In a few short years, Williams has become an important producer in what is now generally termed "bass music"—the umbrella term for the innumerable mutations of dubstep, drum & bass, UK funky, bassline, grime, what-have-you. While—until recently—he has lacked an identifiable big hit, his precise, techy dubstep sound struck an estimable chord with a generation of dubstep producers, particularly those nestled in the west coast of the United States. On top of that, he's worked with seemingly everyone willing to have him, with collaborations and remixes all over the map.
More recently he's switched operations over to Addison Groove, his new juke and electro-inspired project that pretty well defines bass music in 2010: restless, twitchy and hyper. Debut Addison tune "Footcrab," released on Loefah's Swamp81 label earlier in 2010, was a certifiable smash commercially and critically. It also caused a stir amongst his fellow producers, making an appearance in almost every single relevant podcast for a period of several months.
Williams wasn't always a nomad. However much of a globetrotter he may be, there's something to be said for his spiritual and nominal home of Bristol, a city that embraces jungle music down to its very core. Indeed, the city's junglist roots seem to have seeped in, laying the foundation for his career. "I started off DJing drum & bass when I was 15," he explains, "after spending hours looking at the shopping section of DJ Mag when I was 13, all I wanted was to have some decks. I had no idea what connected to what, I just knew I wanted to be the next DJ Hype or Grooverider." But lofty goals quickly gave way to reality: "After buying tunes for a year or two, I got an issue of Future Music. I knew that to become a DJ you needed to be a producer, that was the way," he says.
Predicting his tendency for collaboration, Williams was quick to make connections. "I had already met a few key producers in Bristol, thanks to meeting someone while I was working in a shop," he begins. "His name was DJ Manic. He was friends with all the drum & bass guys from Bristol, Tech Itch, Ice Minus, Jakes, Komonazmuk." He still sounds shocked at his luck: "I'm 15, and meeting these guys. It was like, 'how have I pulled this off?' But I went with it, and from knowing these guys I was eager to get into producing," he admits. "Behind closed doors I got myself a PC... I guess by 19 I was getting the gist of it." Unfortunately, his budding career hit a slight snag as he was forced to reside in a youth hostel for upwards of four years. Remaining positive, he persevered, explaining that "if you want something, you stay on track, even if it's hard times, and hope one day you will come out OK."
Indeed, he put that time to good use: "At 19, I needed an education," he admits, "so I decided to go to college and do music. I didn't learn much because I already knew the subject, it just gave me the time to do my own music." Surprisingly enough, though, there was yet another hitch in the road for the nascent Headhunter: "After college, I went to university, but by then I gave up making my own music because I was so into my BMX riding. I was going around the country to jams and events, I fucking loved it, I made my own bike," he recounts. "With drum & bass at that point [2003, by his estimation], there wasn't much you could do that was new. I stopped listening to drum & bass and got into psytrance."
Fortune eventually prevailed for Williams' musical leanings; in 2005 he entered a university class with fellow Bristol producers Appleblim, Wedge, Gatekeeper and Bloodman, an impressive roll call by anyone's standard. "At the time I joined we were all new to the dubstep stuff," he says, emphasizing his relationship Appleblim, then head of the Skull Disco label. "Laurie [Appleblim] and I would swap tunes," he explains, "and at that time he was working at Tempa. He asked me, 'Tempa want to meet up with you, would you be interested?' Pretty much a no-brainer for me." By April of 2006, he was the newest member of Tempa's influential label roster.
The signing of Headhunter to Tempa was a stunning move both for Williams and the London imprint, then an inarguable leader of the fledgling dubstep scene. Not only was he the first non-London producer to be signed to the label, but his sharp drum & bass rooted sound was often in sharp contrast with the garage and jungle-indebted productions of his labelmates. "I was just chipping away as Headhunter, trying to make the Virus/drum & bass kind of dubstep," he says. Indeed, his move from drum & bass to dubstep not only lingered in his sound but arguably paved the way for a whole generation of drum & bass producers to make a similar move to 140 BPM sounds, perhaps best exemplified by 2010's rapturously-received dubstep transformation of Swedish producer Icicle. "That was the idea," he admits, "get the d & b sounds into halfstep. Ed Rush & Optical, Bad Company and Andy C. I wanted that sound. I had Youngsta on my side, I'd be pretty much making tunes for him, he was into the tech halfstep sound."
It's this lingering influence that colours most of the early Headhunter discography, a fastidious sense of mechanistic rhythm and vacuum-sealed sonics that stood out on Tempa and indeed among his contemporaries. His earliest tracks, like "7th Curse" and "The Arrival" on Tech Itch's Ascension label, bristle with an almost robotic syncopation separate from the dub-inspired swing of London cousins Digital Mystikz or Skream. Despite his insistence that this influence is no longer traceable in his more recent music, it's not so for a whole generation of producers who take inspiration from his straitlaced, antiseptic sound. Notably, the stoic San Francisco dubstep scene spearheaded by DJG (Dean Grenier, a friend and frequent collaborator) shares in the same dark technoid sound, a style Grenier affectionately calls "deep rave."
