Terrence Dixon: Tales of an Accelerated Future
As co-founders of Butterz, Elijah and Skilliam have been trailblazers in grime in recent years: a label with a sound so distinct that it can be described by their name alone, and a weekly radio show with a finger on the pulse of the latest music, as well as organisers of the biggest specialist club events in the capital and beyond.
The label grew from a blog in 2010, but the two have been DJing with each other since 2007, and their forthcoming installment to the Fabriclive series represents a culmination of multiple strands of development over the period. Once derided for not even being grime, they dismiss the idea of maintaining conflicting scenes within the genre, and balance the need to keep close to its roots – music they both grew up with, still enjoy, and support – and the desire to push the genre forward and outwards, taking notes from the likes Hessle Audio, The Heatwave, DJ EZ, and experiences in Ibiza for their live shows.
They will head their Fabric launch party this Friday with a four-hour DJ set and support from Skepta, Newham Generals, Flow Dan, Riko, Spooky, and Uncle Dugs in what promises to be their biggest rave yet, a further stage in a blueprint they're still in the process of writing. I caught up with the pair (Elijah is the chief spokesperson, but Skilliam also chips in) on Skype while they were working on a new project in New York City last week.
As a record label, Butterz keep things quite close: you have certain artists you're strongly associated with and others you've helped bring through too. Is that purposeful?
Elijah: "You've got to have a core unit, and you naturally support people that you like and get along with. So you just stick with it really, it kind of happens naturally. But then also the best labels are often crews and you can't really build something off singles or short term projects."
What draws you to the people you work with?
Elijah: "I'd say they don't sound like anyone else; they're very distinctive. Distinct from each other and everyone else in the scene: you know a Swindle tune when you hear it, you know a Terror Danjah tune, a Royal-T tune… we found that with Flava D too. I think she's got less of a distinctive sound because maybe she's up so much, but her work ethic is great, so it balances out."
Collaborations also seem important. As well as giving individuals a platform, you bring them together.
Elijah: "That's right. It's just not typically the way the music was made before. If you're trying to put your own stamp on the music, you've got to change every process: the way it's made, the way it's played, the clubs it's in, the people that play it, the presentation."
You say that your Fabriclive CD isn't meant to be a representation of what you two play in a club. If not that, what was your thinking behind it?
Elijah: "It's basically just how wide we can go without losing ourselves. Every track is something slightly different, but it's still in our template, and I don't think you can get that across in a big room club environment sometimes. But if you can sit down with it and listen to it, you have a different attention span and can notice the intricate parts you wouldn't notice so much in a club.
"It's a different way of experimenting: we play and release club sets all the time, so I don't think people that see us in that environment want a snapshot of our club experience. If you want that, then just come to the club and your questions are answered. I know loads of people can't come because they're in different countries or whatever, but then, I don't know, the mystery remains. They'll have to just come one day or see us when it's possible."
All the music on it is new too – released in the last 12 months or so – where there's a tendency in grime sets to drop in at least a few classics.
Elijah: "We've always done that though, we've always been about new music and new artists."
But remembering your Rinse CD back in 2011, I think that had one or two oldies on it…
Elijah: "Nah, there was only one: Ghetto Kyote. See in hindsight, it might look like some of the tracks on there were…"
Elijah: "Not old, but they were all out and popping at the time. They just became known; when we actually mixed the CD, tunes like Wooooo, Orangeade, Unlimited, and Take Off weren't massive. If some of the tunes on the Fabriclive CD go on to be anthems, we knew that like six months ago."
Does 2011 feel like a long time ago to you?
Elijah: "Not really, because we put energy into people who are still working today. If we had to change our whole roster it would feel like like that, there would be a difference. But because we're still more or less the same people, some new people have come through, and we're still in London doing the same things. It's just grown, it hasn't dramatically changed."
Your core is the same, but it's grown too…
Elijah: "Yeah, like Champion wasn't even about on the last one. Imagine that. When we mixed the Rinse CD he had just done the Hardrive record [the 'Motherboard' EP] and that was straight funky. Maybe that helps to show the difference."
That's what I meant when I asked about 2011 feeling like a long time ago. Not that what you're doing feels more significant now, but does it feel bigger?
