WORDS

Re-exploring the Critical world of Kasra

Rewind 19 years: London-based DJ Kasra had just founded Critical Music as a way to further immerse himself within the scene that he loved.

Fast forward to the present day: he has gone on to build his record label from humble beginnings to one of the most respected imprints in the drum and bass sphere.

Having become home to some of the scenes most notable talents, such as Mefjus, Enei, Ivy Lab, and a plethora of other incredible artists, Kasra’s lifelong dedication to Critical Music and the broader drum and bass scene has gone some way in amplifying the quality and diversity of the music as we now know it, as well as inspiring and hosting a whole generation of talent that has spread and evolved the sound that first inspired Kasra to start the label itself.

On top of this, he has also found the time to venture into his own music production journey. With collaborations dating back to 2011, it wasn’t until his debut EP, Ski Mask, in 2018 that he officially launched his career as a solo artist.

Combine this with his Circuits project, a collaborative alias with Insideinfo, and it’s safe to say that he has contributed an incredible amount to this scene over the duration of the past 19 years.

With the label’s 20th anniversary only a matter of months away, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up with the man himself. Delving into his recent release, his venture into music production, the current state of the drum and bass landscape, and his plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Critical, read on to find out about all things Kasra.

First of all congratulations on the recent release, it showcases two different avenues of your production within one release.

Thank you. I feel that when it comes to curating releases, whether it be for my own or for artists on the label, I want there to be a balance in terms of the sound. The same thing shouldn’t be said twice, or three or four times. I’d never done a solo female-led tune before either, which was something that I’d really wanted to do.

We’ll go back to the collab aspect of the release later, but as the head honcho of Critical, is it important for you to push the labels sound through your own productions?

I think the two are interlinked because everything we release is down to my personal taste. If it isn’t something that I love, want to listen to, or want to DJ, then we don’t normally put it out. But, when you’ve run a label for as long as we have, it becomes bigger than just you. Artists have certain visions and certain things that they want to say with their music. We’re not going to suddenly put out a hands in the air main room rave anthem because it doesn’t fit with what we do. However, there may be an artist who wants to release a two-step garage tune that I wouldn’t DJ, but I would listen to. Or indeed release a 4/4 jungle influenced house tune, which is what we are doing with Sam Binga and Particle later this year.

No way! 

I love listening to it and it works for the label because the artists are sharing an idea and vision for what they want to do. We want to get behind and support that. So, everything is really interlinked by the personalities behind the music and the fact that they gravitate towards us. I feel that our output is diverse, but it still all falls together under one umbrella.

That’s one thing I’ve always noticed with Critical, no two tracks sound the same. I always think back to the Halogenix Dragonforce EP. It was so diverse but it all sounded at home on one body of work as well.

100%, that’s a great example. It’s such a complete body of work that makes total sense together.

It’s a shame it came out in April as soon as lockdown hit. 

It did have some time to live before and it did do incredibly well, but maybe it would’ve had a different lease of life if it hadn’t been during the lockdown. It still resonated with people, purely because of the quality of the music. It was so good.

Even after a few releases now, do you still get nervous releasing on your own imprint?

Oh yeah, definitely. I’m very self-conscious and think a lot about how people may react to what I do. Because I have a platform, there’s always nagging in the back of my head that maybe people think I only put music out because I can. I’m surrounded by such talented artists on the label, which means I sometimes don’t see myself on the same level as them. I dedicated my life to running the label, so I didn’t have the time to invest in production, even though I’d been playing around with production since the time that I started the label. I got to a point where I decided that I needed to stand on my own two feet and do something.

I can imagine the promotion side of your own releases is still a strange feeling as well. 

I just really enjoy the process of releasing music. It is nerve-racking, but it’s also really satisfying. I also wanted to put myself in the shoes of the artists because there’s a lot of feeling and emotion for the artist when they’ve worked so hard towards a release.

100%. Their music is a reflection of themselves.

Exactly. They can also have feelings of doubt and a lack of self-confidence when they put their music out there. It was good for me to have a better understanding of that in order to help guide them a bit better.

It must definitely give you a better understanding of the artist’s POV. Did you find that the Ski Mask release was also a big learning curve in itself?

 It was definitely a big learning curve because you’re coming at it from a different angle. We are very much involved in the process, but applying that to my own music and experiencing the ups and downs of it gives you a whole new perspective on the process, especially after doing it for so long.

Back onto your recent release, Catching Cairo’s appearance on Guilty really elevates the track to another level. How did that collaboration come about?

Totally, what she did to it was amazing. It was quite a simple process really as well. I wrote the tune during one of the lockdowns and it really captured a mood that I liked, but I knew it needed a vocal. I played around with some samples which were cool but just didn’t feel quite right, so I knew that I needed to get a really good vocalist on this. I did some listening around and Tiffani (Catching Cairo) popped up and I thought this could really work. I sent the track to Tiffani and she pretty much came back with the vocals that are in the tune now. I just thought that they were perfect. She’s made the track, the vocals are that good. I’m really proud to have a tune like that with my name attached to it.

The lyricism is something that stands out as well. 

When you make a vocal tune, it is a collaboration and the performance and writing that go into the vocal can be a lot harder than writing the music. She deserves so much credit for completely smashing it.

