On and on and on: The First 15 Years of Hessle Audio
This cover story is taken from Issue 136. Get your copy via the online store. Listen to the Issue 136 Cover Mix by Hessle Audio here.
It’s time to call it: pound for pound, Hessle Audio are surely the most influential British club label of their generation. As DJs and A&Rs, the trio of Ben Thomson (Ben UFO), David Kennedy (Pearson Sound) and Kevin McAuley (Pangaea) have often seemed freakishly in tune with the ebb and flow of underground dance music – simultaneously respectful conduits eager to spark conversation between different musical eras, and forerunners of change able to intuit the scene’s next move. Fifteen years down and they are still pushing forward.
This open-eared advocacy for dancefloor counterculture means Hessle have been early adopters for a striking number of great artists. Even discounting partners in the booth and guests across 500-odd Rinse FM shows, the label’s back catalogue could provide the backbone for a strong festival line-up at any point in the past decade. With Cosmin TRG, James Blake, Blawan, Randomer, Beatrice Dillon, Call Super, Batu, Joy Orbison, Anz, Laksa, Shanti Celeste and more rotating in and out, it’d be a no-brainer.
“We’ve existed through a series of genre revivals, but I do feel we’ve skirted around those as a label,” says Thomson, beaming in over video from Ibiza, where a flight mix-up has left him temporarily stranded. “If you get caught up in something, it can confine you. Because we’ve always been focused on music that sounds new to us, we’ve ended up surviving those trend spikes. That’s a great position to be in – to have people expect that a shift in flow might be round the corner. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
He does, though, really. In conversation, the Hessle Audio Trio (as they’re currently billed) rarely want for opinions. The way they operate defangs the usual cut ‘n’ thrust of a typical interview, nominating a mouthpiece before passing the baton from one to another until the response peters out. It’s a united front that leaves no member exposed, and can sometimes feel like being speared by a very polite phalanx.
Thomson, now 36, acts as the group’s de facto leader, with a professorial quality that belies his status as one of the most adept, thrilling and sure-bet DJs the UK has ever produced. Kennedy, 34, is a self-deprecating straight shooter who appears to get a kick out of admin; within the first weeks of the pandemic he had established a local solidarity fund, and, less valorously, turned the others on to using Slack as their primary form of communication. McAuley, 37, cuts an abstemious figure – occupying just seven percent of the group call’s runtime, per the AI transcript – but has a knack for chiming in with a bon mot to rubber-stamp the end of a lengthy digression and keep things rolling.
The history of Hessle Audio similarly advances in fits and spurts. Although they’ll cringe at the mention, their origin is much the same as others who’ve risen through the UK’s uni ecosystem. After crossing paths online then in person at mythical club night FWD>>, the Trio linked up at Leeds University, where, out of a tangle of overlapping parties, Sub FM slots and – here’s the period-specific detail – Facebook-organised pub meets with other dubstep fans, they gradually grew into one entity. All now based in southeast London, they still function with the bureaucracy of a model UN, requiring unanimous approval for any Hessle activity to proceed.
“We’ve been doing this for long enough that I imagine I know what David and Ben will feel about someone else’s tune before I send it them,” says McAuley. For a stretch, he was guarded about taking suggestions on his own material, but since 2020’s Like This, “Ben and David have been all over arrangement and mixing tweaks. There’s so much music out there that’s pretty good, and our job as DJs is to separate the extremely good. Sometimes it’s that five percent which makes or breaks a tune. We’ve come to appreciate the importance of group feedback.” Kennedy, while agreeing, theatrically shakes his head at the memory of Call Super and Objekt “ripping to shreds” the first WIPs he presented them.
Hessle can take years finessing tracks with artists. They cite Bruce’s debut album Sonder Somatic as the gratifying end product of a notably hands-on studio process, with enough trips between Bristol and London to prop up Great Western Railway. As any release needs to satisfy Thomson, Kennedy and McAuley’s Venn diagram of personal tastes, this by-committee approach has helped forge a consistency in tone and vibe, even through 15 years of the electronic underground’s relentless churn and the many micro-eras dotted along the timeline.
It was at a critical moment, just as dubstep cleaved apart in the late 2000s, that Hessle Audio came of age. While some burrowed deeper into the soil, others coined it in with a mid-range mutation that proved explosively popular in the States; even foundational greats like Digital Mystikz strained for sense of purpose.
