Both indirectly through the label he co-runs with Pangaea and Ben UFO and directly through his own productions, Kennedy has set the tone for a bustling scene growing more and more obsessed with house music. Tracks like "Don't Change for Me," "Glut" and "Work Them" (RA's #3 track of 2010) blurred the lines between jungle, juke, hip-hop and dubstep before most anyone else thought to do the same. Having just recently released a rather excellent entry in the Fabriclive series—credited to both of his main aliases, ever a man of fluid identity—we already know what he likes to play out. But what is it that makes David Kennedy tick?
Judging from the selections he chose for our Playing Favourites series—a selection of all-time favourites rather than a current what's-what—Kennedy isn't your traditional snobby junglist. Indeed, his selections provide an honest and fascinating insight into one of modern electronic music's most impressive producers in advance of his appearance at this year's Field Day.
3 MC's and 1 DJ
Are you a hip-hop guy?
Yeah, it's definitely music I grew up listening to a lot. Maybe people might not expect that, but the Beastie Boys used to have stuff I liked. When you're 9 or 10 and people are playing that sort of music around the house, your ears are very open to new things. Even listening to [stuff] your parents [play]. People talk about listening to jungle classics, but for me it was hip-hop and house.
Why that track in particular?
I'm more into their newer stuff, the more punk-y stuff. 3 MC's, it's just really raw. I love the video. I was very into turntablism when I was a kid. I never did it, never did any scratching or things like that, but I think that track quite nicely sums it up. Three MCs and one DJ, and you can make a beat out of that! [laughs]
Count and Estimate (Gab Dub)
I played this at my Fabric CD launch as my first tune. I just thought, "Why not?" Really loud on soundsystem off vinyl, it sounded different. It's a very raw hip-hop tune, very breaky. It comes from an album called Greatest Bumps on Solesides. Really good, one of the best hip-hop albums ever. I used to make quite a bit of hip-hop.
Oh really? Was any of it ever released?
No, no. It was beaty, choppy stuff. I've made some R&B sort of stuff too, but when you're older and when you've been doing it for a few years, and especially when you have an audience for the way you make music, all that dramatically changes.
Your "Working With" refix kind of leans in a hip-hop direction.
Yeah, a different kind of hip-hop though to the dusty breaks which I used to be more into.
I remember when I was at a shop I bought this CD called Euphoria, this triple CD of trance. I don't know why I was buying it, but I remember the woman at the till found it quite funny, like, "What you doing buying this euphoric trance CD?" I don't really know why, kids quite often like that stuff.
I bought a trance CD when I was 11, The State of Trance 2001 compilation.
Yeah, I don't know why kids like that sort of stuff.
I remember Aqua was one of the first CDs I bought when it first came out. I think a lot of the stuff in the charts that time was pretty dancey. Commercial dance music had such a deep hold on clubbing. That Nalin & Kane track... I could have chosen a few tracks from that CD...
Do you still listen to that kind of stuff?
Not really to be honest. I still like some of it, but that Nalin & Kane track, it's quite upbeat, it's got those bongos.
Even the vocals, the vocal timbres, reminded me a lot of the high-pitched vocals in your songs.
Yeah, maybe. It's not like I sit down and I'm like "Yeah, I'm gonna try and make it sound like that."
It's not really over-the-top trance, it's more smooth and Balearic.
I could have chosen something a little more over the top, but I thought I'd go for the middle ground.
Are you ashamed of that lineage at all?
Not really. I think it's just on the edge of being super shit cheese. It's funny, with that tune, I kind of picked it because I knew I was playing Room 1 at Fabric a few weeks ago and I wanted something epic, that breakdown. I knew me and Ben were playing at 5 AM, and when we played it, the room was ridiculous.
I remember being in HMV and someone who works there was playing this album called Producer 01—these retrospective CDs for six or seven pounds—over their speakers. It's quite nuts really. It just shows how the musical climate is now. You'd never hear drum & bass or jungle over the system of a really big shop. Maybe there was a member of staff that was particularly into it; I asked someone what it was, and that was what got me into it really.
