A Digital Mystik, a dubstep pioneer, a grafter; Coki steps up to our Origins series with his first interview in almost 10 years.
Coki – AKA Dean Harris – is a man who lets the music do the talking. And boy has it talked. Since his earliest wax outings 16 years ago, he’s been one of the key protagonists in dubstep’s aggy, wub-woven bassline aesthetic. Tracks like Tortured, Haunted and, of course, Spongebob were bassline blueprints that set the foundations for the epic drop-dominated wave of dubstep that followed and continues to this day.
With heavy harmonics, consistent crisp dub flavours and bare-bones minimal ingredients comprising his signature, Coki has remained one of the movement’s most fierce loyalists… And you can spot his tunes a mile off. Last year’s Dub Grinder / Winter Is Coming was a great snapshot of his range. The A-side all bounce and organs. The B-side stern and foreboding. These are the contrasts he’s thrived off since the genre’s primordial days, and the contrasts he’s taken to incredible places over the years. His, Mala and Loefah’s DMZ event was one of the key dances that helped incubate and cultivate the dubstep movement while his track Night with Benga was one of the earliest mainstream crossover records in the genre.
Back to the future, he’s recently collaborated with Nottingham MC Vandull and, all going well, has more releases to drop than he has in the last few years put together – including the long awaited release of dubs like the Capleton-sampling Not Today and the John Peel-supported Crystal Lake. While we wait patiently for them to drop – plus more on labels like Darkzy’s Gottingham and his own Don’t Get It Twisted imprint – we called him up to find out more. Read on and listen to Coki’s Spotify playlist of early influences right here:
You had a very well timed vinyl release last year. That sweet spot between the lockdowns, you dropped one of your vibiest releases. Dub Grinder. Such a feel good tune. Coincidental or cunning planning?
Very coincidental! Originally it was meant to come out in 2019 but because of manufacturing problems and the pandemic it was delayed. I don’t think about releasing tunes in time with how things are going in life. I get it, though. I do hear that from people a lot – people making links with things that are significant to them. But truthfully? I had no shows, I had no income, I needed to put a record out. I’m gonna put out more this year too. I’m glad it had a positive effect on you though.
It put a spring in my step! This Coki interview is too. You don’t do many.
I don’t. I’m just not used to talking to people in this type of context. It feels too formal, like a job. It’s hard to catch a vibe. But I thought it was about time. Don’t want to be a hermit in my old age.
We’re all hermits at the moment! I think there’s only place an interview with Coki on UKF can start. Spongebob. That’s the blueprint for the wubs that powered our channel for a very long time!
That’s a good point. I remember speaking to SKisM once and he said ‘Coki you don’t know – Spongebob was one of the tunes that put me on this path.’ That spun me a bit. Like wow. All that lot are huge and they still remember that! It’s heart-warming to know your work is respected by the people who came after. SKisM and them only came a few years later but to know my music was part of that is pretty crazy.
I guess you don’t think about it when you’re making it. Take me back to those years when everything kicked off and dubstep took off and everything blew up. I imagine your feet didn’t touch the ground…
You know what? I was working the whole time as a civil servant. After work i would build tunes, meet up with the boys on the weekend to watch them play – Mala, Loefah, Hatcha, Skream, Benga all those cats. But Dubstep Warz, for instance, was a highlight around that time. I was there vibing but watching the time thinking ‘rah I gotta go to work tomorrow!’ I remember Mary Ann Hobbs advertising Subdub Leeds/DMZ. Then it hit me when we was in Subdub that this could be big. I didnt want to get my hopes up so i always kept it trill.
The thing is for me, I never studied music technology to deeply before I got into it. I was making these tunes, I didn’t know if they made sense or not or if they were working or not, it was fresh. I was doing lots of stuff with Mala and he was much deeper into the scene. I’d play him tunes in my car and he’d be like ‘bro, this is sick’ He’d get things linked up with radio or other DJs. Mala was linking things up a lot. It did blow up and I was part of that but I was watching from the outside most of the time.
