Few artists leave at the very top of their game.
No chance to get stuck in a creative rut and stagnate. No chance to compromise that original fierce vision they had when they began and start to sell out. No chance to fizzle out and just fade away.
Kemal Okan is one of those rare artists.
From 1999 to 2004, he was one of the most prominent and pioneering forces to stir neurofunk’s primordial soup, hurling in his own ingredients procured from a 90s youth growing up in the Glasgow techno scene. Be it solo, collaboratively or as one half of Konflict (with fellow Glaswegian Rob Data), his consistent subversion of dynamics, arrangement, texture and drum programming led to a whole legacy of cuts on labels such as Moving Shadow, Renegade Hardware, Timeless, DSCi4 as well as Konflict’s own label Negative Recordings and Cryptic Audio.
Regarded as one of the most experimental and innovative artists who pushed drum & bass’s darkest and most uncompromising designs during the turn of the century, Kemal’s output had a huge influence on the direction of heavier, tech-based drum & bass… To the point his productions are still lauded 20 years later and tracks such as Star Trails, Gene Sequence and of course Messiah are seen as categoric anthems and still have massive dancefloor impact to this day.
But in 2004, he left. No explanation or warning; he disappeared. No more productions. No more gigs. There were rumours he felt the genre itself had got stuck in a creative rut. There were other rumours he’d become jaded with the business side of the genre. There were also rumours that the hedonistic side of club culture was challenging his own beliefs and approach to life. Either way, there was no official announcement and a near-mythical level of appreciation has developed around him ever since.
Then in August this year, he simply re-appeared. Once again, no official announcement; just a guest mix on internet radio station Fantasy FM. A dynamic mix of new, old and exclusive it was his first mix in well over a decade and featured tracks by the likes of Enei, Skeptical, Benny L, Xanadu plus a brand-new track from the man himself – Parabola.
He plans to officially release the track in the new year. But first comes a series of remastered, revisited and remixed tracks from the Kemal + Rob Data back catalogue. It starts this week with the reissue of The Mummy and Star Trails on Bandcamp and the plan is to reissue two remastered tracks and one unreleased track or new original per month.
DJ-wise his manouvres are just as earnest. He’ll be performing at longrunning Budapest D&B HQ Bladerunnaz this month before making his UK return with Virus in February. He’ll also be performing D&B motherfest Let It Roll. He’s already quietly uploaded two more DJ mixes since his return in August.
After over a decade of exploring the many facets of life – academia, sustainable living, martial arts and mindfulness – Kemal, now 40, is not seeing this as a big comeback. He has no anticipation or expectation to return to the near-untouchable height he reached before, he simply wants to move people by exploring new creative expressions in drum & bass, pushing the sound forward into unchartered territories. Starting right here with his first interview in over 15 years. Make yourself comfortable, this one goes deep…
This started with that mix on Fantasy FM. How did that all come about? And why now?
In a sense the stars have aligned. Over the last year a creative space has opened up for me in life and I thought it would be a good opportunity to delve back into music production. Someone I was working with also had roots in drum & bass – Jungle Andy who had a show on Fantasy FM Radio – invited me on to his show after twisting my arm a little. Although that mix was put together quite loosely, I liked the idea of having a 360VR element to it and decided to give it a go. I had no expectations at all. But the reaction made me take it more seriously and start considering a new direction. I’ve always been keen on innovation and trying new things. I’m keen to collaborate with new producers and old peers and branch into various forms of media, which I think is important in this every changing world. It’s a journey into the unknown, I’m just going on my intuition with it and excited to see where it will lead.
Any other way would be contrived, wouldn’t it?
Yeah. I don’t want to fall into my old shoes. I’m not interested in regurgitating music from 20 years ago. It’s interesting to take ideas or inspiration from that era, but I don’t want to make music that’s 20 years old.
That wouldn’t be in the spirit of why you got into the music in the first place…
I think so. I’m keen to experiment with time signatures and tuning systems and I can hear it filtering into drum & bass now. I liked what Noisia did with The Hole Part One. It’s a rare example of pushing those boundaries further out and I’d like to contribute to that direction. Production quality has come a long way in the last few decades with the standard of the sound but in terms of musical content it would be more interesting to break out of the standard mold.
