Part of the magical allure of drum and bass is how, in places you’d sometimes least expect to find it, you’ll discover a vibrant community…
East Asia might not immediately strike you as somewhere associated with the sound we all love, but since 2016, Unchained Asia have been spreading their bass music seed across mainland China and beyond. With headquarters situated in Shenzhen as well as Hong Kong, they have been the country’s biggest force in bass music since their inception. Forward-thinking and always willing to push the boundaries with their releases, their sound embraces an eclectic blend of sonics that they fondly refer to as ‘mutant bass’, a sound that ranges from experimental halftime to straight up club bangers.
As well as the label, which focuses on showcasing the finest talent across Asia, along with recognised names from around the world such as Sinistarr and Arkaik, they are renowned for their packed out, high energy events which draw some of the biggest names in drum and bass to grace their decks. Recognising the importance to help shape and grow new artists, they are a pillar in terms of music development within the Asian communities, regularly hosting workshops and masterclasses as part of their BiT Therapy project.
Co-founded by Daniel Power and Lyndon Jarr along with the help of Abby Yuen and Nick Gavin, Unchained Asia has grown into an extensive family of creatives, all dedicated to developing a connection between the flourishing Asian music scene and the wider global community. Fresh from releasing their recent album Unchained: The Remixes, we recently caught up with the two co-founders to find out more about how they’ve been creating a scene out in China that everyone should be taking notice of…
How did the pair of you come to find yourself out in China?
Daniel : I originally came out here 11 years ago as my father was making wind-up toys in Shenzhen. I just needed a change from the UK at the time and it was a great chance to spend some quality time with him too. I’ve ended up slowly building a nice life for myself, he left China years ago now, but I’m still here!
Lyndon : For me it was a fortunate accident. I took a gap year and was supposed be in Hong Kong for 2 weeks in transit. That was 10 years ago! Hong Kong can be addictive, 8 million people on the size of a pin head and Shenzhen only about a one-hour bus ride away.
How did Unchained start? What was the vision for it when you began?
Lyndon : I was running D&B events in Hong Kong and Dan was across the border in Shenzhen also doing parties. We also both knew Nick and Abby – two creatives and DJs that knew their drum and bass. All four of us instinctively came together and formed a crew. This turned into a regular run of events in Shenzhen and then grew into other cities across China.
Daniel gets dibs on the name ‘Unchained,’ that was his idea! However, we all contributed to the vision. We want to grow, inspire and support fresh ‘green shoots’ of creativity for bass music in Asia. It won’t be too long before the scene reaches ‘escape velocity,’ meaning that local contribution and inspiration becomes the main driving force. China very much has its own original interpretation of bass music. We love to see that develop!
Daniel : Yeah, there was not much going on in South China at the time in terms of D&B. Beijing and Shanghai had some great stuff going on but down here there wasn’t much at all. I wanted to start pushing things so started to do some small local parties. There was not really any local talent for D&B at the time so I looked to Hong Kong as it was so close and they already had some good local DJs. Lyndon, Nick, Abby and I connected very quickly and helped each other grow so much. It was all very organic and natural and for me felt like the universe brought us together at the perfect time.
How accepting were the Chinese population of drum and bass and contemporary bass music in general? Is it still quite a new phenomenon in social circles out there?
Lyndon : The Chinese electronic music community is incredibly open minded, we all feel so blessed to have the opportunity to share drum and bass in China. They leave their genre-blinders at home and come out to enjoy good music. It’s very refreshing.
At the same time, I think the mainstream electronic music scene is coming to experience ‘big room’ EDM exhaustion. Bass music is a beneficiary of that as people want a deeper connection with the music now. We’ve recently been seeing a solid community form. Not just punters, but producers, DJs, bloggers, dedicated club owners and even music teachers who are ‘heads.’ Alternative electronic music is probably one of the ways people can participate in some form of collective variance from conformity…but at the end of the day, let’s face it, we all love a good banger. China is no different!
Daniel : Yes, there are no preconceptions or ideas here towards music, it’s a complete blank canvas so to speak. This has felt very challenging at times, but also so rewarding when you keep pushing hard. Especially the last couple of years with the local crowds in Shenzhen, you can feel the changes quite strongly now and the people are proper skanking out and loving the music!
What’s been the most challenging part of pioneering a community so far away from the traditional dance music ‘hubs’, such as London and Bristol for example?
