Less than 50,000 people live in Ayr on Scotland’s south-west coast, but earlier this year, 7,500 people partied there with DJ and producer Ewan McVicar on the town’s Low Green. It was McVicar’s debut festival, the sold-out and in-demand Pavilion, and it’s just one of many defining moments in his journey as a DJ this year. “It’s just class,” he tells DJ Mag, looking back on the year and speaking about his Best DJ award win. “All the hard work you put yourself through every week to try and make people happy, and all this just makes it worth it.”
Alongside Pavilion, McVicar ticked off some more of his biggest achievements to date in 2023. He held down a double residency at Newcastle’s World Headquarters and Glasgow’s hallowed Sub Club, hosted his own HANDPICKED events with guests like Special Request, Kerri Chandler and Hayley Zalassi, played epic venues like the 15,000-capacity Creamfields STEELYARD, and Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and had his first all-night-long set at London’s inimitable fabric. And that’s just a few of the highlights from his packed-out schedule.
When DJ Mag speaks with McVicar, he’s about to embark on his Wee Toon Tour, making stops in small venues across Scotland in places like Paisley, his hometown of Ayr, Aberdeen, and even the Isle of Skye on a tour bus with his brother and closest friends. Despite his huge performances this year, the smaller clubs are where McVicar’s heart lies, and this tour is another way for him to give back to everyone at home who has supported him along the way — and who continues to.
“I feel most at home in the small clubs where I hold my residencies,” he says. “As much as I love the big venues and festivals that I get to play, I feel so much more at home somewhere like Subby or Worldie’s, where I can play my music that I really love. When I started DJing I wanted to play clubs like that. I never pictured myself playing these massive festivals and venues.
“And I am still learning, you know?” he adds. “I’m still learning what I do like and what I don’t like and playing different sets everytime I can. And the support I get from people is why I can keep doing that. When I play music I just think, ‘I’m willing to give all of you whatever you give me’.”
Worlds away from those intimate clubs, he’s got gigs confirmed at Australia’s Beyond The Valley festival this New Year, as well as at next year’s Hideout festival, and he wants to continue to keep that balance between bigger shows and smaller events. As ever, though, it’s about what he can do for the people that support him, while continuing on his upwards trajectory. “I think I’m also gonna try and play longer sets next year,” he says, “to give people that true experience of what I like to do. An hour or two hours isn’t long enough for me to tell my story. It’s about doing more and evolving, but keeping the credibility of what I’m doing at the heart of it.” And we can’t wait to see it. AMY FIELDING
There is no one who captures the youthful face of UK bass music than Leeds’ Freddie Baker, AKA Bakey. A torchbearer for a new generation of sub-heavy DJs, he’s is still under 25, but has an old-school head's encyclopedic knowledge, alongside the insatiable excitement of someone who was reared on social media. His style is as populist as it is infectious. A bit of speed garage here, some 2-step there, a drop of bassline, a quick dip into jungle, a few nods to grime, a large dose of breaks. Heck, you can even catch a little hint of old-school dub badness in some of his recorded mixes. Holding it all together is a dark and sinister reimagining of the hardcore continuum — this is not your dad's champagne on a Sunday rave.
Bakey sees himself as part of a new movement. “It’s amazing to see the scene grow to such a crazy size and to see all the new talent emerging,” he explains. “In terms of a UKG resurgence, I feel it’s definitely happened in the past couple of years. An obvious sign for me was watching Interplanetary Criminal and Eliza Rose’s track shoot to number one in the charts. Clearly the sound [is] getting more popular again. There’s also been a new wave of bootleg/edits which have swept the scene at the moment too, and I don’t think it really happened to this extent when UKG was first around in the ’90s-’00s.’
This is vital to how Bakey approaches DJing. His sets are filled with bootlegs and edits that send the SoundCloud and YouTube commentators into full meltdown as they look for track IDs. And, as Bakey points out, it's also a way to foster a sense of community amongst this latest generation as they swap WeTransfer files like a previous generation used to trade white labels. This also means that his favourite moments DJing are when he goes back-to-back with fellow new-school DJs like IZCO and Breaka, and MCs like Capo Lee and Reek0.
Alongside these b2bs, Bakey's DJing reached a whole new level this year. “This past year has been quite full on for me in terms of gigs, but it’s definitely helped me get a solid understanding of what sort of stuff I actually enjoy playing, rather than what I feel I need to play.” He played The Warehouse Project’s opening party in Manchester, held it down at Glastonbury, popped down under for a Boiler Room in Melbourne, and was booked for just about every club in the UK where punters want to raise up their gun fingers.
“It feels so amazing to be able to take the UK sounds out of the UK and still have the same reception or sometimes even better,” he says. “In some cities, you can tell everyone is really into it, but the scene just hasn’t been established there yet. It makes you feel even more grateful to be invited out there. And to me, the places I’ve noticed UKG being as widely loved as it is in the UK are Australia, as well as a few parts of Europe, especially the Netherlands!”
Looking ahead, he'll continue to carve out his own space within the clubland landscape. He's been planning a UK tour in partnership with Capo Lee and 23 Degrees, looking to bring his darkside stylings up and down the country. HENRY IVRY
Speaking to us over Zoom from his home studio, freshly returned from gigging in The Netherlands, DJ, producer and trance evangelist Ben Hemsley is feeling pretty good about his DJ Mag Best Producer win. "To win the award is another achievement I'll have to somehow give back to the people who support me and follow me," he says. "They already do enough by showing up to my sets, showing love and energy and listening to my music. To be fan-voted for the award is so mint.
“It’s an absolute dream,” he continues. “I’ve been buying the magazine since I was 14. It’s amazing mate, I’m buzzin’!”
The win perfectly rounded off a year in which Hemsley had a triumphant summer Ibiza Rocks residency, and every date on his Connection tour sold out, including massive venues like Warehouse Project and Newcastle Arena.
“I watched WWE and Disney On Ice at Newcastle Arena with my grandma when I was younger!” he tells us with glee. And he also found time in 2023 to swell his bebé Recordings label’s small-but-perfectly-formed catalogue with big releases from Klubbheads, Cody Wong and his own summer release ‘IBIZA’.
