When London’s Rockwell started releasing music in 2009, tracks like “Underpass” and “Noir” he immediately began turning heads. His unconventional approach to drum & bass production, and his wide-reaching array of influences, announced that this was a newcomer to be taken seriously.
Rockwell has since released on some of the best labels in the genre — from early hits with Critical and Digital Soundboy, to his long-running relationship with Shogun Audio, and more recently with his own Obsolete Medium imprint.
He kicked off 2020 with the third release on Obsolete Medium — his own Isolation Ritual EP, a four-tracker aimed firmly at the club. But the EP’s cinematic flair marks it with Rockwell’s unmistakable stamp.
With the release of Isolation Ritual, we caught up with Rockwell, who gives us the inside story on six of the most important tracks of his career so far. In his own words, here’s Rockwell.
Rockwell – Vent [Obsolete Medium] 2020
The results of a simplified approach. Spending less time in the studio has helped my creative process, resulting in less procrastination and more focused application. For the past few years, I’ve also really struggled with objectivity in terms of quality control, leading me to be on the verge of scrapping this entire EP on more than one occasion. Taken from the third release on my label, ISOLATION RITUAL has reinvigorated my desire to write club-focused drum & bass music, and has also been the first time where I felt that my label is starting to get on a sure and stable footing. I’ve had some amazing points in my career, but the DIY approach of writing the music, then designing all the visual assets and releasing it myself, is something that I find extremely fulfilling on a personal level. It’s received support from Workforce, Alix Perez, Noisia, Kasra, Ulterior Motive, Jubei, Camo & Krooked, Enei and more, which is very humbling. I think starting the label and going out on my own has at times been a difficult road to travel, and I may have dipped under the radar a little over the last few years because of this. This release however definitely feels like a step in the right direction.
Rockwell – User [Shogun] 2013
The opposite of “Detroit,” and a track that was completed in record time. The track name is a nod to the fact that I went back to sampling to make the majority of the record. For many years before this, especially on my LP Obsolete Medium, I wasn’t using many samples and preferred making my own through synthesis. With “User” I flipped my process on its head and went back to digging again. I put so much time and energy into my LP that I think for a few years after I was completely spent and a little burned out creatively. The sessions I did catching vibes for the User EP were probably the most fun I had in the studio for many years, and I think you can hear that on the record.
Rockwell – Detroit [Shogun] 2013
Many producers attest to the fact that their best tunes are the ones that were written in the quickest time — rolled out over an afternoon and ready to play that weekend. I would say that “Detroit” was the antithesis of this. It was on my hard drive for over a year-and-a-half, from its inception to being finished. The reason for this was that probably at the time I started it, I didn’t have the studio skills and techniques necessary to get it over the line and execute it in a manner and standard that was required. I had the concept, but not the tools to realise it.
I am a big fan of the US underground in terms of club sounds. I love my Baltimore club and my juke. It was a track that was heavily influenced by Detroit, especially by DJ Assault and his mixtapes, Belle Isle Tech on Mo’wax, and the Straight Up Detroit Shit mix series Vol 1-5. I loved the rawness of that sound, the pace and frantic nature of the drum machine patterns and the riffs and sounds of the saturated basslines. Even when it was 99% done there was still something missing, and I sat down with my girlfriend at the time and listened to some of her techno records to find some inspiration.
She suggested the extremely staccato 1/16th synth line that sits on top of the 808s, with the decay increasing to the end of the phrase. It is such an insignificant part of the tune, in comparison to the bass riff and the vocal sample. But if you take it out, the tune loses all momentum and it just doesn’t work. First time I played a test version, it got rewound instantly. When Zane Lowe premiered it on Radio 1, it blew the subwoofer in the studio while they were prepping the show. Obviously, from this point, people started to take notice, and it got support from pretty much all the big DJs in drum and bass, many of whom are still playing it now many years later.
Rockwell – Full Circle [Shogun] 2010
At this point, I had a bit of a reputation as being a producer that made weird-sounding music — not suited to DJing or being played in the club. I was lumped in with a lot of producers under the minimal banner, which trendy at that time, even though a lot of my tunes — “Noir” and “Drums” for instance — were anything but minimal in execution. With “Full Circle” I changed my artistic approach a little and set out with the intention of making something that your average drum and bass DJ could (and would) play in a club. Within the writing process I left a lot of the finer details I was known for on the cutting room floor and made sure that although the drum patterns were quite heavily edited, every percussive sound was front and centre in the mix and sounding loud, fat, and aggressive. I made the intro DJ friendly, easy to mix and building nicely into a drop (of sorts) with a low-passed Reece baseline. This was familiar territory within the context of drum & bass as a genre, and the track started to get a wide amount of DJ support from people like Alix Perez, Icicle, Noisia & Friction. It was put aside to be released on Shogun sub-label SGN:LTD but was given a promotion to Shogun due to the amount of support that it was getting at the time. This was probably one of the most important tracks in terms of opening up my sound to the scene at large.
Rockwell – Underpass [Critical] 2009
Due to release schedules, this was the first track of mine to hit the shelves, coming on the Critical Sound compilation. This was written in a batch of three: “Underpass,” “Aria” and “Reverse Engineering,” all started and finished around the same time. I think two factors heavily influenced this batch of tunes — I wasn’t being booked yet as a club DJ, so the live and club environment wasn’t an influence to the mood or structure of the music, and I was having a difficult time mentally with crushing daily anxiety.
The wide support the track received was quite astounding — supported by everyone from Gilles Peterson to drum & bass dons like Loxy. I think, especially within the context of the release that it came out on, it sounded completely different from what a lot of people were hearing in the club. Traditionally, it is quite an “in your face,” loud and moody genre, and tracks like “Underpass” are heavily melancholic. I was listening to a lot of Boards of Canada at the time, so while it didn’t sound out of place in the context of my influences, in terms of a traditional drum & bass tune, it stood out like a sore thumb.
Rockwell – Drums [Digital Soundboy] 2010
Mainly due to the chronological order of my releases, I think people are under the impression that “Underpass” was the first tune that I had signed, but this was not the case. I made “Drums” during a period of unemployment (very drum & bass) in a flat in North London that I shared with a producer called Specific — who was known at the time for collaborating with Alix Perez. I passed “Drums” to Alix, who began playing it out quite a lot and it seemed to be getting a great reaction. At the time Alix was informally passing tunes to Shy FX (for example, the immense “Near Miss” by System) and he passed “Drums” to him too. I remember going to FWD>> at Plastic People one Sunday and seeing Shy sitting at the bar and him telling me that he loved “Drums” and wanted it for his label, Digital Soundboy. The track started to surface online in tracklists tagged as a Digital Soundboy dub and I think people were naturally quite inquisitive as to who this producer was that no one had ever heard of with a tune on Shy’s label. That cosign so early on really helped to pique people’s interest into who I was and what I was doing. After that my AIM blew up!