LSD Magazine interviews A Skillz

Ever since he burst onto your bass bins alongside Krafty Kuts on the seminal Tricka Technology album, A Skillz has been systematically and spectacularly slamming the party back down onto a throbbing dancefloor. Coooking up a spellbinding storm on each and every sizzling edit he hurls down, he skips through the old and the new whipping up a moonshine brew of  sizzling funk that spins a relentless spectrum of musical inspiration into a bass drenched whirlwind of epic bangers. Ripping up the skillz on the reworks are one thing, but  catch the man live and his breathtaking minute by minute voyage of heaving, soulful irreverence will have you clean off your toes as 60’s classics melt into old school hip hop, rifling the crates of classic memory on the breakdown and on into a genre defying controlled mayhem as the electrics crunch and the breakbeats fly. We caught up with Adam for a chat.

Tell us a little about your early days and the story leading up to where it all really came together for you

I grew up within a very musical family ñ my dad was a drummer, my mum was seriously handy on a whole range of different instruments, and they actually met in one of their many bands. Iíd walk into my lounge as a nipper and thereíd just be instruments scattered all over the place ñ a bass propping up the table, a guitar sprawled on the sofa, and when youíre immersed in that kind of environment where the notes are flying, you naturally end up absorbing it. When I reached 5, my dad put some sticks in my hand and started teaching me how to play drums, so by the time I was 14, my brother and I were in a band playing a good few pub gigs, which obviously when youíre 14, is a bit of a winner. At that point it was all about the band, and all about the rock music, but when I hit 16, I started listening to old school hip hop and funk and right at that point, as I started to feel those funky grooves and notice that a few of my mates were getting turntables together, I stumbled across the film Juice. Nowadays itís mostly remembered for the fact that Tupac was in it, but at the time, it was dripping with wicked hip hop (I think Jazzy Jeff actually did the overdubs) and had this DJ battle scene that totally inspired me to go out and get a set of decks. Moved swiftly on from the pop records into crate digging for old funk gems, but it was definitely more of a hobby on the side. I was totally committed to the band and envisaged the musical life ahead of me as being the drummer. We got signed, and for a moment there, it was all looking really promising, but it ended up following the typical band narrative and was turning into a never ending journey of upís and downs that I didnít have the stomach for.

I stuck with it for a while yet and kept developing the DJing on the side, but eventually I came to a bit of a crossroads where I was getting a lot of DJ bookings and a fair whack of gigs for the band, so there were clashes and it was becoming increasingly obvious that it was going to have to boil down to a straight choice. Iíd also started working with Krafty Kuts, and that partnership really launched me into the production side of things as we started putting a few tunes together. He was associated with Finger Lickin Records, who approached us to do an album together, and that brought the choice I had in front of me kicking and screaming into focus. On the one hand I had this record deal on the table from Finger Lickin, but on the other, I was dedicated to the band ñ my brother was in it and it was all very blood brothers for life. It was a nasty position to be in, but ultimately, I had to think about myself, and to be fair, they could always go out and get another drummer, but this was a golden, probably one off chance for me to try and make it as a producer. At the end of the day, they still had every shot at making it as a band without me holding down the rhythms, but what Finger Lickin was proposing didnít come round twice, and Iíd never know what might have happened.

The band were a bit upset obviously as we were genuinely tight, but very supportive because of that and I just went for it. I had been getting to know Pro Tools and messing about on the production tip for a little while, and the first proper track Iíd pulled together, Tricka Technology ended up as the title track on the album me and Krafty did together. So we got into the studio and started grafting, and then almost   before I knew it, the album was coming out, getting rave reviews in the press, doing really well and it suddenly all went mental. Having not really done a huge amount of DJ gigs beyond 30 quid and free beers down the local boozer, I suddenly found myself up on a stage on New Yearís Eve in Australia in front of 25,000 people with Kurtis Blow on the mic for us wondering how the hell all this had happened. Talk about being chucked in at the deep end. Itís one of those utterly surreal moments where you just check yourself and it dawns on you that youíve just come on after Groove Armada, thousands of people are going nuts and youíre stood at the epicentre of this mad whirlwind.

That was how it felt, but to put things in some kind of perspective, it did come off the back of 2 years hard work in the studio ñ the gigs didnít just magically rain down and we put in the blood sweat and tears to get there. Still, logic goes out the window when youíve come from studio lockdown and reading a few reviews to that kind of epic rush where it all just hits you. Few more massive festival dates down under and we were rolling.

