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“This is the Future of Music!” Q&A with Night Slugs’ Girl Unit

Back in November of 2010 a London raver took to his phone’s video camera to capture a serendipitous moment that will likely be one of the highlights of that lad’s young life.  No, he didn’t witness Biebs getting blown in an alley, or capture the vicious death of a boy at the zoo: he was privy to Night Slugs DJ Girl Unit rewinding his monstrous single “Wut” nearly a half-a-dozen times to a crowd of batshit crazy kids. In the YouTube video the kid uploaded, Girl Unit (a.k.a. Philip Gamble) is mixing out of R&B group Jagged Edge’s Art of Noise-sampling, pussy-eating anthem “Tip Of My Tongue” featuring Gucci Mane and Trina, into the initial chords of Gamble’s “Wut” as the club’s MC forewarns the track’s hugeness. What ensues goes far beyond traditional rewind protocol (twice, maybe three times) where the crowd (and indeed our videographer’s picture quality) starts to oscillate and vibrate with such high frequency it’s as if the audience might burst into a shower of pixels and sine waves at the next rewind pull.

Referencing the R&B of Jagged Edge, Southern rap production circa 2004, and dubstep’s finer moments–Gamble may never catch his breath from a track that helped define a new era of sonic intersection. Thankfully, Gamble and his Night Slugs cohorts have little interest in pleasing the same crowd that witnessed the “Wut” rinseathon, and adhere instead to the principles of progress and futurism. Released yesterday, Gamble’s third EP, “Club Rez,” is a defiant, sophisticated piece of club music that will have cyborgs fucking like our parents did to Prince.

In town last week to play New York’s famed H.A.M. party (check our H.A.M. feature here) Cluster fam Tyrone Palmer sat down with the man like Girl Unit, where the two talked about the record, the movement of regional club scenes, and 3D cover art.

—Stefan Nickum

So, let’s start with your new EP Club Rez (Night Slugs). It’s been well over a year since you released your last single “Wut,”  – which was a massive hit – what’s the reason for the long break in between releases?

It’s weird, honestly [Club Rez] is the first thing that I’ve made with the knowledge that people were going to hear it. I’d made [Wut, IRL, etc.] just in my bedroom, not really thinking that it would go anywhere. Now it’s like, I play loads and I know what people think of my music… it’s that awareness of it that is quite a lot to cope with, especially when you had this real freedom before. I knew that when it was time to do something else I wanted to do it in much better quality, so I purchased lots of hardware and drum machines and synths and stuff – I really wanted to do it big, with all hardware so that the quality of it was much more improved. And then, also, it was just a case of really not wanting to box myself in with that one release [“Wut”]. I could’ve done a follow up with a similar thing, but I really didn’t want to try and outdo it.

If you had to describe what your aesthetic or approach to making tracks is, generally, how would you sum it up?

I suppose I just have this almost literal response to the things that I hear across the board, I listen to producers and their signature styles and that kind of thing, and there are certain parts of it that I just want to transplant in a different context. It’s like the first track on my EP, called “Ensemble,” it’s all done on a LINN drum – the old Prince drum – with a shit ton of effects on it, but at the same time I wanted to show a grimier, darker side of it. It’s kind of like that but it’s much more club ready and it has a darker feel to it. I suppose my overall aesthetic though is very much that, it’s like a reinterpretation of popular styles.

In the year and a half since “Wut” came out there’s been a lot going on in dance music in general, but specifically the Night Slugs universe – Fade to Mind has emerged as a major presence,  etc. I’m curious if there’s one record you’ve heard since “Wut”’s release that made you go “damn, I wish I thought of that!”?

[laughs] Um… I think all of the shit that Nguzunguzu have been doing is unbelievable. They have managed to bring such an amazing, organic quality to what they do, and you can really feel where it comes from when you’re with them. Their whole aesthetic is very all-encompassing, they live in this incredible sort of palace in Los Angeles, they go on desert hikes and that sort of thing. You can really feel them absorbing everything that really comes with that. Also, the forthcoming Jam City album is unbelievable. He’s able to somehow re-contextualize these really harsh sounds and make them beautiful.

A recurring theme of our discussion so far has been your return to more club-centric music, so I’m curious about your history as a club kid. What was the era that you really got into club music – were you into 2-Step, Jungle? Who were you listening to when you first started producing?

When I first really started getting into electronic music was actually around the same time that I started producing. I’ve always been into old-school electro stuff, and there was a bunch of stuff that came out of The Netherlands and Detroit, and it kind of had a revival here in New York in the early 2000s.

Like, electro-clash?

Kind of, yeah – but not the bad side of that shit [laughs], the shit that they were taking stuff from like Dopplereffekt, Drexciya, just that kind of icy sound that was really minimal, 808 shit. And then also the ghetto-tech stuff like DJ Assault, DJ Godfather, all of those guys. It was thanks to electro-clash that someone like me, who was out in the suburbs, discovered all of this stuff from The Netherlands and Detroit and that kind of thing. That’s what really started me off on producing first of all, just these kind of minimal, robot rhythms with these tracks that I was like “I can make this myself” [laughs]. When I first moved to London I couldn’t really find a niche to get into, then I met Bok Bok and those guys. They were DJing but it was with all of these different influences, they were looking at that old stuff like Drexciya and Dopplereffekt, but they were also looking at 2-Step and grime and making those connections. Bok Bok and his girlfriend used to do a duo together where they’d just do these mixes, and they were really good – that kind of inspired me, so I reached out to him and started doing a couple of podcasts for his blog that he was doing at the time, and it kind of just picked up from there.