He’s a producer whose tunes have appeared on labels like Trick, Sola and Repopulate Mars, and which have picked up support from DJs ranging from Michael Bibi and Jamie Jones to Annie Mac and Fatboy Slim, and his international DJ profile is rapidly rising too. Clearly, dance music is having something of a Ben Hemsley moment. But while his recent success may appear to have happened overnight, it was actually, as is so often the case, preceded by several years of low-level DJing and production graft.
Before the pandemic, Hemsley was a jobbing local DJ. “I was getting bookings for like two or three hundred quid, once or twice a month,” he recalls, “and that was the only income I had, and then Covid happened.”
The pandemic put a temporary stop to his career, but the pivotal moment for Hemsley’s future as a DJ was also, kind of, down to the pandemic too. In summer of 2021, the UK government was lifting restrictions around social gatherings, enabling large-scale events like Creamfields to take place, but, as Hemsley remembers, “a lot of the European artists couldn’t get in to play because of remaining travel restrictions, so Creamfields had to rebuild their line-up really quickly. I’d had one quite big song that year [‘Through 2 You’ on Ministry Of Sound], and also there was no one else playing at the same time as me. I was playing this 8,000-capacity venue and I wasn’t an artist who would be able to fill that out, but luckily, I just had all the fans who wanted to give us a chance.”
That one gig where you get a chance, in front of a massive audience, to really show just who you are as a DJ: and you seize that opportunity, follow your heart, play the music you love, because you know that what you’ve got on your USBs could just be perfect for that crowd, in that place, at that moment. It’s literally the DJ dream, and it came true for Ben Hemsley. “So I went on after Nic Fanciulli,” he continues, “and obviously house and techno have been around for ages, and the same line-ups have been playing the scene for ages, and I got on stage and thought, ‘What do I want to play?’ And I just fully went into trance mode! Yomanda, all the Manifesto releases and stuff like that, and the crowd just went absolutely mad!”
The decision to simply play the music he loved at that Creamfields gig in 2021 absolutely changed everything for Hemsley. “I went from playing once a month, if that, to 10 times a month for 10 times the fee, just from that one set,” he remembers. “I think people were like, ‘What the fuck, this is exciting, we’ve not heard this music for a while’, and I remember ringing my manager up after the set and saying, ‘That’s going to change my whole career, that’. And it really did.”
For 2024, Hemsley will be splitting his time between DJing, his own production work, and bebé Recordings: the essential components of Hemsley’s patented Three Point Plan to advance the trance. And he’s planning on adjusting his DJing schedule to accommodate his renewed focus on production. “I’m not gonna tour as much next year,” he tells us. “I’m doing bigger shows in the UK, like the On The Waterfront show in Liverpool, which should be very fun… but I really want to build the label. And I want to build the party for the label and just put as much music out as I can. Because at the minute I’m just full-on producing and I’m feeling so creative, I don’t want to force anything. I’m not trying to force myself to be like this superstar DJ. I think as soon as I start doing that, I’ll probably dip.”
“I never want to be like a big pop star or anything like that,” he says later. “I just stay true to myself as an artist and then whatever comes alongside it, as long as I’m getting booked, I’m happy.” HAROLD HEATH
“A beaut way to round off the year,” says Barry Can’t Swim of winning Breakthrough Producer in our Best of British awards, and what a year it was for the Edinburgh-born artist. The second best thing that happened for him in 2023 was the release of his debut album ‘When Will We Land?’ on Ninja Tune.
After a couple of promising early singles on Shall Not Fade and Technicolour, it is the sound of an artist arriving in ultra-high definition. Its colours, melodies, and rousing emotions all hit sweeter than ever before, whether riding bumping house beats, wallowing in downtempo bliss, or shimmering along sparkling electronic grooves. It manages to strike a perfect balance between being uplifting and accessible, but never obvious or derivative. “Putting my debut album out was a really special thing to do,” says the man born Joshua Mainnie. “I never in a million years thought it would be as well received as it was.”
What sets the record apart is its genuine musicality. Mainnie’s melodies mean something. The hooks are never throwaway and the ambition of the record is impossible to ignore in a way that draws comparisons to peers like Bicep. “I generally write on real instruments, as opposed to focusing on textures or fiddling around for ages with analogue gear,” he says of his process, which is more akin to songwriting than traditional production. Mainnie, who took piano lessons as a kid and found music was the only thing that interested him at school, was in various bands playing keys, guitar and even singing, but the autonomy of working alone is what appealed to him.
He says he “loved” the album writing process because of how different it was to writing singles. “I wanted to make sure everything felt connected, so it was a totally new way of writing for me. By setting parameters to write within, I think it made me write more creatively. I wanted it to be varied enough so that it wasn’t a repetitive listen, but then I needed it to feel connected, so I became more conscious of including similar sounds and synths, and mixing it to tie it all together. I never start writing like that though, I’ll just run with an idea and then afterwards tweak it so that it fits more holistically with my vision.”
While many artists pine for high-end gear and rare bits of vintage kit, Mainnie is quite the opposite. Despite the fact his album is bright, clean and shiny, it was made on a knackered old laptop. “It’s 10 years old,” he laughs. “You wouldn’t believe the state of it. I have no hardware, pretty much everything I do is on software and I just treat it to sound more analogue.”
Now the album is out in the world, Mainnie is already back making music, and much of it is downtempo. “At first I thought it was the wrong thing to do, but then I just ran with it, because it’s what I was feeling. I’m more keen to just do whatever feels natural and avoid getting sucked into what everyone else is doing.” So far, then, it’s mission accomplished. KRISTAN J CARYL
Flowdan’s booming voice has always been easy to pick out in the dance, as singular as D Double E’s “bada-bap-bap”. Even a solitary syllable is enough for a reload in the right circumstances, but ‘Rumble’, his 2023 collaboration with Fred again.. and Skrillex has an even more fast-acting and devastating effect on dancefloors. All it takes is “Ya hear that? Killers in the jungle” and, just for half a moment, a tense hush falls on the crowd, like the pause at the top of a rollercoaster. Everyone knows they’re about to have the wind knocked out of them, and all they can do is brace themselves.
When talking about a seasoned musician enjoying a boost in popularity later in their profession, it’s tempting to use terms like “second act” — but when it comes to the twists and turns of Flowdan’s lengthy career, it’s one, not particularly accurate, and two, actually a bit more complicated. If anything, we’re still in Flowdan’s first act, it’s just that more people are catching up. “That’s not frustrating,” he tells DJ Mag, “that’s funny. It just makes you think, ‘Ok then, I’ve just got much more from my catalogue I can expose you to’. That feels easy.”