Lyndon : The cultural gap would have to be a factor. In places like Bristol or London, if someone is inspired to set up their own activity, magazine, blog, event, label, radio show, whatever, I think people are more likely to ‘just do it’ and not give a fuck about the risks. In China we see dozens of local kids who are truly inspired, yet they hold themselves back from doing things on their own. We want to do what we can to encourage them. Although Confucianism goes back 2,500 years, its influence still runs deep in Chinese culture, adherence to social ritual and family authority can sometimes be at odds with individuality and the organic growth of vibrant music communities. We have the utmost respect for those who are treading the path of creativity and originality in China. At this stage in China’s development they deserve the support of everyone in the global scene.
Daniel : Yes, I really feel the sky is the limit here in terms of growth and potential. We are lucky to work with some great clubs and people over here who do a lot of great translations and online articles to educate the locals about the scene and artists.
On the topic of education, a big part of what you are doing is running workshops and masterclasses for the communities. This shows your plans for investing in the sustainable future of bass music across Asia, right?
Lyndon : We wouldn’t say it’s a really big part just yet, but it’s definitely a meaningful part of what we do. The local producer events in Hong Kong where artists are limited to playing only their own music have been pretty special. Basically a load of talented kids that don’t get out of their bedrooms enough! The Masterclasses that we’ve put on are usually in tandem with an event. We have covered topics such as the history of bass music, how to monetize your music, creativity and of course how to produce D&B. Many of the artists we have touring in China are more than happy to contribute to the scene when they come through town.
Daniel : Yes, pushing the education side is definitely a big goal for us in the future. We have touched on it a bit at the past with some of our events and a Kabuki modular class we put together in Hong Kong was a big highlight for me. But yes, for the future I think the more we can help educate these kids the more sustainable and stronger the bass music scene can be here.
Let’s talk a bit about the nightlife. What’s it like for dance music in China and across East Asia?
Daniel : For underground bass music there has been a good number of people and crews pushing the sound out here for a long time already. Jane Siesta has been pushing D&B out here for over 20 years and is a complete legend who has booked literally every don you can think of! Also, the Beijing Syndicate crew have been doing their thing for over 15 years, while in Hong Kong they have a few legendary crews who have been doing it for a long time as well. Other countries like Thailand, Japan and Singapore also have got a number of great crews and artists. My experience though was that a lot of nights before needed big help from the expat communities to have a great vibe and enough numbers. But it feels different now- our crowds in Shenzhen for example are 90 – 95% locals and going around China it’s a similar feeling. More and more locals are filling up the dance floors which is great for the future I think.
At your own nights you’ve had pioneering figures such as Fabio, Zinc and Ant TC1 playing. What were their reactions to the crowds out there?
Daniel : I feel we are very lucky to be doing our monthlies in such a wonderful club for the past few years (Oil Club). They have a top sound-system and the whole set-up and vibe there is incredible. Also I love how there is no drug culture at all here and even with drinking it’s not people getting off their face. All the reactions and energy feel very real and pure to me. It’s the best feeling actually dropping a tune and getting the screams and big reactions out here. Everyone just feels so free and happy on the dance floor, it’s great to experience and quite a few top artists have given massive praise after their sets. Our last big booking for example was Fabio in January and he commented on the vibes and energy saying it reminded him of the early days of the scene in England which was lovely to hear from the don. Also when we had Ant TC1 over he loved it so much he didn’t want to stop, I think he played at least double his original set time which was fine by us!
Lyndon : They love it! Frankly, it never ceases to blow our minds how receptive the crowd is to most of the artists that come through. Zinc said to us once that the D&B gigs he’s done here in Shenzhen at Oil Club are as good as it gets.
What effect has the Covid-pandemic had? I know quite a few people in the UK are jealously seeing videos of clubs opening back up across China while we’re stuck with no end date in sight! Is everything more or less back to normal?
Daniel : Yeah it has felt back to normal for months already for me actually. I did a tour all over China last month and that went great. They shut down things early over here, Oil Club was shut for a couple of months from late January but opened again in April. It took a little while for the crowds to come back and feel confident again, but we’ve had banging events for months already!
Lyndon : Well I’ve been traveling this year so it’s been a bit of a nightmare! First I was in the States at the wrong time, then back to Hong Kong and now I’ve been in Sydney for a few weeks and will be here for a while. Australia’s border is closed – no one is allowed to leave! So Dan is enjoying all the action… The lucky git!!