So much of the music is bounded by DJ culture. Artists often feel trapped by the cycle of making bangers to kick off in the club or get the big DJs playing them…
I agree and there’s also this harder, faster, louder race that’s been going on. I’m not really much of a fan of that and would like to see different dynamics. That’s the path I’d like to go down, but I’m just getting back into this and finding my feet so I would say ‘watch this space’ for now. But other things are happening; Rob and I are looking at our back catalogue and will remaster and remix some of it. That’s one part of this, but my heart is in pushing the boundaries and how that will sound is unknown at this stage.
That’s where the music takes on a life of its own. Is this exciting or daunting or both?
I guess I closed this door a long time ago and, now I’m opening it up again, there’s a certain degree of vulnerability. People’s expectations and judgements and having to live up to certain standards.
Hugely. There’s a lot of mythology around why and when you left. But everyone agrees you parted at the peak of your game. You didn’t compromise or sell out. You left a strong legacy so expectations can’t help but be high….
I didn’t expect there to be such a legacy or for people to play my tracks 20 years later. I thought it would fizzle out. I was surprised that people still play them, and consider me influential in the birth of the neurofunk sound. It was somewhat accidental, I was writing music influenced to some degree by Detroit techno which was popular in Glasgow and applying this to drum & bass which was an exciting new genre at the time. In terms of the legacy, I was oblivious to it for a long time and people would hit me up every now and again and I’d be surprised. I can see that there’s a lot of love out there and I’m very grateful for that. I’m keen to reconnect with people I haven’t seen for a long time, too.
Have you missed it?
I missed the music. But there’s a lot about the club scene I didn’t like. It can be quite hedonistic, especially in that dark D&B scene. Personally, I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink and I want to live a positive healthy lifestyle. I’m actually into the idea of conscious clubbing where we take out the drugs and alcohol and provide an experience that focuses on the music and bringing together other art forms. The idea of integrating 360 video and an exhibition or dance performance. Something different. We’ll be experimenting with events like that locally over the next six months as there’s an interest in conscious clubbing here in Scotland which I’d like to explore.
Oh interesting. Something with a message….
Yes, it’s an opportunity to bring into focus topics which impact us all, such as the environmental crisis and sustainable living. Something people can walk away with from the experience. Looking at the work I’ve done in the last 10 years, which includes outdoor engagement and climate challenge work I would like to draw on these influences too. I will be booked to play regular clubs, of course, but I’ll be building the conscious clubbing experience simultaneously. Hopefully when people get to know me – and there’s a whole new generation who don’t – it’ll be interesting for them to see I’m doing something different.
So was the hedonistic side why you left the music industry?
That’s an aspect of why I left. There’s a lot to it, but to be honest, it was about my own personal journey. I started DJing at the age of 15 and I was very passionate about electronic music. All I wanted to be was an international DJ. That was a dream from a young age and I’d achieved that very quickly. I was 20/21 and travelling the world. It was great but at the same time it very overwhelming to play to these big crowds in different countries at that age. I hadn’t developed as a person, it was all too much, too soon and I didn’t know who I was or what I was capable of in other areas. Leaving when I did felt like the right thing to do. I don’t regret it. It allowed me to explore other areas of life. It’s been an awesome journey. Now I have come full circle but see the music from a different perspective. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. That makes it more interesting for me.
We’re a similar age so I totally get that. I’ve actually enjoyed getting older a lot more than I thought I would. There’s more clarity and confidence in your abilities and knowing what you want to do…
Exactly. When you’re younger you don’t have a context, you’re just there in the experience. I was just going with the flow. But now, I am able to put this aspect of my life in a context in which I feel more balanced and in control. Moving forward, returning back to the music won’t be the same because I have developed as a person.
Back to that time though you must have been in your element during that experience. Especially in the studio. You mentioned techno earlier. That’s been clear in your music too. That’s what you came from originally, right?
Yeah, Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Dave Clarke. They were big influences musically for me and would play in Glasgow regularly. It was an underground and intense and exciting scene, we really felt like we were on the cutting edge of something. There weren’t many people doing drum & bass up here and then I heard music from Source Direct, Photek, No U Turn and I felt drawn to this new exciting sound. When I came to try and write myself, the techno influences came through. Not intentionally or consciously.
How about the equipment you were using?
