It’s the early-noughts. Grime is having its moment and shutting it down nation-wide. A legion of MC’s from the borough of Newham are taking over the airwaves on Deja Vu FM––one of the pirate radio stations responsible for grime’s renaissance and a cradle of the underground. Soaking it all in was a young teen by the name of Pahuldip Singh Sandhu; an artist we now know as the producer who has been in the driver’s seat to some of the most pivotal evolutions in UK rap, Steel Banglez.
Banglez would tag along to these sets with his then neighbour, D Double E, a mastermind MC and pioneer in the rap arena on this side of the pond. “My whole family’s musical. Everything we did was to do with sound,” he tells me from his country-home. Banglez’s first love was garage music, something he used to spin on the decks until it got swept up in the mainstream and “dark” he tells me. His inspirations were as vast and dynamic as the music he makes today, from Amy Winehoue (who he once saw perform in a pub), to the sounds of Bollywood and Punjabi music.
When we speak over zoom one sunny afternoon in May, it’s less than 24 hours until the release of his project, The Playlist: an expansive masterpiece and musical treatise to the sounds which have defined his own story. Surrounded by lush nature and farm animals as we chat, he couldn’t seem more at peace. The album invites almost 40 guest features, all of whom have played their part as significant asset to UK music, with a sprawl of genres – from emotive rap and grime, to r&b and afrobeats.
From his early grime and garage days, Banglez realised there was no infrastructure to sustain the music culture he dreamed of one-day cultivating. Heavily inspired by the mentorship and f*ck-it-we’ll-do-it ourselves attitude of production pioneers like Dr. Dre, MJ Cole, Timbaland and Rick Rubin he went on to create his own style of production that skilfully uplifted and brought the best out of any artist he worked with.
“The good thing about most of the artists that I work with, is that they listen to my madness.” Throughout his legacy he has successfully crafted globally recognised, chart-topping singles for the likes of J Hus, Dave, Krept & Konan, Yungen, Mist and the list goes on. His mentality is that of someone who holds utmost respect for the art before anything to do with fame, “it’s always been important for me to make a record for the artists first. For them to flourish first.”
To trace the Newham-born producer’s origins is to trace the history of soundsystem culture. “I used to hand out mixtapes around 2007, I was on the mixtape circuit.” After the mixtapes came iTunes he adds, and now we enter our current decade where playlists have taken up the main stage. “The Playlist is my take on what streaming giants do,” he explains. “It’s like a journey. Each artist represents that journey of mine and all the styles that I’ve composed over the years.”
And the story doesn’t end here. There’s a host of other names missing he tells me, “there’s so many records I’ve got that are unreleased, there’s records that are ahead of their time.” Banglez has really made something occur this year with his 27-track album.
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What does The Playlist represent to you personally?
I’ve been in the music industry for a long time, I used to hand out mixtapes around 2007, I was on the mixtape circuit. And it was all about CDs and mp3 players. Then we moved into that iTunes era, and now we’re in the streaming era. So The Playlist is my take on what streaming giants do, where they create playlists, categorise artists from different genres or different countries. It’s a representation of the UK of how I would make that playlist. It’s all original music.
That’s sick. It’s taking something that was the groundwork for the music we listen to today and you’re bringing it into that modern element of a playlist. Which is what has become the chosen avenue for today’s tastemakers to celebrate music.
100%. And then people have their own playlists as well, their personal ones. It’s quintessential to what music is now. It’s one of the heftiest lineups of features I’ve seen, and amongst UK luminaries are also DJ Sidhu and Burna Boy.
How did you decide which features to include and in what order?
To be honest, it’s a bit deeper. So if you’re really into that kind of technical stuff, the album starts off with where I’m from, which is UK rap and the streets. So you have the Giggs feature, the Asco, Blade Brown, Chip and Squeakz. Then it goes into trap with Aitch and Morrison. After that, the drill era, then the Afrobeat era, then I’d say like r&b-ish era. And then garage which was my favourite genre as a kid, I always used to DJ that. Finally there’s meaningful music, music with emotion. So it’s like a journey. Each artist represents that journey of mine really and all the styles that I’ve composed over the years.
There’s so much experimentation and adventure in that era of pirate radio. Especially around Newham with groups like Newham Generals who were literally at your doorstep, D Double E being your neighbour.
Literally in the same area. I mean, I remember D Double in Nasty Crew before Newham Generals. I was 13 years old, and they used to be on Deja Vu when was a kid I used to go up to the radio stations. It was a big era for me. An inspirational era. It’s kind of when I started manifesting and understanding that UK music will be big in the forthcoming decade.
I read somewhere that your brothers used to sneak you into raves too.
I used to go down to like Young Man Standing, which was a rave in Hackney Palace Pavilion, which is old school, and then Club Rex, as well, which is now like a bingo hall in Stratford. And then Sidewinder in Swindon, I used to go with Double a lot. So I was a part of that whole rave era. And I was just consuming and going home and putting it on.
