Mark Dale spoke to Radio 1's Toddla T to discuss his home town of Sheffield, his influences, his radio show and dancehall's history.
Date published: 1st Sep 2015
Toddla T is a true son of Sheffield, a city whose unique musical style left an indelible mark on his psyche when he was a teenager. Heavily influenced by the wild combinations of soul, dancehall, techno, R&B and house that the city's DJs like Winston Hazel and Pipes would play at word of mouth warehouse parties like Kabal, he started DJing in his mid teens and has since become known for carrying that dancehall influenced sound from his home town to the world stage.
He released his first album of original productions in 2009, referencing hip-hop, garage, dancehall and house. For his second, he went to Jamaica for inspiration, the first of many subsequent visits and mined a more concentrated dancehall and soundsystem vibe.
He has since developed a live outfit, Toddla T Sound, with collaborators Shola Ama, Serocee and DRS, who deliver a festival thrilling show and issue fine soundsystem music such as the current Kensal Road EP. He DJs internationally and holds much loved residencies at Notting Hill Carnival and on Radio 1, where he was first introduced as part of their In New DJs We Trust line up in 2012.
He has produced and remixed the likes of Major Lazer, Hot Chip, Roisin Murphy, Roots Manuva and Little Dragon and now lives in north west London. He took time out of a busy studio and DJing schedule to talk to Mark Dale about forthcoming gigs, his Radio 1 show, DJing (check him out in action below), his background plus the places of his key influence - Jamaica and Sheffield.
How are you finding life in London? It must be a bit different from living in Sheffield...
[laughs] Yeah, it is a bit different. I just sort of segued into it by accident. It wasn't really a plan, I just ended up here. It's a different vibe for sure, but it's alright. It's all good.
There's a lot of hills in Sheffield, you're always walking up and down. Have you put any weight on since you got there?
Ha! This is true. When I lived in Sheff I used to walk everywhere. Some of the buses there go on a mad one, they go all around the place before getting to where you need to be, so I just found it easier to walk. I lived right on the edge of town, so I used to walk everywhere and it is super hilly.
When I came down here I wasn't walking as much, I was DJing more than ever and drinking Guiness a lot, so I did turn into a bit of a fatty for a year. I had to just rein it back in and realise you just can't live life like that. These days I'm more sensible, I walk to the radio a lot, it takes an hour and a half. I just try and stay active, because here it's just to easy to get in a tube and go from studio to studio and before you know it, you've not stood up all day.
I've seen you've got a few interesting dates coming up and I wanted to ask you about two of them. You're playing at Outlook Festival in Croatia soon and also for Bugged Out at their weekender in January. Have you played in Croatia before?
Yeah, quite a few times, but never for that festival. I normally play for Hideout. I've played that three or four times. Outlook has always looked amazing, so I'm really happy to be playing. The music there is so up my street. I've played some other random stuff there, in fact I was just there the other week. It was bloody boiling!
You're presumably too young to remember Bugged Out when it was in Manchester or Liverpool?
Yes, I was too young to go then, but it was still around when I first started to DJ and get out of Sheffield. I did notice it around, but it wasn't really on my radar until I started to do gigs outside of Sheffield and saw lots of different styles, that whole Erol Alkan type of era. I did watch a documentary on them recently and it's pretty amazing what they've done and they're obviously still doing it with the weekender. I played for them in Ibiza too and they've still very much got their ethos, they've just updated it a bit.
When you play for such a recognisable brand like that, which does have such an ethos and a history, do you research it and alter what you play accordingly or do you just turn up and do your thing?
I used to. I used to do that quite a lot, but it never works. I think what you do, what people expect you to do, is what you do best. When you try and do something else, you're never gonna do it. If I try and DJ like Erol or Boys Noize, it's just going to be a crap version, because it's just not in my spirit. If I just do what I do, that's what I can do best and I think that comes across.
I used to do it a lot though, especially when I went abroad. I used to think 'they're not gonna understand the British music I can play to them' or whatever, so I used to strip it down and make it sound like what I thought Europeans would really like to hear, but you end up loosing the spirit, the whole point of what it is you do, so not any more. I just my ting, man.
