The UK's New Generation of Bass Producers is at the Vanguard of Dance Music

Angus Finlayson explores the next generation of UK bass with some of its most promising artists and labels.

22 min
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Jan 21, 2021
Angus Finlayson

In a year when, in spite of everything, the good music never stopped coming, Anz’s Loos In Twos (NRG) stood out. Not only for its sound — a lithe club hybrid which coupled playfulness with cool minimalism — but also for what it said about currents in UK music.

The pairing of Anz, a fast-rising Manchester DJ, with Hessle Audio, an influential label established in 2007, suggested a meeting of two generations. Elsewhere, Bristol’s revered Livity Sound label (est. 2011) has recently drawn fresh purpose from younger talent, whether UK artists — Two Shell, Kouslin, Lack — or those from further afield, like DJ Plead and Azu Tiwaline.

These names are just the start of it. Once you get digging, you’ll find a broad and fast-growing network of labels and collectives — All Centre, Circular Jaw, Control Freak, Le Chatroom, Pressure Dome and Scuffed Recordings among them — releasing exciting music from dozens of rising artists.

It’s hard to mark out the borders of this musical event. It’s centred on the UK, but not exclusive to it, and bleeds into numerous microstyles and scenes in the genreless free-for-all of modern dance music. (Anz, for instance, has a dizzying range, as heard in her annual production mixes.) Tempos and reference points vary, taking in house and techno, garage and UK funky, IDM, dancehall, and plenty else besides. You’d be hard-pressed to put a single name to it all, and nobody’s volunteering one.

But at the same time, there’s a feeling of community to what’s going on: these artists release on each other’s labels, guest on each other’s radio shows, and, in better times, play each other’s nights. And while this music isn’t easily reducible to a single origin story, there are similarities between what’s going on now and a certain part of UK dance music’s past.

A decade or so ago, labels like Hessle Audio and Livity Sound, alongside Hemlock, Hyperdub, Night Slugs, Swamp 81, and others, presided over a striking shift in UK dance music. You could call it a moment when scene purism gave way to intermixture. These artists rooted themselves in a British music tradition threading back to UK hardcore through dubstep, grime, garage, broken beat, drum & bass, and jungle. But they tinkered with these forms, pulling in other inspirations and, partly inspired by London’s UK funky sound, tooling the music for house and techno dance floors.

This music never went away: figures like Joy O, Blawan, and Hessle co-founder Ben UFO became fixtures on the international circuit, while the scene around Night Slugs influenced swathes of global club music later in the decade. And a second generation, headed up by the likes of Batu, Bruce, and Ploy, pushed the music forward. (Batu’s Timedance label can surely claim a chunk of the credit for inspiring this new generation). But what’s happening now takes a fresh look at some of the ideas and approaches first debuted around 2010. And, since things have moved on, and dance music’s culture and infrastructure have changed, the conclusions drawn are different.

Check out the Beatport Top 100 Bass / Club playlist.
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“It’s not necessarily people that came from the first generation, Swamp, Hessle, that sort of thing,” says Ian DPM, co-founder of Scuffed Recordings. “It’s people that came after that — 18, 19 year-olds now. You can tell they’ve listened to it and then taken ideas from it but it’s not trying to stick to that lineage.”

Founded in 2017 by Ian, based in Bristol, and South London’s High Class Filter, Scuffed’s broad catalogue offers a rolling snapshot of current sounds. Their chosen descriptor is “left-of-centre UK club music.” That descriptor covers all sorts of things, but a good deal of it works through the influence of UK sound system culture. It’s there in the swaggering bass-heavy electro of London’s An Avrin; in a clutch of crisp, playful drum tracks echoing early Pearson Sound (Fisky’s “Fabswift“, Glances’ “Bulwark“); and in the spookier avant-techno of Drum Thing’s “Midnight“.

“The past two or three years, a lot of people have refined their sound into something different,” says Ian. “I think that’s what’s starting to bubble up. I think it’s all come together.”

DJ Pitch also describes things as having unified in recent years. “Which is great, it’s really exciting. It makes you hopeful to feel like the sound can really move forward as a result.”

Alongside Simkin, Pitch co-runs All Centre, a label set up in 2018 to explore new strains of UK sound system techno. For DJ Pitch, the label was a return to his formative influences, and an attempt to connect them with his more recent interests.

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“I did a brief stint at university in Sheffield in 2011,” he recalls. “During that time I started going out for the first time. I think it was when Hessle got really big — Hessle, Swamp, Night Slugs. It was around when Blawan did [“Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage“]. I’ve got vivid memories of those tunes getting played out, seeing lots of those key figures. And they all had a show on Rinse [FM], lots of those crews seemed to feed in and out of each other. That was the music that got me into [dance music]. So for that reason, you just cherish it a bit more, don’t you?”

