James Zabiela is a visionary and icon to many. He’s the foundation of almost every digital DJ’s performance, whether they know it or not. Helping to craft some of the most important DJ technology as the Pioneer Product Test Advisor, he casts his nerdy knowledge into tangible product.
He first earned this title after developing a mind-bogglingly hi-tech DJing style that won him Muzik Magazine’s coveted Bedroom Bedlam award back in 2001, before he was pushed to the forefront as a protege of Sasha’s. Today, his DJ set-up is next level — where standard CDJ performances are layered with lashings of loops, Kaoss pad synths, an iPad and the explorative indulgence of Ableton. And that’s just for starters. His DJ sets fall more into that of live performance than the standard mix and blend.
While the Zabiela sets of the early noughties provided a rich array of house and breakbeat which he combined in typically eclectic style, he’s always been an open-minded DJ. In recent years he’s been a passionate advocate of bass music, though his own music hinted at a love of low-end frequencies as early as 2005 (the deep echoes of ‘Skanksuary’). James has now become a first-stop gateway to breaking future-thinking bass-injected talent on his newly developed label Born Electric.
“I had a track of my own to put out (the dreamy future bass mesmeriser ‘The Healing’) and I didn’t want to give it to anyone else,” James tells DJ Mag. “It took me a while to finish and I started to become a bit protective over it. I wanted control over how it looked as well as sounded, so I wanted to get it out in the right way.”
HEROES AND HOTSHOTS
The right way was through his new imprint, developed with the intention of pushing his favourite artists, as well as new hotshots, to the fore — “to get my heroes to remix my tracks and then also to sign up my peers,” he says. It’s a platform for some of electronic music’s most treasured names. “I got Hot Chip, Midland and Clubroot, three idols of mine [to remix ‘The Healing’],” he continues, fluffing his chest feathers. “For them to remix my own track is a big thing.”
The remixes of ‘The Healing’ highlighted by James are a varied showcase of what lies at the heart of Born Electric — from the electro essence of Midland’s version to the anthemic trance bass of Clubroot’s lick, and Hot Chip’s stadia half-stepper.
“I think they were halfway through the mix, and then they said to me, ‘Oh, do you want to do a remix?’” James describes the attainment of Hot Chip. “Of course that was great, it ended up being a swap thing.”
It is this ‘swap/share’ relationship that engulfs Zabiela, but it is also this ethos that is slowing down his original production. “I am starting to see this pattern emerging where I am just going to end up doing loads of remixes and not actually getting into the studio to do my own things,” James explains. However, he does promise DJ Mag that he is aiming for “at least four more tracks by Christmas”.
With the sole original release on Born Electric coming from Zabiela, anticipation is at boiling point for the ‘unknown’ artists to break the mould. “We’ve got this guy who is a teacher from Montreal called Adam Hodgkins and another guy called Pedram,” James tells us.
The next release to be birthed from Born Electric is due from Pedestrian, already a hot name in the bass underground. In true Born Electric style, this track will of course be getting the remix treatment. “The next few releases are of unknown or relatively unknown artists, and then we are going to use the established remixes to get those tracks noticed.”
Rehashes are promised from d&b’s SpectraSoul, sub-low techno specialists Benjamin Damage & Doc Daneeka, and electro funker FaltyDL, of which the latter is finished and apparently sounds “brilliant!” according to James.
The promising Pedram is a strong contender in the Born Electric fam, brimming with lucid rhythms that spill way over the edges. “He has given us, like, an album’s worth of music already,” James announces. This release, however, will be taken in a different direction.
“We are not going to use anyone to do a remix because we can put out four of those as an EP and they will be strong enough,” James explains. “I think by the time we get to that release, that will be our fourth or fifth, so by the time we get to that point, people will know about the label.”
FINDING HIS FEET
As these new DJs are finding their feet within Born Electric, so is Zabiela. “It’s all these kinds of things that I’m discovering as I am going along,” he admits. “I have no idea how to work and run a label; I’m sort of finding my feet still.”
However, DJ Mag has full faith in James, as we once described him as “the benchmark for technical skill married to exploratory taste”. With the birth of Born Electric, the benchmark has been heightened even further. “That’s the thing, when someone gives you a huge compliment, then you’ve got to live up to it.
“I continue to investigate with the technology and stuff, because I am interested in it, and I find it fun,” he says, addressing the continuity of his role as Pioneer ambassador as well as ultra-savvy technical DJ. “I think as long as I am having fun and taking a genuine interest in what you can do with DJing, music and live performance, then I will continue to have this reputation for being a geek!” he grins.
These geeky ticks, nevertheless, are what have led James to be one of the most influential innovators of the DJ art next to Grandmaster Flash and the cross fader.
“Japanese engineers come to my house. It’s pretty mind-boggling, it feels like a real privilege,” he reveals. “They will drop me an email and will just come to my house and let me try out some equipment. It’s a relationship that’s mutually beneficial to both of us.”
Harnessing iPads within his DJ performance (amongst loads of other more far-out doohickies), it is clear the generic ones and twos do not cut it with Zabiela. “I just do my own thing and try and mess about with things,” he explains. “If they sound good and they work on a performance level then that’s good enough for me.”
The thing is, they don’t just work for James — the rest of the digital DJ world wants a piece, too. “I get people emailing me, asking me how I did stuff, and more often than not, I tell them. Sometimes I won’t tell them, some people email me asking for my touch LED settings and my Ableton. I spent ages working that stuff out and it’s not rocket science, it’s just a little bit nerdy and you just have to spend time doing it.”
James is one of the hardest working men in the scene. That’s why he deserves some time in the sun, as he joins us at our swish Miami WMC party at Delano on Collins Avenue, Wednesday 20th March.
“I stayed at Delano a few years ago,” he reminisces. “I remember when I stayed there, it was all white. I felt like P Diddy, it was very Miami!”
James is a welcome regular to the DJ Mag Miami parties. “I always end up doing the same set every year, and it’s nice to keep getting asked back to do the set as the sun goes down,” he says. “I think it’s the best time to play because you can kind of step it up a bit then, you can bring on the darkness in Miami,” he explains. “It goes from beach balls and bikinis to crack dens.”
James Zabiela has a simple wish, to generate the music that he loves and lead Born Electric and the artists within it completely into the stratosphere. “I would love to get to a point where I could ask an artist to do a remix and they will be familiar with the label.” With his game-changing attitude, we’ll all be vibing to his Electric feel for a long time yet.