversity of approaches we can take within those constraints, in one single arc.” Finally, it combined with the fact that you can’t put standard mixes on Spotify because of copyright issues, whereas since this is all our material and we own it, there were no barriers.

What was the starting point for figuring out the tracklist? Because even in the context of what Keysound has put out, it’s extremely focused and for lack of a better term “dark.”

Blackdown: Generally, when Dusk and I DJ, we look for clusters. Before our Rinse show we’ll have a quick debate, or improve on the fly about it, which plays out like say, 20 minutes of really dark stuff and then 15 minutes of Garage and so on. That’s what happens every time out of the combination of constraints and freedom. It lets us move between moods – you get a pocket of coherence and then a transition and then another pocket of coherence and so on. For this, we wrangled with a bunch of different ways of splitting it, but we settled on doing it predominantly dark, which split the pile of tunes we had down the middle. There are still pockets of light, a couple of moments at the end but I think the overall approach makes it coherent and I’ve always respected DJs like LTJ Bukem or Youngsta who have this unbelievable focus.

That idea of clusters is also part of what separates this music from House and Techno which would stick to a same beat for the entire mix (or an entire club night!) – but it’s also a challenge in terms of figuring out what can fit with what.

Dusk: That happened during the planning bit. Without making it sound like we put it all into a spreadsheet, it was a bit like Tetris, figuring out where each block fits. The Rinse show is really useful for that, because we can try things and figure out “ooh, that doesn’t go with that” or “these two fit nicely.” It’s that thing of finding those pockets, having several different headspaces in a set. [DJs who do that] are the ones I like listening to the most. It can be a bit messy… but eclectic isn’t the right word for it – the Coldcut [Journey By DJ] CD Blackdown mentioned earlier is a really good example of a solid CD that flows with loads of ideas, but when most people try to do that – shove a bunch of ideas together – it doesn’t work for me. There needs to be a focus or a trajectory, and they nailed it.

Blackdown: Early Hatcha is much more an inspiration for our mix. It’s focused: that dark, Skream, Croydon, TS-404 sound. Compared to our albums, Margins Music and Dasaflex, this is different – it is more focused. The albums try to span genres and styles and connect those clusters. This tried to have constant feel to it but explore different intensities and beat patterns. In a way, perhaps it’s the way this music is supposed to be heard. It’s NOT an album. We didn’t write intros and outros and design it to have gaps. The tracks start like they’re DJ tracks because they are! We ultimately want them to be played in clubs.

Dusk: I remember a few years ago there was an artist who had like maybe 80 stems from unfinished tunes and mixed them as an album. We probably could have done that 2 years ago with all of the half finished stuff, but it’s not how we work and not how we perform. Mixing them [on as DJs] is more how we engage with people. It’s probably subconsciously how we landed on this format.

Blackdown: That stem approach also works much better if the music is really tracky. In the Art of DJing by Jeff Mills at Resident Advisor, he talks about running 909s through things, and I thought “this works if you have 3-4 sounds: a kick, a hi-hat and a riff.” I think that’s really cool, it’s a form of improv… but it’s not how we work. It’s a different talent. I still think that when it comes to making music, producers have the ultimate power. They can do anything in any way, there’s no constraints. The person that has the infinite choice is the producer.

You’ve also avoided the trap of putting out “DJ food” where listeners who AREN’T mixing the tracks have to sit through standardized intros and outros.

Blackdown: In Object’s RBMA interview, he admits that on a track, he took Ableton and turned automation on the master tempo and drew a series of random squibbles, so he had a fundamentally unmixable track. He then had to find a way to fill that constraint. I’m not willing to be that brave, but I think constraints are powerful. It’s something I have kinship with, there are tracks in this mix that happened because of their constraints, which again, are powerful and inherent in dance music. The nutty mix of “Wot Do You Mean” has no hi-hats for example and yet it creates momentum. And the weightless stuff has no beats whatsoever. We’re constantly looking for ways around it. The rollage stuff for example, has a lot of heavy kicks, so given the constraint that we’re optimizing things for heavy kicks, we needed to find out how to shape the bass lines around them. It sounds nerdy, but we’re trying to push the boundaries of what is rhythmic. It’s like the opposite of Garage where the kicks are mental but the hats were fairly logical. I don’t know if people still care about that creative angle, but for us, it’s a pleasing pattern we get into.

Dusk: They care enough to send us 2 hours of music every month!

Finally, I wanted to talk about the emergence of More Cowbell – a Facebook group that’s become a bit of a gathering spot for people interested in not only what Keysound’s doing but also bunch of similar minded labels and producers. How did you come across that?

Blackdown: The 2 year period where we were trying to figure out how to put this music out coincided roughly with a period of light pessimism regarding where we were going musically. It definitely felt like people weren’t coming with us and we were swimming upstream, which can be an opportunity, but it can also be a bit lonely as well. There was a generation of producers like Wen, Etch, Parris and Beneath who had long since decided to go in their own creative directions – which I’m very happy for them – so we were writing more music that we’d ever done, but there was a degree of slight sonic isolation. So about 6 months to a year ago, someone said we should post our music in this place called More Cowbell, which we hadn’t even heard of because of the abundance of choice on the Internet. At that point it was a 150-200 person Facebook group, but I noticed both a like-mindedness and a diversity of styles. A lot of it comes from that Pearson Sound/Lurka vibe, Objekt seems to be a huge hero to some people there, but it does also overlap with the stuff we’re doing. We got invited to play on [More Cowbell founder] Eich’s radio show in late last year on Subtle FM and we just immediately clicked. Eich was really switched on and had started More Cowbell because there was no platform for this music and we’ve since discovered that she has this amazing overlap with some very foundational music for Dusk and I. The fact that she’s really inspired by Ghost, there’s no guarantee that could have happened. That’s one of the seminal influences on my production from a long time ago – 1999! 2000! So it was very cool. Liking something like Ghost says something really foundational about soul and swing and funkiness and how music makes your body move, to me. It’s the opposite of the landfill Tech-House that bores me.

Dusk: It’s very homogeneous as well. You go to the bar, you comeback a different day and it still sounds like the same song. And there’s parallels there with when LHF were sending us stuff when they were bored with 140BPM music around 2010. The conditions are ripe for a community like More Cowbell to say “there’s more to dance music than this.”

Blackdown: Connecting with a community of likeminded people is always where the fun is at.

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