The landscape of underground dance music has changed dramatically in the 15 years since Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Pangaea sparked an idea to press some records.
That’s not to say clubs or clubbers themselves were different in 2007, per se. But the methods by which music was accessible to the public still loitered in the 20th century’s shadow, even if peer-to-peer filesharing and social platforms like MySpace were beginning to expedite connection. When it came to movements like dubstep, grime, funky, garage and affiliated subgenres that form Hessle Audio’s DNA, the supporting infrastructure was explicitly rooted in a pre-internet era: cutting dubplates, testing on rigs, getting tips from record stores or twisting your aerial to catch the buzz of pirate radio.
And yet, in 2022, Hessle are an entity who still post on social media sparingly and are so operationally languorous that they can go whole calendar years without releasing anything at all. So how have they not only stuck it out, but retained a handle on those metrics of goodwill, appeal and influence?
That could be put down to the shared strength of working as a trio – a Three Guy Theory, if you will – but equally, Hessle’s lengthy tenure as one of club music’s crown jewels stems from a constellation of supporters and like-minds orbiting them. This mutual exchange encourages ideas to be bounced around, craftsmanship to be elevated, and for them to roll with the punches of a shapeshifting industry. They provide a home for heads-down creation in an environment which trips over itself to prioritise the hands-up.
In that spirit, we reached out to some of Hessle’s friends, allies and signings to help articulate why the label has remained consistently special for 15 years and counting.
Hi Anz. It’s not a reach to say you’re a pretty big fan of Hessle Audio, right?
Not even slightly! I’ve been a huge Hessle fan for over a decade.
Does the way Hessle go about their business — collective-focused, unhurried, keeping the world at arm’s length as and when required — act as a source of inspiration for you?
Absolutely. It makes me so happy to know that a label can be all of those things and still thrive after so many years. Quiet or loud when it’s right. Confident records, never arrogant in approach. Understated but full of heart, brimming with care. And consistent too! I feel like I’ve grown up alongside the label, and yet it’s hard to picture a future in which I’m not excited about a new Hessle record or blown away watching them play a set. As a nascent label owner, Hessle gives me hope about the way things can be.
Loos in Twos (NRG) might be the boshiest record in their entire catalogue. Did you start with the intention of making a Hessle record? What was the development period like from there?
I don’t think I could have imagined the tracks from Loos in Twos (NRG) reaching the Hessle catalogue when I made them. Honestly, my dreams weren’t that big yet! When I sit down to work, I try to avoid making tracks for any specific label so that my main driver is the feeling.
Loos in Twos was the track that sparked the EP, and Stepper was signed not too long after. I sent over some mixed bags of unreleased music for them to play out and see if there was anything that’d fit. When we were working up to the record in 2020, I was on a track-making spree. I’d spend the days working from home, then be buzzing to stay up all night cranking out ideas. I sent them so much of what I was making as I went along. I knew there was the broader goal of completing the record, but I loved the fact that I could send unrelated bits that might work, and still have an open ear from some of my heroes.
Gary Mission was the final piece of the puzzle, and I was in such a daze from constantly making music that it took me a while to even realise we’d finished the EP. I can’t imagine how many 5 am emails with freshly exported tracks I sent them throughout the process. In lieu of getting to know each other IRL during lockdowns, I shared a lot of who I am in those scattered ideas and sleep-deprived, stream-of-consciousness emails. Feedback on deciding which tracks to go with was a super patient process too. I really got the sense that – however much we wanted to get it right – I had time, and they did too.
At the time of the EP’s release, you did an all-Hessle mix for NTS. This question might be difficult, but, favourites on the label?
Oh god! Definite shades of ‘choose your favourite child’ here. I’ll pick the first ones that come to mind, in no particular order:
Pearson Sound – Blanked and Alien Mode
Pangaea – Middleman and Fuzzy Logic
Objekt – Cactus
Pev & Kowton – Raw Code
Joe – Rut
Huge love to David, Ben and Kevin. Not just for being inspirational and supportive in equal measure, but also being truly lovely people. Very blessed to call them pals. Here’s to 15 more years!
