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How to Master The Dubplate Game: A Step by Step Guide

Bristol’s Kahn & Neek and their Bandulu gang give you the lowdown on spinning dubplate-only sets.
September 17, 2015, 11:45pm
Chris Colouryum

The Bandulu Records gang—made up of DJ/producers Kahn & Neek with Hi5Ghost and Boofy—are making and playing some of the most exciting bass music around. Naturally, that is why I booked the Bristol-based crew to be the special guests at my party, Chaos Clan, this Friday at Verboten. After spending four days earlier this month at Croatia's bass-obsessed Outlook Festival, I can confirm that I'm not the only one that thinks they're the shit—they played seven sets and smashed each and every one, from a sold-out Bandulu boat party featuring grime MC legends Flowdan, Killa P, and Stormzy to a reggae set on the Mungo's Hi-Fi Soundsytem under their steppas alias Gorgon Sound.

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Joseph "Kahn" McGann, 26, and Sam "Neek" Barrett, 27, met around age 16, when Joe hijacked the decks at Sam's party and proceeded to drop a bunch of hard-as-nails breakcore, completely clearing the floor of a tiny Bristolian club called Cosies. This could have ended badly, but instead they became fast friends, bonding over a love of the punk aesthetic of early grime and the reggae-inspired bassweight of dubstep. After a few releases on Peverelist's Punch Drunk label—and some production tips from local legends like Pinch and Joker—they began making a heavy mark on the scene in 2012, with the release of Kahn's system-shattering "Dread," on Mala's genre-defining dubstep imprint Deep Medi, and "Percy," a take-no-prisoners grime tune that launched their Bandulu Records label.

In the past couple years, they've taken youngers Courtney "Hi5Ghost" Beckford—24, and a former MC at Neek's SureSkank parties—and Boofy, 22, under their wing. Together, they're a formidable force in bridging the gap between dubstep, the toughest grime rhythms, and the UK-via-Jamaica soundsystem culture to which both of those genres owe a huge debt. It's in these guys' blood, after all: Hi5's uncle is part of trip-hop legends Smith & Mighty, and all four of them cite going to the St. Paul Carnival—the Bristolian version of Notting Hill Carnival—when they were little kids as a key musical inspiration.

Bandulu crew doesn't put out tons of tracks, but the ones they do release are usually anthems. Nearly all of the tunes they spin are dubplates (tracks cut to acetate or vinyl long before they are released to the public), specials (exclusive versions of tracks that include the DJs' names and special lyrics), or VIPS (versions of songs that no one else has). In the age of digital DJing and disposable mp3s, this is very rare indeed. It takes a lot of time and effort to get this peak, so we asked the guys to give us the low-down on mastering the dubplate game.

1. Commit to vinyl

Kahn: When you're committed to making an actual vinyl release or cutting a dubplate, you really have to believe in the music. It shows an actual level of dedication. It's kind of like the spectrum, isn't it? It might be difficult to release vinyl, but the alternative is your music gets completely lost in the vast amounts of data or on Soundcloud. I'm not that interested in being a part of that throwaway culture of digital music—that kind of stuff doesn't feel that relevant to me.

2. Find a good cutting house

Neek: I just use to cut dubs ages ago at Transition in London, and then I heard this guy in Bristol was doing it and I started chatting to him. It turns out he was cutting dubs above the pub up the road from my mom's house. I went over there, and that's how I made a link with Henry from The Heatwave. I just always used him on and off over the years, and then we started using him exclusively. I've always gotten dubs with good sound quality, but I know people have had bad ones.

3. Prioritize sound quality

Boofy: In Bristol, you're kind of aware that the music you're making is going to be played on a good soundsystem," explains Boofy. "So you make sure that your tracks go hard."

4. Cut fire tracks

Kahn: At the moment, my favorite one to play is "Top A Top" with Teddy Bruckshot, Lady Chann, and Killa P. It's a Sir Spyro track, and every time I play it, people go mental.

