When DJ Mag enters a disused pub in south-east London’s Rotherhithe, we find LTJ Bukem has arrived early and is waiting patiently for us on a sofa in the pub’s old bar area. A true originator of drum & bass, Bukem, aka Danny Williamson, then throws himself into his part of the photo-shoot in a small, sparsely-lit room, which, much to everyone’s amusement, was once the gents’ toilets in the now-converted boozer.
Shortly after, cover co-star and fellow drum & bass kingpin, Friction, arrives. It’s clear from the bonhomie and general banter that the two are good mates whose paths have crossed countless times over the past decade or so when Friction, real name Ed Keeley, first imposed himself on the scene. Once they’ve caught up, and Bukem’s invited Friction along to be part of the Fabric cricket team, we settle down to catch up with two of d&b’s key figures.
Both Bukem and Friction are part of a rare breed of artists that have somehow managed to combine commercial success and critical acclaim, while also retaining a huge amount of respect and love from the scene. And it’s a love they’ve returned in spades, sticking to their guns and never jumping on to any passing bandwagon.
“I love what I’ve been involved with for the past 20-odd years,” says Bukem. “I’m just totally into drum & bass and what it represents, where it’s come from, the people involved in it, the music. I’ve got a love for all kinds of music but drum & bass is something that we’ve both nurtured for a many number of years and it’s our first love, if you like.”
“We both love the music,” agrees Brighton-raised Friction. “I grew up watching Danny, Randall, Gachet, Andy C, Hype. I was going out and seeing these guys doing their thing. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but now I am living the dream that I wanted to achieve. So whatever else goes on with it, I love drum & bass. As far as jumping onto other genres that become cool, there’s no need.”
Stylistically, their approaches to the genre clearly differ, with Bukem generally catering for a mellower, jazz-infused or oceanic sound and Friction often dishing out darker, hard-hitting styles. But there’s more room to manoeuvre than many may give them credit for.
“People often say to me I’m ‘one thing’,” explains Bukem. “But if you actually listen to what I’ve played for years, it does incorporate a ragga element sometimes, a tech element sometimes, there’s also a dark element in there. Not maybe as dark as the darkest things you might hear, but all aspects of that come into it and that gets represented. People are very narrow in their one thought-train of what they should and shouldn’t represent, play, put out or whatever, but I don’t think we’re like that.” Friction agrees that the genre’s diversity and flexibility keep drum & bass exciting.
“What’s important is to play and make and release what you feel, regardless of who it’s by,” he says. “Personally, I’ve always tried to cover all angles. I can go somewhere and play really deep, a bit darker, techy stuff or I can go to a big festival and play more cross-over commercial. There are so many different vibes and inspirations you can put into 170bpm music.”
Bukem’s history barely needs repeating but having started out with self-released white label ‘Delitefol’, he set up Good Looking Records in 1992. He used the label to release his own groundbreaking material including ‘Horizons’, ‘Music’ and ‘Atlantis (I Need You)’, put out the genre-defining ‘Logical Progression’ series of mix compilations and launched many other seminal artists’ careers, such as Photek, Peshay and Blame. The label and Bukem’s sets honed what slack hacks pretentiously tagged ‘intelligent’ drum & bass. In truth, it was machine music with emotion that took its cues from soul and jazz as much as it did from hardcore.
Friction, meanwhile, enjoyed his debut release in 1998 with ‘Photon’, but it was as a DJ that he built a fearsome reputation with his adept, three-deck vinyl sets and at times aggressive yet musically varied style. He cemented his name as a producer with releases on Renegade Hardware and True Playaz before he set up the Shogun Audio label in 2004. The label has featured many of his own productions as well as forming the home for artists as varied as Break, Alix Perez and Icicle.
But while their history is vital, there’s plenty happening right now for both Bukem and Friction. Following a brief hiatus for the label, during which his DJing schedule remained as punishing as ever, Bukem recently revived Good Looking.
