Having represented that West Coast darkside drum & bass and jungle sound for over two decades, the legendary E-Sassin celebrates the 20-Year anniversary of his seminal Sound Sphere Recordings label with a massive remix project featuring tunes that span the entire history of the imprint. With heavy-duty remixes coming in from R.A.W., Mason, Dstar, Jo-S, Arsenic, False Flag, The Voss, Indidjinous, Matty G, Centaspike, Caelum and New Theta, the bossman himself joins in on the fun knocking out a wall-trembling VIP of “The Enemy” that is sure to have crowds calling for more.
With his own storied history that spans the distance from his early days playing drums in prog-rock and metal bands on through his early techno outings with The Movement and L.A. Rave, there is no doubting that it’s his work as E-Sassin the bad boy junglist and darkside don that will continue to serve as his legacy for generations to come.
Instrumental to that legacy has been the way that Sound Sphere helped put the Stateside dnb scene on the international radar and provided an essential outlet for the burgeoning West Coast sound. As the August 10 release date for The Sound Sphere Recordings Remix Album rapidly approaches we thought we’d sit down with the darkside killa for a look back at the last twenty years before jumping into an exclusive FREE TUNE from the forthcoming remix LP to get you in the mood.
20 years! Hard to believe that Sound Sphere has been doing its thing for two decades! Aside from making you (and I) feel old it has to also make you feel proud in a lot of ways as it is definitely a huge part of your legacy as an artist. Before we get into that let’s go back to the very beginning when it was just an idea – what was the early history of the imprint and how did that reflect your dreams and goals as an artist at the time?
To be honest, I had no plans to ever run or start a label. It really came about out of necessity. I had been shopping some of my tunes around to various US labels (trying to get a release out on a UK label was next to impossible at that time) but no one was really interested in any jungle music produced in the States. It was still a “new” thing even though there were a lot of tracks from the UK being released on compilation albums.
I decided to press up a couple of my tracks to get my music out in the market and see what kind of a reaction it would get. I think I pressed 375 copies of the first Sound Sphere release and sent out promos to the record distributors, purposely making the look similar to many of the import promos I had seen. It worked out in the sense that it got the buyers to at least listen to it and eventually order copies, even though they discovered it was an American release. I thought that maybe having a credible release under my belt would help me get noticed by a bigger label and I wouldn’t have to keep pressing up records. That didn’t happen, at least not right away, so I went ahead with another release… and another, and so on, eventually becoming the first, strictly drum and bass record label on the west coast.
Starting up a Stateside imprint at the time definitely meant something different than it does nowadays as not only was the UK market notoriously difficult to crack but US artists and labels were seen as not being up to par – is that a correct assessment?
Yes, your assessment couldn’t be more spot on. I think it still took a number of years for the US producers in general to get the style and sound down. Part of the problem was the record mastering mentality. The UK imports were being pressed so much hotter that most domestic pressings sounded pale by comparison, mostly because they were still mastering using a 0db reference level.
That had a lot to do with why the domestically produced stuff wasn’t getting much play and wouldn’t even get a listen in the UK market. Luckily for me, I was able to work closely with mastering engineer Richard Simpson here in Los Angeles to get a loud master. When I had showed him one of the UK records, he couldn’t believe a record could get cut that hot. I said, “That’s what we’re going to do.”
When he played it, it almost blew out his system and he had to readjust all his levels for a +6 master. We eventually got it there and I think it made a huge difference in getting Sound Sphere records played and also getting everyone else’s masters from him louder in the long run. I was also blessed to receive a lot of favorable reviews on the releases which helped build credibility for the label and my productions.
Those early releases set the tone for the imprint and in many ways have become your calling card and helped define your sound. How do you describe the E-Sassin/Sound Sphere sound to someone who has never heard it before?
Well, although we all have our influences, I never tried to sound like any label/artist in particular. I have always just gone with my gut and made music that sounds right to me. Early on I drew influence from the raw sounding stuff of No-U-Turn and artists like Dom & Roland and Tech Itch and later, the Virus, Ram and Hardware stuff but a lot has changed since those early days. It’s really hard to describe my sound. I guess I would use the terms thick, heavy, driving, aggressive, dark with a little bit of the rock/metal vibe for sure. There is so much diversity now in all the different sub-genres of drum & bass/jungle that it is hard to say where any particular tune fits in, you either like it or you don’t. At the end of the day, if I’m feeling it and it affects me on some level, it’s good.
If you had to nail it down to one or two classic cuts off the imprint to “school” someone new – which would they be and why?
The first one I’d have to go with would be “Soundstorm” that R.A.W. and I collaborated on in 1997. That track still stands up today and represents a classic amen mashup and the heavy sound that R.A.W. and I are both known for. As Raoul recently mentioned in an interview, “Little did we know that we would knock out an amen masterpiece that to this day can still drop down hard on a crowd and take them for a five-minute ride into junglist heaven.” I think that says it all.
The second cut would have to be “Symptom,” which came out in 1999. Sometimes everything lines up and magic happens. This was the case as I didn’t expect the tune to become as popular as it was. It has become a sort of “neurofunk classic” partially due to Dieselboy dropping it in his mix release System Upgrade. It also represents a change in the Sound Sphere direction, moving into a more aggressive, yet accessible dancefloor sound.
