WORDS

The Existential Explorations of Justin Hawkes 

UKF last spoke to Justin Hawkes in 2019 in this exclusive interview. Back then he operated under a different name, as Flite. Back then, it could be argued, we all operated in a different paradigm. 

This interview is about where Justin is at now. How he turned a moment in time where he felt he was no longer able to continue his ambition and aspiration as a North American drum & bass artist into a remarkable debut album that’s both heavily personal and political. Above all, it showcases exactly where Justin is at in 2022 creatively and technically. 

Released earlier last month, Existential has since been nominated in the Best Album category in the Drum&BassArena Awards and includes a single that’s been nominated for a Best Track accolade: Better Than Gold – a track that brazenly fuses country music with D&B and features his uncle on vocals and his father on guitar and mandolin. This is how personal Existential is for Justin… And that’s before we even acknowledge the fact he learned the guitar himself to make the tune! 

Debut album stories don’t run much deeper or come from such a place of emotional turbulence as this. Read on to find out how Justin Hawkes re-found his purpose and intertwined this with his love for the culture. And how he’s now at the forefront of a North American drum & bass explosion, the likes of which we’ve not seen in around 20 years.  

We last spoke in 2019 and it felt like US D&B was really taking off even then. Now, though? Wow! 

People are hungry right now. It’s been a good moment. We had it all in 2019 and it was making sense. I’d just come off the Worship Artists US tour, I closed their Brooklyn show. We had Boxplot open up. That was my first taste of how truly strong D&B could be in America. Then of course things paused during the lockdown… But only temporarily. The chess pieces were in-line for some serious action once things opened up again. 2021, after the name change, we came straight out of the gates, and it’s been brilliant. I’ve been extremely excited about the rise of the domestic D&B artists here, really nice to see so many getting booked for festivals and club nights!

Interesting about promoters booking national talent. I’m sure when I’ve spoken to US artists in the past that wasn’t quite the case before, right? 

It did happen but it became more intentional. Because of the recent success there’s been more opportunities and I’m appreciative of promoters who are making these links. It’s still a learning process but promoters and audiences are getting excited about the music which is really inspiring. Someone recently argued with me about the trickle-down effect of discovering more commercial D&B and questioned whether festivals booking big D&B acts actually does benefit the underground or smaller niche artists. I believe it does but I can understand why others don’t feel that way. Personally, I’m a product of that trickle-down effect myself.

You’ve seen it from both sides – you’ve come from a niche in the system. It’s taken you years. You’ve been on UKF for well over seven years. It takes a long time. There is a trickle-down – there has to be or people’s tastes would stay static. You’re on that journey. 

Yeah. I guess I can compare what’s happening here to what happened with dubstep. It took Skrillex blowing up to turn it into the mainstream phenomenon it became. He introduced it to multitudes of fans, some who then dug way deeper into it. Right now I’m seeing guys like Coki and Emalkay touring the US again and artists like Ternion Sound and Widdler continuing that OG sound to new generations. The thing is, you can’t force new fans to look to the past. You can’t force them to pay attention to something that came before their time that isn’t relevant to their own reference points. But you can make them care about it enough to give it time. 

Yeah that’s spot on. Present it in such a way, and feed the culture, so people will want to explore the foundations. And what’s really interesting for US D&B is something that Audioscribe said to me… US producers haven’t grown up with D&B like we have here in the UK, so you’re bringing in your own reference points and influences. Like you have with the country elements in Better Than Gold. 

Absolutely. I’m a product of that. We all grew up on anything but drum & bass until we discovered it. And that moment of discovery is hard! It’s like, ‘Holy shit! This is me.’ For me it was Pendulum. I came from rock and they resonated with me. And Dylan’s right – we’re not saturated in the history of D&B. We haven’t grown up around it. So fresh perspectives are going to happen and I hope that’s celebrated. Not just the US but other territories and countries like Indian D&B or the Japanese scene. Any fresh perspective should be celebrated, although America always gets blamed if it goes wrong. 

Haha. I think it’s the US ideologies that cause that – the supersized, go big or go home nature. Let’s talk about Better Than Gold. I will be honest, I didn’t like it to begin with. But understanding that your uncle is on it and, giving it time and repeat listens, it’s actually really interesting track. It’s like a suite, it goes through these sounds and has that really strong rock energy. You’ve really gone it. I had to go through a journey with that tune but I get it now. I hope you don’t mind me saying that. 

Of course and thanks. I’m so proud I got to do this track. The idea came as a joke. Like surely you can’t put country and D&B together and make it sound good? But I had a go and made this insane blues rock groove then put a beat to it and was like, ‘Okay maybe this could work?’ It became really interesting and I knew if I was going to do it then it would have to be absolutely flawless. I spent two full years on it. I learnt the guitar in order to do this. My dad is on this song, my uncle is on this song. It became a very personal thing and was extremely fulfilling.

Your dad’s on the tune, too?

