While the UK government’s Northern Powerhouse proposals barely seem capable of electrifying rail lines, let alone closing the economic gap with London and the South, creatively speaking the upper regions of England are in rude health right now.
Few places is this more evident than Manchester. Long having laid claim to an enviable reputation when it comes to the arts, while 2017 was a truly turbulent time for music in the city—terror attacks at concerts and the death of a true legend in Marcus Intalex— the current soundtrack sounds like ever-forward.
Or at least that’s what DRS is hearing. As a decade-spanning figurehead of UK drum ’n’ bass, he’s been a constant voice in a town where change is the dominant force for longer than half the crowd at an average party have been going out.
This year looks set to be no different for the celebrated MC, with plans veering between album work he’s keeping on the down-low, for now at least, and another summer packed with festivals that will take him from home turf to Croatia and beyond. We gave the man in question a call ahead of another weekend spent commanding the mic, to see exactly why he sees such positivity in the state of the nation’s electronic scenes. Here’s what he had to say.
Good, man. Obviously last year with Marcus passing away it was a hard year. I feel this year has started good, promising vibes. Things seem to be falling into place. Feels like a good start, and obviously for the city of Manchester too.
In what way?
Just the belief that seems to be there. Especially with us older ones that laid the foundations, we can see the fruits of 15 years of hard work, and the young ones coming through now, they’re ready, it’s a beautiful thing to watch happen.
There’s certainly a lot being said about the city right now.
Definitely. There’s a lot of people from my generation who maybe feel a bit bitter, they put in the work, but you can’t look at things like that. People like me, Chimpo... if people need help we’ll give them a hand in if we can, rather than letting someone have to go the long way.
Everyone is doing things, there are labels sniffing around, there are finally stars from Manchester, who show people what’s achievable if they want to go down that route. It’s the greatest time I’ve known since the Happy Mondays and Madchester, which was when I was coming of age. Since then I’ve never seen such belief or high spirits of the music scene here. Obviously this time it’s more urban and dance music, rather than indie.
Compare now to when you were first coming through then. How many more opportunities are there for young talent in the city?
It’s like a different world. Back then if you needed to get in and record you’d have to use a massive studio for £60 an hour or some shit. No internet, no fuck all. Now it’s the opposite. Like I say, we’ve got stars, you know? Bugzy [Malone], IAMDDB, people in dance music, drum ’n’ bass, on all levels we have people who are smashing it. It’s just a real good time.
Also because it’s bubbling here, we’re looking at London, and I don’t know what’s happened there but London in the last couple of years has become like Atlanta or something. There are loads of prospering young black artists.
Not just black, but they can look at Skepta, Krept and Konan, comedians, they can see that this is 250 miles away from Manchester, so close, so if people want to put the graft in they can see it’s achievable. That’s why it’s exciting to both be part of it and watch it happen in Manchester.
In terms of black artists, do you think this surge to prominence is partly due to the music industry becoming less racist?
It’s not become less racist, it’s the drive of the kids and their knowledge growing. Obviously, say with Stormzy or Krept & Conan, they have been around but are still newish. But then Skepta and all them people that have been around for ten years have sacrificed for these kids. They tried to be a major thing and ended up being pushed down the pot, it didn’t really work.
They have been through so many battles with labels, and have now have come back round to doing it for themselves. And it’s like shit, if they just stuck to doing that all the way they probably would have got here ten years ago. So it’s like people can see that drive and the success now, they don’t necessarily see the graft, but they know this is achievable and can follow these models.
It’s sick, it’s a sick time. And like I say it’s not only for black kids, but there are black artists being allowed to shine now, make money, whereas before they were locking off the raves for them, not being able to earn money.
People are becoming increasingly wary of anything remotely big business. Labels, banks… do you think the old model of the corporate music industry is done for?
I think the best way to put it is there’s two different types of artist in the world. You have your Ed Sheerans, who can be marketed in any way but at the end of the day when he picks up a guitar people will listen. Same way with Adele and a piano, she plays and the world will listen. So for them kind of artists a major label is perfect.
Then you have the other side, your Chimpos, even your JMEs, young stars, even Bugzy Malone. They have distribution deals but really they are independent. They have some entrepreneurial spirit about them, and you can see that’s working. There’s no point going down a major label route as one of those people. You don’t even need money to start a label, and people are absolutely killing it.
These kids coming up now and shining from Manchester, they were the first generation given iPads to shut them up. Before it was ‘get outside, lad, here’s a footy’ or whatever, whereas now it’s here’s an iPad, go on YouTube. It’s like my son, he’s 14 and knows more about the music programme I’ve used for 15 years than I do. It’s mental.
So they know what they want to do and have a business mind about them. A major label is wrong for them as they will get boxed in and told what to do. They already have people talking, a logo, a night, t-shirts, everyone wants to do a track with them.
I’ll tell you what Manchester needs, right. It’s like everyone wants to be the artist, nobody wants to be the manager. That's what we need, and what London has got. In a group of friends there’s one guy who is the absolute hustler and ends up negotiating deals for them. Stormzy’s got his guy, Wretch  has his, basically people from the crew who don’t want to be an artist.