It's easier now, I think, because I've been doing it for quite a while and I've gained confidence in myself to be able to turn up and do my ting. You do alter it, of course, on crowd reaction, but I'd never really try and fit into an ethos and approach a gig thinking 'I've got to be like a Bugged Out DJ today'. That's not really the point of booking me, I suppose.
As your tastes have developed and you've been exposed to more things, do you think your radio show has changed as a result?
Yeah, totally. And music changes. Radio, for me, is the best platform for new music. Clubs, parties and festivals are not always the kinds of places to explore brand new music and stuff that isn't necessarily party music. As styles and fashions change, as producers come and go, of course the style of the show is going to change. It's inevitable for anyone, whether you're on the radio, in a club or even in just your house.
And how are Radio 1 with those changes? It really wasn't that long ago they would put some of their DJs in pretty tight boxes. You'd have the dance music show, the Friday night rock show etc. Did they never give you a remit and are they fine with it evolving?
I've never had a spec that they've asked me to stick to. I guess when I started the show I was playing a wide range of dance music, from new Jamaican bits, new British bits, new European bits. I would put it in the dance music bracket, but it was quite wide. Nowadays that's like a lot of DJs, a lot of the shows on the network are the same.
If you look at Fridays, you've got Annie (Mac), she plays a massive mix of stuff, Pete (Tong) plays broader than he ever has, B.Traits, again, same thing. Then on Saturday you've got the 1Xtra takeover, Mistajam, who does a very, very big range of music and then Target, who plays a bit similar to me.
I think the way people consume music, it's a lot less purist than it used to be and that's reflected in radio. Other selectors aren't so much playing in boxes as they once were. The listener or even the raver is the same. I never really have a problem in gigs, let alone on the radio, in moving around stylistically.
A lot of your studio work must happen in the daytime and in recent years many of your festival appearances have come as part of your live project, Toddla T Sound, which would also probably play earlier in the day than the kinds of times you used to play as a DJ. Coming from a nightclub DJ background, what's it like to be approaching all this music now in daylight hours?
I don't always pre-record my radio show, I do it live as much as possible, on average twice a month, so I'm in Radio 1 at one in the morning all the way until 4am. The producing, that studio work has always been in the day. My mind's so active in the morning, it's just a great time to write or produce, listen to music and get excited by it. I dunno, really. I'm more of a morning person than ever because I've got a two year old now. Before I would just work until whenever and get up when I wanted, but now I'm up naturally at 7.30am every day. I've got no choice.
The festival thing is kinda funny. I played at V Festival and I was on at 6pm. I can go there, do that on an evening vibe, then I can come home and be here for 10pm, so it's a lot different from playing in some basement in Birmingham from 2am.
I don't know what part of Sheffield you're from or anything about your family background. Some kids I went to school with never had a holiday abroad, they just never travelled. I noticed that for your second album you went to Jamaica twice, for inspiration and to do some writing and recording. Had you travelled much before that?
Yeah, I had a little. I travelled as a young person and a teenager. I'm from a part of Sheffield, S2. You know where the train station is in Sheffield? Behind there there's a massive set of flats. They're called Park Hill. That's where I went to school and my mum and dad's house is like 100 yards from there. That's where I grew up, so I was practically in town. It was cool for being a youngun. When you go out you can walk to town and hang out with your mates and whatever. And as I got older I could walk home from clubs.
Before I started playing clubs I had travelled a bit. I'd been on holiday to the States. But before I started DJing I hadn't really seen much in terms of how other people live. Normally, when you go on holiday, you just stay in your hotel and you see it from the tourist perspective. When I first started to DJ I'd never been to Scotland or Wales, but I'd start to go places like that. You'd hang out with the promoter and you get the see the real city, don't you?
