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Monday, February 16, 2015
Terror Danjah Sleevenotes
TERROR DANJAH: THE
ALPHA PRODUCER sleevenotes for Planet Mu compilation Gremlinz 2009
By Simon Reynolds
Ninety-five percent of grime beats are strictly functional:
they're designed as launching pads for an MC's skills rather than as showcases
for the producer's virtuosity. These tracks
don't tend to go through a lot of shifts and changes but instead loop a drum
pattern and a refrain (typically evoking an atmosphere that mingles menace and
majesty, with melody and "orchestration" pitched somewhere between a
straight-to-video movie score and a ring-tone). And that's fine, you know: it's a perfectly valid
and valuable craft making this kind of basic MC tool. It's okay if the tune doesn't go anywhere,
because the pirate deejay's only likely to drop a minute-and-a-half before
cutting to the next track. It's alright
if it's thinly textured, a bit 2-D and cheapo-sounding,
because it's going to be largely drowned
out by MCs jostling for their turn to spit sixteen bars. But it stands to reason that few of these tracks
are going to be things you'd want to buy and listen to at home. They're just not built for that purpose.
Out of the handful of grime producers who've made some beats
that work as stand-alone aesthetic objects--Wiley, Target, Wonder, Rapid from
Ruff Sqwad--the undoubted ruler is Terror Danjah. But this 29 year old from East London is not
just grime's most accomplished and inventive producer.
He's one of the great electronic musicians to
emerge in the first decade of the 21st Century, a figure as crucial and
influential as Ricardo Villalobos or Digital Mystikz. Someone who's kept on
flying the flag for futurism at a time when recombinant pastiche and
retro-eclecticism have taken over post-rave music just like what happened with
alternative rock a couple of decades before.
Like earlier artcore heroes such as 4 Hero and Foul Play (in
jungle) or Dem 2 and Groove Chronicles (in 2step garage), Terror Danjah knows
how to walk that perfect diagonal between function and form, how to maintain a
tightrope balance between rocking the crowd and pushing the envelope. He has made plenty of MC tools, tracks like
his "Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline" or "Cock
Back" that have become standard beats of the season on the grime scene, enabling
MCs he's never met, on pirate shows he's never heard, to show off and sharpen
their skills. Terror has also crafted beats tailor-made to a specific MC's
talents, like "Haunted" (the instrumental for Trim's classic
"Boogeyman") or "Reloadz", whose speeding-up and
slowing-down-again rhythm is a perfect vehicle for Durrty Goodz's quick-time
style. (That track is also a kind of
living history lesson, cutting back forth between grime's stomping swagger and
jungle's breakneck breakbeat sprint, between 2008 and 1994.)
But on this all-instrumental anthology, with the pungent
charisma of MCs like Bruza or D Double E removed from the picture, you can
really hear all the work that Terror
Danjah puts into his tunes. On tracks
like "Code Morse" and "Radar," the intricate syncopations
and hyper-spatialised production, the feel for textural contrast and attention
to detail, are comparable to German minimal techno producers like Isolee. But all this sound-sculpting finesse is
marshaled in service of a gloweringly intense mood--foreboding and feral-- that
is pure grime. This is artcore: a stunning
blend of intellect and intimidation, subtlety and savagery. Street modernism, in full effect.
Gremlinz is named
after Terror Danjah's trademark: the
grotesquely distorted, gloating laughter that makes an appearance in all his
tracks, a poisonous giggle that makes
you think of a golem, some horrid little homunculus that Terror's hatched to do his bidding. The gremlin audio-logo crystallizes the
essence of Terror Danjah's work and of the London hardcore continuum of which
he's such an illustrious scion. It's at once technical (the product of skilful
sonic processing) and visceral, funny and
creepy. Like the catchphrases and vocal-noise
gimmicks that MCs drop into their sets or tracks (think D Double E's famous
"it's mwee mwee" signal), the cackling gremlin announces that this
here is a TERROR DANJAH production
you're listening to. When a pirate
deejay drops one of his tunes, when a crowd in a club hollers for a reload,
that slimy little goblin is Terror marking his sonic territory like the top dog,
the alpha producer, he is.
Q/A with Terror
You started out in
the late Nineties with Reckless Crew, an East London jungle/drum'n'bass
collective of deejays and MCs. How did that come about?
I formed Reckless in 1998. The other members were D Double
E, Bruza, Hyper, Funsta, Triple Threat, DJ Interlude and Mayhem. We came to
fame from being on Rinse Fm and playing at local clubs and raves including One
Nation, Telepathy, World Dance, Garage Nation, and Slammin' Vinyl.
did you learn, as a producer, from those drum and bass days? Who did you rate
at that time and would consider an influence?
I wasn't much of a producer back in them days. I was
absorbing the musical sounds from Roni Size, Dillinja, Shy FX, Krust, DJ Die,
Bad Company, Andy C and DJ SS. I learned a lot from listening to their music.
