Batu is keeping innovation at the top of Bristol’s agenda
Troubled streaming platform Soundcloud recently released a documentary apparently showcasing the Bristol club scene. Portraying the city’s music culture as dominated exclusively by white, middle-class promoters of throwback deep house and disco for student crowds, the video provoked both ridicule and anger. It was swiftly removed from the internet.
The Soundcloud documentary ignored the black presence in the once slave-trade financed city, the Caribbean identity which produced decades of soundsystem culture, from jungle and trip-hop to dubstep and grime. For Omar McCutcheon, publicly known as Batu, “It’s a waste of energy to get angry at that kind of thing, as if it’s surprising, ignorant people coming into a vibrant scene and trying to cash in. They will get bored and go back to London and the same people with real passion will be left doing their thing.”
Still in his early twenties, McCutcheon is the rhythm scientist at the centre of the Timedance label – Bristol’s latest surge of musical innovation – and he’s one of those aforementioned people with real passion. As Batu, and along with a close circle of young friends including producers Bruce, Ploy and Lurka, McCutcheon makes bass-driven and hypnotic dance music defined by head-spinning polyrhythms, detailed textures and surreal synthesis.
In June, I experienced his brand of devastating broken-beat techno on a deep, heavy speaker stack at a Timedance night in the darkness of the decommissioned police cells beneath Bristol city centre. At the end of McCutcheon’s set, the lights shone on the bare backs of dancers.
A few days later, I meet with McCutcheon over bowls of rice and spicy tofu, and we chat for a couple of hours about the lack of rules that drives his work forward. McCutcheon is a quiet, thoughtful guy who chooses his words carefully. Growing up as a black youth on a council estate in an exceptionally white and affluent part of Oxfordshire, he’d long felt a kind of “disassociation” with his surroundings. When his uncle introduced him to dubstep as a teenager, the sound spoke to him deeply. During eye-opening visits to raves in Brighton, and connecting with the scene online through the Dubstepforum.com website, this new world gradually eclipsed everything. He describes it as a “moment of realisation that there’s other things that you can identify with or define yourself with on a higher level, which is more… more you actually.”
Having found a musical language that he innately understood, McCutcheon quickly began creating. Playing music in bands with friends had always felt too compromising. “There’s something inherently anthemic about pop music” he says with a hint of disdain, “it’s all set up to be sung in a fucking karaoke bar, do you know what I mean? There’s nothing weird. That doesn’t resonate with me that much.”
On Marius, the latest Batu record for Hessle Audio, indistinct sounds cluster and shuffle in a weird zone that feels unfamiliar but fills you with an insistent urge to move. “I do a lot of jamming with software,” he explains of his creative process, “taking one sample and looping it for ten minutes and just playing with different controls.” By breaking the rules, and using things in the ‘wrong’ way, McCutcheon learnt to create an uncanny version of reality, pushing things into abstraction until the noise somehow begins to mimic sounds we think of as ‘natural’. “It might subconsciously remind you of, like, a bird squawking. They can be as alien as you want them to be, but if they’re tied into a familiarity, then they actually have a lot more weight to them.”
By the time he settled in Bristol, finishing his university music technology course, McCutcheon had already had his music released by visionary elder locals like Peverelist and Pinch. But he was still discovering new barriers to break down as he met others doing things their own way. Alex Digard and Dan Davies (aka Ossia) were key figures, running labels, printing zines and pushing forward in the Bristol underground. Inspired by their resolutely DIY methods, the process was demystified; McCutcheon “realised it was all doable” and created Timedance.
A couple of years later, after releases by a close-knit crew of friends and peers, the project has launched from its moorings, favoured by everyone from Ben UFO to Mary Anne Hobbes, taking over Boiler Room alongside Bloc, described as “all-conquering” by The Quietus, featured as “A New UK Techno Sound” in Mixmag and ranked #8 in Resident Advisor’s ‘Top 20 labels of 2016’ list.
Listen to Lurka’s bolshy riddims, Laksa’s loose shuffle and Batu’s own warped, smothered beats and you could find a common ground in the label’s output – a particularly agile form of dubstep-schooled, soundsystem techno in the vein of the other Bristol project, Peverelist’s Livity Sound. “They’ve massively influenced what I do,” says McCutcheon; “having something distinctly UK that wasn’t pastiche, and equally had this new influence, techno, being part of the sound… but I feel there’s more space to be explored.”
In fact, Timedance defiantly resists categorisation, particularly when you pay attention to Bruce’s postmodern sonic visions and Ploy’s immersive, tribal grooves. Perhaps the common thread is found in the rhythm mechanics – the way the bass speaks to the beats, and the spaces in between. McCutcheon still finds inspiration in the way Kode9 defined dubstep in 2006: “a solid sub-bass foundation… anything goes on top.”
“Having that influence from dub in terms of using space and bass, and stripping things back… but apart from that, there’s a lot of room to manoeuvre really.” The nights are equally unpredictable, with a diverse crowd – when I visited there was a coterie of dreadlocked Hispanic ravers among the students, techno heads and local DJs, including Peverelist himself. The idea is simple – focusing on a big soundsystem and a lack of distractions. A recent instalment featuring Freerotation co-founder Steevio saw the silver-dreaded Welsh techno alchemist draw the normally rowdy crowd into a meditative state, or as McCutcheon describes it, “a psychedelic wormhole.”
"Dance music is where you're touching people the most. Those times on a dancefloor where you hear something new, captivating, and imaginative – and you lose your mind"
Though some of the headliners at their nights have included some of the more esoteric ends of the spectrum – experimentalists like Beatrice Dillon and Giant Swan – Timedance will never stray too far from body music. “Dance music’s where you’re actually touching people the most,” McCutcheon asserts; “those times on a dancefloor where you hear something new, and captivating, and interesting, and imaginative, and you lose your mind… that creates beautiful moments, you know?”
The restaurant we’re sat in closes, so we continue talking as we walk through the dusk-sinking park, with wheeling seagulls making wild, gutteral sounds above us. McCutcheon tells me his aim is to share these heady experiences of musical inspiration with the younger generation, because, in his words, “that’s how this shit moves.”
“There’s so many ‘dusty’ house tracks – where nothing’s different to what was being made 20 years ago,” he continues. “I think familiarity’s probably what you gravitate towards when you’re not really sure what’s going on with the world, you’re not sure what’s going on with your life, you know?”
Omar McCutcheon is railing against the “systematic abuse” of our politics, and capitalism’s relentless infestation of the underground, but he finds optimism in the changes taking place now, and younger people’s newfound political engagement. “Most people who are going out have grown up in this era of ‘safe’, ‘fun’ neoliberalism,” he argues. “We’re seeing how the rules are changing because of that bubble being burst. Often there’s not enough benefit of the doubt given to the audience. People surprise you, man.”
Photography: Ben Price
Batu appears at No Bounds Festival, Sheffield, 13-15 October