Rewind to dubstep London, and Livingstone is one third of DMZ—arguably the scene's most exciting and vital imprint. Alongside childhood friends Mala and Coki, the group played a vital role in shaping the sound and course of the emergent genre. They released classic 12-inches and threw legendary parties. Dubstep grew from its UK roots and DMZ travelled the world with it. Then, in 2007, something snapped. Livingstone was no longer feeling it. "Fraudulent" is the word he uses to describe his underlying mood around this time period. Whether it was the direction dubstep was headed in or a seismic shift in his tastes, he knew that something had to change...
So we started this thing dubstep. And we were doing our thing. And it was great for a little while. And then I got to the stage in the studio where I wrote a tune [2007's "Disko Rekah"]...well, I wrote a "dubstep tune." Everything before had just been writing beats or whatever and it came freely. [But then] it was just like, I knew it, I didn't wanna let it off, and then I did let it off, and it went down really well. But every time I heard it I just felt, "Ugh, that's not right." I felt really wrong and I remember that was like the initial crack that started everything going wrong in a way.
How did this "crack" manifest itself?
I felt a bit like this whole period was fraudulent; it wasn't true. So from then I was writing beats but I just wasn't happy with them and I was in this weird zone between pleasing the crowd and doing honest music from the heart. You know, when you paint too much you just get this brown and that was what I was getting. Nothing was working, I was getting frustrated, and at the same time the crowds were growing, popularity was growing in dubstep and I was DJing quite a lot and I was [at the] top of a lot of bills. I felt this pressure to keep current.
At the same time my best mates were Mala, Coki, Skream, Benga, Distance, Pinch, Kode9, so I didn't have a problem getting dubplates. I could keep my set relatively fresh, so for about a year that was running and then suddenly I wasn't really feeling the dubs I was getting as much. It got to the point where I was only really feeling a couple of Mala tracks, but I played with Mala a lot so I couldn't really play his beats. I was trying to get my own together but that wasn't happening. And then, I don't know... I just started playing for the reaction a bit, playing a lot of like Skream bangers; tunes I still stand by, things I still like, but there wasn't enough variety. I was playing for the crowds. Then I realised that I got to this point where I was playing to a crowd that I no longer knew or identified with and I was playing music that I didn't believe in.
Tell me about starting the label.
I'd been thinking about starting a label for ages. I was just looking more into doing that and I tried to sign this tune from luke.envoy called "M.U.G.E.N" but I think Wonderland got it, so then I just sat tight. I wasn't just gonna sign just anything. I wanted something that I really believed in.
Out of nowhere I was being sent a lot of demos but a lot of the demos were really shit and so you're getting to this point where you are like, "I cannot listen to everything, it gets demoralizing." If one in every five was great—even if one in every five was good—you'd be happy, but it's more like one in every 100. Then for some reason I got chatting to Kryptic Minds. They just added me on AIM. I was just in one Friday night, chatting, and they sent me some beats and I was in the right frame of mind, so like, "Alright, I'll have a listen." And I was like, "Wow, this is awesome, this is what I believe..." not what dubstep is—dubstep can be anything it wants and that's the beauty of it—but this is what I believe in when it comes to dubstep. I liked their use of space, they had like a Metalheadz feel, which I really liked, the sort of samples they choose to use. I don't know, it just fit that zone...
confused, because they couldn't work it out.
But they would stay. They'd stay and
they did work it out."
Do you think it was removed from what had come before it?
At the time, yes. There was nothing like it. [The scene] wasn't really brostep then but it was Rusko and Caspa, it was their time, Benga and Skream had already been—and always were—there, but the real noise was Caspa and Rusko. Suddenly out of nowhere it's just like "Kryptic Minds: let's do it."
I thought the music they brought out was excellent but after a few releases I was just like, "It's good music but is it current? Is it a bit too much like what happened in 2006?" I didn't want it to become a caricature of itself. I was really buoyed by Kode9 as well, what he was doing with Hyperdub, just not giving a fuck.
Tony Headhunter (Addison Groove) sent me "Footcrab" and I was like, "Brilliant. That's the one." He had sent it around to a few people and a few people were playing it but it was a weird one: it didn't fit in. But I was like, "I've experienced this with dubstep before." When we started no one knew what the fuck to do. We were playing these sub-heavy tunes with hardly any beats and people didn't know what to do. We'd be playing to dance floors of people who would be just be standing there looking confused, every now and then trying to dance, because they couldn't work it out. But they would stay. They'd stay and they did work it out. It took a couple of years or whatever but they did, so I know how to stand up in front of people and take them not dancing. I can do that by playing them a new beat, I know how to do [that].