A-Skills-04It’s interesting you’ve come from a band which is collaborative straight into the partnership with Krafty Kuts. How much did that partnership enhance and develop your own musical identity, and how much did it limit it

It ís hard to say. What I will be forever thankful to Krafty for, is that having spent a good few years building his own profile as a DJ and producer, he was open hearted enough to take me freely under his wing.  That gave me a serious step up the food chain and an instant boost as people started saying who ís this new bloke associated with someone we already know ñ better check him out so from a profile perspective, being linked to Krafty in that way was invaluable. As far as the dynamic of working together went, we both passionately loved the same kind of music ñ both really into our funk and our old school hip hop so that had us straight onto the same page and as we bounced ideas off each other, they just gelled organically into the album. We had a very similar idea of where we were going and the sound we were looking for, and while we never did another album, the partnership has always thrived, always been there, and it’s never really more than a few weeks before were back in the studio on a remix or a little booty edit.

It ís very different now, but how far out on a limb were you a few years back at 110 / 115 bpm ñ not quite fitting into hip hop, not quite fitting into breaks

We never even went down the ëright, what genre are we making hereí road. Nowadays you’ve got this nu funk, booty funk, ghetto funk ñ whatever you want to call it as people desperately try and pin a sound down with a label to get it nicely pigeonholed away.  And while there ís always the consideration of a track being less likely to get played if it’s speed varies too much from a style a DJ plays and can find other records to match, we were feeling a sound ñ pure and simple, and no diktats of speed, style or genre were going to influence that. There were all these old hip hop and funk records that we loved, and we wanted to play stuff that had that party vibe while giving it a step up production wise. There really wasn’t a huge amount of heavy analysis or navel gazing about our musical direction and its role within modern dance music we were just grabbing different samples that we liked and rolling with the flavour and the tempo. I think at the time, the album was filed away under that gloriously non committal term ëelectronica on itunes, but it really distilled down to 2 overriding elements. We were loving the music we were making, and when we dropped the party stuff at gigs….it kicked.

Stylistic genres aside though, there definitely was an issue with tempo when we were playing out. Problem was that, what with Finger Lickin being primarily a breaks label and Krafty playing a lot of breaks, we were getting booked for a lot of breakbeat nights. So the guys on before you are playing 135 bpm, and there ís no way around it when you come on after that and drop it down to 110, there is a noticeable dip in the pace of the dancefloor. They’ve been built up to a certain tempo and it’s bloody hard work to then slow things down. I still have the same problem ñ in comes your first drop at 110 and there is this unavoidable sense of slowdown across the room. When it comes down to it, it just means that you’ve got to work that much harder to make the records so banging that even though you’ve taken things down by 20 bpm ñ it still rocks the party.

A-Skills-05Are you really self conscious in the first 20 minutes and basically chuck the kitchen sink at the dancefloor to roll the transition until they’ve found the groove

Totally. It happens so rarely, but every now and again, I get to come on after some really wicked old school, classic hip hop not even really obvious stuff just nice warm up hip hop  that is absolutely perfect. I love it when that happens because then I’m the one taking it up a notch I just wish it happened more often. But no-one really plays that kind of music anymore and especially not in clubs. Usually I’m coming on after peak time high energy music like electro house or hard breaks, and I’m thinking to myself Oh shit this is NOT an ideal warm up for me.

I used to worry about it a lot more than I do now to be fair. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have my moments now, but I’ve got more confidence and I figure that if I’m coming on in the middle of the night, it’s because people have come to hear me play and they know my style. These days, its only really at a random gig that you just happen to end up at where no-one knows who you are and the DJ finishing up has been spinning a rampaging hard edged breaks set that it crops up, but as I say, I’ve got more confidence in my own style and by and large, people know what to expect.  Still do notice it though! If you’ve been standing in a room for half an hour and the tempo changes that radically it just feels slow it’s just one of those things. You edge up the pitch control to compensate, then stop for a quick reality check as you accept that you’re never going to get anywhere near 135 wide pitch control or not. It’s a bit naughty maybe, but the first thing I do when the DJ before me launches his last tune, is to start smuggling down the pitch control and the gain on his track and sneakily nudging them up on my incoming track to increase the impact.