He is. I came home at Christmas and played it to him and he loved it. I asked him to play acoustic guitar and mandolin on it. He got into a rhythm, I recorded him and he’s on that record. I grew up listening to him playing the guitar for as long as I can remember. I remember being on my dad’s shoulders seeing my uncle Andrew and his band Modern Yesterday playing when I was four. He’s always been one of the coolest guys ever for me. He’s got pipes! I wrote the song, sang a demo and sent it to him and he crushed it. We turned something that went from a joke to one of the most serious songs I ever made. I wanted it to be absolutely perfect because I knew it would be picked apart. It’s country and D&B, of course it’s going to be picked apart. But if I can make people see through that and just have fun and enjoy it, like you explained, then I’ve achieved something. 

What did your folks and your uncle make of your music prior to that? 

My uncle’s always enjoyed it and his son, my cousin, is into my music and it brings back my memories of listening to my uncle in the car. Andrew is a career musician, he’s weathered a lot of industry storms and he’s been a huge source of advice and inspiration for me, practically and creatively. I know my grandparents are especially proud of this record – they’ve got their sons and grandson on the record. And I think my family already appreciated drum & bass because of what I’ve done but this song was a whole level on that. 

Wow that’s really special. The whole album is. It’s deeply personal and came from a very challenging time didn’t it? 

It did. And the irony is that the challenges I went through are what made this album. That’s the tragedy and humanity of it. It wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been through that. If I hadn’t had thousands of people weighing in on my life to tell you you’re wrong or clashing about something you truly love and feel is part of your identity. The name issue almost ended me man.

Something you’ve put your whole life into 

Yeah. I almost came away from music full stop. Everyone was coming for my throat over a very strong misconception. The reality was that I was high schooler who chose a name with no context of the D&B scene or its history. I grew up on a farm in rural Virginia! I understand the frustration and why it felt like 20 years of DJ Flight’s work was being ignored. I have a lot of empathy for that and understand the situation. I was devastated that a menial decision I’d made as a kid had caused this uproar from everyone. It’s internet culture, it continues to this day – people go out their day to tell you they are right. 

There’s no room for nuance in discussions online at all right now…

There really isn’t. But the whole fabric of life is based on people discussing nuance. Decisions and philosophies are made from discussing nuances and understanding them. And there is very little of that now in any type of conversation online. So that’s what Existential came from; do I as a musician even deserve to exist here in the scene? Do I have a place here? I felt completely thrown out and was so hurt from the accusations and rampant ‘isms’ that were thrown at me. That really crushed me. If I was more sensitive then I might not have pursued with the music any more. It destroyed me for a while man. 

You came out of it with an album. You ploughed that into your art. 

I had to turn it around. I was on this path already. Tragedy, Humanity was a predecessor of the album. We spoke about it in our last interview. I was already driven by the paradoxical beauty of disparate times. This sucks but this is human and this is what it means to live… That’s all part of the human experience. I’m thankful for the people who supported me during that time. UKF’s Luke Hood in particular. He reached out to me and told me I’d be okay and suggested the album and gave me the energy and light I needed. For a while I was resentful, which led to my almost satirical take on things with Better Than Gold…yet which led to a much more serious perspective. I can look past it now with a much clearer view but there were some very painful moments along the way. 

Can you tell us about other poignant tunes on the album? 

Black Bloc was something I wrote in early 2021 after the Capital Riot. Thousands of people descended on the US capital and broke in for the first time in over 200 years after conservative’s turn to embracing fascism. I am staunchly anti-fascist. We all witnessed it here. In my own home city Austin I watched police shoot a child standing still in the face with beanbag rounds during police brutality protests, he has lasting brain damage. I watched a grandmother take a rubber bullet to the forehead that had to be surgically removed. I saw some of the worst police actions in my life. During the George Floyd protests the same thing happened – the escalation of the actions always came from authority. So Black Bloc was very much inspired by those who stood up against that. It’s an anthem against authoritarianism and those who desire that.

You watched American democracy melting down

When the vote doesn’t seem to matter to some any more, how do you regain your voice? When you can’t walk around without snipers on the top of buildings, riot police and LRADs blasting when you’re just raising signs, yet armed accelerationists seem to get a free pass from the cops. Look at how Hong Kong’s democracy was crushed. It’s happening over the world. If you don’t resist, it’s gone. I feel very strongly about that. We can’t tolerate authoritarianism. 

Totally. Tell us about more music. 

Hold Me Down was an understated tune. That’s a journey of my own which has to do with shedding baggage of various kinds and feeling free in my own personal and creative development. Sometimes you don’t know that it’s the right choice for you. You can’t tell that making any particular change is going to make you prosper as a person. The most obvious example being the name change; I felt weightless and totally unlimited. I felt great about that tune and I love the fact it’s not a D&B tune which is the allure of an album. 

Totally! 

The End Of An Empire is another tune that gives me a similar feeling. It is D&B but it’s 3/4 track with a post rock final movement vibe. Something in me was imagining a captain sinking with his ship in the sunset. A tragic view of a lot of things – late stage capitalism being the strongest for me.

That’s how I interpreted it. Or the fall of the chin strokers. The fall of people who don’t accept change. The word empire is a nasty word though. 

