Always that most steadfastly independent genre, today drum & bass is splintered into a panoply of micro camps. In one corner, the giant, fizzy-pop electro chords and high fructose rushes of labels like Hospital; in another, the clipped, dark minimalism and sub bass caverns of its most underground soldiers, the Critical crew.
For some, though, the codes and ways of the old school remain the one true path. Utah Jazz, aka Luke Wilson, is in a category of one — a staunchly autonomous DJ/producer who's been cutting fresh beats since 1998 for a variety of d&b's best imprints, including Liquid V, Good Looking and Fallen Angels 21.
His third album, 'Groove Therapy', just released on his own Vintage Recordings, continues his singular journey. Mining a rich seam of funk, soul and other more obscure, dusty old vinyl sources for sampladelic gold, its parade of symphonic roll-outs, hyperspeed breakbeats, funk basslines and soaring strings is like basking in the last rays of summer; glorious, yet tinged with nostalgia and melancholy. 'Circa 96' (a clue to his primary well of inspiration) — loops up an early '80s rare groove classic, attaching it to clipped stepping beats for an impossibly cool cruise in an open-topped Chevy Impala through apricot sunsets; 'The Warning' is a dub reggae junglist skank, with the rootsical vocal of David Boomah, while 'Fair Play' is a procession of tight, busy breaks colliding with a trippy, liquid mercury descending key signature that can only point to the '70s most wigged-out jazz funk experiments.
It's heavily influenced by the records it samples, as much as the cosmic, jazz-sampling jungle that emanated from Bristol, that first inspired him and his breakthrough tunes, like 2006's 'Runaway'.
“I was always into the more atmospheric stuff, [from] the mid '90s — Moving Shadow, Omni Trio, Good Looking... from then on, I really got into V, Full Cycle, the way they were using funk samples, the early Krust, Die and Roni Size stuff. Combined with that was the fact that, I've got an older brother who's a funk and soul head, with a huge record collection. Years and years ago I'd go through and recognise bits and bobs that people had sampled, and thought, 'Hang on a second, maybe I could give this a go'. From my start in drum & bass, there was the lucky break of having all these rare records that I could get some decent sounds from.”
It's a method that's worked extremely well for Luke and awarded him a cult following. He's largely ignored the electronic machinations of the current scene, turned off by its increasingly synthetic sound sources, making him a little more isolated from the d&b community, despite a few high profile DJ supporters.
“The last five years everything's become a lot more synthetic, moving away from samples,” reckons Luke. “Many people I've spoken to, it's almost like you're cheating by using samples. They justify it like, 'If I can make a tune without samples then I'm a real musician'. Where the samples come from is just by chance really and me getting away from the synthetic, commercial side of it.
“I can appreciate the more jump-up side of things, the glossy, commercial sound now, like Hospital, I still play bits and pieces out, I just feel like I wouldn't leave my mark on that scene. The tunes go to Fabio, Bukem and Bryan Gee, they're the three guys I road test tunes with now. The music has fragmented to some extent, there's not as many people doing what I'm doing.”
Among the several vocal guests on the album, there's a more surprising collaboration: 'Everything Is Everything' features Alex Reece, the d&b star who rose to fame with bona fide game changers like 'Pulp Fiction' and a single album for major label Island, but who completely disappeared from the scene soon after.
“It's a bit weird,” Luke recollects. “I was like his apprentice, in '98 or something. He seemed to leave the scene for years. We got in touch by email again. He was umm-ing and ah-ing about wanting to make a few bits again and he had an old computer, an old Apple, and he'd never used a computer before to make music. I had a computer and I set him up with Logic. We decided to do stuff again, part via email, part in the studio together, so that was a combination of a few samples — I did the beats and he played a techno stab in it throughout, cos he's got all his old equipment hooked up. I don't think he has any intention of having a huge comeback. He won't do interviews or any gigs, he's absolutely under the radar. We've got another couple of tunes done together and the plan is to put an EP together for the end of the year.”
Another EP is promised for a revived Good Looking Records in the new year, featuring a vocal from Bukem's MC foil, Conrad. In the meantime, there's a whole load of gigs planned and Luke's gonna keep on keeping on, sticking to his principles. Here are the 10 tunes that have made the biggest impact on his life..
