Blackdown is Martin Clark, an influential music journalist, producer and DJ. He's been exploring London through words and music since the days of the Hyperdub magazine (a written predecessor to the label of the same name) which focused on UK electronic music in the early '00s. Clark traced London's dark corners through the music he heard at formative spaces like 3rd Base and Plastic People, music that reflected the contradictory experience of urban living. There was joy, dread, struggle, celebration and most importantly, community—a conflicted emotional state that would become the foundation for Keysound's ethos.
In 2004, Clark started the Blackdown Soundboy blog, and he was tapped shortly thereafter for a column at Pitchfork that would chronicle what was happening around him in London. Exposing the burgeoning sound to an international audience, Clark was a key figure in dubstep's rise. But it's his ever-evolving record label, which has spent recent years finding an identity in the ashes of dubstep, that will likely be his greatest legacy.
Keysound's roots are in the darker strains of garage that took hold around the turn of the millennium and eventually mutated into dubstep. In 2004, dubstep was a small scene that was still developing. That year Clark wrote a legendary blog post called "where is dubstep?" in which he codified the aesthetic that would become key to the genre's narrative and development.
"Reflections come off crumbling warehouses, dirty towerblocks, endless row terraces, unhinged nightbus rides, skunked-out cars and clattering overland trains," he wrote. "London: this is the defining influence on dubstep."
This was dance music made in a feedback loop with its surroundings, the foundation of what Clark termed a keysound—a "looped sonic keystone that underpins the whole track... a constant sound that suggests an environment, a space, a culture, a city." And that environment bled into every aspect of Keysound, from its catalogue numbers (LDN001, LDN002 etc) to early collaborators like Burial and Trim, artists who were obsessed with London and interpreted the music emanating from its streets and nightclubs.
Though Dusk + Blackdown started producing together all the way back in 2001, they didn't start Keysound until 2005, when they felt like they finally had something worth releasing.
"OK, we're happy—the music works. Then what?" says Clark over a video call from his London home. "We couldn't get on the labels we liked at the time, so we thought we would have to do it ourselves. Which, you know, is in the spirit of many things that happen in underground music... no one's going to do it unless you go and do it yourself."
As dubstep grew in popularity, Clark and Dan Frampton's close friends became label owners themselves. Turning to Mala, Coki, Pinch and Kode9 for advice, the duo started Keysound amidst the same wave of creativity that birthed DMZ, Tectonic and Hyperdub. Keysound began with "Drenched" in 2005.
Looking back now, there's an enormous amount of mythology hidden in "Drenched." The very first sounds in the track are the rumble of the London underground and the high-pitched whine of a train's doors closing—the dubstep beat that drops afterwards is embedded into the sounds of the city itself. The run of Dusk + Blackdown releases that followed used similar devices and imagery to paint a vibrant and personal picture of London. While their peers were focused on refining and defining their own distinct sounds, Frampton and Clark were exploring the city, walking down the markets of Turnpike Lane with "Lata" and tapping into the grime underground with the sinogrime-influenced bristle of "The Bits," which featured a young Trim on the mic.
Keysound's dark, moody tracks were matched by an equally considered visual identity. Clark calls the urban landscape photos that adorn each 12-inch "keysights," a concept that started with Clark wandering around London taking pictures. He found particular inspiration at dusk and twilight, with the eerie, in-between hues matching the vision he had for his label, which has since become an identifiable brand with the help of photographers and artists like Shaun Bloodworth and Nico Hogg.
This first phase of Keysound, in both sound and sight, culminated with Margins Music. Dusk + Blackdown's debut album was a towering achievement, and listening to it was like walking through London, with the duo sewing the ethnically diverse makeup of the city into the music itself. It was such an undertaking that it left the duo feeling drained in its aftermath.
"If you're writing an album, you need to give it your all. And after we gave our all, we didn't have any left," Clark says with a laugh. "Then it was like, well, we can stop running Keysound for four years while we find the space and inspiration to write another album. But, you know, a lot of the ideas around Keysound are the actual idea of a looped sonic keystone... so we started to think, maybe we could expand this a bit to be more inclusive. Why don't we push that?"
