The latest addition to this dub-laced tapestry is the ever-expanding dubstep community, with label owners Pinch, Peverelist and Appleblim all leading the charge with their respective Tectonic, Punch Drunk and Apple Pips imprints. All three of these artists were born elsewhere in the UK, but were attracted to the city's longstanding love affair with sound system culture and bass music. Pinch, Peverelist and Appleblim are joined by a fresh new wave of born-and-bred Bristolians looking to exert themselves onto the international stage; a trio of producers that, due to their youth, missed out on the golden age of jungle and instead bring a whole new set of influences to the table.
These three artists go by the names of Joker, Gemmy and Guido, and have quickly been branded by both the media and their online fans as the "Purple Trinity," something that all three of them aren't entirely comfortable with. "I had a tune called 'Purple Moon,' which was kind of the beginning of the whole purple thing," Gemmy explains. "Honestly, I just believe that this is a media thing—just a people thing, innit? They just want to put it in the category of 'purple,' so I don't think it depends on what we sound like." Though Gemmy was the first of the three to mention the colour, it was Joker that cemented the term's usage when he spoke to Dub Studio about how imagery inspires him to create his melodious but sub-heavy tracks.
But while he used it to title both a promo mix ("Purple Wow") and one of his records ("Purple City," which was produced with fellow Bristol-based artist Ginz), the young producer is definitely reluctant for it to become a word that is synonymous with their sound. "You see, people have took it way further than it is. It's like the forum and people around that have made it a brand more than we have, d'you know what I mean? I've got a friend called Quest. He suffers from synaesthesia, and he suffers from it badly. He can't even hear stuff without seeing shit. I don't get that, but I think that all music's got a colour, because it has. We just kind of say it and people are making a big thing about it."
Liam Mclean, AKA Joker, is both the youngest and most successful artist of the trio. In just two years, the 20 year-old has gone from being a relatively unknown producer in the dubstep scene to DJing to three thousand people at Barcelona's Sonar festival. That said, Joker's been cutting his teeth behind the decks long before he was even legally allowed into a club. "I was eighteen for about three years," he jokes, before regaling me with tales from his early days as part of a grime collective. "It was a crew called Kold Hearted Kru. There was a DJ before, but I don't know what happened and I ended up DJing for them. After a while, my little cousin Ashley started making tunes—his name was Devious. I didn't actually think about it before. All these tunes that I'm buying, people have obviously made them, so why don't I start making tunes? Half of these tunes I'm buying, there was always something missing for me, d'you know what I mean? I wanted to make the thing that was missing, that I wanted to hear."
One of the people to spot Joker's talent early on was Tectonic boss Rob Ellis, AKA Pinch. After being introduced via Dub Studio's owner and cutting engineer Henry Bainbridge, Pinch heard a few demo tracks and started to book Joker for his Dubloaded and Subloaded events. Soon after, Ellis signed four of Joker's tracks to his Earwax sublabel, resulting in the Kapsize EP (named as such due to the death of his cousin, DJ Kapsize, shortly before its release). So, did the producer get any handy words of wisdom from Bristol's dubstep doyen? "I didn't really want to hear what anyone had to say. Because if I listened to other people then I'd be doing what everyone else is doing, and I didn't really give a fuck what everyone else was doing. At that time, I didn't give a fuck about dubstep. I didn't like it, and I didn't want no vibes from anyone who was doing that kind of shit, because I wouldn't be myself." It might be easy to dismiss this comment as arrogant bravado, but the reality is that when his debut EP hit the shops back in early '07, nobody had heard anything like it. While lead cut "Stuck in the System" might have the snare on the third beat and the heavy low end associated with a typical dubstep track, its sweeping synthesised strings added a powerful sense of emotion and drama to proceedings, with the collapsing bass riffs and high-pitched bleeps acting as claustrophobic counterpoints to the main melody.
Upon introducing his slot on Mary Anne Hobbs' Generation Bass special, Kode9 spoke about this particular trope of Joker's, remarking that those lead synths make his tracks sound like "Wiley stuck in an elevator with...Cameo. You hear his whiney pitch-bent synths on a dance floor, it's like some kind of group electrocution taking place. Those synths sound like a big laser frying everyone's brains—I love that!" The show was yet another Joker coming-out party, with his rapid fire mixing technique and unique sound providing one of the highlights of the show.
During the time that I spent in Joker's studio, there were multiple vintage synths stacked against the wall, while his trusty Roland SH-201 ("one of my favourites") took pride of place on his desk. Don't give his hardware too much credit, however. "People say 'the reason Joker's leads or bass are [so good is] his keyboards and shit.' It doesn't matter what I'm using, I could be using Reason still, or Logic sounds, and I still get the same sound. It's just so much thicker and real from hardware. You can get results inside a computer, but then it becomes a part of your sound in a way. For instance, Skream is inside a computer but it works perfectly for his sound. The sound I want to get at, it would be better for me to be outside."
