Young Echo: Soundsystem Punk
Bristol’s Old Market is one of those seedy and exciting zones you find near urban transport hubs, with a colourful history and a clash of contemporary cultures. Walking up from the train station and through the main thoroughfare, I pass synthetic office blocks, Jamaican restaurants, the boarded up windows of a gay sauna called the Lads Locker Room, and the Trinity church, which often shakes with the bass of huge dub soundsystems inside.
Eventually I reach the Young Echo studio, where an eerie, melodious tune is oozing around the room from an array of hardware that’s being fiddled with by Joe McGann, better known as Kahn, one of the group’s founders. The rest of the crew are still traipsing in from the cold street, steamy scents wafting from their boxes of veggie Caribbean stew as they banter about whose job it is to answer the door to the stragglers.
Young Echo is the name adopted by eleven producers and MCs who met locally – many even grew up together. Individually and collaboratively, over the past six years, they’ve been making music that takes in reggae, dub, hip-hop, grime, dubstep and techno – and beyond into ambient music, noise and experimental abstractions in-between it all. Collectively, during anarchic radio sessions, club nights and live shows, Young Echo doesn’t so much blur the lines as explode the idea of genre itself.
I’m here to talk to the crew about the next phase in their evolution: Young Echo as a record label, which launches this month with a single from new member Rider Shafique. The group’s second album is due early next year and, like Nexus, their beguiling and emotive 2013 debut, it will be a compilation of tracks produced and performed by the different members.
I’ll have to at least try to run through who’s who. As Kahn, McGann has led a resurgence in grime and dubstep, making beats of crushing agility alongside Sam Barrett, aka Neek (the duo have just put together the forthcoming Fabriclive 90 mix CD). Cris Ebdon produces martial, righteous steppers’ riddims as Ishan Sound; Dan Davies, aka Ossia, has burst onto the scene recently with skulking techno-dub fusions for Berceuse Heroique and Blackest Ever Black.
It’s hard to pin much of the group’s work to genres: the smudged, post-rave trip hop of Amos Childs and Alex Rendall as Jabu; the mangled electronics of Seb Gainsborough’s latest pair of albums for Tri Angle as Vessel – some of the most exciting and powerful music I’ve heard this decade. Sam Kidel aka El Kid’s new record, Disruptive Muzak, consists of phone recordings where his music was played to puzzled UK government call-centre staff. It’s just been converted into an installation at the National Museum of Poland for this year’s Unsound Festival. Rendall also MCs as Bogues, and more vocalists have lately been absorbed into the crew: poet Chester Giles, rapper Manonmars, and Rider Shafique, a rock-solid MC equally at home with grime and hip-hop as dubstep and jungle.
"Young Echo Sound is meant to be abrasive" - Kahn
The group is a jigsaw puzzle in which members operate under different names in different configurations: Giles and Vessel as asda; Vessel and Kahn as Baba Yaga; Kahn and Neek as Gorgon Sound; Neek and Childs as O$VMV$M; Childs and Ishan Sound as Zhou. The Killing Sound project can include any of them. There’s more, I’m sure – it’s hard to join all the dots. “It’s fun leading people on this trail,” smiles Ossia, himself the founder of four excellent record labels: Peng Sound, No Corner, Fuck Punk and Hotline.
Young Echo began when five friends decided to share ideas and stream themselves playing music they liked via internet radio, simply because they wanted to move away from pure dance music. As more and more friends turned up to listen, they had to find bigger places to record their shows, and they developed into the Young Echo Sound club nights. Unannounced guests including Peverelist, Inga Copeland and Hieroglyphic Being sometimes joined them for unruly nights where anything could happen. Kelan, a DJ and video artist who created the gory visuals for the asda track Killer of Men, regaled me with stories of stunned and confused crowds, musique concrete and black metal, and nights ending with drunken mosh pits – “Dan does a mean jab to the throat, which I’ve experienced a few times!”
“It feels like you’re at something from years ago that you would read about,” says Nadoone, promoter of local rave Sweet Sensation and a previous guest at Young Echo Sound. She believes the atmosphere they create, thanks to the group’s unpretentious eclecticism, continues the legacy of the hyper-influential local post-punk band The Pop Group and legendary Bristol club the Dugout, where The Wild Bunch – an early incarnation of Massive Attack – were resident DJs. “They have it again now, but not in a throwback way.”