Hessle pivoted: Martyn’s tenderly sighing Broken Heart remix or the rhythmic squawks of Untold’s Anaconda sounded distinct from dubstep’s continuity candidates. While no one could alight upon a decent name for this new shift in direction – and with post-dubstep, future garage, sound system techno and UK bass all in contention, they sure tried – the synchronous rise of labels like Hemlock, Apple Pips and Punch Drunk signalled a clear breakaway movement, with a velocity that became impossible to ignore.
Flash forward a couple years, and Hessle had an armful of records that were inescapable in the dance: think Joe’s Claptrap, most tracks off the compilation 116 & Rising, both sides of Objekt’s Cactus / Porcupine, or any number of options from Kennedy’s own prodigious run, when tracks like Work Them, Wad, Blanked, Don’t Change for Me and the Butterz-released flip of Woooo Glut brought him to a wider audience, briefly giving woodblocks their cowbell moment.
“It’s not like we have Hessle flops, though,” rationalises Kennedy. “Even the ones that do smaller numbers are part of the story. The Bandshell 12” [Dust March] might not be the biggest hit in the catalogue, but people will come up to me just to talk about that record, or just about an INVT guest mix we ran some months back. It’s sweet that we have fans who can be committed to one select part of our history, but still feel inclined to celebrate the anniversary.”
Thomson agrees, pulling out the example of Elgato, one of the label’s early signings and close allies. His pair of 12”s remain enduring favourites for devotees: “We were so excited at the time of [the releases] to explore new territory and watch the space that then opens up as a result. We’re very deliberate to not just stick out what we’re feeling in the moment, but shape what people consider appropriate for the label in the future.” So does the tail ever wag the dog when A&Ring; a case of second-guessing the ripple effects before the point of impact?
“We’re semi-conscious of that happening, yeah. In the context of running a label, you put the effort in and see results six months later; it’s difficult to know immediately whether that’s working. With club nights, feedback is instantaneous.” Thomson rolls the words in his mouth. “Still, there may be a parallel with how we approach the label and how I DJ. If I can feel that the crowd is receptive, it gives me the confidence to take left turns and let it twist out. You have people where you want them, and they’re likely to travel with you.”
It wasn’t a frictionless ascent for Hessle, mind. Kennedy gradually phased in Pearson Sound around 2011, but dipped his toes into what could be uncharitably read as house-catfishing via alter ego Maurice Donovan, and left one leg trailing in original alias Ramadanman for longer than was perhaps advisable. “As a 22-year-old,” he clarifies, “I lacked the maturity of thought to go ahead with a clean break. At the time I remember being quite vague when asked about [this], but the switch was totally due to it being a completely inappropriate name for me to be using.”
In the mid-2010s, the embrace of grainy machine jams – inadvertently given an “outsider” nametag by Thomson, which stuck, much to his chagrin – also left some audiences cold, even as the sight of a monastically disciplined and motion-blurred UFO hovering low over the decks became a fixture at every festival under the sun. “The music we release is quite ambiguous tonally,” Thomson thinks, “and that’s why people can get such a different read on it individually. It’s just an appearance of what shades happen to dominate. That’s probably why,” he cracks a smile, “I can vividly hear happy hardcore in everything Kev does.” The reformed Tidy Trax raver looks up and nods appreciatively.
That mention of slammers is salient. If any sound has characterised summer 2022, it’s a kind of boshy all-at-onceness. The rapid tempo acceleration that occurred prior to the pandemic hasn’t cooled off but the mean-spirited pummel of overdriven techno has thankfully eased into a grin. Dubstep is back off the naughty step, and if Two Shell have anything to do with it, future garage’s reintegration is next.
“Throughout lockdown, audiences ended up with more of an open mind,” reckons Kennedy, a point underlined by the quiet virality of Peshay’s Studio Set and Bailey’s Intelligent Drum & Bass, headsy 90s mixes that have accumulated millions of views over the last couple of years. A resident at legendary drum’n’bass night Blue Note, Bailey’s 1Xtra show was a staple broadcast over which the young Trio bonded – yet for the majority of Hessle’s lifespan, anything in the 160bpm range wasn’t really on the table.
