Nothing about the way Rob Playford dresses, acts, or talks suggests that he's perhaps the most powerful person on the drum 'n' bass scene. Despite being one of the genre's founding fathers and current guiding lights, a respected artist and producer, and owner of two leading drum 'n' bass labels (Moving Shadow and Audio Couture), Playford comes across more like a fan than a figurehead. Visiting Los Angeles to examine the prospect of working with one of the '90s' most successful pop artists (whose name can't be revealed due to the confidential nature of the project), Playford seems surprised to be considered for the gig.
Though his work has inspired such trendsetters as David Bowie, Trent Reznor, and Perry Farrell, Playford's fanlike devotion to drum 'n' bass has kept him at the music's cutting edge. Instead of resting on the laurels of his past achievements, which include recording the seminal jungle single "Bombscare" with 2 Bad Mice in '92, and collaborating with Goldie on the drum 'n' bass epic and crossover hit "Timeless" in '95, Playford has continued to innovate and expand the music's boundaries, enjoying impressive success and acclaim while maintaining his underground credibility. His Moving Shadow label, which Playford established during the heyday of hardcore in 1990, still releases some of the most acclaimed drum 'n' bass albums and singles, the roster featuring artists such as E-Z Rollers, Dom + Roland, Flytronix, and Aquasky.
"We've maintained a consistent level of quality with the label," says Playford. "The artists on Moving Shadow have a particular style and sound. When somebody buys a record on the label, they know what they're getting. We're really into developing artists and working with them on long-term projects. With the Audio Couture label we're thinking in shorter terms, putting out material by newer talent who have sent us a track that we think is pretty good, but we're not certain if it's just a one-off. If we decide that the artist is capable of providing consistently good material, then we'll move them up to Moving Shadow, like we recently did with Calyx."
STARTING OUTPlayford started his musical career as an acid house DJ in London during the late '80s. But as the police began cracking down on the rave scene in 1990, Playford decided to stop deejaying for a while. While waiting for things to cool down, he acquired an Akai S950 sampler, a Yamaha DX7 keyboard, and an Atari computer and started recording his own tracks. He also purchased a book about running your own record label, which led to the birth of Moving Shadow.
"I was sampling everybody else's tunes, basically making collages and remixing things," says Playford. "I got a feel for how to loop things and get everything sequenced, and from there I started coming up with original music. I thought it would be a great project to put out on vinyl, so I pressed up the track 'Orbital Madness' and sold it through the shops where I used to buy records from. Out of three or four shops I sold 1,500 copies of my first recording."
Playford's subsequent recordings were even more successful, and his third release sold more than 6,500 copies. By this time, he had become well known by other DJs and aspiring artists around London, and they started asking him to participate in recording projects with them. Playford had a day job as a software engineer, so he was too busy to participate in all of these projects, but he offered to release their efforts on Moving Shadow. Playford used all of the money earned by the label to purchase equipment, and soon he had built up an impressive studio.
Moving Shadow's rise also coincided with the rise of a new style of music that was progressing from the hardcore rave scene; it eventually became known as jungle. "Back then everything was straight-ahead 4/4," says Playford. "We started adding shuffling beats that we had taken from breakbeat samples. Eventually the breakbeats replaced the 4/4 beats. It was really funky and fast, and sounded great at dance music speed. Then it got very beat oriented and the speeds went up because the music sounded more intricate when it was faster. What kept it from sounding too fast were the bass lines, which were half-time. From there, the speed seemed to increase month by month. We'd be working on something that was 138 bpm and think that we were really pushing the limits. Then we'd hear something that was 145 bpm!
"As things got faster, they also got simpler, so it didn't seem like the tunes were that fast. The bass line or strings would be slow, around 70 to 80 bpm, whereas the hi-hats would be running between 140 and 160 bpm. When the tempos got above 145 bpm, that was the beginning of jungle or drum 'n' bass. Currently the tempo is up to about 176 bpm."
TIMELESS WITH GOLDIEIn 1992, one of Playford's early projects with 2 Bad Mice, the single "Waremouse," caught the ear of a similar-minded artist named Goldie, who had just recorded his first single under the name Ajax Project and had started recording for Reinforced Records, another seminal jungle label. "Moving Shadow and Reinforced were very similar, so I knew of Goldie almost from the beginning," says Playford. "There was a knowledge, understanding, and respect going both ways between us, so we got Goldie to do a remix for us and we did one for him.
