The Gospel of Gray: Music Always Finds A Way To Bring People Together

GRAY- © Khali Ackford

Since storming onto the scene in late 2019 with his smash hit Rubadub EP, Gray has gone on to become one of the most in-demand artists within drum and bass. A series of well-received tunes, producing a Radio One-recognised dance track of the week, and collaborations with artists such as Mozey, Sigma, and A Little Sound are testament to this. 

His distinctive blend of rollers and dancefloor was quickly picked up on by the award-winning Born On Road label, which has served as a home for the aforementioned Rubadub EP, alongside many other releases (including a subsequent remix EP, featuring artists such as DJ Limited and Alcemist). Shogun, Liondub, and 3Beat are a handful of other labels who have also picked up on Gray’s unique sonic approach in his rapid ascension to drum and bass stardom. 

No Face No Case, a collaboration with Diagnostix and Ozone, two up-and-coming, hype-generating artists, is the latest in his hot streak of releases on Born On Road. 

We recently spoke to Gray about his recent musical output, working through the mental health challenges associated with going viral, and respecting the cultural history of drum and bass. 

You’ve just dropped your first track of the year! Seems like you’re off to an amazing start.

Thank you! I think it is a great continuation of the work I have been putting out recently, and also a great fit for Born On Road as well. This project for me is an embodiment of the DIY attitude that I have to music as we have created every element of this release including the artwork. This was actually really funny as we bought a balaclava and a baseball bat on the internet and took my girlfriend to Soho in London to get some pictures. We definitely got some very funny and concerned looks from the public, but it was definitely worth it as the artwork looks wicked! We’ve had some amazing track support on it from the likes of Holy Goof, Turno, and loads more. It always means a lot when the people I look up to are supporting the track. Anyway, definitely check it out – I think it’s quite different to a lot of the stuff I have put out so far.

It comes off the back of a massive 2022, to say the least. A main stage set at Boomtown and Memories, one of your tracks with A Little Sound, was chosen by Charlie Hedges as the hottest track of the week. I bet you’re chuffed with that!

Yeah, I was actually really surprised! It wasn’t the title track or anything. One thing I really liked about it was, because it wasn’t my project, I could do something I wouldn’t normally do so much. I was able to change things up without scaring aware people who might know me for a particular kind of style. I was able to feel a bit more free with this project. We started working on it around two years ago, and we’ve been through so many variations. Jump up drops, roller drops… we ended up on a dancefloor-style drop, and really liked how it sounds. The reason we changed it was because I didn’t like older versions. I’m so picky about what I do. I might make something, and then a month later, I will hate it. I’m my own worst critic. Quality control is so fundamental for me.

That’s the best way to go about it. When working on an artistic project, you need that critical eye. I also love how Memories is different from a lot of other tracks you’ve made, but still has that distinctive Gray sound.

If you don’t push yourself to do different things, you do the same thing over and over again and you don’t go anywhere. The interesting thing there is that everyone talks about producers having sounds. What I’ve realised over the years is that your sound comes naturally through the tones your ears like and the techniques you use. When I make music, I am automatically tuned to prefer certain sounds over others. I’ve never been able to pin down what my sound is, and that’s because my sound is just what I like! I’ve had other people tell me I have a distinct sound, but it’s impossible for me to tell. It’s one of those things. Don’t think about it and it just comes naturally. That’s what I tell my friends; do your own thing, because that is your sound. Just unlock it. It’s there for everyone.

That being said, what sounds can we expect from you in the future?

I’m really strict on myself in terms of not allowing myself to be limited to a particular subgenre. What I want to strive for, more than anything, is energy. You can have dancefloor tracks with no energy, and jungle tracks which are super energetic. I lean more towards the energetic side. Drum and bass is dance music! I want to explore the idea of energy and how I can get that power into the music which makes people dance.

Very exciting! I can see how the concept of energy comes through in No Face No Case, Memories, and The Preacher, for example…

No Face No Case was created purely with the intention of being played in a rave and is a pure manifestation of energy, something which I find incredibly important in my music. I guess you could call it Jump Up, but I feel like putting these things into boxes is so archaic these days as there’s such a wide variety of everything coming out at the minute. 

Equally, The Preacher is the polar opposite of Memories. It’s dark, gritty, and hard hitting. A nice bassy roller! At the moment, I’m mostly working on music just for my set. Big energy and lots of samples which I can’t really release! I’ve been using one of those as the opener for my set for the past month or so. That one has a sample from the end of the film Blood Diamond. James Newton Howard did the soundtrack, and that track (Solomon Vandy) has an amazing call and response section. That’s another element of the sonics I’m into. Huge intros with lots of emotion and feeling. Something that takes you somewhere else.

