Taking Kontrol: Hugo Massien Opens Up About the UK House Scene

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Taking Kontrol: Hugo Massien Opens Up About the UK House Scene

We spoke with one of the UK underground's most distinct and fast rising names.
February 22, 2016, 4:00pm

Last November saw XL Recordings reignite their "Chapter" series of compilations after a two decade long hiatus, with the release of XL Chapter VI. The compilation, comprised of a single track from each of the ten artists the label has taken on board over the past 12 months, represents a concerted effort to, in their words, "reconnect with the spirit of the label's early days." From Mumdance's proto-grime deconstructions to Powell's post-techno decompositions; Special Request's Grooverider circa '92 revisions to Zomby's gloopy take on acid house; MssingNo's melancholic trap fantasies to Hugo Massien's darkside tech, XL have brought together a group of artists operating within that grey area (or technicolour depending upon the extent of your synesthesia) between the darker territories of rave's various offshoots and sonic experiments.

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Like the output of his imprint contemporaries, Hugo Massien's Kontrol EP, released back in October, is a determined attempt at skewing perceptions of what constitutes underground dance music. It draws cues from, and simultaneously links back into, a long lineage of sonic and aesthetic signifiers that stem from the explosion of rave culture in the early 90s - a culture which XL played a key role in propagating to wider audiences through releases such as The Prodigy's "Charly", Liquid's "Sweet Harmony" and SL2's "On A Ragga Tip."

Massien first came to light in 2013 as part of the second wave of producers to emerge from the UK house scene that sprung up from the remnants of the UK funky and bassline club circuits, with a two track release "Top Shelf Material/Whenever" on Mark Radford's label, Audio Rehab. Drawing inspiration from the darker, dubbier elements of the then burgeoning deep house revival (Alex Arnout's "One (More)," Burnski & Robert James' "Perception" and No Artificial Colours' "Jack and the Beans" are cornerstone tracks) the scene went on to foster its own menacing mutation of house music labelled—in the long-standing British tradition of ambiguous genre coinages—"Deep Tech". Hugo's remix of Audio Rehab labelmate Nightshift's "Made You Look" is considered by many as the pinnacle of that sound, a darkside UK underground anthem comparable to "2 Degrees", "Warriors" or "Sirens," its wider impact was summed up by Dominic Morris for The Guardian as "the scene's declaration of independence, the single track to shut up critics who say that deep tech is just house."

THUMP: First up, where are you from and what is your background?
Hugo Massien: Originally I'm from Reading but in the last five or so years I've been living in Bristol, although I spent twelve months out in Berlin last year, and background wise, in terms of music, I'd say I got into dance music initially towards the end of D&B, but really when dubstep was starting to take off. My earliest, pivotal memories were hearing really weighty dubstep at nights for the first time.

What producers and DJs were you following at that time?
Particularly sparse, weighty stuff, guys like Youngsta, Loefah, Skream, Pinch and Kryptic Minds. When I started producing, my favourite radio show that I religiously locked into was Youngsta's and at first I really wanted to make a tune that he would play. When I moved to Bristol it felt like the end of dubstep. When I say, 'the end' maybe that's not quite the right way to say it. It was definitely becoming less exciting and everyone seemed to be jumping on the house bandwagon. That wave didn't really spark an interest in me.

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When was this? 2011 times?
Yeah 2010, 2011 I'd say. Overnight, everyone that had been into dubstep was suddenly this die hard house raver. It was a bit demoralising to see everyone that was around turning their back on what they'd been listening to for the last however many years. There seemed to be no connection between these things.

There was no progression, no mutation…
There was no connection, nothing linking them together. I was unable to get swept into that wave which left me in a sort of limbo 'cause there was nothing that felt like a natural progression. And at the time I would have been going out raving to house events around Bristol, but it was never a love of the music, I was just there cause that was the social thing that people were doing. During this time I started experimenting with making music which would fit within the house and techno formula, but I was really just messing around at this point, it wasn't too serious.