“I’d been doing it solidly since ‘91/’92 and at the same kind of time I found my real mum as well, which was obviously a big thing for me,” he says of the break in around 2010. “I just thought, 'Let’s keep on DJing but not put any emphasis on the label'. Now I’ve got that motivation to want to do a label again. Also I think my sound needs to be represented, so that was another reason to do it.”
The release schedule for Good Looking is hectic to say the least with an album, a piece of vinyl and a digital single set for release every month, according to Bukem. Recent releases have included ‘Bukem In Session’, a mix showcasing the label’s current talent including Flowrian, Random Movement and Submorphics, the collaboration-based ‘Collectivism’ compilation and an artist album from long-term Good Looking signing, Makoto. Another album, ‘Resistance’, is due out soon and there will also be a new addition to the more eclectic and experimental ‘Earth’ series and a picture disc release of his much sought-after mid-'90s classic ‘Atmospherical Jubilancy’.
“There’s quite clearly a sound of Good Looking and always has been,” says Bukem when asked if the label has a particular remit. “But I’m looking at doing a lot more stuff on a remix level and having different genres and being like a record label, not just the sound of Good Looking. I always want to maintain what fundamentally is Good Looking, but there’s other ideas that I want to venture into that are definitely on the horizon.” “No pun intended!” laughs Friction, whose own label Shogun Audio also has a productive time ahead in the coming months.
“It’ll be the 10th anniversary next year. I can’t actually believe how quickly that’s gone,” he says. “In 2004 I started the label in my front room. Where we’re at now is crazy. What I’ve tried to do is keep the theme of the sound there but progress the music so that it moves on, but people can still hear that it’s Shogun. I wouldn’t release a track like [last year’s] ‘Let It Stray’ again on Shogun because there’s a blueprint for what I want the style of the music to be.”
From Rockwell’s manic, paranoiac ‘Detroit’ to the elated builds and tempo-shifting drops of The Prototypes’ ‘Rage Within’ to the stretched bass growls and twisted, FlyLo-style hip-hop edge of Alix Perez’s recent ‘Chroma Chords’ album, to name just a few recent examples, that blueprint still seems pretty broad. Upcoming releases on the label include an EP from Total Science, material from new signings including Technimatic and a second ‘Way Of The Warrior’ compilation.
Friction has also just stepped up to record ‘Fabriclive.70’, a set that goes deep for true, passionate drum & bass heads. And while we’re on the subject of Fabric, Bukem has recently returned to the London club for his ‘Bukem In Session’ monthlies.
If the eternal globetrotting, mix releasing and label managing wasn’t enough for them both, there’s also the small matter of their own productions to take into account. And Bukem provides DJ Mag with the news we’ve been waiting for since his last full release — ‘Switch’ in 2008.
“I am actually writing stuff at the moment,” he reveals. “Because the label’s obviously started again this year, I just want to collate some tracks together and put another long-player together.”
With a release date pencilled in for next year, Bukem says the new album may also represent an evolution in his sound. “It’s hard to say because there’s a lot of people that I’d like to work with and do stuff with from past and present, so it’ll be interesting what I do,” explains the classically trained pianist. “I definitely want it to have some kind of commercial appeal as well.”
For those craving new material from the Watford-raised drum & bass don, be sure to listen out for new material in his sets as well. “There’s bits and pieces that I slip into my sets and say nothing about it, basically,” he reveals. “I’m excited about it because I’ve been dying to get back in the studio for years.”
Friction, whose Skream collaboration ‘Kingpin’ has already done major damage this year, is also making sure he makes more studio-time for himself and is currently in the middle of writing his debut album. With a release date pencilled in for the middle of next year, the ‘Long Gone Memory’ single, out in October, will provide a taster of what’s to come.
“That’s a more full vocal, dancefloor drum & bass tune,” says Friction. “That’s one end of what I do, whereas I’ve got a couple of tracks on ‘Way Of The Warrior’ part two that are more just heads-down, very minimal, rolling, subby, dark drum & bass tunes.”