It was a lot more hardware based back then. We were starting to integrate soft synths towards the end of that period but at the start the Emu E6400 Ultra was at the heart of it. I still revert back to that now, there’s something special about it. We had an AN1X Yamaha synth and a Roland JP8000 which was responsible for a number of acid lines and specifically the reese bass we had in Messiah. We also had a Nord Modular which distorted and compressed things in a grungy way. We got better the more we got to know the gear. I think the problem now is that there are just so many different synths available in the software world that it can be overwhelming.
Definitely. People talk about limitation encouraging creativity. Have you simplified your toolkit in this sense?
I’ve found a hybrid set up is best. I struggle with software alone. With hardware it was always about pushing the red and capturing that sound. It was that slightly gritty and distorted. But with software you can’t do that so easily. I’ve had to learn how to tame the sound and bring it all down to get maximum headroom but it’s a big challenge. Everyone is sidechaining; minimal sounds hitting with the maximum impact. It creates this big loud sound but there’s something a bit artificial about it too.
But, because everyone is doing it, it’s easy to get caught up in chasing a louder, bigger sound often compromising the song’s dynamics to achieve that. It’s an interesting challenge it’s forcing you to be minimal but use the modern techniques that have developed through software production. I’m getting to grips with it. But I don’t want to sound like anyone else. So you have to retain your uniqueness but maintain the production quality.
That must be such a fine line. But the ace up your sleeve is creative fulfilment, right? You’re not doing this to be part of that loudness war, so in this sense you can do what you like… To a degree anyway.
To a degree, yeah. But going against the grain is something I’ve naturally done. With Messiah for instance, that opening ambience and that whole intro arrangement was pretty rare at the time. Normally you’d have some beats or an atmosphere, then build up and drop. We wanted to change the arrangement and dynamic and ended up with Messiah as a result. We weren’t sure if people would be that into it. It’s nice to see that it had an impact.
A huge impact. Proof that risks stand out…
They can do but that’s a rare example of something really going much further than we expected. We did a lot of tracks before and not all of them stood out. Some did for me such as Star Trails, Portal and Cluster. Bleed had a particular sound with the percussion distorted and filtered on the same channel as the bassline which some producers subsequently modelled their tracks on. There are three or four I look back on and I’m happy with. But whether they stand out or not, you have to take these risks. There might be some tracks from me in future that may seem to go off on a tangent or a bit weird or not received that well, but that’s part of the creative challenge. That’s what draws me to it in the first place… Finding uncharted territories.
What was it like sitting down with Rob and going through the vaults?
It’s been interesting and is very much an ongoing process. The main challenge is to make them sound polished. They’re not going to be as loud as today’s productions, there’s only so much you can do mastering a track that’s already been done 20 years ago. But it’s nice to give people access to the music digitally. Somewhere for people to hear these legacy tracks. Not a lot of it is available digitally, only on poor quality illegal YouTube videos, so we want there to be somewhere for people to hear them.
Did you follow the music when you weren’t in the scene?
From time to time I’d see what’s going on. I really like what Noisia have done. It’s been interesting to see what’s going on. I was away for a long time, things have changed a lot but it’s good to hear innovative production. Guys like Hybris, Abstract Elements, Phace, Misanthrop for example. I dabbled in music production over the years though. Even if I wasn’t following it much. I wrote tracks that without intending to release them, just for my own creative expression and enjoyment. Maybe they’ll materialise into an album.
There was also the Nomadiqa album wasn’t there?
Yeah it was a small project with a group of musicians from different countries. We wanted to explore world music elements and instrumentation and I also helped produce the Bosnian band Velahavle’s first album. There was a drum & bass track on there and some more downtempo tracks. It was all a bit of fun really.
And maybe to keep yourself up to date? Obviously there was the new track on that mix. Parabola.
Yeah Parabola’s got something of a legacy sound, I thought ‘well if I’m going to do a mix then why not mess around with a new track?’ I’m working on mastering it. I plan to release it early next year along with other material on bandcamp.
Looking forward to it. You mentioned just doing tracks for your own creative expression privately. What other creative expressions did you explore? I know you study martial arts, I think you did with Dom & Roland for a while?
Yeah we have a lot in common and were both doing wing chun kung fu at the time. I enjoy various types of sport. Currently I’m exploring Brazilian jujitsu.
