Ten years ago, DJ Q released his first 12”, 'Love Like This'. The track was a bassline stomper, a grimy slab of sub-low and brutal snares, rolled in the sugary sweetness of an R&B vocal. It was the raw sound of the Northern bassline scene, made to appeal to blinged up ravers raised on Super Nintendo and speed garage. Listening back,
'Love Like This' may sound rough, it may lack a certain production polish, but it also tells you everything you need to know about where Q comes from. It contains the essential DNA he has crafted his music from throughout his subsequent career, and now, a decade on, he’s honed the sound enough to feel like he can finally drop his debut album.
“I’ve still been learning as a producer, and putting out club singles,” he confirms, phoning from his Huddersfield base. “But from 2012 I started writing more songs, and the album has stemmed from that. Tom [Lea — label boss of Local Action] suggested I try and write an album, so I wrote a load of music and we worked out what went best together. I can’t wait to put it out there and let people hear it.”
With this debut, Q has managed to pour all of his knowledge as a club DJ into 45 minutes of bass bliss. 'Ineffable' is the sound of English pop from a parallel universe — a place where Todd Edwards judges X Factor, the two-step party never stopped, and pop can be clever, intricate, fresh and tough as well as hooky as hell.
Opener 'Get Over You' floats in on swinging 4/4 beats and glitching vocal cut-ups, Q layering up lush shivers of melody and delicate shimmering chords before dropping the all-important snakes of bass. This interplay of light and dark is the record’s recurring theme, a candy and grit dynamic that sees sweet-toothed songs hiding rock-hard cores. He experiments with trappy, trippy grime on next cut 'Two Faced', slapping rat-a-tat snare rolls over half-speed stepping, then changes tack with the French Touch-inspired 'Let the Music Play' — already a single, and the album’s first genuinely mainstream moment. It leads us to wonder whether Q would fancy writing some pop music proper, a question he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“Of course I would, yeah, it’s a new audience isn’t it? We’ve spoken to a few people, and we’re trying to sort out a few sessions with writers. If I could work with anyone, I’d probably work with Ellie Goulding, because her voice is different, it’s just sick. She’d sound really good on a garage track, and the MK remix of her track 'Lights' is sick.”
As it is, 'Ineffable' is notably light on big name collaborators. Grime MC Discarda, notorious for his hyper bars on the Ruff Sqwad classic 'Functions on the Low', is probably the biggest featured name, making an appearance on the suitably roughneck 'Lassie'. Swedish songstress Kassandra appears twice, once on the breakbeat re-imagining 'Closer' and, earlier, on the UKG throwback 'Every Time'. On this track we hear Q’s two-step influence unfiltered. Spacious, jiggy and soulful, the song pays homage to the sparse sound that inspired the young Q, and could have been tailored to fit one of the DJ sets that first turned his head. He agrees, going back to his early days in the scene.
“I’ve been a garage head for as long as I can remember, from ‘98 onwards. Huddersfield at the time had a big garage presence, a lot of the older guys were playing garage, and big artists were coming to Huddersfield to play, like DJ EZ came in 1999, and Dreem Teem, those sort of people were around, and being around it inspired me.
A massive record actually came out of the Huddersfield scene — the 7 Wonders track 'Crazy'. That was produced by Andy J, Injecta and Zed Bias. Andy J was a massive DJ at the time, he doesn’t really get the recognition he deserves. S.T. and Supa Dark as well. There weren’t that many big garage DJs in Huddersfield, but the ones that were there were doing a lot.”
Whilst hearing the mad skills of EZ and co might have been enough to get Q on the decks — surely the same for thousands of kids who saw EZ cutting it up like no one else in the late '90s — it was a desire to stand out that got Q in the studio. “I started off as a DJ first and foremost. The reason why I started producing was because at the time everyone was playing the same music that was out, everyone had the same vinyl, and there was no variation to the sets, so I thought, 'Let me try making beats so I can make my sets different, and it came from there'.”
As Q developed his sound, the two-step swing evolved into bassline — a jerking, 140 bpm mutation that stripped all the rhythmic niceties of UKG down to a template so rigid it was funky — nothing but a spartan kick and a clap on the off-beat, a skeletal palette all the better to allow the vital, warping sinews of bass to breathe. The only place to truly experience the sound was its Sheffield home, the Niche nightclub.
“When garage turned into bassline, it also used to actually get called Niche, after the club. The reason being, when people were getting CDs, all the CDs had written on them was Niche, so people who weren’t familiar with the club but heard the music were like, ‘Oh have you got that Niche music?’ and it started from there. At one point I was playing in Niche once a week. It took about 1000 people, it was always rammed, and there was always something different going on there Friday and Saturday.