Elijah: "At that time, what we were doing was new. Now, it's standard to have a grime club night, or a grime mix, or whatever."
Yeah, that's a better way of putting what I was trying to say.
Elijah: "Right. For us, we'd already got it so it was about trying to convince other people. I'm over that now."
What are you trying to do now that you've gotten over that hill?
Elijah: "I think people talk to me and Skilliam about the label so much that we get lost in curation and not artistry. When people talk us, it's all about the label, but that's just one thing we do. We never talk about DJing or radio or anything else we've been doing for the past three years to get us to this place. The label has just been one part of it.
"Even though the people on there are ones we work with closely from the label, it's not a promotion of that. It's what we do as Elijah and Skilliam. Our own style. You can blatantly hear what we'd do differently to Flava D or Terror Danjah or someone. We've got our own way of putting things together and our own ideas . Even compared to any other grime DJs, it's always been different. We could stop the label and carry on doing what we're doing."
Don't you think that some things wouldn't work the same without the framework the label gives you?
Elijah: "Yeah, but you don't want that to overshadow the point of what you're doing. Like people might think that the Butterz radio show is a showcase for our label, when it's just about grime and new music in general. We'll have people on who are nothing to do with us and we've never even met. It's the same with the events: we have no-one on the label even playing with us at Fabric. We're promoting the music, primarily. It's annoying when people forget that, and why we started in the first place. It's not about trying to make a crew that's higher or better than anyone else."
"People might think that the Butterz radio show is a showcase for our label, when it's just about grime and new music in general. We'll have people on who are nothing to do with us and we've never even met. It's annoying when people forget that, and why we started in the first place. It's not about trying to make a crew that's higher or better than anyone else." – Elijah
That's a good philosophy to have.
Elijah: "We could just be, like, our Fabric night is just for ourselves, but we've opened it up. We counted that we've had over 40 artists from the scene play at our nights over the past few years. No-one else has the capacity to do that, so we've used our influence in the best way, I think."
Have you encountered difficulties putting on grime events in clubs?
Elijah: "Not in London, that's alright. But anywhere else is a bit long. And not because it's grime, but because the music doesn't travel that widely and not many people play it. People think there's some big stigma attached to grime, but most of the difficulties are in places it never even hit originally. The first generation of grime people never got the chance to go to some of the places we do."
Are the crowds just unsure? I'm going to assume that people are enthusiastic and willing to learn about the music.
Elijah: "It depends. At the time we started – from 2010 – dubstep was popping. When that was going off, we'd play alongside dubstep acts and it was complimentary. Now, house runs the show, but grime isn't complimentary to that at all, so your reach is dramatically cut. So where we could play on a line-up with say like Skream before, now we can't.
"I'd say grime is in a good place creatively, but I wouldn't say it's bigger or better or anything like that. The energy of new people is always a good thing, and it's nice when people like Kahn & Neek come through with their own shows, and label, and way of presenting things, but when we come to New York, it's not like thousands of people know what we do – it's just enough to make it work.
"We travel where our music goes. Something like On My Mind travels in a totally different way to Let It Be Known – the Joker and Swindle record. Joker and Swindle can play at UKF in Miami and it would go off, where Royal-T and Flava D could play at Garage Nation in Swindon or something and it would go off. There's no crossover between those two acts."
"At the time we started, dubstep was popping. When that was going off, we'd play alongside dubstep acts and it was complimentary. Now, house runs the show, but grime isn't complimentary to that at all, so your reach is dramatically cut. So where we could play on a line-up with say like Skream before, now we can't. – Elijah
But you don't have to be everything for everyone. You can balance being one thing for one group and something else for another, right?
Skilliam: "And the Fabriclive CD kind of combines all of that. We had to put in work making all of that come together. Talking about our Rinse CD before, that flowed more. With this one, the music is so wide that you have to keep it… it's slightly…"
Elijah: "It's awkward."
Skilliam: "Yeah." [laughs]
Elijah: "But it's a positive awkward, to us anyway."
Fabric release 'Fabriclive 75: Elijah & Skilliam' on May 19th 2014. Full details of the launch party at Fabric on Friday May 16th here.