After almost a decade of release silence, Dillinja is back in the studio…
This is the man who set mixdown benchmarks so high, and so early on in the genre, they encouraged an obsessive sonic tradition that still exists in the culture to this day. This is the man whose fastidious drum edits, raw and toxic basslines and glacial atmospheres embody and capture the most visceral spirit of drum & bass jungle… And have done since he emerged in 1993 with a string of aliases; Capone, Trinity, Digitech and of course Dillinja.
Flexing formative releases on seminal imprints such as Metalheadz, V Recordings, Prototype Recordings and his own Cybotron imprint (which would also become another alias for him within years of emerging), Dillinja dominated the 90s and most of the 2000s, influencing pretty much any D&B artist who’s come through ever since. As a producer, he showed how far technology could be pushed and he did so at such a prolific rate, there still remain DATs beyond DATs of unreleased gold.
As a label owner he pushed his Valve brand as far as it could go too: Launching in 1997, Valve Recordings broke the likes of TC and gave us early cuts from Friction. It was responsible for and Craggz & Parallel Forces’ seminal album Northern Soul, crucial post-BC Fresh releases and many of Dillinja and Lemon D’s biggest tracks. As we raved into the 2000s, the brand boosted further again with the fabled Valve Soundsystem. A 96K beast that needed three trucks to transport when he took it on tour; it’s the type of system post-lockdown raving daydreams are made of….
To have one of the biggest street soundsystems in the world. I’m very proud of that. Everywhere we took it people really appreciated it, too. People’s excitement and appreciation. So many people saying how they’d never felt bass like it before. People felt drum & bass how it’s meant to be felt. Not heard… Felt.
…. And if all goes to plan, it’s a system we will be able to rave to post lockdown as he’s bringing it back, along with the label which re-launched last week with Break’s long, long awaited remix of Hard Noize. Complete with new productions of his own and remixes of some of his genre-affirming classics from a range of artists new and old, it’s the feel-good story we all need right now. We managed to grab the traditionally media-shy man for more details. It’s his first proper interview in almost 10 years…
Are you making the most of your lockdown?
Yeah I’ve got some music on the go but I’ve been using the time to rest my ears as much as I can. Years of working at ridiculously high volumes haven’t done me any good, I’ve been adapting to working at much lower levels.
I’ve heard it’s good to mixdown at lower levels?
Yeah it really is, but I like to hear the bass, you know? But massive speakers blasting right in my face for years and years in the studio? And the Valve? I look back now and think ‘what the fuck was I doing?’
You say that, but the Valve system was the first one I’d ever been to that gave out earplugs! There were never any warnings about hearing loss in the 90s / early 2000s
Actually yeah, no one was doing that at the time. We just didn’t want people to do themselves damage. You’re right. Back then we never had any warnings, it was just crank it up and enjoy wasn’t it? Looking back it seemed obvious to have protection, but no one thought about it back then did they?
Not for years. Just like I imagine you never thought a massive pandemic would be kicking off when you picked the time to bring Valve back!
Ha. It’s the worst timing. Nuts. But I’ve always wanted to bring it back, we picked this date a long time ago and I’m sticking with it. I’ve been doing a lot of DJing in the last 10 years. A lot. And I had that urge to get back into producing again. I’m excited about the creation of music again. I wasn’t for a long time, but the magic is back for me and I want to explore that. Getting new remixes of some of the old tracks is part of that.
That Break remix has been on dub for a long time! Dubplate style…
That’s it man. Let it breathe, let it grow. It doesn’t happen often enough. I knew Break was the right person for it. He kills it every time and he delivered something amazing there. Job done. The next one is DJ Limited’s remix of It Ain’t Too Loud. I’ve got a few others done but that’s the next one. And obviously there’ll be new ones from me.
I was going to build up to this. When will we hear new Dillinja productions?
They’re coming, they’re coming. I’m building my studio and I’ve never actually had a professional studio before. All the old stuff was made on shabby unprofessional equipment.