"If we're getting sent hundreds of dubs a month, most of which are good enough to play on our show, and most of which aren't getting released, then they're just going to disappear," Frampton says. "It's not like we had a duty, but it seems a bit daft not to be chasing up some of these. Especially the Starkey one. I bet someone would have signed that."
Starkey's "Gutter Music," released in 2009, was the beginning of Keysound's second era. The label started to reach out to producers—in this case all the way to Philadelphia. The bright refrains of "Gutter Music" were a technicolour slap in the face compared to Dusk + Blackdown's moody meditations, but Starkey's bass bomb otherwise fit snugly into the grimy, urban aesthetic. Keysound had notorious grime MC Durrty Goodz rap over "Gutter Music," which placed the track in the same context as the original Dusk + Blackdown releases. It was the first glimpse of Clark and Frampton's knack for building narratives and bringing outside voices into their world.
"The Starkey record began that process of questioning what Keysound could be," Clark says. "Elijah [Butterz] likes to call it the best grime record never made in London."
Releases from DVA, Kowton, Damu, Sully and LV followed, taking the label down several paths at once. But they all led back to the same place: a seamless hybrid of grime, dubstep and garage. Some of the label's most enduring tracks dropped in this period, like Sully's neon-streaked garage anthem "In Some Pattern" and LV's "38," an EP named for a London nightbus route. The latter featured thoughtful spoken word from Joshua Idehen, a poet and MC who, especially with 2011 LP Routes, has helped Keysound translate Clark's writings and philosophies into music.
"I don't personally set out to write a 'London verse,' it's just how it works out," says Idehen. "I am a bit obsessed with the city, and everything I write always comes back to it in the end. I think Keysound releases are more 'urban' than just London. If you've ever walked down a mashed up stairwell on a tower block at midnight, wherever you are, you should be able to relate to Keysound."
In other words, Keysound's vibe was becoming more universal. Clark and Frampton were following a new sonic thread that was based in musicality rather than geography, and the label was more diverse than ever. It had also never sounded so coherent, even when it was striking out with Kowton's techno-influenced "Stasis (G Mix)."
"The first Kowton record we put out... he sent it over and I was like, 'This is great!' I love Basic Channel, but it was just too Basic Channel," says Clark. "I can't put out a straight techno record. And then he came back the night after and had this 2-step version that was like too Basic Channel to be 2-step, and too 2-step to be Basic Channel. There was a degree of imprecision, and a lack of clarity that I really like."
LHF came to define this more experimental incarnation of Keysound. Clark introduced the shadowy London collective through a mix series called "Keepers Of The Light," where they imbued dubstep with exotic flavours and wove in other strains from the hardcore continuum in a way that carried the torch from Margins Music. The crew seemed tailor-made for a musical romantic like Clark. There were seven of them, with mysterious, evocative aliases, and they had a staggering archive of dubs with their own mythology. They had been doing pirate radio for years, and attended many of the same foundational dubstep events as Clark and Frampton. Eventually one LHF member contacted Keysound through Myspace. Clark asked for more music, and soon five CD-Rs came through the mail slot of his front door.
LHF's three EPs and the double album that followed—2012's mammoth Keepers Of The Light—were a powerful mission statement for both artist and label. They provided a way for Keysound to define itself as the dubstep scene dissolved. This was at the same time when many dubstep producers and DJs were defecting over to house in droves. It's a move that Keysound deliberately avoided, and a topic that still gets Clark a little wound up.
"So this is my record collection, or most of it," he says, pointing to the mass of shelves behind him. "This is all the Detroit section, and loads of this is house. It's a thing. If I wanted to be a house DJ in 2006, I would have been. I have lots of house records I like, but house has been there since before I knew what it was. I'm not against house, but if we wanted to put house records out and be house DJs, we would have long since done that. It's quite a formulated, congested zone, and mostly, when I hear a house DJ, it doesn't move me.
