By now these guys don’t need an introduction anymore. The Heatwave are playing all over the UK and abroad, supporting major dancehall artists and causing major bashment mayhem wherever they go. I met up with Gabriel and Ben for a chat in Dalston.
When did you start playing records?
Gabriel: My dad bought me a pair of decks for my 18th birthday so that was the start of me playing records. I played hip hop and a few other things, drum and bass and stuff like Massive Attack and Tricky.
You mostly played music from the UK?
I played some American hip hop as well. Things like Tribe and EPMD. The Lauryn Hill album had just come out… But mainly UK stuff like Rodney P and Skitz, Roots Manuva, Seanie T, Skeme, especially Skitz. That Skitz stuff was what got me into reggae, tracing the samples that he used. You know the King Tubby’s Firehouse compilation?
That had like three or four tunes on it that I recognized from hip hop and from jungle. It’s got the one from Original Nuttah. Things like that was how I started getting into reggae.
It weird how I got from listening to 60s and 70s reggae to 80s and 90s dancehall. That was the time when Elephant Man and Harry Toddler were big and I didn’t really like that stuff. But after spending about six months listening to 90s and late 90s dancehall, suddenly the new stuff sounded amazing. When people engage with modern dancehall often sounds incomprehensive, not in terms of lyricas but musically.
It’s a completely different thing.
When you listen to early 90s Buju Banton it almost sounds soft and that was one of the hardest musics ever at the time if you didn’t come from that background.
Right now music is all you do, right?
I’ve been doing it full-time for a couple of years now.
When did you decide to see deejaying as a career?
That’s kind of always been the plan since I was about fourteen. When we started Heatwave I worked three days a week and I quite liked that for a while but there just wasn’t enough time to do everything we wanted to do. We were getting more and more bookings as well and so it seemed like the right thing to do to invest the time to take it to the next level. That was probably three years ago. From that time things really exploded and, also, that was the time when I started working more and more closely with Ben. It went from me doing it part-time to me doing it full-time and Ben being involved as well. That just had a massive impact. Before that we already had a lot of ideas but we just weren’t able to do everything. No we can pretty much do everything we can think of which is nice.
That’s being able to do nights like Showtime and taking Heatwave all across Britain?
Yeah, we had the idea of Showtime for a while. Maybe a year before we did it?
Quite a long time. It was an idea that had always been in the background and then it was the time to do it and it all fell into place.
Did you manage to get all the artists you really wanted to get?
Yeah! There’s more artists that we want to get involved in future events but the first one was really about people we had already been working with for a few years. People like Rico and Wiley and YT, Stush and Stylo G and Mr. Williamz. It’s all people that we knew quite well. There’s obviously a lot of big artists that we haven’t worked with yet but we will do that in the future. This year we’ve got Dirrty Goodz, Gappy Ranks… Actually, we’ve worked with all of them before but…
Showtime is a sort of continuation from the early years with people like Wiley, people who were around at the early Heatwave parties. They were there at Rhythm Factory, either on the mic or in the rave. It was bringing them back at this new level that Heatwave had got to – on a bigger sound system with a bigger crowd, a bigger venue. It was like bringing all those old school parties from the early days to where we are at right now.
… and adding new guys like Mr. Williamz and Stylo G who hadn’t been around in the early days, they are probably the biggest dancehall artists in the UK at the moment, they’re the new crop of artists. We also always wanted to make sure we had the big eras represented – Skibadee is definitely the biggest drum & bass mcs who’s ever been, I think, and Asher Senator who is quite important for his links with Smiley Culture and the pioneering of the fast chat style.
This makes a lot of sense to me. Just listen to Asher Senator, listen to Skibadee and then listen to what a lot of mcs are doing today. A lot of it is coming straight from dancehall.
I think a lot more people know about that today. About four or five years ago a lot of people didn’t really appreciate that. A lot of people didn’t really understand how much grime owes dancehall. But now because of things like England Story and things like Showtime, things like when Smiley passed, the way people talked about him and the way people wrote about him, it’s obvious that people started to see that he had begun what is happening now.
That got quite some coverage over here, right?
In a way but not as much as it should have got. If you compare it to Robin Gibb, that Bee Gees guy….
I see what you mean. Also things like no fingerprints being found on the knife weren’t exactly headline news anymore…
No. That stuff gets ignored.