Nothing wrong with that! He’s finished his set anyway. But on the playing out front, what is the essence for mixing for you and what techniques do you feel amplify your style

What’s been really interesting is moving through all the different formats and platforms that have come on stream in the last few years and now that I’m on Serato, its opened up a whole new world of mixing. I come from a background of hip hop mixing so especially at that slower tempo, there’ll be a lot less straight beat matching and slow fades and a lot more slamming tracks in and quick drops on the fly. I rarely play a record for longer than a minute and often just 30 seconds so it’s all about the lightning switches. Because most of what I play is my own edits, I’ll do things like leave the acapella going in the edit itself after the rest of the track ends so I can slip another record underneath it, mix another on top of that and keep rolling with new instrumentals while maintaining a continuity through the vocals. Especially with the options Serato offers up where I can have 3 things going at once within the program, it’s encouraged me to get more technical when I’m designing the edits for my sets. I’m also quite let me see what’s the word…..oh yes ñ anal about things being in tune and it does my nut to hear 2 records in different keys clashing in the mix and even on a straight drop, it can sound a bit abrupt though again sometimes you need high impact, defined changes. It’s all about smoothing the transitions, and  if all else fails and it’s looking a bit sketchy, there’s always the bomb and the air horn  and if it’s all going horribly wrong ñ there’s nothing quite like a make some noise sample to smooth out the gap!

That’s the thing with Serato handy sampler function aside, I not only had to lug huge crates of vinyl everywhere back in the day and when you’re playing tracks for a minute or less, you need a LOT of records, but I also had to get dub-plates physically cut. Any edit I was doing, I’d be trotting down to Heathmanís (now Finyl Tweek) with for the one off cut, so I was still doing the same things, it was just that much more effort to get it done. Now, the second the edits done bang it’s straight into Serato. It’s gone next level. My digital dubs are instant, I can set up a 200 track playlist and rinse through it, I can still scratch on the 2 slices of controlling vinyl and be that much freer and crazier in the mix.

Speaking of those edits, you don’t actually release that many original tracks but you’re constantly editing up killer new tracks for your sets. So you’re doing all this studio work, why not release more of it?

I have released a fair few bootlegs, but the thing is that I like to do quite a lot with a record before I’m happy putting it out. There’s two distinct sides to the equation – original tune ñ all good, get it out, but because I do so many edits of classic tracks for my DJ sets knowing that cocktail of a familiar refrain sitting on top of a fresh banger is always going to kill it, that doesn’t necessarily mean  I’m willing to release it. The dancefloor is one thing, but if I’m going to work over a bootleg, there has to be enough originality and enough added to it before it’s fair to release. If it’s blatantly a really classic record just with beefed up drums and maybe a new bass noise so nothing significantly new has been brought into play, it doesn’t feel right to put it out. It needs to have enough of a stamp on it to make it justifiable.

And then of course, I’m a bit greedy I suppose, so if I’m slaving over edits to make my sets unique, I’m not really all that keen on them doing the rounds until I’ve rinsed them to death. Over the years, I’ve learned that if you give everything away, that’s it what could be making your set special is now a tool in everyone else’s box. You have to have a load of secret edits up your sleeve or else why would anyone come and see you play? That’s the draw people knowing that by coming down to the night, they’re going to hear stuff they can’t hear anywhere else. So I’ve become a little bit more precious about handing out my edits and that includes DJ’s I’m quite close with! Gets a bit awkward as they bound up grinning saying Go on then, let’s have a copy and you’re like Erm, not being funny but erm, really sorry you can have it in 6 months though!í As soon as one person got it, the dominoes start falling as they give it to someone else, swearing them to secrecy, and before you know it, it’s tormented to the eyeballs  and doing the rounds of all the blogs. And that’s it. It’s all over.
I am really disappointed in myself that I haven’t put more original tracks together recently, because I’ve got so much sat here that I consider 90% done, but it’s that last 10% that I’m struggling with.

Are you finding that when a track gets to that 90% stage, the more you listen to it, the more you lose all perspective on it and the more you focus on it, the further away you actually get from finishing it.

That is very true. The best records are often the ones that don’t take that long to make, because as you’re tweaking it complete, it still sounds fresh. I mean I’ve got tracks I started over 5 years ago that I still fully intend to finish and release, but you get to a point where you don’t even know what you’re listening to any more….is this wicked….is this abysmal….my head’s been in it for too long and I have no clue what this track ís even about any more. People have recorded class vocals for me that I’ve so nearly finished a track around when it reaches that critical stage where I end up binning the instrumental and embarking on a completely new track built on the same vocal. It often takes someone else with fresh ears to come along and throw a new perspective on it in 5 minutes flat after all the agonising, which is why it can be so productive working with a partner. Bootys and edits are one thing you have the sample to guide you and give you inspiration it’s when it’s from scratch that the real test comes and that’s where I do like having someone to bounce ideas off.

