Plastician Talks: Dubstep, Grime & Rolling With Your Crew
Setting out calling yourself Plasticman, a no fucks given facsimile of Richie Hawtin’s most famous alter ego, is one way to get noticed. But when your music is more warped and industrial than the sound of minimal techno, Detroit better watch out.
It might just have been in the basement of Fopp in London’s Covent Garden, but the memory of hearing Plasticman’s 2003 The Lift EP for the first time is etched in my brain. At the time I'd fallen down a wormhole of tech-step squat parties in the late ‘90s, and for me UK Garage had mostly existed as saccharine chart wallpaper. But by the early 2000s it was starting to degrade into something darker and more dangerous.
The Lift transposed the paranoia of crumbling stairwells and marauding crack heads into a 140 template. With its pulsing basslines and sample of a lift door opening (or perhaps, more significantly, closing), the lead track was pure grimy energy, tipping its cap to a world of tower blocks and pirate radio. On the flip Printloop revolved around a processed printer sample, the monotonous sound of shitty, dead end office jobs pumped with ravey bleeps and the promise of non-stop weekend hedonism.
Since then there’s been achievement after achievement for Croydon-born Chris Reed. Hosting a long running Tuesday night on Rinse FM, he also had a stint on Radio 1’s in New DJs We Trust in 2006, the legal catalyst for changing his name to Plastician.
He’s been credited with helping give an early leg up to other local talent like Skream and Benga, and signed his first single, Shockwave/Venom to Slimzee’s Slimzos label 2002, somehow bridging both the dubstep and grime scenes. More latterly, his own Terrorhythm label has been uncovering fresh talent from the seething pool where grime’s renaissance meets trap, hip-hop and various post-dubstep mutations.
Recently, though, he posted on his SoundCloud that ‘There is a real and increasing reality that I might not be doing this for much longer,’ following it – as if to reassure fans – with plays of massive productions for Skepta and Jammz. Wondering just what is going on, we tracked him down to find out more…
“My disillusion is not so much with the music being made,” says Reed when we ask about the heartfelt accompaniment to his May 26th Rinse show, recorded in the dark with no voiceover, where he writes about becoming increasingly detached from the music industry. “I have more amazing music than I know what to do with landing on my SoundCloud stream every day. I think my disillusion falls with the lack of community.”
The 2003 Plasticman promo mix, recorded for his Filthy Dub party, taking place in the November of that year, shows his tightness to the Croydon crew that was eventually to define dubstep. Promising ‘dubstep, sublow, techstep’ as ‘The Underground Returns to Croydon’ on one side of the flyer, the line-up on the other featured Plasticman top of the bill above Mark One, alongside a youthful Skream & Benga (then billed as Benga & Skream), and other dubstep luminaries N-Type and Chef.
“I was great friends with all the dubstep crowd in Croydon, and supported all of them in my sets too,” says Reed of this close-knit time. “Likewise, because I was from Croydon I was accepted more than some of the grime acts from other parts of London, which led to me playing on the legendary DMZ line ups and all the other big dubstep parties,” he goes on with reference to Digital Mystikz’ & Leofah’s influential party, which after a prolonged hiatus returns to Brixton on the 10th of July for its 10th birthday bash.
“Because I felt the style of music I was producing was more similar to grime, I was getting lots of support from East London,” he explains of the musical diversity that took him over to East London too. “I'd regularly take trips to JTS and Music House to cut dubplates and meet the young grime producers. This is how I first met Tubby, Footsie, Skepta, Jammer, Geeneus and Slimzee, of course. I was lucky in the sense that I was really accepted by both sounds, as my music was good for the MCs to spit over, but it was also getting spun by people like J Da Flex and Oris Jay at FWD>>.
“I regularly drove to East London to hang in Rhythm Division, as well as hanging in Big Apple – although I definitely spent more time in Apple! I always felt like the music I made was grime, built for the dancefloor as much as it was for radio. Bass was of top priority for me and that always went down well with the dubstep heads too.”
Having previously worked at a record distribution called Streetsales, Reed had also been trying to push dubstep through his links to Ammunition Promotions – Neil Joliffe and Sarah Lockhart’s promotion company which was behind FWD>>, the seminal party at Plastic People.
“I remember Cameo at Uptown telling me that the dubstep thing was never going to take off. A lot of the shops didn't get it, but having attended FWD myself I knew that it really needed to be heard in context, as opposed to comparing it to grime or garage, because it definitely came into its own on a massive system in a dark room. When I got to release Pump Up The Jam on [Lockhart’s] Soulja that was like the biggest thing that I could have hoped for at the time – the label was one of my favourites, having released Darqwan and Zed Bias bits. I really felt like I'd made it when I had a release on a label that had such a high level of production prior to mine.”
Pump Up The Jam came out in 2003, which was also the year that Reed set off on a US tour with Rephlex, having joined Mark One and Slaughter Mob on the label’s first ‘Grime’ compilation. “Me being this blinkered UK Garage kid who didn't even really think of what I was producing as anything other than dark garage, I had absolutely no idea who Aphex Twin was,” he says, reflecting on totally missing the significance of one of the recently defunct imprint’s founders.
It was an opportunity that helped break not just Reed, but the emerging sounds that he was involved in. It’s this kind of synergy that he feels is less apparent today.
“I feel a little now like people see labels as a stepping stone towards their own independence as an artist – which in some ways is amazing as the need for labels becomes less and less. But as an old schooler, and somebody who runs a label, I just miss the days of rolling with your crew like a family, all moving in the same direction, repping a corner of the sound that you are champions of."
“I also think the influence of things like social media and the blogosphere on the growth or deterioration of sounds is worrying. Some amazing artists are not getting a look in until they get a mention on some trendy blog, then suddenly that happens and they get blown so hugely out of proportion that they'll never be able to organically reach their potential as the bar gets set so high. DJs who've never played a gig before are pricing themselves out of club bookings to seek the big money festival shows and it's killing our club culture. Clubs are under pressure to pay rents, so the lowest common denominator performers are drafted in to sell tickets and are discarded of as soon as the next buzz sound happens. I could go on forever. “
It’s a comprehensive list touching on many of the problems wrapped up in electronic music’s current ‘boom’. But with so many London venues either closing, or falling into the hands of an increasingly small number of giant entertainment groups, it’s difficult to see an immediate breaking out of this status quo.
While digging for his show and Terrorhythm has become an increasingly lonely business, involving hours spent online, it’s what sets Reed apart from his peers. Terrorhythm has EPs coming from Beaudamian, Noah B, Harikiri, Patrick Brian and Torjus, while a creative burst means each month will also bring a new Plastician release. His biggest tracks, meanwhile, were remastered last year and are available for download via Bandcamp.
Then there’s the latest Skepta jam – something Reed wasn't expecting at all. “He just did it off his own back and I don't know if there's any plans to release it or anything like that either, the ball's in his court with that one!” And, on the subject of balls, label artist GANZ has had his music used in the latest Nike Football campaign – things aren't going to poorly.
Hopefully it’s enough to keep Plastician breaking moulds until the current club climate changes, because over a decade down the line he’s not diluted his pioneering drive. “It's hard to believe that in an industry that moves so fast there’s not a breed of promoter or clubber who craves to hear the unheard in a club setting,” he laments, not letting it stop him championing the freshest sounds. “That’s what’s missing for me.”