25 years deep as Total Science, 30 years deep in the dance, and quite a few years longer than that as friends… Total Science have been part of the fabric of UK rave culture, jungle and drum & bass.
Not a year has gone by without Jason Quiff and Paul Smithy releasing music or remaining relevant, creating one of the most consistent and longest standing discographies in the game. Still right at the forefront, their label C.I.A (which is also 25 years old) has been flaming this year with releases from the likes of T>I, Minor Forms, Kublai and Myth.
Next year there’s a whole album of C.I.A goodness due, with a whole host of innovative kindred spirits spanning across the generations. But right now we’re checking in with Smithy to look back over the turbulent last few years and to reflect on the duo’s enduring and ongoing legacy.
He’s had a really rough three years to be honest, mate. His retina in one of his eyes had somehow detached, which left him in a very bad state needing an operation at the time and still waiting on a final one. He’s since had a haemorrhage in his other eye as well!
I’m so sorry to hear. You must miss him and he must miss not being able to do what he loves! I hope he recovers really soon!
100% it’s shitty. It’s horrible watching a friend dealing with this level of shit. Life chucks challenges at you sometimes and this is a massive one for Quiff. I know he just wants to be able to get back to doing what he loves.
I bet! Especially after doing for so long. Like obvious it’s been 25 years of CIA this year, and also 25 years of Total Science, but almost 30 years of writing tunes, right?
Yeah Quiff made his first release I think around 92, the Freestyle Fanatic EP. Then we made our first tune in 93 alongside Gwange. We’d known each for years before though, through hip-hop. When Quiff met me I had these Bally trainers on Dougie Fresh used to wear, and we got talking about them. I thought he was a bit of a prick before then and he thought the same about me, but we started talking and hit it off through our love of hip-hop. Quiff had a few drum machines, an SH101 synth and was making electro with his mates at the time.
Then one of our friends, Dougy, brought some Technics 1200s. He lived down the road and we’d both go round and learn to mix. That put me on the path to be a DJ. I was obsessed with it. It was even down in my school report.
Flash forward to the formation of Total Science and the launch of CIA. Was that a moment when you both started to realise this was a proper career?
We had no idea we’d take it that far. Let alone take it this far to this day. The main reason we switched the name up was that we were writing deeper things for Good Looking as Funky Technicians and we wanted to write tougher, heavier stuff, too. That’s what Total Science was for. But also we wrote so many tunes that we needed our own label to put out our music and be in control of the output ourselves.
I’d say that’s one constant over the years… Artists wanting to have their own label to have that freedom.
Yeah maybe. People want to get their stuff out there but I think the way people see labels has changed. Back then we wanted to work with certain labels because it was like badges of honour. We were in awe of labels like Reinforced and Metalheadz. We wanted to release on them and release our own music. It does feel now like some artists aren’t prepared to get knockbacks off labels now. MP3s didn’t exist so you had to invest a lot more in releasing music. Pressing vinyl isnt cheap! That’s one thing that is different and we were very lucky when we started to have some investment from our friend Brillo who ran Timeless Records. gave us some money to help us so we had some help setting up the label which we much appreciated.
He comes up in every interview with you I’ve done. Unsung hero. So Total Science was a whole new chapter but did it take a while for people to realise that Total Science was you guys? Or was there an air of mystique?
There was always a bit of mystique to everything because there was no internet. We did some PR and Duncan (Spirit) was working for a music magazine at the time so he gave us some support. There seemed to be a buzz around what we were doing but I don’t know what that buzz was. We were in Oxford so outside London, but near enough to it to get to places like Speed. We knew your Fabios, Grooveriders, Bukems, Doc Scotts were into us and playing our records from attending those nights.
I think Duncan was the first artist you released music from beyond your space. Open Spaces…
That’s right, then Dev Paradox was pretty soon after that. We were mates with these guys and were massively into what they were doing. Honestly, we were just putting out music we love. We’ve never been great business wise. We’re a couple of council estate boys who’ve luckily got a talent for writing music. We wanted to push our music out there and had a vehicle to do so. That’s my take, I think Quiff might say something different…
Nah in every interview I’ve had with him, he’s always said you both used to love getting smashed!
