In Conversation: Altered Natives
Altered Natives is a peerless figure on the UK music scene. For the past twenty years his work has existed at the junction of bass, techno, house and garage, steadily evolving at its own pace and constantly yielding fresh releases. His ninth record has just hit the shelves, a two part affair consisting of 26 tracks which are finding a home in the boxes of DJs worldwide. It’s only of late that his legacy has started to be recognised, but that’s the last thing on the mind of a producer whose work is dedicated to making people dance and remaining original at all costs.
Semtek: You’re based in London, do you find it an inspiring place to make music?
Altered Natives: I’ve lived in London all my life and I can’t really say that it’s been a major source of inspiration. I’ve always been more inspired or driven to write music from personal experiences, whether they’re good or bad. I’d say the only thing that influenced me growing up in London and living through loads of changes in music was witnessing the birth of rave culture from acid house through to now. I’m inspired by the history in that way, but not as a place to live because London isn’t really fun unless you’re rich. I’m inspired by life experiences and people in general really, especially my friends.
S: Where did you get your start working in music?
AN: I got my first job in music working at Goya distribution in West London, and that was also where Altered Natives was born. When I first started working there it was both on the distribution side and also on the label side, for People Records which was part of Goya’s in-house operation. I had been into music from the early 90s rave scene and I was into hip hop but I was pretty clueless about everything else that was happening. Working at Goya around 1999 was where I got a taste for what was going on outside of hip hop and d’n’b, and where I started getting into the broken beat sound which was still forming at that time.
S: CoOp is the night most readily associated with the broken beat scene, were you a regular there?
AN: I was there before CoOp. CoOp became a seminal night just by word of mouth. Everyone knew CoOp or knows of the CoOp legend from Plastic People which was also a basement club for legendary nights like FWD>> but CoOp originally started at the Velvet Rooms which was next door to Astoria in Tottenham Court Road. It was really niche, there weren’t many people, it was just everyone and their girlfriend or boyfriend in there, but It was still a good vibe.
At that time everyone was starting to form together around what eventually became known as the ‘West London sound’. You had 4Hero, the Reinforced guys, you had IG Culture, you had Bugz In The Attic and they all knew each other but at that stage they weren’t as tight as they became when CoOp was thriving. They were all still building the scene together. I liked the freestyle nature of broken beat because it was almost like you could go back and experiment more with the beat programming. It was very funk and jazz inspired. However although that was everyone else’s musical experiences and they were all fusing that together to create that broken beat sound, my music growing up wasn’t jazz and funk, it was dance music and hip hop.
What I brought to broken beat in the beginning was a very grimey element. It was very drum ‘n’ bass inspired, very dirty sounding music. It wasn’t anywhere near as sweet and noodly as what the 4Hero guys were doing. Not everybody was down with my take on it initially though. My first experience of meeting IG Culture at Goya was that I was introduced as this guy Danny who makes hip hop and drum’n’bass. IG hated d’n’b it turned out and he made sure to let me know! That instantly set me off and made me want to persevere with my take on it.
S: What were you using to make your beats at the time?
AN: I was using someone else’s studio to work in whenever I could, but I didn’t really have any professional tools to write on. At the time there was a Playstation programme though called Music 2000 which I’m sure you’ve heard about. Dizzee Rascal wrote his first album on that, and a lot of other people also cut their teeth building beats on Music 2000. It was the only programme you could use CD quality samples with for the PS1.
When I met IG he instantly got my back up telling me how much he disliked d’n’b so left one day with a box of records that they gave me which were in the distribution that week l and I thought I’m going to make some tracks, I can give you my angle on this sound. So I started making beats in that style on Music 2000, broken things, and every other day going into IG’s studio and just letting him have a listen. I could see them really analysing it and on one occasion Orin Walters from Bugz In The Attic was in there as well and he started jumping around because he was vibing so hard off the 3 tunes I played. But I used to mask a lot of stuff with effects because it was all built on a Playstation. So I would blag them and say, ahh I just had a quick mess about in the studio. Really though it was all on Music 2000.
There was one beat in particular where I actually took the Playstation to the studio I was occasionally using and reprogrammed the exact drum pattern on the MPC. I actually rebuilt the whole tune, and that went on to be my first release as Altered Natives. It was a good scene to cut my teeth in because I learned a lot there as well, I learned a lot about jazz and funk, I learned a lot more than I knew before I got into that scene. It was a good education.
S: So at what stage did you start to bring elements of house and techno into the sound? It feels like that’s been more and more the case over the last ten years.