Interesting, thinking about UK Club scene – from the outside it seems pretty monolithic, particularly compared to here where everything is so fractured and regional– Jersey club is different from Baltimore or Philly, etc. – is that the case in the UK?

We have little pockets, not in the same way that it is regional in the U.S. If you go up north there are little scenes like bassline, drum and bass – it’s such a small country that it all spreads so quickly. Honestly, what’s small about it with the Night Slugs stuff is that we’re taking the things that are regional in the United States and bringing them to the UK, that’s still niche in the UK in general but we’ve found that we’ve been able to carry that stuff across and contextualize it for a UK audience.

Since you mentioned that you guys like to take bits and pieces from US regional sounds, I’m curious as to whether or not you guys are ever weary or apprehensive about taking parts of those sounds – because a lot of people have faced criticism for doing that.

It’s a weird thing, we never wanted to copy anything directly, it’s more just a case of – first of all, we’ve been playing that kind of stuff (juke, etc.) forever. I used to listen to juke tracks on Imeem , which was like this old pre-Myspace thing – I used to find so much good shit through that, I found old crunk shit, juke, and jersey club back in the day. I don’t really read message boards at all, but I remember at the time when I released IRL it was very much a period of people discussing the moral implications of taking and re-appropriating a musical style from somewhere else. At the time UK funky was around, and it was turning a bit more techy – people were really borrowing the more avant-garde tech-house sounding tracks that were emerging into the UK funky scene, and I was just looking at the relationship between that kind of music and juke  and thinking like “Well, I like this rhythm but let me slow it down.” But I never wanted to make a really obvious reference. You hear some stuff that UK and European producers are making and it’s just like, this reference is too obvious. I do encourage this kind of conversation, I think it’s important. If you’re a producer and you just want to do things so literally, it’s not helping. It’s not helping you to take such a literal reference, if you want to take something from somewhere it has to be more obscure, more of a feeling. We have a good relationship with DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, and when I sent DJ Rashad “IRL” he loved it! And on the original video the top comment is still “This is the future of music” by DJ Rashad..

Let’s talk a bit about the visual aesthetic of Night Slugs – that has been a very important part of you guys’ success and branding in a sense. I noticed that the art for Club Rez is totally different from any previous Night Slugs art, was that intentional?

Yeah, it was quite a conscious decision. We wanted to make it HD. The same thing with the Jam City artwork [for his forthcoming album Classical Curves] that’s proper 3D. He [Bok Bok] wanted to do something that had the same feeling of all of the other art pieces, and in fact he drew up the artwork as a 3D, and it was just through conversation that were we like “hold on, why don’t we start incorporating a different method to this.”  It’s become ubiquitous for the label, but that’s kind of the ethos of the label in the first place, they’ve never stayed with just one thing for too long.  With the Jam City thing they were going to do a photograph at first, then they actually decided that doing it in this kind of hyper-real 3D way is so much more in keeping with the previous artworks because it’s kind of representative of another world. Even if they carry on doing 3D stuff it’s still going to have that slightly alien feel that the previous artworks have had.

Recently a lot of club producers have been making tracks for artists – Brenmar is working with Nina Sky, Kingdom has worked with Naomi Allen, Helix with Flirta D, Nguzunguzu has some tracks on the Lei1f album, etc. Is that something you plan on doing?

I did one thing, um… I wasn’t really happy with it [laughs]. I went into the studio with [a popular artist] for one thing, and we tried to do a couple of tracks together, but I’m personally not ready to do that yet. We recorded the vocals, I carried on mixing them and tried to arrange them, and I just wasn’t happy with it. And the thought that more people would hear that than anything else I made was just like… I could be throwing away a really big opportunity right now, but my focus has always been on making the best stuff I can possibly make and this is not it. Before I start with artists I really do want to be amazing and have that The-Dream style talent where he just comes in and he plays something and then he goes shopping [laughs]. That’s honestly what I want to attain before I start putting things out at that level.  I guess my experience with that artist just helped me re-evaluate – it’s not a race. I really have to feel comfortable with what I’m doing.

Are we going to have to wait another year-and-a-half for the next EP?

No, no, no [laughs]. I’ve already written a lot of stuff. The nicest thing after doing [Club Rez] is that now the pressure is off. I’ve already got a bunch of stuff done. The next thing is really, I want to get in touch with vocalists and making stuff that’s referencing pop music, R&B and hip-hop constantly. I’m just ready to do that with even more conviction, but still keeping it club-ready and in line with the aesthetic of the label as well. I’m really happy with the label, I’ve never released anything on another label, and I don’t think I could really, because we just understand each other so well. They’re very integral in that I’ll send them a bunch of stuff, and they’ll say “I think this goes with this or this goes with this,” and I wouldn’t have made that meta-connection. It’s kind of through discussing things with them that we’re able to present things the way they’ve been presented. Otherwise I’d have like six tracks in the same style. I’m really glad I’m with those guys, they really help me stay eclectic as possible.