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J Kenzo: Original Artikal

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A really interesting thing is happening in bass music right now.

Well, lots of interesting things are, but one particularly cool link is how halftime, 160 music and what Noisia describe as ‘wonky beats’ have started to feedback into deeper dubstep circles.

It was only a matter of time. Catch the likes of Ivy Lab or Alix Perez live as they lay down their cascading drums, off-beat hooks and weirdo bass and you can’t help but recall your first dubstep experiences last decade when everything sounded fresh, exciting, otherworldly. Like nothing you’d ever heard.

Even before you get to that fact that both concepts are half tempo, the innovative, forward-thinking dynamics are really similar. That and the fact that a lot of dubstep’s statesmen are old junglists anyway.

Statesmen like J:Kenzo, the man behind a slew of deep hurters on Tempa, Tuba, 31, Cosmic Bridge and his own imprint Artikal Music, a label we shouted last year as one of our favourites of 2015. This year is shaping up to be another potential vintage; last month TMSV did more dot-joining between 140-160 with the snake-charming, precision-percussion piece Hunter…

It follows similarly creative Artikal releases last year: Thelem’s Get A Grip, Kenzo’s Intalek and Eshone’s Monopoly last year that all stood out with a clear message… Dubstep isn’t about tempo, it’s about vibe.

And the Artikal vibes are flowing this year… On April 15 Piezo returns with Sweat/Sugar. Following him will be releases from Causa, then Compa, then J:Kenzo himself. We caught up with him to discuss Artikal past, Artikal future, 160 beats, 140 beats and everything in between…. 

Dubstep: There’s light at the end of the tunnel…

There is and it’s good to see. We’ve been through some hard years. It became a dirty word and people wanted to get away from it as quick as possible which is a shame as it devalues everything we’ve been doing for years and it mean that new fans weren’t likely to appear. But we’re through this now and the attitude is definitely changing. From a label point of view the record sales haven’t decreased over the last few years, if anything they’ve gone up.

But what’s most important is the level of quality and creativity among the producers and the excitement from promoters. Especially around Europe I’m getting booked by more and more new guys who are excited by the scene. For a while all events were run by the same guys but they’ve gone on to different things, had families, got different jobs and all that. But the new league of promoters, the new blood, they’re excited about the sound and as hyped about it as we were when we started. This brings in a whole new audience which is really positive to see. 

Where are these events?

All over Europe. Belgium and Netherlands were always big for this sound but that died down a little. But now I’ve started working with new promoters there. The sound seems to be growing in Eastern Europe at the moment and I’m about to go to Malta and Marseille for the first time which I am really looking forward too. UK is starting to pick up too; Manchester, Bristol, London and Leeds are always a vibe. I’m hearing about new promoters in the Midlands too which is great. There are definitely more people backing it than there has been in years and that has to be a good thing.

You touched on the creativity earlier. TMSV’s release reps that well… 165 BPM, really interesting drum work. Something different.

Yeah it’s a vibe. Artists love delving into different territories and BPMs and I’ve always encouraged that. I’m loving this new wave of jungle influenced music, that half time snare and rolling breaks. Fracture, Om Unit, Sam Binga, Amit have all been on that sound for years and really brought it to the fore and it’s been refreshing to hear.

Yes… Halftime!

Especially being an old jungle head like me. I’ve been switching up to 160 stuff mid set and people are feeling it. That, to me, suggests crowds and promoters are more open minded. It’s like the old rave days with the melting pot of styles all under one roof, we’re starting to see that again with dubstep, grime, house and drum & bass all on one line-up.

It’s really encouraging to see as we’re really building on the diversity of Artikal and TMSV’s release has been encouraging as I thought ‘right, let’s see how it goes, let’s see what our fanbase thinks…’ All we’ve had is positive feedback. But to be honest that’s what I expected as our fans are very loyal and get what we’re doing. As long as it fits in with the underground nature of our past work, the heads trust our releases. It’s not like we’re suddenly putting out pop music, we’re just putting out deep music with soul and vibe. I was never too keen on the dungeon term that was being thrown around a little too closely to us for a while. 

Ah, dungeon… Never liked the term and kept hearing so many crass copies!

I get how it described the music the heads were making at the time. It started with a comment on a radio show. Toast MC on Youngsta’s show. He would say ‘deep dark dungeon sounds’ which did sum up where we were. The problem was that people took it literally. It started off for all the right reasons, it was actually a way of clarifying the difference between the deeper tracks and the tear out tracks. But because it was minimalistic a lot of people thought they could knock up a kick, clap, snare, a few hi-hats and a sub and that was it, they were a producer.

But creating a vibe in minimal music is one of the hardest things a producer can do. That soul started to go pretty quickly when those copies came along. I think around 2013 there were only a handful of releases that really made me stop in my tracks but it was only the outside perception of people who called us dungeon anyway. Any time you see us play – back then or now – most of us play across the board and represent the whole 360 of the scene…. Anything we like! People have a habit of labelling you but for me it’s been about the quality of music. That’s from a DJ, producer and label perspective. 

So let’s go back over Artikal’s history. Five years, 20 releases… Give me five personal highs.

Well we’ve been so picky over every release that everything is a high. We’ve considered every release and action with a lot of thought but if you’re going to push me…. 

Which I am…

Okay then. The second release was special as it was from a relatively unknown act at the time, Perverse. The Iceman captured the deep dark sound of 2012 really well. They’d been producing for a year or two before that but as soon as I heard The Iceman and the b-side Submerge on Soundcloud I was like ‘wow, this needs to be on the label!’ That’s one of my favourite releases from 2012 and was a great beginning for the label.

The next one is Artikal 009. TMSV – Haze. That blew up every time I played it. The VIP was incredible too. It’s got that really tribal, rolling sound that had so much depth. It doesn’t matter where you play it or who you’re playing it to, this would smash up the dance every time.

Thelem’s Haunted Harmonics was another massive moment. It took people by surprise. He’d been working on his sound for a long time and this really captured how deep he was into his craft. A proper production masterclass. This was supported on daytime Rinse which was really positive as dubstep wasn’t popular at all during that time but that proved to me what a strong track Haunted Harmonics was. And to have Thelem represent on the label was perfect; he’s one of the most down to earth guys you can meet in the scene.

The album Artikal: The Compilation is a huge moment for the label. This was a massive hallmark. We’d never done such a big project like this before and it was a lot of blood, sweat and tears to bring it all together. I produced my first solo track for the label on this album Straight Defeat featuring Collinjah which was something personal too.

The whole album included some of the best acts in the scene; from Skeptical to Truth to Thelem to TMSV each track captured the exact vibe of each producers sound. The feedback was great and I really felt we had delivered something special. Also with the artwork, and pressing the album on both Vinyl and CD the package really came together.

Picking a final one is hard because last year was full of momentous releases for us. Piezo’s Conquer really crossed over and had support from DJ’s all across the scene and had so many little details in  the production, so that was a big moment for the label. But the Caspa & Jubei remixes of Straight Defeat was another golden release and Thelem’s We Ain’t The Same EP was immense, it spanned from 140-170 and went to some incredible places that very few artists have dared to go. I know I’m cheating there but I can’t pick one!

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