It’s not what you got, it’s how you use it, right? But for once in my life I want a professional workspace and I’m working on the sound. I want to bring the worlds together; the warm analogue sound you get from a proper desk and valves, but all the best digital converters. I want to work with samplers and want to put a lot more focus on the drums. I’ve found the drums in things these days are a lot simpler than they were. A lot of that is because so much goes into mixing the drums down which makes it so much harder to play with the breaks. Back in the day you’d have a break, cut it up into different bits and do it by hand. Now working with audio I’ve realised why the drums don’t move as much as they did; it’s so much more work to change things.
I think you need those details, they’re what keep the tune moving and keep a track interesting…
Exactly! But as I’ve been getting back into producing and working with audio, I’ve realised why the breaks are often a lot more simple in modern tracks. You’re focused on the mixdown so, for me, a lot more fun goes out the window. You’re supposed to have a lot of fun with the drums and just experiment so I’ve brought samplers back into things but still mixing them down in audio in the more modern way. Mixing the old with the new.
Perfect. I’m still reeling from the fact you never had a professional studio. Your mixdowns set the standard!
It’s mad isn’t it. I’ve realised that what I did back then was what they do now, but I didn’t know I was doing it. I used to ram DAT machines with loud volumes and the DAT has an analog-to-digital converter so I was getting my level by ramming the inputs. I put everything in the red. I never looked at any equipment, I just went with my ears. If it wasn’t distorted it was fine. I didn’t give a fuck if it was above zero. They use that technique in mastering now. Don’t look at the lights, ram the converter. Whether it’s analogue or digital, whatever it is they push through, a lot of the time it’s with your ears. When it comes to setting your master levels then it’s set at zero but the best instrument will always be your ears. It’s mad. As I’ve been re-learning the studio, I’ve been understanding what I did to begin with differently. So much of this is intuitive. It’s been interesting the last six months.
So I guess every now again the penny drops and you realise ‘oh wow, this is what I was doing before!’
Yeah that’s right! I’d been ramming DAT machines for years. People would ask ‘how do you get those type of levels?’ I’d just tell them I’ve been ramming the DAT machine and listening to it. If the sound starts to break up then I’d turn it down.
I love the simplicity of that. One big change in production is that people mix their drums in key now. I always used to hear a little rumour you used to put your kicks in weird keys so people couldn’t thief them. Is that true?
I wish I did do that! That’s why people did nick my drums. I was never very happy about that. My thinking was don’t steal from your own genre. It’s like ‘hold on, we’re all making jungle here, make your own!’ Nicking each other’s remastered amen break variants is not a problem… But when I actually play a loop on a drum kit and another D&B artist steals it, it’s internal cheating to me. I mean, nicking from other genres isn’t really on… But it’s better.
The whole thing is founded on sampling! Especially sampling house and Detroit techno records…
That’s right man. We all learnt a lot from sampling other people’s music. How it’s constructed and what makes a good sound and a good sample and break. That’s why the Amen is a perfect break. The textures, the grains, the air of the desk, everything about those drums is magical. It’s got its own soul. That helped me make my drums the best they could be. All the Ultimate Breaks collection. They were a schooling in sound, recording and production.
Brings us nicely to the Valve soundsystem….
Exactly man. Everything stems down to soundsystem culture. That’s the root of it.
Were you a box boy?
I wasn’t a box boy but I did grow up with a lot of soundsystems around me in Brixton. Especially King Tubby’s. I had friends with the same passion as me at school so we bounced off each other. I’ve been obsessed with from a young age.
Yeah you built a lot of the Valve yourselves, right?
Yeah we went old school on them. We used the same type of boxes King Tubbys were using in the 80s and put modern speakers in them. We built some high-end boxes as well. We changed them for professional ones in the end because we needed to split the top, mids and bottoms more but everything else was old school built.
Was having a system always part of the plan?
Oh yeah man. To have one of the biggest street soundsystems in the world. I’m very proud of that. Everywhere we took it people really appreciated it, too. People’s excitement and appreciation. So many people saying how they’d never felt bass like it before. People felt drum & bass how it’s meant to be felt. Not heard… Felt.
