I've just asked Thomas Green, aka Rockwell, one of d&b's hottest producers and DJs of 2013, who is No.1 on his wish list of collaborators. He's thinking about it. I ponder which jungle/d&b legend he's going to opt for. “Ian Mackaye,” he says. Nods affirmatively. “Definitely. I'm obsessed with Fugazi and Minor Threat. It's my first love in music — hardcore punk, I love Black Flag and Henry Rollins as well — in fact I went to see his spoken word show a few weeks ago. Ian MacKaye I think probably wouldn't be very into the kind of music I'd make so the results would be... interesting. But, yeah, I would love to work with him.” Of course, such genre-bending surprise should be of NO surprise to anyone who's properly listened to Rockwell.
Have to admit, it's the latest monster single 'Detroit' out on DJ Friction and K-Tee's always-compelling Shogun Audio that first hipped this writer to Rockwell's free-wheeling genius, a startling five minutes of breathless booty-bass-heavy wonder wherein the spirits of the Belleville Three, Model 500, Jeff Mills & Underground Resistance and even a bit of old-skool Stooges-style motorcity punk get re-conjured and recalibrated for a new age. Blissfully, none of this old fart's spoddery is ringing bells for Rockwell at all. “Well, I'm not an aficionado of Detroit techno by any means. The inspiration for 'Detroit' really came from digging out some of those amazing DJ Assault mixtapes from about six years ago, and also thinking of people like DJ Godfather and the whole Ghettotech movement. Also the juke stuff from Chicago and the whole Baltimore club sound. I love the non-pristine-ness of the beats, the grittiness of it, the rawness. That's what I was trying to achieve with 'Detroit'. The reaction has been unbelievable.”
Everyone who's heard 'Detroit' is already calling it one of THEE d&b tunes of the year but when you hear it you'll be excused for some confusion — if this IS d&b it's as far away from the strictures and confines of the genre as possible. Rockwell's music suggests drum & bass is now a genre that can sustain any array of different sounds so long as the tempo is up at the high-end of a maximum darts score. “To me, that's all drum & bass means, it means music that's up in the 170-175 bpm area. Within that limitation I think the music should be free to sound like anything.” Does he think that attitude is down to him not coming from an explicitly d&b background? “Maybe. I grew up in a little village in the Midlands, I wasn't plugged into any changing scene. Initially I was purely into hardcore punk music, played bass, violin in an orchestra — I wanted to form a band but couldn't find anyone into the same NYC hardcore guitar music that I was into. Drum & bass immediately appealed to me because it has that same sense of momentum and movement as my favourite punk music. When it gets going it's just totally unstoppable, and you don't WANT it to stop — that to me is the sign of a great d&b track. I think as an artist to think that you're working within a genre and therefore you can only use a limited variety of sounds is totally wrong.
The only limitation in my music is to that d&b tempo. But as a DJ and a producer I've been playing and making music that's nothing to do with d&b. Drum & bass is the genre I work in but I don't feel it as a limitation, or if it is, it's a limitation that forces me to be creative. I love that tempo of music, I love the impact it has on me, the way it makes me feel and dance. Just like I did with hardcore punk.” Rockwell's first music of note came in 2009, early tracks like 'Underpass' and 'Reverse Engineering' showcasing a startlingly fresh talent, clearly obsessed with the painstaking intricacies of sound. “I was listening to a lot of Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, still do listen to a lot of that. I was a bedroom DJ, a bedroom producer, also battling against my limited experience of technology, fighting against that whilst going through a difficult emotional time in my life. I think ever since my music has been an attempt to keep that kind of intricacy whilst increasing the volume, directing stuff at the dancefloor.” DJ Mag also hears a lot of hip-hop in Rockwell's music, not necessarily the tempo but the feel of the beats, that ruff'n'ruggedness, that sense of drama. “Totally. From the time as a 16-year-old when I used to listen to Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang through to now listening to Waka Flocka and Hudson Mohawke I take massive inspiration from hip-hop, the way it gets snares sounding, the innovation of it. I'm now entirely digital in my production, I don't use anything analogue. That precise, loose feel — it's an incredibly difficult balance to strike because as soon as you start increasing the volume of stuff you can lose that intricacy but that's been my learning process. I love jump-up rave music, I couldn't have kept my music as this purely bedroom thing but I'm trying to explore composition whilst being sparse with those intricacies, bringing them out more. It's difficult but it's what fascinates me.”
So for Rockwell, music by definition has to entail a bit of struggle, needs motivation to make it matter? Another taint of his punk-rock past? “Well, look at Fugazi. What I really love about their music is their ability to go off on these incredible tangents but still return to the original idea of the song. I'm not someone who can go home, fire up the studio, take my stock breaks and my stock loops and presets and just churn out tune after tune like it's some kind of production line. I know there's plenty of producers who work in precisely that way but I need motivation behind it, I need to WANT to explore something new, something I've never done before, to make music. I see no point in doing something I've already done. The music has to move forward constantly and be an expression of a feeling. I couldn't just make music for the sake of it. It's one of the things I'm thinking a lot about at the moment, particularly now I'm making an album. I ask myself where do I want my music to go? And if I wasn't asking that question I don't think I'd be doing my job.”
After releases on Digital Soundboy, Renegade Hardware, Critical and Darkestral, Rockwell signed exclusively to Shogun Audio in 2009: since then he's brought out a stunning series of ever-changing tracks that reflect the total musical freedom Friction and K-Tee both expect and enable in their roster. When he's not producing, Rockwell (who admits he never even dreamed he'd be signed) can be found DJing clubs and the airwaves all over the world — taking the same slipperiness of genre and focus of feeling from his own music to his work in the booth. “For me, only a few things can be planned in a set.
It's all about sensing the vibe or what's needed and responding — knowing that if you play some stuff that's half-speed, some juke, some booty bass, vary the speed of the set, when you DO give them that explosive 10 minutes of lashing d&b they'll go crazy.” If one thing unifies all the music Rockwell's transmitted thus far it's that sublime sense that not only does its creator care to an almost lunatic level about every single aspect of his soundworld but that behind it all is a man on a serious-minded yet party-conscious mission to take that unique sound as far as it can possibly go. Nuts and bolts questions — how does he know when a track's finished? “When Ed Friction says it's done, it's done! He gives me constructive criticism and I make final tweaks and it's there and I need that outside perspective otherwise I'd be tweaking things forever.”
Can he turn his producer's head off? Or is he hearing music everywhere? “It's impossible to turn it off. I've finally arrived at a place where my studio isn't in my house cos it was wrecking my social life and my relationships. You can be sat there watching, I dunno, a car advert or something and I'm thinking 'wow I love the sound of that synth' or 'I wonder how they EQ'd that bass' — used to drive my girlfriend insane. You can't turn it off, it almost gets to the point where you wonder if you even ENJOY music anymore cos you can't stop analysing it!” Let Rockwell do the worrying, you should just enjoy 'Detroit', go back over the old stuff if you missed it and keep things locked for the soon-come debut album. One of d&b's most incendiary talents looks like he's in no mood to stop building and burning any time soon. UNSTOPPABLE.