The U.K. producer looks to his Sheffield roots.
Mon Oct 5 2009
The first track on the latest FabricLive mix-CD is a telling look into the mind-set of the release’s selector: Sheffield, U.K., producer Tom Bell, better known as Toddla T. The cut is an unlikely sounding electronic-dancehall version of iconic synth-pop combo Human League’s “Love Action,” both melodically inviting and rhythmically booty-shaking in effect. Bell’s selection of the tune to begin the mix says three things: He’s not the kind of guy who’s afraid of pissing off those who insist on stylistic purity in their music; he prefers to work with rhythms that are surefire dance-floor fillers, especially if they contain a bit of Jamaican bounce; and he’s ready, willing and able to represent for Sheffield, the gritty northern English city that serves as both his and the League’s hometown. Bell, 24, will be spreading a bit of that Sheffield flavor here in Gotham when he helps the Flashing Lights fiesta celebrate its first birthday with a big blowout on Saturday 10.
Sheffield, a town of half a million, has an outsized place in the history of electronic music: Among numerous other claims to fame, it’s the home of that odd, early-’90s strain of techno known as Sheffield bleep; it’s the birthplace of Warp Records; and it’s the headquarters of the wobbly, thumping style of house known as bassline. “I had been obsessed with hip-hop since I was ten,” Bell says in his thick Yorkshire accent. “But when I was old enough to first start going out and mixing with other people who weren’t just hip-hop people, that’s when I realized I had all this laying right on my doorstep. That whole bleepy thing... A lot of those synthesizers they used to do that with are still in the studios, which is pretty amazing. And the bassline thing, that is really Sheffield’s music. You don’t hear hip-hop and R&B coming out of cars here so much—what you hear is bassline. [He makes a “mwuuh-mwuuh-mwuuh-mwuuh” sound.] These things are forced upon you, so if you’re making music, you can’t not be influenced by it.
Bassline, as well as dancehall, hip-hop, grime, bhangra and even a bit of gospel (and a bleep here and there) all found their way onto the FabricLive CD, a major release for Bell that came as the denouement of a whirlwind two years. His first singles came out on Sony subsidiary 1965 in August 2007; they were followed by the acclaimed Ghettoblaster mixtape, high-profile production credits on Roots Manuva’s latest long-player, a string of killer remixes (his work on Grand Puba’s “Get It” is particularly bumping) and a debut Toddla T album called Skanky Skanky. If his rapidly expanding discography has one unifying factor in , it’s that he makes full-on, hit-the-dance-floor party music. “I like nothing more that a deep-journey kind of DJ set, and I really respect people who do that,” he claims, “but for me... Well, I’m quite a giddy person, and if people want to jump about to my music, then they should jump about. It’s all about having a good time. My album is maybe more about songs, about listening at home. But something like the FabricLive mix or my DJ sets, well, that’s a whole different thing.”
It’s also music that has universal appeal, something else he attributes to Sheffield, a city that’s as racially (and musically) diverse as any in the U.K. “That’s one of the things that make Sheffield exciting,” Bell says. “When I first started going out, for instance, I though house music was this crap thing that people would go to Ibiza to listen to. But when I started going the all these parties, I was hearing people play it next to hip-hop and bashment and soul, with these black DJs putting it together in a black way, and that’s when I proper got it. And right there, that was the start of me doing what I’m doing now. That multi, mixed thing that Sheffield is—that’s what really what got me into dance music. Though I have to say, a lot of the stuff I listen to at home is really fuckin’ white.”
Toddla T spins at Flashing Lights Sat 10; FabricLive 47: Toddla T is out now.