With his trio of EPs—Heavystuff, City Shuffle, and New Skank—for Detroit-affiliated London imprint Third Ear, Warren Brown has piqued the interest of house music devotees of all stripes, and in achieving that rare double-threat status—being equally engaging as both studio artist and live act—he has become one of the genre's most bankable new talents.
Within the narrower scope of the UK's current crop of young producers, 25-year-old Brown remains something of a curiosity. The shared parentage of rave and soundsystem subcultures has cultivated a vibrant underground club scene that joyfully bleeds through genre borders, but Brown, born, raised and resident in the south London borough of Peckham, "wasn't into clubbing," he admits, "my friends said, 'you're making these beats (as if) you're going out every week' and I would just laugh, but I've come up around good music."
Brown's recollections of his early musical influences are typical of any junior member of a large family; as the youngest of nine children, incidental exposure around the house abounded. His father's record collection favoured reggae and crooning Nat King Cole types; American jazz-funk artists like Don Blackman filtered in via his sisters. His brothers, he says, "have always been party animals," and introduced him to Stateside proto-dance sounds. "(US) garage, early stuff like Larry Heard," he recalls, "but I never knew any names. I could hear a track and like it, but I was too young to ask." Through his modest home studio, Brown melded these influences, along with the mainstream sounds of his teen years—hip-hop, UK Garage, R&B and drum & bass—into a surprising result that Third Ear label head Guy McCreery says Brown "didn't have a name for."
Wbeeza and recent signing El Provost are the sole UK acts on the Third Ear roster, and while the latter tends towards an experimental, micro- take on house, Brown shares a musical kinship with the label's Detroit house trinity of Delano Smith, Norm Talley and Mike 'Agent X' Clark. The release of Brown's debut album, Void, will undoubtedly count him amongst further esteemed company; with "Shang Ri La" and "Beaver Skin" echoing Moodymann compatriot Andres' intuitive balancing act between house and hip-hop. The leap between the carvival-esque Latin shuffle of "Tru My Veins" and vocal soul cut "Let Me Know" takes a leaf out of Karizma's book, deep Detroit electronica makes its mark with "Manual Mode" and "2Nite" and the curiously downcast synth work of "Beyond Question," "Southern Girl" and "Why" slot him comfortably alongside the likes of DJ Qu.
Brown himself is reticent to label what he does. He rarely uses the term "house" at all—a salient omission given that all his 12-inch releases for Third Ear have been emblazoned with the phrase: THIS IS THE HOUSE SOUND OF LONDON. "For someone like Guy to say (that) is putting his neck on the line," says Brown, " but he didn't care because he actually meant it." McCreery considers it "a statement to reclaim something," and the reasoning is plain. "There was no intent," he says, via e-mail. "This was simply the consequence of a feeling. It had become perverse to me that Third Ear was a London-based label, but after six years still hadn't released any music from London. I was excited to be releasing an artist I was really excited about, and not somebody who had moved to the capital from somewhere else. A young black Londoner, born and bred."
London, and in particular Peckham, is a vital a character of Wbeeza's music. Heavystuff opened with "Bichez," a hyper-local take on relationships, and closed with the smoggy, swirly "London Is My Home," while City Shuffle's "All Those Beats," plays with a distinctly Sarf London vocal sample. In the rags/riches duality of London, Peckham is characterised by the former; gang violence, crime and poverty fuel its tabloid image as a lawless district, with "the Peckham accent" becoming city-wide code for antisocial thuggery, gang swagger and the basis for class-based ridicule.
Brown is mostly dismissive of Peckham's poor image—"Don't listen to all the crap that they publish about it," he says—instead reflecting on how his home patch influenced his musical development. "It's all Peckham homemade music," he says proudly of his production work with local ex-con hip-hop star Giggs, and later, recalling his early love of beatboxing: "It was a bonding thing for me and my friends. There were some places in Peckham where we'd just be vibing...everybody would be vibing, beatboxing, MCing, singing."
"Vibing," and its variants come up a lot in conversation with Brown, particularly when he is waxing lyrical about music. "I was happy to work with Giggs," he recalls, "he knows that I have all kinds of vibes in my head." Later, referring to his newly-built studio in Greenwich, London's southeast: "I had to move back home. Just to vibe on some of the tracks. I missed the vibe of falling asleep to my music," and of his first visit to fabric in 2007, and the afterparty, and the after-afterparty which brought him into the orbit of the Detroit Beatdown crew and McCreery: "Me and Mike ['Agent X' Clark] really hit it off. Guy was there and we started speaking about London music. We didn't speak about releases or anything like that, just about music in general. We were just speaking, vibing..."
a keyboard. I looked like a little goblin,
everything was on the screen in front of me."
