Every time we speak to Xtrah the conversation quickly gets technical.
He’s a man obsessed with the finer details and how to develop his sound. It was the main focus in this interview around his Gravitas release on Noisia’s Invisible and his comments in this article on the rise of neuro just over a year ago. It’s something he touches on in many other interviews online and a key theme in his social media commentary. It’s the reason he once spent three months on one snare.
For Xtrah the mission is simple; learn the technique inside out on your own terms, in your own time and through your own applications. It’s why he’s not particularly prolific yet has appeared on some of the most important labels in drum & bass: Metalheadz, Critical, Symmetry, Ram, Subtitles, the aforementioned Invisible and Dispatch… Who have just dropped his latest body of work: the six track slab of rolling tech thunder entitled Disturbance.
Previously spotted on Ant TC1’s label in remix and collabo form, Disturbance is his first full EP for Dispatch. Xtrah says he work he’s the happiest with so far and it sets the scene for what’s to come later this year on his own label Cyberfunk. The years of hardcore self-schooling are becoming more evident with every release. As is a certain amount of negative attention, too…
18 months ago Xtrah was the focus of a forum thread about him being an alleged fraud. Then, last month, experienced accusations of ripping a sample off an old jungle track: a spoken word from the movie Rockers, as used by Splash in the 1994 track Babylon (and a fair few others since).
The matter is now dismissed to the footnotes of drum & bass beef history but it’s worth noting for two reasons. Firstly it reopened the discussion on the moral code of sample sourcing. Secondly, it reinforced just how passionate, dedicated and staunch Xtrah is about his work. And how he deals with threats online. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s how he deals with things IRL. Which is what we learnt in his deepest interview to date.
Every time we speak to Xtrah the conversation quickly gets technical… This time it’s pretty personal. Trust us, he is not a fraud.
Let’s start with the Dispatch EP. You’ve been on the label a few times like Direct Approach and your Ant TC1 remix but this is your first full label debut, right?
It’s been a long time coming. I’ve known Ant since I first started releasing drum & bass. He’s a really sound guy in general and the tunes had a Dispatch-esque vibe to them, it’s nice to be working with them on this level after working on remix projects and smaller releases.
You’ve often spoken about development. So what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt during the process?
All sorts of technical things. For me, everything is half trying to create a song and half me trying to push myself and do something new.
I challenge myself to do things I’d never done before and each time I think I get closer to where I want to be. The learning never stops. I’m really proud of the Dispatch EP in in this respect. I think it’s some of my best work. And that’s important; the biggest thing that I’m always learning and progressing, if I fulfil what I want to achieve from a track/project then that’s the best thing I can possibly do. You can’t please everyone but as long as it’s from a pure place then you know you’re doing the right thing. Just stay true to yourself.
I think real fans of drum & bass can tell if something’s done for trend/hype or actually done from the heart…
I would love to think so. And trust me, my everything is in what I do. I’ve given up so much to do this. That hunger is such a powerful tool and I’m learning how to take my head completely out of the music for a period of time then coming back into it refreshed. Sometimes you can get eaten alive by the creative process and end up going round in circles, changing tunes that are already good but you’ve listened to them way too much so you get bored of them and constantly trying to adding something else into the song; just so your ears have something different to grab onto.
It’s really hard to distance yourself from your art, I constantly question myself and my abilities but I’ve found that getting the bulk idea down and doing the rest in your head whilst away from the studio helps a lot. Writing notes then eliminating each point you’ve written step by step is the way forward for me. I’ve gone round in circles for months on one snare. ONE SNARE. Possibly the biggest waste of time to some people but to me it was learning how to turn the audio around and around just to try and find the best way for it to leave the speakers. it taught me a lot doing this but I’m sure there is easier ways to learn. My stubbornness is a bit of a problem sometimes but I can’t help myself.
Just on one snare? No other tracks?
Just on one snare. In one track. Mad innit? Such a draining way to spend your time! But now I’ve worked it out, it’s part of my process. I’m not one to sit and read what other guys do on forums (although it might help others) I don’t really ask people for any tips – I want to understand how to completely control audio manipulation on my own terms. There’s plenty of ways to do things in this day in age, it could be a case of a free plugin from a shitty website can sculpt your whole sound. The main advice here is to really learn what you use and work out how it can be used in ways it might not be specifically designed for, it can lead you to you doing something new in the audio world.