Jungle was the first British music we could say was ours. I'd grown upon on
reggae, R&B, soul. And also house music, on account of having an older
brother. I was deejaying on the pirates and I got into producing drum and bass,
because I wasn't getting a lot of tunes from producers. They'd be giving me one
or two dubplates, but they had the big DJs like Brockie to service first. So I
started making my own "specials"
and did loads of tracks. But I didn't put them out, just played them on the
radio. My own personal sound. But DJ
Zinc and a few others cut my tunes as dubplates.
When did you make the
transition to UK garage and that MC-fronted 2step sound that was the prototype
I did two garage tunes
and they blew up so I decided to stick with that. In 2002 I did
"Firecracker" b/w "Highly Inflammable" on Solid City,
Teebone's label. For a while I was part
of N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, because I'd been at
St. Bonaventures [a Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Forest
Gate, London E7] with a couple of members of N.A.S.T.Y. But all the time I was doing my own thing and
eventually just branched off.
Then in 2003 I
formed Aftershock with this guy called Flash, who I'd met at Music House where
everyone goes to cut dubplates. The
first two Aftershock releases were Crazy Titch's "I Can C U, U Can C Me" and N.A.S.T.Y.'s "Cock Back". That got the label off to a flying start--everyone
was buzzing after those two releases.
Then it was Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and then in 2004 I put out
the Industry Standard EP. That’s the
one where people thought "this label is serious".
Industry Standard is where you can really hear your
three-dimensional "headphone grime" sound coming through, on tunes
like "Juggling" and "Sneak Attack". With those tracks and all through your music, the placement of the beats, the way
sounds move around each other in the mix--it's very spatial.
Some of that comes from listening to a lot of Roni Size and
Andy C and producers like that. Lots of abstracty sounds rushing about, coming
out of nowhere. There's a sense of more
life in the music. That’s what I do in
my tunes. Drum and bass gave me ideas about layering sounds and placing sounds.
But it also comes from studying music engineering at college, doing a sound
recording course. I learned about
mic'ing a drum kit and panning. You've
got the pan positions in the middle of your mixing desk, and the crash should
be left or right, the snares should be slightly panned off centre, the kick
should be in the center. So you've got a panoramic view of your drum structure.
Obviously I went beyond that, started experimenting more. The bass stays central but the sounds always
drift. So each time you listen you’re not just bobbing your head, you’re thinking "I heard something new in Terror
Danjah’s tune". So it always lasts longer.
Standard was the breakthrough release, in terms of people realizing that
here was a producer to reckon with. What came next?
Payback was the
biggest. That EP of remixes was one of
Aftershock's top sellers. It was getting caned the most, especially my
"Creepy Crawler" remix of "Frontline". That cemented it for us.
Basically you took
Big E.D.'s "Frontline" and merged it with your own "Creep
Crawler" from Industry Standard. It's got a really unusual synth sound,
harmonically rich, with this sour, edge-of-dissonance tonality. It makes you feel like you're on the verge of a
stress-induced migraine. A sound like veins in your temple throbbing.
It's a normal synth, but where many people would just use it
straight out of the module without any processing or texture, I’ve learned some techniques to give it
more. I add that to it. I can’t tell you
how, though. Certain producers might go "ah!"
Those sort of wincing
tonalities are a Terror Danjah hallmark.
Another are the bombastic mid-frequency riffs you use that sound a bit
like horn fanfares, and that sort of pummel the listener in the gut. They've
got this distorted, smeared quality that
makes them sound muffled and suppressed, like their full force is held back.
But that just makes them more menacing, a shadowy presence lurking in the mix. Like a pitbull on a leash, growling and
That's like an orchestral riff. Again, it's all about the effects I put on it.
If you heard it dry you’d think "Is that it?" It’s the same techniques I use for the
Ah, your famous
hallmark: the jeering death-goblin laughter. How did you come up with the Gremlin?
I had a lot of drum and bass sample CDs back in the day and
I had that sound from time. I used it a
couple of time in tracks, just to see how it sounds. Then I stopped using it and everyone was
like, "Where is it?!?". I was like, "I don’t want to use it no
more". But everyone was going like "That’s
nang! Use it!". So I switched it
up, pitched it down, did all sorts of madness with it.
But Terror Danjah
music is not all dread and darkness. You do exquisite, heart-tugging things
like "So Sure," your R&G (rhythm-and-grime) classic. Or
"Crowbar 2," a really poignant, yearning production draped in what
sound like dulcimer chimes, a lattice of
teardrops. That one reminds me of ambient jungle artists like Omni Trio and LTJ
I used to listen to
Omni Trio and all that, when I was 14 or 15. That R& G style is more me.
Everything you hear is different sides to me, but that sound, I can do
that in my sleep. One day I can be
pissed off and make a tune for deejays to do reloads with. And another day I'll
do one where you can sit down and listen and relax, or listen with your girl
and smooch her.
Do you see anyone
else in grime operating at the same level of sophistication, in terms of
I don’t think none of them really. [Aftershock producer]
D.O.K. is the closest in terms of subtle changes, and DaVinChe. You've also got P-Jam.
But I don't really look at anyone and think they’re amazing. Wiley at one point was the guy whose level was what I
wanted to get to. But I don’t think
there’s anyone now who’s doing anything different. They’re being sheep.