No one does drum & bass quite like John B

Witness John B’s 21 year discography and witness a cross section of the entire drum & bass spectrum released on some of the most respected labels in the game: Formation, Prototype, Metalheadz, Creative Source, Hospital, Planet Mu have all played roles in his career alongside his own label Beta. More importantly, pretty much any sound he’s explored, he’s had an impact and made a statement with.

Dense, iced-out tech-step that Grooverider would often hammer and herald at Blue Note? Explore his debut album Visions or his career-breaking Secrets, which was signed to Grooverider’s epoch-defining album The Prototype Years.

Sun-kissed Latin rollers that are tailored to events such as Sun And Bass? Dig out his short-lived Chihuahua Recordings output or the more recent sunny-side skank-out Take Me To La Cinta.

Fizzy subversive electroclash? Take a deep dive into his Nu Electro label or tracks such as the rampant Take Me Home or the tongue-in-cheek I’ve Been Stalking You On MySpace.

He was responsible for coining a subgenre in the form of trance and bass, he showed he can rough house with the baddest with the classic jump-up satire Blandwagon Poos and, perhaps most famously, he can lay down a BEAST of a rave banger when he wants to. See Up All Night, see When I’m Close 2 U, see ENERGY released this month on Drum&BassArena’s The Breaks EP. It goes a bit like this…

His style and witty attitude are as unique as his back cat. He’s recently launched a new range of hot sauces, he’s just as likely to post about his allotment as he is his music on social media as he is his music, he’s a member of his local neighbourhood watch scheme and he took his dad to the Drum&BassArena Awards; John B is a legit legend who has continually done things his own way at an exceptional level. No one has played, or continues to play, the drum & bass game like him. So we called him…

ENERGY is a monster! It feels like it’s referencing a lot. What are we tapping into here?

The brief from Drum&BassArena was to draw on influences of the breakbeat and old school, jungle vibes. My first thought was to get out all my old jungle breaks and do a big gunshot mega jungle workout but as I doodled I kept coming back to the 90s hardcore rave sounds. I missed out on that era because I was a bit of square and too busy studying for my A-Levels and identified more as a ‘rocker’ than a ‘raver’ at school hah!

The peak of that sound was early 90s so just a few years before you were the right age anyway, right?

My first ever rave was Dreamscape 20 so it had been around for a while by then, yeah. I’d got into D&B through trying to get the guy that worked in the local record shop in Maidenhead to sign my dodgy acid techno, luckily he helped to convert me.

Dreamscape 20! Can you remember who was on the line-up?

It seemed like literally everybody in drum & bass, plus lots of techno & happy hardcore too! My main takeaway memory was hearing Super Sharp Shooter played by every single DJ. I can remember thinking ‘does everyone know everyone else has played this? And why are they rewinding it? The last DJ literally just played it 4 songs ago and did the same thing! Do they think that they’re the only DJ with the tune?’ That was my first introduction to one of drum & bass’s idiosyncrasies which I would come to love. So yeah ENERGY goes back to my vague personal memories of raving and how I imagine those before it were. Plus I love any opportunity to work with big ambitious intros, getting the synth arps in action. I’d also found some of the old Up All Night breaks in the depths of an old drive so dusted them off to get involved.

That must be like finding an old teenage diary! Up All Night is 16 years old now – you’re clearly good with archives!

I do try and keep as organised as possible. These particular breaks were in a sub folder of a back-up folder on a hard drive that I just hadn’t got round to properly importing on my system. I sold all my hardware, besides my sampler, years ago, but saved all my old sampler discs so I’ve got even more stuff there if I accessed it. All the original sampler patches going right back if I wanted to explore or update that sound again. It would be a sad day to throw away those disks when I think how much time and effort went into chopping up all the breaks in there!

Sounds like it’s on the agenda?

Right now I’m just trying to work on as much fresh stuff as possible, so no. But I do have a lot of unreleased stuff going right back to the start of my career which I’d like to remaster and release in some way eventually, but my time is better spent making new music, not squeezing every last drip out of back catalogue.

And making hot sauces. I’ve been thinking, they’re a great example of the diversification necessary for modern day junglists. Like some guys are running tuition or music schools. If you want to do this full time you have to be super creative. There’s no room for chancers or lazy people.

Sure, I think most successful musicians have a strong entrepreneurial mindset – you need it. The odd outlier may be lucky enough to live off a couple of massive hits and still be touring off the reputation from that, but otherwise you need to be pushing on multiple fronts and innovating where you can. Nowadays you have to be doing more than just DJing and/or producing to earn a living – plus there’s lots of stuff you have to do that doesn’t actively generate income either, in fact, if you’re talking high level podcasting with dedicated servers, it costs!

I always admired DJ SS for that spirit. Seeing his set-up in Leicester back in the day – Formation and all its many sub-labels, 5HQ the shop they had in Leicester as a hub – all built around his entrepreneurial energy. Getting all the merch done, in the days before everyone was doing it, all the events he was putting on and still does, branding up the World Of Drum & Bass touring events, all extra angles to make a living and contribute to drum & bass. It’s not always about just making records or just Djing.

That man has been a driving force or influence in so many careers! Formation has early releases from so many respected artists.

It does. I’ve got so much respect for SS, I learnt so much from him and had so many opportunities because of him. Not just through releases but also how he was supportive and not over-protective of me and was really keen to introduce me and vouch for me to guys like Grooverider and Goldie and whoever was at the Music House back in the early days. He was okay with me releasing music on other labels too because he saw how that would benefit Formation in the long-run as well. There doesn’t seem to be so much of that freedom in the scene now – everything seems to be more controlled – I guess it just has to be to work with the business model. I’m glad I’ve never got stuck exclusively signed with any label or with an overly controlling A&R dictating my output though, definitely feel lucky to be able to exist in my niche doing things my own way.