There is an old quote from Pearson Sound where he talks about the late-00s embrace of a particular stop-start weirdness, as producers shifted away from core dubstep, saying: “Untold kickstarted it… I don’t think anyone else wouldn’t dreamed of doing the stuff he did.” Does appreciation for that period strengthen with hindsight, or was it clear something special was going on?
That’s kind of David, but the weirdness and disregard for the template was present in the roots of dubstep. The Skream, Benga and Coki dubs from the 2007-2010 era were so odd it gave a permissiveness – or challenge – for the next bunch of producers to keep pushing things. That era was undoubtedly special in terms of the characters involved, the relatively primitive technology used, and the interplay of hyper-localisation with sudden global interest and feedback. I remember the lightning pace feeling unsustainable back then, and that’s why Hessle deserves all the love for riding it out stylishly and being a constant influential presence.
Within 12 months, you heard Distance playing an unknown James Blake on Rinse FM, signed his debut to Hemlock over Myspace, then James and Pangaea were backing you on a remix pack, then James was on Hessle, then off to the stratosphere.
There was a constant stream of tracks that felt vital and unmissable. Radio-wise, you had Mary Anne Hobbs, N-Type on Rinse and Hessle on Sub FM; add to that hearing stuff played at FWD>> each week and going to DMZ. The Hessle residency at Fabric felt like a milestone and lots of tunes got written for that. James was banging out Harmonimixes alongside all his EPs.
Reinforcing this was Myspace and the messaging service within it, then later AIM, which provided an ideal platform to make contact with producers known and unknown, and share a bit of music. I honestly think things could have panned out differently if it wasn’t for the restricted functionality of the original Myspace design. It was so perfect for the time.
I Can’t Stop This Feeling / Anaconda was a breakout hit in 2009. Can you recall any of the stranger places that record travelled?
There was one enraged comment from a well-known techno veteran saying something like, “Nooo! This arrangement is all in the wrong place, it has too many buildups and the groove will never make people in Berlin dance. 0/5 NOT FOR ME!” They were right, but I think that’s when we decided to do some colour vinyl as well as the standard release. It gave us all a good laugh.
The strangeness mainly came from the contrast between the type of back-to-back bookings I’d get on a weekend. I could be booked at an Eastern European art gallery, then do a UK student event and get booed off for not playing dubstep, then DJ in a cave in Jerusalem, then at a Portuguese psytrance festival. It was quite overwhelming to make sense of.
Dubstep later became quite a tarnished word. I recall you being excited it could function as a connecting node for listeners of not just garage, techno and grime, but also 90s drum’n’bass – a scene you lived through. Did that promise get lost?
All promises were honoured and the cultural exchange has unfolded perfectly. All relevant mp3s, memes and NFTs have been submitted to the Galactic Council for Archiving. If we are stone-kicking, though… it might have been nice to have had another undisturbed six months in London so the micro-scenes and crews had more of a chance to exchange ideas, but people got very busy. Don’t forget funky parties were going off at the time, too.
Fair play to the labels and producers who stuck by dubstep and carved their own sound within it – I love labels like System and Innamind. As for things getting overlooked, it’s been tough for ages. There are thousands of tracks that have been released in the last few years that would have been certified anthems back in the day. I’m confident there are diamonds in the rough waiting to be (re)discovered by a patient digger.
Looking back at the degree of openness, are there new forms you lament the sound didn’t mutate into?
Around 2006, there was a great little movement developing involving minimal techy sounds and rough bass and breakbeats – sort of as a reaction to the more traditional breakbeat sound you might hear via Finger Lickin’. It never really broke out, but I thought it was amazing at the time – artists like Toasty (Boy), Elemental, Search and Destroy and Quiet Storm (Caspa). I’m convinced some mad beat programming could have come out of it had it developed further, maybe even been bigger than the wobble.
Will we hear any new Untold soon?
I’ve got deep into modular synths so releasing something again will not be possible. Actually, I’m sitting on a few tracks. I’ve been writing with a couple of Hemlock artists, some of which will see the light of day. It’s all about finding the most synergistic point in the rapture to put them on Spotify.
Mary Anne Hobbs
What can you recall about your early interactions with the Hessle Trio?