It was quite similar with the riots last year. Some guy shooting a policeman and a policeman shooting that guy was headline news but when the story changed to a policeman shooting a policeman and a policeman shooting some guy it hardly got mentioned.
That doesn’t really get the coverage it’s expected to get. Well, in a way it does, because you’re kind of used to these things being treated like that. Considering how much impact Smiley Culture had on UK music, I wouldn’t say it got a lot of coverage. But that’s true about the whole of this music, about all of dancehall in the UK and Jamaican music in the UK, UK underground and rave music as well. Although it has had a massive impact on mainstream music culture, it is largely underrepresented. I heard that the first ever drum & bass number one was earlier this year which seems kind of crazy that it has taken that long.
Especially since drum & bass used to be so much bigger.
Exactly! What has happened is that it sort of passed out of what it was, the scene that created it, and become something else. It still has the same name but people don’t even know where it comes from, the lineage, the people that created it. It gets to the point where it has mainstream success but it’s totally divorced from its roots.
Are you planning to do Showtime on a more regular basis?
Maybe. There’s a lot of interest from promoters and our audience. We’re now doing our Hot Wuk party all around the country so we’ve got big followings in Leeds, Brighton, Bristol, Manchester and we’ve had a lot of people asking us if we’d take Showtime to those places. Especially in places like Bristol and Manchester where there is a big local dancehall scene, where there’s lots of local mcs, in Bristol you got people like Buggsy, Dynamite MC, Blackout JA, places where there’s a lot of big local mcs. Taking it to those places and doing it there with London mcs but with the local scene represented as well – people would be really excited. So I think we will do that at some point. The next one is a year after the first one, so annualy, maybe… Early is a good time for doing it as well. It sets off the summer nicely.
I’d think if you only did it once a year, you’d be able to keep it something rather special.
That’s the thing. We’ve talked about doing a tour and taking about ten artists on the road and then we realized that it wouldn’t work. The whole point is that it’s totally unexpected. You couldn’t do the same show five nights in a row because then people would get into their routines. One of the best things about a sound system show is that no one knows who’s gonna do what. Even the mcs are looking around what’s happening and who is up next.
That’s what I really like about having more than one mc. One mc may be good on his own but chances are that he will be better if you’ve got another mc. People are always trying to raise the ante as soon as there’s a little competition going on.
You could see that at Showtime. Everybody was like “I need to step up!”
Around the time when we were doing Showtime, we had been doing research on old drum & bass sound systems, garage raves, different raves and there was this video that was going around on Youtube of these schoolkids in Jamaica who were freestyling and chatting dancehall lyrics in their playground at school. I showed that to a friend who doesn’t really know about dancehall culture. And then I showed her a video of a garage sound system and she immediately saw the connection. It’s that group thing, I think that’s so important! You see it with the garage mcs all on one stage. Someone steps forward and does his thing and then the next one steps forward trying to raise the bar. I remember it clearly from the drum & bass days as well. Always someone trying to outshine the last mc and doing the maddest chat. The most mad fast double time to get the biggest crowd reaction. It’s very different to when you have an artist on their own on a stage for three hours or whatever. There’s less of that competitive element.
I love it as well when they start using each others lyrics. We had Serocee, Junior Dangerous, Navigator and Rubi at at Hot Wuk last year. Serocee would start chatting a lyric and then Rubi would just take it, twist it, use the same pattern and reinterpret it.
I think that’s fairly unique to dancehall that people are modifying patterns that already exist. Taking lyrics and styles that everyone knows and reinterpreting them and all of that happening live in the moment on stage connected with an audience.
You got your freestyling with hip hop as well but it seems to be a totally different vibe. I can’t really point my finger at it but…
I think the big difference is that hip hop doesn’t have the same big melodic element, the same kind of hook that dancehall chatting has. There’s much more melody. And then there’s the templates like “Phenomenon One” or that Ribibongbeng type of skatting or the Nicodemus flow that around the time everyone would use…
You’d say that it all is familiar enough for the audience to enjoy it while at the same time nobody knows what will happen next?
Exactly. You don’t even have to listen to the lyrics. You just recognize stuff.