Hi5: I got a VIP of "3Klane" by Joker and Jakes.

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Neek: Mine is also Spyro: "Side By Side," featuring Big H, Bossman Birdie, and President T. He recorded us a special of it where they shout out me and Joe in it and it fits in so well. It always gets a reload.

The Bandulu crew (Photo by Chris Colouryum)

5. Make real-world connections—not just online ones

Kahn: In the days before DMs and Facebook, you couldn't send out mass messages to everyone. You had to go to a dance and meet people.

Neek: It takes a while to build up links and get to know people that can link you with artists. Obviously with artists that live in Jamaica, we can't go knock on their door and be like, "Can we get this?," so you have to have someone who knows the artists and deals with them. For Gorgon Sound, our link is a guy from Switzerland from OBF Soundsystem. They might be cutting dubs for their soundsystem, and they'll ask us if we want anything—like, "Hey, so-and-so is in the studio for the next few hours, let us know if you want a vocal." And then we'll send some money quick and make it happen. But you have to build friendships with people. They have to trust that you're going to do what you have to do.

Some people don't want to be DMed on Twitter for a special. It's better if you've got their email and if you've got a personal relationship. Also, I would never call up someone for a special and ask for it for free. At the end of the day, you're asking someone to do some work for you. It's a job. That's like someone you don't know asking you to DJ for free. Don't be so demanding off the bat. Everyone knows "that guy" that's always hitting people up to do stuff for him and give him things. You don't want to be that guy.

6. Make sure you have permission to play what you play

Boofy: One of my favorite dubs is a VIP mix of Commodo's "Fuck Mountain." Commodo is a good friend, but he was like, "Boofy, you know I'll happily give you any of my tunes, but you have to ask Dan or he'll freak out." Dan, who runs Hotline Records, put out the original of the track. Luckily, he's my friend and he was fine with me cutting it, but if I hadn't asked him and he found out he would be pissed. Now I'm one of the only people who has the track, and I don't think there's any time I've played it that it hasn't gotten a rewind.

7. Know the difference between acetate and vinyl

Neek: When I used to cut at Transition, they only do acetate dubs, and the way we mix in grime, I was wearing out the start of the tunes too quickly. Then I found Henry, and he cuts vinyl dubs. They're cut the same way as acetates, but made out of the same stuff as records. I work with them because they're more hard-wearing. Dubplates do wear out after a while, but I don't really care about crackles—I think that's part of it. Even if you buy a brand new record, it might have a crack or a pop in it anyway.

8. Watch out for liquids

Hi5Ghost: Once, someone spilled a whole thing of juice in my record bag and I had to spend the whole day in the studio cleaning them down with wet wipes and vinyl cleaner.

Neek: A pint of Guinness was the worst for me. It was all these horrible-looking sleeves, like all these white labels dyed brown. And what's worse is it wasn't even my own drink. I was watching someone put their drink near my record bag like, "This is not going to end well," and there was nothing I could do.

9. Pay your dues

Kahn: As soon as people actually clock that we do dubplates properly, that's when you start getting sorted out with special tunes by different producers. That's not why we're doing it, but people do take it a bit more seriously when they see you're committed to it and you understand the culture.

10. Support the scene

Kahn: In Bristol there's only 20 or 30 people keeping everything going—all the promoters and the DJs and the labels. If you took all the people out of Bristol, there wouldn't be a scene and no one would care about it. It's all about people at the end of the day, and you've got to invest in that. Cutting dubplates and releasing vinyl keeps me personally grounded and rooted in what the culture is really about. By controlling our output with vinyl, we can actually feed back into the culture: supporting our friends' record shops, putting the money into making more records and feeding ourselves. Record stores are such an important meeting place for people, and you get exposed to things that would never know about. You cant put a price on that.

Star Eyes is a DJ, reckless bass head, and former editor-in-chief at THUMP. Follow her on Twitter.