All of that sounds ripe for the plucking by narrative-hungry music journalists, but the music is in tune with the ideological currents that surround the music. An LHF track is an inherently referential thing, folding in jungle, drum & bass, dubstep, grime and all sorts of bizarre samples of unknown origins. As a result, you get the feeling that these guys are up on their musical history, which is why we weren't surprised when LHF figurehead Amen Ra proved rather philosophical as he walked me through some of the most influential tracks on his own distinct sound, from early breakbeat hardcore through to prime Metalheadz, dark garage and all varieties of hip-hop.
Just For You London
I have no idea how old you guys are, really, but were you around for this stuff when it first hit the raves and the airwaves?
Well I was listening to pirates from '94 onward, and I remember this used to feature on an advertisement they ran on Kool FM. I knew it was old school breaks but I hadn't heard anything quite as funky and out there—it sounded different to all the old school breaks that I already knew.
What about it was different? One thing that strikes me is that it's got this really positive, almost disco vibe to it different from a lot of other hardcore.
Exactly, it sounded more rooted. It wasn't just rave music influenced by rave sounds, it felt like it had more history. It stood out 'cause of the way the samples were used, it was more streetwise and cool, to my ears.
I get the feeling that the history of certain music is very important to you.
Yeah, I think we all forget too easily or hold on too tightly. It's about walking the line and not trying to replicate old or new, but using the old to express yourself in the now. The sound of this record was very fresh, but you could still hear that it was very informed by history.
Is maintaining that sense of history important to you in your own music, and how do you keep it from not just replicating the old stuff you love?
I find myself constantly attracted to new sounds, so I'm lucky like that. Music still surprises me and I realised a long time ago that this was the driving force behind my love of music; that feeling of discovering something new, like a new world of possibilities. It's about listening with a clear mind, I guess, and recognising that moment your mind labels something... You really gotta be in the here and now.
When I hear a producer making a perfect sounding garage beat like it's '98 again I just can't feel it, it feels fake. A lot has happened since then, environments have changed. What he's doing is thinking with his intellect about music, and not expressing what he is now. There's no vitality in that, no impulse. Being in the here and now is fresh, but at the same time you've been through certain things, so you can use some of that influence and apply it—but it has to be impulsive, that's where the past turns into something totally new. The guy that made "Just for You London" was using some old, rootsy sound but totally applying it to the environment he was in. It's like finding new combinations.
You & Me
I would have thought this one was a little… glossy for you, given the nature of your own music.
I could have gone for so many on this album, but I can't deny that growing up as a kid I used to love tunes like this that had some overwhelmingly beautiful melodies and vocals, but could turn dark at the flick of a switch; this tune is a perfect example of that. Jungle, and later, garage, had that ability to nice you up then dark you out, that's why I found both so emotionally intense. Goldie made a masterpiece and no amount of appearances on reality TV is gonna make me lose respect.
So you don't think introducing such blatantly poppy elements (and those production values) reduces the impact of what is otherwise "underground" music?
No, I think underground music has got a certain pulse that, to my ears, makes it sound more alive. Even a really glossy tune can still have that rough, imperfect, "alive" feel. In this track you can hear it in the beats and in the transitions, it's still a human expressing himself. It's when things become too perfect that you lose the impact.
Obviously Photek has a legendary catalogue with some of the most intricate drum programming and sampling, well, ever, so why did you choose "Consciousness" in particular?
Platinum Breaks was a huge turning point for me, it showed me the true potential of jungle/drum & bass, and the Photek track just stood out the most. I remember feeling something so much bigger than me, it sounded like something primitive but still futuristic and undiscovered at the same time.
One thing that's always appealed to me about that era of Photek was how the drums sounded so real but cut up in such impressive, inhuman ways.
Yeah, totally, the sound of the beats are really organic and the chops were very technical—he walked that line. All great electronic music, to me, walks that line between human and inhuman, without going too far one way or the other.
This track has a monologue flowing underneath it, and you seem to be a fan of incorporating speech samples as well. What's the appeal there, of using spoken word rather than singing vocal samples?
I just find it interesting how you can create a context for words which totally change their meaning. So much power in words. I think with vocals we tend to think more about harmony than meaning although we still use vocal samples for the words, too.
So the actual words of the samples are important as opposed to just the way they sound… like the Kill Bill samples in "Blue Steel," those always jump out at me.