Joker's desire to move his sound aesthetic forward is certainly apparent when you compare his recent productions to the Kapsize EP, but he's not one to rest on his laurels. "I'm spending two and a half grand on a new synth tomorrow," he explains excitedly. "That's going to be one of my new main ones. It's a Roland V-Synth. It's brand new technology—it's crazy. It's just fucked up. It's got this stuff called AP synthesis, which nothing in the world has, and it basically means that you can mutate sounds to act like real instruments. It makes no sense to me, but it sounds sick. I was in the shop for three hours making sounds."
give a fuck about dubstep."
The analogue synthesis that he's been trying to achieve is an interest shared by James Ginzburg, AKA Ginz. The producer's Multiverse Music operation acts as an umbrella for Tectonic, Earwax and Kapsize, so it was only a matter of time before the duo hooked up. Those who have heard their two loping bass bin-busting anthems, "Purple City" and "Re-Up," are certainly glad they did. The pair are currently pumping out remixes for the likes of Basement Jaxx (after receiving a personal recommendation on air from Pete Tong, of all people), Zero 7 and Adam Freeland, but for the moment, Joker has postponed any serious collaborations with Guido and Gemmy. "I make a tune more easily with Ginz than I do with those two because our heads are in the same place, just banging out things on the hardware and just leaving it on record, but with Gemmy and Guido, they're still on software, and I can't stand that shit no more."
There are still plans to do a full-length collaboration with the pair sometime in the future ("I'm trying to do one with me, Ginz, Gemmy and Guido."), but currently Joker's head is firmly elsewhere, with numerous other projects on the cards. One such project is his debut album, which he's still writing and recording tracks for. It's set to include live favourites "Tron" and "My Trance Girl" as well as a raucous arpeggiated collaboration with drum & bass producer TC. Speaking about the record, Joker coyly informs us that "there's definitely going to be a few fucked up tracks to make a few people happy. Completely more fucked up than you've ever heard from me before. A few R&B-ish, grime-ish tracks... and I might put 'Digidesign' on there. Just a few [old] tunes that need to be on there."
Other collaborations are happening, as well. But not with anyone from his home city. A 12-inch single alongside Croydon's dubstep pin-up Skream should surface sometime next year, and an album with London-based halfstep producer Silkie is in the works as well. The pair are planning to travel to both Berlin and Copenhagen to produce the record, and although it will be difficult for Joker to shift all of his hardware over to mainland Europe for the sessions, one thing is for certain... The V-Synth is definitely coming with him.
Gemmel Phillips, AKA Gemmy, was the second of the three to emerge onto the scene, and while he shared a similar crew-based experience to Joker, it was from the other side of the decks that he found the inspiration to start producing for himself. "I was an MC, so basically it came to the point where I needed some instrumentation to put my lyrics on, so instead of going to other people to get music, I was making my own. It got to the stage where I was focusing a lot more on the instrumentation, and what I could do there rather than the lyrics."
Joker and Gemmy back to back
With his eyes opened to the wider spectrum of urban dance music, Gemmy then started to apply these new ideas to his own material, working within the constructs of a variety of genres. "At first I was doing a bit of everything," he explains, "which in some sense wasn't the best idea. I couldn't concentrate on one thing. I was just making music, but it came to the point where I just realised that I was just concentrating on one thing. It wasn't a case of waking up one morning and going 'I'm going to start making that.' It was just a general progression where I gradually just stopped doing other things and just became one thing which I did focus on." The sound that he eventually started to refine saw Phillips mesh together the two great loves of his childhood—the swaggering G-funk beats of Dr. Dre, and the clean and colourful melodies of 16-bit console classics like Sonic The Hedgehog—with some additional low-end histrionics for maximum dance floor impact.
A mutual friend put Gemmy and Joker in touch after hearing the similarities between their tracks, and the two instantly connected. "We both realised that we were into the same sound, and we both realised that either of us wasn't someone that just leeched onto it. We did actually know a lot about it, and were actually supporters of the scene. I would go through his records and think 'jeez, he's actually got this tune'—which wasn't a simple tune that you could pick up—and we just realised how deep we were into it."
With their musical taste laying the foundations for their friendship, it wasn't long before the pair began to exchange production tips and tricks as they both tried to get to grips with their respective sounds. "We've always been bouncing ideas off each other," Gemmy says, "so you can hear that a lot between me and Joker. There are a lot of similarities between our sounds. We've just been in the same circles, and have been listening to each other's music, so we're kind of been influenced by each other as well."
to other things that were going on."