It ended up being Night Slugs, with their broader and bolder hybrid vision, which caught DJ Pitch’s imagination. Back home in Watford and later London, he and a crew started doing parties and online radio, and in 2014 started a label, Tobago Tracks (now TT). The still-influential TT was a key node in the experimental club music of the mid ’00s: a wilder sound, more global in its influences, and less beholden to UK dance tradition. But Pitch always kept an ear on the scene which had helped shape him. “Between maybe 2014 and 2016/7, I’d check the Hessle show [on Rinse FM] every couple of weeks, maybe check labels like Mood Hut — that sort of soft, dusty house stuff.”

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Then TT co-founder Gribs showed him object blue, who would soon release the Do You Plan To End A Siege? EP on TT. “That was when it finally clicked for me. To all intents and purposes it was a techno record, but it sampled Cardi B. That was this moment of, ‘Oh, this can work together — these two sounds can come back together.’ And simultaneously I started getting sent a load of music that fit that bill.”

Launched in 2018, All Centre has stayed true to its founding concept. Standout tracks, whether slow-motion techno (co-founder Simkin’s “System“), bass-heavy electro (Holloway’s “Gubbins“, BFTT’s “Mauldeth“) or colourful post-dubstep (DJ Pitch’s “Battered Huawei”), always seem to keep that UK tradition in mind, even when not stating it explicitly. “I was talking to [All Centre artist] Endless Mow yesterday about some new music he’s written. And I sent him a bunch of old Pearson Sound tunes, like, straight off the bat, being like, ‘Think about this and how simple it is.'”

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Ian DPM was also having his ears opened on dance floors in the early ‘10s. At university, his clubgoing diet spanned the MK-style house revival and the quirkier output of DJ Haus and UTTU. It was Swamp 81 that put him onto the UK sound. “The UK thing, Swamp brought it out, and then you’d listen to other shows on Rinse and feel it there as well.” After uni, he wound up in Bristol, drawn by the city’s music scene. “First and foremost, Livity Sound. I had a bit of an embarrassing moment where I had a few too many beers and said that to [Livity founder] Pev’s face. But to me, at the time, that was the most exciting music coming out of the UK.”

While studying in High Wickham — a “dead town” for clubbing — Ian started the YouTube channel Definite Party Material. “That came from the house parties and finding [new] tunes that weren’t online and putting them up there. That spiralled a little bit. I met Will Gulseven, [High Class Filter] through that.” The pair were being sent lots of exciting unreleased music. Ian recalls thinking, “It sounds really good, but doesn’t have a label that would necessarily fit it. Shall we just start our own?”

Scuffed has expanded rapidly, exploring many shades of house, techno and beyond, and is working with artists from as far afield as Japan and Australia. “I think it’s all rooted in UK sound system music, but especially in this day and age it’s so easy to listen to other stuff, to DJ other stuff, that we didn’t want to say, ‘Let’s stick to this’.”

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Looseness of definition, and an unwillingness to be pinned down, might be a defining quality of this music. Among its practitioners, tempo is an open question. (The slow, dancehall- reggaeton- or hip-hop-influenced stuff, taking cues from scene veterans like Batu and Lurka, can be particularly good: see Kouslin’s 2020 Vision EP on Livity, or Duswunder’s “Adorned” and Jennifer Walton and BFTT’s “Flash On” on All Centre).

But even when the music falls in the 120-140 bpm range, it’s restless and hard to parse. Rhythms and stylistic foundations are liable to shift, whether across a release or midway through a track. The innovators of a decade ago were also celebrated for their hybridity. Back then, this was a relatively novel concept in dance music — just as the dance scene’s online shift was getting underway. Now, the Internet’s role in music culture has become self-evident, and so too have YouTube recommendations, algorithmic playlists, and the wide world of online music stores. More than ever before, all taste is eclectic, and this is reflected in the music.

“I think that’s partly just to do with access,” says Yushh of the breadth of the music on her label, Pressure Dome. “The fact that people are able to access and listen to so much more stuff these days, go down those rabbit holes and really, you know, find dancehall that they wouldn’t have been able to find before, or whatever.” In release texts for the label, she uses descriptive terms like “broken beats” to keep things open. “It’s a good, wide summary. It can mean so much. It doesn’t matter what BPM it is, it can still have that broken vibe.”

Another fitting word for Pressure Dome would be “headsy”. A favored label sound is broken techno, deep in mood and with IDM’s filigree: see Syz’s “Rewired” or Outsider’s “Third Rail“. The dreamy intelli-jungle of Suze’s “Porpita” also stands out. The label’s latest release, from Delay Grounds, shades into the high-drama maximalism of Objekt.

For Yushh, also a Bristol resident, the label is strongly rooted in the city and its musical heritage. As with Ian, it was Livity Sound and company that drew her to study there, after ditching another career in her late 20s. She traces a listening history through early dubstep and key Bristol labels Tectonic and Livity; the last thing she and her mates attended before lockdown was a Timedance party. “It was sick,” she laughs. “That’s what we all talk about, that one night we were all there.”

