Kahn & Neek’s deep-set relationship with their city goes much further than your average pair of DJs.
From first sneaking into D&B raves as teenagers, to playing old Slew Dem records at Neek’s house after heading to early Sureskank parties, Bristol’s underground has remained at the core of their musical output since the very beginning.
As part of both Gorgon Sound and Young Echo, and with their grime-centric label Bandulu, they represent the city’s music (and it’s talent) in a way that challenges the ‘throwaway’ musical culture we currently reside in; a point Kahn alludes to in this interview.
Vociferous exponents of a physical product, particularly with regards to vinyl, the pair have taken the art of releasing back to basics; working against the digital grain to elevate both themselves and the music they represent to new heights. In essence, Kahn & Neek are the resilient upholders of a culture few are dedicated enough to explore; they are as real as it gets.
You two have been close friends since you were young – how did you first meet?
Neek: I was 17 and Joe was 16 when we first met. The first time we did anything music related together was at the very first Sureskank event in late 2006. Joe wasn’t booked to play, but he just arrived and slung on some breakcore records at the end of the night. Even though I moved away to Brighton for university soon after that party, we stayed in touch and became good friends.
Kahn: Yeah I just hijacked that party and have been hijacking house parties ever since to be honest. Going out to the Sureskank parties at that time was one of the first places I heard grime and the new 140bpm stuff that was coming out of Bristol, so it was interesting knowing Neek as a DJ first and then getting to know him more as a person.
I remember going to his mum’s house and him showing me all these old Slew Dem 12s and stuff he had that I’d only heard on old radio sets and recordings from Sidewinder. I was coming more from a reggae and live music background, so in a sense I got more into grime in those early years through Neek’s passion for it really.
You both also make up Gorgon Sound and part of Young Echo – what do these other projects facilitate that’s not possible as Kahn & Neek?
N: Gorgon Sound is our way of indulging our love of reggae and dub, making steppers music for the sound-system. That scene has a different pace to grime and other dance music; it’s more of a slow burning thing, something to keep working at.
And Young Echo lets us be experimental in a different way to working as Kahn & Neek or Gorgon Sound, it allows us the space to make non-dancefloor tracks and more traditional ‘songs’, I suppose.
K: Each project is essentially a separate channel for us to push the different energies of music and sound that we’re interested in. We like to keep the projects clearly separate. As Neek mentioned, we share a passion for Jamaican sound-system music and it was an area we knew we wanted to explore alongside the more grime influenced material we were making as Kahn & Neek.
It’s been great becoming more involved in the sound-system community; we get to play at events that just wouldn’t work for the Kahn & Neek project and we’ve met some amazing and inspiring people through pursuing both projects simultaneously.
Young Echo, for me personally, is a space for real musical freedom, away from trends and the concerns of being easily accessible or understandable.
All the artists involved in the collective (there’s 10 of us now) share a love of a wide spectrum of music and I feel blessed to have a community of like-minded people in which to explore all the different sounds that interest us.
Bristol seems very much a bedrock of the majority of your production work. How important is the city to your music?
N: From sneaking into drum & bass parties at 15 and then discovering dubstep at 17, the underground movements in Bristol have always been my inspiration. It’s what made me want to start playing records, run parties and then go onto make music.
K: Bristol is our identity, not just as musicians but as people. We’re proud of the musical heritage we’ve grown up surrounded by, and we like to think of our musical ventures as a continuation of that history and culture.
And more generally, how important do you think city-centric bass movements are?
N: It definitely helps having a good community of producers and DJs around you to solidify a sound. Bristol benefits from being a small place, everyone works together and collaborates, regardless of genre.
Which other cities do you think are playing a key role in the development of UK dance music?
N: I’d say Manchester is on point at the moment, the slow-fast D&B coming from there is real breath of fresh air.
K: Yeah I’d agree, it’s definitely one of our favourite places to play out. The crowds are well up for it! We played there recently on separate occasions as Kahn & Neek and then as Gorgon Sound and both were great experiences.
Bristol’s instrumental grime scene is thriving at the moment – who should we watch for?
N: Obviously Hi5Ghost, who did the most recent single on Bandulu. Boofy, who featured on the third release, and his partner in crime at the Sector 7 record label, Lemzly Dale. Also OH91, Oatz, Breen and Trends are all badmen!
K: It’s really exciting to be involved with what’s going on at the moment in the city. While the dubstep scene has gone very quiet in Bristol in recent years, for whatever reason, it’s been great being involved in the growing grime scene here, which the city isn’t historically as well known for.
I’d concur with Neek on his selections of who to watch out for in the city, though I’m sure there’s plenty of people doing their thing that we have yet to discover, and that’s what’s exciting right now.
What’s the secret to keeping your music so synonymous with the UK underground without limiting it’s appeal elsewhere? Your music seems to almost transcend those boundaries…
K: It’s hard to say, although we both share a love for music from all over the world, so I guess that while we certainly identify ourselves as UK artists, subconsciously we’re always taking influence from sounds outside of our immediate environment.
N: It’s probably just the amount and variety of music we listen too. That filtered through our love of UK underground music creates something a bit different, I hope.
What’s the story behind your label, Bandulu?
N: We started the label as a place to release our and our friends’ instrumental grime. It’s inspired by those old forgotten gems, the instrumental you can’t remember the name of.
Keeping it vinyl-only is our way of continuing that lineage of quality grime beats that you can only get full quality on wax.
K: We knew we wanted to start a record label since the early Sureskank days. Vinyl and dubplates are an important element to all the music projects we’re involved in and it seemed only natural for that ethos to pass over into our record label.
You’ve also released on Hotline Recordings, another label with a similar, back-to-basics approach to releasing music. Is it a deliberate part of your thinking to almost shy away from the digital in favour of traditional physical formats?
N: We play out vinyl and dubplates; it’s just the way we prefer to showcase our music. As I’ve said before, I like to keep people guessing by having white labels and dubplates.
That’s part of our craft as DJs, to keep that aspect of mystery and keep people hungry to hear and buy new music.
K: It’s an issue we seem to always be debating and, really, it’s just down to personal preference. It seems that the way most music is released and consumed online nowadays has meant that, in my opinion, a ‘throw-away’ culture has arisen that’s at odds with how we personally like to discover and enjoy records.
Is that an aesthetic you’re both keen to continue pursuing?
K: While the vinyl and dubplate format is still relevant to the music we make, I don’t see a reason why we’d stop.
N: Yeah its something I feel passionate about continuing and upholding in a digital age.
And finally, what are you hoping to achieve, both individually and collectively, by the end of 2014?
N: Just to get more music out there, but sticking with quality over quantity, for sure. And, hopefully, to keep playing great shows all over the place!
K: Yeah just to keep playing our music and the music we love to as many people as possible, all over the world. We’re excited to keep pushing our Bandulu record label as well as working with other artists and labels that we respect.