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Escape Velocity

The Next Eternity: Elijah & Skilliam Interviewed
Lauren Martin , September 18th, 2014 15:40

Ahead of their Jamz Roller Disco this weekend, Lauren Martin meets the Butterz founders and Rinse FM DJs to talk about their label, global recognition and carving a space for grime in 2014

The King William IV pub on High Road, Leyton, is not the place I envisioned meeting grime DJs Elijah and Skilliam. Much of the oiled wood, between embossed mirrors and calligraphy-decorated windows, is decorated with the St George: hanging lumpen from ceilings and wrapped around the pillars of the horseshoe bar. It feels not so much quintessential in its Englishness, but insistent. Some sleepy men drape themselves in corners, too, with pints and papers to hand. It's a cosy relic, wholly unconcerned with the future. Why here, I ask?

Elijah explains that this is "pretty much the hippest place around here", since nearly every bar that he used to go to in Leyton has since "turned into a Greggs". He and Skilliam crack a smile, as they reminisce about which pirate radio stations you could pick up in which postcode, and the skate shop Skaters Paradise, where they both used to hang out. Change, it seems, is a subject close to both of them.

As DJs and label owners and now quarterly residents at the omniscient fabric, their assault on the UK grime scene has been gathering pace since their Rinse show started back in 2008, and this summer has easily been their most ambitious to date. Having just come back from a raucous Butterz boat party at Outlook Festival, the next few weeks sees them take their Jamz club night to a roller disco in London, as well as to clubs in Berlin, Manchester and Leeds.

Few grime DJs right now put in the air miles and airtime that Elijah and Skilliam do, yet, despite their following, they give the impression that they occupy an unenviable position: championing a scene the core of which has yet to fully embrace them, and struggling between their love and dismay for a culture that they see as vital. Speaking to Elijah and Skilliam about the current state of grime, and their position within it, perhaps reveals some home truths for a culture that is both the aggressor and the victim of its own change.

I remember that the last time we spoke, you mentioned that you think that bookers are going to find it difficult to strike a balance between grime DJ sets and MC slots this year, considering how much talent is out there. Are your own forthcoming Jamz events a way to work through this?

Elijah: It's nearly impossible to balance because you have two sides of a scene - a scene that we're in the middle of - and there's not enough shows that are supporting new acts on either side. There aren't enough places for people to play so we made another one, Jamz, as a chance for us to experiment.

Do you think there's been a decline in these places?

Skilliam: It's definitely declined, and especially since Cable [in London] shut. The promoters there were pretty free. You could have a big act headlining, but they usually tried to make room for the smaller acts coming through, so that they could gain experience.

E: When we were at Cable, you'd have some dubstep DJs headlining and then some grime MCs and DJs mixing it up, but now that we're in fabric it's difficult to put on something left of centre. Right now, there's only one sort of feeder club night, and that's Boxed. That's only on the producer side of things, too. Novelist's first show was with us in fabric, and he's only 17. There should have been a build up for him but, instead – bang, Room 2.

When dubstep became the predominant club sound in the UK in the late 2000s, grime DJs could fit on bills with relative ease. Now that house in its current pop incarnation is dominating, it doesn't feel that grime can sit so well with it. In this respect, where do you feel you fit right now in clubbing, if at all?

E: When we tour, it's got to be all about grime. Grime and house don't fit together. Saying that, MCs don't always translate with us as DJs, either.

How so?

E: We'll put Wiley on at our fabric show, but Wiley could book big shows in London, Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth and we wouldn't open for him. It's not like how you would have Green Lantern or Whoo Kid at a 50 Cent show. If it's not DJs like The Heatwave, with the dancehall and bashment shows, it's DJs who play tracks from the radio - which we wouldn't do.

How do you find the UK scene more widely for grime right now?

E: We'll play places in England once a year, but spend a lot of time in Europe. People will ask me where I'm playing this weekend, and I'll say "Montenegro." They go, "Why?" "Well, I'm not getting booked for Bristol, am I?" All these places, where you thought there would be regular grime shows? It's still not happening.

I think there's been a pretty severe cutting down of grime as spectacle in recent years. I've only moved to London this year, but observing grime from a distance, it seems that the live experience of grime has massively dwindled. With what you're saying about Novelist being thrown in at the deep end as a performer, it seems to be following a more rap-orientated trajectory: score a hit, get tossed onstage and risk flopping.