Yes!! Any crowning memories of the system in its prime?
It sounds weird but the best moments would often be when we’ve set it up and sound-checked and no one else is there. That first DJ comes on and plays a tune, before the place is even filling up. Just hearing the system warm up and the sound fill the room. That was always special for me.
It’s the most important part of the night. Get the vibe right from the off…
Exactly. And it was often dubstep or dub on first so it was proper soundsystem music, you know? I got to say I got some poor memories of it, too. I took it off the road because I was hearing too much shit music being played through it. I thought ‘what am I doing? I didn’t build the rig for this!’ I wasn’t enjoying it so much so I packed it away for a bit.
You’ve been pretty clear on your opinions in drum & bass in the past. You haven’t always been into certain sounds have you?
Well yeah man, things go through ups and down don’t they? Nothing is every rosy all the time. And yeah I have been pretty vocal about stuff in the past. I think now we’re in such a state of talent out there that you can find good things in every style of drum & bass and jungle. You just got to look for it.
It’s there, you’ve just got to dig, right? But you always did. That’s part of being a DJ. One thing I felt has changed, and not for the best, is the dynamic of the night. I’m not sure I’d be happy as a raver because there’s a lot of nights with just one style. I like the journeys. I like all styles and a good promoter who knows when to schedule everyone. I don’t want to just go to a jump up night or a neuro night all the time. That’s the only issue I got with drum & bass today. Sometimes you get a good booking where it’s something like Makoto on, then me then Ed Rush or someone. That’s everything I love about the music there. That’s a good flow that makes sense. But I don’t see those line-ups as much as I’d like to. I miss the varied selection.
I think we’re seeing a return to that a bit. A lot more of the new generation play and produce across the board. Actually last time I saw you play was Hospitality In The Park and that tent had a brilliant line-up.
Oh that was a fucking good one actually! Hospital get it right. They hit all bases. But a lot of promoters stick to one sound which is a bit boring. But other than that, I’m loving the music and you’re right, there’s loads of great new producers out there.
New generation keep people on their toes!
Yeah and we need that! It gets boring and stagnant otherwise, we need them to keep it fresh and vibrant. People are blowing up a lot quicker too. It’s mad to see things move quickly. I like it.
Back to the Valve for a second… Do you go to the lock-up and see if it’s okay every now and again?
Yeah of course man! I forget it’s there sometimes. But I’m gonna dust it off and give it a bit of a repaint before we bring it back out.
What will be the first tune you play on it? Did you ever have a special test tune?
I haven’t thought of that really, I’ll get back to you on that. There are some of my own old tracks I love hearing through it. Original Hard Noize and Acid Track have nice long notes to give it a proper test.
Are we likely to see more dubs unearthed? I know Deep Jungle and Dom & Roland’s Dub From The Dungeons have both delivered some classics from your DAT vaults…
Yeah definitely more of them will come out. I’ve found some more DATs recently and listened to them and it’s like ‘fuck! Why didn’t I put this out?’ I couldn’t even remember them! They were from around the Cybotron album era. I’d made a whole load of tunes that didn’t fit on the album or didn’t feel right at the time. It was like ‘what the fuck are these?’ Basically leftovers.
You know what I mean? So yeah we’ll be putting them out at some point I’m sure. I’d forgot about them completely.
Gifts from past Dillinja to future Dillinja
Mate I made so many tunes around that time and it was such a mad era, I’m sure there’s more out there I’ll find and not remember.
It’s a nice lesson that not everything needs to be rushed out and things can take all the time in the world if you’re on a long game one…
Exactly man. You can’t rush anything if you want it to last.
I’m guessing the same applies for the return of the label?
Totally. We’re just getting things together now. Break’s remix is out and we’ll let that do its thing. I’m doing vinyl but the pressing plants are down because of the pandemic so that will slow things down a bit but there’s the DJ Limited remix and then more things to come. The reason the Break remix took so long was because I wanted things in place, the website and releases ready. Hopefully every two months if I can get the flow right and be happy with my productions. It feels like the right time. It’s good to be back.