Photography: Danny Liao
Over twenty years deep in the underground, Dean Barker – aka KillBreak – has been an influential figure in the American drum and bass scene since he first cut his teeth discovering the sounds of Bad Company. Immediately he was hooked, and it opened him up to a new world of beautifully aggressive music that he fondly names ‘future jazz.’
The Brooklyn-based artist will be featuring on the next instalment of Eatbrain’s Divergence III VA release with a very special track alongside Foreign Beggars. Following the desperately sad passing of Ebow Metropolis in 2020 the track lost steam, but KillBreak knew he had a special piece of music that could help extend the bountiful legacy the inventive MC carved for himself for nearly two decades alongside his fellow frontman Pavan (the incendiary rapper previously known as Orifice Vulgatron.
The track is out January 8 alongside music from label veterans such as Telekinesis, Agressor Bunx and L 33. After being raised on a diet of the early techstep pacemakers, KillBreak explains he can’t wait for the future as his takes his sound to Eatbrain, the label pushing their unfiltered interpretations of neurofunk out of Budapest and to the world.
As well as representing the drum and bass sound across America, Dean has also produced music across the bass music spectrum under a number of aliases including Baws Fyte and Breaker. This has seen him release on heavyweight brands such as Insomniac Records and play at EDC Las Vegas.
2021 will also see him continue to take his own newly rebranded Guerrilla Warfare label into new directions, as he looks to keep alive the sounds that have inspired him since he was just fifteen years old.
Producer, DJ, label boss and also an acclaimed-chef, graphic designer; Dean Barker is a very busy man! We caught up with him to have a chat about a fascinating career to date…
First of all, I just wanted to check in and see how things are across the pond after the election and with the pandemic…
So, I live in Brooklyn and my primary career is a chef. When the pandemic hit, it shut down our whole industry. We were all given unemployment at the end of March as part of the first stimulus package which lasted for about six months. They then stalled the next package because of the election. Large corporations received pandemic loans whilst the smaller businesses were left out to dry. We’ve only just seen the funding given to restaurants, gig workers and freelancers this week. Congress are just playing games with us, it’s pathetic.
It sounds pretty similar to here in the UK. The two industries that have been left out to dry are hospitality and the arts. It must have been a pretty difficult year for you working as a musician and a chef!
Honestly, it definitely put me in a bit of a pinch. Fortunately, I’m also a graphic designer. I went to college and got a Bachelors in studio graphic design. Over the past few months, I’ve started doing graphic design for chefs as everyone is trying to make their own brand and do pop-ups. I also work as a restaurant consultant, so I’ve been able to pick up work from my old clients. The best thing is it has actually allowed me to make more music. I’ve been doing drum and bass since I was 15. I’m 36 now, but I’ve never really had a chance to just dig deep like I have been able to this year.
So, on the topic of music, you’ve got something really exciting coming very soon! A wicked collaboration with Foreign Beggars. When did you first meet?
It was when I was out in LA working at a restaurant called Catch LA. I was doing random bass music at the time under another of my aliases, Baws Fyte. I was playing Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and my Instagram started blowing up a bit and next thing I knew, Foreign Beggars were following me! Pavan and I started messaging, mainly about food! After a while I was like, ‘I’d really love to do a track with you guys!’ He came back and said: ‘if it sounds as good as the stuff on your Facebook, we should be good!’
I hear there’s quite a story behind the track?
So, the first track I sent was actually a dubstep track I was working on at the time. They jumped on it and got it done in like two or three days, it was crazy. I didn’t want it to just come out on some multi-genre bass music label and I had just been offered to A&R a Renegade Hardware reunion LP so I thought I could save the tune for that.
However, the Hardware project lost steam and the tune just sat there as I wasn’t too happy with it. When I moved back to New York I told myself I’d finish off the track. However, then Ebow (Metropolis) passed away, it was so shocking. I was sat there looking at the file and was like, if I do this, I can’t fuck it up. It’s got to be the very best I can muster! I knew I couldn’t just sit on it, so I sent it over to Jade at Eatbrain and he was like, this is crazy! He gave me a deadline of two weeks to get the track done, so I instantly hit up Pavan who had just moved back to Dubai. He said that we had to redo the track, because Ebow couldn’t be on it. I was surprised by this and promised him it wasn’t because I was trying to capitalise on his death or anything like that, it was just that we started the track together so wanted it to be from all of us. He was like, ‘it’s not that, it just sounds like robots.’ Pav went and redid his vocals again and then rearranged Ebow’s as well to make them sound more human. It was crazy! Shouts to Pavan, his work ethic is 1000%!