"One day Goldie phoned us and mentioned that he was shooting a television documentary about the scene. He came up to the studio after the filming, and we started chatting. We seemed to have similar ideas about where we could take the music. He could see that I was in control of the whole technical situation and had a good equipment setup. He had some ideas that he wanted to try to get out of his head, so we agreed to get together and see what happened. The rest is history."
For the drum 'n' bass scene, this meeting of minds proved to be one of those rare turning points in music where two artists collaborate, affecting the future in one inspired moment. The result of this project was Goldie's Timeless, which was released on London Records in '95. Up until that time, drum 'n' bass was thriving in the dark depths of the UK's underground club scene, but Timeless proved that the style's scattershot rhythms, depth-charge bass lines, and eerie chordal pads could appeal to listeners in their living rooms as well as to club goers on the dance floor.
An ambitious epic lasting more than 20 minutes, "Timeless" still lives up to its name because it remains the blueprint for much of the drum 'n' bass music that has come out since. But the song has had impact well beyond the genre it sprang from. The song's arrangement sensibilities and distinctive drum pattern have been appropriated by numerous artists, including David Bowie ("Little Wonder") and Nine Inch Nails ("The Perfect Drug"), while producers and engineers of styles as disparate as alternative metal, contemporary jazz, and mainstream pop have imitated the song's sonic effects and sparse ambience.
"Before we recorded 'Timeless,' drum 'n' bass music had elements that were very fixed," says Playford, who cowrote the song with Goldie as well as producing and engineering it. "We wanted to create a really long track that sounded sweeter than the drum 'n' bass that was around then, delivered some deep emotion, and took listeners on a journey, like a symphony. It wasn't meant to be a club track, but we wanted it to have the same kind of power. We wanted to have all the technology and tricks in there, but also a lot of movement and emotions within one long piece."
Besides its ambitious arrangement and epic length, two distinctive elements of "Timeless" are its "terminator" time stretching and "snake" filter effects applied to the drum pattern. Like most drum 'n' bass producers, Playford is loath to give away any specific trade secrets, but he does offer a hint about achieving those effects. "It was all done in a sampler," he explains. "I used an Akai S1100 on 'Timeless,' but I tried that technique again on a recent production using an S5000, and I could still do it. It's a simple feature, but you wouldn't normally use it that way. I'll leave it up to your imagination to figure it out."
UP-TO-DATEWhereas most of Playford's early work was sampler based, these days he's relying almost exclusively on digital hard disk recording. "I should be using a sampler for some things, but I'm using Pro Tools instead," he says. "It's easier for me to manipulate sounds with Pro Tools. With a sampler, it seems like you have to dig around in the dark with these utensils to get what you want, while Pro Tools lets you get your hands right on things. Everything is inside my Mac, which is loaded with Logic Audio, Pro Tools, and some plug-ins."
Instead of searching through countless records in hopes of finding the perfect breakbeat to sample, Playford now has the luxury of hiring session musicians to provide source material for his projects. "Basically, I just turn on the recorder and let them make noise," says Playford. "I just need a sound to start from, and I can pretty much do whatever I want from there. For example, I've been working on a remix that's coming out on Aquasky's new album. I'm about a third of the way through the track right now, but so far the entire track is coming from the same sample. It's a very rhythmic sound effect, and it's as good as a drum pattern on its own. It was made from a recording of a snare drum, but I processed it with a bunch of plug-ins, then chopped it up. It's incredible how many sounds you can create from one source. Being able to distort and manipulate sounds is one of the great luxuries of having a bunch of plug-ins--it's a never-ending process. If you keep going on and on with it, you make a sound into something entirely different."
Although Playford is still deeply involved with the drum 'n' bass scene through his efforts with his labels and as a DJ, he's spending more time participating in projects outside of that realm, such as his recent work with the alternative rock bands Corduroy and Snow Bunny. And if his current negotiations with a particular pop artist work out favorably, Playford's work will soon be heard on Top 40 radio. To him it's an exciting and logical progression that happens with any scene as it moves out of the underground.