Hip Hop is just a really different culture. It’s frowned upon to do someone else’s lyric or someone else’s melody. You couldn’t imagine a big hip hop artist taking a classic hip hop lyric and reinterpreting it on stage. That would be seen as biting. Whereas in dancehall it’s more celebrated, taking classic styles and reinterpreting them.
You know that “People are you ready? Oh Lord!” line? I only recently read that Oh Lord was the name of the sparring partner of the guy who invented that line. Still everybody to this day is using that line.
For real? That’s mad! As a host I find it interesting to see how mcs engage the crowd and how some audiences are just trained. For example, drum & bass audiences got certain rituals that everyone knows. When the mc sets it up, the audience will always reply in a certain way. Then again, for dubstep it’s different ones.
I like how quickly it happens. Like when we play Rum and Red Bull, you literally just have to play “I’m drinking” and everybody sings.
I must admit that I was quite impressed by how familiar everybody was with the tunes you played when I was at Hot Wuk.
I love that singalong stuff! Singing along is good. Singing as a group with loads of people… I think there is some sort of spiritual importance to singing as a group – wether it’s around a fire or in a rave.
It’s like church.
Exactly, it’s like church!
When we take Hot Wuk around the country, we always want to do it in a club that got one room. It’s not about splitting it up into several rooms with chill-out and whatever. It’s like church, you want everone to be there and listen to the music and share the same experience. Obviously it’s not about religion.
It’s difficult to describe, that group reaction, that group excitement when an mc does his best lyrics. You get this a lot in grime. It’s funny to the the different strands that have evolved from dancehall, from the same blueprint. Grime, drum &bass, dubstep, whatever it is, they’ve all got their unique things that they focus on. One of the things that’s really prevalent in grime is about mcs and their reload bars, the bars that caused everyone to go mad.
It’s not really like that in dubstep or in garage though. They’re focused on different things.
In drum & bass the reload is for the tune, the riddim, whereas in grime it’s all about the mcs, it’s about their catchphrase lyric. So if someone gets on the mic and drops their most known bar, everyone goes mad. Grime raves are orientated around that reaction. It’s almost the rhythm of the rave. It’s built around those reactions. The momentum will build, build, build and then the biggest mc who’s there will do their biggest bar and then it will just peak.
Didn’t Wiley take that from Sting? ‘Cause Eskimo really is the blueprint for grime raves. That’s where the culture was born. It’s exclusively modeled on that element of dancehall, the stage show, delivering your punchline and getting the crowd reaction.
That moment, that forward moment when everyone reacts and goes mad, I always think that’s what we do, what the Heatwave is. That moment is just drawn out for the whole evening. We’re trying to maintain that level of excitement, that level of hype! It’s so deficult to explain what exactly that feeling is but…
Yeah! It’s fully addictive!
Most of our nights aren’t with mcs. So it’s not about the reload but the way we mix, the quick mix thing, mixing in the intro, dropping it on the chorus, playing a verse, mixing again, playing the next tune, that’s the same thing. The punchline comes in, everyone goes nuts and twenty seconds later you bring in the next punchline and everyone goes nuts again.
So it really is about feeding off the energy of the people you are playing for?
It’s not just about the energy of them, because you’re guiding them.
You’re creating that energy by what you play and what you say on the mic.
Totally! And that’s why it’s deep. Like Gabriel said before, we usually don’t have an mc spitting over the whole thing. It’s more like us hosting and Gabriel djing, so it’s collaborative thing as oppsed to an mc alone spitting their lyric and getting their reload. For us it’s like we have to work together. Gabriel times it right, we judge it together, “Let’s run that tune!”, I give a little speech, Rubi does the hyping and Gabe drops the tune and then we get that reaction. It’s mad precarious to get it and when you get it, it’s “yeah!” That’s why it is addictive, it’s hard to get it perfect but when you get it right: “Boom!” That’s a wicked feeling!
Wet sets you apart from a lot of other people for me is that you seem to have always been supporting and working with a lot of local artists. Is that out of convenience because they are easier to get in touch with than the big Jamaican artists or rather because that is something you feel like supporting?
