Photography: Will Isbister
Erik Wise specialises in joining musical dots.
He’s been doing it ever since he emerged as a DJ in the early 90s in his hometown New York City. First he joined the dots between reggae, dancehall, dub, R&B, and hip-hop. Once exposed to jungle and drum & bass on a chance trip to the UK in the late 90s, he made those musical connections in the mix, too.
He did it so well in fact, he became a key resident fixture at Konkrete Jungle, the longest running D&B night in America (and quite possibly the world) and is the only US DJ to host a regular show on London airwaves institution Kool FM.
The best place to hear his musical dot-joining, however, is his label Liondub International. Currently celebrating their tenth anniversary, Liondub International have been an unwavering voice in drum & bass. Long before the current exciting new wave of US D&B talent and long before the current jungle renaissance too.
Whether it’s the dub-influenced releases on the main label or the heavier, dancefloor styles on the perennially on-point Liondub Street Series (a platform that’s been home to releases from the likes of Dutta, Bou, Macky Gee, Hoogs and many many many more over the years) Liondub’s labels have been consistent and authentic in their delivery to the point many people mistake them for UK releases.
There’s no mistaking the weight and stench, though. Just take a listen to August’s Jungle To The World album or the new slew of LPs landing throughout the rest of the year: A Decade Of Liondub will run from now until the end of the year with massive albums landing every two weeks. Acts such as Navigator, Marcus Visionary, Bou, Numa Crew, Euphonique, Vital, Pharoah, Benny Page, Digital, Jayline, Dutta, DJ Hybrid, 6Blocc and of course Liondub himself are all set to feature across the albums as well as a slew of new, up-and-coming young producers.
Time to call NYC and join a few dots ourselves…
10 years! Nice to look back over what you’ve achieved?
Yeah it’s been great. Doing four albums has been a huge undertaking. More than I anticipated.
I thought the Jungle To The World album was the main celebration. That was just a fluffer!
Yeah it was just a teaser really. I called it the 10 year anniversary edition of that series but these albums will all drop by surprise. It kicked off on November 1 and will run every two weeks before Christmas.
Weren’t the early Liondub International releases in 2008?
They were. So it is technically 11 years, but I had some family responsibilities. My work stopped, I was needed at home. I put everything on hold for people who needed me.
Needs to be done! Let’s get your personal history. You go back way further than 10 or 11 years…
That’s right. I started professionally in ‘91 in NYC playing hip-hop and reggae, which was and still is an obsession for me. In terms of jungle drum & bass, I came into that in ‘99 when I went to England for the first time. That’s when I met Nicky Blackmarket and Ray Keith at BM Soho, I saw Andy play, went to Swerve, went to The End. I was hooked. I came back in Feb ‘99 with all the vinyl I’d bought out there and started playing jungle, D&B and garage.
1999 was an interesting time in US drum & bass. I’m pretty sure Todd Terry released a jungle influenced album around that time.
True but jungle had been going on a lot longer. Konkrete Jungle, who I’ve been resident with for many years, started in ‘94. They were the longest running night until they ended this year. So I’d seen it and heard it, but it wasn’t until I went to London and experienced it for myself that I wanted to be part of it and contribute to it in a professional capacity.
Have Konkrete Jungle finished?
It’s on a hiatus for the time being but it went from ‘94 to ‘19. It was possibly the longest running jungle night in the world.
I can’t think of a night that’s run longer. That pre-dates DNB Tuesdays
For sure. They brought over so many acts for the first time. I was seeing DJs like Dextrous, Shy, all these guys. My brother would drag me to the shows at Coney Island High and Wetlands but I was oblivious, I was really into hip-hop and reggae. That was my obsession and I played it pretty much exclusively.
I know you were producing out in Jamaica in the early 2000s. How did you end up working there?
I actually first went there in ‘94. I was a record fiend who wanted to pick up as much vinyl from there as possible.
Hang on. In 1994 you must have been pretty young… And you just popped into Kingston Town for tunes?
Yeah I went into the ghetto. I went straight to Penthouse, Sonic, Dynamic, Tuff Gong. There were two main distributors, both deep in the hood, but I was passionate about the music and went to where it was popping. 7” singles were 26 cents each so as you can imagine, I brought thousands back. I came back with boxes full of vinyl.
That must have turned some heads?
It did. There’s an artist called Merciless. He was rehearsing with his band at Penthouse when I was there. He came down with Cutty Ranks and Luciano and asked me ‘what the fuck are you doing here?’ I said I don’t care, I want the records, I love the music and I’m happy to meet all the artists. That was it.
I imagine they showed you some respect for making that effort and going out to them like that?