I met Pangaea at the first DMZ rave outside of London. Mala organised a coach trip up to the West Indian Centre in Leeds. Kevin (Pangaea) came and said “hi” very quietly. It was his first DMZ as I recall – he’d been listening to my BBC Radio 1 shows. The pirates were ruling, especially Rinse, but they could only kick out a local transmission, whereas my Radio 1 show was platforming the sound internationally. Ultimately, I brought Kevin into the BBC to work with me [in 2009]. He was with me until I broadcast my final show [in 2010], and went on to become producer for Benji B, who stepped into my slot after I resigned. Pangaea’s track Router was a B-side of his second 12” for Hessle Audio in 2008, and it’s one of my favourite records of all time. Just take a moment to listen to that track, and you’ll get it.
Without those Breezeblock mixes, and especially the 2006 Dubstep Warz broadcast, the international trajectory of the movement might’ve looked different. Has media support for this corner of the underground improved since?
It’s important to understand that we moved as a community; we created great bonds between the core London and Bristol scenes, and the artists working across the UK and internationally. Producers, DJs, writers, photographers, promoters, boutique labels, artists, pirate radio crews – together we created a global movement. Re: ‘The Media’ – everything and nothing has changed.
What spoke to you about the producers who characterised the scene’s evolution in the late 00s — not just Pearson Sound and Pangaea, but the likes of Brackles, Joker, Appleblim, Ikonika, Shackleton, Joy Orbison and more.
The two foundation stones of early dubstep were: a passion for sub-bass, and 140 BPM. Beyond that, infinite space opened up, and music was characterised by the way it was interpreted so uniquely by every individual producer. It’s this autonomy that has been so powerful.
How was Hessle’s music finding its way to you in the early days?
As a rule, producers would burn CD-Rs loaded with new tunes, hand them to me at a dance, or post them to BBC Radio 1. A booking at FWD>> or DMZ was a serious rite of passage for a young producer, and it was central to the ritual to build new beats for that booking. A new dub may have been passed to Youngsta or Hatcha to play in their live sets, and I might have been gifted the tune for radio. Most of this music was unreleased, and radio compression crushed the low-end hard, so you had to be physically present at a dance to hear the music as it was designed to be experienced: on a soundsystem with a deep tier of sub-bass cabs, in a pitch-dark room, at 2am.
It’s coming up to 20 years since the first strains of dubstep began to make their way up. Any reflections on that round number?
Every time I am travelling south toward Brixton on the Victoria line tube in London, I think, ‘I wish I was going to DMZ.’
What are some of the attributes that led you to form kinship with Hessle Audio?
I like how little they release – there’s a sense of excitement around a Hessle record because of that. They’re very supportive of the artists and projects they work on.
Inkjet / Fluo is one of only three records to date on Hessle featuring a collaboration. Pearson Sound once mentioned is that Call Super’s art background means peer evaluation is a key part of his process. How did that 12” come about, and did the Trio feed into the record’s gestation?
Joe (Call Super) suggested we try something out, as we had shared musical interests. There was some back-and-forth with the label. They would be DJing the tracks on the weekend and giving us suggestions for edits. Getting those club structures right is definitely more Joe’s domain than mine. I had bought a Yamaha DX7 earlier that year and was enjoying getting lost in carriers, so there’s a bit of that in there, as well as a sample of the Skype alert from one of our calls during the process. At the end I suggested the colour scheme [for the artwork].
As a musician with a curious ear, what is your stance on Hessle as a label that finds room for oblique rhythms, negative space, and other elements you might not hear in club music?
At the time, I was very excited by UK club music – including Hessle releases by Joe, Untold and Pearson Sound – and I liked the musical connections they’d make in their DJ sets. That ‘negative space’ is key to the early sound of the label, perhaps from an appreciation of Jamaican music production techniques where a lot of space is left for the rhythm.
Can we expect new music any time soon?
I’m working on lots of new material, but focusing mostly on multi-channel stuff which is what I’m primarily interested in right now. I’ve also been working with [tabla player] Kuljit Bhamra which has impacted my practice and life so positively.
