Last year, the English drum and bass producer Rockwell was surprised to hear one of his own songs getting regular play on BBC Radio 1. Though the track was titled “Please Please Please (Play This On The Radio),” it moved with the unruly velocity of a stampeding herd of buffalo — for more than seven minutes — and it was written expressly to “take the mick out of people” who make formulaic airwave fare.
Programmers fell in love with it anyway: “It was probably the most heavily radio supported track that I’ve ever done,” Rockwell says. Billboard went on to name his Obsolete Medium LP one of the best dance/electronic albums of 2016.
These sorts of endorsements aren’t unusual for Rockwell, who quickly earned praise from outside the tightly knit drum and bass community when he emerged in 2010. He made his mark, along with the likes of Instra:mental and ASC, by “writing stuff that was a complete U-turn from the traditional sound” of his genre. “It wasn’t brash; it wasn’t quick,” Rockwell says of the style he favored. “It was slow and melodic and not very dance floor focused. It was a breath of fresh air for a lot of people, especially within the wider electronic music scene and the wider electronic music press.”
But according to Rockwell, this sound didn’t necessarily gain a following in clubs: “People were still like, ‘ok, we want to rave,'” he admits. “You play some quiet plinky plonky minimal thing; people just wanted, ‘bash bash bash.’ Here’s Instra:mental coming through playing this really delicate, electronica-influenced drum and bass — everyone would just walk out and go for a cigarette.”
Rockwell’s distance from the clubs has often played an important role in his artistic development. He caught his first whiff of drum and bass on the radio, listening to a late night set from Fabio and Grooverider — also on Radio 1 — after his CD player failed to work. “I put a tape in the cassette deck and recorded the whole thing. I think I did that every week for the next six months.”
He has fond memories of being enthralled by a genre that he had limited access to. “You’d hear all these tunes that were wicked on the radio, but you never knew what they were,” he explains. “It wasn’t until you actually had to go into record shops and just pick out random vinyl and put it on that you’d know what these tunes were called. You really had to work to find out what tunes were. It was a nice little thing. Nowadays you log onto Facebook, and everybody’s trying to stuff their latest release down your throat.”
As he acquired records, it made sense to put them to use by DJing, and, eventually, to try his hand at production. He suggests he was just making music for his friends, but when he created “Drums,” a pal passed the tune to the DJ Shy FX. “It came back to me through a series of people that he was playing it out,” Rockwell recalls. The rumors proved to be true, and when the two producers subsequently ran into each other at a club, Shy FX signed the track, which appeared on Rockwell’s first EP, Stowaway, through Shy’s label Digital Soundboy. Rockwell subsequently connected with Shogun, another esteemed drum and bass label run by DJ Friction.
Living in Cardiff, where, he says “there wasn’t really a rave scene to get involved in,” impacted his productions. “I wasn’t DJing out at the time, and if you’re not DJing, you’re not making music that’s influenced by the need to go and smash out a club every weekend,” he notes. “I was listening to a lot of records like Boards Of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Autechre.” When Rockwell put out his debut album last year, he cited producers like Hudson Mohawke and Rustie as inspiration. “They can do highly musical, euphoric tunes, but they don’t fall into cheese territory,” he says. “It is difficult to do certain things at [170 b.p.m.], but if you flip that around, it’s easier to get the energy. There’s a lot experimentation that can be done with this tempo that isn’t really undertaken.”
On October 28th, Rockwell returns with the four track Chorus Of Disapproval EP, which includes infusions of juke, a skeletal, jittery, high impact branch of dance music from Chicago. He started working on “Hoez To The Floor,” which is premiering exclusively on Billboard Dance today, after seeing a set from Chicago’s DJ Deeon in London. Rockwell places the tune next to older numbers like “Detroit” — the perennially enthusiastic Zane Lowe, back when he was a Radio 1 DJ, called that track “one of the tastiest slices of drum and bass I’ve heard in a long time” — and “1234,” from 2014.
Rockwell also revisits what he calls “emo drum and bass” on the title track. “I haven’t written a tune like that for a very long time,” he acknowledges. “It goes back to my earlier tunes like ‘Aria’ [from 2011]. I was always going to return to things that I’d done when the moment was right and the feeling took me.”
He may feel free to circle back to earlier modes because he feels confident about the current state of drum and bass. “It’s got really exciting again,” he says. “I think it’s very open and there’s a lot of different flavors.”