Releases — The Roots of El-B / El-B / Tempa CD012

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The Roots of El-B

El-B

Tempa CD012
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Liner Notes

“Mmm, sweet/never forget… the influence is so much/words can not express…”
--“Express” by El-B from the “Dancehall EP” 12”, 2001

During 2000-2002, a brief but influential window opened in urban music. Drum & bass began moving out of its London heartland and UK garage started to implode under the weight of commercial expectation. Between these forces one man, Lewis Beadle aka El-B, assembled a production crew in Streatham, south London, whose influence was to be felt for the rest of the decade.

The Ghost Camp took a little from both scenes – the bassy masculine edge from drum & bass and the sexy feminine swing from UKG – and made a new mutation, later to be named dubstep. “The Roots of El-B” is the first retrospective to pull together all the ultra rare white labels, lost remixes and dusty DAT tapes, to preserve for posterity the output of this transient but seminal collective.

The roots of dubstep were sown in a shed at the end of a winding garden path in Streatham. Paid for by the funds of a failed album deal, overgrown with blackberry bushes and built by hand by the crew themselves, the shed contained Ghost studios, where during the night hours, El-B and the camp built a sound all of their own. Edgier than UK garage but sexier than the cold onslaught drum & bass was moving into, the Ghost sound was unique. “I try and marry the beautiful with the ugly,” explained El-B in an interview at the time.

The Ghost Camp consisted of several members: producers Roxy, Blaze, Nude and Es-G, DJ Jay Da Flex and MCs Juiceman and Rolla. Yet at the crew’s core sat El-B’s incredible production talents and signature sound. Having rolled on the edge of the Metalheadz camp as a teenager, never getting a “let in”, he’d gained fame in UK garage as one half of peerless UK garage outfit Groove Chronicles. Out of the ashes of this partnership grew El-B’s signature sound of pinpoint woodblock snares, ghostly edgy textures, clipped minimal tracks with fragmented R&B vocals and dark bass combined with a little black secret technology: the dark art of swing. “We’re just doing tings different. Just a little more ahead of it’s time,” he said at the time. “It’s not really 100% garage. I dunno man, we’re going too deep: what do you call it? It’s just a UK sound.”

The effect of this sound was apparent, as producer after local producer, from Skream to Kode9, Slaughter Mob and later Burial, became influenced by it. Eight years later, as dubstep blossoms into an international phenomenon, it remains peerless. Burial, undoubtedly the genre’s largest act, was quick to pay homage to El-B’s indivisible sense of rhythm in interviews. “The thing about those drums: they’re still the future” he insisted before his first album. “It’s not a lost art – people still don’t know how to do those drums. It’s an unknown thing. It’s like the last fucking secret left in music: how you do those drums. I’ve tried...”

For his part El-B was a self confessed beat freak: “I’m a rhythm man, a beat man, that’s what I’ve always done best… you’ve got to be able to strip away the song and see what’s good underneath.” Yet there was far more to the Ghost sound than the black art of swing and beat science. In essence they brought the edgy darkside to garage, years before grime’s anger or DJ Narrow’s 4x4 assault. “Personally I’d like to see the garage scene stay light and funky like it used to be, like gospel-y vocal style,” said El-B in interview at the time. “But it’s not going to stay like that so we might as well be known for doing the Dillinja equivalent.”

Yet to classify Ghost as simply dark too is a clumsy simplification. There’s an edge, a tension brought about by the juxtaposition of opposites, be it the high sweet vocals in “Serious” with the low sub bass, or the use of sweet chords inherited from New York garage but played in ghostly, off-dissonant modes. There was a sense of space too, reminiscent of dub, that was markedly different to the sounds that surrounded the crew. “The best thing is to keep the song but put the most devilish backing track so you still have the two working together. The hard and the nice,” he explained in interview at the time with Kode9.

At the time Ghost were at their peak – arguably circa 2000-02 – garage was undergoing a rapid transformation. To begin with a glorious tempo plateau emerged where pretty much anything went, from traditional 4x4 US garage of Todd Edwards to Zinc’s breakbeat garage of “138 Trek.” Timo Maas’s raw “Dooms Night” house anthem got mixed into 2step, dark 4x4 or the proto grime of So Solid and Pay As U Go. But by the end of 2002 the major labels found their hands burnt by the flames of their own chequebooks and large deals for underground acts began to dry up and the scene imploded, fragmenting into three pieces: traditional garage, early dubstep and proto-grime.

In a sense the problems that beset garage were mirrored in Ghost. While the beginning three years of the decade was to prove massively productive for El-B and the camp, things quickly began unravelling. The much talked about Ghost album for R&S never emerged. Live sets were not well attended: the whole of the camp once witnessed Jayda playing an amazing Ghost set to a completely empty club Herbal, London. The talk of meeting halfway in tempo with their heroes, Lemon D and Dillinja, to find a new hybrid was just that: talk. The crew were chaotic with different factions in the camp falling out. Jay Da Flex, by then on BBC 1Xtra, began to move towards both the breakbeat garage/breakstep and broken beat scenes.

But more fundamentally El-B seemed to have lost his appetite for the bassy, edgier sound they’d pioneered, even more so for the yet-harder direction the rest of the scene seemed to be heading in at it’s new home, club Forward>>. “You’ve to maintain a bit of a groove…” he said prophetically of Ghost before the camp’s implosion, “…because I really don’t want girls screaming to get off the dance floor, running for the bar. I don’t want them scared. People say our sound is heavy but they’re sexual beats…” The dynamic tension had been broken; the balance upset. El-B seemed haunted by his own ghost.

In an abrupt sonic u-turn, he moved with Roxy to face the past, finding faith in the gospel of Todd Edwards’s 4x4 vocal garage. They spent their small change in Streatham charity shops buying old 1950s Rat Pack records to sample, turning them into the wonky, horn-lead garage El-Tuff project: a collaboration with old school garage DJ Karl “Tuff Enuff” Brown.

The unbalancing of the dynamic between light and dark, masculine and feminine is one that recurs in the different phases of El-B’s musical career, first in the shift that saw the rise of UK garage out of jungle’s heartland in the late ‘90s and five years or so later when he turned his back on the proto-dubstep of Ghost. The dynamic exists once more in 2008, where – to fill the largest venues – much of dubstep has become ever harder, more metallic and masculine. The sexual swing is all but gone, replaced by plodding rock riffism. Equally grime’s masculine aggression has fuelled a female-lead exodus to the new house hybrid, funky, a scene that is very reminiscent of UK garage in culture if not completely sonically. Its perhaps fitting now that, for the first time, El-B’s seminal work is lifted from treasured record collections and lost vaults. These are the roots of El-B: they run deep.

Martin Clark aka Blackdown
LDN, Summer 2008
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