I think it's both actually. Sometimes the sound of the words marry up to the music, like that track you mentioned. I guess words just open up a world inspiration both in how they sound and their meaning. It shines a different light on it, it can make the music so much more powerful.
Look Who's Lovin Me (Smokin Club)
I think your music is so often associated with the hardcore->jungle->dnb->garage->dubstep progression that people wouldn't really associate this kind of housier stuff with your music. Is house and early garage a big influence as well?
Yeah, before 2-step I was listening to the 4/4 UK garage stuff, and a DJ would mix that with US stuff or US-influenced stuff so that would trickle into the pirates too. It was the deep soulfulness of it that got me. Just used to shut my eyes and get lost in tunes like this. These vocals are designed to melt. R&B vocals are cool, I love them, but this just sounds like the woman has so much more wisdom.
What do you look for when sampling vocals in your own tracks? I'm thinking of the wails in "Akashic Vision," for example.
It's just an emotional resonance I look for. I guess that's all informed by these early years. It's hard trying to break it down, I just feel there's a depth to it. It's kind of sexual. There's a certain pain I look for. I love vocals where you can hear that even if he/she is singing something that gives her pleasure, the pain is there too, like he/she knows that the pleasure will or has led to pain. It brings it back down to everyday human senses and emotions, and it's easy to lose touch with that with all these machines.
I've never heard of this before. How'd you come across it?
This track is from the broken beat scene, which although shortlived was one of the most inspiring movements to come out of the UK. Domu was one of the best from that scene. This track just has an incredible vocalist, and again, this deeply rooted sound which brought the old to the new and applied beautifully. I'm gutted that broken beat didn't keep flourishing. It brought so many influences to the table but was instantly recognizable as a UK form of music.
What made it so "UK?" What is "UK" to you?
It was the deep soundsystem spirit, you could hear it in the low-end, coupled with the shuffling, skipping and swinging beats. This track is not an example of your typical broken beat track, which is probably why I chose it. What is the UK sound, though? There was an up-tempo aspect to it which made it UK too. I feel like there's melancholy in UK tracks, that you don't get in US tracks. Like, broken beat borrowed a lot from jazz, but they did in the way that someone like Photek would do it—it was more twisted, maybe not as "happy." UK guys were more reserved, so I guess the sound is more reserved, but I'm not sure if this applies anymore... damn, you opened up a minefield here.
Do you feel like your own music carries that tradition of reserved sort of melancholy and sadness?
Yeah, on the whole, but me personally, I've been exploring other realms. I really feel these localised ways of doing things is dead right now, every day we have the world at our fingertips. New ideas and emotions can be experienced so much quicker. But I guess at our core, LHF are a product of these classics, melancholy UK dance tracks—it's ingrained, we won't lose that. I really don't want people to think that LHF is all about the old though, we're old school cats but I can say that I personally am looking to experience sound I haven't experienced yet. It changes the context of the old stuff and keeps us evolving. I'm constantly discovering new music, which if I am ingenious enough, I can see is connected to the old stuff in an unbroken chain. If people don't see that, they've forgotten what drew them to those older sounds in the first place. It was the novelty, it was the freshness as well as the strange sense of knowing already.
My personal favourite Wu-Tang album. Obviously these early RZA productions share a lot in common with the sound and style of some LHF tunes.
RZA's stuff sounds very imperfect and human, that's the first thing. Secondly, he was able to hear melodies that no one else was hearing and could see elements working together that other artists couldn't see. This is important, to try and see music in everything. This beat is a total patchwork quilt of weird little saxophone riffs and harps and stuff that a lot of people wouldn't have the balls to put together in such a way. It almost sounds wrong.
There's a lot of clashing elements but they never quite... clash.
Exactly, so the question is what made these clashing elements work, and I can only put it down to the force of RZA's will. He was going to lay it down his way and no one was gonna stop him. As much as artists talk about having their own sound and not worrying about being liked, when do you ever really hear that? It's rare. But these are the artists which actually cause movements to happen and molds to be broken. He probably had to put up with a lot of shit from others.
Is that something you worry about? A lot of LHF tracks, especially the Amen Ra stuff, feature a kind of dizzying amount of elements all at once.
I don't worry about it, I am confident that my heart is pure. I genuinely want to find some new ground to keep myself interested. I love complex pieces of music like this RZA track, it's like a force. You can't pick out the melody, you just feel like you've been taken to this whole other world, you've never felt it before, you can't put your finger on it.
A lot of LHF stuff has a very otherworldly quality to it, like it's taking you to another world… or trying to show you something.
