NEEDLE EXCHANGE 019: An Exclusive Mix By … Starkey

Full disclosure: self-titled used to be based in Philadelphia. Well, our editor was at least, and during those days–the DIW era, if you will–one of the reasons people were psyched about ‘the sixth borough’ was the Seclusiasis crew founded by Dev79 and Starkey. While Philly crowds are notoriously hard to please, Seclusiasis managed to maintain a cult following through parties that pushed “street bass” strains of grime, dubstep, hip-hop and whatever London was listening to that week. In other words, they beat Trouble & Bass to the low end lashings punch by a couple years. Sure enough, Starkey is part of that crew’s extended family now as well.

So with all of the above in mind, as well as Starkey’s freshly-pressed Ear Drums and Black Holes LP, we asked the producer/DJ/neo-classical composer (seriously) to share a special set of unreleased material and remixes. Not to mention his thoughts on the State of Generation Bass. 

1. Starkey “Spacecraft” (planet mu)
2. Monky “Badman Nigiri” (unreleased)
3. +Verb “Poster Boy” (unreleased)
4. DVA “New World Order” (dva)
5. Starkey “Beatingz” (rwina)
6. Innapartysystem “American Trash (Starkey remix)” (unreleased)
7. Starkey “Gutter Music (DZ remix)” (unreleased)
8. Terror Danjah “Air Bubble (Starkey remix)” (butterz)
9. Gemmy “Euro Star” (unreleased)
10. Ital Tek “MIB VIP” (planet mu)
11. DNAEBEATS “Babyahh” (seclusiasis)
12. DPM “Slow VIP” (dpm)
13. Gucci Mane “Smooches” (warner bros)
14. Starkey “Creature” (planet mu)
15. RSK “Kraids Krib” (unreleased)
16. 92 Eternal “The Feeling (Kastle remix)” (unreleased)
17. Starkey “Stars ft. Anneka (Bombaman remix)” (unreleased)
18. Starkey “Miracles” (planet mu)
19. SDUK “Clunge (Dev79 and Thrills remix)” (slit jockey)
20. Starkey “Murderous Words (XI remix)” (unreleased)
21. Taz Buckfaster “Future Funk” (unreleased)
22. Mestizo “Let It Spray (Siyoung remix)” (seclusiasis)
23. Piper Davis “The World (Mark Instinct remix)” (unreleased)
24. Bulldogs “Glamour Job” (z-audio)
25. Aquadrop “Nah Fuck Wit Mi Synthesizers” (trenchant dubs)
26. Starkey “Murderous Words ft. Cerebral Vortex” (planet mu)

“It’s not about looking back to what we did, it’s about the present and what’s going on now.”

When you got started in this scene, “bass music” was very much a British thing. What are some changes you’ve noticed in the past couple years, in terms of how this music is received both in the states and overseas?
Things are growing for sure. But at the same time the music is evolving and going in different directions. You have some of the music that is going in a more house-y direction, some with a more hip-hop feel, and others in this kind of jump up style, and every permutation between. How it’s received really varies from city to city. Depending on people’s frame of reference, they react to the music differently. I don’t think it’s a country thing–the U.S. versus the UK or Europe–but more about the individual scenes and what they have been exposed to.

You and Dev79 were major supporters of this music early on, back when a lot of it was basically grime. Do you ever feel like you don’t get enough credit for that?
Well the people that were around at that time know, and that’s cool obviously. It’s not about looking back to what we did, it’s about the present and what’s going on now. Plus looking to the future and seeing where you can go with things. I mean, yeah, we’ve been doing this music for years with our own unique Philly take, but the thing I always think about is that it wasn’t ‘cool’ back then. This was before anyone was writing about this music or most people knew it existed. So it’s nice to see things grow.

One area you’ve been recognized for this is in the UK, actually, which is probably more important than the U.S. since that’s where most of this music originates. What was it like being the only North American DJ on Mary Anne Hobbs’ “Generation Bass” show? (Many insiders believe the August 2008 installment of Hobbs’ radio show–co-curated by such Dubstep Warz alums as Skream, Kode9 and Vex’d–marked a turning point for this kind of music.)
Yeah, it was really cool man. To be asked to do it by the Vex’d guys was pretty amazing, because I’ve been fans of theirs for years. They could have picked anyone to be involved with it, and they asked me…so I was flattered. It was a great show to be a part of, and many of the people involved have gone on to do some great things since.

Why do you think dubstep and various forms of bass-heavy music is translating well here, whereas grime never really caught on?
It was probably the vocals and the simple approach to the production that didn’t get a lot of people interested. A lot of dubstep is a bit more immediate, and you get that heavy bass club experience. Plus there was more crossover with the d&b community with dubstep, and I think that got a lot of people interested in the music. Grime is getting more and more mixed with dubstep now, though, and even some of the more popular dubstep stuff that’s coming out has a lot of grime influence.

