It’s been a few years since we last interviewed Never Say Die founder SKisM.
At the time certain aspects of dubstep were suffering a severe dip post the still-matchless and explosive hype it had enjoyed from the late 2000s to 2012… Severe enough to make some artists jump over to trap or deep house or even retry drum & bass.
This is what he said at the time…
So many people have tried to abandon the sound and the scene that I didn’t want to be part of that. I felt dubstep had become a bit of a dirty word for while, especially in the UK with all the deep house stuff coming through…
Dubstep had returned to its underdog status and SKisM has happy with that. His global perspective as a touring DJ and role as a manager to this decade’s technical luminaries such as Zomboy, LAXX and MUST DIE and the fact that Never Say Die had always been much broader than one genre were all factors that reinforced his confidence furthermore.
Plus, if you know anything about him – and there’s a strong chance you do because you’re reading this on UKF and in certain respects our brand has developed in parallel with SKisM and Never Say Die – you’ll know he’s that type of person: driven, motivated and honest about his cause.
TLDR? He’s never been in this for any other reason but because he seriously believes in it.
Three years and one massive success story in the form of Never Say Die Black Label later and he’s even more confident about the future of the music. A future that’s snapshotted consummately by the Never Say Die One Hundred album. Celebrating 100 releases with 20 exclusives from the entire NSD and Black Label squads, as he says in this interview, it’s not about looking back over the past – it’s about what’s coming.
But still, a few retrospective glances over the discography and history of the label wouldn’t go amiss at such a poignant time for the label who we’ve supported since UKF’s earliest days.
So we called him up to join the dots between then, now… And when the 200th release will drop.
How’s the Black Label tour?
Amazing. The shows are pulling the same amount of people as the Never Say Die shows which was the dream; to have it standing on its own two feet and dissipate any misconception that it was a b-side or little brother label. It’s its own thing with its own roster and sound and that’s sick.
The momentum that the label’s built up has been super fun to work. We started it 2015 with the first XL album and didn’t realise how many big hitters we had until they were out there. I think a lot of it is down to timing, too. We could feel the new underswell of dubstep that was happening at the time so created an outlet for that sound and stay true to it. That, in turn, has allowed NSD to be more freeflowing and diverse. It’s freedom on all levels. Black Label started as a passion project but turned pro very quickly.
And yet another commitment to add to your role as manager, label director, DJ… You’re a glutton for punishment.
I am. One thing I’ve realised about myself is I’m quite good at dishing out advice but very bad at taking it myself. I have more staff now than when we last spoke which helps and I don’t make music any more.
I haven’t officially ‘retired’. But I had to make the decision to let something go. I can’t justify spending hours in the studio when I have responsibilities for other people. Everything that comes out on the label is executively produced by me in some way, and that’s a creative outlet for me. I miss it in some ways but it’s a sacrifice I was more than willing to make…
It’s a lot more honest to do it this way
At least you know I’m not ghostproduced. My ghostproducer is shit because I haven’t had a record out in years! I’d rather live off my reputation of being a DJ and tastemaker than release something either sub standard or not authentic.
Pretty decent DJ too. That 100 mix is another reminder. The whole ID – ID (ID Remix) thing is today’s equivalent of dubplate culture isn’t it?
Dubplate culture is what I grew up with as a drum & bass fan. Going out there and not having the foggiest what you were hearing was exciting. And the fact the label heads – Andy C, Goldie, Ed Rush & Optical – were all out there and really pushing the sound and cutting the freshest stuff. It was such an inspiring movement. When I finally started getting dubplates myself I understood the feeling of inclusion and the etiquette culture that had had so much mystique to me before. These days It’s about having a responsibility to protect the music yet bring in as much of the new stuff as you can and steer the music in exciting directions. It also gives it life longer than the album it’s been made to promote and it protects the music all the guys have spent so long making.
And also fend off pirates…
A lot of people feel they have right to own a song just because it exists. I came from more of a mentality of value – having things, having to wait for things and accepting that you might not get things at all. Plus it creates a hype and a bit of a game for people who are trying to guess. Some are painfully accurate. Some are way out.
Did you know you’d be hitting 100 releases when you started NSD or were you way out?
We’d heard an old wives’ tale; if you can make it to 10 releases you’re set. So for the first two years we were desperately trying to get to 10! It was a different game back then. Releases were on vinyl, we had print PR and tried to plug to radio shows. Probably really badly because no one ever touched us. But that’s worked for us – we’ve never been flavour of the month. We’ve just focused on each release and made it as best we can. But I don’t think it would ever get to 100 and that’s why the album is such a big project we’ve really invested a lot of energy in. It’s got almost every single core artist that we work with in some way.
Yeah. We thought about doing a massive back catalogue thing but that we didn’t feel that was relevant in today’s climate of music consumption. It’s about looking into the future…
But I want to look into the past for a second. Never Say Die and UKF go way back and there were key moments, like Cracks, which blew up for both of us.