Of course, there's another strain of dance music that deals in straightforward linear rhythms, and by the release of his debut album, Headhunter was swept up in the considerable wave of techno-dubstep alchemy alongside Martyn, 2562, Peverelist, et al. He credits Dave Huismanns for this, admitting "I think I knew how far it would reach a year before that when I was hearing 2562 making his techno/dubstep crossover." The Nomad album was a career progress report, going beyond his established sound and incorporating 4/4 rhythms, soulful vocals and a whole new palette of sounds. "Dubstep got me into techno," he admits, charting an unusual course when compared to his peers. "Appleblim got me into the Basic Channel stuff, I had zero history on techno." The album's diversity can safely be attributed to its unique origins, events which had a palpable effect on the future of Headhunter. As Williams recounts, "I realized I could live for a year just going from gig to gig—or at least try. With a USA tour and Australia tours lined up and a lot of European summer gigs, I thought, 'Why not?' On the way I made tunes in people's front rooms or studios."
it gets big, I want to get out."
In the wake of Nomad came an eye-opening moment for Williams. "Eventually one of the tracks on the album was remixed by Modeselektor," he proudly points out, "which was amazing, I had no idea those guys were feeling my stuff. I'm seeing how far it can go, how much it can be mutated and still have people ask, 'Is that dubstep?'" Williams seemed eager to move away from a predictable sound: "We all got into dubstep because it was fresh at the time. But I'm the kind of person that once it gets big, I want to get out of it," he admits. "I spent the whole of 2009 doing remixes, I wasn't too keen on doing anything new."
Inspiration quickly found its way back to Williams, in the form of the Chicago streetwise dance music known as juke. "When I heard it, I felt the same thing I felt when I heard dubstep. I like it, but I don't know why... I'm gonna give it a go!" he says, "so I played it. I got confused looks." Williams didn't give up quite so quickly, however. "I got into making some of it, and in March 2009, I made a tune at 138, so I can play it after the juke going into the dubstep. That was 'Footcrab.'" Williams casually mentions "Footcrab," released under new pseudonym Addison Groove, but it's perhaps the track that has had the biggest effect on his current musical direction. It's also dubstep's 2010 anthem, a track which repeated a hilariously nonsensical vocal sample ad nauseum, functionally repurposing juke's twitch at a UK-friendly tempo.
Reaction was inspired from the start, according to Williams: "I passed it to Pinch and Peverelist—'this is the best thing you've ever made!' I never really played it," he claims, "but they did. At Outlook in 2009, Loefah got a hold of it, and we agreed to put it out [on Loefah's label Swamp81]. It became the biggest tune I ever made, and potentially the biggest tune of the year." As for the name change: "Tempa had first dibs on my [Headhunter] tunes. But 'Footcrab' was a new sound, so I decided to change my name. I picked 'Addison' because it's one of the most popular unisex names; I didn't want it to sound like a boy or a girl. And I always wanted a name with the word groove in it—Addison Groove had a cool ring."
As for the future of Addison Groove, Williams seems hopeful. "It's post-dubstep whatever. The shit I'm on now is basically '80s electro." When asked how he gets that from starting with juke, he simply states, "Drum machine, man. The thing that got me into juke was the way they use the 808. It's a sound palette, I'm just using drum machine palettes at 135-140 BPM. Like Miami Bass. It was just something no one else was doing, not at 140 anyway." He's even built a live show around it, described by Williams as "desk, 808, Ableton. I try to keep it as live as I can by playing stuff, looping stuff on the fly. It's like I'm in my home studio but in a club. I love DJing, but I also love producing, so doing that live is amazing."
The future of Headhunter is a little less certain: "Maybe eventually it will merge with Addison," he says, "I've got no plan. I want to get the next Addison EP out on Swamp81, then look to do some kind of... I hate to say 'album,' but like Shackleton's Three EPs, a collection of tunes. Maybe once that's done, Headhunter will come back with more deep-tech-rolling whatever." He remains firmly non-committal. "Who knows? When the time is right I think something will emerge from the Headhunter sound. I have a label though [Transistor], so I might just make something for that, more dubstep than juke."
Whatever happens down the road, Tony Williams is going to continue making his inimitable presence known, and he's growing more prominent by the minute. Whether or not he continues as Headhunter, he runs two labels—Transistor by himself and Deca Rhythm with a few friends from Bristol—and has a constant bevy of remixes and collaborations. In just three years he's jumped from scene to scene, and makes it his own—as much of a Nomad stylistically and conceptually as he is geographically. When speaking of his dubstep phase, he said "I was always in the background I suppose, I never made a massive tune. But the tunes that did become massive I didn't really want to represent, the tunes that other people were making." But now, riding the impressive wave of "Footcrab," he's just where he wants to be—massive tunes and no sign of compromise anywhere.