Speaking of Grooverider, last time we spoke to him we discussed a story of all of you being a room at Sony to sign The Prototype Years and getting up to trouble, smoking weed and stuff.  

I remember that day very well! I’ve personally never smoked (even cigarettes) and I was still a complete nerd back in those days, but don’t really remember that being an issue. What I remember most was how amazing it was that we were all in this room together at that one time. Even during the days of Music House when everyone would gather to cut dubplates a meeting on this level was pretty cool and the fact we were all rowdy D&B producers right in the belly of the Sony Records offices. It was that time when everyone was incredibly excited and we could sense a trajectory and see a future with what we were doing. It was all very creative and competitive and loads of cool stuff going on. It was such a positive vibe.

Of course it was pretty loud and boisterous. The thing I remember the most was this really awkward press conference they’d arranged with a few people coming to interview us. We were all a bit tired and jaded by then, with the same questions and someone asked who our favourite musical influences were and everyone went quiet. So I just shouted ‘Beethoven!’, being the nerd I am (nowadays I’m more of a Bach guy though)

I think someone told Goldie about it as the rest of them probably thought I was a right weirdo and then for a while, every time I was out at Headz or something I’d hear this voice in my ear and it would be Goldie shouting ‘Beethoven’ at me. I think enough time has passed now that I’ve lived it down. But I still love Beethoven. I’ve got a big stone bust of him in the bathroom!

What I love about this is you were some lanky long haired nerdy student and coming from completely different background but you’re instantly accepted. You wrote a letter to Groove with your demo and he replied, right?

Yeah that’s what I loved about the scene when I was starting out – despite the fact that I was a nervous geek from a different background than most of the people that had built D&B at that point, completely out of place, everyone was so welcoming and helpful. I found some of my original demo tapes and the letters I’d printed out to send to people like Grooverider recently and they were SOOOO cringe. I had printed out little musical notes on the header and all sorts with a really lame, business-like letter about the tracks.

Thank god people still bothered to listen to it! We didn’t have mobile phones in those days and I remember Grooverider calling my parents’ house landline to sign Secrets, I was playing table tennis in the garden with my friend Charlie, and my mum had answered the phone, came out saying there was a ‘groove’ on the phone. She also loves telling the story when Goldie phoned the landline around then too, and telling me Golden Records had called. My Dad was massively supportive back in the day too and was a bit of a random face on the scene for a little while, he’d come to the Sunday Sessions, Swerve, Movement with me sometimes. Even Helter Skelter at the Sanctuary once – we spent most of the night in the gabber room, and it felt like every raver in the place came to shake his hand at some point as they couldn’t get over a 50yr old in the rave jogging on the spot to 200bpm gabber.

Back to the present day, I kinda want to say you’re ‘back’ and it’s felt that way since Lava on Headz last year. But I also know you never really went away.

For most of 2013 and into 2014 I had some horrible health stuff & had to have a couple of really grim operations and then daily dressings changes from the nurse, for like 8 months, so I couldn’t tour, or travel abroad, as I had to see a nurse every single day. I managed a couple of gigs where the promoters hooked up a private medical centre, or where I could get to the surgery first in the UK and take a late flight out then an early one back, but it was a really dark time for me, very depressing and worrying, not knowing if the first operation would heal properly, what would come next, or when, all that stuff sucked big time. So yeah, I lost some of the career momentum I had built up and probably dropped off some people’s radars a bit… It’s easy to happen in a scene that moves so quickly.

As a bit of a ‘lone wolf’ in the scene outside of any of the main cliques or major labels it’s been a mission to get back from that – but yep, I’m still here! I think the EP on Headz last year was the proper turning point and reminded everyone of what I’m capable of. Also the remix of Dusky getting nominated at the Drum&BassArena awards and the response to my closing set at Let it Roll. This last year has been a lot more creative and prolific in the studio for me, as well as plenty of touring. I’ve got some great collaborations on the go too. There’s just a lot more energy to what I’m doing now and I’m finishing more tracks off rather than losing interest.

What do you think will be the next fruits of this new energy then?

There are a lot of things currently in progress and various collaborations. One that’s really exciting is my collaborations with Digital, we’ve done one track called Moruga and plan on doing another one and seeing if Headz might be interested in them. We’re also doing a track together for his label, Function.

Rene LeVice has been over a couple of times to work on something too, but it’s a bit of a mad one so we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. I found the remix stems for Joy Division Love Will Tear Us Apart so did a bootleg a couple of weeks ago, that’s turned out to be one of my finest works I reckon. I premiered it at the Drum&BassArena party at Ministry of Sound on Sunday and it was great to see the response, even from such a young crowd you wouldn’t expect to know the original.

There’s another new thing I’ve just finished which is interesting. A Russian multi-instrumentalist called Tiarum sent me a demo a few months ago. It needed too much work production-wise but the musical elements were wicked so he sent me the stems and I used them as the building blocks for how I imagined it should sound. It turned into this huge synthwave/D&B hybrid monster so I called up Bjorn from Xenturion Prime/Code 64 who did vocals for me on a track called ‘The journey’ years ago. I knew his voice would be perfect for it, and it was. It’s the closest I’ve got so far to the ideal hybridisation of synthwave & drum & bass, high energy, 80s synths, beautiful vocals but still ‘proper’ d&b that works in the clubs. So yeah, lots of stuff to look forward to and get out there. As always I have no idea how it will fit into the rest of the drum & bass world. But if I’m happy with it and it works well in my sets then that’s good enough for me…

John B – ENERGY is out now on Drum&BassArena – The Breaks EP

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