What was going through your mind back then? Did you have a feeling music would remain a big part of your life?
I knew because my whole family’s musical. Everything we did was to do with sound. I took a trip back to India when I was younger, and I met my mum’s side of the family for the first time and they’re all musical geniuses. So it kind of became my mission to make someone from our family become big in music, because I knew the talent was there. I knew there was a bloodline. So it was a spiritual awakening at a very young age.
Something that seems to stand out from your career is the sense of unity. I use that word in a broad sense, because not only have you brought together the stars of the UK together for this new project, but you have provided a bridge for artists from all over the world to connect.
That’s very important to me, yes.
What does that mean to you?
Basically progressing through my neighbourhood into a scene, making a name for myself. Championing the genre of UK rap and going commercial when the UK Afrobeat sound came through. Then meeting someone from my culture like DJ Sidhu and working with him, branching out and making sure that music was intertwined. And each of those stages taught me a lot about bringing people together. Obviously, growing up in East London, in a multicultural environment, I just knew that I couldn’t be someone that was just about his culture only. I also want to be representing world music today to show that even if someone speaks a different language, melodically I can bring them on a record and deliver that on the world stage, which I feel like is an art in itself and it’s very tough.
When you work with people, it feels like they always give 110%. How much of it is the energy of the moment?
That’s what I champion myself on. I really want to meet the artist, and not just send music… I wanna chill with them and remind them of what they mean to me. And what’s my standout moments from them as an artist. So then hopefully we can deliver that same energy. I’m a fan of everyone. So I’ll also think of when I first heard their music, what it meant to me at the time, and I try and bring that back on the record. It’s down to the production and the music. Its making the right kind of musical piece that can connect artists without any difficulty. And that’s always about the beat, I’d say.
As a producer, you’re gifted with the duty of bringing that extra something out of the people you work with.
And that’s my job. We’re in an era where a lot of people that call themselves producers don’t understand the artistic vision, the art that you need to bring out from the person you’re working with. So it’s more about development and opening up the artist’s emotions. Getting them to deliver it in the best way. And that’s why I made Steel Banglez as a brand. From studying people like Dr. Dre, Timbaland, MJ Cole, or even Quincy Jones, whoever it was when I was coming up, I understood what a real producer does in the studio. I knew that would be my superpower.
And when you say studying these people, I can imagine it’s beyond taking in their music. What did you do to study what they did differently?
I studied their relationship with the artist. The music was always there. I just wanted to know what they were like as people in the studio environment. That was the most important thing, how they behave. People like Rick Rubin, Michael Isando, who worked with Drake. Scott Storch. And funnily enough, I got to meet all these people years later and ask them even more.
The good thing about most of the artists that I work with, is that they listen to my madness. It’s always been important for me to make a record for them. For them to flourish first. Then it was about me and my album, everyone that I’ve worked with, I’ve made a lot of big records with, for themselves in their career. So that love already is attached because they’re going on stage performing this work. So it’s also not being self-centred about my vision. My job is to deliver a record for the artist, so that’s what I do first.
There’s a skill in keeping your sound fresh in this era of streaming. Something you are rightfully praised for. Have you got any methods to ensure you stand out from the rest?
I think one of the main secrets is that I tune my music to a certain frequency, which is 44 and 100 Hertz. And it’s to do with how your ears consume the sound. So I’ve always tuned my music to a certain frequency. And I’ll try to go back to the days when I was consuming music as a kid, and I bring back things that make me love that music, I try to use that style of improvisation in my music, I try to add the correct type of formulas. I’m a versatile producer so I can deliver my own signature imprint on whatever sound is popular. I remember when I first dropped a record with Mist, everyone started doing the vocal samples in the back and the drum pattern.
Popular sounds can get washed down over the years. Have you got any memories from your earlier experiences with music?
Garage was my first love, but I tend to hate the fact that UK Music, underground music, when genres come through like funky house, dubstep, junk or garage, it gets so popular that shit producers are allowed in and get played on radio and dilute the quality of that genre. A lot of music gets really instrumental-learning and the vocals go. The reason why I fell in love with garage was because of the vocals but when it started getting too dark, it wasn’t it wasn’t really for me. Also, listening to Tupac, which is typical, but he’s one of the biggest artists in the world, he’s left his mark. Early days of Amy Winehouse before she was big, I saw her perform at a pub one time. Loads of Indian music, that whole Bollywood, Punjabi kind of era. Early grime memories with D Double…
When did the concept for pirate radio-style introductions on The Playlist come to you?
I wanted to bring back that mixtape-style era, I wanted to leave the hosting at the end of the track, because I was unsure where people are at… So they can have that if they want to listen to it, but it was more strategically placed. I’ve always wanted to do a producer album, for a long time. When I released “Bad”, and I started doing shows, and I saw the reaction, and then I released “Your Loving”, then “No Words” with Dave, and “Fashion Week”, I got a top 10, I knew I couldn’t keep giving people singles, I needed to show them that I can go and do an album and say that I’m a true artist.