Spend enough time in England and you’ll come to learn that there is more to the country’s North-South divide than just economic and political differences. Northerners aren’t afraid to point the finger at themselves and laugh. In Manchester, self-deprecation is an integral part of daily life. It can take some getting used to, yet it’s also part of what makes the city, and its cultural output, so fascinating. Mancunian producer Dub Phizix, real name George Ovens, is a good case in point.
Since emerging on the drum & bass scene in the late 2000s, Ovens has regularly used comedy and mocked his work. “Dub Phizix and Strategy are cunts” is the title, URL and tagline of a Tumblr page run by Ovens and his frequent collaborator, Strategy aka Johnny Wheeler. Against its neon green background is a collection of screen shots of YouTube comments detailing the lack of quality in the pair’s music. Most of the comments refer to their breakout single, “Marka,” released in 2011 on Exit Records, helmed by drum & bass pioneer dBridge. “Marka” cemented Dub Phizix’s name as a producer and gave Wheeler a new audience after his earlier work as part of local hip hop groups Microdisiacs and Broke N English.
The track was backed by an official video, which currently has over 3 million views on YouTube. Set at night in what seems to be a council estate, the video features Wheeler, dressed in Native American gear and face paint, delivering his patois-infected lyrics to the camera in a menacing manner. As the video progresses we see a bonfire, fire jugglers and more of the sparse vegetation and backstreets that adorn estates all over the country. Any seriousness in the video, such as its dark mood echoing the dancehall inflections in the music, is counteracted by Wheeler’s outfit, a bizarre, what the fuck element that may lead some to think it trite when it’s most likely another way for the pair to “have a laugh” while doing something they love. “We post the comments up there for a buzz, like,” Ovens explains over the phone in a thick northern accent. “It’s just a bit of fun.” It’s also partly an acknowledgement that the success of the song came with its own double-edge.
A lot of the comments on the “cunts” blog accuse the pair of being one-trick ponies. “It’s hard,” Ovens admits. “We were feeling the vibe but I didn’t want to be [seen to be] rehashing the same idea over and over.”
Sonically, the track has two distinct roots. One is the hardware-driven, soulful Autonomic “sound” that dBridge and Instra:mental honed in on during the late 2000s. More of an aesthetic than a new style, Autonomic brought the focus back on space and soul at a time when drum & bass had earned a public reputation for high-octane energy and abuse of mid-range frequencies - similar pitfalls that have since befallen dubstep. The other key influence is dancehall and bashment, which underpin the track’s rhythmical structure and rhymes. “That was all Skeptical that,” Ovens says referring to the song’s co-creator, Ashley Tindall. Ovens admits that Tindall was a big inspiration at the time. For a while the pair would exchange track parts, building ideas together back and forth. That’s how “Marka” started, a pack Tindall had sent, but which Ovens didn’t listen to at first. “One night I’m in the studio with Johnny and it just clicked,” he recalls. The pair decided to tap into Wheeler’s background and love of bashment to accentuate the Jamaican vibe.
“Marka” became a runaway success. As one of the biggest drum & bass tracks of 2011, its impact was loud enough to be heard beyond the confines of the genre. Ovens is quick to give Tindall all the credit for the track’s formula though he admits that he enjoyed it so much that he had to try it again: first on “Never Been,” featuring local legend MC Fox, and then on “I’m A Creator,” which swaps patois for the tongue-twisting lyrics of Skittles, a versatile Manchester MC. A lot of the comments on the “cunts” blog accuse the pair of being one-trick ponies, regurgitating the same formula. “It’s hard,” Ovens admits. “We were feeling the vibe but I didn’t want to be [seen to be] rehashing the same idea over and over.” Considering northerners’ penchant for laughing at themselves, the blog seems like an honest way to say they are at least conscious of it. “Certainly there are people out there who think we get in the studio, write a beat and a bass, stick a Manc MC on it and that’s it.”
As we discuss his Mancunian roots, one word keeps coming back: groove. It’s what brought him to the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, “groove orientated guitar music,” and in turn to hip-hop and drum & bass by the late 1990s. By then the music has started to mutate from jungle into drum & bass, the term that would ultimately come to encompass all of its variations. Trying his hand at making the music he liked, Ovens was by his own admission somewhat stumbling around in the dark. His eureka moment came courtesy of a recommendation from Darren Lewis, one half of local duo Future Cut, with whom he had begun working.
He put the record on and went next door, listening to the music filtered down to its lower end through the walls. “I’m following the bass and as I walk back into the room... the drums made total sense to me. I was like, ‘This is how you get those two elements to talk to each other.’”
Seeing the potential in Ovens’ early attempts at production, Lewis recommended he check out Photek’s 1995 classic “Rings Around Saturn,” a master class in breakbeat minimalism. “He played it to me, and I was like...” He trails off imitating his dumbfound expression at the time. Ovens had been using the break as the building block for his songs, which never seemed to work. Photek’s track had appeal but he couldn’t understand it. A few days later he got a copy and took it home, intent on cracking its code. He put the record on and went next door, listening to the music filtered down to its lower end through the walls. “I’m following the bass and as I walk back into the room all of a sudden the drums made total sense to me. I was like, ‘This is how you get those two elements to talk to each other.’”