You and David (Pearson Sound) first connected at the final edition of Red Bull Music Academy in 2018. How was he as a mentor?
David was super generous with his time and knowledge at RBMA. We clicked pretty quickly and I remember us sharing a mutual interest in Lisbon’s Príncipe Records and a lot of the kuduro and batida stuff happening at the time. We ended up jamming on something that came out through the RBMA comp with my friend Bear, who also got accepted into the Academy. Afterwards we kept in touch and I’d send stuff I was working on.
Your record Xtasis has had huge success this year. Did you always want a Pearson Sound and Doctor Jeep remix as part of the package?
I’m still pretty blown away by how far the song has travelled. Pearson Sound was definitely on the cards, but when the TraTraTrax family started chatting with him, we asked if he’d be up for it. Doctor Jeep is a friend but the suggestion came from [producer] Tra who recently started working with him as well. I always respect the curation by Verraco and the TraTraTrax team. We are usually pretty in sync.
With INVT, Sister System, Jonny from Space, Bitter Babe, Danny Daze, yourself and others, the Miami club community is clearly having a moment – Pearson Sound even gave the city’s scene a shoutout during our chat for the cover story. Is it fair to say there’s a mutual appreciation?
Definitely. Everyone you mentioned is pretty well acquainted with the Hessle Audio universe. We have a mutual interest in percussion and toying with the concept of genre. I remember my friend Goiz – an incredible producer from Miami – and I obsessing over Claptrap by Joe years ago.
But I’d say the real connection happened during the Hessle Audio Miami rave in March 2022. Jonny, Bitter Babe and I took David and Ben UFO to the famous Cuban restaurant Versailles before our show, and we all wound up with the same order. Afterwards, halfway through my set, I remember looking up and seeing Ben raving his ass off. That was definitely a highlight and very validating! Honestly, Ben UFO is basically a Miami legend at this point.
There’s a story about the night you first met Ben, before passing him what would become the Cactus / Porcupine 12” a few days later. Can you tell us more about that?
Sometime in early 2011, Call Super and I went to see Ben and Ikonika play in Berlin, having been out the night before and not slept. I got steaming drunk, had a starstruck chat with Ben – whom I’d recently started emailing but never met before – and fell asleep on a sofa. I woke up an hour later next to Sara (Ikonika) – whom I’d also never met either but I’d heard she was also from the Philippines – exclaimed something along the lines of “woiii, Filipinos represent” and fell asleep again. A strong start in the Dance Music Industry.
Does Hessle’s longevity by playing the game ‘the right way’ give you relief within the unceasing churn of the dance music world?
Hessle are able to pick the best music that this corner of the scene has to offer, both in a curatorial sense and because they’re a super well-respected label that people want to release on. They’ve been able to maintain an enviable level of quality control since the beginning. They’re not the most prolific label. In my opinion, their catalogue has aged really well – none of the records feel disposable, and most feel definitive and unique.
People often look up to you and Ben UFO in a bracket of ‘how-did-they-do-that’ type DJs. When you play b2b, is there a game of technical one-upmanship quietly going on in the booth?
Honestly, not really. I am sometimes guilty of too much fiddling around in my own sets, but that’s more out of distraction than a desire to show off. In principle, I see the technical stuff as a means to a creative end and I can only imagine that Ben feels the same way. One thing I admire about Ben’s DJing is his ability to balance a generous supply of twists and turns with a strong sense of cohesion. That’s something I’ve always aimed for in my own DJing, but unless you’re just flooring bangers in a row, competitiveness in a b2b context serves the dancefloor poorly.
Around the time of Cactus, there was some jostling in the press about what to name this mutated sound, and whether its function was to oppose more popular strains of dubstep or techno. A lot of tunes from that period have had greater staying power than people might have guessed.
While I’m not sure anyone was trying to start a movement, it was cool that people felt free to experiment with musical conventions without “deconstruction” being such an explicit theme or goal. Outside of the comparatively smaller bass music scene that existed, I remember there being a lot of genre conservatism in the clubs in a broader sense – resistance to house and techno in the UK, vice versa (even more so) in Germany and much of Europe, and that’s to say nothing of the direction that dubstep ended going in post-2010.