I know you do some bits out in Hong Kong as well- how has the current political unrest that we’ve see out there affected youth culture, particularly with parties and club nights?
Lyndon : Since early last year youth had been embracing bass music again in a big way. You could say there was a revival under way and the scene was getting its legs back. When Covid hit, the restriction to public assembly obviously had a big impact and recent changes to the law has coincided with increased uncertainty and anxiety. Many youths feel they don’t know where things are going next, so we’ll have to wait and see. Either way the local scene is very much still there and will always bounce back. Hong Kongers are very resilient!
Daniel : I used to go to Hong Kong twice a month at least but haven’t been for almost a year. It’s been a little tough not being able to see Lyndon, Abby, and Nick for such a long time and be able to play together. But the good thing is with technology and everything now we are still connecting and pushing things together every day.
Looking at your back catalogue, you really show the possibilities of drum and bass as a genre. How would you describe the music you put out on the label?
Lyndon : We started out aiming to push halftime focused D&B infused with styles we are all into such as trap, juke, breakbeat, leftfield, etc. We’ve had someone call it ‘mutant bass’ and I really like where that goes. In part our direction was influenced by our experiences. So many times we’d played to crowds that had never heard a two-step beat before or anything above 150bpm. It was hard work at the start, but the label’s focus represents the love of these hybrid mutations.
One night dBridge played for us in Guangzhou. It was the 3rd floor of a 5-star hotel with a Function One sound system. Very few people knew what drum and bass was.
We saw him turn the crowd into a frenzy with Exit dubs! With the exception of Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, we’d never seen that before in China- his bouncy half-time was a big part of that and we knew it was how we wanted to bring D&B to China.
Daniel : Yes for me that night from 2016 is the one that really changed everything. We were all so blown away by his set and the different possibilities within D&B. After that night we all went deep into halftime and all of our sets became much more dynamic and diverse. I think with the label direction and everything we do now a lot can be traced back to that night to be honest!
There was also a huge trap explosion a few years ago in China. Halftime is not so different from trap and then halftime to D&B is not too big a step. We try and reel some people in with halftime first and then smash them with the drum and bass!
Helping promote Asian talent on the label is very important for you. Who are some names that everyone should be looking out for?
Lyndon : Radiax, based in north China was our first Vinyl EP on the label. He has a volume of fire to be released on Unchained next year. Watch him like a hawk! 3ASIC is in Shenzhen, South China and very much on the rise. His remix of Valhalla by HØST on the new Remix LP is insane – industrial rave meets Gutterfunk, go get a listen. We are super excited about a talented young producer in Japan by the name of Fetus and Kian Chong, aka Kray, will be making his debut with us next year.
You’ve just released a monster remix LP of something crazy like 16 tracks, featuring a wicked mix of artists from right across the globe. Tell us a little about the project.
Daniel : Yes that was somewhat of a passion project for us. I have always felt a real excitement and love for big remix projects ever since I was a kid, so it was a dream to be able to work with so many great artists on there from around the world and we are very pleased with the results! Also we have to give UKF a big thank you for putting the word out for our remix competition earlier in the year. It was the first remix competition we have ever done and we were not sure how it would turn out. The amount and quality of the entries were a little overwhelming actually and we ended up putting two winners on the LP as there was just so much talent!
What’s next for Unchained? Do you have plans to expand further?
Lyndon : Well there will definitely be more growth, in terms of tours and releases. On the label front we will be more focused on incubating Asian talent as well as inviting globally recognized artists that might be known for other genres into the drum and bass world. Next year we have some incredible talent that will fulfill that dream.
We also plan to go deeper into education by partnering with some of the larger music production platforms so we can share some of the collective knowledge we are accumulating within our ranks.
Daniel : Yes, it’s not been easy for most people this year, but I’ve been lucky to be in China at this time and have been able to put on events for a good few months already. The borders are still closed but in a weird way it’s almost been a blessing in disguise for the local scene here. Locals who would have had such a hard time to get big shows before are getting their chances and a lot are really stepping up. Two locals in particular, FoamBB and RavenFace86 have become the new Unchained residents and have grown leaps and bounds as drum and bass DJs now. They would have never had this opportunity if we just had massive names each month like before.
Also we just ran the first ever Keep Hush in Asia last weekend. It was a very special night that really showcased some of the great talent in the Chinese underground bass music scene! All the sets will be up very soon on their YouTube so look out for that!