Definitely, it’s one of my favourites of the year. In terms of the lyrics, I feel that they translate so well with the accompanying music video. What was the concept behind it?

Well, I’d never made a music video for a song I’d done and I just felt that it was something I wanted to try. I’d made music videos with other artists with the label, but I really just wanted to give it a try and see what we could come up with. I saw the video that Loz (Blackwell) had done for DJ LCY, which I loved, so I just got in touch with him. Loz put in an incredible amount of work and as you can see from the video, it was a pretty labour intensive thing.

I honestly have no clue as to how someone would go about moving buildings like that. 

Haha, yeah. We went and shot some stuff during the summer and then Loz went away and put it all together. It just looks awesome.

Moving on from the release, Critical recently hosted a stage at Hospitality in the Woods. How was that for you and the team? 

Well, I wasn’t actually there haha. I was ill for it.

Ah, sorry man! 

Haha no worries, it’s fine. I ended up taking the summer off from DJing to spend more time with my family and see how things panned out. I was incredibly busy with label stuff, I wasn’t sure about re-entering clubs because of my family, there were just lots of repercussions if I did get COVID. I really miss DJing, I love it, but from a personal point of view I wasn’t feeling quite ready yet.

That’s completely understandable.

 But then my first weekend back was going to be the weekend that I was playing Balter festival and Hospitality in the Woods. On the Friday I woke up feeling ill and ended up being in bed for a week, so I had to miss it, unfortunately. I was going to bring all my mates that I hadn’t seen in ages and my wife was going to come with me, but it wasn’t to be.

On a more positive note, you have got a Critical show at E1 coming up. Will you be attending that?

 Yeah, I really hope so haha. I’m really looking forward to that and we’ve just sold it out which is amazing. It’s a great venue. We did a show there 3/4 years ago with 1985 and that was amazing as well. It’s just really nice to have something in the diary in our hometown. I haven’t played in London since February 2019, so it’s been a long time.

Have you taken a bit of a step back now with the arrival of your son and other family orientated things? 

There’s a funny thing about DJing, like there’s a desire amongst people to have the longest list of gigs. That’s fine, it means you’re busy, people want to see you DJ, and from a purely financial point of view you’re bringing in money which is very important. But for me, being away every weekend, at least on a personal level, does start to take its toll. Things also change when you have a kid, I don’t want to be away all the time. I still want to do what I do because I love it, but I want to strike more of a balance.

It’s all about that work/life balance. 

Exactly, it’s not about that desire to be away all the time and be DJing all the time. From a personal point of view, I want to move away from that. I want to have more time with my boy and my wife. DJing is a huge part of my life, but more balance is what I’m going for. The label side of things is getting very busy as well and that takes up a lot of my energy. It’s 20 years of the label next year so we’ve got so many projects on the boil.

I guess this is just a new chapter now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Not at all. I’m quite happy to roll with that change. I love running the label and more importantly, I love spending time with my family, so it’s just about enjoying them all for what they are instead of letting any level of stress being added to your life.

You’re the head of one of the biggest labels in drum and bass, so I’d love to know which new artists you’re rating right now. 

Ooo. That’s funny because I don’t know what people class as new artists anymore. Because we’re all tapped into the internet so much, someone with one tune on Soundcloud could be a new artist. 

I guess that when I think of a new artist, I think of someone like Cauzer or En:vy who’ve had one or two notable releases. 

Those are for sure two names for me. Cauzer is a huge talent and she’s only been making tunes for about eighteen months which is mad. They’re the two main ones for me right now. There are incredible talents as well like Waeys and Particle that are still building up. Klinical is another who I still think has so much potential. Gyrofield and latesleeper are incredibly talented too. We’re spoilt with the amount of great music that is around at the moment. The fact that people are approaching drum and bass from a different angle is also something that I find really exciting as well.

You’ve been doing this for 20 years. Do you think drum and bass is in a good spot right now compared to what it has been previously? 

I think the music is super exciting right now. I feel that all sides of the genre are being represented really well.

For me, the levels of production are so good and it feels so technologically advanced right now compared to other genres. 

You’re completely right, but for me, that’s not what’s making it so exciting right now. The fact that a lot of people are doing things differently. People have a laptop, a DAW, and they’re just making music. I’m hearing more producers making what they want, as opposed to them adhering to guidelines. There was a period that felt quite dull because everyone was trying to reach a certain technical ability whilst completely ignoring the music. Now I feel there’s been a meeting in the middle, where it’s technically advanced but the vibe is also super strong. I’m hearing more music that’s a bit raw, but the vibe is amazing and that resonates so much with me. I’d much rather have a vibey tune than a good mixdown. I feel really good about the music right now.

I couldn’t agree more.

As well, two of the producers I’ve picked out are female and another is non-binary. This isn’t me waxing lyrical either, these are people making really amazing music. I’m just feeling really excited about the future of drum and bass.

Obviously, it’s 20 years of Critical next year. What can you tell us? 

We’ve got some really exciting musical projects on the go that we can’t tell anyone about just yet, but we will as soon as we can. We’ll be doing some of our biggest events ever which we’ll be able to announce quite soon as well. We’re just going to make next year a big celebration of everything that we’ve done.

Kasra – Guilty / Kanjiru is out now on Critical Music

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