UK garage is the biggest underground dance music phenomenon for years, and has taken London collective So Solid Crew to the top of the charts. Crew member Swiss talks to SOS about their approach to production.
Shootings at gigs, rumours about gangland connections, provocative lyrics, inflammatory comments in the press: the controversy surrounding London's premier garage crew refuses to go away. When their planned tour of the UK had to be pulled after several venues banned them from appearing, some critics drew comparisons with The Sex Pistols. Like the Pistols, So Solid Crew are the leading representatives of a massively popular underground movement, but that's where the similarity ends. The Crew are not a band as such, but a loose group of producers, rappers, singers, MCs and DJs, brought together under the leadership of So Solid supremo Megaman. Their music is a brutal blend of high-pitched beats, subsonic bass and minimalist synth melody, overlaid with rapping and female vocal licks. The clattering drums and low-slung bass lines recall jungle and similar British urban dance music, while the vocals reflect the influence of American hip-hop and R&B.
As well as So Solid Crew hits such as '21 Seconds' and 'Oh No (Sentimental Things)', members of the Crew have collaborated on a bewildering variety of solo projects and remixes, while the Crew's platinum-selling debut album They Don't Know has been a fixture in the UK charts since its release. Nor do their activities stop at record-making: they run a successful radio station, Delight FM, and have even introduced a So Solid clothing line. Indeed, such is the demand for So Solid Crew product that the 20 or so members of their ever-changing lineup are constantly busy, working in four or five London studios simultaneously. I caught up with So Solid member Swiss at Brixton's Dairy Studios, where he was working on new material with engineer Darren Nash.
Like many of his counterparts in So Solid Crew, Swiss contributes in several roles, as producer, writer and MC/vocalist: and like most of them, he came to music production through radio. "I was a DJ before I was a producer," he says. "I was into jungle, ragga, hip-hop, R&B, all types of music. My uncle used to play house music, and my brother was part of So Solid Crew — I wasn't actually in it at first, but they were on a radio station. I liked the garage music anyway, 'cause my brother introduced me to it, so I thought to myself 'Let me get some decks'. So I bought some decks and starting practising. They actually left that radio station and went to start up their own one, and by that time I was getting all right, so I was the first DJ on the new radio station."
It's soon apparent that like most of the Crew's members, Swiss doesn't exactly embody the usual image of the dance producer as a studio boffin, chained to an Akai night and day while wrestling with impenetrable strings of SysEx. Regular stints as a DJ honed his skills on turntables and microphone, but when he went into the studio for the first time, he brought with him nothing but the determination to make a track of his own — he didn't even have an idea as to what he wanted to do, let alone a lyric or a melody.
"All producers out there, let me say this now: make sure you have an idea before you get in the studio!" he laughs. "It's much easier that way! Don't do what I did at first, and just go in there and not know what you're doing. I got £200 and got myself in a studio, just to put myself on the spot really. I didn't really know what to do, I just went in there with a friend called Gripper and we did what we could. Coming from the DJ side, I kind of knew how it went, and I'd been in the studio and watched people before. I'm a quick learner."
Remarkably, the product of this first recording session, a track called 'Something New', made it onto They Don't Know. There can't be many people whose first ever composition and debut studio recording makes a Top 10 album...
Engineer and programmer Darren Nash has been working with Swiss and other So Solid Crew members at the Dairy since last October. I asked him what his role in the sessions was.
"Mostly, I'm recording vocals, getting things together, just sort of getting the mix happening. They work really fast — they'll just go 'Right, I've got an idea in my head,' put something down and then you've got a few seconds to get it sounding like a track, as well as do some programming and recording as well. So it's pretty full-on.
"They themselves do most of the drum programming, mostly in Logic, they don't really use an MPC or anything like that. We're using the Proteus 2000, Korg Triton, and Novation Supernova. The Novation's for the bass, while the Proteus and Triton are used for all sorts of noises and sounds. We take drum sounds from all over the place: a lot of them are samples, some of them come out of the modules, so it's all 'Find a sound, doesn't matter where it comes from.' The sampler's just for the drums, pretty much. If they've got an idea already, they'll often know what they want the drums to sound like and bring them in and say 'These are the drums I want to use on this track.'