It really is and you’re watching that in the UK. This disarray of a paradigm that needed to change. That change isn’t pretty but it needs to happen. Globally. It’s a very political album in that sense. Cadence is another tune I’d like to mention actually. That is something I’m very proud of. I was a trumpet player in a marching band which is a well-seeded American tradition and something I was part of as a teenager. I loved how the drums went into their own section and have precise snare patterns and bass rolls just like the drumline would. People hitting five drums in syncopation. It’s very powerful. So why not put it into drum & bass? So I found a way to do that and it was another personal reflection of myself. The album is very much a self-portrait for a lot of my interests and thoughts.

It has to be. As a debut album, as an album full stop, it has to reflect you and your view points and perspectives, your tragedies and triumphs…

Absolutely. And having PAV4N on there with the track Arbiter. Him wanting to work with me on a rowdy tune? I was so excited about that! It was a, ‘Holy crap I can’t believe I’m doing this!’ type of a moment. I’ve been hearing his voice for years! 

And actually on that note, Inheritance is another tune that’s special for me. It’s one of the oldest tunes on the album and something I’ve been shaping up for years and knew it had to be included. What am I inheriting here in American drum & bass? It’s been in place here for 30 years, and I’m viewed as a new front man of the movement now so how do I respect its roots but keep it evolving? 

It can’t be the same as it was, because that’s not how things progress. A photo of my grandfather at the age of 20 is different to a photo of my father at the age of 20 which is different to a photo of me at the age of 20. But there’s the similarity. It’s part of keeping tradition, reflecting on it but also putting your own experiences into it. I wear my great grandfather’s ring from Malta. That’s a reflection of my family history. They came from Malta and went through many struggles as a family. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4TV1k7VahI

I think the inter-generational thing is huge in the development of genres. The pioneers here want the new generation to succeed to continue flying the flag for the music they started or otherwise it ends. This has become apparent now with the new generation. I’m not sure if it’s the case in America…

Oh totally. I had a lovely message from Dave AK1200 who was a pioneer of the sound here in the very beginning that there’s a trust and faith in us to keep this going. Of course some people from past  DJ generations are doing to disagree with what the best way is to keep drum & bass evolving – that’s always going to be the way – but there is a feeling of support and faith that we’re doing things right for the music and the culture. We have to continue that if we want this music to thrive here. 

That feeds into Core Artists, which you’ve been part of setting up. This is how you’re setting up an infrastructure that works for this new chapter… 

That’s right. So it’s myself, Boxplot and Audioscribe. A group of friends who have worked in close proximity for years. We all share knowledge directly, we’ve integrated a manager with us and want to provide a full spectrum experience to D&B presenters in the US. From liquid anthems to dark tech. It’s like, ‘How do we show D&B to US fans in a US-centric way?’ We want to be an answer to people who are curious. We’re a team, our manager Sabby is creating new industry concepts and bringing them into a scene which isn’t as historically structured here. And I’d say that it’s not insanely structured across the world – there are less managers in D&B than any other genre, I would estimate. 

I kinda like that in a way. I see a lot managers making a lot of very contrived commercial decisions…

It’s definitely a testament to D&B’s DIY nature but for me I think management is down to the personnel you have on board. If the personnel are deep into it, and respect the culture themselves, then they’ll find a way to grow their artists and do it faithfully to build up the scene. 

I would definitely say that not having a manager or a team, and staying true to the international D&B DIY spirit, is something that’s stopped me from growing as much over here in American EDM. So what we’d like to do is bring those two worlds together and create a relationship where the EDM centric scene can utilize our own infrastructure to integrate with drum & bass artists over here. I hope we can merge those separate worlds. Right now it’s felt like a straddle between both.

Right now you’re doing the splits! 

I am trying to wrestle these worlds together, but it’s happening. I want to show as much of drum & bass as I can to audiences here and make sure we don’t lose what makes it special. And I have to shout Reaper with what he’s doing with his club focused touring. He’s done those huge festival shows and now he’s bringing it back to the club and booking the right homegrown artists. That’s a good example of how things are out here. It’s a very strategic approach but it has the real D&B scene and club culture in mind. And it’s back to that trickle-down conversation… 

Someone brand new to D&B sees Reaper at a festival. They like it, they go to one of the club shows and they hear someone like CLB or Rebel Scum who are all super valid and exciting artists who Reaper has on support. They check out a mix online and they go from there and listen to a few more mixes and they like a particular song and identify it and follow that artist. And so it continues. It takes a long time but people’s interests are expanding out here and it’s that connection with new 0founds which gives the whole scene life. 

Amen! So what happens next for you now? 

More country music? Haaa

Ha! 

Seriously, that’s been proof that I can do what I want and take it to the level I need to. It’s given me a lot of inspiration and Existential is a platform for me to go ‘here I am’ and I feel I can do anything I want. I want to put out tunes that are high impact, provocative – if they need to be – but have purpose. And whatever comes I hope people know that it comes from a place of love for the music and respect for the culture. On to the next decade for me!