E: Exactly. It's not the right way to introduce grime MCs to the world. If a young MC does what Novelist did, they have to carry this big room with no real experience of how to do that even in a small club. Under those lights, it's throwing them in at the deep end. Our Jamz nights are intended to give new MCs a practice run.

What is the reception like right now outside of the UK? You're heading to Japan next month. What's the appetite for grime like there?

S: Well, in the UK, the trends move very quickly and fold into each other a lot. Abroad, they're getting the sound a bit fresher because it's usually at a remove - even a year or two late, sometimes. They hear a sound from afar, and then build their own scene around it.

E: Other than the US, Japan is our biggest market outside the UK in terms of sales and merchandise. When people play Japan now, they always come back and say, "That's the most Butterz T-shirts I've ever seen in a rave." And it's not just fans. It's DJs and producers from those scenes, too. That's the thing with grime: everyone is something.

Speaking of new settings, what was the thinking behind your forthcoming roller disco?

S: We're trying to branch out from our usual big room Friday nights. The daytime party means that a different side of our audience will come out, and absorb all this shit that they don't even expect.

E: All the daytime parties in London right now are house and techno, so there's a gap in the market for something a bit left or right of that.

It also adds an element of playfulness to grime as a live experience. Aside from the music itself, there's often such an underlying aggression to the staging of grime, thanks to the police and policy like Form 696.

E: Exactly. All our shit - our names, our artwork, Jamz - it's jokes to us. It's not "intelligent grime".

S: It's personality. You warm to that. We're not trying to show this hard exterior.

E: How we are in real life is a reflection of the party. It's like when people say that JME comes across as a nerd in his music. Of course he does. He plays computer games and dresses up as a superhero in his videos. Man is vegan and doesn't smoke. It's not put on. That's why people like him.

One element of grime I've been watching within interest is the resurgence of the grime single, but with a more independent framing to it than the mid-2000s, say, when Wiley, Dizzee, Lethal B and Kano were signing deals. JME has been in the UK Top 40 a few times this year, for example, and he's still unsigned. What do you think of the recent run of singles like 'German Whip', and the impact they've had?

E: As many good songs as there are, so many other things in grime are broken. 'German Whip' can get weekend airplay on 1Xtra, but when you wake up on Monday morning there's still no grime raves happening. You can't get grime to certain places if there's still no representation on the mainstream. There are only two grime shows on Rinse, for fuck sake. That's why we don't put out that much music on Butterz. We're so busy trying to fix everything else.

What are the obstacles in the grime scene right now that you feel you can actively work on?

E: It's such a closed environment. You say, maybe rightly, that since you're not from London, you can only know and see so much of it all. But we're open about wanting to take grime elsewhere. Kids in other cities might never see it otherwise. Artists need to be willing to say, "Fuck it, I will go play that show in Glasgow or Newcastle. Twenty people, 200 people or 1,000 people might turn up, but I'm going to take that risk." I'd rather they did that, instead of playing no shows for months because they're waiting for that £5,000 booking in London.

That attitude you're describing really works against the real purpose of grime - again, as spectacle - in that it's meant to be live.

S: And that's it. Radio, radio that properly represents, is so important for the scene. Spreading it further, outside pirate radio, is much more difficult than people think.

E: And then, once it gets to big clubs in London, how do we replicate that in Bristol? Or Manchester? I mean, Warehouse Project laugh at us, man.

Their bookings are very weighted on house and techno.

E: Exactly. We want to smash that club, but where would we fit? And Warehouse Project is rare in how big it is, and how much it goes in on production. When you scale down the size of a city like London by 90%, that's what the club situation for grime is like in the UK. If we're struggling for venues here, right now, how the hell is it going to work in Brighton or Leeds?

I think a big problem with how grime is represented on mainstream UK radio is that single artists are cherry-picked for singles, and then are paraded as "the urban act" for that moment. E: Yeah. With singles like 'German Whip', they get embraced as one play here and there, and everyone gets excited, but because the overall playlist remains the same… it's reaching people, but confusing for the various audiences. If there's only a few big singles a year, they'll think grime's underachieving.

Do you think there's a lack of infrastructure for grime, considering that the comparative success of isolated singles doesn't translate into a wider reach for grime to new listeners?