Wow… So you must have quit your job after Night blew up, then?
Nah. Maybe four years later in 2011! So many people were like ‘Coki, what are you doing bruv? Quit your job and get in the studio! Knock out tunes, know your craft, be a specialist at what you do!’ They were right but I’d also become a dad during all this and dubstep didn’t pay the type of money i could provide for my family. Not in the really early days anyway. And yeah by the time Night came out and Skream’s La Roux remix and Katy B and things like that then yeah the money came in but even then I didn’t jump from work straight away. I needed complete security for my family.
Incredible. So when you guys were sculpting this genre, you were also putting on a shirt and tie and working a serious 9-5!
Bruv it tore me apart! Sometimes I’d think ‘why didnt i take a chance and leave?’ I got used to the routine of having a steady income. Plus I wasn’t DJ-ready at that time. My mixing wasn’t great so I decided don’t quit your day job. But I started when I was 20.
You were doing music bits even back then, right?
Yeah I used to be a drum & bass MC when I was 15, obviously nothing major. Then, around 2000-ish, my uncle got this really basic software called making waves which was okay but didn’t really sell the whole production thing to me. Then he got me Fruity Loops, which was okay. Then around 2002-3 I got Reason and that’s when I got really into it. I read the whole manual for Reason, I learnt about LFO and got properly into the science of what was happening. That’s when the big wobbly sounds came in. At the time it was all over the gaff because I didn’t understand syncing but that was the start.
Love how you read the manual. Very few tutorials back then…
Oh yeah man, I wanted to know that software inside out and properly studied it. I’m lazy now, I have to say. If I’m using a new synth like Serum I would just go on YouTube and look up a few tutorials to find the functions. I understand what I’m doing generally– it’s just how to execute that sound or idea in that plug-in.
Yeah, you already know the science. So when you mentioned 2002-3, was that the start of Digital Mystikz?
Well we’d been mates in school for years and we had that mystical vibe about us. We were going through life, we knew we were going to do something but didn’t know what it was or where we were going to end up. But yeah Digital Mystikz first release was on Big Apple Records named Pathways EP. Then soon after we set up DMZ with Loefah and that’s when the magic started to happen.
It was very clear what you stood for with things like DMZ and Anti-War Dub. Was that ever a clash of ideologies with your day job as a Civil Servant?
Yes you could say that. I had my own ideology anyway. My family are a mix of Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal and Rastafarism. I grew up in a world where some people believed that the government was using people – like mental slavery to build up their empire. So it’s never really been a war thing, but to set our minds free from the outside forces that control our thinking. Anyway, I worked for them but wasn’t there wholeheartedly, I knew I’d find a way out. it was a means to an end. I was lucky, I took a early voluntary release. They said ‘you can take this lump sum and go.’ I was like ‘really?’ I was off! It’s so strange I was there for so long, looking back.
You were being a young dad!! You gotta do what you gotta do – no matter how creative you also need to be in life.
You’re right, you do what you need to do, yeah. Same how. You never know, you might see me driving a van around if this lockdown stuff continues for much longer.
I know too many DJs who’ve taken up jobs at Amazon and Tescos or gone back to old jobs like painting and decorating. Have you been able to continue being creative?
Yeah man. I was able to get those grants and keep things afloat. But I wasn’t comfortable taking it. I’m suspicious of freebies and, being real here, I hope in the future we don’t see a mad inflation to make up for these grants because hard working people being will be taxed more. I don’t want to help be a cause to that problem. But I’m a worker, I’m always grinding and finding things to do.
So when you launched your label, that was part of you grafting when you left your job
That’s exactly why I did it, yeah. It didn’t do what it was supposed to do for various reasons but that was the plan. To create something of my own and build up some type of security that way. I still release on it but I’m lucky that there are a lot of labels who still want to release my music so I spread the love. There’s no point in everything coming out on Don’t Get It Twisted. However there are a lot more new producers about with the style I like so maybe in the future you’ll see a lot more releases from some new cats.
It was a mad time to launch it – within a year you had the whole ‘dubstep is dead’ backlash and only a few people who were there to begin with stayed true to the genre!