There were a few people who loved it, but most people were like, "Oh, what's this shit?" Playing that had a Marmite reaction [love it or hate it]. So that was much more fun than getting re-runs of tunes I didn't like. And soon Addison sent a few more dubs through. Then Ramadanman (Pearson Sound) sent me "Work Them" and a couple of other tunes. He did his double pack [2010's Ramadanman EP] and there were a couple of tunes on there which blew me away. Dave Q in New York had been telling me to listen to this guy and he had always been saying it. I had listened over the years and I was like "yeah yeah yeah" and then suddenly, "wow." So I got in contact and I played a few of his things that were about at the time and then he sent me "Work Them" and he said, "I think this could work for Swamp."
I was still being booked at mainly dubstep nights. I told my agent to take me off anything that mainstream. I didn't wanna be on big bills line-ups; I didn't feel like I fitted there. I was doing these random things, small European ones for an hour set. I played the first half-hour of Swamp shit, whatever it was, then finishing up the second half of the set with like Kryptic Minds-style dubstep, with a couple of old ones chucked in. Some people were going crazy. They didn't know what was going on. Some guy in Holland in this town called Deventer climbed on stage, he was so angry. He was wearing a Run DMC dubstep T-shirt...the decks were there and he was just standing in front of me and he pointed at me and said, "Play some fucking dubstep!"
Yeah, I blew him a kiss. He got wrong footed and he didn't know what to do. He'd climbed quite a long way up on to the stage so he couldn't actually jump back down so he actually had to do the walk of shame off the stage. I had to give him a little clap.
When Addison Groove was sending those beats over did you have any sense where he was coming from?
I didn't have a clue. He talked to me about juke and a couple of people talked to me about juke ("Have you heard this juke stuff?") and I thought it was a producer... I thought Tony was just on some like electro, old school Miami kind of electro hip-hop tip, and I thought David [Ramadanman] was doing like a Baltimore kind of tune but just referencing it via London. But then I heard Spinn and Rashad and was like, "Yeah, fair enough."
Was it something you were vibing off personally?
It's alright. I mean, some of the tunes are sick but there is a lot of filler. And for something that is blown up so big I don't think it's really going anywhere. I don't think there has been a lot of progression. I also find it a little bit out of context in Britain, it's just a bit weird... I don't know, it's a good thing to be honest—that's just how I see it. I saw Kode9 play a juke set at Fabric the other day and I was drunk and I had a brilliant time.
But what happened after ["Footcrab"] was people were saying: "Swamp 81: juke label." I'm getting emails about juke and I'm getting sent the shittiest juke tunes in the world. I had juke overload which I didn't want because it was never about that. We just had to ride it out, you know.
Deep in the swamp
The name Swamp 81 has some significance. Can you talk about why you chose it?
I remember I was watching a documentary when I was about 21 or 22 on the Brixton riots. I was watching it because it was in the local area and people would talk about it, and it was local history and social history and shit like that is always interesting. So I was watching it and I remember Operation Swamp 81 came up and I was like, "Wow, that is just graphic." I love it when things fit in: [the name is] sonically graphic, it would look great written. I was like, "I'm going to note that down. I'm going to do something with that one day."
I like the fact that you can put something out there and just go, "Yeah, look here it is," but not explaining it or anything. That is kind of the point. It's like the ethic of Swamp: It's there if you want it, if you wanna know about it you can have it, but I'm not going to push it on you. I don't really do any press for Swamp. I mean, I'll do an interview like this but we don't send things out for review. We don't release release dates really. We only release on vinyl, and people moan at me every day, "Why don't you have digital?" blablabla and it's like, 'I'm an independent record label." I'm bringing this music out whether you like or not. If you didn't like this music I'd still be putting out. I thought when I put "Footcrab" out I was going have to get a job. I thought it was going to be a niche label. I thought we would do 300 units a year or something.
No, we work on things together. There has been a time where I've signed from other people but now I'm not signing anyone new. I'm really happy with the team. So there is Boddika, there's Zed Bias, there's Pinch, there's Mickey Pearce, there's FaltyDL, there's Trusta, and there's [MC] Chunky who is about to have a release. He's been writing beats and they are incredible. I've been playing two of them for a little while and they just they go off in the club. He's finished a double pack, so it's four tracks. He lives in Manchester, Zed Bias lives in Manchester, and they've been helping each other out, or Zed's been helping Chunky out. It's just that team thing: We've got a real team vibe going on. Because of that relationship, each artist is very different—the way I work with them.