In Manchester we’re still like everyone wants to be the guy with the big watch, without realising the one without the big watch is actually the richest of the lot. You know what I mean? And it still saddens me, to this day, with all the excitement going on it still needs someone from London to come up and manage, divvy up the offerings. Anyone reading this, get your management skills on because that’s what we need right now.
Why do you think this is?
I think it’s because the industry has always been London, and that way. And it’s the capital, so there’s a huge head start on things down there, the actual business side of music there’s not that many people up here who are onto that.
Remember years ago, the Fat City guys and Grand Central, they had it and were smashing it for a time. But even with Madchester and Tony Wilson, he’s a legend and smashed it, but someone with a bit of a better business head on, who knows what would have happened. Some madness. I just feel that’s what it has always lacked; we have the creative, the talent, and style, but not the business.
Kids out there thinking they can’t sing or can’t rap but they can hustle, they need to be linking people, linking artists together. That’s what happens in London and that’s why it’s that much more ahead of everywhere else. But obviously the vibe is here in Manchester at the moment, we just need to balance it out somehow.
Manchester is becoming more business-focussed. Do you ever worry it’s developing so quickly commercially creative spaces may not be safeguarded?
I don’t think it’s selling itself off, but say you live in London— I hate to keep using it as an example, but it’s the capital— people can’t afford to own a house. Up here you could get a few houses, set up a business at a fraction of the cost and make it work.
So that’s very attractive to people and that’s what seems to be going on. Whether it’s the BBC moving up here, or whatever, it’s just cheaper, but the lifestyle is good, it might rain a bit but that’s the only problem.
Speaking to Uber drivers every day and so many are like ‘yeah, I just moved up from London’. That’s what’s going on and it will be another London situation, people getting priced out of their own areas. I don’t know if it would kill the spirit of the city, because Manchester has been through a lot of things over the years, and hasn’t lost it yet.
Outwardly we don’t take ourselves seriously, but inwardly we do. We have a style and a swagger and a way of looking at the world that the world likes. I don’t think that will leave the city, but it will go the way of London, become like a headquarters and all the people who have lived in their areas get priced out, I see it happening right now. But that’s the way of the world innit? The world will eat itself. It will consume itself and eventually Manchester won’t exist in the way we know it.
That’s pretty bleak, but understandable given the evidence of how the world is changing.
Yeah, it’s a Mancunian way innit.
In terms of the drum ’n’ bass scene at the moment, in Manchester and the UK, how is that looking?
Good, really promising. A lot of established producers are making some of the best music they have ever made, newcomers pushing them and those on their coattails are smashing it too.
Obviously a few years ago there was this massive wave from Manchester with people like Dub Phizix, Chimpo and myself, and for the people out of our crew who have cracked on and carried on it’s still popular.
I wouldn’t say we’re dictating the sound, but a leading pack for vocal drum ’n’ bass or whatever our style is. Whatever labels you put on it, it’s still well healthy, I just think it’s a really good time, whether it’s the Manchester music scene, drum ’n’ bass, house music.
I think the UK as a whole, there was the EDM thing and dubstep exploding in the US, and everyone was looking over there with the sort of trap thing. But then grime, drum ’n’ bass, UK hip hop sort of brought the attention back, and it’s all going off again. In general in the UK it’s a good time for music. It’s probably famous last words though— the arse will fall out of it now.
People often say the worst times for politics are the best for creative output.
Yeah, definitely. Look at the state of politics in the world. Even if it’s just the drive to earn money and create, people who are making music to earn money have a constant battle to keep the balance right, and if they don’t play gigs then they don’t get paid.
They make a lot less less cash from releasing music now.
It’s all gigs and merchandise. Record labels, the ones that are clever, are more of a clothing label. The music is a reason to make a t-shirt, and the hoody or whatever will sell ten times more than a tune probably.
One issue though is the impact this has on ticket prices. Clubs should be places where everyone is welcome and everyone can afford, not just a middle class form of entertainment, which it’s at risk of becoming at the moment.
Yeah, yeah, yeah… Definitely. But the hard thing is, say independent house music, drum ’n’ bass labels, dubstep, whatever, they are putting on label nights and representing their sound to people but they have to compete with some absolutely monsters in terms of promotions, which just consume your sound.
It’s the Tesco and corner shop situation, you end up going to the corner shop and everyday the prices are going up, you know what I mean. You think to yourself ‘that was whatever yesterday, are they making these prices up?’ But it’s because that Tesco express is killing it, that’s the situation with the music scene. It’s sad but you still have some top parties with great line-ups that don’t’ cost that much money, maybe they are midweek.
These are the crews that have fed my kids for years, even when whatever type of music you play wasn’t working that well at a particular time because the attention was elsewhere. I feel sorry for them people in a lot of ways, but obviously the big stuff in each city can put together a huge line-up and still keep costs down. A smaller promoter will book a fraction of the line-up and it will have to be £20 or something. It’s mental, but I suppose things get bigger, and people with money are attracted to shiny things, mate. And people without it.