Were you always into the atmospheric side?
Yeah, I liked the Logical Progression stuff, the nicer stuff, then I got searching for the most aggressive stuff. Like J Majik, that sort of wobbly stuff... just looking for the most extreme stuff I could possibly find.
When you make your own music, do you look for that same atmosphere and a bit of drama? Like with the strings and the chords.
Drama? Not really, no. I think there's a danger sometimes in being melodramatic in music. Trying to be like "this is the mood of the tune" or "this tune is an angry tune, I'll drop in some horror film strings." I like to have a bit of ambiguity. Some people can hear a piece of music and think it's beautiful, and some think it's really sad, I think it's quite nice to see how different people interpret it.
I feel like a lot of the vocals you use are very ambiguous, you can't really tell what they're saying.
I like the ambiguity. I like this idea, recently, of "wounded" music, music which sounds wounded—not just my own stuff. I mean, the Burial album, it even has a tune called "Wounded." Just aching music. Just the vibe and the melody and the way vocals are arranged.
What I really liked about "Vault" was it had that minute-long intro that was completely unrelated, and then had all that crazy [mimics drum sounds] triplet stuff going on. I think it was a very revolutionary record. I would go to house parties and put it on and people really liked it.
Is that heavier sound something you've moved away from in your own tastes since then?
Not really. I mean, I still like really wobbly bassline music or really hard grime. I wouldn't say I ever moved away from that. Maybe the thrill of a lot of that music is from when I was younger. Sometimes it's fun to make that silly wobbly drum & bass just to see how silly you can make it. I think some of that rubbed off on me.
How do you feel about the way about Pendulum have gone?
I can't really say because I'm not that familiar with it, but it's the old question of doing the same old thing or trying something new. Sure, they could have made ten "Vault"'s and it would have been alright, but they moved on. They had a few good years, but I think there was a definite point where they had a bigger audience and took advantage of it. But I can't really judge anyone. They're happy, you know? I read one of them said in an interview "we were never really a drum & bass act, we always wanted to be a group," and they're happy doing what they're doing now. They're successful, and they're playing big shows.
That's the most thoughtful thing I've ever heard said about them.
Well, you know, I used to read Dogs on Acid and stuff like that and everyone used to love them and then just turned. I think they even came on DoA and said "I hope someone drives a stake through the heart of drum & bass!" They knew the reaction that would get. They just really don't give a shit. I used to get annoyed with that. It was the same thing with dubstep, you used to get annoyed with the way things were going, but then you reach a point where you just have to move on. Let people do their thing, I'll do mine, everyone's happy. I know that sounds a bit wishy-washy, utopian but...
I don't listen to much "guitar music." I don't like to use that duality between that and machine music, but that's really what it boils down to. I think with The XX album, there had been so much hype about them, it was impossible to ignore. Kind of like The Weeknd right now. If this many people are raving on about it, I probably should listen to it, you know? And it was really good, I enjoyed it. It's one of those albums that's about the vibe more than the songs. I never really listen to albums start to finish, but that XX album, you can just put it on and go through it in once. A very pleasant thing to listen to, I think, with enough electronics to keep you interested.
The atmospheric and the little bits of electronics in there makes it more compatible to your tastes?
I think so, yeah. The beats and the electronics. I think it also really opened up me and Kev Pangaea and Joy up to a new audience. I think James Blake said he wouldn't be in the same position if it wasn't for the XX. I think he said that in an interview. And the way they're promoted, with the supporting DJs and the remixes and the way they show their influences...
It's more about sound than structures.
I love that they wrote a lot of it at night, that sort of Burial-y feeling. I find it very inspiring, I kind of want to start a band. I think it's very exciting.
I didn't really listen to much house, but this was the kind of house music that I really got into. That kind of deep, soulful stuff, which gradually progressed to the techier, harder stuff and came back to the broken stuff, which I've probably raved about a million times. I heard this at the shop in Soho, Vinyl Junkies, which always had new vinyl and a really friendly staff. You'd hang out there on a Saturday and it was just a really good vibe.
This one kind of sticks out to me as a track that would "belong" more to Ben UFO or Pangaea or something, instead of you.