E: The main issue for me is that the artists who work on tracks together don't work together on any actual business. The All Star remix of Fekky - 'Still Sittin' Here', for example. I see 10 MCs on there and I think, "That's sick, but who's going do the tour? Who's going to put their money, and their name, where their mouth is?" We're doing that, but only on a scale that we can afford to do so. If you're charting, you should be more active. I don't see Fekky and Dizzee doing shows together.

From what you're saying, there seems like there's an inversion of priorities when it comes to grime right now: put out the single, but don't tour it to spread the sound.

E: If the tune's big, you should be thinking, "What can we do with it now?" No one else is doing what we are, as a label and touring DJs, like we are right now. No Hats No Hoods did it before us, but it's not exactly a crowded market. People used to say to us, "Why do you need a grime label?" Well, to put out records. Seriously. That's how stupid people are.

There are labels like Keysound, Coyote, Gobstopper and Local Action - the latter of which you seem to have the most in common with, I think. What do you make of the newer school of grime, through these labels?

E: We differ in taste. Not to say they're bad records. I love the Wen - Signals LP on Keysound, the Dark0 EP on Gobstopper, and Finn - 'Keep Calling' is sick. But they're records that we wouldn't do ourselves.

Not only that, but you're not exactly the faceless entities behind a label.

E: With the records, they have to be from artists that are going to stay with us. If you're going to put that much time and energy and money into one person, you need to believe 100% that they're on it for the next eternity.

No pressure, then.

E: It's not just about releasing records, though. With Flava D, we said: "If you don't see our vision, then there's no point in keeping with us." When we heard Flava D's 'Hold On' I could hear another ten records in her, but we're not putting out a 12" for a 12"'s sake. The record is just a by-product of us getting you out there.

What have you got coming next on Butterz?

E: We've got nothing so far. It's all about getting shows sorted. It's just our money, and our show and with bare people involved.

Does this feel like that's out of necessity, from a lack of wider support?

E: That, and we have to wait for others. When you get a booking from someone else, you're on their clock. We need to be assertive. That's what's missing. Artists are always moaning on Twitter about what's not right, or what they're going to do, but if you ask them to put their own money up, they sit back and shut up.

Take the Lord Of The Mics show for Boiler Room, for example. There's a deep romanticism for the genre. People have been saying that "Grime is dead" for years, but are quick to reminisce on the year or two previous with real fervour.

E: One good thing is that we have enough people coming out to the shows and visibly enjoying it to make things happen for us. People say to us, "Oh you're still DJing?" We're like, "Yeah." They say, "Still playing grime?" We're like, "Yeah." "Oh, rahhh." They almost don't believe it. It's that real.

Has that been a long-term thing for both of you? Where did you both grow up?

E: I'm from Leyton, East London.

S: And I'm from Ilford, North-East London.

The first thing anyone learns about grime is E3, but what was your experience of grime before you got your Rinse show in 2008?

S: MCs, clubs, records, radio - it was all very active. Everyone at school was swapping tapes from sets recorded from the radio.

E: There were more clubs, too. There was one called EQ where the Olympic stadium - you know, that place that they told us would make everything better? - is now. There was the Palace Pavilion, too, which is now the Clapton Hart. It'll probably be a Greggs, next.

You could easily go to your local bar or club and hear MCs and DJs, but that was it: local. We didn't get each other's pirates, and MCs from west were nothing like the MCs from east. What survived in the long term mainly came from east. People think that there was no scene in parts of north, west and south, but they're just dead in that they didn't break through. For the DJs, they would have been on five stations over a period of a few years, and each station would have had about seven or eight slots a day. Now, we have two grime shows on Rinse, and that's Rinse. That's the difference.

S: There was Axe FM, too.

Wow, Axe FM was old school.

E: Axe FM was the realest. It was Boiler Room, but ten years ago. I used to watch it for the fascination, via that shitty webcam on Windows Media Player. Look, I used to have a PlayStation and a radio. That was it. I didn't have no money for records, so I just taped shit off the radio. It was real then.

On a more positive note, what good things do you think are happening in the grime scene right now?

S: I like that we've clocked all the different avenues that we can take it down: radio, clubs, festivals, daytime parties and the label. Pulling all of that into our schedule makes this togetherness feels more real now. We never thought we'd be working with MCs the way we are now.