Yeah, totally. I think the otherworldliness comes from this clash of ideas. It's like you get used to seeing this element with that element, that's the safe world we live in, the one we know, but when you put this element with this element, it becomes something that we've not experienced before or something we don't have a name for. Like if there are alien planets out there, I can imagine they've just got the same elements we've got but in combinations that we don't know about... we've gone way out there now. [laughs]
Most of your other picks have been much older, but this one is something newer and more modern. What is it about this track and the whole LA beat/hip-hop scene that sticks out to you?
The LA beat guys make music that deals with pure ascension, that's what I really feel they came to do, to take hip-hop beyond. Flying Lotus is the great unifier of our generation in my eyes, how he incorporates so many styles into his template is so inspiring. Him and Madlib are two artists that truly inspired me to move.
Their spirits helped me to move along my path with a wider vision, no longer scared about the wackier thoughts I have. We're complex beings and these guys helped me understand that we have the tools at our disposal to express that complexity in a harmonious way. "Shinelight" is a true example of that ascending experience. The Brainfeeder guys have so much presence in their tunes, the impact has rendered me speechless enough times.
I've fallen in love with the whole thing they've got going on in LA. I take inspiration from Carlos Niño, the whole Brainfeeder crew, Lucky Dragons, Asura, Shlohmo, Kutmah and more. There are a lot of copycats that just sound like cheap versions of various Brainfeeder members but I moved away from that as soon as it started happening. All "scenes" get boring quickly. Stick to the borders between them, that's where it's happening.
Well this one just seems kind of obvious.
Horsepower were a massive influence. Again, they took this UK sound to completely new places and they opened my mind up, in a similar way to Brainfeeder. It's the artists that show you the possibilities that can really help you as an artist and even just as a person. Why do I want someone to show me it's possible to make stuff that sounds completely like other stuff at the time?
Horsepower and that whole early dubstep movement changed things. No one could understand it at first, it was too mutant. For me it was the most exciting time of my musical life, watching a scene grow from its grassroots, being there at the pivotal moments. That will stay with me forever. Letting dubstep go was important though, it was the last scene that I felt properly "involved" in, if you know what I mean. Now I listen to and am involved in everything equally, with no real ties—that shit is all an illusion. The real tie between all of us is the search for harmony that we all seek through music. Fuck a scene.
You're usually seen very much in the context of UK music. But you've picked a lot of US hip-hop here. Is US hip-hop as a big a musical current in your evolution as jungle and drum & bass and breakbeat?
For me it is. Everything I learned about music I learned through jungle, and jungle took a lot from funk, hip-hop, jazz, rare groove, soul, etc. which mainly come from the US, there's no denying that. I got into hip-hop after jungle, but I could totally see the similarity, both came from the street, both provided a voice to people who had no voice, both were a product of their environments, both couldn't have happened anywhere else but the places they were born. Both have this kind of renegade backbone.
Have you ever thought about working with MCs? And why all US hip-hop here, with nothing from the UK?
The UK stuff for me only got interesting later on, and most of the UK raps like Jehst and Task Force, who have mad skills, used to kind of sound more like US artists anyway in terms of structure and the music they used to rap to. The only dude that I found was a true "UK hip-hop" don was Roots Manuva. His content was very British and his beats had that soundsystem spirit in them. I've thought about working with MCs but I don't know, I think I'd have to actually make some beats with them in mind 'cause my usual output may not work with an MC. I need some weirdo to spit over my shit.
Do you feel like you're restricted or contained in what you can do under the LHF moniker, since it's a collective thing?
Nah, it feels restricting when people label it, but with LHF we've shown so many styles over our mixes that people probably expect the unexpected. Each project within LHF has the spirit of evolution so actually it feels like I'm free to do what I want and it'll fit in somewhere. We've tried to make LHF as distinct as possible. What Martin and Dan [the Keysound label managers] have done is select tunes that resonate with them and found connections between groups of tunes to create a narrative, but there's narratives in LHF that may not make it onto a Keysound release because it doesn't fit with the Keysound narrative.
The label has captured a snapshot of our sound, but it goes on and on and doesn't stop, LHF won't stop evolving, we're searching for the undying source. People have latched onto the "old dubstep" tag because there's an aspect of that to our sound, but that doesn't tell the full story and I think it's too hard to capture when you look at the whole of what we do. That feeling is what allows us to stay free, doing something bigger and wider than ourselves.