"I just got really, really hungry," he adds. "Dubstep got ruined by other people, and grime was quite fractured. It made me more hungry to release music I cared about. I think LV and Sully and those other albums we put out then were a function of that. We could have sat around when dubstep fell apart and just got really, really bitter. Or we could have went around and said, 'Let's bring back the good old days,' which, again, never ever works."
The new moves were heavily influenced by UK funky and centred on a slower tempo, creating a pseudo-genre that Clark simply called "130," or "a space where people could be creative and open again with darker flavours." The emergence of 130 in 2012 coincided with a Dusk + Blackdown album called Dasaflex, which was the duo's way of exploring a path beyond dubstep. And they found inspiration in a wave of young producers whom they first showed off in a 2012 Rinse FM show with Beneath, Wen and Visionist that has since become part of the Keysound mythology.
"That show is a tipping point for the third phase of Keysound," Clark says. "Dubstep implodes beyond repair. The community we built the label out of ceases to exist in a meaningful way, or at least a creative way. And you think, right, do we sit here and moan and complain and pretend it's the old days, or is there a positive way out of this? Let's find a whole bunch of records and a whole bunch of people that share the values we do—sonic values and community values."
If phase two saw Keysound looking outside of London, then phase three had them looking into the unknown. They built an entirely new roster, which was presented almost fully-formed by 2013 with a compilation called This Is How We Roll. The disc began with a track by Visionist, Wen and Beneath that boldly claimed "the new wave comin' through." Two years later, those words have proven prescient.
Beneath was arguably the most crucial player in Keysound's reinvention. His bouncy, UK funky-influenced tracks (which Clark called "sub zero rollage") helped to shape Clark's impressions of that burgeoning 130 sound. In another important blog post, in 2012, Clark interviewed Beneath and shared an all-originals mix that felt like a battle cry. At a time when most producers in the UK were trying house on for size, here was a young gun making brutal rollers with one foot in the brooding darkness of dubstep and another pointed towards the unknown.
Other artists would find their own ways to plug into the label's new 130 BPM spectrum. Wen held grime down to a slower tempo, inspired by the Keysound radio show. E.M.M.A. released an album of playful, dubby dance music that sparkled with the dazzling colour of Starkey's "Gutter Music." Moleskin made what you might call ambient grime with Satis House. Etch brought hardcore into the equation with Old School Methods. And Logos, with some help from Mumdance, took apart grime piece-by-piece and let the elements float in zero-gravity. His dumbfounding Cold Mission album is one of Keysound's crowning achievements. The label has felt remarkably open-ended since then. Sully went full jungle last year with Blue, while Dusk + Blackdown indulged themselves in a rare bit of nostalgia with Back 2 Go Fwd>>. Last year's Certified Connections compilation gestured in yet more directions, with a handful of artists who were practically unknown.
Keysound's dip into a younger pool of producers has pulled them into a resurgent and increasingly global grime scene that's home to labels like Gobstopper, Liminal Sounds, Glacial Sound and Diskotopia. These artists are part of a generation that has its own experimental and instrumentally-focused idea of grime, while Clark and Frampton have begun to recruit other hotly-tipped producers like Parris, Facta and Murlo. And though the duo would never claim to run a grime label—quite the opposite, in fact—this youthful energy has given their label a new context.
"A lot of the producers that've come through on Keysound in the last two or three years are a completely new generation to us," Clark says. "Like Etch. He's 22 and he's massively into hardcore and jungle and those kind of sounds. And it's not like he's reviving it from the time before. He's 22, you know? We have common ground, common musical and sonic ground with him. And he's saying things like, 'Where is our Metalheadz?' And it made me go out the next day and start [new club night] Keysound Sessions.
"Because somebody of that age is saying in 2015, where are our fundamental clubs, where we hear these sounds that people will talk about for years to come? Again, I don't know if we've ever achieved that, but those are the sort of things we aim at, and try and get to, and bother losing sleep over. And I think we found a kinship and a connection with a set of subsequent generations that also say, 'Yeah, we like those darker sounds. We weren't at the Exit, 3rd Base, but we wished we were. Can we have one of those now?' Right, let's go. And collaborate together. And that's the kind of energy we're trying to channel."