The first DJ that a lot of people first encountered your music through was Mark Radford, who also gave you your first release on Audio Rehab. How did the relationship with Mark start?
I had Rinse on one evening. I didn't know who was playing or what I was listening to or anything like that, but the selection seemed to bridge the gap and connect the dots between where I'd come from musically and house music. So I kept locking into the show and it was Mark who was hosting it. As I became more familiar with what he was doing, I sent him some of these experiments I'd been working on. From the start Mark was really open to having a conversation so I kept in touch, kept sending him tracks and he started rinsing them on the show. Around that time there were a handful of us sending him tune after tune. We'd make a track in the week and send it to him just before the show. Normally we'd all be locked in, listening for him to play it and listening to see what Nightshift had done that week or what Carnao had done that week or what Louie [Anderson] had done that week.There were definitely some early Carnao tracks that I'd listen to and feel a similar excitement that I felt when I'd first been listening to dubstep. It was a time of just pumping out the tracks specifically for that show. Mark was getting all this music sent to him and to be honest I don't think anywhere else would have released this music at that point so it made total sense for Mark to start putting it out, and that became Audio Rehab.

You were running your own label Top Shelf Material during what seemed like the heyday of the scene. What made you start up the label?
Essentially we had a backlog of music which Audio Rehab couldn't really cope with so Nightshift, Louie and I all set up our own labels. Loads of other people had started popping up like Limitless, 2Faced and X5 Dubs but Audio Rehab had moved away from the really dark edged, weightier side of the music, so I started putting out these tracks that were similar. To be honest it was quite a casual thing, I wasn't really trying to make the best label in the world. It was just there so tunes could get released. But it was needed, there was no where else certain tunes could get put out. So we did a few releases and then by that time other small labels had popped up and that was it. It might have only been releasing for under a year.

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It was specific to a particular moment in time when there was a lot of music that you as a community wanted to do something with but Audio Rehab had moved away from that sound. So it was fulfilling a purpose in a point in that sense
Exactly, it was just there to fulfill a purpose because I thought certain tracks needed to be released. Things slowed down a bit, people stopped pumping out tracks so much, started holding things back a bit and at that point it just naturally ended. It's not something that I will continue with either. It fitted with how the music was at that time, the aesthetic of it. It was all budget, it was rough round the edges, it was under produced and it was just pushed out. I think that really made sense at the time.

How would you bridge the gap between that era and the XL days?
Zomby hit me up on twitter a couple of years ago. He was the first from outside of the scene to reach out, start a dialogue and ask to hear more, although Pinch and Dark Sky and a few others had been spinning the "Made You Look" remix. So I started sending Zomby some tracks and he then passed them on to XL, who reached out. We got on really well, seemed to be on the same page and I had these tracks that had been destroying it in the clubs over the past year so we just decided to put them out.

What DJs had been playing those tracks?
At that point it would have been Mark, Carnao, Nightshift, Louie and RS4 [aka Oris Jay]. It was only people within that scene.

I remember Brackles was playing one or two of them when he was still on Rinse…
Yeah Brackles got into it and I sent it to him but I was always very careful not to send things to too many people. Even that list I gave you then, it wouldn't have necessarily gone to all of them, most of these tracks I would have just given to Mark and just played them out myself.

Finally, what other producers are you feeling at the moment? Whose records are you playing in your sets?
I'm really into what Daniel Avery is doing; I really like Scuba's records from last year; Will & Ink, Andrei Morant, Levon Vincent; what's been coming out on 'Non-Plus'; what's been coming out on Mosca's label 'Not So Much; been into what Powell's doing as well. All sorts, but the phase I'm going through now, and have been going through since the year I just spent in Berlin, has been more exposure to the wider house and techno scene. Even when I was playing out at the [deep tech] events with my sound, it was in a total bubble from the rest of the cross-European house and techno stuff. I wasn't really familiar with what was going on elsewhere. I guess I've been becoming more familiar with what's going on outside of that scene.

The Kontrol EP is out now on XL Recordings and you can buy it here.

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