With Zed, we work closely about what's going on. We talk about the vibe. He [initially] sent me a load of beats and I was like, "Yeah, they're cool but they're not right." And he kept sending them and I kept being like, "They're cool, but they're not right." So he was like, "What do you want!?" I remember that I told him to take the swing out. "I don't want any swing from you." You know, Zed is like the king of swing but I said, "No, take your swing out, let's have something in between New York and Chicago," so kind of the quantized drum machines of Chicago but the vibes of New York and he went "yeah alright" and went away and wrote "Music Deep Inside" and the double pack that's just come out.
So it's no coincidence that many of the producers you've been working with have recorded some of the most removed music from what they're known for?
Yeah, exactly that. It's almost like it's a place where a producer can just be free, where you can just go and write your beats and if it fits in with where my head is at at the time then it's like "bam!" we're laughing. But I don't want the trendy shit. I don't want the shit that everyone wants. I don't want what you're known for. I don't want a vocal garage tune from Zed Bias, you know. Falty DL: the shit we release from Falty is pretty different from what he is releasing on Planet Mu. Pinch: same way.
Pinch is one of my favourite producers and one of my favourite people as well. His productions have always been pretty top notch... I bullied him into releasing for Swamp actually. [laughs] I completely bullied him. He's a really good friend of mine and I spend a lot of time with him and if I go to Bristol to play a show I will stay at his house for a few days afterwards and chill out and whatever. I was just so into his productions, I was so pleased that I wasn't doing 140 anymore. And it was like, "C'mon Rob. Do me something." And he's like, "Yeah, but there's a lot of room left at 140 [BPM]." And I'm like, "No there's not, it's dead. Come on, do something for me, do something..." And god bless him he did—and it was brilliant. I'm so pleased he is on the label, he makes so much sense. I feel so blessed that I get to release that side of things.
Do you still stand by what you said about 140?
No. I think 140 from about six months ago got a bit interesting again. But that's because it's not really dubstep anymore. So dubstep I think is pretty much...so unless you're looking at what it is now, that's alive and kicking, and that's doing its thing, and good luck, it's brilliant. But dubstep as we know it, I would say, is pretty much gone.
Why did you decide that you'd never release on Swamp?
Because I didn't want it to be about me. I wanted it to be about music. I got a label to release on; I've got DMZ.
With the label, is a long-term goal getting the roster on album projects?
I'm doing it right now. Boddika is the first. Then next year we are looking to do a Mickey Pearce album and a Zed Bias album, and then a FaltyDL project. Chunky has got shit for the future...Chunky is incredible. He has got his own sound already. His beats are just such a breath of fresh air. I played them to Kode9 on Sunday, and he just lost his shit to them.
Have you got a first release lined up for him?
Yeah, it's a double pack. So it's Boddika #19, which is Acid Jackson / Basement. #20 is FaltyDL Mean Streets Part 2. #21 is Trusta Hypnotic / Feel So. And 22 is Chunky.
Do you mind me asking how many vinyl you're pressing?
It's limitless really. We repress. FaltyDL gets 500 at a time, they are limited. Most releases get 1000 pressed up at the time but then to be honest we always have to repress straight away, within a week they're gone. Swims just did 2000 in four days. So we've got to repress that. Same with Sicko Cell...we actually might have done more than 2000 for that. A lot of people talk about everything being limited and it's like, "No, only the FaltyDL thing is limited."
But this is the kind of cool thing about not telling anyone anything: People make up their own ideas, they're putting their own thoughts on the table about what it is you're doing. When they do that, they feel like they have a part of it, and I think it is important to give people a part of it because they do have a part of it. If they weren't dancing to it, if they weren't listening to it, if they weren't tuning in on the radio...if they weren't doing this shit then what am I doing?
I'd say people definitely have an opinion, judging by the length of that post on dubstep forum.
[laughs] I just shot myself in the foot because it's fairly well known, like through being a DJ and the dubstep thing, I think people know I do smoke quite a lot of weed. I'm not the most hype person. I don't get stressed about things. But honestly the holdup last year was one of those things. There were two pieces of artwork from the same graphic designer (who shall remain nameless) that just didn't appear. Everything was mastered, everything had been approved, all we needed was the artwork and the artwork didn't appear.
