Where producers in his field often struggle to elevate their beats beyond the pedantic, Russell imbues his tracks with instant appeal. It's a skill he developed across a series of well-received 12-inches for Punch Drunk, 2nd Drop and Audio Culture in 2012. But with the recent launch of his label, Poly Kicks, Tessela looks set to take over in 2013. The imprint's inaugural single, "Hackney Parrot," has received heavy play in recent months from the likes of Jackmaster and Pearson Sound. It's easy to see why: its cross-rhythmic breakbeats and stuttering diva sample make it a perfect update of early '90s hardcore for contemporary dance floors. As with many scene anthems, it's essentially the execution of a single brilliant idea—one that seems so obvious in retrospect, it leaves you wondering why nobody else thought of it.
"Hackney Parrot," like much of the music animating UK dance floors at the moment, is indebted to the country's dance music history. But it's also a rootless, head-turning one-off that seems born from the force of a single personality rather than the collective focus of a musical community. Perhaps that's fitting, given the producer's background: Russell is the product of no particular scene or locale, having relocated regularly while growing up. "I grew up in South Wales for a while, then moved all around the country—Hampshire, Brighton," he says. "But I spent the majority of my time coming up to London on the weekends, as all my mates lived there. That's when I started clubbing, going out to dodgy drum & bass parties in Brixton."
Long before that, however, Russell was being given a dance music education by his brother. Tom Russell, the elder by ten years, will be known to many as techno producer Truss/MPIA3. "I bought my first pair of decks when I was about 11, probably on [Tom's] recommendation," Russell recalls. "At the time we were both living at my dad's house. He had decks and a massive stack of records, and was DJing all the time. I'd steal records from Tom, then rip them and sell these little tape packs at school. They weren't even mixes, just like, one track—clang—another track." Unfortunately the love affair was short-lived. "I think I only kept the decks for about a year before I sold them, because I wasn't really sure what I was doing. I wish I'd kept them—I'd probably be a really good DJ by now!"
The enthusiasm for electronic music remained, though, and Russell found his tastes made him something of an outsider. "I spent the whole time at school really wanting to talk to someone about synthesisers, and no one was into it," he recalls. Russell found more likeminded people in Leeds, where he moved in 2007 to study for a degree in music technology. The course, he says, wasn't all that instructive ("We only had to be in college 12 hours a week, and you probably went in for about six of those") but Russell found his kicks elsewhere. This was a time when the city's dubstep scene was thriving, and he was quickly converted from jungle and drum & bass. "At the time there was so much good stuff happening in Leeds. There was a lot of dubstep coming out, and the West Indian Centre had a soundsystem like I'd never experienced before in my life. Your whole insides rattled."
Russell's time in the city overlapped with that of the Hessle Audio crew, then at the beginning of their steady rise to fame. "They lived on the street behind us I think. They used to run a night called Ruffage which we'd go to every time. Ben UFO would finish off with a jungle set—it was great. I never made much of an effort to make contact though, which I probably should've." The influence of the dubstep sound they were pushing prevailed, however. Russell's first release, a 2010 remix of Truss's "Osbasten," explored brooding dubstep—though listen closely and you'll detect a hint of the rhythmic intricacies that would come to define the producer's later work.
After finishing university Russell moved to Bath, in the South West of England, and in 2011 began issuing a steady stream of 12-inches. The hallmarks of his style—playful swing, rave stabs, detailed percussion, a mid-130s BPM tempo that referenced both dubstep and newer 4/4 mutations—owed a clear debt to the innovations of Hessle Audio and others. But from early productions that drew on Blawan's pummeling percussion or the stark arrangements of Pearson Sound, Russell gradually carved out his own sound, taking certain implications of these producers' work and extending them into uncharted territories.
It's possible to trace the syncopations of "Let Up" or "Channel" back to his early love for jungle and drum & bass. More relevant, though, is Russell's recent fascination with pre-jungle hardcore, a style whose sugary melodies and rough-edged breakbeats bled increasingly into his work. "When I was into jungle and drum & bass I wasn't really aware of any decent hardcore. I think I was quite naive as to where it'd all come from," he says. "It was only recently that I started digging back through and finding this music which had all these elements that I loved, music I felt like I'd heard before." For Russell, the appeal lies partly in the mythology surrounding one of British dance music's golden ages. "Whenever you watch documentaries about that era, they always paint such an amazing picture—of this time when raves were crazy, 5000 people all up for exactly the same thing. Obviously the grass is always greener, but it does make me kind of miss that time, though I was only one or two years old when it was happening."
Russell isn't alone in his fascination. He's part of a loose micro-movement of UK producers marrying rave signifiers with the splintered grooves of post-dubstep UK dance music. Randomer's recent output and Paul Woolford's Special Request project come to mind, and Russell also expresses his admiration for Pearson Sound's recent, breakbeat-led "Quivver." Is there something in the air, perhaps? "Everything goes in cycles, and there's been this whole Chicago house revival recently," he says. "So it makes sense that people will now start looking at what else there is to take inspiration from." Russell, though, is wary of excessive reverence. "When you're referencing a certain era I think it's often quite hard to find the balance, of taking those sounds but trying to do something that's new, putting a different spin on it. I'd never want to do a pastiche—I'd never want to make a track that sounds like it could've come out in the early '90s."
In the past six months, Russell himself has been experimenting with "more straight-up techno," working with hardware rather than his usual laptop setup. It's an approach reminiscent of Truss's recent work as MPIA3, and like his brother, the appeal lies in the liberating potential of constraints. "When you've got endless possibilities, it can be tough. Whereas if I decide to work just with my hardware, I'm quite limited in what I can do, so I end up getting results very quickly."
Russell has no plans to release this material as yet, but he's already used a similar setup in collaboration with his brother. Released under the TR // ER alias last year, "UC" explored the zone between the distorted intensity of MPIA3 and Tessela's rambunctious broken beats. Russell says the pair have been working on more material and hope to release an EP in the not-so distant future. Otherwise, his focus is on Poly Kicks. The label's next release will be another Tessela 12-inch, followed by remixes from Kowton and Truss/MPIA3. Russell aims to extend his hardcore-referencing aesthetic to all aspects of the label, from music through to artwork. It's important, he feels, that the imprint has something distinctive to contribute. "There's new labels starting up every day, and I'm aware that it's an incredibly over-saturated scene," he says. "But I've got to the point where I feel I have something genuinely worthwhile to contribute."