And when you were there, certain tracks you’d know would go off without fail. The Virgo mix of 'Hey' by T2 was one, and 'Hypnotiq', also by Virgo. In fact that track still goes off now.”
At the time Q was putting out innumerable records. A quick look at his Discogs page (once you’ve separated him from the eight or nine other DJ Qs out there — turns out it’s a popular choice of name, though Q assures DJ Mag that he comes top in the Google rankings…) and you’ll see pages of 12” releases in the mid noughties. We wonder if he misses the days of chucking out vinyl like there was no tomorrow — he must have been making a lot of money off it if nothing else.
“Yeah,” he laughs, “The money that I was making off record sales was stupid. I was selling 500 to 1000 12”s at a time. I couldn’t even tell you how many I put out, over 25 or 30. At the time when the bassline scene was at its peak we were flinging out 12s like once every two or three weeks man. It was sick. Of course I miss those days, cos I met a lot of good people and found my feet in the industry and had a lot of good experiences. But at the same time things move on, new opportunities come along, so it’s all good.”
Inevitably the piracy of a digital age has put paid to the glory days of stacking cash from two releases a month, but Q isn’t too stressed about the loss of income, admitting that whilst he doesn’t download pirated stuff himself (“I haven’t got the time”) he couldn’t guarantee that anyone who steals his tunes would have bought them in the first place. Besides, he’s getting gigs every week, the remix work is coming in, and he’s got a constantly building backlog of music still to release.
Fortunately, the prolific release schedule hasn’t come with a concurrent lack of quality. It’s more that Q just cannot stop writing. Even during his stint as a weekly presenter on 1Xtra, he was constantly recording ideas — he talks about experimenting with hip-hop and pop, and 'Ineffable' also flashes up some playful jungle amens on 'Through the Night' — a follow-up of sorts to last years’ conquering 'All Junglists'. The way Q tells it, writer's block is never going to be an issue.
“I’m always making music, if I’m not making music for the album, I’m just making music anyway, cos I’ve got ideas in my head, I just make the track first and then decide what to do with it when it’s finished. So I’ve got loads of stuff just sitting there waiting to go. I make music at weird times — if I get an idea I’ll go on the computer straight away and get it down, so I do manage to get a lot done. I’ve always got ideas running through my head. It means I’m mostly working off my laptop now — I wrote the bulk of the album on it. I’ve got some outboard equipment and that, but most of the album was written using Ableton and Maschine.
“In fact, when I was on 1Xtra I think people almost forgot I was a producer, and focused on me as a DJ. In one way leaving the station has helped me, because people have focused on my production again. You know what you’re getting now, you know you’re getting a DJ who’s also a producer when you come and see me play.”
A decade into his career, and Q is something of a veteran. As the garage sound he grew up on has once more entered the spotlight, he’s finding himself travelling to clubs round the UK and beyond, taking in two-step scenes in St Petersberg, and bass-heavy raves in Amsterdam, but always returning home to see what’s brewing in the towns and cities of the UK. He’s happy to spread the love, name-checking the locations that have been popping off in recent months. “Manchester’s going off. Nottingham’s good as well.
I played there last week after not playing there for two years and the vibe was sick. Scotland as well, Glasgow was sick, they’re used to partying hard...! The great thing is I’m hearing a lot of local producers. Every time I play somewhere new I always get someone coming up to me telling me they make beats, and I always try and exchange email addresses to keep on top of what's going on. There’s a lot of new talent coming through, new sounds coming through. At the moment, up North, and especially Leeds, has got its own house scene going on. Leeds is where it’s happening, and they don’t feel the need to branch out.
What they’re making is more like bassline, than what people are calling house and beats now. You should check out artists like Tom Zanetti, Ryan James, Nick Hamil.”
He even reports on some stirrings in Huddersfield that suggest the scene might be making a comeback, with new club Safehouse putting on decent, bass-heavy line-ups — “Yeah, the line-ups are good — I’m playing there next month with N Type and Stenchman, and the month after there’s an Outlook festival launch party.”
As for the future, Q knows that he’ll just keep doing what he does so well; writing tracks and playing gigs — he’s got a Fabric launch party booked in for the start of April (although he’s not saying who else is on the bill just yet), and gigs booked in that’ll see him taking bass global once more. Whatever happens he’s easy-going, enjoying each moment as it comes, and waiting to see how his album goes down. “I’m not expecting too much,” he finishes. “I’m just excited, I’m excited to hear people’s feedback, good or bad, because I’ve put a lot of effort into it and I hope people hear that.”