Their last compilation, Certified Connections, cemented this new energy and added even more young producers to the Keysound roster. It ended with a track from Luke Benjamin, a spoken word artist who sounds like nothing else the label has released before, and has his own Keysound EP coming up. There's another newcomer, Atlas, and some powerful new material from Detboi. And then there's the return of LHF—first via a formidable collaboration with the Ragga Twins, and then with a new album—whose liminal UK music is even more relevant in the constantly criss-crossing musical climate of 2015. They've even expanded their reach to include Burial, after hosting a handful of his remixes and collaborations in the past. And as one of the few labels outside Hyperdub to release a new track from Burial, "Temple Sleeper" felt like yet another way for Keysound to assert its growing supremacy.
"As our last tune at Outlook, we played one of his dubs. And then we were thinking of releasing another lost dub, and in the process, we were like 'Why don't we put a Burial track on the flip? That would be fucking audacious, wouldn't it?' I texted him saying 'Hey, could we have this track we just played?' And he said no, because it wasn't finished. Two months later he threw us 'Temple Sleeper.' It was just titled 'For Martin.' It gave me goosebumps hearing it, just listening to it in my headphones. That's the indivisible feeling you have to follow as a label—you have to follow that feeling.
"That set at Outlook felt like this massive proof of concept for what we're doing. Just seeing their reactions to the tunes we were doing. Chunky was MCing for us. He was coming over all the time and going, 'What is this?' 'Ya, it's something from the Keysound family.' It was just like, 'Wow, this thing does work.' This crazy idea of building a space where groove and bass, and dark tension and release, and synths, and all these other things, can have a correct space without sounding like existing dance music tropes. And I just sat on the side of the stage with the giggles going, 'Look at that! Look. At. That.'"
Crushing drum breaks, eerie ambient and mutant strains of UK funky and grime: Keysound "phase three" is in full effect on this mix of almost completely unreleased material.
Logos - Omega Point [unreleased]
Dusk + Blackdown - Wot Do You Mean?! (Movin' Parro Mix) [unreleased]
Sully - Thema [unreleased]
OKzharp & Samrai - Gated [unreleased]
LV & Josh Idehen - Imminent (Paper Tiger remix) [Keysound Recordings free download]
Murlo - Broken Arrow [Keysound Recordings]
E.m.m.a. - Light Years [Keysound Recordings]
Damu - iPolice [Keysound Recordings]
Damu - Whirlybird [Keysound Recordings]
Blackdown - Wot Do You Mean?! [unreleased]
Atlas - Solitude [unreleased]
Luke Benjamin & Threnody - Going Mad [unreleased]
Luke Benjamin & Rabit - Confidence [unreleased]
Amen Ra (LHF) - Surrender [unreleased]
Amen Ra (LHF) - Triumph [unreleased]
Amen Ra (LHF) - Wet Harmonic [unreleased]
Amen Ra (LHF) - Natural Boost [unreleased]
Double Helix (LHF) ft Ragga Twins - 2000 Dust [forthcoming Keysound Recordings]
Double Helix (LHF) ft Ragga Twins - Exodus [forthcoming Keysound Recordings]
Double Helix (LHF) ft Ragga Twins - Fugese [forthcoming Keysound Recordings]
Atlas - Calm [unreleased]
Caski - Tunnel Music [Keysound Recordings]
Dusk + Blackdown - Peng One Two [Keysound Recordings]
Detboi - Give Love [unreleased]
Detboi - Scatter [unreleased]
Wen ft Riko - Play Your Corner (Walton remix) [unreleased]
Dizzee Rascal - Strings Hoe (Wen refix) [Keysound Recordings]
Mumdance & Logos - In Reverse PIV [Keysound Recordings]
Burial - Temple Sleeper [Keysound Recordings]
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