- Zilka Grogan
A chat with Felix K
In his own way, Felix K is a historian. On a video call to discuss his recent four-hour mix for Patterns of Perception – itself a sign of the depth of his musical knowledge – it was hard to ignore the library of records covering the full length of the wall behind him. “What happens if I move out of this apartment?” he joked, though not without a hint of trepidation. Luckily, that’s not on the cards for the Berlin-based artist any time soon.
As a music composer, DJ and label head, Felix K has accumulated a profound knowledge of genres ranging from jungle and drum and bass, to techno and house, through a methodical approach to record collecting and archiving. His mix for Patterns of Perception, the 100th in our series, focuses on blending classic, foundational dub with more contemporary UK sounds. In doing so, it showcases the connections between scenes and styles that the average listener, and many DJs, would be unlikely to make.
Ahead of his set at our September 16 party at OHM Berlin, this interview explores the concept behind Patterns of Perception 100, as well as Felix's research-driven approach to digging and collecting. Photos by Chris Abatzis.
Your mix for Patterns of Perception is quite an ambitious four-hour piece: can you tell us how you approached curating such a special musical journey?
When I started working on it early in the year, I already had something in mind. I knew I wanted to do something longer, though not four hours – that just happened in the end. The original idea was something like a dub mix, but a dub mix that captures a house and techno vibe, because there have been a lot of movements in the UK by dub producers who got really into techno. For example, the UK producer King Alpha, when I listened to his records I thought, he was doing the stuff that techno usually misses. I wanted to make a mix covering tracks like this. But I didn’t want to do just a dub or reggae mix, because I am not really connected with the reggae and dub scene. I don’t plan to play DJ sets there; I would love to do it but it would be something completely new.
I realised maybe it’s something you could do if you mix it with more styles. For example, there was a mixtape that Jah Shaka, one of the leading dub and reggae figures, made. He usually plays the original track, on the A-side, and then immediately afterward he’s playing the version. On one mixtape that I got to know via a friend, he played a house record that wasn’t at all known in the house community because I guess a reggae guy wrote it. It was just distributed within the reggae and dub scene. If you watch documentaries about the late ‘80s or early ‘90s in the UK, you can see reggae guys dancing to 1988 house music. In Berlin, this would never have been possible because these scenes were quite separated as far as I know. I really liked the idea to mix them and bring them together.
So maybe this was the big idea, but in the end, I just went through and mixed the tracks without thinking about it too much.
How would you describe the place where the mix ended up?
You have to find tracks that fit together and, in the UK, it is so much influenced by the soundsystem culture that it is kind of a similar vibe or sound. Some of the more contemporary tracks from Livity Sound or Hessle Audio, it’s basically soundsystem music but it turns out to be a little different. They have the same starting point and they do it a little differently, but still, it has the same roots. The mix also gets faster over time. I think I like that you don’t really recognise that it’s getting faster. Over four hours, you have a lot of time to just tweak a little bit. But in the end, it is drum and bass, which is fast. I kind of like the effect. In the end, it is soundsystem continuum.
Does stretching it over four hours give you more room to play?
I listened to it again today and I thought maybe four hours is a little bit boring now. But now it’s there and I still like it, and the tracks are great. With a four-hour set, it’s not 100% interesting all the time. Maybe on the dancefloor, I would have stayed longer on the good moments and left out some other moments. If it’s a mix tape, you can go to the kitchen and cook something, then 10 minutes later you can go back and dance a little bit!
Was creating this mixtape vibe intentional? Did you plan it this way from the beginning?
I don’t think it’s possible to do it with another approach. If you mix a dub record, you cannot blend it like house or techno. The tracks are different. In dub, you mix it a little bit differently, so I tried to incorporate this a little bit. Et voila: you have a mixtape. Some parts were mixed by blending in the next track, then suddenly there are tracks that stop and the next track starts in a different way. The tempo is kinda the same but it’s not really like a blend you expect from a house set. You have to break it up a little bit to get everything in it. So it was kind of intentional but many things weren’t planned really.