Obviously it would be amazing to get artists like Kartel, Sizzla or Popcaan to come over but the artists that we’ve worked with are the ones that we grew up listening to anyway -p eople like Rodney P, Goodz and Wiley being heroes of ours for about ten years. I think that’s what different from us to a lot of other dancehall sound systems. We love Jamaican music but we don’t put it above London music or UK music. We grew up on both sets of things. Rubi grew up listening to Saxon and Coxsone, going to those dances and then really came up as an mc through garage and jungle. Ben grew up going to jungle and grime raves and I grew up listening to UK hip hop and jungle/ drum & bass and then the grime mcs were some of the most exciting people I had ever seen. It’s our music. We grew up in London and going to theses raves but also it’s just what we love. That’s why it’s natural for us to work with these people. What they do is amazing. It’s really important for us to not just take what’s hot in Kingston and follow it. That wouldn’t make sense for anyone to do that. You see some sounds from outside of Jamaica do that and I always think there’s plenty of mcs from where you come from…
I think it’s about changing the framework. Dancehall isn’t just something that’s from Jamaica. It has spread so much and become so many different things! A lot of people use the word bashment to describe dancehall but I think when we use it, it’s something more specific. When we use it, it’s more about the different sounds and the different styles that have evolved from dancehall. A different version of dancehall, a newer version.
It’s another manifestation of the same culture. It’s just people chatting on a mic at a party. It’s much like people talking about Afrobeats. When we listen to a lot of stuff coming out of West Africa at the moment…
D’Banj sounds like a bashment artist to me. Basically. But there is complication to that. It might be important for D’Banj to identify himself as an afrobeats artist. Obviously we’re not saying that is like a genre that is officially the case. But from our perspective, this sounds like what know, it sounds like what we love.
And a lot of those artists grew up in London, lived in London, a lot of producers are from London.
It’s all about how you use these words but I don’t see dancehall as so different from dubstep or grime. It’s the same thing to me, it’s the same music really. There are different types and different words.
I remember Rodigan playing a King Tubby’s dubplate which sounded like a jungle tune to me. Obviously, the way it was produced sounded different to what came out of London in the early nineties but it didn’t take much imagination to see the similarities.
It cycles, innit. It’s things getting changed and things getting reinterpreted. The local thing is important as well. I’m tempted to say it is not important because dancehall is a worldwide culture but it’s important to represent the music that was around us when we grew up. Also community wise,…
… in terms about lyrics about what people were going through where you live…
Exactly! Things that were kind of politically important… And just knowing that Glamma Kid went to my school. So when we get a chance to put on a big stage show like Showtime, it’s natural that we want to book him. It goes like that. I remember Stylo G from when he was a grime artist. Then he turns into a dancehall artist and he’s big! Of course we want to support him! It just feels natural to us to support the stuff we’ve grown up with.
It’s definitely different to people just doing the dubplate mailorder thing.
I think people misunderstand the point of dubplates. For years we were like “why would we get dubs?” Everywhere we played no one else was playing the tunes we played. Why would we need dubplates? Then, eventually, we got to the point where it started making sense to us to start doing something different and take it further, making custom tunes that no one else has got. Everytime we do a dub, it’s got to be better than the original.
The only dubplate I’d want to get at the moment would be Put the Stereo on by Gappy Ranks. I wouldn’t even want him to mention my name – I’d just want him to sing it without autotune.
That would be a good dub!
You’ve got people like Wiley or Durrty Goodz over dancehall riddims…
They are not actually strictly dubs but I don’t think anyone else has got them.
They are dubplates, basically.
In the original sense they are because no one else has got them…
Those tunes make perfect sense to me because they are different…
It’s something that didn’t exist before. No one ever spat on Sleng Teng that sounds like Goodz and recorded it.
When I first heard that, I was well impressed.
He really kills it, innit?
Sleng Teng is one of my favourite riddims but when you get on that riddim you’ve got to compete with some of the greatest dancehall artists, people like Supercat… You really have to find a different approach to still be able to stand out in some way.
It’s like a test. Durrty Goodz is an incredibly talented mc. We were listening in the car to when him and Wiley were clashing. They were going in! There were some crazy lyrics flying around. But technically, it was just staggering to hear them. So when he does that on the Sleng Teng, it makes perfect sense to me. He’s flipping talented. When people say that grime is different to dancehall, grime has nothing to do with dancehall, all you need to do is watch Durrty Goodz on the Sleng Teng and Cutty Ranks on the Sleng Teng. Both of them, down to the way they are holding the mic, the way they are just bussing lyrics… You can’t see that and say that it’s not the same, it’s not the same lineage!