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Batu: The pathfinder

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Tommy Jeans

05.11.20
Words by:

This article is taken from our special print edition Crack Magazine: The Collections, Vol. 1.

First day back at the office. You open your toolkit and freeze. The muscle memory has evaporated. It’s all just a jumble of colours, names and BPMs. This existential crisis is not being navigated in private, no: you’re on the spot in a very loud panopticon, being evaluated remotely by those watching through a screen and locked from the podcast. “Fuck,” you whisper to yourself. “I don’t know if I can do this again. This might be over for me.” You are Batu, the ne plus ultra of DJing in its most adventurous and thrilling form, and you are bricking it.

Thankfully for Omar McCutcheon, his return to public performance as Batu was a one-off nightmare. The next attempt went smoother: in front of a seated audience rather than live streamed, a moment of reinforcement as much as reassurance. “I wasn’t sure if I could muster the energy to push outward again,” McCutcheon recalls as we hang in a courtyard near Stratford, enjoying early September sunshine. “But then, there’s few things better than being able to play music to people. I got the opportunity to step off that constant treadmill, reflect on why I’ve committed time to this. I think I’ll come back with a different sense of purpose now.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Tommy Jeans

What exactly McCutcheon is coming back to remains precarious. This year was supposed to revolve around the fifth anniversary of his label, Timedance. A mini tour featuring Timedance artists and affiliates allowed for some springtime celebrations, but that was only ever intended as the warm-up. Instead, the kitchen table became McCutcheon’s centre of operations as the gig calendar crossed itself out and pressing plant delays mulched up the label’s schedule. He oversees every release on Timedance with a clinical eye, laughing that he hopes all artists “enjoy the process as an amicable thing, rather than me being a horrible dictator laying down the law”. So while records this summer from Laksa and Metrist do give “small snapshots of where we’re at, gradual advancements of a larger narrative,” there is much less to discuss than there should be.

One big dream never even got off the ground. En Masse, a tiny festival in the Welsh countryside, had been years in the making. It was a way for McCutcheon to redirect his efforts as a promoter away from turf wars in Bristol’s overly congested club scene, toward something purer. The first edition was announced for June and summarily postponed. We’re lucky to have face-to-face time at all – this is the first in-person interview for either party in over six months. We rotate between sitting in three cafés to add some movement into the story, jotting down details at each for a track-and-trace system that we know doesn’t function. A few days later the rules are reverse-engineered to tell us the meeting probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place. True to form, McCutcheon stays level-headed as reality is seemingly made up on the fly around him.

 

McCutcheon grew up an only child in Oxfordshire. His dad, a white post-punk from Nottingham, and mother, a second generation Bajan-Brit whose own parents were healthcare workers, separated when he was young. As a teenager he hopped from guitar to turntables – inspired in part by his uncle’s involvement in the nascent dubstep scene, operating home broadcasts under the amusingly Skream-riffing name of Streamizm. McCutcheon felt his path was pre-ordained. “I didn’t really do any work in class. I was just like, ‘This isn’t relevant. I want to do music. You’re not telling me how to programme a kick drum, so why would I want to know about this?’” The acceleration from Omar to Batu came in two stages. He injected some flourish into the quotidian by coming home every day and logging onto dubstepforum.com – which, as time goes on, looks increasingly like a finishing school for a generation of DJs and producers. McCutcheon was mostly “a silent observer, sponging up other people’s knowledge”. By absorbing everything from Basic Channel to Autechre, jungle to grime, galaxy-brain theoretical concepts to TV recommendations, his taste crystallised and his resolve strengthened. “I needed to justify music to a family who were sceptical. I couldn’t fuck around; I had to make it work.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Tommy Jeans

In the early 2010s, fortune guided a conversation between the lurker and Lurka, a more established presence on the scene. Lurka recommended a music production course at Bath Spa University, of which he was a recent graduate alongside Appleblim, Addison Groove and Asusu. This sealed the deal for McCutcheon. Enrollment, he says, “changed everything. My execution, my technicality, my philosophy toward music,” as well as his social circle. He became fast friends with two students cut from a similar cloth in the year above him. McCutcheon started Timedance in 2015 with the last dregs of his student loan, moved into a house in Bristol with those mates – producers Bruce and Ploy – and set about establishing one of the most respected club labels of the past five years.

“I don’t see why it’s impossible for culture to sit between the underground and mainstream. The idea of dumbing down the vision of what you do is patronising and defeatist to me”

Timedance’s reputation advanced in lockstep with McCutcheon’s as an artist in his own right. Even a high-profile solo record on XL only seemed to service Timedance in kind, a co-sign for what they were collectively building toward. This incremental growth felt purposeful: McCutcheon frets over aspects of capitalism that propel competitive individualism, and how it detracts from working toward the common good. He radiates an aura of assured calm, laughing frequently but softly, and is inherently drawn to “solitude as my natural state”. As we chart his personal history he gently scoots backward on the bench across from me, receding to the point where he is half-camouflaged by a hanging plant above his head. If there’s a non-confrontational route through a situation, McCutcheon is the type to take it. Which is paradoxical, because as a DJ, McCutcheon has broken out as one of most assertive and inventive technicians in the game.

