Published Sep 27, 2011When Basement Jaxx released their groundbreaking LP, Remedy, UK house was still struggling to find its identity. A dozen years later, Thomas Bell drafts an inclusive overview of all that has transpired on Watch Me Dance. Retaining the blueprint from his debut, the Sheffield DJ (as Toddla T) delivers another set of pop-minded, club-footed anthems, pulling in guest vocalists and covering grime, dubstep, reggaeton and Brit-hop. On Watch Me Dance, Toddla T does little to ease the Jaxx comparisons, as his ode to Buxton and Ratcliffe are just short of shameless on bangers like "Badman Flu" and "Do It Your Way." But it's this same brazen attitude that allows Toddla to get such unhinged performances out of his guests, as grime preemie Maxsta practically speaks in tongues on "Cruise Control," while "Cherry Picking" shows Róisín Murphy sounding ecstatic, in its most literal sense, cooing and coddling her verses. Toddla T never comes close to sounding nostalgic or tongue-in-cheek, although most of Watch Me Dance definitely is. Add in how proficiently he utilizes Roots Manuva's tough guy grooves on the title track and Ms. Dynamite's gentle moods on "Fly" and it just proves just how audacious Toddla T wants to sound on Watch Me Dance.
Am I catching you at home?
Yes, I live in London now, for about a year-and-a-half. I'm leaving to go out on tour in the morning. I'm playing in the UK and then heading to North America; it'll be the fifth time I've been out there.
Your album is about to drop in North America. Have you been feeling the buzz?
Yeah, it's been alright, man. I've had hit-or-miss experiences in the clubs there. This record has seemed to reach the North American people more than anything I've done in the past.
This time around, was there any pressure to work with American artists in order to reach audiences?
Being from England, I naturally worked with people from around here, but I did travel to Jamaica a couple of times for the album. For most of it, it just made sense to hook up with people from around here. Also, the tracks I make lend themselves to that type of vocalist. But I'm a massive fan of American music, especially hip-hop and R&B. That said, if I hooked up with an American or Canadian artist and it made sense, then I would definitely do it. I actually emailed Kardinal [Offishall] when he was in London to try to work together because I'm such a big fan; it has nothing to do with his nationality.
Speaking of collaborations, how much direction do you give to your guest vocalists?
For this album, I wrote or co-wrote 30 to 40 vocal tracks. Sometimes I'll just have a beat, sometimes I'll just have a beat and a melody, sometimes I'll have nothing, just an a cappella and I'll put a beat to it. I'm a fan of getting different things out of vocalists and I like things that are a bit off-centre or a bit off-the-wall. I'm naturally going to gravitate to that type of take from that vocalist in the studio. I'll kind of push it, but every session is different how it comes about.
Was there anyone that wanted to go in his or her own direction on a song?
A lot of it was their take on my instrumental ― that's the beauty of collaboration. I mean, I could write the whole thing, but when a vocalist comes in and they put something on top of something that you've started and takes it to a place that you didn't necessarily think of yourself, sometimes the results are really good. Sometimes I'll put it in there and it'll make the track slightly different, as far as the dynamic.
Was there a song that ended up completely differently than you envisioned?
"Do it Your Way," with Terri Walker, was an interesting one because I heard of Terri Walker for years. She's a butchy soul/R&B singer who had quite a big record ["Sing Along" by Shanks & Bigfoot, featuring Terri Walker] about ten years ago, so she was on my radar. A mutual friend hooked us up and she came out to my little studio and she's just got a major personality; she's bubbly and fun. Before she started singing, I just felt like I knew her already, she was just so easy to get on with. Then when she went in the booth and really went at it, I was like, "Wow!" The girl I was laughing with two minutes ago, she transformed into this classic, amazing sounding singer-songwriter.
Considering you're a relatively new artist, can you give us a bit of background?
I started DJing when I was 12; I was really into hip-hop music, watched MTV a lot, bought mixtapes from the locals and listened to BBC radio, the rap show. I was into hip-hop way more than my peers. I was trying to get my mum and dad to get me turntables and then from there, I was buying records. When I was about 15 or 16, we got a computer in the house and I started tampering with beats and stuff, sort of messing around. Then when I was around 18 or 19, I started DJing at the clubs, then a producer dropped and heard my stuff and that's when I dropped my first record [Skanky Skanky] as Toddla T. I was about 22 and from there it really snowballed to where we are today. I began remixing other artists, doing radio shows; it was sort of a real compressed version of where I started.
If you had started DJing in your 20s, rather than your teens, do you think you would still be creating house music?
Well, starting young gave me a quite good advantage; I'm part of the first generation of people to be able to make music from home. Because before that, you had to have a studio and an engineer; I'm really lucky that way. But if I started right now, obviously it would take me a lot longer to develop a sound and I'm older now, my tastes have changed and matured, along with my ambition, but it would probably be a totally different sound. I've always been into rap music, then reggae and R&B. I've never really been into bands; it's never been the thing that I've gravitated towards. From the time I was old enough to go out and party, dance music made the most sense to me; it's just the biggest part of my growing up.
What would you say is your biggest influence outside of the dance scene?
I would have to say England and its mix of music. I wouldn't say that it's just one particular thing, but just the whole vibe and sound. You wouldn't put, necessarily, reggae, dancehall and ska in a different category than dance music; it's not that different than house music. That's the beauty of Britain and Soundsystem culture; it's all kind of one vibe and style, and I think it's quite unique to Britain, especially in 2011, where the line between what people are into isn't so extreme. That whole overall vibe is the most inspiring, to me.
That vibe really comes across on the album.
That's what people say, which is cool, but, to me, it's quite a natural way of doing things. But the rest of it is influenced from around the world: Jamaica, America, African music and stuff. But the way we put it together here is unique and British.
The album comes across as quite confident.
Yeah, I just do what I believe in. I'm quite stubborn; I guess it's just passion, I suppose. Every musician should be like that ― nobody should be caught up in things they don't really believe in. That's the reason why I started making music and DJing: to make music that I personally liked. I never wanted to change that formula because I might as well stop doing it. The fact that I can make a living off of that is the most amazing thing ever.
Do you think that since you're connected to club culture, surrounded by positive party people, rather than making music alone on your computer, dealing with negative bloggers, it allows you to be more confident?
Yeah, man! I think that it's a different time now. That whole blog thing, where people can be really nasty and heartless, that can really knock back someone's confidence. I mean, everyone gets shit on; it's just part of it. But if you're just starting out, it can really affect you. When I first started getting hit by that, I thought, "Woah, this is horrible!" But the same thing that makes it so easy to share your music with so many people makes it so easy to be slagged off at the same time. Being in the club definitely influenced how I think about and play music. But when I listen to music at home or on my iPhone, it's not necessarily club music, it's albums and songs and that's what I tried to do with this album: make it fit as a whole. But since I'm in the club scene, it obviously has that influence; I didn't want it to be just something that you only play in the club. (Ninja Tune)