So then, consider this more of a victory lap. He’s conquered countless genres, covered magazines, toured the world (when we speak, he’s in a hotel in the midst of a run of shows in Australia and New Zealand), and scratched off pretty much every item on his bucket list. “I’ve worked with everyone on my dream list, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I’m very pleased to be able to say that I’ve had the opportunity to work with pretty much everyone I’ve really thought of as a trailblazer.” It just so happens those that were on his dream list were just as keen to work with him.
“I work with people that want to work with me,” he adds, “as long as we’ve got common ground of liking good music, or liking music that we make.” Which brings us back to one of the reasons why Big Flowdan has scooped Best MC/Vocalist at this year’s Best Of British: ‘Rumble’, a collab born of the intricate spider’s web that connects artists as seemingly disparate as these three. Then, of course there’s ‘Baddadan’, the year’s biggest drum & bass track and winner of the Best Track award, where he featured alongside three other MCs on a beat produced by Chase & Status and Bou. There was the huge ‘Shella Verse’ with Sammy Virji, and ‘Stone’ alongside Effy. In fact, it feels harder to name a massive dance track Flowdan wasn’t part of in 2023.
An artist less familiar with the highs and lows of a career in music might get carried away, but for Marc Veira, it’s business as usual. “It might look like I’m having more fun than ever,” he says. “Because more eyes are on me, it might seem like I’m doing more. But to tell you the truth, it’s more of the same.” JAMES KEITH
Something about the sound of Kenya Grace is impossible to swipe past. In an age of dwindling attention spans, the South African-born British singer, songwriter and producer elevated her blossoming career to stratospheric heights with her breakthrough single, ‘Strangers’. What started as nothing more than a rough sketch of a song toyed with on a drum machine would go on to set Instagram alight. The demand led to Grace releasing the song officially, faithful to her vision as a liquid drum & bass track which details her experience with disposable dating. It resonated with listeners on a universal scale: the track went on to soundtrack over 1.4 million reels and amassed streams in nine figures on Spotify, transforming her life quite literally overnight.
“It’s just so crazy, I feel like my world has done a complete 180 turn,” she shares. “It’s been the best year and I’m so grateful for everything that’s happened.” The song dethroned Doja Cat and Drake from their reigning chart positions, announcing Grace as an artist to be reckoned with. When asked why she feels ‘Strangers’ struck a chord with so many, she answers without hesitation: “The lyrics”. It’s steeped in relatability for those who have felt the abrupt abandonment of a strong connection, sinking back to unfamiliarity as if nothing ever happened between you: “It’s something that I hate / How everyone’s disposable / Every time I date somebody new / I feel vulnerable.”
The beat evokes the nocturnal dance sounds which sparked a life-long love affair, from old-school dubstep to pop-leaning cuts from Disclosure, AlunaGeorge and Flume. As a teenager, Grace was a loyal attendee of Boomtown, immersing herself in drum & bass raves; hers is a sound that belongs to a wider tapestry of UK artists of similar influence including PinkPantheress, Nia Archives and Porij, but with a lyrically-led twist. “I love the way a drop in a song makes me feel,” she says — and it’s that sensation she has been searching to replicate in her own music ever since.
The impact of ‘Strangers’ has meant that Grace has tapped into a newfound, invested audience. Her latest single ‘Paris’ is a cosmic dance track with striking depth and detail while still remaining understated and seemingly effortless. It exposes the truth behind hollow Instagram flexing: “And if we turned our phones off baby, would it feel the same? Maybe we would talk without the need to compensate / Is that insane?”
The demand for Grace is global; she’s already performed headline shows across Europe and the US. The calibre of the venues speaks to the high regard she is held in, including Berlin’s dance music stronghold Berghain. “I think I’ve developed in confidence,” she shares. “Before the last few months, I couldn’t even imagine going on stage and performing — I have super bad stage-fright – but having the opportunity to perform in front of such amazing people helped so much.” Having earned 2023’s Breakthrough Vocalist award from DJ Mag, Kenya Grace is ready to deliver on her momentum: more than a viral moment, she’s here to build something to last. SOPHIE WALKER
In the same week that Solid Grooves picks up Best Label at this year’s Best of British awards, co-founder Michael Bibi celebrated leaving hospital cancer-free after six months of treatment for a rare brain and spinal form of the disease. “It was a very different year to what was planned but we’re glad to end it on a high,” say the team of PAWSA, Ramin Rezaie, and Jake Price who are behind the label with Michael.
What has helped win them the award is the label’s remarkable consistency — everything they have put out since launching in 2015 has made an immediate impact on dancers. Their no-frills brand of house and techno is built on heavy-duty drums from a tight-knit family of core artists, and their regular parties at DC-10 in Ibiza and across London are always packed-out affairs full of keen, wide-eyed young party people who like to go hard.
This year, the team has curated a great balance of releases from label favourites and residents alongside some new names and emerging talents. The only rule is that the music they release must be what the founders would play themselves as DJs. “We always test out demos at our shows, so the label focuses on music that is dancefloor-oriented,” they explain.
Standout releases this year included Michael Bibi & KinAhau’s ‘Different Side’ featuring Audio Bullys — a unique collaboration and slightly new direction musically from all involved. Ramin Rezaie’s ‘Special Love’ also showed a different side to the producer and is “a perfect example of the evolution of both his own sound but also the label’s”, while PAWSA returned with ‘Dog Days’, his first drop on the label since 2022’s ‘Room Service’, which has already become a classic at the Grooves Motel parties at DC-10.
Next to that residency, there was a 21-hour party at Club Space for Miami Music Week, events at Barcelona for OFFSónar, and Grooves on the Dock at Silverworks Island in London. “However,” say the crew, “the highlight of the year has to be the DC-10 Ibiza Motel closing party which saw the return of Michael Bibi, a night that will go down for us as the most memorable show to date with a villa afterparty that continued well into the next evening.”