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Tommy Jeans

McCutcheon’s popularity exploded in 2018 as word of mouth went round about a three-deck sorcerer on the circuit. His dynamic style of DJing is enlivened by the same qualities he sought out when browsing online as an impressionable listener: marshalling disparate worlds into a stylistically consistent solar system, opening up space to allow for eureka moments, forever falling down wormholes. His trippy zig-zagging between languages, cultures and timelines shouldn’t readily scale up to the big leagues. Yet it does. It certainly didn’t hurt that Ploy’s Ramos became a calling card for the Timedance sound that summer, a certified Big Banger so loveably daft that it morphed into a bit of a running joke. McCutcheon would only have to tease a portion of the bouncy percussion into the mix and punters would be doing somersaults on the dancefloor.

“I could sense that the crowd was coming along,” he smiles when reflecting on those breakout slots. “Even through the challenges of feeding this massive body, playing major stages only seemed to solidify my feeling that people don’t need to be talked down to musically. If I could reach more listeners and do so on my own terms, that’s beautiful.” Bookers took notice. Despite McCutcheon’s scant prior exposure outside clubs totalling only a few hundred, by the end of 2019 crowds ranging in the thousands at mammoth events like Glastonbury, Circoloco, Labyrinth and Nuits Sonores had been dispatched without concessions.

Being an introverted then-25-year-old closing out major festivals and superclubs in Ibiza didn’t faze McCutcheon. He found that he was oddly zen in high-pressure scenarios, at ease with orchestrating enormous numbers of people. “Going back into small venues was the challenge. There are intricacies about playing when someone is right up in your face that takes acclimatising to. I had to remind myself that I could bring it down, go deep, go slow. If I only played Timedance parties, I think I would go crazy. I rely on the tension, really.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Tommy Jeans

Over time, McCutcheon became less enamoured with the fixed notion of a UK club sound, realising that it “has a set of principles which you need to acknowledge in order to escape from. There will always be flashes of brilliance in the pre-existing genres we have. But there’s so many other possibilities we haven’t considered yet.” He rattles off ideas like Oblique Strategies cards: making tracks at 200 BPM, imagining what Goldie might do if he was 21 today or bouncing styles like Tanzanian singeli and a Saint Lucian kuduro-soca hybrid known as Dennery Segment off the Timedance framework – all ways to progress his sound “without being boxed into this sort of UK-centric dance music prison. There’s no reason that all of those things couldn’t be palatable”.

More than anything else, McCutcheon is critically invested in the notion of treating audiences with appropriate respect. He follows up on this over email some days later. “What artists like myself do can be viewed as leftfield or niche, but I don’t see it that way. It could have the potential to reach a huge audience and alter them in ways they’ll probably never be able to describe. I have empathy for who I’m playing in front of, but always with the hope that I can win them over. I really don’t see any reason why it’s impossible for more culture to sit between the benchmarks of underground and mainstream. The idea of dumbing down the vision of what you do is patronising and defeatist to me.”

 

 

In that spirit arrives Sharpen, Moving, a new Timedance V/A on the way in late November. It follows 2018’s Patina Echoes, which brought artists like rRoxymore, Chekov and Neinzer into the fold alongside label staples Via Maris, Metrist, Lurka, Laksa et al. This new compilation has been sequenced to flow as one, arcing from hi-def sound design through fleet drum workouts to earthy sound system shakers. Peter Van Hoesen, Happa, Akiko Haruna, and Mang & GRAŃ from Shanghai imprint Genome 6.66Mbp will all feature for the first time for the label. This explorative approach, McCutcheon offers coyly, should signpost what the next stage of Timedance holds.

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Tommy Jeans

“Every opportunity I have now I couldn’t have imagined five years ago. One day it’s all going to be gone and I have to be ready for that. Squeezing every drop from your relevance? That’s not the one for me”

McCutcheon is not the first breakout from the UK to pilot weird futurism to the top, but he is perhaps the first to fly directly into inclement conditions. I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some degree of ego bruising that his momentum had been snatched, a dynasty denied. He chooses his words carefully here, still a silent observer at heart, but wincing slightly as he scans for a diplomatic response.

“There was definitely a sense of, ‘Oh my god this is all disappearing.’ But I’ve now spent an extra year developing the projects I have coming up and the music I want to take to the big stages. In theory, it should be better in 2021. I’ve got to be philosophical about it. If you look at it through the lens of shelf life, every opportunity I have now I couldn’t have imagined five years ago. One day it’s all going to be gone, and I have to be ready for that. Squeezing every drop from your relevance? That’s not the one for me.”

Club culture is essentially rubble at this point. The future is unknowable, possibly unsalvageable. There is a fearsome rebuilding job ahead, but McCutcheon stops short of accepting the role of community leader. “A lot of the love I feel for music revolves around kinship, but I don’t think I have the requisite experience or confidence to be a spokesperson. I have a lot to learn as well.”

© Udoma Janssen
Full look: Tommy Jeans

He does, however, have advice on hand for anyone staring at the state of things in despair. “I imagine being an up-and-coming artist right now is fucking difficult. They’re looking at this shrinking pool of opportunities. For me, this arms race of success is a war that doesn’t need to be fought. Get rid of all the noise, it’s inconsequential. Has anyone who’s ever done anything truly good with their art worried about a career plan? Maybe I’m overly idealistic, but I’d love to think that if you always do a really good job, you impress people with what you play and you make great music, ultimately that – that’s what wins in the long run.”

And then, you suspect, if McCutcheon wasn’t so politely averse to gassing himself up, he might have added: “It’s worked out for me so far.”

Photography: Udoma Janssen
All clothing by Tommy Jeans

The Collections: Vol. I is out now in stores across the world. Shop Batu’s cover here.

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