Like others before him, Ovens’ eureka moment centred on understanding the subtle yet powerful interplay between bass and drums that’s central to breakbeat-driven music. “All music is a toss up between your mind and your soul. The more you gotta think about something, the less you can put your soul into it. And the better you know something without having to think about it, the more you can put your soul into it.” Throughout our conversation Ovens comes back to this idea as foundational to his approach. It’s why the formula behind “Marka” excited him. It felt pure, from the soul.
Part of what makes Manchester special is that it fosters a close-knit artistic community. Regardless of stylistic inclinations, most Mancunian artists support and work together in myriads of ways. Growing confident that music was his vocation, Ovens took a leap of faith. He rented a space above famous local venue Sankeys Soap, just outside the city centre, and set up a studio, putting his growing knowledge to use. “The day I started the studio, everyone decided to come.” Grime artists Virus Syndicate and Banghra/hip hop pioneer Punjabi MC passed through alongside local rappers, indie bands and bassline producers. When the relationship with the building’s owner became untenable, Ovens found himself back at square one.
Faced with a decisive fork in the road, he made the only decision he could. “I needed to make music my career proper and I knew I needed to do things from me heart,” he explains. It was Marcus Intalex, another Manchester mainstay with a history of providing a leg up to younger talent, who gave Ovens the needed seal of approval to kick-start his career. In the span of six months in the early 2010s, he put out his first release, via local label Ingredients and Intalex’s Soul:R imprint.
Timing is almost always everything, especially in music. “Marka” came during a perfect storm on the fringes of drum & bass. After Autonomic came footwork, swiftly followed by a jungle revival that utilised the tempo and rhythmic similarities between the two to provide new takes on old classics. While established artists such as dBridge continued to push forward within the limitations of a genre they’d helped create, a growing wave of outsiders spearheaded by Om Unit and Machinedrum - producers raised on jungle classics, but with careers that took them elsewhere - helped give the music some of its groove back. Ovens’ stripped-down, MC-friendly sound was a perfect fit.
I ask what he listens to these days, and after telling me he rediscovered Paul Weller’s “Stanley Road” by accident, he seemingly catches himself. “Maybe if the music I make now is the result of all the grime and hip-hop I’ve listened to, I should change that and bring something new.”
While not an outsider per se, Ovens certainly bears similarities with the likes of Om Unit in both his youthful experimentations and affinities with external sound palettes. “I think it’s a testament to drum & bass that it’s coming out the other side and that people like Om Unit are getting attention,” he explains. “Some of the most amazingly produced electronic music has come from this scene. It was always an innovators music.” This idea that music is a playground for innovation is one that Ovens holds dear. He paraphrases Photek: “What you listen to outside of drum & bass determines what you make within it, and I listen to jazz.” I ask what he listens to these days, and after telling me he rediscovered Paul Weller’s “Stanley Road” by accident, he seemingly catches himself. “Maybe if the music I make now is the result of all the grime and hip-hop I’ve listened to, I should change that and bring something new.” Doing a 360° turn stylistically comes with commercial risks, however. He points to drum & bass innovator James Boyle, aka Breakage, as someone who did it right.
“Back in the 2000s when things got formulaic and every song had a massive 200hz snare in it, he goes and makes “Clarendon” and “The Shroud” where the snare is a bit of white noise. That takes fucking guts.” He’s shouting by this point. “And now he’s released a tune with no drums in it! Just a girl singing and some sick pads. I respect that. These are the people you want making drum & bass. James might be moving away from the music, but he’s still an influence.”
Three years on from “Marka,” Ovens and Wheeler have returned with “Buffalo Charge,” a new club track that’s less statement of intent, more Mancunian joviality: the video features chatting cattle and the drop is over-the-top ludicrous. I ask him if it might appear to be a “big tune” for the sake of it, the sort of songs that are churned out to help shift units and maintain visibility rather than striving for any sort of artistic coherence. “There are people who’ll consider Buffalo an attempt to cash in. We just wanted to make something a bit more energetic, and the comedy element just made its way into it.”
Ovens goes on to point out that drum & bass has a history of using popular, seemingly throwaway tracks as a way to evolve. From Ed Rush & Optical’s early work on Virus defining the “neurofunk” style to J Majik’s remix of “Spaced Invaders” presaging the music’s electro phase. “Big tunes help define a change in trends. I hope people will look back on my work and perhaps say that something like “Marka” had an effect, that it changed the course a little bit.” This isn’t hubris on Ovens’ part, either. He seems too self-conscious to boast.
The single is being released via Ovens’ new label, Senka Sonic, a decision that’s both practical and realistic. None of the labels he works with were an ideal fit for the song due to its departure from his established style and the labels’ own vision. Setting up his own distribution channel also affords him the freedom to push through with the self-deprecation. For example, the shop sells ‘Dub Phizix and Strategy are cunts’ stickers and t-shirts. To Ovens, it’s a no-brainer. “I can’t expect other people to support that. It’s unfair.” For all the tomfoolery they like to indulge in, Manchester’s new generation are also refreshingly realistic.