Yeah Cracks changed the game for all of us. I’d known The Freestylers from my breaks days so we did the Ruffneck reworks which went well and they wanted to do more. They sent me this EP and I was just about to turn Cracks off and towards the end of the song the amazing Belle Humble vocal came in. I jumped out of my skin, rang up Aston and told him to send me the stems. From that the CTRL-Z remix of Cracks was born and started the hype. I sent it to Flux and told him he was going to remix it. I felt so strongly I kinda bullied him into it.
Yeah he said you coaxed him into it and willed it into existence…
I did! We had enough of a rapport for me to say that without being a dick. He needed to do it because it was going be huge.
He also said the first time he played it at The End it went down really badly…
Yeah I was at that show! There wasn’t that much screechy stuff around at the time – besides Sweet Shop and Got 2 Know – and it sounded so harsh on The End’s system. It didn’t work for both of us for a while and suddenly it did start working. Flux is like that – he’s too ahead of the curve sometimes and it takes people a while to get what he’s doing. It’s definitely the case for Cracks; it didn’t get played on the radio, even by the guys playing a lot of dubstep on the radio. Look at the views online though. It’s one of the biggest dubstep tunes of all time. Shout out to the Circus guys as well: they knew what a hit it was but let it take its course. I have so much respect for Circus. They’re our closest friends and allies in this industry.
You need that type of competition – to show the scene is big enough to necessitate multiple massive collectives.
Definitely. We started at exactly the same time. I tried to sign Flux and he said he’d started his own label and I was like ‘fuck! Fair play, so have I’ We’ve always worked really well together, competition is healthy and we stay in our own lanes but have dialogue on things. We can share artists for remixes and opportunities and that’s a really good way of doing things.
Let’s get another pivotal moment in NSD history. I’m sure signing Zomboy was one…
Without a shadow of a doubt but before that there was another really pivotal moment with the Skrillex and Foreign Beggars collab. The timing on that was perfect. Namechecking Skrillex as part of your journey has become a meme in itself but very few labels got an opportunity like that with him back then and it was another big jump for us.
But yeah Zomboy was a gamechanger. Finding him was a fluke. I found him on Soundcloud, I wasn’t even using Soundcloud to find talent at the time, but to find this batch of really raw demos was a real blessing.
It was pretty derivative but there was something to it. An energy. I got in touch and it turned out my next gig was where his girlfriend lived so I played and dropped one of his tunes. It blew him away a bit – even though the reality was it in a rugby club in Falmouth. The most unglamorous place ever. But we hit it off and I knew he had the right drive to work with us. All it took was a little shaping and guiding to develop him.
So how did he go from derivative to one of the best so quickly?
He’s a sponge for knowledge. That’s his main asset. He soaks up everything, comprehends it and applies it in his own way. He’s ridiculously talented at everything he does. You should see his video editing. If he quits music he could go into film. He’s that kind of guy – he learns and learns and learns until he knows how it’s done. He’s super human in that way.
Give me one more pivotal moment before we sign off…
I’ve got a recent one. Our last LA show with Bassrush, and I’ve got to shout out Insomniac for all their help over the years.
It was sold out well in advance, and just seeing how everyone was so into the music and how much of a buzz it was compared to those toxic words that were being thrown around a few years back around 2013/14 was beautiful.
We’d stuck to our guns, worked through it and to have such passionate fans is very special. People having the time of their lives to music that’s the antithesis of pop music. It’s amazing. I also flew the label staff to our show to see the fruits of our labor. This interview might make it look like a one man band but I couldn’t do it without guys like TJ the label manager and my right hand man Dan. Our whole squad, the designers, everyone. They’re all in it because they believe it in. It was a proud moment.
That leads us on to the whole ethos of the label and its name. You couldn’t have forecast the volatile hype of dubstep so why does the label have such a gung-ho name?
The label was named after a phrase from the Goonies. I was thinking of the name, saw my Goonies t-shirt and we rolled with it. But bottom line I’d come from breaks, a scene that was dying a death – bookings were falling off, no one was making the music, the guys who’d flown the flag were jumping ship. I didn’t want to go down with that ship, I wanted to continue making bass music and working in the industry so Never Say Die was a very personal thing for me. That’s why it’s easy for me to talk about staying true to your guns, because I have. It’s not a name but an attitude.
Amen. So when’s the 200th release?
Ha. Well it will be quicker than the first 100 because of the way music is digested now. Every year becomes more prolific. If I was to guess I’d say three or four years but what will it sound like? That’s the interesting question… Things keep coming round so quickly but adopting elements of what’s just been. Bass music has been through the trap thing and that’s now part of the vocabulary with hybrid styles from guys like LAXX and Herobust. We’ve got the very stripped back riddim thing which will eventually develop to become more of a hybrid with the other styles. Things develop and cycle at such a rate that it could actually end up being very much like the sound we’re enjoying now. Whatever we do at that time, though, it will definitely be in keeping with the aggression and impact we’ve had from day one and release one. Heavy as fuck basically.