Haha you couldn’t say a truer word. We were ravers. That’s what got us into this. Things have changed a lot in recent years, but yeah we loved partying just as much making and playing music.
Ravers often make the best artists! That’s a big change these days…
I kind of agree but also don’t. Music is just expression, right? People write from the heart, but from different perspectives. What I will say is that when you hear music on an E there’s something special about it. If you’ve just sat in your room and listened to music, it’s not the same. But I’m from that original rave culture. I’m still a raver, I still love dancing. I’ve been sober for years now, but I’m still a raver.
Yes! So quickly switching back to 2021. What was your first freedom, proper dancing-to-people gig like?
It was emotional! So I need to go back to last year a bit. I’d done some sit-down gigs which left me unsure about everything.
Sit-down gigs were weird affairs weren’t they?
They were! At first I did a couple in Bristol and quite enjoyed them. There were people, it was loud music, I played back to back with Steve (Digital) and people were making noises and dancing in their seats. That was alright. But that was last year, and this year was very different. We’d gone back into lockdown, which, let’s be fair, was fucking dark. I got covid, that hit me for a good few weeks and it all felt bleak.
Then they started opening up sit-down gigs again and I went to play at The Cause and it was awful, like really awful. I felt anxious driving down and I felt anxious playing, MC Mantmast called for people to make some noise but no one did and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Luckily I had mates there, Darryl from Invaderz and Dom & Roland, who were very supportive but it was a really bad experience. So I’d gone from enjoyable sit-down shows to very anxious sit-down shows.
What was that first set after sit-downs like, though?
So yeah, that first set to people actually dancing was incredible. I felt like I’d done a pill!! I was getting goosebumps, hearing reactions, seeing people dance. It was unforgettable.
That’s what I want to hear!
I’ll be honest with you, during lockdown I was questioning everything. I don’t listen to D&B at home, I write it, but I couldn’t write because of the situation. But when I got back to playing in a club, my inner raver kicked in and I was like, ‘Oh this is great, I need more of this!’ To have that euphoria during that first set was amazing and put me back on track.
Mad to hear! So you were questioning things internally but putting out massive EPs on CIA and celebrating 25 years of the label…
Oh I was never questioning the label, I was still feeling the music to be able to sign and release it. But I was questioning everything else. It was like, do I even like this anymore? The label did well throughout the pandemic, but not DJing was a big thing. I’d never even taken a holiday before. It was like grieving – there was loss, there was mourning. It was all just very odd. Like we’d been through a disaster movie at points.
And a separation! Being away from Quiff must have been challenging. Not having that companionship?
Yeah totally. He’d moved back to Wycombe and I was in Bristol, so we weren’t together every day any more, but to have that time of not seeing him – or any of my other friends – was challenging for me. I crave being around people, I’m a massive hugger and I really missed that. Quiff is one of the funniest people I know, any time I’m with him we’re in tears so that was a big loss. So yeah, the fun and humour was a big loss.
It’s the fun and friends that keep you going in this life!
You know what, the main thing I’ve ever got out of this career is the amazing relationships I have with people. You can talk on the phone, but it’s not the same. Seeing friends in the club, meeting new people, being in the studio with people. I missed that so much. We had a party in Brighton not so long ago with Digital, Breakage, Minor Forms, Kublai, Fox and Deefa, which was so nice and a real reminder of why I love what I do.
Will there be more 25 Years of CIA parties?
Yeah there will be. There’s an album coming which we’re sitting on because of vinyl delays. I’m so happy with it. It’s got all our friends on there, Break’s on it, Calibre’s on it, The Sauce, Nymfo, Zero T, Kublai, Minor Forms, Myth, FD….
Love this new generation on the label with guys like Minor Forms, Myth and Kublai…
I’m massively into those guys. They’re all very different but they’re bringing through something I love about D&B and I’m glad to have them on the label. It’s the first time, in a long time, that I’ve felt I’ve got some artists I really want to invest time in helping develop and it’s great hearing a modern take on something but with that essence of back in the day, or the same spirit.
