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Lotek talks to Beatnik about dub reggae, schooling Speech Debelle and working with boy bands
words Rob Boffard
After working with Roots Manuva and collecting some of that sweet BBC pot for artists (those were the days), Lotek left Britain with a minimum of studio equipment. We found him in Australia with more to-be-classic material under his belt, some more equipment and a strange intonation.Lotek: Rebel HiFi ft. Spikey Tee
We’re on the phone with Lotek, and something’s not quite right.
It takes us a while to pick it up. As far as we can tell, the interview’s going swimmingly. We’re discussing the British rapper and producer’s new album, International Rudeboy, his work with Roots Manuva and Speech Debelle, and his love of dub reggae.
We’ve talked about the time he’s lived in Australia, joked about the time difference (he’s getting ready to go out while we’re still coming down off our morning coffee) and chatted about the recent riots in London. He doesn’t seem upset or angry or reticent. And yet there’s something with this phone call that we can’t put our finger on. Something odd.
And then we hear it. The man’s phrasing every sentence like a question, with a slight upward inflection at the end of each one. He’s talking, in other words, like an Australian?
Listen: “My studio’s been evolving slowly since I got to Melbourne? When I got here in 2007, I just had a laptop and a mic, and then they asked me to do the Speech Debelle album, and flew her over here? I had to borrow keyboards and drum machines and stuff like that—I think I borrowed some stuff and never gave it back?”
Jesus. The dude’s gone native.
We don’t wish to give him up for dead just yet though. Firstly, he’s an interesting guy, with bucketloads of stories and anecdotes from his years as a sound engineer. And secondly, he’s one of the most talented producers we’ve ever come across.
You’ve heard his stuff before—he’s produced for Roots, Ricky Ranking and Jimmy Screech, and won a Mercury after producing the entirety of Speech Debelle’s Speech Therapy. But now there’s finally a chance to hear his own album – just him, no gimmicks. International Rudeboy draws on his considerable travel experience in its influences, and is as good a fusion of dub reggae and hip-hop as you’re likely to hear anywhere.
Very few artists could try, let alone succeed, in merging King Tubby with Run-DMC. Thing is, Lotek knows how much he owes to the pioneers of reggae; cheekily, the video for his single The Rudest Dude intercuts studio footage of King Jammy, Del Boy Wilson and Bunny Lee with himself rapping in the booth.Lotek: Mile High Dub
“Reggae was one of the first genres where engineers got the credit?” he says. “You had producers like Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry and Jammy got really famous just from sitting behind the boards. That was an exciting thing for me? When I look at Coxsone Dodd or one of these guys, I thought, I could do that? I know how to operate the equipment! I know how to get that sound! Bring it on!”
We’ll ask the questions here. What exactly was it that got him into reggae and dub?
“Bass! Bass! I think it was bass that actually got me into music. It was actually hearing reggae music on a big soundsystem that made me go, that’s pretty incredible. Really hard to explain: you’re in a really big soundsystem and you can feel your stomach shaking from the bass. I guess reggae and its offshoots are the only genres that actually make use of that bass. Hip-hop too, to an extent.”
Wayne Bennett has come a long way from Gosport, where he was born, or even London, where he’d go down to Red Records in Brixton and hang out by their permanent sound-system setup. After lots of travelling and touring, he settled in Australia four years ago, setting up his studio and beginning work on the album. He would have remained a talented but slightly obscure producer had it not been for Speech Debelle.
The portly Big Dada rapper was dispatched to Australia to record her debut album at Lotek’s studio; he says it came as something of a shock to both of them.
“[Working with Speech] was different. She’d never made an album before, which was evident from the very first session. She’s very strong-minded and had an idea of what she wanted, even if she didn’t know how it was done. We found a way and a middle ground…she’s like a little sister to me now, I guess?”
“Most people I’ve worked with, even if they’ve never released albums before, they’ve been around it a lot? The modern industry, I mean when I started out, your apprenticeship lasted a lot longer?
“So you know, you’d say, I’m a singer, and my album would take ten years to come out from when I first decided to be a singer, to the time it actually got finished? And by the time it came time for it to be your turn, you were kind of experienced, you did know how to put together an album? Now, it’s all instant.
“It was a bit of a shock to me colliding with that sort of a world where it transpired that she hadn’t listened to that many albums. She was from a generation of songs. So the first thing I did was sit her down and get her to listen to what I consider to be the best albums ever made? Sergeant Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of The Moon? Get her into that vibe of what an album is?”
Whatever went on between the two, Lotek’s influence clearly paid off. Those sessions listening to Pink Floyd and The Beatles ended up winning the duo a Mercury Award for the album. This was something of a vindication for Lotek; he’d been working in studios since 1993, where he got his first apprenticeship as a sound engineer. It’s part of the reason why his production is as good as it is: this is a man who knows his onions.
Working at Rollover Studios in London, he got to learn the industry first-hand—as well as see the kind of artist he didn’t want to be. Rollover did a lot of work for pop artists like Take That and East 17. He recounts working on the latter’s album and never seeing a single member in the studio—just CDs of vocals.
He laughs when asked about whether, as a sound engineer, his artists often forget that he’s in the room.
“You’re kind of like the taxi driver of people’s musical experience. You kind of forget the person’s there, and I’ve heard a lot of things that I’m sure people didn’t mean to overhear? I’ve witnessed a lot of things. One of biggest inspirations for me to become an artist was seeing a bunch of half-arsed mediocre dance and pop musicians having their music assembled by numbers using session musicians and engineers. I was like, I really love music, and the engineers are putting it all together anyway! So, I’ll give it a crack?”
Lotek says he’s returning to London soon for good. When he gets here, we’d suggest you go check him out. Until then, listen to his album, because, you know, it’s pretty good?