There have been so many comments...actually there hasn't, there's been about six comments about Swims. But when you read a comment on the internet one comment [feels] like a 1000 people, ain't it? It's crazy but they're like, "Oh my good this was a great tune when it was fresh but now I can't be bothered I'm not buying it." But then it sold out in a week, do you know what I mean?
vinyl-only label, it can all
fuck up at the drop of a hat."
I think some people had the impression that it was a form of dubplate culture—building up hype around the release. Is this something you subscribe to generally?
Yes and no. Yes, I'm into that dubplate culture, I'm into the promo of it being through DJs playing it but no: that was taking the piss. But again, I'm not going to come out publicly and go, "OK, this is that," and, you know, fuck that, stop moaning. When I was buying drum & bass records I had to wait for like two years for certain things on Prototype Recordings—they were the fucking worst.
In an ideal world how often would you release something?
My ideal was like one a month. I talked about one every two weeks last year because I had a lot to get out, which I wanted to do from sort of February to July. What I aim for [now] is one a month from February to July. We did one in January this year because it was a strong release and we needed to get shit out. August off, back in September, then one a month through to December—that's what I want, really. And then with this year I want an album in October, and I wanna try and do an album in March and an album in October every year.
I've got [the artists on the label] all working now. I'm giving them mad pep talks and shit just because I don't want to just release a collection of 12s. These albums have to be albums in their own right...like Goldie did with Timeless. You know, Timeless didn't need jungle; if anything jungle needed Timeless. That album stood alone. It didn't need its scene, it didn't need anything; it was incredible. The mastering, the packaging, the production...that's what we need to be doing. We need to be rolling with those levels of quality.
Yeah definitely. Bruv, I've been playing at this since I was about 15 or 16. When I was a kid I used to like work out how to run a label...or pretend to. We had a little crew: me, Mala, Coki, Pokes...we used to play house parties, I used to DJ, they used to MC. I set it up where we had like catalogue numbers and shit. [laughs]
Basically I wanted to be Goldie. Pop culture when I was in the 90's was the enemy. Radio 1 was the enemy, any kind of pop music or anything trendy was just the enemy. It was all about your scene. I was very much jungle and drum & bass, and for me Goldie was my pop star, in a way. He had his graffiti, he had his drum & bass thing. He'd gone clear in that world—that incredible music world in the mid-to-late '90s, he was just king. And it was like, that's what I wanna do: I wanna DJ, I wanna produce and I wanna have my own record label and I wanna have the sickest artwork. So in my head I've been running labels since day dot. DMZ was the first one and that was like ironing out the bumps, finding out how to do it.
What did you learn?
In the early days it was all about not letting people push you around, in a way. When you're the new boys people are like "OK, so you're the new boys," but it's like, "No. Don't take the piss." [Also] each release is so independent from each other. You have to take each release as it comes. The best thing to do just is to realize that it can all go wrong. If you're running a vinyl-only label, it can all go wrong. It can all fuck up at the drop of a hat.
I wanted to finish up by talking about your own stuff. Obviously it's been a few years since you've put something out so I just wondered where your head is at with it, basically?
It's at a really good place right now for the first time in years. I'm writing a lot. I've got a couple of bits...I played Boddika some of my beats last night which I've been scared to do up until now. He was quite into a couple of them. It's been weird finding my place because I don't wanna just go back and write 140, though I have got a couple of 140 things which I'm working on. I don't wanna just write straight house because that would be weird. I would just feel wrong, and again it's that dishonesty thing. I could DJ them all day long and it doesn't feel wrong, but for me to write that: no.
When Swamp was finally settled, I could see a little bit more of what's going on, and it was about then I first realized what I'm doing in music. I was 22-23 when it all started and it has just been like nonstop since then, DJing around the world. You get so many offers over the years, you have so many opportunities put in front of you and luckily I've always stayed away from a lot of them. I'm really pleased about certain decisions; at the time I didn't know why I was making them but I've stayed completely independent so I am in charge of me now, and it's now that I know what I want from myself, or for myself rather, and it's this. It's this sort of...I think underground is the wrong word these days—nothing underground really exists anymore—but it is that vibe. It's new music, fresh shit, having a point of view in that world, and not wanting more. I don't wanna be a pop star. I don't want to crossover. I don't care about that. I wanna run a great label. I want it to grow. I want it to be like Warp Records one day. Even like XL or something like that. I wanna be able to take it from grass roots, and just have a point of view within this music.