Familiar to those with even a passing interest in the UK’s dancefloors, since it’s inception in late 2009 the Butterz imprint has been partly responsible for the recent resurgence of interest in grime. Ten years after the sounds of London broke out of it’s E3 postcode to become one of the most fascinating musical movements since punk, grime remains fertile ground for creativity and expression, with Butterz leading the way via a crew of like minded musical minds.
With breaking artists such as Slackk, Visionist, Inkke and Kahn all producing modern grime music that succeeds the original template laid out by Wiley, Dizzee, Musical Mob and Terror Danjah in the early noughties, Butterz can be seen to be part of the progression that paved the way for these acts at the back end of the last decade. Across almost 20 releases, the label has produced a roster of uncompromising instrumental-leaning grime, with tracks by Terror Danjah, Royal-T, Swindle, P Jam,Trim, Flava D, S-X and Champion creating anthems for a new generation of fans. Now a six man operation, Butterz celebrates four years at the top of its game with ever more collaborative projects, and a forthcoming residency at fabric.
Focussed, calm and thoughtful, the man behind one of the UK’s biggest grime success stories of recent years is 26 year old East London born and bred Elijah. We met at Stoke Newington’s The Vinyl Library to discuss his journey to success, the ambitions of his peers, and the sheer vividness at the heart of the dance.
It’s been a relatively quiet year for Butterz compared to the preceding couple, so I was wondering what you’ve got on the go at the moment, and how you’ve found 2013 in comparison to past years?
There’s a balance between records and events on the label, and in an events sense we did Cable at the beginning of the year for our birthday, then obviously that closed so we had to make provisions for the rest of the year. We did Fire for Swindle’s album launch, then we’ve moved the nights to fabric which is obviously good for the label – so we start a residency there in November, then we’ve got another (I cant say much about it yet) in February and it’ll roll from there. In a record sense I didn’t want to cover the same ground, so we brought Flava D into the fold for our first record of the year ‘Hold On’… and then we just wanted to wait for a bit – not go over old ground like I say. So we put Royal T, Champion, Terror, Preditah, Swindle, P Jam in the studio over the summer working over collaborative material. We had four seven hour sessions, which doesn’t sound like that much, but for people that make tunes in an hour, that’s quite a long time having all these people’s minds together. We’re gonna roll out the best of those sessions over the next few months – the first one being an edit of the Flava D record with Royal T and P Jam’s impression of it. We’ve also done more shows this year than any other year. Other labels that you might compare us to I imagine, they would have other people doing this shit for them,
And you don’t have that…
[laughs] No – I don’t have that! If I’m away for two, three weeks, then nothing would get done. So over the summer it was imperative that Monday and Tuesday we’re in the studio, together. Swindle is notorious for being everywhere, so say he’s back on a Sunday, we have to hook up on a Monday or be doing something – so on that level it’s been difficult to manage.
The collaborative element must be difficult – obviously you don’t have any middle management and a lot of people to organise…
Yeah but I think it was just the right time – if we did it in the first year of the label when not everyone knew each other, or knew what they could do, then it would have been difficult, but now we’ve travelled together, these guys have slept on my floor and shit you know? So when it comes to the studio you don’t have to warm up to each other – everyone knows what Swindle can do on a guitar, or what Skilliam can do. If you put Royal T on Fruity Loops, then that’s his thing, if you put Flava D on Ableton, Swindle uses Logic, Terror Danjah uses Cubase and Preditah uses Reason – so you’ve got all different platforms, and people can go nuts – you’ve got different canvases to work on – it was perfect. I mean there’s one track with nine different producers on! We’re gonna have to come up with a name and just put it out…
One of the thing I find about Butterz – and I guess is part of the balancing act – historically the successful UK electronic labels have a keen sense of a singular identity, yet at the same time are very artist-led. Warp had it, Metalheadz had it, Hyperdub definitely have it, and I think you guys too. Is that a purposeful mentality in that you enjoy creating paths for artists within the Butterz camp?
Yeah I see it as part of the exchange – [for example] Flava D’s come in later, this year, and what we can do for her is put her on the label as an artist – getting her face about the clubs, putting her records out – last year she wasn’t even djing in the clubs, she didn’t even have a press shot you know? This year she’s got a vinyl release, she’s playing in fabric with all these people that she would have just tweeted a few months ago – and we’re comfortable around each other to say “you know what that’s good, that’s not” and all that. That’s why I don’t really want to put out records by randoms either. Like the S-X record, it was a big tune, but no follow up as he wanted to do his own thing which is fine, but I’d have preferred that he stuck around, and did shows with us, and put more records out with us, just because you put so much into each record, as a label you want to build something.
Obviously you have a very solid Butterz crew – do you have any new talent waiting in the wings, or an approach to finding new talent, or do you feel like you have your full team now?
Yeah it’s like a football club innit? You look at whether you have gaps that you need to fill. I don’t need anyone that can make up-tempo garage vibes because we’ve got Flava D and Royal-T, that areas covered. Grimier house stuff Champion can come do that. Harder edged stuff is Terror. If we were going to take on someone new now, I know what we’d need…
You’d know exactly what kind of talent would fill in the gap…
Yeah like Butterz – an easy one – it’s missing an MC. It’s obvious. We say that we’re a grime label, but we don’t have a flagship MC, someone who’s come up through us, or has done more than one record with us.
Why do you think that is?
I think because the aim of a lot of MCs is to get a major record deal. That’s the goal. To sign with Warner – so many have done it before. Dizzee is their blueprint, Tinie Tempah is their blueprint – not Roots Manuva or say someone who’s moved a bit slower, but still had a long career – we can’t do that for them, and I’m not going to sell someone a dream that I can’t deliver.
Is that something that informed your thoughts on how to start the label though? Concentrating on producers rather than MCs?