The album looks as if it will follow Friction’s typically all-encompassing habits — and contain some surprises too. “It’ll be more song-based and based around 170bpm,” he says. “There’s a little house tune on there and a couple of other different little bits and pieces, it’s just seeing where it goes really.”
So with both of them putting in the time in the studio and a clear mutual respect and friendship in place, DJ Mag decides to put them on the spot and ask whether they would ever collaborate.
“100%,” says Bukem immediately, with Friction enthusiastically adding: “I’d do it, yeah.”
“I’d love to sit with him and do something,” Bukem continues. “It would sound like a Shogun-stroke-Good Looking tune. It would have elements of me in but it would also have elements of Ed’s toughness. I think it would be great.”
Their thriving labels, their ridiculously heavy schedules of DJ bookings and their plans to produce albums (and perhaps collaborate) could be seen as a microcosm of the current state of drum & bass, with the genre seemingly in rude health at the moment.
“As a genre I think we’ve been hard-done-by a lot in the press and the media over the years, we get forgotten about,” says Friction. “Like everyone was going mad for garage and forgets about drum & bass, then drum & bass has a so-called resurgence. It’s the same thing that’s happened with dubstep. People think drum & bass went away a bit. Well no, I was still playing to crowds of 5,000 or 6,000 and I didn’t notice it go away, to be honest. We’re in that period at the moment where there’s lots of drum & bass on the radio, it’s become a little bit trendy again, a little bit cool. It’s definitely in a very strong place.”
“An innate difference is that, say 10 years ago, you had a lot of the majors signing up drum & bass artists,” says Bukem. “Nowadays you don’t get so much, for want of a better word, underground music being taken up by big majors. There’s no money being thrown at new music as such. The majors want their commercial hit. So in that regard, it has changed and shifted. But, like Ed’s saying, we still play drum & bass sets out every weekend all over the world. It’s just shifted in terms of media attention, major label attention, but it is definitely in a good place. There’s always going to be new genres popping up all over the place, but drum & bass is very consistent.”
Friction believes that a shift in the sound over the past 12 months has been for the better. “We’ve got some of the most technical producers you can get and a lot of these guys have brought musicality into it,” he says. “Last year I think things got a little bit too noisy and screechy. People were focussing too much on the equipment, whereas at the moment there’s so much great, musical drum & bass out there. I hope it keeps going down this path.”
Radio 1’s continued commitment to the music is also a testament to the genre’s enduring appeal and current high profile, with Friction having taken over the station’s drum & bass show from Fabio and Grooverider last year.
“The show happened totally out of the blue,” says Friction. “I actually feel that there’s a responsibility there to really show off the genre. That’s definitely opened another side of what I do. Obviously, to follow in the footsteps of Fab and Groove was ridiculously daunting but I’ve just grown into it and I’m enjoying it now.”
“And it’s also nice to have a drum & bass representative still on the airwaves on Radio 1,” Bukem says. “It’s a great thing.” The scene’s rude health is seemingly apparent at all levels, from the more underground side of drum & bass to the fact that artists like DJ Fresh and Rudimental now find themselves in the upper reaches of the national charts. Bukem is typically philosophical about the genre’s commercial success.
“Anything that highlights the genre can’t be a bad thing because ultimately we’re all trying to move forward and make businesses out of what we do,” he says. “You know, the music’s no good if the only person that’s heard it is your mum. A lot of people maybe want Shogun and Good Looking as their own little special thing but we want our music to get out there and be heard. We want to get a tune on daytime Radio 1. We want to see our stuff being represented.”
Friction adds, “If you look at Rudimental, I’m sold, I’m a huge fan. If you listen to the musicality of what they do, it’s brilliant music. There are no gimmicks in there and it’s a natural thing. If someone makes music and it becomes Top 20, it’s a good thing. When it’s not a good thing is if someone’s trying to make that music. I’ve seen a lot of good producers miss the mark. I think that’s when the ambition of having a commercial hit can be negative. I want drum & bass to be as big as it can be because I’m the same as Dan, we love the music.”
And if two people are going to ensure that drum & bass of all strands continues to dominate and thrive, it’s Bukem and Friction.