This interview was conducted in two-parts, the first of which was done last 2014 over breakfast and some time in the studio. The second was conducted over the phone fairly recently.
Part 1, late 2014, South London
It’s a fresh October morning and I’m making my way down to deepest South London on the train to meet up with, at the time, was the only person Breaks has interviewed twice – Arthur Smith. Or as you might recognize him, trailblazing producer, dubstep nurturer and Magnetic Man member, ‘Artwork’.
The first time we met was around the time of Red Bull Culture Clash in 2012, and the press junket I’d managed to blag onto was to promote that fact. The interview went well but months later, when I did more research, I found myself wanting to delve deeper.
For those not familiar with Artworks output, he’s a Grammy nominated music producer, who along with Skream and Benga makes up chart storming Dubstep supergroup Magnetic man, as well as a respected producer in his own right. To date he has released so much music under different alias’s he’s pretty much lost track of his own output, let alone the master files.
The venue for the interview is his studio, but he’s hungry so we opt to begin the day in a local spot in Crystal Palace that overlooks the city. We begin talking about his radio show with Rinse, one that has garnered a unique audience by almost subverting Rinse altogether and opting to include prank calls, jokes, and long winded hilarious stories involving the hosts Artwork, MC Sgt. Pokes and their friend Memet.
So in preparation for your Rinse show, how hard is it over 2 hours to pick from a massive stack of records and all this new stuff you get sent? How do you balance between 20 years of vinyl you’ve archived from DJing and all the new stuff you get sent?
I never wanted to split the show up in two sections so you’d have an old bit and then have a new bit. I never do a track list, I just play the records and it could be a brand new one next to one that is 20 years old and I kinda like that.
Somebody asked me when I was playing in Sheffield at the weekend, this girl must have been 20, I was playing a record and she came up and was like ‘what the fuck is this?’ I sort of looked at her as if she was joking, it was Donna Summer ‘I feel love’ and she was like ‘who is that?’ She thought it was a new record and that’s wicked, but she has never been in a situation where she would have heard that in that context?
She probably started clubbing 4 years ago and she’s been out to clubs and heard club music, but she hasn’t heard that record which doesn’t get played on the radio that much. Its quite acceptable she has missed that record up until that point, but imagine hearing that for the first time when you’re 20, that’s sick! In a club it would blow your mind it just shows you how great that record is and how those other records are.
At this point we leave breakfast and head over to his studio. I’m not at liberty to say where the studio is, and it feels like a privilege to be allowed in a space that has produced so much important music for this scene over the past few years.
The studio is relatively tidy and obviously frequently used, it’s October when we’re there and there are flight cases of friends live equipment that is being stored there while festival season is over. One wall is completely covered with records, ranging from techno, some of his releases under alias’s, and a bunch of random soul records and there are instruments and DJ equipment strewn at random intervals.
Arthur has been nominated three times for a Grammy, one as previously stated was for Daniel Bedingfields ‘Gotta Get Thru This’, the UK’s first garage number 1. With one fell swoop you relies the breadth of music production talent within Arthur. His contribution to music is much larger than that and his more recent work with protégées like Katy B, who’s sound Arthur helped develop, has led to a slew of copy-cat radio friendly dance hits from similar artists.
Do you get a lot of artists coming through, as I know you do some work with Breakage? Has he recorded some stuff here? How much do you do with other DJ’s and producers?
It’s mostly just me on my own in here but if someone needs to record vocals or something like that we’ll do it here. We do some writing with other people here and it’s a good place to work because it’s got a lot of space.
You’ve been DJing as Artwork the past couple of years, despite released tunes through a number of Alias’s – why did Artwork become the main alias?
Do you know what, it started with DJ Hatcha in Big Apple records. He used to call me Artwork just as a nickname because my name is Arthur, then it stuck so much that when we put the first records out that’s what we used. This is before the Internet; this is before anyone thought anything was going to happen. So the first record I put out I just thought I’d call it Artwork, doesn’t matter we were doing so many different aliases and stuff, it didn’t matter which one we used that week. When Big Apple took off it just stuck – I fucking hate it, its really hard for people to search for me, and it sounds strange when people say “are you artwork”, if someone else was called artwork I would think, that’s a crap name.
You have quite a beguiling social presence and with Twitter especially you get an idea in your head in the morning and the whole thing just plays out through the entire day and it gets sillier and sillier.
Yeah that’s the thing if I am bored in the studio and its one of those days where you come in get a load of parts, start a remix and then great. Some days when you come in if you’re doing your own stuff and you know its not going right, its not going completely and you might get side tracked for a little minute to do a vine or something like that then it will just escalate.
Is Justin Martin based in America? You just communicate through Vines?
We did for the first year.
Who started the bin thing?
Him, he started the bin thing and I joined in and started and copied him. This is the weird world we live in – he is one of my best friends now but I could probably say we have spent under 30 hours together. But those 30 hours are always when you’re at a festival pissed or having a blinding time. It’s odd, sometimes you consider people your really good friends and then you add up the amount of hours you’ve actually spent with them and it’s very little.
