Monday, February 16, 2015

Terror Danjah Sleevenotes

sleevenotes for Planet Mu compilation Gremlinz

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 Danjah

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.

What 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 for grime?

 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.

 Industry 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 snarling.

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 giggle.

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 Bukem.

 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 producers?

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. 

Longer version of Terror Danjah interview at FACT

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