This was made apparent in 2016, when a one-off Ben UFO jungle set from Bloc Weekender generated clamour upon upload. Many were giddy to witness Thomson bruk out, but it also revealed an uneasy, ahistorical current among the house and techno casuals Hessle had picked up as their stock rose. “Playing with my heroes was a pinch-yourself moment,” Thomson reflects, “but some commenters were pissed off about GQ and SP:MC on the mic. It felt necessary for me to jump in and say, ‘Why don’t you fuck off and listen to something else?’”
“Because we’ve always been focused on music that sounds new to us, we’ve ended up surviving trend spikes. That’s a great position to be in – to have people expect that a shift in flow might be round the corner”
You’ll hear plenty of rave mentasms, snare rushes and vertiginous drops at a Hessle b3b this year, with a non-stop chorus of salutary woiis! emphasising how things have shifted for the better. There’s old tricks – running unreleased Floating Points into sub-zero eski – chaperoning new moves, a world where Naira Marley’s swaggering First Time in America and amphetaminised electro from David Carretta make unlikely small talk across the table. Fresh shellers from Bluetoof, Fixate and Borai & Denham Audio braid into timeworn favourites like Los Hermanos’ Quetzal or Lil Silva’s Night Skanker. The sometimes sisyphean task of describing a Hessle set has boiled down to elemental glee.
Two records guaranteed for a runout are Pearson Sound’s remix of Nick León and DJ Baba’s Xtasis and both sides of HES040, Pangaea’s grimey smasher Fuzzy Logic / Still Flowing Water. “Your most romping yet,” I offer, which elicits curls at the edges of all mouths. “That’s great,” laughs McAuley. “I might call my next tune Romping,” the expression of which all but guarantees he won’t.
McAuley’s latest kicks off what Kennedy describes as the label’s trend toward “one-two punch” release drops. This time, it’s a flurry. Two further 12”s are coming down the pipeline before 2022 is out; taut and charismatic 4/4 from Shanti Celeste, followed by percussive tools from Amman-based producer Toumba. There’s also a Pearson Sound EP that variously calls to mind the textured depth of Joey Anderson, the stirring 2-step of Horsepower Productions and tears-in-the-rain chestplate rattlers favoured by DJs like Distance. One cut even bounces with the green glow of Memphis rap. For a certain type of Hessle follower, the record will be greeted like manna from heaven.
It begs the question: what does a Hessle Audio follower even look like nowadays? The label is a broader tent than it used to be, but superfans still fringe obsession, and the majority of their tribe likely hasn’t changed too much from the days when Thomson was an active poster on dubstepforum.com: white, male, middle class; a mirror of the Trio themselves.
Trawl any of their radio shows or Twitter mentions and the cultural coding of the Hessle era presents itself in soft ravespeak: all bedroom big-ups, keeping it locked and the affectionate shorthand ‘BUFO’. That doesn’t stop a bit of a cult of personality glomming onto Thomson, though. The swarm of meme accounts which mine his likeness reveals a weird tendency to infantalise a DJ who is as respected in his field as they come. “Any time that happens, it’s with a wink, or people making fun of us who happen to love the music at the same time,” Thomson counters, weighing his words carefully. “I don’t feel people put us on an unreachable pedestal.” McAuley, sensing danger, interjects that he barely reads the internet anyway, and Thomson flashes relief.
There’s a case to be made that because Hessle absorb so much bandwidth within what Thomson calls “our certain corner of dance music”, they prevent sunlight from reaching others. That case was made in 2020 by artist and essayist Works of Intent in an open letter which, among other observations, framed the outsized amount of regular coverage the label received against other artists who were dining on scraps. (The irony here wasn’t lost on any members of our call.)
The letter clarified some of the questions they were posing themselves too, explains Thomson. “It can be tricky if someone asks us why there isn’t more UK funky on the label, given how heavily inspired we are by it. We’ve been having those conversations from the start, and came to the conclusion that we don’t want to attach ourselves to a scene that’s doing comfortably without us, or making it a question of ownership.”