As well as just releasing good music, Bibi himself has often taken on a mentor role for young artists such as KinAhau, giving him a platform to become a fast-rising new school star, which is all part of the Solid Grooves MO. “We really enjoy discovering new talent and providing an outlet and platform for them to be able to flourish,” say the team, adding that the parties, which actually came before the label, are integral to the brand. “What makes them special is the family we have. From the ravers to the DJs, we have all developed a very special bond creating an atmosphere that is exciting and makes everybody feel welcome.” To coin a classic Funkadelic lyric, it’s very much a case of one nation under Solid Grooves. KRISTAN J CARYL
Launched in September last year, co-existing alongside the legendary fabric mix series and sister label Houndstooth, fabric Originals has illuminated the vast spectrum of dance music that the club represents, and the distinct sounds that have been resonating across its dancefloors in recent years. “The ethos is to have artists release on Originals that would then be part of the line-ups at the club and vice versa,” explains head of labels Hiroki Beck. The inaugural release was an emotive and synergistic record from two club favourites, Eris Drew and Octo Octa, followed by an EP from Detroit legend DJ Bone that channelled the old-school fundamentals of techno. There was an EP from Hamburg-born Helena Hauff — her first and only release of that year, in fact — staying true to her trademark sound with EBM-influenced, fast-paced electro across four analogue recordings. And the label’s 2022 came to a close with the incredible compilation ‘fabric SELECTS I’. Four definitive releases within three months of its inception; the label quickly became a cherished addition to fabric’s expansive catalogue.
This year Originals continued to spread its wings and diversify, broadening its discography, bringing talent nurtured within the walls of the EC1 club to a far wider audience, inviting esteemed artists to the imprint and to showcase at the venue for the first time. In February, there was a split EP from two leading artists representing the UK scene on a global scale, SHERELLE and I. JORDAN. All three channelled their own interpretations of club music and the spirit of the rave. LCY dropped ‘He Hymns’ shortly after, dissecting genres and reimagining them in hybrid creations. “We want the label to go from strength to strength and to grow with our ambitions, so it’s important to look at keeping the balance between supporting the next-gen of artists whilst also staying true to our brand with fabric,” says Hiroki Beck. Berghain resident Marcel Detmann marked the next EP release, while Chloé Robinson and DJ ADHD also joined the imprint this year, delivering club-ready cuts with that raw aesthetic they’ve become known for.
The ‘SELECTS’ compilation series has had two more instalments. “This is a running compilation series curated by individual staff members, once again involving the whole company and drawing strengths from everyone working here. There’s diversity in tastes across the board with specialists in specific genres, so what better way for cross collaboration and getting the whole team involved?” says Hiroki.
The label’s A&R network is eight people strong, all from various divisions. “Thankfully everyone here at fabric knows their music and are extremely well connected whatever department they work in, so it makes it a whole lot easier — on one hand, having an abundance of riches, but difficult on the other when it comes to combining all differing tastes into one cohesive output,” says Hiroki.
Originals has been finding inspiration further afield too, in April releasing the album ‘love has never been a popular movement’ by Jamaican-born, New York-based artist, TYGAPAW. Tel Aviv-based duo Red Axes joined the label with their album ‘One More City’, touching on inspirations like post-punk and new wave. All the while the team have continued to stay true to their roots; Kode9 and Burial’s ‘Infirmary’ / ‘Unknown Summer’ felt like somewhat of a homecoming, after delivering the 100th ‘FABRICLIVE’ mix back in 2018. Looking ahead, there’s a release by Manni Dee in January, and after building such a solid framework, what’s yet to come will undoubtedly complement the story so far. So, what’s next? Hiroki tells us: “Watch this space...” ANNA WALL
“We’re always grateful for the support from the fans. The making of this album has been a real passion project for us both and it’s been really cool to see the reaction that it’s had,” say Chase & Status, AKA Saul Milton and Will Kennard, when we congratulate them on their Best Album (and Best Track) wins. 2023 saw the London duo return with yet another landmark LP, ‘2 Ruff, Vol. 1’, their seventh in total and fifth to reach the top five of the UK charts. By now, though, the pair are a well-oiled machine. “Our last couple of projects prior have had a firm idea and direction we wanted to go in before we started writing, and the same was true here,” they explain. “Having a vision and sticking to it has made the process very fluid and enjoyable.”
That’s plain to see on ‘2 Ruff’. Across 10 tracks, there’s different vibes, from light and dark to fun and serious — but there’s an overriding cohesiveness in terms of both the sound palette and the purpose. Milton and Kennard explain how this is their first album that’s “entirely d&b, and we’re playing every single track in the clubs”. There’s no fluff here; this is pure dancefloor music. The whole album whizzes by in under 35 minutes; a whirlwind of crunchy snares and filthy basslines that would make just as much sense as a DJ mix as it does separated out.
“We knew who we wanted to work with from the beginning, which ultimately formed the musical direction, and then the creative [direction] sort of perfectly fell around that,” say the duo. That goes for all the creatives involved, like Theme, the graffiti artist who did all the writing for the album artwork, who was “someone we’ve known for many years and have always wanted to get involved in some way”.
When it comes to the other musicians, the line-up feels like a snapshot of the best in British music right now. There are three of the most in-demand new drum & bass producers. Bou is a 2023 DJ Mag cover star, who collabed on ‘Baddadan’, without a doubt this year’s biggest d&b track. Hedex, who helped produce the Top 20-charting ‘Liquor & Cigarettes’, seems to have headlined every massive arena line-up this year, and Mozey (‘On The Block’) has an unrivalled ability to inject humour into his productions and sets (and social media), which has made him a certified star. “We’ve never collaborated with other d&b producers in this way before, and it felt exciting and inspiring for us, and hopefully for them also,” say the duo. “The new talent in the scene inspires us, and their hunger reminds us of when we were coming up.”
Then there’s the vocalists, which include MCs more familiar to dance music fans, like Trigga and Flowdan, and huge names from UK rap, like ArrDee and Stefflon Don. “We love to hear different voices and tones on d&b, and to take people out of their comfort zone. The thought of Stefflon Don on a d&b track was an idea we couldn’t let go!” say the pair. “MC culture is such a massive part of d&b and it’s important to showcase the talent of the scene.”