That's funny because Ben and I used to do this house special on sub.fm, and Ben would just hate some of the stuff I was playing. I would play this male vocal tune and rewind it just to piss him off, but then he had a bit of an epiphany, and now he's really housey, so... Yeah, I was always sort of the "house one," and this was even before UK funky started. Since UK funky came around, it just changed everything; there was a thread on dubstepforum about how do you go from dubstep to house? And it was obvious, you go from dubstep to something very similar to house [laughs] ... and it's that simple really. I think there's been a lot of progression to the point where I can play a few house records in my set and four or five years ago that wouldn't have been possible. I've been able to play my influences in sets. It's quite nice.
Do you feel like the house influence is a big thing tying Hessle Audio together?
Not really. We've never really released a straight house tune. I don't think it's the kind of thing we want to do with the label, release a straight-up 4/4 tune. Having said that, within 4 years we'll release one. [laughs] I think it's always gotta have that difference to it. It's not necessarily about tempo, we release slower stuff. It's more about the rhythms.
Why did you choose this over so many other Burial tracks?
I probably could have chosen any one of 20, but that one is a particular favourite because I remember the story behind it was that he was following some guy down the street with a field recorder and then entered the church and you can hear on the record the moment he enters the church and the way the atmosphere changes. It's completely mind-blowing, such depth. You could wax on and on about Burial. You have to have Burial in there really because Burial sort of changed everything from a musical point of view. Even for people who might not overtly listen to that kind of stuff, it still changed everything.
Burial has had such an impact, everyone knows Burial. Is Burial an influence on your music, the way he does vocals?
The way he processes vocals switched everyone up, everyone's like "Hold on, I can pitch this up without it sounding stupid? I can pitch this down, I can stretch it, I can chop it, I can make a vocal say what I want it to say, I can almost hijack their voice." I tried that on some of my tunes. I chopped the vocals to make them say something completely different. But you're not sitting there and thinking "oh! this sounds like Burial." So when stuff like "Archangel" came out my jaw dropped. I wasn't there, but when Kode9 first played that Burial album preview, that was the tune that everyone was raving about. I think that first Burial album is just one of those things that turned everything on its head. I think the interesting thing is that no one really copied Burial after his first album; there weren't any Burial clones.
Not until Untrue.
Yeah. It's quite weird, I'm not sure why. Interesting.
I think Untrue is a lot more accessible, more vocal heavy, more garage.
But no one even tried to jack his beats after the first album. After the second one came out everyone sort of cashed in.
Now it's basically its own genre, Burial copycats.
Pretty much, but the funny thing is no one comes close, ever.
Come on Feet
A very big influence for me is Madlib. That layered, textured feeling to the music. There's just so much going on. I find it very inspiring how he plays with sounds. I could have chosen one of many tracks, but I chose this one because of the way he does the vocal.
There are so many layers, it's almost like they're working against each other, but it still works.
I heard the original sample from a mixtape called Quasimodo Meets Himself, a sixty-track mixtape that played the original samples. What he did with it was very inspiring from a production standpoint.
Did he influence you in any particular way when it comes to sampling?
To a certain extent. It was just stuff I listened to for years, and still do. Influences... I think you're influenced by everything around you—where you live, who your parents are, what they do, what they expose to you. That's all going to have an effect on you. If someone uses a particular reverb technique, that might be an inspiration. "Humber," for example, was directly influenced by Sven Weisemann, just the way he treats sounds.
If you find you're sounding too much like another artist or track, do you actively try to avoid that?
Definitely. Why make a tune that sounds exactly like someone else? What's the point? Some have even pointed out my influence—a few tunes that kind of sound like mine. I mean, not that I have a copyright or anything, but it's something I've noticed. Even that Ciara tune, "Gimme Dat..." you never know who is listening. People are more switched on than you might think, and they're more than happy to plagiarize—or it's not even plagiarism... I mean I don't really care, I just make my tunes. It's just a sound, and you're using it in a different context. That's always the first question people ask in an interview: "What are your influences?" Rubbish interviews!