Moses Boyd: Keep up the pace
What you keep in your bag tends to say a lot about you. A journalist, for example, might have a pen, a notepad and something to record with. Medical professionals often carry first aid kits. I know an engineer who at any moment, can be guaranteed to have at least two screwdrivers on his person. The day I meet Moses Boyd, the first thing he takes out of his gym bag is a small, hand-held Korg drum machine.
It’s a fitting first impression for the south Londoner, a prolific drummer and producer. As the team set up rails and light the studio for his upcoming photoshoot, he plays around with the sequencer casually, conjuring loops it would no doubt take lesser musicians hours to try and make on a cracked copy of Ableton.
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Born in Catford and educated at Trinity Laban, Boyd is best known as one of the leading lights in the new London jazz circuit. A frequent collaborator, he’s played the drums on Sons of Kemet’s Mercury-nominated album Your Queen Is a Reptile, produced Zara McFarlane’s 2017 album Arise and released a clutch of his own music, both as Moses Boyd Exodus and as one half of Binker and Moses, alongside saxophonist Binker Golding. He’s also the host of a monthly show on BBC Radio 1Xtra where he can be found orchestrating live jams with the likes of Swindle one moment and playing Bulgarian choral music the next.
Boyd is well-loved for his ability to fold influences from grime, hip-hop and far beyond into his music. On his debut album, Dark Matter, out in February on his own Exodus Records, the sound of Britain’s bass music stands shoulder to shoulder with jazz. The unofficial campaign for the record started with shows in London at Corsica Studios and Fabric, venues that aren’t usually associated with the jazz circuit. However, Boyd has had a home on the dancefloor since his breakout single Rye Lane Shuffle found its way into the hands of Four Tet and Floating Points, who helped mix the track and introduced it as a mainstay at nights like Deviation and clubs like Café Oto.
In fact, while Dark Matter features contributions from many of Moses’ fellow jazz musicians – Joe Armon-Jones, Nubya Garcia and Tomorrow’s Warriors co-founder, Gary Crosby OBE, to name just a few – their playing has often been so dramatically cut up, sampled, looped, re-produced and sampled again that not even the musicians themselves know who is playing what and when. “They’re still baffled that they’re on the album! They don’t recognise themselves!” Boyd chuckles, referring to his collaborators and friends with a comfort that has come from years of playing together; at the Roundhouse, at Warriors and now on stages across the world. “Theon [Cross] will message me randomly being like, ‘Is this me on this track?’” he continues, grinning, before insisting, “I know every single piece though!
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The best example of this new approach is Only You. The second song Boyd released ahead of the album, mournful vocals loop over his skittering drums and crashing cymbals while a piano line tries to claw its way out of the murk. Boyd describes it as a “crying in the club record”, though it’s much more akin to having a paranoid breakdown in the toilets. It started life as a drum solo, intended to highlight Moses’ jazz chops among his more electronic work on Dark Matter, but true to form, he “heard one sick loop in it and couldn’t let it go,” so “tried to make it into something else.”
Beyond merely breaking down genre boundaries, Boyd is also working to break down the models that underpin the modern music industry, most notably with the Exodus Hotline. A WhatsApp broadcast system that allows fans to connect directly with Boyd and vice versa, the hotline serves as another way to engage his audience beyond social media. It also gives him unfiltered access to the data – who you are, where you live, which Moses Boyd records you buy, etc – that social media companies and streaming giants like Apple and Spotify feed on, which he uses to plot tours and market his shows. Boyd hopes that eventually it will allow him to bypass the near-mystical algorithms, cranky billionaires and general clutter of the timeline completely.
“I was turning on my TV, I was seeing tower blocks burning, I was seeing people being deported, I was seeing the NHS on the brink. I was just responding to what was around me.”
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Moses started the hotline after a trip to South Africa in 2017, as gqom was reaching new heights in the country and abroad. “They were distributing a lot of gqom music via WhatsApp groups,” he explains, nodding to DJ Lag among others as inspirations for the model. “So, I was talking to a guy I met in Johannesburg who was a computer programmer, and we realised we could build our own thing,” he says, as nonchalant as ever. Where other artists have created custom apps for similar purposes, Boyd chose WhatsApp, in part because it was free and easy to customise and in part to further “break down that gulf” between artists and fans. “There’s the artist there, the fans here,” he says, leaning forward in his seat as he gestures enthusiastically to emphasise his point. “In between are like four or five tech companies that control the mediation. That’s not good.”
It’s a reflection of the understated politics that also inflect Dark Matter. “There’s a lot of darkness,” Boyd says matter of factly, explaining both the album’s title and how the last few years, the Windrush scandal in particular, have led him to question his identity. “Like, I’m British, but am I British when I turn on the TV and they’re deporting people that look like me, that helped rebuild their nation?” he asks with a grave laugh. Instead of tackling the issues of the day with ferocity – as his peers Sons of Kemet did – Boyd let the existential gloom of the UK seep into Dark Matter’s pores, filling much of the space between the notes with a familiar sense of unease. “I didn’t sit down to write political songs,” he says reflectively, “but I was turning on my TV everyday, I was seeing tower blocks burning, I was seeing people being deported, I was seeing the NHS on the brink. I was just responding to what was around me.”
Perhaps the reason Boyd doesn’t want to class Dark Matter as a political record is that for many politics has become hopeless. And despite it all, he still has hope. That hope illuminates the record in skits and bursts of joyful melody from the triumphant, welcoming horns on opening track Stranger Than Fiction to the Burial-goes-bebop shuffle of 2 Far Gone. As our interview comes to an end, Boyd stresses that the album isn’t a eulogy, it’s a “question mark”. It asks listeners: “where do we go from here? What are you going to take from this? These things will continue to happen,” he stresses, rounding off with a final encouragement, “what are you going to do?”
For Boyd, the answer is simple. “Things are far from perfect but I’ma try, and if everyone tries maybe we’ll get somewhere.” he says, as buoyant as he’s been throughout our conversation. “My grandma used to say, ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope’ so as long as I have blood and bones, we’re good.”
Photography: IVOR alice
Dark Matter is released 14 February on Exodus Records.
Click here for Boyd’s European and UK tour dates