Previous to that night, Brown had been gradually adding to his studio, which began with a stripped-down set up of PC and Reason. "I had nothing," he says of the early days, "I didn't even have a keyboard. I just looked like a little goblin, everything was on the screen in front of me. I started investing in equipment like keyboards, then controllers, drum machines, sound cards, microphones, but I wasn't ready for that when I first started." After his 12-inch debut for Subversive Sounds, he further wet his feet with his own imprint, Bangin' Trouble, but with interest from other small labels, he was unsure of his next move. "I wasn't ready," he repeats. "When I listen back now I'm glad I didn't release that stuff. Meeting Guy so soon was like a miracle. I wasn't out there, meeting people; I was just sitting on all these tracks until that night when I went out to fabric."
A mutual friend's introduction to McCreery during the aforementioned Third Ear label party yielded results within a matter of days. "Mike [Clark] was still here before he went back to Detroit," recalls Brown. "He wanted to come down to the studio, even though I didn't know who he was. He came down and we fired him tracks, some of the earlier stuff I was making. It was 'Bichez' that made him call Guy." McCreery came running. "He left the cab downstairs waiting," Brown continues, "he came up, heard the track and said 'I want to sign that' and left! I couldn't believe it!" Brown was still only vaguely acquainted with Third Ear when Heaystuff was signed for release, but felt reassured once he discovered the ringtone of one of his brothers—Theo Parrish's "Falling Up"—was the crowning triumph of his new label home.
McCreery mentioned earlier this year that Brown's naivete about DJ functionality required him to step in to co-arrange his first two EPs, but he was intrigued by Brown's raw talent. "What drew my attention first were the grooves and the weight, he says, "the swing and the sheer fluidity of what he got his machines to translate." The reception to Heaystuff gave Brown the confidence to start coaxing himself out of his familiar and familial environments, and an artist collective was formed to construct the Greenwich studio space. "We were out of a studio for three months," he recalls. "It was a lot of work plus we had to find all of the material money. You don't realise how much stuff you need. All this money was going into something and we couldn't even lock our doors yet."
Once in, the dedicated space presented some growing pains of its own. "I moved straight there and that was too much of a dramatic change for me. I don't really like big spaces; I think it's hard to conquer your sound that way. I want to be in the sound, and I want the acoustics to be right. I had to make a few adjustments because I couldn't get into it. Feedback was most important for me back then at those stages, so I wasn't losing focus of where I was trying to be. I found myself down there more often and that's how I eased my way into it."
Brown was soon also able to ease into the live sets which have contributed a good portion to his appeal. Physically invested, constantly moving, usually with dark glasses or a hoodie obscuring his vision, the Wbeeza live show exposes nothing of the somewhat sheltered Brown, whose club experiences have mostly occurred in the last two years, mostly with him on the business side of the console. His first ever show did give him some pause. Need2Soul, longtime London purveyors of deep house booked Brown alongside Rick Wilhite and Marcellus Pittmann, but Brown's nerves were mostly due to "performing in front of a crowd of people I don't know, at a place I'd never been before."
Brown now describes Wilhite and Pittmann as "like my uncles or my older brothers," and in recounting meeting secretsundaze's Giles Smith—who signed Brown to his boutique booking offshoot The Secret Agency—at the same gig, it's clear that the ability to establish connections have been essential to Wbeeza's success. Shows in Croatia, Japan and Spain now have broadened Brown's tour diary considerably, but it was his first trip to Detroit for a Third Ear and Sound Signature Movement pre-party earlier this year that proved most impactful.
"Being there with those guys in their hometown was an eye-opening experience for me. They're just like me and where I live." The Third Ear affiliation certainly made things easier, but Brown was surprised and humbled by being warmly received as a peer by the US house fraternity—sharing a stage with Wilhite, Theo Parrish, Boo Williams and Glen Underground, going out for ribs with Scott Grooves and Keith Worthy, and bunking down at Delano Smith's house. "When I was there I expected nobody to know my music," he says. "These guys put out such good music, they can just carry on doing what they're doing; these guys knew me and had been playing my records."
With Void now completed, Brown's most interesting progression looks to be on the horizon. The sketch-like collection—its tracks are all under four minutes—has given way to the recent Jackaboom EP, where the extended tracks are reminiscent of Omar-S' most stubborn rhythmic loops, and capture the hypnotic and subtly shifting progression of a Wbeeza live set. For Third Ear, Brown's future will include a number of producer-vocalist project. McCreery promises "more EPs and albums from him, working with the freedom to make what he feels." Brown is also content with where he is right now. "I don't really need to work with other labels unless it's really worthwhile," he says. "I have labels hitting me for remixes and EPs, and I'm just not really interested. I'm busy, I'm always busy. Right now I'm good and happy."