Repped hard in the underground, three tracks also made the official UK Top 40, further proof that jungle/drum & bass was the sound of 2023. “Commercially, drum & bass is clearly having a comeback, but the scene has never wavered or shrunk,” say Chase & Status. “Every year we (and our peers) are busier with shows and tours. More people are buying tickets, and worldwide it’s always growing. It’s great to see the wider world embracing and enjoying such cutting edge and innovative music that we’ve always believed in. Long may it continue.” Amen. BEN HINDLE
When DJ Mag phones Richard Sen to speak to him about his Best Compilation win, he describes it as “amazing, a complete shock!” Sen shouldn’t be surprised, as ‘Dream The Dream (UK Techno, Breakbeat And House 1990-1994)’ has all the makings of a future classic. Corralling unsung dance cuts that rose from the fertile soil of the UK’s early ’90s underground, it arrives at a time when more DJs are digging in the crates for rarities and looking back for inspiration, but finding eye-watering prices on Discogs. Sen, a former graffiti writer whose own DJing and production career began in 1989, was buying these records when they first came out from now-defunct central London shops like Silverfish and Fat Cat, and all of them hold precious memories. “They’re personal to me,” Sen says, “my favourites from that time that have still stayed kind of unnoticed, but still sound good now. I tried to pick stuff that wasn’t that well-known.”
The 10 tracks on the compilation sparkle with creativity and energy, created at a time when dance genres were less defined. Orr-Some’s ‘We Can Make It’ is a wicked breakbeat house cut with dub-wise bass, bold percussion and a joyous DIY feel; then there’s ‘Amaranth - Love Lies Bleeding’, a spiralling ambient techno piece from the criminally underrated Bandulu, or the hypnotic mix of Belgian new beat, early trance and breaks on Mind Over Rhythm’s ‘Kubital Footstorm - Global Beatmix’. What the tracks have in common is an experimentation and disregard for genre rules that chimes with the varied tastes of today’s clubbers and DJs. “Because it was so fresh, I think people just had no agenda,” Sen reckons. “They were creating for the sake of creating. It was all electronic dance music, but there were no rules.”
Sen, who’s collaborated on all kinds of records under the names Bronx Dogs, Padded Cell and Hackney Vandal Patrol, put out an earlier compilation on Strut, 2012’s UK house collection ‘This Ain’t Chicago’, but had been planning something like ‘Dream The Dream’ for quite some time. When Ransom Note said they were interested, the plan finally crystallised. “I mentioned it to them about a year or so ago, and they were like, ‘Why don’t we just do it?’ It was an idea that was going on for about 10 years, and it was just the right time. I think with the first one on Strut, the timing was slightly too early, but then after that people seemed to be more interested in going back to the ’90s stuff especially. I guess it’s 30 years old now. The new generation of DJs and young people are interested in that history and looking back, definitely.”
The eclectic nature of the compilation, and his own recording career also informs Sen’s show on Charlie Bones’ Do!!You!! World internet radio station and his general approach to DJing. “I have that same attitude now of not trying to look through genres, but judge things based on good music,” he says. BEN MURPHY
2023 has been a banner year for drum & bass. Not since the ’90s has the genre felt so scintillating and universally adored. From the deepest depths of the underground to the arena-filling mainstream, artists, labels and fans alike have been firing on all cylinders. Driving that have been countless bangers, but one track has stood head on shoulders above the rest — an inescapable anthem with a hook so infectious we were amazed when it wasn’t named the Oxford Dictionary's Word Of The Year. What it has claimed though is DJ Mag’s Best Of British 2024 Best Track award. The banger in question? ‘Baddadan’, of course.
Produced by drum & bass stalwarts Chase & Status — who first rose to fame in the mid-late ’00s around their celebrated debut album ‘More Than Alot’ and have consistently produced chart-bothering releases ever since — alongside new-gen d&b star Bou, himself one of DJ Mag’s summer cover stars in 2023, it dropped at the end of July and has been on repeat in raves and on radio ever since, peaking at No.5 in the Official UK Singles Chart and spending 10 weeks in the top 10.
The beat itself is weighty but relatively simple: ominous intro, glistening synth build-up, snarling bassline after the drop, rinse and repeat. It’s a classic example of less is more. But there’s another reason for its stripped-back approach — well, four reasons. IRAH, Flowdan, Trigga and Takura are arguably the true power behind the track’s runaway success, each delivering memorable bars in their own distinct styles. “We’ve known them all for many years now; real legends of the scene,” Chase & Status tell us. “They each have such individual and iconic styles that it felt very special to have them all together on one track.”
IRAH sets the tone with his impossibly deep delivery, letting us know things are about to get heavy. Then there’s Takura’s refrain, “Nobody badder than we”, the unsung hero of the track that provides the euphoric, gunfingers-raised juxtaposition to the hard-skanking verses. Just as the drop hits, it’s time for the now-legendary titular line, delivered by Manchester MC, Trigga, followed by another fire verse from him. And MC of the moment Flowdan — who seems to have been on every major MC-led dance track this year — delivers the coup de grâce.
Though both Chase & Status and Bou tell us none of them saw the success of ‘Baddadan’ coming when they first hit the studio together, in hindsight there’s no way it couldn’t have been a hit. “There was a real connection between every single artist on the track, both MCs and producers, which can be rare when there's that amount of collaborators,” explain Chase & Status.
“It was just us naturally making a song and not making it to fit any sound or anything like that,” adds Bou. “I had a feeling people were into it after I played it for the first time ever at the DnB Allstars event and it got reloaded! Since then, it’s just kept growing; I feel like the track has opened up our underground music to people who don’t usually listen to d&b.” BEN HINDLE
As listeners, we have become used to releases being carefully planned around a promotional cycle. What was so startling about Little Simz’s ‘No Thank You’ LP — released mid-December ’22 — was that it came out with no fanfare, with scant regard for appropriate timing, and seemingly because its creator felt it was crucial to get her ideas out there before moving on. ‘No Thank You’ emerged eight short weeks after Little Simz had picked up a Mercury Prize for its predecessor ‘Sometimes I’m Introvert’ and on opening track ‘Angel’ Simz spelled out why: “I figured this is the moment, I got to speak NOW”.
None of Simz fans had expected a new album, but when we listened, and absorbed the depth of what Simz needed to talk about in lines like, “I refuse to be on a slave ship, give me all my masters and lower your wages”, we understood why. This was a transmission from an artist whose rise couldn’t be called meteoric — we were reviewing Simz mixtapes in DJ Mag well over a decade ago — but who had undoubtedly in recent years reached new heights of visibility and power. The two records that preceded ‘No Thank You’, 2021’s masterly ‘Sometimes I’m Introvert’ and 2019’s pipebomb ‘Grey Area’ had brought the 28-year-old London rapper to international awareness and prominence. What she had to talk about on ‘No Thank You’ however was new, and urgent. The album is an analysis of the music business and mental health and the often-poisonous relationship between the two, especially for young and marginalised artists.
