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On Cue: J:Kenzo

Feature-pic1_JK.jpg
Feature-pic1_JK.jpg

On Cue is our flagship mix series, celebrating the pivotal DJs and producers whose influence has shaped the world of electronic music, both in their local scenes and beyond. This week, DJ Mag deputy editor Ben Hindle catches up with J:Kenzo about his Artikal imprint, his immense new album, 'Taygeta Code', and his shared love for dubstep and d&b, demonstrated masterfully in an 85-minute mix

J:Kenzo is an anomaly. Plenty of drum & bass artists have tried their hand at dubstep in the past, but only a few have added something worthwhile to the canon. Flip that around, and the number plummets even further. Dubstep producers who have not just dipped a toe in d&b, but successfully dunked both feet in, are virtually unheard of. Jay Fairbrass, however, is a 140 veteran — with labels like Roska Kicks & Snares, Argon and, most prominently, Tempa, littering his back-catalogue — who’s also well respected in the 170 world, with outings on 31 Recordings, Cosmic Bridge and, under his Specialist X alias, AKO Beatz.

Fairbrass says jungle was his “first love”, but dubstep still remains the UK producer’s primary territory. His latest album ‘Taygeta Code’ is firm evidence of that. Released at the tail-end of 2019 on his Artikal Music label, the LP offers nine tracks at his original tempo, and two halftime d&b cuts. It’s a far cry from his last album, the self-titled debut that arrived on Tempa way back in 2012, and which Fairbrass himself says was more “a bunch of tracks” put together at a time when he was still finding himself as an artist. “It was kind of like an introduction,” he says. “Seven years later and my productions have moved on.”

That’s not to say ‘Taygeta Code’ is lacking club weaponry. Opener ‘Desired State’ comes out swinging with blasts of jittery low-end, while ‘Narky (Body Dem)’ — featuring a sample of MC Navigator lifted from an old DJ Ron tape, a nod to Fairbrass’ jungle past — is the kind of hulking mass of overdriven grit and sub-bass that demands a rewind each and every time.

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However, the album also features more introspective moments. ‘Blind Summit’ is all cosmic twinkle and garage swing, while ‘Broken Dreams’ and ‘All In’ use vocals to add emotional depth to the playbook. The end result is an album that delivers singular dancefloor cuts, but even with its more aggressive moments, still plays best as an album — a full listening experience.

“I think I’ve always liked albums that you can go out and dance to, as well as listen to at home,” says Fairbrass, though he adds that covering both bases wasn’t something he set out to do. “It was hard being an A&R of [my] own album, ‘cause I’m quite critical of my own productions. So it was like having to take that, not being overly critical, but knowing that these tracks [were] gonna work in sequence and work as a complete package.” 

Road-testing was a big part of the process he says; the project began in 2017, but the summer of 2019 became a particular proving ground for tracks. Fairbrass remembers the eerie bleeps of ‘Deadbull’ getting a positive response at Outlook, while ‘Hoodwinked’ — a gurgling 140 acid track — got the nod of approval from Om Unit and Fracture, whose ‘Turbo’ experiments brought similar sleaze to 2019, but at an even faster bpm.

As a reflection on his entire catalogue, having two drum & bass tracks on the album — rolling halftime cuts ‘Guilty’ and ‘Token Image’ — is probably actually one too many. However, given his increased dabbling in the sound in recent years, we wonder why there weren't more?

“I didn’t want to over do it on this album with drum & bass, I just wanted to keep true to what people know my sound as,” responds Fairbrass, who later suggests a d&b album could be on the cards in the future. “I suppose there’s more 140 stuff because no one’s really done a 140 album in a long time. There’s been a few people who’ve done stuff over the years, but a few people were saying to me, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not about doing albums right now, albums don’t sell, it’s too much of a big commitment, you might as well just do singles and EPs’.”

Fairbrass puts the dearth of LPs down to dubstep still being a relatively young genre. He points to Deep Medi — one of the genre’s most established labels — as an exception, having brought their total to 14 albums with Jack Sparrow’s ‘#000000 365’ in 2019, but even then, that’s over a period of 13 years. In comparison, he points to d&b labels like Metalheadz, Critical and Dispatch, which each release multiple albums per year, but also have over 25 years of drum & bass history backing them.

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“Where is the Metalheadz of dubstep?” asks Fairbrass. “I’ve said this to a few people recently; even with agencies, there’s no real dubstep agency that people can go to and book dubstep artists, we’re all spread around quite a bit and in that bass music fold, which can be anything from 120[bpm] upwards.”

Then there’s the financial aspect: “It is quite a big vinyl market,” says Fairbrass. “A lot of artists wanna release on vinyl, so it’s whether you can put up the... I dunno, £3-4,000 to release an album. It’s not cheap man.

“And after you’ve broken even you’re looking at what’s left for the artist? What’s left for the label?” he continues. “I think dubstep’s still building towards that. Deep Medi, because they’re probably the biggest label in the scene, they’ve got the resources where they can do that... Dan [Youngsta] with Sentry is another label that’s kind of going down the album route.”

Fairbrass’ own label, Artikal (he also runs another outlet called Lion Charge which focuses on the dubbier side of things), has become an incubator for dubstep’s new school. Earlier in our conversation he mentions Cimm, who’s previously released on Artikal and in 2019 dropped an album for Sentry and became a resident for London’s Fabric nightclub. When pressed for more rising artists to watch out for, Fairbrass looks to the wealth of talent on his own roster. Ternion Sound have been “smashing it Stateside”. Mystic State, a duo usually known for d&b, have been dropping some impressive 140. And then there’s Dublin’s Sabab, who had his first EP on Artikal last year. “We’re planning another project for [2020],” says Fairbrass, “but he’s so productive, man. Every week I get another batch of five tunes from him and it’s mental... anybody would be straight on them to release them, so I’m kind of blessed that he’s on board with Artikal and we’re bringing him through.”

The label supports established artists too, of course, and Fairbrass tries to find a balance between old and new. He says he loves the experience of being a label manager, A&Ring, putting projects together, working on the full package of artwork, etc., and getting the finished product back at the end. The only downside is that it requires so much time, it can be difficult to fit in working on his own music. 

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘don’t forget about your own thing, like your own career, as well’, but it’s whatever you enjoy doing at the end of the day and I enjoy doing the label,” he says. He hopes Artikal will have the staying power to one day become as revered as jungle/d&b institutions like Metalheadz and Reinforced. “We’ll see what the future brings.” 

J:Kenzo's On Cue mix offers 85 minutes of depth-charge dubstep, acid and frenetic d&b. Check it out below. 

Want more? Check out our On Cue features with DJ Flight and Om Unit

Ben Hindle is DJ Mag's deputy editor. Follow him on Twitter @the_z_word

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