Case in point: the top comment under Cactus on YouTube details it getting thousands of Skrillex fans in Milan very, very mad.
In 2009, you were the first artist to approach Hessle Audio, rather than the other way around. What turned your ear?
Despite being a fan, it had never crossed my mind that my music was anywhere near good enough to be released on such a label. I had a good friend called Ste; we were buying a lot of records together and having the odd mix in our uni houses. I hit a little streak of tunes that went off in a different direction to the stuff I was making at the time, and Ste was the one who told me to send them.
During the cover story interview, Ben UFO said: “When Jamie was sending us music, it was immediately fresh and identifiably him. Even now, I think, ‘That is unmistakably Blawan, no one else could have made that.’” Does that reflect the confidence you felt sharing material with them?
Firstly, that’s very nice of Ben to say. Confidence is a difficult one for me. I’ve always only finished and sent a track to someone when I’ve got to the point where I can safely say to myself that it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard. I’ve always been confident I can get to that point with hard work, time and experimenting.
Little characterised the scene in 2008-2012 like punchy percussion, often so dominant it functioned as a lead melody and carried the track. What can you remember of that era?
There was a good bunch of us who were really bouncing off each other at that time: Pearson Sound, Joe, Untold, Randomer and others who were pushing the limits of what UK funky and dubstep had laid out. Neither of those genres were melody-heavy, so the idea that you could have a drum track doing all the work was exciting to experiment with.
Across Karenn, Persher and Blawan solo material, your sound has pulled far away from Fram / Iddy. If Hessle come knocking for a 30th anniversary package tour in 2037, would you be down?
Of course! I still consider Hessle my home. I will be forever grateful to the guys for the opportunity, inspiration and friendship.
When speaking about your entry to club music, you’ve said that “[the] Hessle Audio era really blew everything wide open.” Can you elaborate on that?
The label came from a specific time in UK sound system music, but because they were able to take pre-existing [sounds] and create new ones, without really sounding like anyone else, they became truly influential.
A great example of this is Dubstep Allstars Vol. 7. The contrast between the mixes by Chef and Pearson Sound is so interesting – despite being around the same tempo, they sound nothing alike. You could say the same for each Hessle member’s Fabriclive edition: they present a snapshot of UK club music’s evolution, but pull from such a wide pool that few DJs could make sound coherent. I remember locking into the Hessle show on Rinse FM religiously for years: every first and third Thursday, 9-11 pm, I’d be opened up to different sounds.
The label’s ethos is about taking ideas and reimagining them. When I started getting into production, having listened to them for so many years meant that I didn’t have a specific place to start; just take a little of this, little of that, and see where it leads. I still follow that to this day.
Pearson Sound worked on the mixdown for Design of the Body Sublime on you and Call Super’s label, can you feel the sun. Did that take shape quickly?
Me and Joe were getting to the final stages of finishing the 12” and were having issues getting the mixdown right. It just wasn’t sitting the way we needed it to, especially as this was the first time both of us had really worked with vocals in such a way. We sent David the stems and he helped us to get it to how we imagined. In my opinion, David is one of the best producers around with such a natural ear; if anyone’s going to be able to help you get a track to hit in the club, it’s going to be him.
The headwinds facing independent art are intense right now, with a lot of studios, record stores, radio stations and other incubators for creativity getting hammered. Do you reckon less competitive individualism and more pooling of resources is the way forward?
I’ve never believed that competitive individualism for such a small industry works. If you want a more equitable music scene you have to not only show your values, but make sure that you’re sharing these values and resources for a healthier environment. The thing that helped me when coming up was that I was willing to ask questions, and people were happy to help me. Rather than artists fumbling around in the dark and making bad early decisions, including potentially signing over their career to the wrong person, information can help people make smarter decisions. The music industry can be a cold and cruel place, but these steps should help any scene.
Any words for the young Parris standing right behind Ben UFO during a Boiler Room 10 years ago?
Stay out the camera.
Read the October issue cover story with Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Pangaea, and purchase a copy of the magazine via the online store
You can also check out Hessle Audio’s Issue 136 Cover Mix here