Yeah it was. I honestly didn’t see that coming but dubstep is our thing. I was there and was part of it from the ground up so I want to stay true to it. It’s part of me. For some people, like Skream, it was important for them to explore other styles creatively. But I didn’t have that urge. I wanted to, and still continue to, perfect my craft in this style. Fuck what other people think about it. Is dubstep still a dirty word now?
Never for me! That whole era though was great for cutting out the bullshit. I always think of Caspa telling me that they were “draining out the swamp.”
Ha. Yeah, all the bandwagon jumpers and money chasers are long gone and all the people who wanted fame. And that’s great because the new producers coming through are all super into this. Like fiercely passionate like we were. I get emails from people asking for advice on production or feedback on a tune and I’m thinking ‘rah! This kid has got a better mixdown than me!’ Technology has moved on and they’re bang up to date.
Ah yeah I imagine frequency analysers weren’t really a thing when you all started.
Actually that’s something that does bother me – there’s too much analysing like that. My favourite frequency analyser is my ears!
Seriously. You go off vibe; I stand close to the speaker, I stand further way, I check things on different speakers. It’s got to be a natural feeling, it can’t all be mathematical. I know that frequencies are important but I try not to think about it too much or you become very generic and do things by numbers. You lose the groove, you lose the swagger.
Have you ever let anyone else mixdown your tunes?
Only a couple from what a can remember. One was a tune called Bedouins. Basement Jaxx mixed that down and Greg Fleming (Wizard) also mixed one of my tunes for my Heights EP I did with Patrick Tenyue.
Woah. The Basement Jaxx connection wasn’t something I expected. They’re south London though so guessing that’s the connection?
Yeah my manager lived round the corner from them so he linked up with them – It was an interesting experience but I wasn’t really into people mixing down my tunes. It was cool though; I’d been mixing everything down since my earliest releases and wondered what alternatives there were when needed improvement.
It’s the least fun bit isn’t it? It’s much more fun to shelf a tune pre-mixdown and get cracking on a new idea, right?
Always. But I have actually finished – like completely finished and mixed down – more tunes than I have in a long time because of lockdowns.
Great! I was gonna ask how many unreleased weapons are you sitting on?
Of all time? Going back to 2003 I’ve got around 50 tunes sitting about. Some have been played on radio or in mixes like Kode 9 and N-Type’s Dubstep Allstars. I know of about 30 odd tunes on my old PC. But this is the thing. I had a hard drive with all the project files for stuff like Goblin, Spongebob and Burning around that era. My uncle took it to take the data off it, but he died and he had the hard drive in his yard.
I’m sorry to hear
That’s okay it was a while ago. But when my mum went to the house I asked ‘Did you get my hard drive?’ She told me there was no hard drive there. That whole era of my music was gone.
No way man. I saw a tweet from Plastician a while back saying he was sending a gb of your tunes to you. Was that part of that?
Yeah he had a few bits that i had been looking for. He’s got a lot of my music but i would say Mala, Hatcha and Chef has most of the unreleased stuff between them. They’ve got tunes of mine I’ve entirely forgotten about! I would just make a tune, burn it to CD, give it to DJs like, Mala, Loefah, Hatcha, Skream, Kode 9, Chef, N-Type and move onto the next one. But I didn’t lose everything and I’m going to release some bits on AWD, which is my white label thing. I’m going to put out Not Today and Crystal Lake, which Mala played on a John Peel show back in the day. So I do have a lot of those classic dubs and will eventually release the ones I still have.
When was the last time you heard something from that era which you’d forgotten about and it blew you away?
Recently! It was Crystal Lake. I was listening to it and I realised that was the original blueprint for my interpretation of LFO sound. I made that tune in 2004 and it was like ‘woah! How did I know that back then? How did I even do that?’ It’s mad; I’ve been going through life and believing I’m improving and nothing I did five or ten or even 15 years ago could be as good because I didn’t have much knowledge. But it’s like a book; what’s written in chapter one is just as important when you hit chapter 10 or 15 or whatever. Everything is part of the same path. So I’m going back over the older stuff more now and I do want to get a lot of it out because a lot of people ask for these things. People popping up on Instagram or Twitter like ‘Yo Coki, when you going to release this? When you going to release that?’