Earlier in 2023, Simz had parted company with her manager of seven years, in April she cancelled a prospective US tour citing both financial reasons and that she was “not able to put myself through this mental stress”. Some of the most devastating lines on ‘No Thank You’ address both Simz’s turmoil and the schematics of the music business that created it, the sense of losing oneself and one’s freedom that success can bring. “Why did I give you the keys to authorise shit on my behalf?” she spat on ‘Angel’, “What did I expect from those living the corporate life?” It was clear to listeners that ‘No Thank You’ was a record that HAD to come out, that Simz needed to create. Another track, ‘Broken’, spelled the album’s animus out plainly: “Why is mental health a taboo in the Black community?” she asked in her typically fearless way of switching from personal pain to communal and societal sorrow.
“Undervalued, underappreciated in the workplace, why give you my ideas in the first place?” Simz asked on ‘X’, and it was that increased maturity and bleakness, as well as producer Inflo’s growing palette of sounds and grooves, that made ‘No Thank You’ the standout hip-hop album of the past year. Inflo — whose Sault project has created some of the most astonishing UK music of recent years — and Simz have grown together and the results on ‘No Thank You’ are astonishingly fluid, powerfully concise, richly suggestive. “Fuck rules and everything that’s traditional” is one of the first lines we hear and it summates this masterpiece perfectly. One of 2024’s key stories is going to be seeing what Simz and Inflo do next. NEIL KULKARNI
With ENNY’s flow bubbling gently like a freshwater stream over smooth pebbles, typically honest, raw lyrics, and a majestic, soulful production courtesy of Brighton-based producer Yogic, ‘Charge It’ has been voted the Best Rap Track of 2023. The third single and standout cut from the South-East London-born rap queen’s ‘We Go Again’ EP captured her reflective mood as 2022 drew to a close. “I was reflecting on some New Year’s resolutions and feeling defeated,” ENNY tells DJ Mag. “It’s about moments of reflection and accountability, that dialogue of sometimes realising, learning and pressing on.”
Feeling the urge to write but without a beat that matched her mood, ENNY trawled YouTube in search of inspiration. “I came across the beat and wrote the first verse in like 10 minutes,” she explains. The production’s grand orchestral strings perfectly complemented the emotional weight of ENNY’s bars. It’s like it was meant to be that rapper and producer connected. “Then I hit up my manager like, ‘I need this beat!’ In a weird turn of events, Yogic had already messaged him before and they’d had an exchange. From there everything fell into place.”
‘Charge It’ emphasises ENNY’s rap superpower; you’d be hard pressed to find another rapper who folds self-interrogation into the patterns and shapes of some of the most sharply written, witty verses around. Her pen game is impeccable, but from the moment she broke through with ‘Peng Black Girls’ in 2020, it’s been deeper than rap for ENNY. The song reflects her commitment to learning about herself as she moves through life. “I feel writing is therapeutic in a way that allows me to understand myself after the fact,” she says. “So where I may just write and think it’s not about me or associated with me, down the line I’m teaching myself a lesson.”
On ‘Charge It’ being recognised as the very best of British rap cuts in 2023, ENNY is genuinely touched. “The track being recognised means a lot, because I just remember the moments between writing it and listening to it, and feeling not only that a weight had been lifted, but that I had something special. “It’s the track that completed my project,” she explains. “So this type of validation isn’t more so for ego, it’s recognition of the journey of the song and the story behind it. The pain wasn’t in vain.” ROB KAZANDJIAN
“We’re always happy to see if we can do an idea justice. If we can, we’ll fucking do it. That’s been the spirit since day one and that’s why we have such a spread of events. Every time someone came to us with something we weren’t providing, we sat down and spoke on how we could help them realise it. The fact they’re coming to our club and think it could be a home for them is a massive honour — we’re trusted with someone else’s vision. To us, that’s huge.”
Whichever walk of nightlife you come from, it’s easy to admire Anton Stevens and comrades. Promoter and booker at Manchester’s Hidden, he’s been involved in the venue since before its 2015 opening (even prior to a licence being approved), and has played a central role in developing the address since. From hopeful newcomer to one of the UK’s most respected and prized electronic music destinations, and now Best Club winner at DJ Mag’s 2023 Best of British Awards (its second BoB trophy after topping the now-defunct Best Small Club category in 2016).
A decade-long work in progress, Hidden has evolved inside a huge but previously long-neglected mill, garnering a reputation for programming as broad as it is on-point. During that time, rooms have been expanded, layouts rethought, and courtyards developed. More recently, a third floor was made available for larger-capacity events, with new three-point sound and production rigs also arriving post-lockdown. So the building works, but its success is also down to a prevailing attitude of openness and inclusivity. “Anything creative” is welcome on the dancefloor, or to make use of other on-site facilities such as arts studios.
“Hidden was never supposed to be about attracting one type of person… We really think about how to be a platform for different things. At the moment, we have Hit & Run, a massive bass night, Homoelectric, one of Manchester’s most famous queer parties, and Teletech, a big techno brand, with all these crowds able to look at Hidden and say it’s their club,” says Stevens, listing book launches organised by the bar manager, gallery exhibitions, weekly Thursdays showcasing local talent at a low price, and Torture Garden fetish events as further examples of the scope. “It’s an open-door policy in terms of new ideas. We’re trying our absolute best to make sure whatever someone is here for, we’re not getting in the way of that.
“That’s not just promoters, DJs, customers having the best time, but staff too,” he continues. “The drive and enthusiasm that comes from the team is part of a greater thing that knits us together. We’ve worked alongside each other for a long time now, and it’s never been a project about making millions, that’s not realistic; this is really a labour of love… But we also think about the experience of working here. It’s never ‘us and them’ with anything: management-staff, staff-crowd. We are just buzzing people want to come to the venue and believe in what we are doing enough to spend their time and money here.” MARTIN GUTTRIDGE-HEWITT
What started almost 10 years ago has grown into an event showcasing the best drum & bass talent in over 20 locations across the country. We’re talking about Worried About Henry (WAH), the winner of 2023’s Best Club Event. “It’s been a decade-long journey. We started small with our first event in Liverpool at 24 Kitchen Street in 2014. We continued to run events, slowly moving into more regional towns and cities,” explains WAH founder, Christie Liddicott.
