Chroma Chords and Depauw's Essential Mix are probably the best examples of this quiet revolution. Assimilating R&B and hip-hop, the album is a soulful collection of songs and tough drum & bass rollers that all bear his distinct and accomplished finish. His Essential Mix, meanwhile, is a brisk passage through everything from dubstep to glitch-hop and house. And though his own interests go far beyond drum & bass, like many UK dance music heavyweights before him, it all started with Metalheadz.
He had certainly never heard anything like the rocketing breaks of early Metalheadz before. Jungle, breakbeat and drum & bass captured his imagination, and he started DJing. "My mom had a setup at home. She didn't DJ professionally, it was more recreational. For me it all started from taking records out of sleeves and just being curious, trying to put the records together." From there, he started buying his own records, and eventually made the decision to try to take DJing from a hobby to a career, which also led him to produce his own tracks.
His early work, he admits, was an imitation of what he was playing out, a process of getting the fundamentals down, namely drums and basslines. Depauw was mostly self-taught, learning from some friends and slowly finding his way around his tools. His first releases, for smaller labels like Horizons, Fokuz and Progress, showed a producer willing to try his hand at pretty much anything: rough ragga, heart-worn ballads, the smooth sounds of liquid. But they also betrayed an ear for pop elements, buried as they might have been.
In 2006, he wrote "Solitary Native" with Sabre. The track's sparkly surfaces and plaintive melodies caught the attention of DJ Friction's Shogun Audio, the label that would later help to develop Depauw's sound. He began to focus on crisp, clear and level-headed sounds in the vein of Calibre, and on how smooth and free-flowing he could make the rhythms. It took him a world away from the mechanistic slam of some of his peers.
His Shogun arc hit an early high with 1984, released in 2009, and until now it was the bellwether of the Alix Perez catalogue. It arrived just in time to ride the wave of renewed interest in drum & bass generated by the Autonomic movement. It would be a stretch to include it as part of Instra:mental and dBridge's distinct universe, but it had a similar aim: to infuse the well-worn form of drum & bass with a deep emotional resonance and ideas from other genres. On tracks like "The Cut Deepens," Depauw made some of the genre's most futuristic bangers, and on "Forsaken," with Sabre and Peven Everett, he achieved beauty without mawkishness. The latter remains an anthem that still tugs on the heartstrings of many a genre aficionado.
But for all its excellence, 1984 still didn't transcend drum & bass. Perez's releases, including 2010's uncharacteristically hard-stepping Dark Days, showed no sign of a shift. Then came "Annie's Song." Released in early 2013 as the first single from Chroma Chords, it followed in the footsteps of the pop-oriented singles from his labelmates such as Rockwell's "Childhood Memories" or SpectraSoul's "Light In The Dark." "Annie's Song," wrenching and genuine, felt like more than a perfunctory vocal tune.
"Basically, [Annie's Song] was written for my grandmother who passed away two years ago," Depauw says. "Lyrically it doesn't relate, but just the feeling of it. The way it's happy, but with sad undertones, I think it has the most intense feeling, musically, out of all the [album's] tracks." The winding, deflated melody is contrasted by wounded orchestral bombast and a sluggish hip-hop gait. Its secret? Like almost all of Chroma Chords, "Annie's Song" maintains half-time drum & bass' tempo but avoids the genre's signifiers. It's covert drum & bass.
"There are drum & bass tracks that are more reminiscent of the stuff I was making before, just so I didn't alienate myself too much from what I was doing before," Depauw says. "But I was conscious of wanting to take the 85 BPM template and experiment around it. That's the whole point of the album. I feel like there's so much possibility at [drum & bass tempo], especially when you halve it."
Chroma Chords dresses up the drum & bass framework in all sorts of unfamiliar clothes. "I was listening to stuff like Two Inch Punch and Jai Paul, and other sort of recent electronic stuff, like the Brainfeeder crew." This influence is obvious on the album, with its overstuffed LA-style beats and emotional songs. Two Inch Punch lends some production to "Broken Heart," one of the record's most effusive songs. But most of all, Chroma Chords smacks of an influence that's only implied: the clear-as-a-bell melodies and transparent emotion of soul, and its modern codifications in hip-hop.
"I came from a hip-hop background," explains Depauw. "French hip-hop is where it all started for me. Groups like Iam, NTM, Fonky Family, that's what I was listening to long before I moved to the UK and discovered jungle and drum & bass. I got into it through the skateboard scene... in my previous tracks I've revisited samples from people like DJ Premier, and I think this time around it's a kind of a fusion between hip-hop and electronica. Halving the tempo makes it easier and gives me more space to work with."
Hip-hop bears down hard on the album. "YDK" samples a vocal from R&B star The Weeknd, while "Playing Games" repurposes Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)" into a stirring drum & bass ballad. A further driving force behind Chroma Chords was the work he did with his other, lower-profile project ARP 101, "an alias for me to be completely free and experiment."
His studio was the other big change between 1984 and Chroma Chords. "My first synth was the Virus, which I bought before making 1984, and I think you can hear that—it's a very specific sound palette. With Chroma Chords, I used pretty much every synth in my collection and merged them all together. I have a Juno 106, SH-101, Moog, JP8000... I'm pretty reliant on them now, where before my music was very sample-based."
An album full of vocal tracks and offbeat half-time grooves, Chroma Chords could be something other than a drum & bass record, but Depauw's not trying to escape anything. "I made a conscious decision to have more electronica, because that's the kind of album I wanted it to be. But my roots still lie in drum & bass, and I still play it in my sets. I've done that for years, and I feel I need to develop and move on—not move on as in leave drum & bass, but I don't want to repeat myself."
After years honing his craft, Chroma Chords is a personal triumph, taking him down his own path away from trends or expectations. He's survived some of the recent dips and surges in drum & bass, which he describes as "still healthy," and remains dedicated to the genre even if he's taking it to places that it's never been before. He's quite a way from where he started. "People are always quite shocked at first, but I had a good mentor at home. I have to give my mom some props, you know?"