When I started to do it, after three hours, I wanted to stop. It went from slow to fast techno, you have a little progression. Then I thought maybe I could give a little bit more, then it got even faster. Then I thought, ‘okay just two more tracks’. And then I‘d have more ideas. In the end, the mix was something like 4 hours 20 minutes and I cut the last minutes because I just thought it was too much. But four seemed like a statement.
You mentioned the Jah Shaka mixtape earlier - how has he been an inspiration for you? He’s a dub and reggae guy, and he’s on another planet. He’s also famous for inventing the more techno sound within dub. So he was the guy who played all these four-to-the-floor dub records that are very inspirational for me. He’s a really important figure for this kind of development. I remember the conversation about the mix tape but I don’t remember the name. I just know the house record because I ordered it from Discogs one day. But it’s a white label so nobody knows it and if you see it on Discogs, the producer seems to have never done another record so it’s quite obscure.
What are some of the other tracks or artists from the mix that really stand out for you?
The first record, which has a super nice house vibe, was on a label run by 4hero. They also started Reinforced some months before, this label was called Partners Inc. The first track was the first release in 1991, the artist was Adele. Partners Inc for me is like the UK-US house connection. They did it really housey, unlike Warriors Dance for example which was more progressive and really danceable in a way. Partners Inc was more sweet and jazzy. I really like both but this was the perfect track to start with. In German we say it’s an “earworm” track.
It’s a great opening track. Have you been able to play it in sets or mixes before?
No, never. Because for a house set, it’s too poppy in a way and the kick drum is very little. Usually, if you are in a set, if people are dancing, it’s maybe too soft and poppy for that vibe. But for a mixtape – it’s perfect.
Any other tracks or artists that have a strong personal significance for you?
In the end, they all have. The second track was done by Mad Professor, also on a dub label called Ariwa, Mad Professor’s label. The whole album is straight with a house kick drum all the time, so he implemented in the ‘80s this kind of vibe. I don’t know if anyone knows about it outside of the dub music scene. Maybe a few who are really digging deep but I don’t know if the connection is known to many people.
So for you, the mix is really about showcasing and exploring the connections between dub, house and other sub-genres in the UK scene?
UK music is about this, in my opinion. Sometimes it happens that I speak about music with people from the UK and if you speak about UK music, they know everything. Maybe not everyone is like this but I’ve met quite a few people like this and it’s made an impression on me. It’s given me a super high, romantic vision that it is really a blend of so many different styles.
How did you discover dub and reggae? Did you start somewhere else that led you to dub?
No, in the beginning, I started with jungle and drum and bass. This was in the ‘90s my music. When I bought records, it was basically just jungle all the time. More than 10 years ago I started to also get an interest in techno and then about six years ago, my behaviour changed: I didn’t go to record shops any more with just the next night in mind. It was like okay, I discovered something and now I want to know everything about let’s say house, and go through YouTube and buy stuff on Discogs. I just want to know what it was like in 1997 or ‘98 and I want to understand these connections. I’m not a music scientist or anything but I do it with method and a system, where I am really going deep. At the moment I am doing this with house and dub, and exploring the UK and US connection.
It’s more like an addiction to knowing about it – to knowing where we are from. Usually whatever I do, at some point I want to discover the stuff under the hood. It is just my mindset.
You’re almost a historian in your approach, would you say?
Well if you really want to know about the history there are other guys. Joe Muggs and Brian David Stevens have a 500-pager about soundsystem culture, I just ordered it actually. And there are documentaries on the radio and on YouTube. The BBC made a documentary by DJ Flight from London about drum and bass and jungle. What I have heard of it so far was really good. I collected a few documentaries and house and techno and everything, maybe at the end of the year I will do a few threads on Twitter to recommend a few of these.
So these are the historic documents. I am a consumer but maybe one day I can open an archive or something. I mean if I die, what happens to all of these records?
Can you tell us a little bit about your process, your method?