This leads to a three-way back-and-forth about structural advantages in regional scenes, and what genres Hessle might feel comfortable supporting in the first place, a keyhole into how they hash out label ethics in real time. Thomson continues the conversation, although by this stage his voice has receded into a glottal, uncertain murmur. “We can still back a sound by playing it, referencing it, telling people to check it out… it’s all still quite cluttered in my head because there’s not a right or wrong way to work through these things.”
“There’s so much music out there that’s pretty good, and our job as DJs is to separate the extremely good”
Kennedy steps in: “Approachability is important. I remember that around six or seven years ago, I knew a producer and thought, ‘Why wouldn’t she send us some demos?’ My partner pointed out that as we’d released a majority of music by white lads, then she might not have thought about us as a label that would be a home for her.” The label has trended in a more representative direction ever since.
This realisation is what drives any of the Trio away from engaging with the pageantry of brand-building in the digital age. Unlike labels who hammer content in the battle for eyeballs, Hessle don’t wish to coerce their audience into forming an opinion – the closest you’ll get is if there’s a Rinse guest from outside the fold, then Thomson might intervene for extra contextual hype. Still, they had to unlearn some subconscious siloing.
“We’re less precious than we once were,” says Thomson. “There was a point during the era of hurfyd YouTube rips where it felt like everyone was laser-focused; as soon as you breathe a whisper of something, the word is out and you’ve lost control over it. We don’t think like that anymore – it’s not a big deal to let people in. And as weird as this is to say for a group of three, it feels like we’ve escaped the pressure to do things in a solitary fashion.” Kennedy notes that his own XLB might not have captivated 2016 as it did had it not been for positive reinforcement from Four Tet telling him to stop fretting and just drop the tune.
For the most part, 15 years have zipped by with almost anodyne steadiness. But while Hessle have experienced longevity beyond what most might have guessed, they have to come down the other side of popularity’s mountain at some point. If the moment arrived, would they be comfortable letting one member split off, or even know when to call it a day?
“And here’s the exclusive!” chirps McAuley, seeing through the ploy with ease.
“I think it would be strange for the label to continue without all three of us being involved,” Thomson reasons, “but if we felt that we didn’t have time to dedicate to the label, we’d just go quiet and pick it up again in a few years. Making a big announcement about disbanding doesn’t seem very like us.”
We wrap up by considering Elijah’s Yellow Squares, a lockdown-propelled series of tips, critiques and probing questions that function as a body check against industry ego and creative complacency. These mantras tend to vibrate at a similar frequency to Hessle’s beliefs: find a way to define success without numbers, centre community, or, simply, close the app and make the thing. Vestiges of the old dance music system are fading fast, and you could argue, no longer fit for purpose. So if Hessle Audio is the underground’s bellwether, what do they have to tell us about tomorrow? Would they have the confidence to switch up their rhythm, becoming a more collaborative, open-source enterprise? Hessle Audio Music Academy, maybe?
“I mean,” Kennedy chuckles, “I do let people use my studio and it’s not like they have to sign a contract which stipulates we get to dig our claws into anything they make. Elijah has given a fresh perspective on some of these questions. The function of a label in 2022 needs to go beyond a test pressing and some accounting every six months. We can offer our experience, advice, facilities, connections with companies like Ableton—”
“—David has been amazing at helping younger artists get their shit together with PRS and avoiding dodgy contracts, too,” Thomson adds. “We have a strong ethical sense of what we want the label to be. A lot of what we’ve been talking about so far is spontaneity, being conversational, working with people. I can definitely envision a world in which the label is organised in a completely different way, but that collaborative sense is still there.”
In the long run, that might be Hessle Audio’s greatest impact. It’s easy to simply shrug, ‘Oh, everyone loves Hessle,’ yet there’s a reason for that. Their ability to make objectively weird productions scalable to huge audiences is a rare skill, but they’ve also shown a third way is possible – bucking received wisdom about what it takes to preserve authenticity and thrive within the DJ-industrial complex. Thomson, Kennedy and McAuley have been a guiding light for countless producers, communities and true heads since the label first started pressing records in 2007. No staff, no management, no punching down; just three blokes divining which way the wind might blow next and bringing up others along the way. They are, you have to admit, pretty good at it.
Hessle Audio’s 15th anniversary takeover is on 29 October at Printworks London
HES040 by Pangaea and HES041 by Shanti Celeste are out now via Hessle Audio