Pressure Dome was a product of her degree in Music Production at BIMM, completed last year. For one module she had to release her own music. She felt she wasn’t ready, so suggested a compilation of her friends’ tunes instead. Working part time in label management gave her the resources she needed to spin the release into a proper label. “I was like, ‘I’ve got all these really cool tunes, and I’ve got all these tools in front of me. I should just go for it.’”

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Threads of community bind these labels together. Yushh and Ian know each other through the Bristol scene; she has played at a Scuffed party, and he has played for her Eminent crew. Yushh’s debut solo EP was released by All Centre. With Pressure Dome, she has centred the roster on friends. “The first few [releases] are all people I know.” She cites Escher, a producer meet-up at the Elevator Sound/Idle Hands shop, as a key spot for finding new artists.

But these days communities form online as much as (if not more than) off — particularly in a time of lockdowns and social distancing. With its near-40,000 subscribers, Ian’s YouTube channel, Definite Party Material, forms a significant part of his activities. All Centre, meanwhile, has a Discord, where fans can share and discuss music and engage with the label’s output.

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The scene of ten years ago was also opened up by new forms of sharing. Pirate radio, its reach extended by the Internet, forged global communities, as did forums like Dubstepforum. But this ran in parallel with traditions from dance music’s earlier eras: a culture of exclusivity and scarcity around unreleased and new music, and a tradition of hype-building through deferred pleasure. (Think of those endlessly teased Joy O and Boddika records). The primacy of vinyl, meanwhile, limited the scene’s output, as costs and logistics capped a label’s rate of release.

These days, an embrace of digital formats and the widening scope of online sociality has helped free things up. “I was just listening to a Swamp set from 2011, Chunky was on mic,” DJ Pitch says. “And it made me realise: it’s like drum & bass, they’re teasing his tune for like a year before they put it out. Now, all we need to do is put it [online].”

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One striking quality of this scene is the sheer volume of music it has produced in a relatively short time. All Centre has put out some 25 (all-digital) releases in the last 2-and-a-half years. For Scuffed, that number is over 40 since 2017 (among them the occasional 12-inch). Pressure Dome remains committed to vinyl, but has supplemented its physical releases with two digital compilations, featuring some 22 artists between them. Many of the artists on these releases are debutants, or in their first year or two of releasing music.

Both DJ Pitch and Ian DPM say that releasing digitally helps build and keep momentum. “It’s about this velocity that you can get with doing digital and releasing regularly,” says DJ Pitch, whose initial plan with All Centre was to do a release a month, every month, for three years. “It’s really appealing and it’s exciting and I think it helps to build a bit of an identity, or a home for the music. It gives it something to orbit around.”

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For Pressure Dome, the focus so far has been on split or V/A releases, in order to “give as much opportunity to as many people as possible.” “A lot of the artists are at the stage where a whole EP is a lot,” says Yushh. “They might not have three tunes at that level right now. But there’s so much potential — why not give them the platform now?”

More broadly, this wealth of releases also hints at an attitude shift: towards abundance rather than scarcity, and towards openness rather than the tight-lipped control which was long held to help build cohesive scenes. “I feel like it’s a lot less gatekeepery. We’re trying to have more of a ‘come and get involved’ attitude,” says DJ Pitch, who’s spent lockdown offering track feedback on the All Centre Discord channel. “Because I wish those things had existed when I was coming into it. It took me years of getting things wrong to get things right, rather than just having someone show me what to do.”

All three labels are now out of their infancy, and their rosters are getting established.

“I think there’s going to be some element of consolidation,” Yushh says of her plans for Pressure Dome. “A lot of the people who are on the label, who have since been introduced to each other, are now collaborating on tunes. So I’m thinking of doing a collab V/A — tunes made by people who have been on the label and are now working together.”

Ian also talks about building relationships with the label’s key artists. “We’re at the point now where we’ve got regulars, so it’s fitting them in and seeing what space we’ve got for new people. It’s a good place to be in. We’re not slowing down. I don’t know about growing, but we’re just trying to make sure that everything’s better, basically.”

Crucially, nobody seems particularly focussed on UK dance music’s past, even if some aspects of it feed into what they do. Yushh, who is a little older than some of the artists coming through, hears criticisms of new producers making tunes without knowing their history. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, but they weren’t 19, 20 when that was kicking off. So you can’t expect them to have the same connection to it as you and I do.’ There’s a lot of stuff that’s come back and been warped into something amazing and new. I don’t think anything exciting would happen if we were all just focussed on our lineage all the time.”

Angus Finlayson, AKA Minor Science, is a DJ/producer and freelance writer based out of Berlin. Find his music on Beatport and follow him on Twitter.

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