They did. I met a lot of people and returned year after year to buy records and play down there. It was great. Then around 2003 I went there and worked on an album for a company out of Queens. I engineered for them, I was their driver, photographer, I did videos and worked with Sly & Robbie, Firehouse Crew, Dean Fraser, all the big engineers. It was a fantastic experience.
Then within a few years you were launching Liondub International…
Yeah I was seeing these connections over the years and wanted to contribute to that. Obviously there’s always been the rich history of reggae samples and ragga samples in jungle, and I’d been working with Chopstick Dubplate and Marcus Visionary who were on that tip. So I decided to start a label that could feature original vocals and dubwise jungle styles. I wanted to create an outlet to work with jungle and reggae artists from Jamaica, the US, UK and Canada.
Navigator has been a consistent voice on the label. When did he come into the picture?
Oh that was crazy. I wrote a tune in 2004 called Kingston 11, it only came out on vinyl and it sampled a rare record by Royal Rasses called Kingston 11. Navi heard this song while touring the US and flew to New York to specifically find me and tell me how much he loved the record.
He obviously found you?
Yeah, at a party called Camouflage. He rolled up in a car and was like ‘yo are you Liondub?’ He told me he loved the tune and wanted to work with me so we made the Kingston 11 remix that came on his album. We’ve been great friends ever since. We’ve toured together when I’ve come over to the UK, done hundreds of shows, tons of radio and over a period of time, we put his album together.
He headhunted you!
He did. And every experience with him since has been really progressive. He’s an inspiration for me and rolling with him in the UK has always been great. I got to meet the people and see the landscape through his eyes.
You have some very strong D&B roots here with Navi, Nicky and Keith!
I’m honoured to call them fiends. I also became tight with Remarc and spend a lot of time with him when I can. He and Navi introduced me to so many people and helped me understand the UK roots. I was also blessed to meet Eastman from Kool FM through my friend Viper and get a radio show on the station. That’s helped me raise awareness of the label. DJ Hype needs a shout out too. He believed in me, and the label from early out. He supported the music on his radio shows and in the clubs from the start. He’s a ragga man at heart and he’s been supportive. So from these guys the world opened up for me, and the label. I’ve always felt very welcomed by these guys and thankful to know them.
That’s great. We need to talk about the Street Series. That’s been a platform for so many new artists. I always get a blank canvas vibe from the EP. They can do what they like…
That was in 2013 when I was still doing a lot of vinyl releases and both of our main distributors folded. I was faced with a crisis and worried about how we could keep the label going strong. So I set up the series as non-dubwise, open-format platform for new talent. It’s been incredibly successful and we’ve had some great acts on there so far. We’re booked up until almost 2021 and I’ve found some incredible new artists from all over the globe. The best thing is that people recognise it, artists want to be on it and they rate it and respect it.
That’s a rarity in such a flooded market. It’s become a bucket list for aspiring producers hasn’t it?
It has. Over the years we’ve had Macky Gee, Hoogs, Bou, Sub Killaz, Dutta. So many guys who’ve exploded and it’s important for the label to support new producers. I take real pride in paying advances and working hard to promote each release. It’s been a game-changer for me; it’s not about the money, it’s about creating something to catapult artists forward and give them a platform to shine.
There’s a responsibility to the music too. We need to keep it going…
Very true. Giving back, helping and inspiring people. It’s not an easy game. The money is scarce and the challenges are everywhere. All it takes is for someone to believe in you and encourage you for you to carry on. I’m grateful people trust me to help them, and thankful to have that platform as well.
Love that. I’m getting the vibe that US drum & bass is enjoying a new sweet spot, am I right?
Definitely. I think dubstep and EDM shifted the landscape, but in the last few years you can definitely feel things growing again. The shows are getting increasingly busier and better, I’m seeing new promoters coming in and even the big EDM and dubstep DJs are playing drum & bass in their sets. I’m also seeing kids who got into EDM 10 years ago who are getting older and digging different things and looking back at the roots, so yeah it’s very exciting in that sense.
EDM, like all cheesy electronic music, is a gatekeeper. Anyone who’s seriously into the music will dig deeper…
Totally. I think the resurgence of jungle has helped too. Reggae and hip-hop is so massive across the globe so anything that has that ragga sound is now appealing to people who don’t even know about jungle drum & bass but it now makes much more sense to them. It’s a beautiful time for the music in this way; there’s some amazing new producers, old producers are coming back and crushing it once again so we’re getting that old school flavour with the new school flavour and everything in between. As a DJ I play open format here in the states and combine mainstream, dancehall, reggeaton and hip-hop and bring both classic and modern jungle into it as well. That’s very fulfilling.
It’s all about joining the dots…
I’ve always prided myself and my label to join those dots. That’s what I’ve been doing since day one and we have no plans on stopping…