I had this conversation with Ryan Hemsworth and he was saying that a lot of the artists that are signed to his label are all through the Internet and social media. He was saying before he reaches out to someone he goes through their timeline looking at their photos. In this day and age there’s an excepted amount of lurking before… its like when we were in the car earlier and I’m referencing stuff I have seen on your Twitter feed but I’ve not seen you do that in person, but I can still reference it and its not awkward or weird.
It is strange, I was playing with Jackmaster the other day and this guy was down the front and this guy was like ‘Jack is it ok if we come behind the decks?’ and Jack said yes but whispered to me ‘I don’t know who that fucking guy is at all’ and its because Jack had said hello to him on Twitter or something and he thinks he’s Jack’s best mate now. It’s weird and those people know you, they know what you have been doing everyday for the past couple of years or whatever.
You might have had someone come up to you years and years ago and they might know all the records you have made but nothing about you, now people come up to you to say hi but they know exactly what you have been doing everyday for the last 2 years, and probably none of the records you have made. It’s nice in a way because you start chatting to people you have never met and you are instantly talking about something funny that happened three months ago.
So lets talk about Grain – I read a thing that said the restart point 15 years later was Midland Trace and asked to remix that and then the first gig as Grain 15 years was in Fabric last year right?
Have you played quite a lot since then? Is the plan more longer term now to keeps thing going?
Yeah the plan is to eventually finish another 4 or 5 tracks and put them out on Fat Cat but with the Grain stuff its really difficult because I’m never quite happy with it and I never was with the first stuff that I gave them. They had to actually squeeze that stuff out of me, people seemed to like it but I’m a bit over critical because it’s the music I grew up with, listening to that stuff. It’s really important to me how great it sounds so I’m never quite happy with it.
So your upbringing was quite techno based then? I guess everyone’s first impression of you is oh he grew up around Garage then turned to dubstep but actually that’s not the case is it?
No. I remember being a kid and I had a radio in my bedroom and I remember Nick Curshaw was on the radio and he said we’ve got this new sound that’s happening in America its called House Music. And I remember him, he was like a world music DJ. For him to go we’ve got this new music coming from Chicago, have a listen to this, and I remember listening to it at night and thinking what the fuck is that this is fucking, getting the tape out and recording it and I had like 2 minutes of this house music track from Chicago and from that moment on…
In the Grain era were you going out in London? What sort of parties were you going to?
Lost. There really weren’t any other parties to go to and it was world class, with the best sound system, best venues and most of them were South London – That was where I was from. It started off in Brixton but you could go and see Jeff Mills, go see Richie Hawtin, you know you could go see Steve Bicknel he was the guy that ran it. He was the main DJ and it was ridiculous music. I remember walking in, it was ridiculously dark, there were 1500 people in a room and as I walked in Bicknell was playing and it was just a kick drum and a bass line for like five minutes, and then a high-hat came in and the place went nuts. I was completely sold. I had been buying Detroit and Chicago records for years but to see it being played in that environment was the some of the best moments in my musical life.
Do you still go to clubs and nights a punter almost a fan of music?
I have done recently. I do like to go out, like if I go and watch someone, the trouble is there’s sort a tendency to go out and get stuck in the green room so you just end up sitting in the back room somewhere for seven hours and not actually listening to music
Back then Grain and DnD were pre-Internet, you managed to genre hop from Grain (Techno) to DnD (Garage) with no beef or resistance. In 2012 Skream announces he is going to go to House music from Dubstep and the Internet basically shits itself and cries for 6 months. Do you think that would have happened if Skream had done that in the pre-internet era?
That was sort of like he grew up. When we were working at Big Apple Records we signed Skream and Benga when they were 16/17, so all they had made was Dubstep. People find different music at different times, I think that is one thing that does annoy me, if someone starts making a type of music and someone says hang on a minute you were into that other thing a minute ago, its like ‘shut up’. People find music at different times. You weren’t there when every single music genre was started, you can’t, and you all find things at different times. If a new type of music came out and you suddenly became interested in it, you really liked it and you suddenly went ‘I love this its great I need to know more about this’ and everyone’s like ‘no you can’t do that’.
It’s fucking ridiculous and you see it you see it quite a bit. Good music is good music and if you find it now or within 2 years time it doesn’t matter.
I quite like people who are quite open to everything, I think its healthy. People who stay close-minded, I don’t really respect their opinion. They only see that one genre or one thing, its too narrow-minded.
If you look back at where it all started and where house music started – that was disco. They would play all sorts of records through the night, you would hear loads of different things, funk stuff, disco stuff, early house bits and it was great you had all sorts of different kind of styles. It’s good to hear something different, when you hear DJ’s playing something completely different I love that, if you go to hear one thing and someone drops a record that’s completely different it changes the vibe of the room, that’s good.
Part 2, April 2015, over the phone
The other month you advertised the chance to bring your ‘Sound-system’ to someone’s house, and you’d bring a bunch of DJ mates to play too. Firstly what made you think of that and secondly how could people enter?
Well firstly, it’s because we were sitting in an after party at Johnny Bangers house, who’s a mate of mine. We were just discussing that DJ’s Twitter had just become adverts of ‘please come to [my] gig this weekend’, telling people to come see you at x,y,x, so we thought we’d turn it on its head and I would take the party to someone’s house.