Now that we’re closing in on two decades of Sound Sphere you are releasing this massive remix LP of all the classics! Talk about the process of pulling this album together and if there were any parameters you gave to the artists in question.
The whole thing came about earlier this year because Jo-S had asked me if I had anything he could remix. I told him to just pick anything off the catalog and he went with “Malfunction,” which was only released on the Best Of Sound Sphere CD. He came back with a great sounding interpretation of the track and it got me thinking about getting some heads to remix more stuff off the catalog. I put together a list of producers I would like to have involved and started putting the word out.
I wasn’t able to lock in everyone I wanted to have on the album but the result is still a great representation of the Sound Sphere catalog and the talent that is out there, able to bang out great tunes. As it was coming together, I just told everyone to pick whatever they wanted off the catalog. I wanted them to be into whatever they were going to work on and it wouldn’t bother me if there were multiple mixes of a track because I know they’d be different. Basically, do what you want… no constraints, no expectations, just make it yours. Everyone came through with amazing results and I am truly honored to have had them all work with me on this project.
How tough was it to dig out and remaster the old stems? I imagine the originals were made on some different gear than we’re used to nowadays!
Since I am a firm believer of “save everything,” I knew I had the sounds somewhere. Most of the Sound Sphere stuff was made on an EMAX 16bit sampler and Cubase on an Atari 1040ST run through a Mackie mixer and a few effects. Having to look through boxes of 3.5” floppy discs was a chore, especially when some of the tracks had working titles that changed by the final version and the labels on the discs didn’t get updated (oops!). There was a lot of auditioning discs in the sampler (yes, I still have it… and my old Atari computers too) to find some of the sound sets but I was able to retrieve most everything, at least the main elements.
Nowadays I am strictly using the computer for making tunes. The amount of processing power available is incredible. The available soft-synths, plug-ins and ability to totally recall sessions is so much better than having to reload and re-patch the sampler through the console, reset all the EQs and gains, recall the outboard effects and set those levels… such a pain. Some will argue the question of quality and how music sounds working in the computer versus through analog gear but I think having a trained ear makes up for that. Knowing what analog mixing and processing sounds like, makes achieving a more analog sound easier.
One of my favorite cuts off the remix LP is your VIP of “The Enemy” – what was the process of remixing that one?
Working on “The Enemy” was an interesting process for me and different than my usual approach to remixing. I had the samples and loaded them onto the computer but in the end, used very few of them; mainly just the vocal samples, the intro shuffle break and the Reese, which I layered with other sounds. Everything else I built up from scratch so it was almost more like making a new tune. In contrast, making the original track was a way different mindset being limited on sample time and what you could do with a couple of outboard effects. Working on the remix allowed me to take it anywhere I wanted to with access to my massive sound library and virtually any processing I needed. No longer limited by the gear, I was able to really get dirty with it and make something that stays true to the original and brings it up to date at the same time.
All of these remixes are insane but for the sake of this piece we’re going to have to focus on one or two so hit me with your favorite remixes and walk us through them.
Thanks for that. I have to say that all the remixes and what everyone did individually was exceptional. I think the “Soundstorm” remixes are some of the best. R.A.W. contributed two different versions and Matty G & Indidjinous really came correct with theirs. All three interpretations capture the soul of the track and I can’t say enough about what R.A.W. is able to do with a remix… BOOM!
I also really like what False Flag did with “Full Circle.” That was the first release for the label, which set the tone for what was to come. In honor of our 20 year run we recently held a remix competition for “Full Circle” and his was the winning remix. We got a lot of really good submissions but I felt his best captured the essence of the track and the vibe of the label, literally bringing things full circle. Look for a new release from False Flag on Sound Sphere in the near future.
I’d also like to quickly mention this new production team of Caelum & New Theta. Their first outing was remixing “Obsessed” and they really put everything into it. Also, what Arsenic did with “Symptom”… okay, I’ll stop.
Overall, what’s behind this resurgence of E-Sassin in the lab I’m sensing over the past few years? You seemed to have taken a little break for a while but seem to be coming back stronger than ever!
Yeah well, I just got away from producing for a while to clear my head, focus on some other things in life. I wasn’t really feeling the same about the music anymore and needed to step away. A few years ago I started checking out some new tunes and mixes by various DJs/producers and was liking some of the tracks I was hearing. I dug a little deeper and started finding all kinds of heavy beats that I was really into. Now I am digging the stuff coming from artists like Jade, Maztek, Billain, Mefjus, Current Value, Forbidden Society, Gydra, June Miller, Machine Code, Counterstrike… they’re all making amazing tracks. With all the great music I was hearing and the need to start making tunes again, I fired up the studio and started in with some remixes to get things started. More recently, I have been working on a bunch of new original tunes and have an EP finished that I will be releasing soon with more to follow.
When the 20 Year festivities are over where do you and the label go from here?
This Remix Album release is a definite milestone in the Sound Sphere legacy and it marks the return and relaunch of the label. There are more releases forthcoming and I am also working with a few new artists to help them develop their talent and give them a launching platform. It was a much different environment for artists when I was getting started and now it seems even more difficult to get your tunes noticed or released. I think some of the talent that is out there deserves a chance to make a statement and those artists need support to fulfill their aspirations. As for me personally, I am continuing to brew up some nasty, dark and heavy music which will be available soon and I am open for DJ bookings through Cypher Talent so I may see you at an event soon.