It can all just add to Ebow’s legacy, as another tribute to him…
It’s definitely a tribute from me. I’ve always said I hate how someone has to pass away for them to have a dedication, so this isn’t just for Ebow, but for everyone who has inspired me, especially my brother Brent D. Thurman aka Brent T Liminal who recently passed on News Year’s Day. What makes it all so serendipitous is we actually finished the track on Ebow’s birthday! I sent the track over to Pav and he video called me and he and the rest of Foreign Beggars were all around his grave celebrating his life. I had stayed up for two days straight to finish the track so to then hear it while they were stood there was just an indescribable feeling. It felt so special, like he was there with us all!
Why did Eatbrain feel the right label for the track?
I first met Jade at a Renegade Hardware reunion night and we got on really well. I kept in contact with him and was always telling him how Eatbrain nights in America would explode, people love that shit here! They’re just an amazing label to be honest. Everything from the music to the branding is so on point. They’re what a label should be like, they’ve really got their corner of the market. They keep pushing on despite the times as well, never giving up on their community. It felt like a natural progression after meeting Jade as well, he was really helpful mentoring me with the track as I’m new with this neuro sound.
That’s interesting hearing you mention natural progression there. From working with Renegade Hardware who really pioneered that style of drum and bass to Eatbrain now who’ve taken this futuristic approach to keep it moving forward, it makes sense.
Absolutely! Clayton was actually the person who put me onto Eatbrain! I love all the artists on the label, it’s been something I’ve wanted to be a part of for years, but I didn’t ever really have the sound. I’d say I still don’t have it when you listen to the other tracks on the compilation. I’m a bit of an outsider, especially as I’m the only American!
You mentioned earlier you first got into drum and bass when you were 15. What were your first experiences?
I was hanging out with some older friends and they showed me Skin Tag by Bad Company! I had just moved back to America from Germany in 96 and was like, this shit is crazy! I then heard Ed Rush & Optical Wormhole which just changed my whole perception of music. After that I discovered stuff from Renegade Hardware and Kemal and Rob Data as Konflict which just founded like future jazz music to me. It was what I had been looking for my whole life and I knew it was the sound I wanted to work out how to make. Back then you couldn’t make music on just computers, you needed synthesisers and everything. It was a serious commitment for a teenager to save all his cash he made working as a horticulturalist! My friend had a distribution account with TRC in Seattle, so we’d get all the UK records shipped over. We’d just have stacks and stacks of vinyl, it really felt we had a culture we could call ours. We were always considered outcasts in high school because of it.
That’s funny because even in the UK if you like drum and bass you’re considered a bit of an outcast. I can imagine being in America at that time where it’s even more niche and underground, you really felt like you were part of something new!
For sure, it was definitely like that because we were getting so deep into it. We had got to the age of 20 and were still making the music, playing the gigs etc. I went to sound engineering school and then got a job working at a label called OHM Resistance. I then was working with New Urban UK, the distribution company, to set up New Urban USA. This just gave me connections to the entire industry, as you’re selling records to the entire North American continent, including Canada and Brazil.
Now you’ve been entrenched in the scene for some years through your work with OHM Resistance and Guerilla Recordings, how would you assess the scene?
The biggest change is the way we consume music. There was the whole culture of crate digging where you had to physically put your hands onto the music. Then there was the complete digitization of the scene and now its social media. I think social media has done more good than bad, especially in America. Before it, it was all a bit of a small boy’s club where you had to know someone. That’s how it was when I started, but then by the time I was 17 there was AIM where you could talk with anyone, I remember speaking with Pendulum and sending them tracks! America has grown way more than I ever thought. There’s a steady amount in New York with crews like BP2 and Betty Ford running solid events, but LA is just another ball game. The shit over there is just incredible, like it rivals part of the UK!
There’s the Respect crew out there, right?
Machete is fucking holding it down, dude! He’s banded together with Insomniac and Bass Rush to throw events that I could never imagine. The biggest crowd I’ve ever played to was at a festival in LA called Fresh. It’s really the spot for drum and bass in the US, especially now as the New York scene has really suffered because the government started shutting down all the venues just like they’re doing in London. The larger Manhattan clubs won’t do drum and bass anymore, so Brooklyn is the spot.
I imagine the places in America that have the biggest hip-hop scenes are the ones where drum and bass is popular as well. That whole culture of early jungle was chopping up breaks just as it is when you’re making a hip-hop beat…
That’s what gave me an upper edge in drum and bass! With my Breaker project there’s always guys rapping on it and shit. We grew up listening to Notorious BIG, Wu Tang, Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep and all that East Coast hip-hop. When it came to making our music it allowed us to translate to the UK guys a bit. When we started doing that kind of vibe, I noticed they started taking us seriously and listening to us more. My first release with this style was back in 2007 on a record called Make Life Illa. It was started with Infiltrata aka 12th Planet and eventually was coordinated with Dstruct, BTK and CBX, formerly Identity. This got me support from the likes of The Upbeats, Photek, Ewun and Chris Renegade.