When you look back, we’ve always supported new acts and been early to put new artist’s music out. Some of Lenzmans early stuff, same with Zero T and S.P.Y. Not their debuts, but very early releases. I want to get behind these new guys and help them. I’ve watched acts work with labels and felt they’ve not had the help they need to be better versions of themselves as artists. They’ve been pushed to be branded as something and I’m so glad Quiff and I never experienced that. We’ve never had our releases turned down by labels or been heavily A&R’d into a corner. I feel with some acts they need a little mentoring to help bring the best out of them.
I want to encourage artists to be themselves and not make them be something that feel they need to be. It’s hard out there to make much money, so if you’re going to live this life you want to do something you’re passionate about from the soul. These news guys are doing something we’re feeling and we want to get behind.
That’s the role of a label is at its best. Support and passing on experience…
I agree. And the best labels do that. Look at Lenzman and how he’s running The North Quarter. He’s pushing his artists to be the best versions of them. Older labels have done that since day dot. People we’ve worked for. Look at Goldie, if he’s into a tune he’s bigging it up, he’s on the phone shouting at you. That buzz of someone being passionate about what you’re doing is priceless. As producers we’re able to pass on a lot of experience and want people to benefit of that.
A LOT of experience. Your discography is one of the most longstanding and consistent in this game. It’s been a great run!
And it’s been a lot of fun, too. Not all the time. We’ve had to overcome challenges and worked very hard but yeah, we’ve done it with passion and got a lot out of it. I’ve got to give it to Quiff, he’s the engineer between us and he was always trying to set the best benchmarks sonically. He’d go for runs around the park to sort his head out, or be up all night, tearing his head out over mixdowns. Right since day dot. He’s an inspiring person to be around and so driven. Quiff went in hard and wanted to be part of that benchmark that was always rising.
So where’s the benchmark for you in 2021?
There’s some good music out there, but there’s also a lot of music that sounds the same. I feel newer artists are inspired by D&B and not by outside genres and, when someone brings in other elements, that’s when it’s exciting. I’m still loving DJing, so there’s enough music to play but it’s all relative isn’t it? I don’t want to turn into my dad and be that old guy lamenting. Anyone coming in now will look back as these times as a golden era in 20 years time won’t they? I look back to the beginning, so I’ll always see things from that perspective.
Yeah totally. And I agree with bringing in outside influences. Looking inwards will never create progress. So what do you want to see more in 2022?
What we’re talking about… I want to hear more outside influences. We came from hip-hop so there’s always been that influence. And then, years later, were were inspired by guys like MJ Cole and the whole UKG movement and you can hear that in our music. We’re always picking things we liked from other genres and sounds and I’d love to see more of that. In fact, I think what I would really to see is more sampling. I know it’s hard, with the legalities and everything, but I don’t care – it sets the mood, it’s got something you’ll never replicate in your own studio.
Yeah totally. Samples are at the heart of everything. I’ve spoken to Zero T and Quartz about sampling this year
Yeah, that was what really grabbed me about hip-hop, hearing all those sounds I’d never heard before and the breaks. It all blew my mind. I’ve learnt a lot about music because of the elements that hip-hop introduced to me. Jungle and early D&B did the same for me a few years later. So yeah, I want to hear more sampling, I want to hear people bringing in new elements and being comfortable about sounding different.
Bou has spoken about this in a recent interview. About how artists his generation over-think things and have ominous social media clouds hanging over their heads. And that everyone is just in a race to make the biggest banger.
That’s a good point, the internet has changed everything. There’s that whole comparison thing and worried about your stats and everything. I do get that. And all the tunes that people would describe as bangers, the ones that really blew up, were never meant to be bangers. Squash, for example, was written on a massive comedown. So I do agree that the internet has caused issues there and it’s also created a short attention span. Everyone wants everything quickly and they want it now. Even I do it now when I’m half way through listening to something, because I want to hear the next thing. We’re all guilty of it.
So yeah, next year, I’d like to see more originality, more sampling, longer attention spans and more music from Breakage. His music is just a whole other level for me. What he does with his breaks; they’re so fucking chunky. That’s proper jungle!