Much has been made of what a “boy’s club” this music is. Do you think that’s a fair assumption still? Or has too much attention been paid to the gender thing? For instance, it’s a little silly how much people focused on Ikonika being a woman at first, instead of just a solid dubstep producer…period.
Yeah…I agree with that comment about Ikonika. Her music is pretty sick. There’s a lot of girls making dubstep who really smash it up, so she’s not the only one. Although I think there has been a kind of tough guy element introduced to some of the dubstep that’s coming out, there are some producers making music that isn’t so testosterone-fueled. I think it’s really just the fact that most electronic music is made by guys, so people will be quick to point out that a great tune is made by a girl, instead of just pointing out how good the song is.

Vocals have always been an important part of your records overall. Is the next logical step in your career to produce an entire record for someone?
And if so, would you like to do a straight up club/hip-hop record as well as something a little more laid-back–something that’s a bit more “indie” or
Yes, yes and yes. I love vocals, even in my electronic music. It’s the thing that most people remember and hum in their head, and it adds another element to the music and texture of the song. I’m really anxious to start working with more artists–producing records and collaborating with all different types of people. However, I’m all about keeping something sounding like me, like a ‘Starkey’ produced track. That’s a nice challenge to have.

How did you find the vocalists on this record?
All different ways really. I met Cerebral Vortex and Buddy Leezle through MySpace. Vortex hit me and said he wanted to work on some tunes, so I sent him over the beat for “Club Games” with my chorus on it, and he got Leezle involved in the project. With Anneka, I met her through Ital Tek, who is also on Planet Mu. I had heard the track she had did with Vex’d and a few other demos and really liked what I heard. Her voice is amazing, and her lyrics are great as well. I met Kiki Hitomi through Kevin Martin (The Bug) in Graz at a festival, and when we were brainstorming vocalists for the album her name came up and I immediately thought of sending “New Cities.” Then P-Money, I’ve been a big fan of his for a few years now after hearing some of his early mixtapes. He’s one of the best MC’s in grime, hands down.

One thing most people probably don’t realize is that you’re classically trained. What are some major achievements you’ve had on that front–compositions you’ve had performed, that sort of thing? And do you plan to do more pieces like that?
Yeah, I would like to spend more time writing concert music, but right now I’m pretty much concentrating on being ‘Starkey’. I’ve had a few nice commissions from the Chamber Music Now group in Philly, amongst other things. The best of which, I think, was a 20-minute piece I wrote for cello with electronics and video a couple years ago. I spent like a year-and-a-half writing and producing that piece with the video.

Your classical training must inform how complex and layered your electronic tracks are.
Yeah, I typically spend a lot of time developing ideas and turning beats into songs. However, now that the album’s out and I did all that, I’m actually trying to write things that are a bit more simple in structure, like my version of eight-bar grime tracks or something. [Laughs] But yeah, I think songwriting and developing ideas is very important to who I am as an artist. It makes it difficult when I’m playing out, though. I always want to play a lot of a track, because things change and progress over four or five minutes. But I’m getting used to mixing things out early and figuring out ways to drop tunes in a way that keeps things interesting.

“Fourth Dimension” from the new record has an underlying ambient feel to it. Do you see yourself doing more of a meditative, synth-driven record down the road?
Hmmmm, I haven’t really thought of that. I do listen to a lot of Vangelis and synth stuff like that–Moroder, and lots of film scores, so I think I could go that direction for an album. But, to me, “Fourth Dimension” was me just saying, ‘You know what, I’m gonna start this track with some big hands-in-the-air synths and 4/4 kicks and see where it goes. I wrote the intro first, then did the drop. I knew that I wanted it to drop to a more standard half time kick pattern, but there are lots of different synths popping in and out to create the different textures, and that’s what propels the track forward. Then by adding the break in later, it’s kind of like hinting back at the whole rave opening before those synths return right before the breakdown.

You used to have a trip-hop project in Philly, right? Do you see yourself doing a full band project like that again?
Yeah, I love all that trip-hop stuff: Portishead, Tricky, Alpha. Some of my favorite music of all time. I was doing a project called Aunt Jessica. That was my original producer name when I started doing electronic stuff on my own, but then that became a project I was doing with two vocalists and a bass player. That’s why I felt like I had to come with a different name to do my solo productions again, so I picked Starkey. But getting back to Aunt Jessica, we released one album on Ropeadope’s digital label when they launched it. All of that stuff was done before any of the Starkey stuff, so it’s some of my first electronic productions. Chris, the male vocalist/MC on the project, and I got together with a new female vocalist a few years ago and started working on some new music. This was about the time I was doing [my debut LP] Ephemeral Exhibits. Some of that music is pretty wicked, and I’d love to revisit it in the future and see it released in some way. It’s definitely got that more indie trip-hop, downbeat, electronica feel. I don’t know; we’re all so busy with other things at the moment, but I know that it’s music we’re all still really into, so maybe we’ll finish something up and get it out there.

