- "Instant reload every time."
- Before 2009, Hugh Pescod was known for making gnarly drum & bass under the name Clipz. That year he made a sharp change of direction, starting the Lobster Boy label and revealing a new alias to go with it: Redlight. The new project swerved from the darker sounds of his past into a more colourful, hip-hop-influenced style entrenched firmly in the 130-140 BPM zone of his DJ sets. A year later and his track "MDMA" was tearing up every bass music rave in the UK, leading to a record deal with Chase & Status's More Than Alot label. As it blew up, Pescod approached a few artists to do a vocal version, and he struck gold with Ms. Dynamite.
The original, "MDMA," was the perfect beat: a slippery, 16-bar grime instrumental with a melodic twist, shaped by the early drill sound coming from artists like Lex Luger in the US. "I was heavily into sucking sounds through different compressors," Pescod told me over the phone, "to make the music move in a different way to what others were doing." Its hybrid rhythm connected with what was happening in the increasingly splintered world of dubstep, while its euphoric melody followed the genre's shift towards the mainstream. Together with S-X's "Woooo Riddim," "MDMA" nailed the grime, dubstep and UK bass crossover. It was crying out for a vocal.
Meanwhile, Niomi McLean-Daley, AKA Ms. Dynamite, was hot off a streak of hits—her first after a five-year hiatus from music. "Wile Out" with Zinc was already at legendary status and the mainstream chart success of "Lights On" with Katy B was one of pop-dubstep's better moments. McLean-Daley was back, and out to prove any doubters that "Booo!," the 2001 underground smash she had with Sticky, was no one-off.
Pescod met McLean-Daley and an expert songwriter, Donae'o, at his West London studio. They hit a vibe straight away and got the vocal done that day. On "What You Talking About!?," McLean-Daley delivered an in-your-face flow that fits the beat. Some of her previous favourites were in a soulful R&B or dubwise toasting style, but "What You Talking About!?" was pure grime fire. Even the "!?" at the end of the track name was telling—she wasn't asking nicely.
Pescod took a while to get the "W-w-w-what You Talking About!?" vocal production just right. "I really wanted to fuck people's heads up with some future shit, really twist the knife," he said. It worked. The vocal version was a huge hit. "Those lyrics were mean, man. Once that track connected and people were waiting for it, it would just fuck up the dance every time."
McLean-Daley owned "MDMA" so hard with her vocal that the instrumental was virtually off-limits to other MCs. It had a crucial one-line hook that everyone could remember, that you could turn and yell in your mate's face then go back to skanking and pretending you knew the rest of the lyrics.
McLean-Daley performed the track in her solo shows and, because she shared the same agency as Pescod, they were often booked for the same parties where she would jump on his sets for a live PA. The track got a rewind just about every time Pescod played it that year.
"I come from jungle and drum & bass, so it's rewind culture, soundsystem culture," he told me. "When you got British rap royalty like Ms. Dynamite spraying stuff like 'I put a hole in your cranium' and all that, it's over. Instant reload every time."
Pescod often released a cappella of his tunes, actively encouraging artists to make bootlegs and pushing the tradition of VIPs in UK dance music. (In the case of "What You Talking About!?," there were unofficial versions from the likes of Skream, Compa, Martelo and Mickey Pearce.) Pescod would work on the production of the a cappella for weeks to make sure it fizzed with the same energy as the full version, something he learned from studying Rodney Jerkins' production work for R&B artists like Brandy.
Releasing the a cappella allowed DJs to get creative with the vocal. The likes of Oneman and Shy FX rinsed it dry, sometimes wheeling the instrumental before dropping McLean-Daley's vocal on a different beat. By the time "What You Talking About!?" ran its course, Pescod had another festival-ready banger up his sleeve: "Source 16."
"I had a hard funky track at the time, 'Stupid,' then a 140 BPM jungle track with Mz. Bratt on it, 'Selecta,' plus 'What You Talking About!?' and 'Source 16,'" he said. "They all went off that year. All I needed to do was play those tracks and I'd smash up the place."
Tracks like "What You Talking About!?" capture the excitement of those times, of genres fusing and creating new hybrids by the week. "It was more free to do different versions back then," Pescod remembers. "Once the instrumental had permeated the dance, and found its place within the culture, you could then come with a vocal version and twist it a bit more. 'Woooo' was the same thing. There was the instrumental and then D Double lifted it off. That was dope. Maybe it was a generational thing and people from that culture understood it. Let's bring it back!"