Interview Chloe McCloskey
Photography Dan Wilton
It’s been a big year for Sheffield-bred DJ, Toddla T. The 24 year-old dancehall / hip-hop / dubstep / grime / garage / rave selector has played countless festivals and hit the studio with UK MCs Roots Manuva and Tinchy Stryder. He’s released two records including his own Skanky Skanky (1965 Records, 2009) and the truly banging Fabriclive 47 mix. If that weren’t enough, he’s also hooked up a regular radio slot on BBC Radio 1 and just finished his first US tour.
All this bigness has taken its toll though. When ’SUP caught up with Toddla (known as Tom Bell to his mum and girlfriend, Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac), a nasty case of the swine flu kept him away from legendary UK festival, Glastonbury, while a freak bout of the mumps canned his Bestival appearance. Over iced lattes in east London nightspot, Cargo, Toddla tells ’SUP in his distinctive Northern accent and charming style about the early days, his thoughts on the current state of UK dance music and why he rates Biggie as the best rapper of all time.
How was the festival season this year? Where did you have the best time?
Probably Creamfields in Liverpool. Cream has quite a super club vibe. It was started by two guys in Liverpool and now it’s just massive. They’ve got a festival and record label now. It was like a big dance festival. It was right good. I was on after Jack Beats and it was a right good big party. That was probably my most famous festival this year.
You missed Bestival, right?
Gutted. I wanted to go ’cause I’ve never been and I missed Glastonbury as well. So the two big festival. Glastonbury is my favorite festival, and then Bestival I didn’t get to see either.
How about the US?
I’m going there for my first tour in two weeks. I played in Miami at the Winter Music Conference earlier this year, which was wicked. I played three parties: one on a beach, one in a club and one by a pool. It was proper like, P. Diddy shit.
How was the response there?
Wicked! There were a lot of English people there so that helped, but I love it. Dubstep was really big over there this year as well.
It’s finally really expanded in the US. What do you think about that?
It’s mad, innit? Skream’s over there at the minute. And he says it’s a right good old time. Plastician was there too. A lot of them dubstep people are getting the love over there right now.
Why do you think it took so long?
I think it’s such a British sound and it’s quite pure and undiluted and it’s kind of taken the rest of the world a while to get their heads around it. It’s very out there.
How long do you think until Kanye gets his wobbly on?
I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already at it–getting T-Pain on there. People are doing it, aren’t they? Benga’s just done a track for Busta and Rihanna, and Eve, obviously. And Chase and Status are doing stuff with Rihanna. I love the fact that Benga’s doing stuff like that because Chase and Status are quite diluted in my opinion, whereas Benga’s full-on and very out there and pure. It shouldn’t be poppy, but he’s makin’ it poppy and I love that shit! I love it when stuff like that happens. It’s so honest. He says he’s been on video shoots with Busta and Pharrell and that. It’s madness.
You’ve been doing a lot of grime production lately. How’s that going?
I’ve done stuff for Bashy’s album. I just did Jammer’s new single, and he just got signed to Big Dada for three albums. I’ve done stuff with Wiley. Actually grime is our hip-hop. We didn’t really have a grime scene in Sheffield like down here [in London]. I used to watch it on DVDs and think it was right exciting. It was like this mad world that I’d never seen before and they were all like celebrities to me. Now I’m producing them all! It’s amazing. I’m loving it. And they’re coming to me as well and that’s flattering. Grime hasn’t crossed over to the States in the way everyone expected it to. There was that little boom where everyone got excited for a minute, but it didn’t really happen. Again, it’s so British and raw. You have to understand the lingo, the history–garage and that.
And you’re also doing a lot of radio right now?
I love it! I’ve never really done it before and I love it. It’s given me a whole new lease to get new music and a whole new excitement around contacting producers and be on stuff way before it even gets promo’ed. I’m enjoying it.
You’ve said that these days your audiences are into a range of genres, whereas in the past people were very divided by subcultures. Why do you think there’s more crossover now?
There’s more room to explore music now. Before, you bought one album a month or a week with your pocket money. Now because of the Internet, I listen to new music all day long. I go and check Myspace and stream things on Spotify and that. You don’t just have to buy what you know you’re going to like. And it’s also now acceptable to be into bands as well as hip-hop and dance music. Much more than it was before, anyway. I think it’s a wicked time, especially at the minute. Everyone seems to want to dance again.
What kind of music got you into music?
Hip-hop. I was right into hip-hop from about 10 years old. That’s all I could fuck about with.
Who was your favorite MC?
Biggie. He sounds amazing. His delivery is amazing and his lyrics are amazing. It’s not too deep or too poppy. It’s bangin’. Not too complex, not too simple. It’s perfect! His voice sounds amazing. When I was 10, my cousin gave me his record, Ready to Die (Bad Boy, 1994) and we went to me nan’s house, ’cause we used to go away every summer to see me family. Me nan’s were like, a bit boring, so I just locked into that. And I was like ‘Whoa!’ I was about 10. It’s jokes, innit? I just dabbled a bit but then got right into it by 15.
Was there a hip-hop scene in Sheffield?
Yeah, well, like anywhere else. A little circle of MCs and DJs but the standard wasn’t great. There was a couple groups who did alright and they were alright, but never really amazing. Hip-hop was my first love.
Then you got into a lot of other stuff?
When I was about 15 or 16, I started moving in different circles and making different friends and going out to different parties and clubs and bars and stuff. That’s when I got into dance music; hearing it in the right context rather than on MTV, where it was a bit rubbish. My biggest influences were the DJs back home when I started listening to different sorts of music. When I was coming up at 17, developing a taste and a sound–there was one called Pipes, who I still speak to a lot. He’s like me mentor. And there’s Winston Hazel, another DJ from back home.
Who do you think is the most important figure in UK dance music history?
Fuckin’ hell. Probably Pete Tong. Because he’s obviously massively known and has–for the last 20 years–had the most important time slot on national radio for dance music and he’s always been quite cutting-edge. He’ll not just play your big main room stuff. He’s actually quite specialist. I’m not saying he’s really out there, but his position was and is very powerful. It would be easy to play fuckin’ Tiësto all night, but he doesn’t. He may not have been given the chance to be very important, but he has been in terms of the development of dance music and to spread it nationwide over the last 10 or 20 years.
If you could only play one kind of music for the rest of your days, what would it be?
Garage. Because it’s that wide. I could play grime and two-step and 4/4 and niche. It’s wide innit. There’s loads of genres within it.
As a massive fan of Jamaican music, have you had a chance to visit the country?
Yeah. I went two months ago. It was the time of my life. I recorded in Kingston and spent three days in the studio. Then went to Negril and lived the high life–literally–on the beach. For real. It was incredible to go to where the roots lie of reggae music, which I just love so much. To me, reggae is the top of the tree of British dance music: jungle, garage, house that I like. A lot of the stuff trickled down from reggae, the big basslines and stuff like that. So to go to the place where it’s pure, where the artists work, was just amazing. And then the culture side of it, seeing how the people live. I came away with a lot of different thoughts about general life shit. I’ve seen how people live over there: It’s just mad.
Where are you based now?
I’m still in Sheffield, but I’m looking at getting a flat down here. I’m thinking North London. Sheffield’s a shithole. Some of the areas I grew up were right shitholes, so it’s not really about the area. It’s about the location. I’ll keep my studio in Sheffield, though, and take artists up there to get away from London a lot.
Do you prefer to be in the studio or on stage?
Studio. I love nothing more than making a song for people.