Your record is all over the place stylistically, not just a ‘dubstep album’. Since people are more apt to seek out certain tracks these days, what are five songs that represent the diversity on the record the best and why?
This is a hard one to answer. I enjoy listening to the new album from start to finish, so it’s difficult to pull things out of order and come up with a representation of it. But here it goes…I’d have to say that “Stars,” the track with Anneka, has to be on there simply because it’s one of the singles and represents the softer side of the album. I’d also have to say “OK Luv,” but the vocal version which is on the single, not on the album. The vocal version got cut from the album in favor of a slightly edited version of the instrumental. But Badness, I think, killed the track and his vocal needs to be heard by people.Third , I have to pick “Pleasure Points” because I really think it gives you a nice picture of where my sound was at when making this album. It’s got a bunch of different flavors packed into one song. Fourth, I’d pick “Numb,” the track with P-Money because he also blew my mind with his performance and writing on the track. And lastly, I’d have to say “Alienstyles,” because it’s the first tune I’ve done where I’ve done all the vocal writing and there’s actual verses. Plus the ending is pretty epic. This is hard, because I’d also want to add “Pleasure Points” in there because I think it’s a nice representation of the overall sound of the album…but that would be six. [Laughs]

You’ve always had an underlying sci-fi vibe to your work. Are you into sci-fi films or books? Any particular writer, movie, etc.?
Yeah. I love sci-fi movies, comics, etc. I always have sci-fi movies on my iPhone for tours as well. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites are: THX1138, Tron, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Brazil, Soylent Green, Running Man, District 9, The Island, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Casshern…I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic and futuristic films.

Who are some musical standbys you’ll never get sick of, and why?
This is going to be completely random and off the top of my head, too… The Beatles, for sure–their albums are timeless. The first three or four Tricky albums will always be up there for me as well. The Portishead Roseland NYC Live album. Björk’s stuff–Homogenic and Vespertine probably being my favorites, but pretty much whatever she’s up to. The Charles Bronson discography, in particular the later stuff; the Alpha discography; the Alice in Chains Unplugged album; Autechre, Untilted; T-Pain, Thr33 Ringz; the Beastie Boys, Check Your Head; Radiohead, Kid A; Aphex Twin, Drukqs; Dizzee Rascal, Boy in the Corner; Vangelis, China; the Blur discography; Spiritualized, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space; Brad Mehldau, Live In Tokyo; Gorecki’s “3rd Symphony”; the Dawn Upshaw recording. My musical taste is so diverse, I can always enjoy any of these albums when they’re on. I could just keep going and going…but I’ll stop there.

You’ve remained in Philly for all these years despite that being a rough town in terms of supporting music consistently. Is it more of a logistical thing at this point–the simple fact that your life and your work is so ingrained there that it’d be hard to leave?
Well I travel a decent amount, but Philly is always home. That’s pretty much where I’ve lived for 11 years, and it’s really close to where I grew up, between New York City and Philly. I like the city in general, but you’re right–it’s difficult place to build a scene. It’s not the people as much as it’s the clubs. The sound systems are for the most part terrible as well, so playing anywhere else is a treat.

You’ve been a music production/business teacher for a while now. What changes have you noticed in students over the past few years?
I think students in general are coming in with a bit more knowledge of the software and production tools, because as prices drop they can more easily get their hands on things at home. However, my job, particularly when teaching production, is to really go deep into why things work the way they do, and point out how the past has influenced say, how a software synthesizer is created, or how the signal path works. It’s not about having 100 different plug-ins in, say, Logic or whatever; it’s about understanding how to properly use just five of them, and have something interesting musically to say.

You’ve said in the past that you approach all of your mixes very differently. With that in mind, what was the thought process behind your self-titled one?
With the self-titled mix, I went with a bunch of remixes and a large majority of new, unreleased stuff. I only put two tunes from the new album on there as well, but included some past releases, like “Creature” and “Miracles.”

Finally, what other singles, remixes, etc. can we expect from you later this year?
Well I just dropped a remix for Foals which is available on 7-inch and digitally. Plus, in a week or so I’ve got a remix for Innerpartysystem’s new track “American Trash” coming out on the same formats if I remember correctly. I’m doing a few remixes for releases on our labels, Kastle & Halp, amongst others. Plus, I’m doing an EP for Civil Music in the Fall and possibly an artist single/EP for Seclusiasis as well. I haven’t done one yet, only on Slit Jockey. Plus I’m just demoing some new tunes and trying to work with some other artists on their projects. Just keeping busy really and trying to work on things that are exciting.