What’s the difference between traditional jujitsu and the Brazilian style?
The traditional jujitsu is based on fighting Samurai on the battlefield, whereas Brazilian jujitsu is sport orientated and very creative actually. It’s great fun and a sport I’ve taken a lot from.
Any other disciplines you’ve taken a lot from?
Yoga as well, plus I enjoy frame drumming, jamming with people and real instruments. I take a lot from collaborating with people.
These make sense with your idea for conscious clubbing…
Totally. I’m just up for encouraging positive lifestyles in any way I can. I haven’t been in the scene for a long time, but I find it can be a slippery slope in this culture. Coming from Glasgow known for its binge drinking and drug problems, you can understand why I’d like to promote a healthier alternative.
More now than ever. Wellness has been a big focus across all forms of club culture…
It’s a different age now and if I can be part of a positive new movement then I’d feel really good about that. I’m a value driven person and that’s what motivates me.
Your work has been outreach and youth work, right?
Yeah part of it. I’ve worked on climate challenge projects, outdoor engagement, eco therapy. I was into permaculture and have a dream of living a permaculture life with a little house and tiny farm. I’ve also done youth development work and introduced people to woodland spaces for health and recreation. I’m into forest bathing.
You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, what is that?
It originates in Japan and is known as Shinrin-Yoku. a meditative process where you literally bathe your senses very mindfully in the woodland. I seem to have a lot of resonance with Japan.
So many artists in drum & bass do. Do disciplines inspire you? Is it the rituals? Or the technology?
All of that, I think. There’s also something about their aesthetic appreciation. They have a real eye for that. In their ceremonies, the etiquettes and culture. There is a love of beauty there which I really respect and admire and take inspiration from.
Did you tour there a lot during the old days?
I went to Tokyo and Osaka and I was there for a week. It wasn’t long enough. I’d love to go back for sure.
So next year we know you’re at Let It Roll. And also the Virus gig. Have you done a few under the radar for practice?
I have a couple before that. I’ve got a gig in Poland in a couple of weeks then Budapest in December. They’ll be primers for the Virus gig.
They’ll be your very first gigs in years?
They will be yeah. I’m working on sets and getting back into it. I’ve got a lot of music from artists who inspire me and just having fun mixing again. I think big festivals like Let It Roll will be interesting. There’ll be more of an expectancy to play big tunes and I might not be able to play the more experimental music.
You’d be surprised with the D&B-exclusive festivals. Fans who go to them know their shit. They’re into the music. You don’t have to draw the biggest tracks. They’ve come to you over the other DJs, they want to hear what you have to say.
That’s good to hear actually. I hadn’t considered that.
You mentioned some names earlier, are there any other people making music now that resonates with you?
I like what’s coming out on Samurai Music, Neosignal, Critical Music and what Noisia and the Upbeats do to name a few .
Strong techno connection with labels like Samurai there…
Indeed. There’s an understanding of dynamic there, too. I’ll also be interested to see what happens after Noisia disband next year. I get the sense there’s going to be some really experimental things from them as individuals. So yeah there’s a lot of genuinely innovative producers around and I think musically it’s a good time for me to come back.
And the Negative reissues are the first to come…
Definitely. The Bandcamp stuff will be up very soon. Hopefully by the end of the year. I’m working on a few collaborations, I’ll keep you posted on developments. Then with Rob we’ll be working towards remixing things soon. He’s got an incredible studio, he’s still very much analog and has some amazing gear. I think the difference between us is he is rooted in that classic analogue sound and approach while I’m looking to push forward and try new techniques. But we are both equally open minded about musical direction.
The best collaborations can be when you’re coming from different places…
Yeah I agree. For that reason I’d love to work with artists outside of drum & bass too. I intro’d the Fantasy FM set with a track from the contemporary classical composer Giles Lamb, it would be good to collaborate with him.
Oh cool, there’s another mix now, right?
Yeah. It’s a series of episodes which will develop the 360 video concept with Jungle Andy. Hopefully we’ll be able to develop them further. I’m just really enjoying re-exploring this and seeing what I can contribute. It’s early days and I haven’t set any expectations, so let’s see what happens…
For Kemal’s dj bookings contact firstname.lastname@example.org