E: Definitely. Before, you couldn't get a hold of an MC. Now, they're phoning us. They appreciate the value we've created on our side, without them. You can also see people being active, and not necessarily begging for the attention of the older scene in order to do it. Take Murlo, for example. He came through without Rinse, without Butterz, without the old order of OG's backing him up. I respect that. When we came in, we were like, "Fuck it, let's blow everything up." And we still think like that.

Well, when it comes to blowing it up, you were the first grime DJs to do a Fabriclive mix. That must have been pretty huge for you. Do you find that putting it together was an exercise in figuring out what exactly it is that you both do as DJs?

E: Honestly? We get tied up in so much opinion. Of what people think the label is, what our radio show is, what our club night is, even what I've been writing on the internet. It's been hard to pin down what we actually do as DJs sometimes, and the Fabriclive mix was a chance to work through that. It's our CV - or our calling card, maybe.

Did you get a bit existential about what you feel it is that you do as DJs?

E: That, and thinking about where the music is at right now for us, too. At first we thought, "We have to represent the entire grime scene", because grime is so small and the scene always has that pressure. "Oh, Logan didn't play my single, I'm gonna kill him!" So what, man? No other music scene has the kind of pressure that grime has. Rather than trying to represent everything, we were like, "Fuck it. This is a blank slate." The mix is about our sound, not our scene.

I can imagine that the pressure of feeling the need to carry the sound on your back, at all times, must feel pretty daunting.

S: It can be a weight, but we also like to think that we can be someone's entry point into the scene.

E: If I showed Fabriclive 75 to someone that used to listen to grime back in the day, they're not necessarily the best judges of where music is at right now, or of what's happening in the clubs. If were going to judge things against 'Pulse X' forever, we're done for.

Now that it's out, how do you think the Fabriclive mix came together?

E: We tried to put together different things that would complement each other, but we also made a point of picking newer acts like Murlo and Royal-T, because we're trying to get them known to a wider audience. We're not concerned with exclusivity. It's about breaking out. I remember one review saying that it felt like an "awkward" listen. It's meant to be awkward. The reason it doesn't fit seamlessly together is because everyone is doing such different shit.

Now that you've got the fabric residency, the Jamz shows and a Japanese tour, what do you feel you want to work on for the live experience now?

E: The one thing that we don't get to do is play British festivals. Bestival was the first one we've ever played, and that wasn't even on the mainland.

S: Well, we're still young really.

E: Nah man, we should have been there already. Fuck that.

S: Yeah, but it's not like it can't happen next year.

E: We did Sónar last year, and bare people were there. We've done other big European festivals, too. We should have been doing more British ones this year.

S: Festivals get booked well in advance, though.

E: So? So does bare shit. We've done pretty much everything but chart a record. We should be doing British festivals.

Grime at British festivals can be a really strange experience. I remember when Wiley played with Hot Chip at Glastonbury, and it was basically him leading a chant of, "Oggy oggy oggy". Not exactly grimey, is it?

E: That's not grime. We could do better than that. We curated shows for years at Cable. We know how to make an eight-hour show work. Our boat party at Outlook this year was sick. We had Kahn and Neek with Flowdan, myself and Will with Newham Generals, Novelist, Flava D and Royal-T. Is that like too much of a line-up to ask for at a UK festival, or even a London day festival? Dubstep used to be the big "dance thing" at festivals for a few years, but people stopped making it and it fell off. Why is that?

I think perhaps, in the context of festivals, dubstep fell victim to "the drop", and in doing so betrayed the essence of the sound, which was pace and tension. Now, dubstep at festivals and big shows is styled as a constant release, rather than a maintaining of tension. Then, take two 45-minute sides of a Sidewinder tape: grime is about relentless energy. I don't think grime would necessarily have the same fate as dubstep on the big stage, though, as there's a natural focus on the MC.

E: Yeah. I don't think what happened to dubstep at festivals would happen to grime at festivals, and especially if we have MCs with us. Drops wouldn't be the focus. The whole party would be.

If all else fails, you could shut off a road in Walthamstow and just throw a party there.

S: Yeah, we really should.

Elijah & Skilliam host the Jamz All-Day Roller Disco this Saturday, September 20, at Shapes in Hackney Wick, with Flava D, Royal-T, Swindle, Spyro, Spooky, Mr. Mitch, Last Japan, Parris Bradshaw and more on the bill; head here for full details and tickets