"It's fine to be underground, but after a while you should move up to a commercial level," he says. "I've been fairly successful and worked on some pretty good projects that have funded what I do. Now I'm working on projects that are more musician based, songwriter based, or even pop-commercial based, but I'm still coming from the same mentality I had when I started. It's nice to be able to slip my own crazy ideas into a pop song and expose them to a mainstream audience. Every now and then a song will come along that is enormously popular, yet it features some incredible technical advances. That's what I'd like to do. I want to do a song that everyone is going to hear and that will change the way people think about music. You can't do that if you always stay underground."
Chris Gill is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and aspiring recording artist. He's released a handful of white-label remixes and is currently working on his first original single release.
Whether you're new to drum 'n' bass or just want to ensure that your record collection is well stocked, be sure to check out our list of ten essential d 'n' b records. Some of these titles are hard to find, so you might need to dig deep into your favorite record bins.
Aphrodite, Aphrodite (BMG/Gee Street, 1999)The leading light in the subgenre known as jump up, Aphrodite has created a style of drum 'n' bass that's softer and more melodic. An excellent introduction for the less adventurous.
Goldie, Timeless (London, 1995)Still the most successful drum 'n' bass album to date, Timeless proved that the genre had potential beyond the nightclub and dance floor.
Ed Rush and Optical, Wormhole (Virus, 1998)The current trendsetters in the drum 'n' bass offshoot known as techstep, Rush and Optical make incredibly eerie and dark music with mind-blowing technical effects.
Roni Size/Reprazent, New Forms (Mercury, 1997)At a time when most drum 'n' bass was getting colder and more tech oriented, Roni Size and his Bristol-based crew-DJ Krust, DJ Die, DJ Suv, and various live musicians and vocalists-reminded fans of the genre's funk and soul roots.
Source Direct, Exorcise the Demons (Astralwerks, 1999)With its epic production, sci-fi soundscapes, and intensely deep bass lines, this album takes drum 'n' bass into the new millennium.
Amon Tobin, Permutation (Ninja Tune, 1998)Most drum 'n' bass breakbeats come from '60s soul records, but Tobin reached back further and lifted breaks from classic jazz songs. An incredibly smart and sophisticated effort.
Various artists, 99.1 (Moving Shadow, 1999)More hard-edged than the Blueprint collection, 99.1 features hard-hitting, slamming tunes from Flytronix, Omni Trio, Dom + Roland, and other stars of the current Moving Shadow roster. It also includes a bonus E-Z Rollers mix CD. With a street price of $5 to $7, it's the best drum 'n' bass bargain around. Look for 99.2 soon.
Various artists, Blueprint (Moving Shadow, 1997)An excellent overview of Moving Shadow's output in 1997. Despite tempos that clock in at over 160 bpm, the overall mood of the material is jazzy and ambient. Also features Rob Playford and Goldie's collaboration on "The Shadow."
Various artists, Enforcers: Above the Law (Reinforced Records, 1996)Like Moving Shadow, 4 Hero's Reinforced label helped nurture the fast rise and maturation of jungle. Features early efforts by Goldie, Lemon D, Doc Scott, and Grooverider.
Various artists, Jungle Tekno Vol. 1 (Jumpin' and Pumpin', 1992)This compilation captures the moment that jungle began to break away from hardcore. Seminal tracks from Bukem, Blame, and 2 Bad Mice.
2 Bad Mice, Kaotic Chemistry,singles: "Waremouse,""Bombscare"(Moving Shadow, 1992)
Goldie, Timeless(London, 1995), Saturnz Return(London, 1998)
Rob Playford & Goldie, single:"The Shadow"(Moving Shadow, 1997)
Rob Playford, single:"Orbital Madness"(Moving Shadow, 1990)
REMIXES"Comatose" (Lisa Hall)(Warner Bros., 1999)
"Fast Machine" (Tin Star)(V2, 1998)
"Fat Neck" (Black Grape)(Radioactive, 1996)
"Fu-Gee-La" (Fugees)(Sony, 1996)
"Milk" (Garbage)(Mushroom, 1996)
Theme from Mission: Impossible(Mother, 1996)
"No One in the World" (Locust)(Apollo, 1998)
"Satellite" (Control Freq)(F111, 1999)
"Swallowed" (Bush)(Alex, 1997)