"In this studio, the stuff that I'm doing with them is mostly writing and tracking, so the sound stuff isn't really coming until the end of the tracks, and then we'll use plug-ins to change and distort the sounds slightly. When the track's done, we'll bounce the sounds from the synths into Logic, because it's so much easier for whoever's mixing. Often the drums get left to free run, though, because they tend to do a bit of programming during the mix, just breaks and fills. They're using a Novation Supernova a lot of the time for bass, and sometimes we stack different bass sounds on top of each other, so you get a really subby bass, and you get something with a nice middle, and you sort of use it as a jigsaw puzzle to get all the bass. In some of the tracks the bass is the track, almost, it swallows up nearly all the space in the track, and it's a feature, it's part of their sound."
Although popular myth would have it that MIDI timing on Macs and PCs is never as tight as it was in the good old days when programmers used Ataris / MPCs / Linn Drums / woolly mammoth tusks, both Darren and Swiss seem perfectly happy to use Logic, running on a G4, for everything. "This kind of music is quite regimented," says Darren. "It's quite good at regimented stuff. I find it's when stuff's got swing that you notice that Logic's not really got great timing. For hip-hoppy stuff that's got more of a groove to it, I'd tend to use an MPC to program the drums on. For some reason, you probably couldn't even measure it, you can feel something slightly different about it. But I think Logic's brilliant, it's pretty much the all-round package at the moment. The new Pro Tools 5's great, it's got really good sequencing stuff on it, but I think it'll probably be a while before it's up with Logic for an overall package combining recording and sequencing.
"It's great, because in a small studio like this, a few years ago, you would have struggled to find enough equipment to change sounds with and make things interesting, but you find you've got more than enough now, because you can do most of your stock stuff like compression and gating and a bit of EQing in Logic, and everything else is free. I do use the [DDA] desk as well as Logic, though. I quite like the EQs on the desk, especially with samples and sound module sounds, I think desk EQ tends to warm them up slightly. Otherwise, everything starts to sound a little bit glassy."
As well as handling some programming duties, setting up monitor mixes and the like, Darren's other main function is recording vocals. "In this room, I tend to use the same path, which is Neumann M149 mic, Amek EQ and mic preamp, and Urei 1176 [the 1176 at the Dairy is actually a Purple Audio MC76 'clone']. But obviously, for each of them, it's going to have a different setting. For some of them I've used an SM58 as well, for a more shouty vocal."
The So Solid Crew emphasis is very much on performance, and although every vocal is double-tracked to make it sound more forceful, there's an absolute minimum of editing and comping. "They don't use a lot of effects, and they don't do drop-ins," insists Darren. "They'll flow a whole verse at a time. Occasionally I've had to retime double-tracked vocals slightly, but they'll do a whole verse as a flow, and no drop-ins. They won't even comp together different takes. They know when it's right immediately — at the end of the take it's like 'That's the one.' They tend not to want to meddle with things too much, but to keep it as natural and real as possible. Sometimes choruses will get spun in, but the actual main flow they'll do in one take."
Even though he's now got a track record as a producer and is clearly a talented programmer, Swiss still does very little work on tracks at home. Like most of his So Solid Crewmates, he does nearly all of his writing and programming in the studio. "I always write in the studio. I've got a setup at home, I've got like a mixing desk, I've got a Proteus, I've got a Supernova, I've got a sampler and a keyboard, but it's not set up properly — I'm just waiting to move out of my house, because I still live at home. Once I move out, I'll get my setup done properly. I just do little melodies at home on the keyboard. A few of us have got setups at home: AC Burrell's got a little setup at his house, Oxide's got his studio now, Shabz has got his little setup, so there's just a few of us, but most of us, even the ones with the setups, just come in the studio and do their thing from there.
"I don't come in to the studio to do lyrics straight away. I'm just building the track, basically. I usually start with the beats, and then bass, and then some melody from the strings or whatever. I play the beats in on the keyboard — everything gets played in on the keyboard."