I am not sure if I really have a process for it but Discogs is a good tool. You might not get historical proof about anything. But if, for example, you go to Jah Shaka’s Discogs page and you go through credits to look for things like who are the musicians he worked with, what did they do and what was the studio where he recorded this record? Then you realise he did a few records in a studio called Addis Ababa and then you see it was started by two or three brothers from Africa who got into this reggae soundsystem world in the UK. They had a studio and this famous reggae guy produced his music in their studio. Then you see what did they do at the end of the ‘80s? They started a house label, probably the first UK house label. They released a record by Bang The Party, and Bang The Party was the first UK house producer duo who got a release in the US on one of the biggest house labels. Some guy wrote a comment on one of the releases and I think maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But the story is nice, and why not?
Then you can follow the label they founded in 1986 called Warriors Dance. In the beginning it felt like a mix of hip hop, hip house, house, reggae. So they had the influences and then at some point, they kinda defined the UK sound of 1988. Then you go further and see who was influenced by it. Then you go to 4 Hero and when they started Reinforced Records, the first releases kind of sound similar to Warrior’s Dance. And when you know about Partners Inc, their house label, it connects in a way.
So this is the process behind it: go through and follow the information that is in these databases.
Can you tell us about one of your recent finds?
Today I got a record, probably everybody in dub knows it. It’s a Channel One release from The Revolutionaries, originally from 1976 but it got reissued like one hundred times. This one is from last year.
The story behind this is I found a track on a compilation in February. The track on this record had sounds that I knew from several drum and bass records – they sampled it. So I already knew the track without knowing it. Then I was at Hardwax and I spoke to Arthur to ask if he knows the original. He said it’s a famous riddim that’s used in a lot of reggae tracks, and he told me about a website where you can track down riddims. I went there and tried to find a record that just had the riddim without vocals. Then I forgot about it and last week, on one of my last days on vacation, I was just browsing the internet and suddenly I found this 7-inch with the same riddim. When it arrived it was like, ‘ah I can finally listen to it’. It made me very happy. Without the information, it would be impossible to find it, even though it is a super big hit.
What was the turning point for you with taking this more methodical approach?
Well it is kind of an addiction of mine. At some point, you grow older and other things get more important. This researching mindset, if it wouldn’t be music, it would be something else. It’s not just about collecting – I hate this. I couldn’t say, ‘oh now I move to Spain’, because what would I do with all this stuff behind me? It’s really a big rucksack that I can’t take anywhere. It’s a problem, it’s an addiction really. But I like the information I get out of it.
Moving away from the classics, what new stuff are you listening to at the moment?
I think at the moment Livity Sound, I don’t know how they do it but everything they put out at the moment is really good. Forest Drive West of course. Everything he is doing is magic. Let me look through my collection actually. On Fresh 86 there were some super interesting jungle revival albums by Kloke and FFF. Calibre had a really nice album on The Nothing Special. ASC did really cool records on Spatial. The records were new but the style is old: it’s mid-90s atmospheric drum’n’bass. Then there’s one really standout guy I would recommend because almost every track is great: Al Wootton. And then it’s Livity, Livity, Livity. I try to buy everything but I still miss so much by them.
Do you feel like these artists are doing a good job of evolving the sound? Do you like the direction that it’s going in?
At the moment I have the feeling I really don’t know about any directions anymore because everything seems to happen at once. Every detail is represented, so many styles are represented. If you listen to a DJ set, many people try to incorporate a lot of sounds at the moment. A few years ago, there were so many sets for one sound. Two hours deep techno. The tracks are great and they are doing a lot of justice to the genre of deep techno. But two hours of deep, stompy techno can be boring. Now it is like everything is in there. For me, maybe it is my age but I really do not know what the directions are at the moment. It is a melting pot like the early ‘90s when everything was possible. We will see where it goes.
What do you think could be the reason for this?
Maybe it is convergence, maybe it is a digitalisation thing because the information is there on Discogs for example. What I do, everybody can do. You just have to dig a little.
Catch Felix K alongside upsammy at OHM Berlin for our next party on September 16. More info on Resident Advisor and Facebook.
Photography: Chris Abatzis for Patterns of Perception