With all these bootlegs, have you ever been sued

Iíve been asked to stop selling a record by Afrika Bambaataa. He loved the record and his idea was less litigation and more ñ stop selling the booty and let’s do it properly together and release it. The problem was that there were at least 3 samples from other people in that tune, so it was going to be just too complicated to pull off. I’ve been sued for an original record that had a sample in it, and that was pretty grim. It was Happiness, a track I did with Krafty and we got the sample from this ultra rare old disco jingles record, and what was so frustrating was that we REALLY tried to track down the original artist for clearance. The owners of the copyright had apparently liquidated and ceased to exist, so having exhausted every avenue we could think of, we went ahead with it, writing on the record if you own the copyright, get in touch. And just after the track got licensed to an advert….they did.

You have to accept these things and we basically ended up losing everything we made on the record while putting a deal in place for future sales, but I tell you, that first letter was pretty scary. You pick up your post one very average rainy morning and you’re cordially informed that you’re being sued for an amount that if you’re lucky, you might be able to squeeze by remortgaging your house.

So it wasn’t just the royalties?

From what I can work out having been through it once, it starts off with these terrifying numbers and all round pinstripe intimidation referencing not just the earnings off the record but abstract ideas like the benefits to your profile and long term earning capacity It’s more of a starting point for negotiations though, and as the process continues, it defrosts and gets a lot friendlier and ends up where you’d expect, unless someone really wants to play hardball. So it was alright in the end, but it was a bit hairy there for a while.

Now you’re taking all these old funk records and their soulful feel, but how do you infuse what you do with it with a similar degree of soul

As a drummer, the drums, the swing and the groove are paramount to me. I hear a lot of bootlegs that have lifted a funk original then grafted this really rigid beat onto it that sucks out all the soul. I think itís key to inject the same amount of swing that the original had and take where the beats fall there as your guideline to mirror and match up to. And that’s where the secret of a wicked edit lies – on the drums, the bass, whatever  it’s sculpting your version around those reference points already glowing with soul rather than making a totally different track and gluing the 2 together. My brother is a shit hot funky guitarist, so he records in parts but in all honesty, it doesn’t necessarily come together all that quickly. You’re messing around with the bassline but it still sounds stilted, it still sounds wrong so you fiddle with note length, tease your quantisation, chop up the sample, edge it about and just experiment for ages until something clicks and it comes alive. And then you’re locked into a swinging groove. Or you sack it completely and move on!

Is rhythm sometimes best expressed by what’s implied than what’s actually there

I love the old school funky breaks the originals and those are just awash with grit and soul. The problem is though, that if you drop them into a track your making, it muddies up the rhythm section and makes it too cluttered and too messy to get the kind of clarity modern production is all about. The trick is getting that degree of soul from a programmed beat without using the old breaks or at least layering them to perfection. Again that balance between production crispness and that more rough n ready funky flavor is a very fine line and you’re never quite sure you’ve cracked it on an individual edit until the trial and error phase has crystallised into a groove that you know works. And don’t forget rhythm isn’t just about drums anything can be rhythmic. There may be a synth noise in the mix which means you don’t need a shaker take it out and suddenly you do. And the voice is perhaps the most rhythmic instrument of all whether it’s an acapella riding a fairly simple beat and rolling the gaps or just a tiny stab instead of a drum hit.  And that’s the key using every element you have to create aspects of rhythm rather than just piling up the drums.

So what’s the rest of the year got in store for you

It’s looking really busy at the moment and I’ve gone a bit mental on the touring. I’ve just finished up a wicked 3 week tour of Canada and a couple of dates at Snowbombing in Austria, then a USA Tour in June, various UK and European festivals over the summer and a semi confirmed tour of Australia and Asia. This is the dilemma I’m griefing myself up about getting in the studio and working on some original tracks, and then going out and booking about a million gigs which doesn’t really leave me with the time to do it. Saying that releasing original music as quickly as possible is my aim. I’ve got my new label, Jam City which was set up to release original music of mine and other peoples stuff that I like ñ a DJ Yoda and Friends EP just came out and the Cuban Brothers are lined up for a couple of releases , so this year is all about striking the balance between gigging loads, getting hunkered down in the studio and pushing Jam City. Pretty full on!


May 9th 2011