The groups seems to love the effect of their approach on unsuspecting punters, like when “shark-eyed” students wandered in expecting a euphoric dance. “If those kids had stayed through the hours of screeching metal sounds, they would have got Neek’s hardcore set for the last 15 minutes,” Childs reminisces, and they laugh.
Sometimes visitors rhapsodise about their experience at the nights, while others ask for refunds. “It’s meant to be abrasive really,” says Neek. Ossia enthuses about the power of “making someone feel queasy and uncomfortable, and not able to dance, then you hit them with some fire beat and it makes them shock out so much more.”
Kahn thinks too many clubs and DJs make it easy and functional, whereas “none of us really know what’s going to happen.” That’s the point; it’s a kind of testing ground where they can try out new material, bring different unannounced DJs over, and play whatever they like, whether free jazz, reggae, post-punk, techno or just pure noise. Since releasing their debut album in 2013, Young Echo have also been taking bookings as a group, and these tend to be equally bumpy rides. Hamburg’s Golden Pudel club was a “home from home;” over a nine hour set, a raggle-taggle crowd of different tribes all clicked with what was going on. Childs thinks there was a fight at one point: “it felt quite punk.”
The crew go on to enthusiastically debate what the group is, sometimes contradicting each other – which is fitting. “We don’t make a lot of sense,” says Vessel, contrasting their activities with the “slick product” offered by other groups. “Sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it does. Smashing together all of these ideas just feels like a more honest and simple way to present music.” They enthuse about the importance of challenging one another and being pushed out of their comfort zones, just like their audience is. Rendall recounts his experience of getting involved: “they’d be like ‘do you want to rap on this?’ And I was like, there’s no drums, there’s no snare; what the fuck am I supposed to do?”
The group has naturally grown, and they expect it to continue doing so, without the need for any official decisions. “That’s the thing,” Kahn says, “it just becomes apparent that someone is a part of it.” Ishan Sound explains that “rather than figuring things out by consent, someone just takes the initiative.” The collective even seems to be governed by a force beyond any of the individual members; “it constantly keeps evolving and changing … always without much premeditation.” That’s evidently happened now, as their live phase has paused while the next one gestates: “like the radio show used to be, and then the club nights were: now it’s the label,” says Kahn.
One thing they all agree on is that politically and culturally, things are at a boiling point right now. As a result, they’re excited to get this record and the label itself off the ground – it’s an action, and a mission statement of where they stand. “I think the time of not being political – of being shy about having an opinion about things – has hopefully come to an end,” says Kahn, “whether it’s fabric shutting down or us leaving the European Union, people – especially young people – are getting very frustrated.”
There was little debate needed to decide upon the first release on the label – Rider Shafique’s I-dentity / Freedom Cry record is largely a response to the shocking, deadly assault on black people by the police in the USA, as well as the shrivelling of culture and society in the UK, and animosity between neighbours worldwide. The group were humbled by the immediacy, strength and directness of Shafique’s personal lyrics and wordplay; I-Dentity started as a poem in response to el kid’s track, which developed into a theatre piece that he performed in local schools. There’s just the ghost of a ‘riddim’ beneath it, a shadowy synth-whine with faintly echoing, barely rhythmic clicks.
Intoned with direct, painful clarity in Shafique’s Carribbean-Bristolian accent, the record is a sobering and significant statement. It’s refreshing to hear the sound of a Black British voice in electronic music that is so obviously aware of its own power – not simply an aesthetic flourish of patois. Shafique believes the problem goes deeper, to the lack of positive black role models in the media: “That voice is not necessarily heard in the mainstream; it’s been kind of suppressed.” He talks at length about the lack of honest conversations – the way the UK’s mixed society has become unstuck, and given way to animosity. “Music is a powerful tool – this is the voice of the young people. This is where people learn about themselves. This is where we have freedom to say what we want to say.”
"Music is the voice of the young people. This is where we have freedom to say what we want to say" - Rider Shafique
The statement is equally true of Young Echo. Shafique says diversity attracted him to the group, racially as well as musically. Each member is able to explore their own individuality. “To have white people my age supporting that message, that’s important to me. There isn’t that divide… You don’t have to necessarily agree with what somebody says, but we’ll support each other, you know? We move together and we vibe together, and there’s no animosity there. We respect the difference, and move together as a unit.” Hopefully, as a society, we can catch an echo of this ethos.
Rider Shafique’s I-dentity / Freedom Cry is out now via Young Echo Records