Drum & bass has lost one of its strongest pillars.
On the 26th of August, Duncan Busto AKA Spirit passed away following a heart attack on August 13. One of the genre’s most consistent, uncompromised, honest, and often funniest and thoughtful characters; his unexpected passing leaves an entire genre in mourning and creates yet another hole that can never be filled.
Duncan gave everything to jungle and drum & bass and was immersed in it, contributing and amplifying the culture from its earliest roots. As a DJ since 1987 he pushed the sounds. As a buyer for Redeye Records he ensured his hometown Ipswich was supplied with the sounds. As a writer for national dance magazine Muzik he made sure the UK knew about the sounds and wanted to seek them out themselves. He entrenched himself in the culture in any way he could. He lived it.
Releases and his Spirit tag were the final piece in his personal puzzle box and landed in 1996, nine years after he’d started to DJ. The reason they came a little later in his career is perfectly indicative of his eternal G status: he didn’t want anyone else to press the buttons or engineer for him. He wanted to make the records with his own skills and his own sounds. He knew, even then, that this was his life. Rushing things or compromising was not an option: a tactic he upkept with complicit consistency.
When the tunes did start coming, they never stopped. From then until now there’s only been one year when Duncan didn’t bless our collections with multiple releases each year. Early deep soul gems on Timeless and Total Science’s CIA (a label and act with whom he remained best friends and kindred spirits with ever since) unforgiving, break-barging hurters like Underpass on Genetic Stress, 16 years of material on his own Inneractive and of course his and Digital’s unarguably influential Phantom Audio era.
A turning point for both Duncan and Steve Digital, the pair, along with allies Total Science, had debunked the ubiquitous two step and maintained jungle’s deep love for the breakbeat against the popular sound at the time. Phantom Force, a track which stills gets smashed in the mix to this day, epitomises how they stuck to their vision, forged their own sound, did their own thing and didn’t react or resort to trend. The same can be said for how he launched his label Inneractive; no one wanted to sign his track Memories. “I thought fuck it and put it out myself,” he explained in an interview with me last year. “This is an ongoing theme in my career.”
That line was delivered with his trademark infectious raw laugh that anyone who met him will know and forever recall. But for once it wasn’t a joke: Run the thread right back and everything Spirit achieved was done with his bare hands and love for the genre. Run it forward to find Underground Alliance, his latest project to provide a hub and professional platform for he and fellow artists such as Digital, Loxy, Nomine, Mantra, Double O and Blocks & Escher to manage their own bookings. A site and system he built himself for the underground community and his independent peers, it didn’t just sum up Duncan’s inherent, defiant DIY drive and refusal to play the current game… But also how motivated, driven and sharp his was right until the end.
The last two times I saw Duncan play this year also summed how much he loved the music and his craft and also his scope, skills and musical depth: a 90-92 set at Rupture and a b2b with Digital in a dank basement in Cardiff. The former was a lesson in raw roots as he hurled out cult releases on labels such as Production House Records, Ibiza Records and Reinforced, bouncing up and down more than the needles on 12”s he’d spent the previous week nerding out over and cleaning up ready for the gig (all the while feeding a local fox who’d been paying him visits)..
The latter, just months ago, was Spirit in his natural stomping ground, sparring with his system soulmate; Digital bulldozing the crowd with his steamroller system melters, Spirit picking them back off the ground again and slapping them senseless with unforgiving rollers and sharp shards of emotion. They played for two hours in a dark, low ceiling, intimate regional club. Eye level with an intimate headsy crowd; not dissimilar to the type of venues where Duncan and Digital honed their Phantom Audio sound both in their native Ipswich and Oxford during the time they connected with Total Science.
From the foundations to the forefront of today’s still thriving underground drum & bass culture, Duncan was at home and totally in tune with the music: he knew what to draw for, when to draw for it and exactly how hard it would hit you. And he did it with total relevancy and authenticity.
“I have to be realistic, I’m often DJing to people who weren’t even born when I put out my first release,” he joked in our interview. “If you’re loving what you’re doing and staying true to what you do then that doesn’t matter. People on the dancefloor don’t give a shit when you were born or how long you’ve been around. They just want the best possible set you can give them. In this sense I’m a DJ more than I am a producer and have stayed relevant with the selections I play. Plus any way I’m a lifer… What else am I going to do?”
Those bittersweet words are too hard to swallow now. Duncan did devote his life to drum & bass in every possible way and always on his own terms. This is something I was lucky to witness first hand through knowing him for the last 18 months but it’s something that his closest friends, family and loved ones have known forever. My heart hurts with thoughts and love for everyone who is missing him, everyone who he made music with, played with, looked out of, helped and made laugh. The amount of pictures and stories being shared on social media since his condition has been a reminder at how many people he touched and inspired.
One of the last conversations I had with Duncan was last month. He joked I had ‘played it too safe’ on a feature about dubplate culture and that I should have called people out. So out of respect, his tribute will end like this…. If you’re involved in something creative and you’ve decided to make that your career and you’re not investing every ounce of your soul and your energy and focus to it, then you’re in the wrong job. If you’re not prepared for the longest of games and to weather the challenging lows or stay true to what you want to do, then leave now. If you’re jumping on trends, biting on other people’s style or spending more time shouting about what you’re doing than actually doing it, go now. If you’re in the field for narcissistic or egotistical reasons or any other motive other than the drive to create, make your own personal mark and push things forward, then politely f*!k off. Compromise is not an option; you’re either fully into what you do or you’re just wasting time.
The scene doesn’t just need more of Duncan’s spirit, all walks of life do. Have a passion, stick to it, make it happen, fight for it when you have to but most of all love it and live it. Duncan, you, your music and your actions will never ever be forgotten. Thank you for everything. Rest In Peace.