The past few years have seen massive expansion for the brand. There were festival stages and takeovers, and WAH’s first Warehouse Project show in Manchester in 2019. “These last couple of years we have been growing the brand and moving into the London scene with shows at Printworks and Drumsheds, all leading up to our biggest summer to date with our festival WAH In The City and our Ibiza residency,” says Liddicott. For the second year in a row, the team took to EDEN in Ibiza. They invited the biggest names in the scene — like Andy C, Friction, Bou and Harriet Jaxxon — to take over the island 16 weeks in a row, with Chase & Status as their residency headliners each week. Thanks to Worried About Henry, drum & bass was able to reach the masses of Ibiza, a place where the genre has previously struggled against other sounds like house and tech.
As well as bringing the likes of Hedex, Sub Focus, Hybrid Minds and Shy FX to clubs and arenas in Milton Keynes, Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester this year, Worried About Henry also made sure to support up-and-coming artists across the UK — like Kaz, Nathan X, CK3 and Anaïs — giving them a chance to showcase their talents alongside the headliners. And it’s not all about d&b either, with WAH often collaborating with brands from across the bass spectrum, like UKG obsessives Garage People and bassline/d&b powerhouse CruCast.
To kick off their 10th anniversary next year, Worried About Henry will host another 15,000-capacity Drumsheds date, which at the time of writing is about to sell out, as well as another run of events across the entire country. Next summer the team will be back at EDEN too, but what are their plans beyond that? “We’d like to continue to grow our shows and brand in the UK, work with more artists, and push the scene,” says Liddicott. “We’d also like to get more into the overseas market — take WAH worldwide.” ANNELIES ROM
Edinburgh festival Terminal V seems to thrive on the ‘bigger is better’ approach. Since its beginnings in the Scottish capital in 2017, this techno lovers’ extravaganza has grown from a single room warehouse event to a 20,000-capacity, two-day celebration of dance music, with bi-annual parties held at Easter and Halloween. From its expansive site at The Royal Highland Centre & Showground, adjacent to Edinburgh Airport, the festival takes place in a collection of cavernous industrial spaces that epitomise an immersive, old-school warehouse rave environment.
This year’s Easter event in particular was one for the ages. Blessed by uncharacteristically sunny spring weather, it boasted some of the biggest names on the scene, with the likes of Amelie Lens, I Hate Models, Alan Fitzpatrick, Charlotte de Witte, Nico Moreno and Héctor Oaks giving the sound systems a thorough workout. Though the focus was primarily on techno, underground house wasn’t neglected either, with the festival’s outdoor Greenhouse stage providing a disco ball-illuminated setting for feel-good sets from Folamour, Jayda G, Kettama, Eclair Fifi and more.
As well as bringing some of the world’s biggest techno artists to the city, Terminal V also platforms local talents. Home-grown heroes Ewan McVicar and Frazi.er were without doubt two of the most popular performers across the weekend, and rising DJs including Kairogen, AISHA and TAAHLIAH were evidence of the current rude health of Scotland’s scene.
With Terminal V now taking the title of Scotland’s biggest electronic music festival, the team behind the brand are rightfully thrilled to see it developing into an offering that attracts thousands of ravers from across the UK and internationally. “It’s a huge honour to be recognised for what we do,” say co-founders Derek Martin and Simon McGrath. “Terminal V is fuelled by our passion for electronic music and the scene which we have been a part of for many years. It is also testament to the growth and success of the festival over the last six years.”
True to form, 2024 promises to be even more mammoth as Terminal V returns to celebrate its 10th edition in April. Across two days and five stages, with more than 80 artists slated to perform, it will be a culmination of hard work and big dreams for the team, say Derek and Simon. “We can’t wait for the 10th ever edition, which is set to be by far our biggest yet!”. CLAIRE FRANCIS
In summarising her 2023, our Underground Hero winner JAGUAR puts it simply: “A year of growth.” JAGUAR has long been known as a multi-hyphenate in the purest sense; hosting BBC Introducing Dance on Radio 1, penning articles and hosting streams for Mixmag, DJing internationally, as well as curating live events and podcasting. All are areas she uses to channel a passion to champion underground scenes and support up-and coming artists. “I feel incredibly proud to accept this award,” she says. “It feels like my calling in life is to help people — whether it’s premiering bedroom producers’ tunes, releasing music from emerging artists. Supporting new artists is in my DNA.”
For JAGUAR, it’s been a year filled with dream developments and career expansion. She’s played Australia and Asia for the first time, hosted her first London residency at The Ton of Brix, continued her UTOPIA talks podcast and even become a label boss. “It’s been the year I realised I have the power to rip up the rulebook and carve my own path, exactly how I want,” she says.
From young she’d been a “new music obsessive”, with a love for human connection fostered by music. “I remember being ‘that kid’ searching online for obscure artists. I’m always looking forward. That is literally what broadcasting is: reaching people, lifting up others, building a community. My very first music job was as an assistant for BBC Introducing, whose mission is to nurture and support emerging artists. Naturally that’s become my mission statement and purpose of my work.”
Her award comes off the back of an underground, counter-cultural spirit that runs through all she does. The clue is in the name: the UTOPIA branding emblazoned across many of her projects reflects a desire for a creative space that supports rather than exploits communities, and where LGBTQ+ people, marginalised genders, Black and brown people and other minority groups can be uplifted. Other initiatives include The Jaguar Foundation, which published a landmark report on gender equality in the UK music industry in 2022, and the Black Electronic Music Association, which was a key force in getting dance music recognised at the MOBOs once again. “I’m not a fan of the traditional system that we live in, so I’m creating my own world, essentially. I’ve always had an affinity with the underdogs; I’ll do whatever I can to increase equity, representation and an inclusive environment,” she tells DJ Mag.
Launching her UTOPIA label back in March was a landmark move towards this goal. To date, the label has put out 10 releases, its tracklist peppered a mix of big names and rising stars — like Flava D, Paige Eliza, DRIIA and GHSTGHSTGHST — with music ranging from queer dancefloor love songs to the most upbeat of UKG. “[The label] felt like the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s all music that I genuinely love, that sonically represents UTOPIA,” she says. “We’re all so blown away by the reception of each track.”