One Spliff is another track full of energy, and one which has seen massive success. Does making a high-profile track put you under pressure to follow through with something equally as big?

After that release, there was definitely a big lull where I was getting used to the new standards. It’s an unnecessary burden you put on yourself. All you should be worrying about, as an artist, is making the music you love. It can be easy to forget about the music and think of it as a business. That distracts from the music. A huge mental battle I had with myself was working out whether I was doing it because I love the music, or because I am focussed on growth. You always have to find that balance, and share that energy with big crowds. You need to find the middle ground and not sacrifice artistic integrity. That is something which I have only taken a firm stand on quite recently. Letting myself be an artist.

As soon as you worry about appealing to a newfound audience, you alienate yourself from your craft; but equally, you also worry about alienating other people by being true to yourself!

It took me a long time to realise, but that’s just called having a lack of faith in yourself. We do music as a job because we love what we do. The minute you change that for the sake of growth, you’re no longer doing it because you love music. It turns into any other job; it’s not about the art anymore. There were times when I would definitely think ‘how would twelve year old me be looking at myself right now?’. When I was that age and had just opened up the laptop, I loved dubstep, drum and bass, and house. If I saw myself doing things for growth and not for the sake of the music, I’d hate that.

What a great way to think about that problem. It sounds like you’ve eliminated the contradiction which produces the anxiety about failing in the first place…

Before you’re big, you never worry about growth. You’re always making what you like! Those are the songs people latch on to. If people like those enough to the point where you’re making loads of money off it, why should you change or do something different anyway? It can be hard to have faith in yourself when you see other people doing a certain brand of jump up or dancefloor. You need to trust yourself and remember that your taste is what people like! The stuff I’m making at the moment is super out there, but also super safe at the same time. There are certain elements of the stuff I’m doing which might have a popular appeal, but it’s done in a framework with a lot of original sounds and sonics. It’s the extremes of both sides. I have such an eclectic music taste that I couldn’t limit myself to one thing, anyway. At the end of the day, what the people who follow you really like is your taste. You need to have trust in that.

Very profound!

I take a lot of time thinking about it! It takes a toll on your mental health. I spend a lot of time worrying about it. You’re worrying, and things can get dark, sometimes. I hate the term, but the idea and fear of ‘selling out’ creates some huge battles. It’s something which isn’t spoken about much, but it’s something I imagine a lot of my friends have gone through, too.

Aside from being a big track, One Spliff also introduces lots of people to the history of drum and bass. In fact, the whole Rubadub EP does a great job of reminding people where the genre comes from…

I made the EP when I was in Bristol. I’ve always been heavily into dancehall and reggae. It’s so important that there is diversity in music, so I draw influences from everything I like. In Bristol, there’s a big Jamaican population. Before I moved away from Bristol, I lived on Stapleton Road, near The Black Swan. Being in Bristol, you’re exposed to a huge melting pot of music. It’s impossible to go out without getting exposed to so many different things. 

That makes complete sense, especially when the blending of communities and genres was an integral part of the origin of drum and bass. The genre has always had unity at its core.

It’s important that the music we do is inclusive of everyone. No-one should feel like it’s not their place to come to a drum and bass rave. 

Of course, we also need to look at how genuine this unity is. It’s very easy to claim that a community is united when it is pretty homogenous.

I just want to make sure that I’m not doing anything which is discouraging people from enjoying the music. We need to look at ourselves and ask if we’re doing anything which makes people uncomfortable.

I think a large part of that is the apparently small behaviours people have which add up a lot, like what parts of the culture are kept, and which are abandoned. Look at how MCs are treated, for example. It’s very easy to disregard MCs completely, along with a bunch of other features of Jamaican culture which were discarded as jungle music morphed into drum and bass. It never hurts to question why we like what we like.

That is a fair point! I think it’s important for people who are heavily involved in the scene to be aware of everything. You have to be respectful about what we do; but at the same time, telling people you have to have an MC because that’s how it was in the soundsystem days is ridiculous. Music is built off of there not being rules.

On the topic of doing away with rules – another part of the history which is taken for granted is free party culture. 

That’s where I made a name for myself! I’ve had it from two points of view. When I was 15, some mates in the year above me at school took me to a squat party. Very different to a free party… lots of dodgy people about. Then, when I moved to Bristol, I went to a free party which was just a bunch of people in a field doing drugs. It’s legally the same thing, but has such a different feel. In both cases, people manifest the desire to go out and dance. For younger people, they have no other way of doing that. It’s not something you can stop. Music always finds a way to bring people together. 

No Face No Case is OUT NOW on Born On Road