Though Joker may have been the first to commit his tunes to wax, dubplates of Gemmy's material had been circulating within Bristol's close-knit community of dubstep DJs. With its screeching lead synth and undulating bass riff, "Bk 2 The Future" emerged as both a crowd and selectors' favourite, showing a producer who possessed the uncommon trait of knowing how to wobble with measure and restraint." The track eventually appeared on his debut 12-inch for Peverelist's Punch Drunk label, but it was actually the sub-low churn of "Bass Transmitter" that convinced the DJ/producer to sign Gemmy to his label, and that particular track has found its way into the record boxes of some unlikely suspects, receiving notable radio play from both synth-wizard Gavin Russom and the BBC's Heidi.
The success of the Punch Drunk release meant that Gemmy was quickly snatched up by Planet Mu boss Mike Paradinas to join the new wave of dubstep-related artists that have become the vanguard of the label, with plans already in place to issue his debut album before the year is out. Phillips is still working on the final tracks that will make it onto the full-length, but he's keen to inform us that there's plenty more to his aural canon. "On my album, I'm going to be doing loads of different stuff, so it's not definitively one fixed thing. It's going to be my chance to voice what I make and show people what I'm into, what my influences are... Show them what Gemmy's all about."
Guy Middleton, AKA Guido, is the real musical prodigy of the trio. Having been trained in both classical and jazz piano during his childhood, Middleton is now using his ivory tinkling abilities to infuse his own compositional touch onto the world of dubstep. "It's got to have a good hook," he states, before humbly adding, "I know it's not that original, but a lot of dubstep is just based on the bassline and the LFO and doesn't get too melodic." That's definitely not an accusation that you could level at the 21 year-old, with all sorts of synthesised instrumentation—including saxophones, strings, piano and guitar—cropping up in his tracks. While other artists may shy away from using such crude imitations of orchestral instruments, Guido's love for the video game music of his youth means that he looks fondly upon this style of sound, and is happy to incorporate that into his music. "My favourite game was Final Fantasy—VII, VIII and IX—and when I was younger I just loved playing those games. There was a music composer for those games called Nobuo Uematsu, who just made sick tunes," he enthuses.
and I was getting MySpace messages
saying 'Will you play in Belgium?'"
Although Guido and Gemmy didn't meet each other until a few years ago, Guido and Joker had known each other for a while, meeting up for the first time in a quintessentially English style. "I'd met an MC called Shadz, and I rang him to play him a song down the phone when I was about fifteen or sixteen. He goes 'keep playing the tune 'cos I'm going to play it to my DJ,' so he played it to Joker, and then Joker said 'let's meet this evening and swap a CD.' So we met at a chip shop, swapped a CD, and he played me some of his ideas on Reason 3.5 or whatever it was back then." At around the same time, Guido had begun work on his self-released—and now out-of-print—Unleashed mixtape, which helped to get his name out and about on the Bristol scene.
Guido also took special care to slip Punch Drunk boss Tom "Peverelist" Ford a demo CD of his latest beats on a semi-regular basis. His efforts proved fruitful in late '08, when Ford decided to follow up the Gemmy release with two of Guido's tracks. "When that happened, that was a really big moment for me. The fact that someone wanted to release something of mine was kind of unbelievable," he modestly proclaims. "Orchestral Lab" sounds exactly as the title suggests, with Guido throwing a multitude of MIDI emulations over a loping dubstep-friendly beat, but B-side "Way U Make Me Feel" saw the producer working outside of the genre's tempo constraints, constructing an emotionally rich 94 BPM roller full of cascading piano riffs and varied synth stabs.
"I found out about what a big thing it was after it came out, when I got bookings from different countries," he says. "I wasn't even DJing at that point, and I was getting MySpace messages saying 'Will you play in Belgium?' I thought, if they don't even know that I DJ, and they still want to book me, I could go over there and be shit. Therefore, I really made the effort to learn how to DJ. The first thing that I thought of when I started DJing was the mixes; they had to sound really good, so I worked out some mixes at home, and what songs were in the same key, and that was what I wanted to specialise in back then."
Like his two friends, Guido has been asked for new material from a number of labels. In contrast to Joker and Gemmy, though, he seems happy to keep things local. "The way I see it, Tom was kind of the first person to approach me about my stuff, and the way I understand all these labels work, they're all distributed by a few main distributors. They get about to where they should go anyway, so it doesn't really matter. Even if the label's got a big name, my music is still going to get heard on Punch Drunk, and I think that Punch Drunk is a very exciting label to be on because it's new, it's Bristol-based, they're my friends and it's good to do business with someone that you trust."