For 2024, it’s clear the world will continue to be JAGUAR’s oyster. She’s planning for further international touring, to grow her UK presence in line with her residency, and develop her UTOPIA podcast. She is equally excited by the “lawless nature” of the current underground scene, encouraged by artists, DJs and producers being increasingly experimental, similar to her own DJing style. “I live for the underground,” she says. “I’d love to dedicate this award to all the emerging acts I’ve worked with over the years. Sending so much love to those that voted for me. It means the world.” CHRISTINE OCHEFU
“It’s hard to wrap up 30 years in one conversation,” says Rinse co-founder Geeneus, aka just Gee, as he speaks to us from the Hoxton studios of the station he set up in 1994. Winning DJ Mag’s Best Of British award for Outstanding Contribution, he tells us, is welcome recognition for what Rinse has done. Because after so long, “you start forgetting about what you’re achieving. You’re just on a constant journey.”
What a journey it’s been. Rinse began as a pirate radio station run from the tower blocks of East London, manned by an original crew of musical pioneers including Slimzee, Target, Wiley, Trend, TNT “and a few other people that are not around anymore”. Today it commands a global online audience, has an official FM licence, throws regular parties and employs around 47 staff across offices in London, Paris and Bristol.
Included in this empire are four stations: Rinse UK, Rinse France, Bristol’s SWU FM and Kool FM. Taking on the latter this year, after founder Eastman stepped down while continuing to host a show, proved particularly emotional. [Text Wrapping Break]“Without Kool, there would be no Rinse,” explains Gee, outlining the inspiration and lessons provided by the drum and bass/jungle-centred London pirate that preceded them. With it came the Kool label, adding to Rinse’s own in-house imprint and Bad Music, a label for “more singer-songwriter style acts”.
Along the way, the station has been a launchpad for numerous musical styles, including garage, grime, dubstep and funky, constantly championing young acts and artists. Various Rinse alumni, such as Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and Katy B, have gone on to chart-topping success, showing that the station’s underground roots steer mainstream taste.
At the heart of this lies Gee’s passion and hard graft. Rinse began organically, he says, fuelled by friends with a pure love of music and a DIY mentality. After getting kicked off Pressure FM, the pirate he started DJing on, the only opportunity to continue seemed to be to start their own station. [Text Wrapping Break]“A friend got given a flat by the council, and I persuaded him to let us switch on in there, as we’d managed to get a little bit of money for a transmitter. We didn’t know what we were doing, it wasn’t a big thought out process.”
Continuing to follow his nose has been at the centre of Rinse’s success. “One of the things I’ve learned in life is that lots of people have ideas,” he says. But not everyone tries them out. The station’s earliest days, working out logistics while dodging rival stations and the police, taught him you had to “figure it out as you go along”. It’s what earned the name Geeneus: “I would be the person to technically figure everything out. I would solve the problems, so they thought it suited me.”
This attitude is baked into Rinse. “We have a manifesto,” he goes on of the learnings drawn up into the station’s creed. “One of the key points is to ‘fail quickly’. So do everything you can as quickly as possible. Go into it knowing you’re going to fail, then learn as you go.” Other guiding ideals, he adds, are, “be brave enough to try”, and, “try not to get stuck on yesterday’s thought process”.[Text Wrapping Break]The latter of these is behind Rinse’s policy of ‘Destroy and Rebuild’, its periodic shifting of identity, jettisoning old shows to welcome in new sounds and fresh talent — the station’s latest wave of DJs announced in November. [Text Wrapping Break]“You’ve got to keep adjusting and moving,” says Gee, explaining it’s why he enjoys his job so much. “I hate anything staying the same.”
This on-going process of shedding its skin might not have the same clear delineation as it did during the definitive genre shifts of the ’90s and 2000s, but it serves the same purpose. “It’s about finding the next generation, always finding that next new person,” says Gee. “We don't have a dubstep or funky or something like that anymore. But we still have a lot of emerging talent coming from a grassroots place.” Spotting the stars of the future has always been key, says Gee, who would rather have “the new thing than the big thing”.
Integral to this has become a kind of mentoring role, guiding up-and-comers through the pitfalls of the music industry. [Text Wrapping Break]“When I was young we had a record deal,” he says of his time as part of garage outfit Pay As U Go in the early 2000s. “We had management and thought we were going to smash it.” In retrospect, he recognises the group’s naivety without anybody to guide them. After they were dropped, “We were left sitting there being like, ‘what next?’ Luckily we had our own thing. It’s an industry that can be really good, but it can also be really brutal.”
Rinse currently has around 700 DJs across all stations, and in the last year the newly revamped website has had to double its bandwidth to keep up with the demand for streaming. “The only problem I have is that we’ve been here for so long, everyone thinks we’re like Google. Nobody thinks anything will ever happen to Google.” But Rinse is where it is, he says, through a huge constant, collective effort.
“We have a relentless approach to get the job done and that’s something we’ve never stopped. I work 12 hours a day, no problem, Monday, Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday, I don’t care. It’s an approach we’ve always had.” As a pirate, it pushed them beyond other stations. To combat raids by the authorities, “we started stacking equipment, we had about 15 to 20 radio stations’ worth”. When Slimzee was arrested one night and their transmitter taken, “we were back on air within an hour”.
While other stations ran from Friday to Sunday, Rinse pioneered broadcasting around the clock. “We started dabbling with a Thursday evening or a Wednesday. Then we’d switch on for the whole of Christmas.” One year they just decided to continue, broadcasting non-stop for four months.
They’re still pushing things forward. This year marks their 30th anniversary, with a Rinse festival in Brockwell Park, South London, on 24th May. Alongside this, they’ll be hitting various other festivals around the country. They’re opening their own venue, “something small and intimate”, while all three labels are gearing up to release lots more music. “For me it’s more of the same,” says Gee. “Keep evolving, keep moving and keep trying to deliver something that’s helpful, while having fun in the process.” Included in this, he says, is letting the team choose their own rewards to mark the company’s success.
Occasionally, he even gets a moment to reflect himself. “We do things, we keep going. Then sometimes, we’ll stop for a moment. And I think, ‘this is a really nice radio station we've got here’.” JOE ROBERTS