Skynet: In Conversation With A Neurofunk Architect

Trace the neurofunk networks and vapour trails back to the source code and you’re likely to find Skynet’s name dented deep into its founding history.

Emerging in the mid 90s with long-time collaborator and creative kindred spirit Stakka (first as Psion, then as Stakka & Skynet), they launched Audio Blueprint. A label that’s cited as one of the earliest dedicated neurofunk imprints in the game, during its six year/20 release run it featured work from some of the most respected producers in the technical side of drum & bass such as Gridlok, Lynx and Kemal & Rob Data (AKA Konflict)

It launched during an intense climate in drum & bass history where some of the strongest dominant forces in technical drum & bass where charging around the church of futurism like bulls in veritable china shops.

Alongside Skynet, Stakka and Audio Blueprint were labels such as Headz, No U-Turn (which later developed spawned Virus), Renegade Hardware and artists such as Matrix, Photek, Trace and Source Direct. Everyone’s focus fixed on points unknown, pushing their machines to make sounds unknown, setting the foundations for the neuro soundtrack that brought drum & bass into the new century.

And while the fans could never quite agree on the definite boundaries between techstep and neurofunk the artists didn’t care. They were too busy making beats that still stand tall 20 years later. Beats like these…

While releases sporadically ran until 2009, for Skynet this thrust into drum & bass’s darkest grooves continued in earnest until 2004. Feeling the urge to learn more about his technical and musical craft, he left for 10 years in America working on hip-hop, pop and R&B hits but the last few years have seen him return with the same refreshed and ardent attitude he first emerged with.

Momentum has been building since his comeback cameos landed on Soul Trader and Invisible in 2015, and this month he’s dropping two major singles: Underground / Stuck In Mind on Program and Transhumanism / Singularity on C4C Recordings. All four cuts rattling with his trademark ravaged groove signature with a precision balance of movement and sonic wretchedness, it’s clear his isn’t a fanciful flexback. In fact he reckons the best is yet to come.

We caught up with him to find out more and see what he makes of neuro’s mutoid state 20 years after he helped to compound the movement, why he left the game and why he’s rebooted at this precise moment…

I understand you were part of rave culture since the beginning. Long before you became an artist. What was it that caught your attention and sucked you in?

It was the whole culture. The timing of everything was very similar to what it is now; anti establishment, anti corruption, anti bullshit. That’s what underground rave music said to me. It was modern time punk movement. It’s the ethos that’s always maintained for me. We’ve always had pop music. Popular mainstream control of the masses. Underground music is a backlash to that. It’s something for ourselves that we can unite in and have a good time with. That’s what started me off; free parties and illegal raves, it was a really positive movement. That ethos has always maintained for me.

You worked your way up through the dancefloor, so to speak

Every single weekend. I’d spend all time and money going out and absorbing everything it had to offer. Music was moving very quickly, genres were firing off here and there and not all of them were good. Happy hardcore went silly and drum & bass came along and I felt it was something I could contribute to. Something I had ideas about. So I looked into production more. I knew nothing about music but had ideas I wanted to hear so I built on learning everything I could. Then I met Stakka and we started doing things together and playing around with ideas that didn’t fit anyone else’s labels. No one else was interested so we thought ‘fuck it, let’s do it ourselves’

So you set up Audio Blueprint…

Yeah and luckily it took off in its own world. As did Underfire. We just wanted to get it out there and push our own sound. It wasn’t about following trends or making money. It was the shittest and riskiest business plan ever but it was never about that. It was about doing our own thing and having artistic integrity, doing things that have never been done or heard before. It’s not about sales or anything like that, it’s about doing stuff I really love. How it goes down isn’t up to me.

But you have to make a living if you do this full time, right?

Yeah. And that’s the challenge. How far do you go? Do you compromise just a little or do you go full-on and turn your label into a cookie cutter factory with a little artistic spin but kept within a formulaic framework? None of that was for me. I just put my heart in it, put it out honestly and hoped people would like it.

They did. Blueprint is at the top of the neurofunk family tree. What do you make of the term now?

Names are a funny old thing. The term neurofunk was coined by a journalist writing about an Audio Blueprint release. For me it’s still incredibly technical. Even more so. But the funk isn’t always there. That’s why the term neuro seems more appropriate than neurofunk. I love sound design but it’s gratuitous if you haven’t got groove or rhythm. Music is about those two essential ingredients. It doesn’t have to have all these bits of technical fluff. Swag is so much more important than overtly technical production.

When you started, the term mostly used by producers was about pushing machines and pushing technology rather than designing sound.

Definitely. It’s the same thing – when you’re pushing those machines, you’re creating, or designing, a sound. But it’s just a buzz word isn’t it? I always preferred the term ‘fucking shit up’. Getting on the machines and pushing them until we had a sound that worked for the groove and had never been done before. But the focus was always the music. If you haven’t got a groove then your musicianship is not up to date. Go and learn an instrument. That’s the main piece of advice I give to anyone who asks. It makes the whole production process so much smoother.

Did you already play an instrument when you started producing?