I've been to Jamaica about 10 times now. I went first on a bit of a pilgrimage. Then I went with Major Lazer to work on their record. I DJ'd a couple of times, then I went with Radio 1 twice. I've been there on holiday twice with my family and I've got some really good friends over there now, good connections. I've just been on the phone to them this morning actually to get some dubplates for carnival.
Jamaican music is so ingrained in our society and our history here in England, I just went to the root out of passion and it's ended up being a big thing of what I do now. I'm going on the Damien Marley cruise later this year. He personally invited me, which was a massive honour, so I'm going to go to Miami and play records on his massive cruise ship.
It's cool man. It's a connection (between the countries) that I've admired for so many years and now I've managed to become a little part of that, so it's an honour.
I'm from Manchester. Though there are many nights now in the centre that play modern dancehall, it used to be a sound you would only hear in the black run clubs on the outskirts of the city centre. But many of those closed down in the late 80s and 90s. For a while, and the first time I remember hearing it in the city centre, we would have to wait for Sheffield DJs like Winston Hazel and Pipes to come over and play it at places like Electric Chair and their Electric Souls parties. The amount of energy they would play with, playing their mix of music, including dancehall, was really incredible!
One thing that sometimes put me off some dancehall was the misogyny and the homophobia you could sometimes hear in the lyrics. You came from a background where those DJs, Winston Hazel and Pipes, would play, at places like Kabal. Those parties were incredibly liberal, as were most of the people there, so I doubt you are any different.
No, no, no. Not at all. I'm not down for any prejudice, man. Sexuality, sex, race, anything. Fuck all that, no way. And I won't stand for it. There was a time in reggae music and dancehall where it was vocalised, because it was vocalised in the society of the time. But I know gay Jamaicans, I very rarely hear bad words about that when I'm there.
I think the music community over there have realised it's not cool, you can't do it. You can't express those things and be able to go abroad. And I think the new generation of West Indians, certainly the ones that I know, are very much like you and me in terms of the way they think. So when people say that Jamaicans are homophobic it's just bollocks. It's a very old school, traditionally thing about the West Indies that and it's nearer mythology for me these days.
Big up Winston and Pipes, because I say this to the day, if it wasn't for those two DJs I probably wouldn't be speaking to you now. I would probably be making music, but it wouldn't be the music I make today. Winston went back to Jamaica in the mid 1990s, because he has Jamaican heritage. He didn't really like reggae and dancehall before that, he was more of a soul boy. He went back to see his family and he listened to reggae and dancehall on rigs and systems and thought it was crazy.
So he was the one who brought it back to Sheffield and started playing it next to house, techno and R&B. Pipes then got massively into it, people like Parrot started making tunes that were influenced by it. That's when I started going out, hearing what stuff was coming out and I just fell in love with the whole thing. So, Winston and Pipes all day, really. They're the reason I'm doing what I'm doing.
They obviously had a big influence on you, but you're away from that scene now, living in London. Are there any DJs where you are, in a club setting, that hold so much of an influence on you, who transmit that kind of energy?
I think that thing is so uniquely Sheffield. I've done so many gigs around the globe with different people and, don't get me wrong, there's amazing things about all of them, but what we're talking about, that really individual, Sheffield style of playing records, with a Jamaican twist, is unique to Sheffield and unique to Kabal.
When I go back and play there it's mad. I might have come from playing a massive festival or playing America or Japan, but when I go back to Kabal to play records with those two guys there's this addictive and incredible energy, not only in the party, but in the way they put the records together. It's just so individually Sheffield.
There's loads of great DJs out there who I rate, but not who have that kind of energy. I know loads of great dancehall DJs who can juggle fast and they're really on top of their music. I know people who can blend styles together really well, I know good DJs who play house, garage, techno, drum n' bass, but that weird amalgamation of Sheffield electronics and dancehall is very individual to Pipes and Winny really. Fucking brilliant.
Do you remember the night they used to do in Sheffield Jive Turkey? Winston and Parrot used to play at it. I've just done a t shirt for them, like a collaboration, cos I've started a t shirt company. We'll be putting it out after carnival, end of September. I'll send you one.