Guerrilla Recordings has been rebranded as Guerilla Warfare. Tell us about your plans with the label…
Guerrilla Warfare is named after the album of the same name on Hardware. During my label’s inception in 2006 the world suffered a multitude of terrorist attacks. Due to these events, we took ‘warfare’ off the name before launching. The LP changed my perspective on the music, so I decided to rebrand after my experience with Hardware. My late brother Brent was going to help manage it all. In the current drum and bass scene there isn’t really that Hardware sound anymore. I didn’t want it to ever die out so I’m basically looking to create a new stomping ground for it. I’ve hit up all the old heads who were part of creating that sound, people like Unknown Error, Digital, Technical Itch, Sta & Paul B, DJ Reality, Dylan, Damage, Evol Intent, Sinthetix, Stakka & Skynet, I’ve even reached out to Rob Data and Kemal. These guys are like dinosaurs to a lot of the new faces in the scene, but I just want to bring their sound back and show people there’s still a place for it. Everyone I’ve spoken with is really keen to keep it going! Drum and bass has always been extremely diverse, so I want to keep that vibe!
You’ve mentioned Breaker and Baws Fyte. What freedom do these other aliases give you to explore other genres?
For Baws Fyte I get the freedom to do whatever I want. The project catapulted so fast. I only started it five years ago but in less than two years, I was playing EDC Las Vegas and had been signed to Insomniac. I get the option to be diverse with it, so as long as it sounds good and people move their feet, I can do whatever with the tempo or mood. KillBreak is my new, clean style of drum & bass production. I’m better with my execution while Breaker was and still is my learning curve. I started doing that at my Grandma’s house in Flatbush Brooklyn but didn’t know where I wanted to go with it. I eventually met Submerged of Ohm Resistance and a CX KidtroniK from Atari Teenage Riot. They led me into a whole new world of collaborating with artists like Scorn of Napalm Death, M.O.P, Del the Funky Homosapien, Ladybug Mecca, Trent Reznor, Lords of Acid, Lady Kier of Dee Lite & Fishbone! This took me to a whole new spectrum of expression, but I realised this was not going to translate into the drum and bass world that well. Thus Breaker is more of a misfit project now.
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How have your experiences as a chef influenced the way you approach your production, and vice versa?
Being a chef has meant that people don’t look at me just as a DJ trying to get his first record out. I’ve cooked for any celebrity you could name when I worked at Catch and then I’ve been on the Food Network, and in Vice magazine and LA Weekly, so it changes people’s perceptions of me. Being a chef has catapulted my music career way higher in terms of reach and capability as I’ve got to meet so many people through it. With my production, I can’t spend ages experimenting in the studio because I just don’t have the time. Now I look at it very much like I’m making a dish, so I have a recipe and use the ingredients I know will work. This has meant I’ve got a really effective process and I can get faster results. What used to take me three months, I can do in three days now.
Working in kitchens and doing music can have an adverse effect on each other though. I’ll be telling my boss I need to fly to Las Vegas tomorrow for a show and then I’ll be going to London. I end up using all my paid vacation travelling around. They end up thinking it’s cool but a little crazy! It means I can be put in an awkward position because people might not want an executive chef whose heart is in so many different places. Working as a private chef has allowed me a bit more freedom with everything.
What can we expect from you in the future?
A lot of what I’ve got planned has to do with sustainability, whether it’s in the music industry or in culinary! The food industry is so unsustainable, that’s partially why it’s been hit so hard in the pandemic. People just throw money at a restaurant and then take whatever profit they can from it if any. I’m working on this fully sustainable restaurant where all the food is grown in it and then the waste is turned into compost. I’ve met the architect of the space and have applied for a hefty grant to get help its beginning stages along with partnering with the only vertical farm company in New York City. It’s scheduled to be built in an abandoned trolly station under the Williamsburg bridge. I’ve got personal music projects such as working on my second Breaker album for Ohm Resistance. It would actually be the third part of the Amongst Villains trilogy, so when I get that done, I’ll in a place where I can leave that alias for a while and really explore KillBreak. I’ve been speaking with Eatbrain, Barcode, Bad Taste, & Pav4n’s new label 4N Currency as I’m really trying to find a home for my new sound.
With Baws Fyte I already have some singles that are ready to come out on Play Me, but for the shelf life of that project, I’m just waiting to see what happens. It’s a bit of a playground. I’m most excited about my plans for Guerilla Warfare though. I’m already holding all the amazing music for it, which you can hear some on my most recent KillBreak Eatbrain New Years Eve podcast and my Breaker Barcode Halloween Filthcast. I’m just so keen to keep this sound alive! There’s a quote from Ryme Tyme where he says: ‘old school flex with the new school complex.’ That’s what I’m all about!