How it is now is not how I thought is would be put it that way! I actually thought when we started the label, we can have a balance between the crew we have now, and then also a vocal element, maybe picking up a P Money single or a Trim single like we did, but that would happen alongside – so the label would be a grime label that pushes out all the vocal shit that Logan plays, and then you’d have this other kinda “what the fuck” type output – but it hasn’t really turned out that way. Because of the ambitions of the MCs, or me not reaching out to that many people. Over the three years I’ve only really reached out to JME, Skepta, Newham Generals, P Money and Trim, where as the people that were coming through at the same time I just wasn’t really that into them – so I’m not going to sell something I’m not feeling – and in that same time anyway, so many people have been signed and then dropped.
Which we’ve all seen before.
Yeah I mean people just sign deals, and they’re bound by contract not to even fuck with people like me. So creatively you’re just stuck. The stuff that’s supposed to sell doesn’t always sell that well, [MCs being like] “oh I’m top 40” – yeah number 33 for one week, sold 4,000 copies on iTunes for 79p [laughs] – and you’ll see like five pence of that.
Though obviously majors aren’t concentrating on anyone who can’t break the top 20…
Yeah well if you’re in the top 20 they can at least market you to be in the top 10 next time round, maybe if you’re lucky. But, even those cats, those MCs, they’re not album sellers – the single’s supposed to market the album, and apart from Dizzee, Tinie, and Wretch, no one does it.
Mentioning people like Dizzee, Terror Danjah – what do you take from those original first wave grime artists?
Not thinking too much about how it’s going to be received. Just thinking about what you have at hand – keeping it simple. Not thinking too much about demographics, Facebook likes and all this other shit that comes now. At the time, there was no Facebook, no Youtube, no Twitter, no Myspace. But they didn’t have to worry about that it was just like: music, DJs, records – keeping it simple. Not the music, but the idea of what they’re doing. I swear now you can hear people adding in a trappy bit so people will play it, or “oh shit I need to change my name so I can make some house” [laughs], it’s so predictable it’s not even funny. You got to have a couple of vocals samples in there, do an Aaliyah bootleg…
You gotta remix Cassie…
Oh yeah gotta remix Cassie! You know what I mean – just tick every cliché box, but I don’t think people even realise they’re doing it, they just think that’s how you be a producer in this day and age. I know that’s one thing – there’s no rules to success. Everyone tries to hold some sort of example, you know like Warp – but there’s only one Warp, there isn’t two. Even the things in grime you know – the reasons I like LuckyMe, or Boy Better Know, or Rinse, or Sidewinder, or Eskimo Dance – there’s so many different reasons, and I don’t need to tick everyone of those boxes to be valid. But you feel like you do, you feel like “I have to have my knowledge of post-punk” – I don’t know anything about it, fuck it. Like people will say to me “oh I was at this festival and people were playing some grime” and I’ll ask what grime they’re playing. I can tell you – they’ll play ‘Rhythm n’ Gash’, ‘Ghetto Kyote’, ‘Functions On The Low’, maybe ‘Wot Do U Call It’, ‘Eskimo’, ‘Woooo Riddim’ – I remember someone text saying Calvin Harris was playing ‘Woooo Riddim’ and I was like – game over, we’ve won! [laughs] So yeah, those select records you know – it’s always them. There’s other records you know, but those are the only fucking grime records people play. People are like “Butterz isn’t grime” ‘coz they can’t even identify it you know? Just because it’s something that doesn’t sound like ‘Pulse X’ – ‘Pulse X’ was fucking 2002 man, that shit is old, move on. That shit was old when I was young.
You’ve always seemed to have a very focussed attitude – where do you get your day-to-day inspiration from to keep things fresh with the label?
I’m into so many different things, I read Seth Godin’s blog, a lot of business and political writing, alongside biographies and loads of comedy new and old. If it’s a Monday throw on a FACT or RA mix – there’s always something good not that far away. I can do so many things myself, like video editing, writing, producing, I’ve done five years on Rinse FM with Skilliam too. I still listen to loads of radio, and put a lot of effort into the show even though I am on a lot less these days.
Have you had to learn any lessons the hard way? As with many independent labels starting out – you learn as you go.
I took my time. When we did the first record I’d just come out of uni so I just did what I could manage – mentally and financially. I suppose I learnt a lot about vinyl production – hard lessons about that shit. In terms of technical stuff I just read books, Code of Conduct and that stuff, and just not be an arsehole really. Most people the way they get tied up is trying to take more than they should have in the first place – when people have qualms with their label it’s because the clarity’s not there.
Do you feel you’ve had your clarity from the beginning though? Like you knew what you were about, went about your business, wasn’t a dick to anyone and learned in your own time?
Yeah. At the time there was No Hats No Hoods, and that was it terms of grime labels. So when I said to people I was setting up a label it was just love – being offered help or whatever. Where as if you say you’re starting a label now, people don’t wanna know – it was easier in 2009. Now, maybe because I read so much music press, but it’s like everyday there’s a new label. Was it like that in 2009, 2010?
It’s become what people do if they’re interested – and good labels have come out of it.
It’s like [it’s become] the new blog – it’s what people do… That’s why I do the parties too you know. I can remember raves from like ten years ago, maybe not the date, but if people were to ask me where I first heard a tune, I can tell them, yeah that venue, who I was with, what I was wearing – not even because I got the best memory but because raves are just really vivid. I’m 26 and I can tell that’s how some 18 year old is with Butterz at the raves and that, and it motivates you to do more. We had the birthday and bare young people obviously, [at] their first rave they would have seen Joker and Swindle back-to-back with JME and Skepta – I want that at every rave! If that’s your base, what you’re starting on, then it can only go up.
Special thanks to The Vinyl Library in Stoke Newington