That’s how you find your sound…
Exactly. And that’s why I’m really looking forward to people hearing my next EP on Cyberfunk – It’s sounding so much closer to what I’ve wanted to make. It’s my own. I know I’ll always be chasing something but I’m really happy with my knowledge of audio manipulation and sound design and the ideas I get from simple things now. Like trying one oscillator or sound source and turning that into everything; snare, kick, bass, musical elements, mapping it out, looking at the harmonics and turning that into the key of the whole song… Just serious details I never would have thought of before. You can make your music as technical as you want, but simplicity in your technique is always key.
Ssssshhhh…. You’re giving away trade secrets!
Share the knowledge! There’s no good in hoarding knowledge. You have to share this information and help each other, try and inspire the next generation and keep what we’re doing alive! This has happened for many, many years, just look at the ancient messages carved in stone. Do you not think they were specifically made to tell us stories of how we used to do things and how they might help us? They are a direct message to us to give us information and what is frustrating is that there are people who hold back this information that could possibly make society much more of a pleasant place to be in. Knowledge is power. Spread love!
On the flipside of love, what can we say about the whole sampling saga then?
I’ve already said, and still stand by, what I wanted to say online. But sure, we can say that I used a sample that has been used before in a famous jungle record and apparently I’m some sort of criminal for doing so. I won’t lie – I didn’t even know the original track. Terrible excuse? Yes, but it’s the truth. I didn’t sample the music or drums or anything at all from the original record, I merely committed the hideous crime of sampling the same sentence from something that had been sampled 20 years ago.
In return for that I was called out on Facebook and threatened by someone who is supposed to be a drum & bass pioneer, someone the next generation could look up to! I trolled him back and he couldn’t handle it so he started acting like a gangster and tried to threaten me with ‘severe beatings’ so I publicly let him know that those sort of threats are not acceptable where I’m from. Musical criticism is one thing but threatening me with violence over me sampling something is another.
How does being threatened make you feel?
I accept criticism as part of the job, but if you’re saying you’re going to ‘choke me’ and ‘attack’ me I take that seriously. He has no idea who I am or where I’m from.
What is your background, then?
I grew up being my mum’s carer after her fifth stroke, god bless her soul. From the age of eight, I was the man of the house. I learnt a lot from those experiences as a child – teaching my mother how to learn to walk and talk again like she was my child, complete role-reversal. All this as well as doing all the normal things other people have the luxury of their parents doing for them, just everyday things we might take for granted like cooking, cleaning, shopping. I was doing the shit it takes a fully-grown man to learn to do at that age. I wasn’t even 10! I had to grow up quick, I didn’t have a choice.
Learning how to defend myself, my home and my family was always a key part of that process. My father didn’t live with me and that’s something I’d have to talk about another time but an equally fascinating and fucked up story. I grew up in areas that were pretty racist to be completely honest. I was the only person with any colour due to my dad being from Egypt and I used to fight a lot due to being the subject of bullying and racism, that, plus my built-up anger from my situation at home made me a little bit hot headed when I was younger. It was really stressful to say the least but its made me who I am today.
Wow. Respect, man.
My main point is that throughout my life I’ve been around people who are bullies and would do the sort of actions mentioned online by that person, they wouldn’t spout about doing things like that on the internet with their online buddies, they will just do it when they see you and walk away without another thought in their mind about you or your feelings. It’s all well and good acting like a gangster online to people who just want to make music to impress your Facebook buddies but before this was my reality I was in a very different world a long time before I got into drum & bass so I just done what I would always do: I stuck up for myself and I made sure he knew I wasn’t scared of him and that I won’t tolerate his threats of violence or wait for him to ‘attack me on the roads’ as he put it. He also said I probably screens hotted his comments to inform the police! He has no idea, I’ll just leave it at that.
I teach my children that being a bully is bad, its one of the worst things you can do and if I was to find out either of them were doing this they would be in big trouble with me. But I also teach them that being a victim is bad too. If you allow someone to bully you they will do it because they can get away with it and will keep getting away with it until you show them that you are going to defend yourself. Again, I learnt this through being bullied personally about my race. I became the ‘Paki’ that would fight you back and then I became the boy people didn’t fuck with after a while because he stood up for himself. You get what you give with me, I would never go looking for fights with anyone but I’m certainly not scared of one either.
What was your background socially, then? You mentioned a world before drum & bass?
