Everybody knows BlackDown is number one for grime but he’s excelled himself this time with a fantastic lengthy interview with Skream, who must be one of the four or five most exciting artists working in any genre today. Blackdown helps him tell his story with some style. Best of all though, is an exclusive mix by Skream of his productions and remixes, and this is o good it’s worth dwelling on here.
If Skream ever does an album better than this mix he’ll be lucky. And if this mix were released as a CD today, it would have to be one of the ten best albums of the year. If previous Skream mixes were an exercise in industrial dubstep plainsong, the Blackdown Mix (as I very much hope it will henceforth be known) represents a flowering of timbral colour and groove. Skream has lept forward as an artist without losing any of his impact.
I don’t want to do a track-by-track description but Skream has scattered so many gems throughout it that it’s difficult to avoid. The first three tracks are sensuous electronic dub, and drift by beautifully, especially Bullseye’s increasingly savage bleeps, but the music comes into focus with Skream’s remix of Sunship’s Almighty Father. Its slo-mo electronics perfectly frame the raging, deadpan female ragga chat. It’s magnificent, so good that you can’t help wish Skream would add more vocals to his music beyond the strategic deployment of samples. Hag underlines this, since its mutation of the Groove Chronicles template climaxes with an excellent spoken word section. What’s crucial however is that instrumentals and vocal tracks stays balanced over the course of the mix, which means it both sustains and repays repeated listening. Fairy Tale demonstrates why Skream’s focus on instrumentals is paying off; it rebuilds the 2step framework around an unnerving, cascading flute sample that’s enchanting. Skream has strength in depth too. Groovin’ is the perfect intro for the legendary Midnight Requestline, and is its superior for minimal, bleepy intensity, though Requestline’s interlocking mechanical melodies are just killer.
The Blackdown Mix contains really varied music and I can really see why Skream wanted to get past the bass-n-drum minimalism of his early work to embrace a broader palette, because he’s totally in control of what he’s doing. Normally when an artist says something they want to be more “musical” and “creative” I inwardly groan, because you just know they’re going to dilute the energy that made them interesting in the first place. But Skream’s stuff is both smart and slamming: he’s put his time into learning scales and progressions but they just make his beats bounce higher. I think in many ways he’s fulfilled the promise of Digidub: the music has a similar dynamics and approach to Digidub, but has infinitely more musical innovation and satisfaction. Crucially, he’s got an ear for a tune, and has no trouble whatsoever taking the kind of fairground ride shanty that would normally be the province of Tom Waits and turning it into a spacious loper, as he does on Smiling Face. In contrast, Lightning Dub is just evil grime-speed jungle, and it’s absolutely wicked. It perfectly matches Skream’s mix of Digital Mysticz’ Ancient Memories and its delicious low-down, top dollar, dubstep nastiness. His mix of Loefah’s Indian Dub, for all its double time El-B-aping intensity, can’t quite compete with it. The tempo drops down again with Basstrap, which introduces the delicate piano figures which are scattered throughout the latter stages of the mix. It makes a particular feature of the burbling phased birdsong sample that flows throughout the mix; I like it but it could really do your head in. As do Where Am I, Glamma and Rutten, which progressively drop the listener into a suffocating amphetamine-psychotic ambience. It’s quite demanding music, demanding that you follow micro-melodies and counterpoints over compelling but rigidly regimented groove templates. It’s quite a contrast to the bouncing dancehall and rolling jungle I usually listen to, but there’s enough reggae (and industrial) flavour to make it engaging. And I like that there’s something here to get your teeth into. When I was younger I really liked getting records I didn’t get at all at first, because it meant there was so much more enjoyment to wring out it – assuming you actually did like it in the end. These days I have much less patience, but there’s enough roughage here to make it digestible. And on Deeper Feelings, Skream gives us real sweetness, a solid gold skittering melodic techno classic, which makes good on the old “Croydon as Detroit” claims.
Overall it’s an absolutely corking mix. You really have to listen to this even if you’ve found dubstep a bit of a chore before. Big up Blackdown for bringing it to us.