Does that ever piss you off though? I never wrote a demanding letter to Krust while I waited for True Stories to come out years ago….
Haha. You can’t blame people for trying and I do want them to experience the music in the comfort of their own surroundings. It’s different now; back then it was about exclusivity – we’ve got this music, you’re gonna have to come to us to hear it. You had to go to FWD or DMZ to hear these tunes or tune into Rinse. But then it got to the point where the underground couldn’t be held under, it had to move on to the next step. Nowadays you can put out a tune in a couple of weeks, in a day if you’re on Bandcamp. There wasn’t that back then.
You could bounce a tune down, burn it to a disc and be playing it that night, but the immediacy of getting it out and sell it wasn’t needed.
Bruv! I used to take days off work to go master the tune in Transition, then lacquers are sent off. Then when the vinyI arrives I would drive up to records shops like Soul Jazz, Blackmarket and link up with Youngsta who is another key cat in this whole thing. We were selling boxes of records from shop to shop. So that’s how tunes got out. There was no major distribution, it was circulated through pure DIY and passion.
Nights like DMZ and of course FWD were essential in the genre’s development but record shops are just as important in terms of the social aspect and word of mouth too. Big Apple especially!
Oh yeah I have to big up mans like John, Arthur and Hatcha. I remember going Big Apple and giving Hatcha a tune to check out. That then turned into my first release very on Pathways EP. After that along came Sarah Souljah, she was very instrumental in how I progressed in the game. After hearing tunes like Tortured and Shattered she signed them to Tempa Records. From that point onwards I started blowing up in the underground scene.
You’ve been collaborating with Skream recently haven’t you?
We’ve got around 4 tunes at the moment. They’re sounding decent. One is finished it called Breaker. The other 3 are unfinished due to lockdown getting in the way, we’ll get there though. The tune Breaker he came down with a vocal and top line. I started with a kick pattern, he added some hats and shakers in, then we moved into the bassline. We decided to use a combination of Reason Subtractor with Serum.
So the bassline came last?!
Only because he came with a melody and vocal which we MIDI’d into a bassline. But ultimately when I start a tune it’s either chords, melody or bassline. Depends what mood im in. I’ve never been that guy who writes with the drums first. Even when I made tunes with Benga we’d start off with Albino or whatever making a nice bassline and once we’ve got that we’re ready to build drums.
Albino! Haven’t heard that mentioned in a while. Old school!
Yeah man, a classic. The music I did with Benga was all on that. Night and a few others that never came out. Then Benga started using Massive and we made Nandos on that.
Massive really was massive for a bit – you can still spot a Massive bassline now. Serum kinda took over that.
Yeah but next level madness. It’s made by Steve Duda, Deadmau5’s engineer.
What next level madness is coming up from you? You just had a track with Vandull…
Yeah he’s from Nottingham, he was a battle rapper and he wants to do a dubstep thing. He was hollering at me on social media. I looked him up and found his old alias Youthoracle. I sent him the tune and he came back with some great bars. I really like his style.
Nottingham vibes. You’ve also got a track coming on Darkzy’s label Grottingham?
Yeah there are big things in Nottingham. I’ve been feeling Bru-C as well. This release was meant to come out but the Corona came. We were planning a launch party with it but things didn’t go to plan. I’m sure we’ll pick that up when things open again.
And in the meantime?
There’s the AWD release, I got something coming on N-Type’s Wheel & Deal. I’ve also just released 3 tunes on Bandcamp, Lost City(DMZ), Ankh and Raging Bull are fresh tunes. Also have some vocal bits from a guy called Jah Mirikle and that should definitely be coming out this year. I got a few remixes to do, for Legendary Gussie P. He dropped me some vocals cant wait to start on that project but yeah I’m keeping busy…