It meant they didn’t even have to leave, they’d just sit in their front room and we’d bring the whole rave to them. You could enter by just tweeting me and saying ‘come to my house’. That was it.
You picked someone from London though, did nobody from elsewhere apply?
People did reply but the logistics of getting the DJs that I know to come and play, I couldn’t say to them “oh do you want to come to Wales”, know what I mean? It would have been a bit of a tougher undertaking.
So who won in the end?
These girls from Scotland, they have this house that it seems like they have parties there all the time. When we turned up we had to clear up from the last party before we could put our stuff in there [laughs].
I was skeptical at first, because when you tweeted photos of DJs arriving, it just looked like you were in a bar in Shoreditch?
We were, we met at the Blues Kitchen on Curtain Road. We all met there for food then went round mob-handed to the house. We’d put up a gazebo in case it rained. 150 people turned up to it, they got all their mates to turn up and in the end we had Skream, T.E.E.D, Route 94 and myself playing in what was their kitchen. We had lasers, smoke machines, strokes, decks, big speakers, everything. It was a full rave, it was pretty weird.
So it went pretty well then?
Yeah pretty good, yeah. It was so strange because we thought that would be it, and then the guys that own the Nest contacted me and said “this is wicked, you should do this party, but do it in a night club”. So we thought we’d make a house party in a club, and that’s what we’re going to try and do. We’re taking over the Nest for every Friday in June.
How are you going to make a club feel like a house?
Well, we’re kinda going to take the concept of going to the club but flip it. Usually you stand in a box and there is a DJ very far away from you and you can only see his head and his shoulders – There’s a big disconnect. It’s not like when you’re at a party and someone is playing records, its a different vibe there, everyone is in the same room and its different from being in the club. So we’re going to try and do away with as much as we can of that barrier. It’s going to be a lot more like a house party.
With the Nest coming to you, you have a long history with those guys right? You’ve played gigs at the Old Queens head (in Angel, London) and you frequently play XOYO, have you known those guys for a while? How did that relationship come about?
XOYO, a couple of years ago now, Andy booked me to play. He was the first person to put me on all night in Room 2 and he’s done that quite a few times now. He’s quite brave actually; he just takes a punt at stuff. He doesn’t know if this is going to work at all, but he’s willing to give up the club every Friday in June. They’ve got balls, you know? I think that’s why they do so well, they do put their money where their mouth is and just try stuff, like the residency series at XOYO.
What made you choose Dalston Rooftop, have you played there before? What made you choose it?
I went to one of the NTS parties there, but I haven’t played there before. When I play in XOYO now I play for 6 hours, I do the whole room all night and I kinda got used to it, I really like it. I’m going to have guests as well, but this gives us a chance to make it a 12-hour party because we’re 6 hours up on the roof, and warm it up properly, then go downstairs for six hours. It gave us the opportunity to make it a long party really.
How are you going to get everyone to the Nest, are you going to act like a pied piper down Kingsland Road?
We’re going in a Conga line.
What kind of guests can we expect?
It’s very difficult in London, because it’s quite a small place some of the guests I’ve got are also playing elsewhere, so I can’t say who the guests are. Some of the guests are really well known, but I’ve also got lesser-known ones. I met one of the guests that’s playing recently, at an after-party in Scotland, we were all playing tracks and stuff and this guy, who isn’t a DJ, pulled out his phone, plugged it in, and wiped the floor with all of us. Just off his phone. He hasn’t played at any parties before but he will smash this to bits.
So I convinced him and he’s coming down. He’s got his stuff off his phone and onto USB Keys, and it’s probably the best selection I’ve heard in years. The guests go from completely unknown to very well known, but it doesn’t matter as it’s just going to be a great party. The good thing about it is, hopefully people aren’t going to come because someone’s there, and hopefully they’re going to come because it’s a good party.
One guest I can tell you we have playing however, and he’s a disco hero of mine, is Dan Daxon. I’m very excited about that one.
If it’s successful, would you want to replicate it in other cities?
Definitely. I’d like to have a party where people just go to the party and trust its going to be good music because it seems like its all based on which guest you have and which DJ you’re going to see. Which is great, if I want to go see a great DJ who’s in town I can do and that’s a different thing. But I’d like to make a party where it’s more about the party, and when people get there they make it even more of a party. See what I mean?
In that respect do you think people who tune into your radio show every Monday who trust your selections would know that whatever you put on will be fantastic, regardless of a special guest or not?
That’s what I hope. Sometimes when you get those clubs with the mega DJ you get those people there who just went to tick off the box that they’ve seen them, or they’re only going so they have been. There is plenty of big name DJs I wouldn’t pay a £1 to see. I think going out to a club has gone a bit like that, which is why we’re trying to bring it back with the house party vibes.
Great, so can we get warm cans of Red Stripe then?
Haha absolutely, that’s all we’re selling.
Art’s house is every Friday in June, on Dalston Roof Terrace & then in the Nest. You can find out more and buy tickets here.
Words & Photos by Tom Kirkby