For European dance music producers looking to broaden their audience in the United States, it’s hard to beat a Drake remix. The platinum-selling rap superstar is known for hopping on songs by artists that fall far outside the confines of rap-Lykke Li, Jamie xx, Jai Paul-and expanding their reach.
So when London-based producer SBTRKT heard that Drake had decided to record a verse on “Wildfire,” SBTRKT’s smoldering single with Little Dragon from his self-titled debut due on June 27 on XL Recordings imprint Young Turks, SBTRKT was grateful. And bewildered.
“I don’t know him, had no contact with him. He was literally feeling the song,” says SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”). “I heard from the label that he wanted to have a go at making his own version, and that’s it. Basically, he put it out on his blog. Probably a few thousand people heard it before I did. It’s just mad, really.”
SBTRKT may have blindsided rap as much as Drake blindsided him, but bass music fans have been watching his rise for years. After spending a decade teaching himself to play electronic music, SBTRKT began sending MP3s through SoundCloud to tastemaking DJs like MaryAnne Hobbs and Graeme Sinden in 2009. They played his singles on the BBC’s Radio 1, and it wasn’t long before SBTRKT’s sound-deep synth tracks rooted in British genres like dubstep, U.K. garage, 2-step and funky house, and usually stamped with soulful vocals from a small stable of friends-caught on in the clubs. By outre dance standards, last year’s phenomenal “Nervous” was a hit, snagging heavy rotation slots on BBC Radio shows across formats.
“I didn’t want to have to force anyone to play anything. It was all about whether they liked a song,” says SBTRKT, who’s guarded about his real name and performs while wearing an African mask. “It was a slow procedure, but it was always about me believing the music was strong enough to do it, and not having to go and chat to someone to make them play it.”
In the underground British dance scene genres evolve quickly. But while the endless stream of 12-inch white-label vinyl singles and one-off MP3s may be a boon for dancers, it can prove problematic for producers looking to broaden horizons. Still, SBTRKT didn’t worry too much about boxing himself in on his debut. “I’ve always sat more comfortably in an artist’s identity than as a producer,” he says.
SBTRKT first met Young Turks A&R representative Tic while hanging around iconic London dance club Plastic People and spent two years recording “SBTRKT,” having guest vocalists Little Dragon, Sampha and Jessie Ware record from a couch in his living room.
“There are a lot of producers in London and a lot of competition all over the country,” Young Turks head Cassius Pawson says. “Instead of just making an album of 12 dance songs, he put the dance genre in an album format.”
Drake’s “Wildfire” remix has been getting play on WQHT (Hot 97) New York mixshows and WPOW (Power 96) Miami. With the audience for woozy pop artists like the Weeknd and Frank Ocean continuing to expand-and the album’s allusions to R&B, new jack swing and vocal house music; skewed beats; and angled melodies-“SBTRKT” could take a similar hold.
Yet, despite the interest at R&B/hip-hop radio, the plan to break SBTRKT stateside is, initially, closer to that of an American indie band: through word-of-mouth and a live touring rig. Audiences at live shows will find SBTRKT on drums and Sampha on vocals and synths, a format honed this spring while touring Europe with like-minded dance band Friendly Fires. They’ll debut the performance in the States in July.
“The States are going to get [the live stuff] more than the U.K.,” Pawson says. “It’s more electronic band music, and America’s got a rich history of experimental bands like Battles, so I think it will come across perfectly.”