1. UFO 'Loud Minority (Alex Reece Remix)'
“There are so many of Alex's more popular tracks that I could include, but I wanted to dig a little bit deeper to start. I remember him telling me how the parts for the remix turned up on a bike and he turned it around in six hours so it could be back to Gilles Peterson to play that same evening! So simple and perfect — I play this track at home most days. Alex's Model 500 remix was almost the one I picked, though — tough call.”
2. Wax Doctor 'Atmospheric Funk'
"An absolute classic here from the Wax Doctor. Nearly 20-years-old now and this really was the start of everything for me. Wax was the king of the rollers and the strings/pads/breaks he uses were (still are!) an absolute inspiration to my sound. I just couldn't get enough of Wax Doctor and during the phase he went through when he signed to R&S/Talkin' Loud, he was untouchable. Hopefully he will be back in the studio one day.”
3. LTJ Bukem 'Horizons'
“'Horizons' probably tops it for me as my favourite Bukem track, with 'Atlantis' and 'Music' coming in close behind. There's just something about the intro that takes me back — probably more than any track I can think of. I remember hearing this at Speed and Metalheadz/Blue Note sessions aged 16, waiting for the bass to finally kick in! Another mention for Bukem would have to be his Jodeci remix of 'Feenin'', such a roller.”
4. PFM 'The Western'
“There are really too many PFM tunes for me to confidently pick a winner, but if forced into it, I'd have to go with 'The Western', with 'One & Only' up there, too. The intros on all PFM tracks were so legendary, and the way the tracks continued building (normally over eight or 10 minutes) was almost hypnotic. The guitar coming in on the second breakdown brings back so many memories for me.”
5. T-Power 'The Mutant (DJ Trace Remix)'
“Bit of a change in direction here, unleashing the love of early tech-step from my inner self! I was listening to DJ Trace & MC Ryme Tyme from around 1994 on Kool FM, and Trace used to have crazy new dubs every weekend to showcase. Along with the early works of Ed Rush, this one just totally tore the place apart and paved the way for the likes of Konflict/Renegade Hardware etc in the years to come.”
6. Konflict 'Messiah'
“Speaking of which! I loved many of the early Konflict productions, but this one just hit everyone with a sledge-hammer. The Reese [bassline sound made famous by Kevin Saunderson] is so unexpected after such a spaced-out intro, and the looping vocal over the top is too much. My brother has video footage of me playing this at Fabric aged 20 with MC GQ asking for the lighters as the intro developed. One by one, the lighters emerged in Room 2 and it dawned on me how many people were in there! Makes me well up just thinking about it.”
7. Ed Rush & Optical 'Compound'
“In 1998, the game changed. 'Wormhole' blew everything else out of the water. I remember finally getting my hands on the five-piece box set from Fopp Records in Sheffield when I was studying up there, taking it back to my room and I literally couldn't believe what I was hearing. I played it non-stop for weeks just shaking my head. I'm highlighting 'Compound' just purely for the stabs, but 'Slip Thru' is up there alongside it. An absolute haunting piece of brilliance.”
8. Marcus Intalex & ST Files 'How You Make Me Feel'
“Moving on a few years here, into I guess the dawn of liquid funk as we now know it. I thought this was a return from Wax Doctor when I first heard it — the simple pads and stabs with a great male vocal. Manchester has always had a rich d&b/jungle history and these boys were around from day one, so it's great to see Marcus still at the top of his game all these years later. It was very difficult to choose between this and their anthem 'Universe' on Metalheadz, which I felt really pushed the boundaries of production at the time.”
9. High Contrast 'Return Of Forever'
“HC absolutely inspired me to make the music I'm producing today. His early tracks like 'Make It Tonight' and 'Global Love' were right up my street, and also, directly at the same time, I was finding my feet in the studio. However, 'Return Of Forever' was so unique and so perfect that it has to go down as one of my favourite tracks ever. Like many classics, I first heard this played by Fabio as an exclusive on his Radio 1 show and I must've rewound the cassette hundreds of times that week to believe what I was actually hearing!”
10. Calibre 'Mr Right On'
“Calibre for me is the greatest liquid funk producer of all-time. His work rate and back catalogue are just scary. Plus on top of his more soulful bits, his explorations into half-time, dubby and darker production just prove Calibre's diversity as an artist. He's so prolific that even picking 10 tracks would be difficult, so I'm plucking one quickly and trying not to let it affect the rest of my day! 'Mr Right On' — I first heard Bukem playing this and it's the full package for me. The beats, the strings, the simple double bass sample, Calibre's reverse pianos... I could listen to this on loop all day.”