AN: I’ve always liked house music but my experiences of house music were really from just going to the odd night at certain clubs. I can’t say I was a knowledgeable house head. I just enjoyed the music. It always seemed to me though that what I was making was quite housey until a friend of mine, a techno producer from Birmingham called Frank Hunter said to me “Danny, this is techno.” He would show me certain techno tunes and the similarities and I was like, oh I guess he’s right.
What I loved about the broken beat thing was you could just be free with the beats. It’s not just that standard formula 4/4 beat. You can just find your funk. I actually sometimes try and do really straight tunes but I can’t always pull it off. There’s always a large funk element in what I do, or groove I should say. I find it hard to make music without groove although sometimes music without groove actually works, you get that more industrial stompy sound. I sometimes end up making stompy tracks, but with groove and yeah I’d say it was Frank who showed me the differences between techno and house really. Since then I think the techno thing has filtered through even more into my work.
S: You sit between a number of different genres then, can you think of any other producers who you would say are close to what you’re doing stylistically?
AN: If I was to name anyone, it would be probably the Wet Dreams Recordings crew, I’d say those guys are the most interesting people right now to me. I’ve watched their evolution. They’re from South Africa. They’ve got a completely different sound going on there.
I see them as the anti of that South African sound that the soulful house guys are doing, they’re on their own thing. I have been talking about one of their guys, Big Space, for years. We’ve never actually met but I’ve been keeping an eye on this guy’s sound. When you listen to his music, you can tell it’s highly personal. It’s the same for me, when I make music I make it essentially to be danced to but it’s also like a page in a diary.
There’s a lot of character in his music and that’s something which is missing from a lot of other tunes at the moment. Some of what’s coming out is very formulaic, almost a bit monotone. I like music where you can actually feel the artist’s sense of being, who they are, and even their sense of humour. It’s not always easy to do that in electronic music because everyone’s looking at what the formula is or the genre, but when you do get artists who can convey their character in electronic music it’s much more interesting. Big Space is one of those producers, but everyone else affiliated with that label is worth checking as well.
S: Your new LP, which is entitled 9, is split into two halves, Alpha and Omega, what was the idea behind that?
AN: The Black Album, which I released two years ago, consisted of twenty tracks and it was a strong body of work and a large album to release. I appreciated that it was well received but it was also a lot of material to digest. I felt like I hadn’t recorded or released anything on Eye4Eye, my own label, for a couple of years and this being my 9th album I wanted to mark the occasion.
S: Did you try to distinguish between the two halves at all? Do they each have a different flavour?
AN: Well I think the Omega part of the album is the darker of the two halves. The Alpha part has a lot more soul and more joy whereas I think Omega part is definitely darker. That wasn’t deliberate though, I literally took a knife and just cut the project into two, I didn’t really change any of the original track order. It’s just the original running order of the whole 26 tracks I originally intended to release as one album, split in two.
S: You feature vocalists on a couple of the tracks. Can you tell me something about the vocalists on the album?
AN: If you’re talking about Believe In Me, the 2020 mix, that’s a remix of a track which was originally released in 2011. I wrote the original specifically for Sacha Williamson who’s a prominent voice in jazz and soul and she’s worked with quite a few house artists as well. I had always been a big fan of hers and we started talking on Aim back in the day when everyone was on Aim messenger. I just wanted to give the mix a refresh for this LP. A lot of people like the original but I think the 2020 mix to me is where my sound’s at right now. It’s a smooth track and probably the slinkiest track on there. It’s the most club friendly thing that I’ve ever done I think without selling out or going full cheesy.
S: Having been so prolific these past years, have you even had a chance to think about what might come next?
Definitely. I’m going to make the 10th album all about collaboration, because it’s something that’s been missing from my back catalogue for a while. There’s a lot of people who have said we should do a tune together but it never quite comes to fruition, despite the best of intentions. On the 10th album I want to try and get to work with all the producers who’ve actually come to me wanting to work with me. So that’s the vision for the 10th album. I don’t think it will be any time next year. Next year I’ve got a few releases planned on a couple of other labels that have approached me in the past.
I want people to enjoy this 9th album project first, which I’m sure they will. The feedback’s been really positive to be honest. I’ve not had anyone say anything negative or come back unhappy. Everyone seems to be pretty impressed with the overall sound and the fact that it’s gone across genres as opposed to being just house and techno.
Altered Natives’ latest LP, Nine, is available to stream and download now
Photographs: Jojo Mathiszig