I’d have to say that would be the graff world, squat parties, street life. I saw a lot as a graffer. The underworld in the city. Some of it good, some of it bad. Like everything really. The things that come with that life can land you in some strange and sometimes scary situations. That was my life for a long time but I eventually chose to try and change my life at the age of 19 through music and having my own family and teaching myself how to put all of that built up energy into becoming someone that I can look back at and be proud of when I’m old. Still working on it now but I do have a shit load of cool stories for my future grandkids.
How did you get into that world?
There was just absolutely no authority over me whatsoever when I was young. It’s impossible for my mum to catch me out late at night due to her illness. I literally didn’t have anyone keeping me on the straight and narrow. Graffiti took me down some dark paths as well as making me feel as if I had an extended family. I’d go out with a lot of the big crews, 1T, WMB, KTO, NFA to shout out a few in London. Squat parties came hand in hand with that culture. On the way to find the parties you could get up everywhere. We’d constantly be on trains, streets, buses, it was literally the perfect way to get up and have your tag seen. I know I’m sounding like a hoodlum now but I was still so young back then, a lot younger than people I was rolling with…
Graff isn’t being a hoodlum. That’s art. But this does sound more like straight up tagging?
The art side was always there, I still do a lot of art now and would love to incorporate it into my professional life eventually. But being up was how you used to get your ratings. I think for me it was also a release and a way to express myself. Painting a train is a very strange sensation and one that can only be compared to making and performing music but with the added danger of dying of being arrested just to add a touch of adrenaline to your diet – if you were up in every area and got up a lot then you could represent for big crews. A bit like record labels I guess but graff crews instead.
Quite a few parallels between the two cultures…
They are totally relatable to each other in ways. Now instead of doing something which was totally illegal I make music and get the same feeling if not more of a buzz and its legal plus I can make a living out of it, travel the world and meet great people. I would really like to do the same with the graff side sometime soon but ill have to stop spedning months on snare drums to have the time to fit that in.
So I guess that’s a trait of yours whether it’s tagging or D&B? If you’re gonna do it, do it properly…
There’s no point in being half-arsed about anything you do! The only downfall is that sometimes you think you know what you’re doing but you actually don’t. You can be your own worst enemy but that can also give you endless opportunities in life if you just go for it. I just go in. That’s just me as a person.
You’re not a fraud, then?
Talking about that forum thread? Funny story that. That post actually went up when I started my label – Cyberfunk. Coincidence? I think not….
I’ve never publicly told this story but I feel I can now and this would be a good place to air it. I got the name from mixing cyberpunk art and funk music into one word. Two of my passions and inspirations. It was a word – whether it existed in the world before it came into my head – to me, it didn’t exist. I 100% made it up on my own. After coming up with that word I obviously Googled it and nothing but an old Twitter that hadn’t tweeted since 2005 appeared. I found out it was an old label that had nothing going on for 10 years+ so I went ahead and used the name.
I didn’t copy anything – I have got way more imagination than that. Funnily enough, it turns out that the guy hadn’t copyrighted the word or brand either and I now own those rights so no matter what was in the past that is now my possession. That’s the level of care he had over his art, his work and his brand. As soon as I did my thing he attempted to bring back his label after inboxing me and trying to threaten me out of doing what I was doing.
Sadly, yes. I don’t think that he actually relaunched his label from the heart with pure intentions – he was doing it to try and stop me from doing my thing. Pure bitterness. After realising I wasn’t going to just give up on what I was doing he has now exited the music industry (again) but made a return to talk about the matter with the same person who was making threats last month. Serious business this drum & bass thing, I’m putting my life on the line out here just so you can have snares to talk about. Haha…
Ha! Enough history. Sign-off on a future hype…
It’s that constant development thing again. I feel like this Disturbance EP is another turning point. A lot of it began life around the same time as my Gravitas EP and I’ve been honing in my style ever since and really trying to refine what I do. My next solo EP, coming on Cyberfunk later this year, will show even more of this. I’m really excited about releasing it and getting it out there to the people. I’d just like to say a big thanks to everyone who has shown me love through this whole online beef thing and everyone who has supported my latest EP. It’s been very humbling to know so many lovely people are behind what I do and believe in the sound I’m pushing. It makes spending three months on a snare all worth it. Big love!
Emphasis on the word ‘next’ I guess? The pursuit of perfection never ends…
Trust me, for me it doesn’t. Life would be dull if it did… There’s always room for improvement.
There’s always room for Xtrah: Facebook / Soundcloud / Twitter
Xtrah – Disturbance is out now on Dispatch