None. I taught myself everything through a lot of trial and error, reading books, picking up as much experience and learning and learning. I’ve always wanted to play a keyboard so I taught myself. You need a lot of time and discipline. You don’t need to whack out the first thing you learnt to make after watching a YouTube tutorial. It’s about learning your craft. When I learnt music theory and playing scales and chord progression everything made sense.

So this was on the job training. Can you pinpoint tunes that capture those transitions?

It was all very gradual. Suddenly working out why samples weren’t working in certain keys or how a chord progression would work. But in terms of learning how to play, that was in 2004 when I felt I didn’t have anything to offer drum & bass at the time. I needed to expand my experience and musicianship. I went to America and started doing a lot of hip-hop and pop music, producing for other people. That was the biggest transition in my career.

How did that work with your ethos of not working commercially?

It was a big decision. It went against everything I stood for but I saw potential to develop my musical ability which just wasn’t there in drum & bass. It wasn’t particularly musical in the early 2000s. Also I get bored and I needed a challenge so the original move to America was to make hip-hop which, musically, has the same dirtiness and attitude of drum & bass. But that led to a move to LA where I was making pop tracks. It was all behind the scenes, producing while working with songwriters and musicians and learning the craft of it.

Can you name names?

I ended up working in Babyface’s studio with The Underdogs production team. It was a great experience. But elsewhere in the industry I saw some dark things.

Dark things?

All kinds of typical shady industry things but one of the worst was young people being groomed for pop success at such a young age. Like I saw some of the most talented producers and musicians there who were more interested in business than they were in music. They just wanted cookie cutter material that sells. To them there’s no point sitting there just being creative, you’ve got to make what’s selling. You’ve got to make your money.

But the darkest side is how parents mould their children from the day they’re born. Pageant-style bullshit – crafted and moulded since day one. I heard stories of kids not being able to hit notes and parents taking them outside and then they come back with tears in their eyes and sing the notes. That’s fucked up shit. You can’t do that to children. They’re shaped since they’re born. They get them early, they’ll get around four or five artists and keep developing them until one of them blows up and makes their return. Drop the rest, package up the winner to whoever signs them. That’s the game.

Doesn’t sound like a game you’d want to be part of

It wasn’t. Life gave me many signs to get out and that it wasn’t right. It was a shame because I met some lovely people out there. Really talented too. I wanted to help change their ethos and maybe creatively push them to the outer edges a little but they’re locked into their business model and programmed and conditioned to it. They need to sell records and make money.

What signs did life give you to get out of it?

I brought an artist through who was very talented and we were working very closely on a deal. It was looking like I’d be set up in LA pretty permanently if went through. But he was sucked by the machine and I was spat out, to put it bluntly. I thought ‘fair enough’, knew my chips were up and was happy with what I learned during my seven or eight years out there. I’d met a lot of great people and made some interesting records, even for pop music. It was cool to be let into that world and get that insight.

Did you completely leave drum & bass during that time or did you keep an eye on it?

I was always keeping an eye on it, writing things and putting down ideas on the side – trying to apply what I’d learnt in the pop world to drum & bass. That also worked the other way; after working in Philadelphia and Seattle, by the time I ended up in LA there was a lot of interest in dubstep. Electronic music was the new pop and they looked at me to get that edge. It was a mad time and I was there watching the pop machine swallow up electronic music over there.

EDM bro

Exactly. There’s so much money being invested in it and every investment needs a return. It’s part of the machine. It’s happening over here, even within drum & bass when you consider the pop stuff. I can see the signs now though, so I keep well away from it and make my own underground music. Generic music is the main pitfall; generic music sells – everyone follows suit because it’s tried and tested way of making music. So if you have to make something generic you can’t be an individual and this dilutes the creativity and reduces diversity. The machine stifles creativity. But you’ve got to make money, as you said, so everyone makes their choices and different solutions suit different artists. For me though, if I’m going to go and make pop then I’ll go back to LA and did it there. I think to do it within the genre you’ve made underground music in is shitting too close to your own doorstep

What do you make of pop drum & bass then?

It’s up to anybody what they want to do. There’s no right and wrong, I’m not going to preach but I would worry about artists shooting themselves in the foot and fucking up their future for a bit of extra cash in the interim. If music is your passion and what you want to do for the next 20,30,40 years then be careful about the steps you take. It will come back around and it will become generic – pop music isn’t about artistic creativity, it’s about making music for and money from the masses.

The concurrent rise in popularity of both pop drum & bass and neuro is no coincidence in this sense. What the pop side lacked, the neuro side offered?

Yeah it’s no coincidence you had interest in heavier, technological, boundary-pushing drum & bass at the same time as the rise in pop. It’s the natural resistance and what drum & bass has done all along – had something for everyone.

So what caused your leap back into the game fully? The first reappearance of yours I clocked was in Invisible in 2015

I actually wrote that years ago but never finished it off and always came back to it during my time writing pop music. That tune and a few other ideas I’d been keeping hold of where reminders of what I’d come from. So I made the decision I’d learnt enough about the pop world and didn’t want to be there and came back in drum & bass fully committed. It doesn’t pay anywhere near as well and it’s not as a stable but it’s where I come from and where I want to be. And the best is yet to come…

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