Something both Swiss and Darren Nash are keen to emphasise is the speed with which So Solid Crew's contributors work. "This track here, I started it yesterday and it's almost finished," laughs Swiss, while Darren starts the sequence running in Logic. Immediately, the needles on the DDA desk's meterbridge are pinned to the end-stops — this is serious bass...
Principal sound sources for Swiss productions, as for most of the So Solid Crew, are Akai samplers and the Emu Proteus 2000, which are used for drums, along with the Novation Supernova, which provides most of the bass sounds that are so central to their productions. Other than that, however, Swiss isn't fussy about choice of studios or equipment. "I can't work without a Proteus and a Supernova now," he says. "Those two modules are really me. But when you're writing, it doesn't matter what studio you use. As long as there's a Supernova and a Proteus and a good engineer, it's all right. Most studios have really got the same things anyway."
Nor is he particularly fussy about his choice of sequencer, although he's been working with Logic Audio at the Dairy and likes it: "Logic makes it that little bit easier. Logic's really the best for me, but I've used Cubase before, and I've used an MPC before — it's all right, but I find the keyboard easier for programming. I'll use anything."
A full-range monitoring system like that in Dairy's Studio Two is, however, essential when dealing with the kinds of low-frequency content involved — They Don't Know is not what you might call a headphone album.
Although So Solid Crew's records certainly have a distinctive sound, it doesn't seem to stem from extensive tweaking of synth patches or mangling of samples. Once again, speed is the most important factor, and Swiss likes to get his ideas going as quickly as possible. Most of the leads and basses are, therefore, presets from one of his favoured modules, and when they are twisted around or distorted, it's much more likely to be through plug-ins applied in Logic at a later stage once the basic track has taken shape. "The So Solid sound is raw anyway, so when you go into the studio, you know you have to come raw," says Swiss. "We just like flick through the sounds and whatever goes, we use. I'll use the beats in the Proteus, or I'll borrow one of AC Burrell's Zip disks and get some beats off that. Sometimes the engineers have got some samples as well."
The track Swiss and Darren are working on when I visit them at the Dairy shows a definite move away from the sound of They Don't Know towards a more hip-hop feel, with an obvious nod to the likes of Dr. Dre. "Most of the tracks on the first So Solid album are very old," insists Swiss. "A lot of time's passed since then, and now the production's got much better, we've got more ideas, more people in the crew, so it's a big improvement, and you'll hear that soon. We're doing all types of different music. We're doing R&B now, and this track I'm doing now is a hip-hop tune."
The perennial problem for British rappers is that they end up sounding like a pale imitation of their American heroes, and it's been suggested that So Solid Crew might be the group to change this. Their music is as raw as anything from the streets of New York or LA, but it's also defiantly rooted in London. "I ain't feeling no British rapping at the moment," agrees Swiss. "That's basically why I'm coming up with some rap shit now, 'cause there ain't no-one out there who's really doing anything. I just hope that everyone gets to hear me and form their own opinions, but I'm confident that I'm better than most of the British rappers out there. I listen to all types of rap and I take from the best! I'm not trying to speak American, I'm representing the UK flavour and the UK accent, whatever. That's the best thing about it, because most British rappers are American-influenced. It's like the only way they can rap is in American, and I'm trying to change that, basically. It's not hard to do, man. Don't misrepresent your country."
When I ask him about his influences as a producer, Swiss names some familiar names: "I'm feeling Neptunes at the moment, Dre is always gonna be there, and in garage I'm feeling Sticky, Wookie's always been there" — but it's clear that the main driving force is the Crew itself. In a group containing so many producers, all contributing to the common cause, there's a constant pressure to improve and develop. "I'm influenced by my own crew — people like AC Burrell and Oxide. When you build a track, you bring it to the office at a meeting, and get everyone's opinion. It's like competition, and it's the same with the MCs as well. Because most of us came from the radio, and some of us were MCs from back in the day when jungle was big, we're not new to it, we've been doing it for a long time. And some, they've just come, but they catch on quick. We've got some quick learners in the crew. I didn't always produce. That tune 'Something New', I think I made that Christmas 2000, and I'm here now."
It looks as though Swiss is here to stay.