Growing up in Sheffield he started DJing under the name Toddla T as part of the city’s thriving dancehall and bassline scene, taking inspiration from local stalwarts like Mr. Hazel and the fabled Niche club.
Throughout the early 2000s he was dubbed one of the UK’s most exciting young dance music producers, with two full-lengths and a string of singles landing on the omnipresent Ninja Tune imprint.
His Radio 1 Essential Mix was considered a landmark moment for grime and dancehall in 2009, and less than a year later he was offered his own monthly residency on the powerhouse UK station.
He’s also formed a special relationship with us since he first stopped by Farringdon in 2008, going on to hold a residency and put out his own mix on our FABRICLIVE series.
Most recently Bell has been finding comfort back in the studio, with his new Foreign Light LP marking his first album in 5 years. As we prepare to welcome him back to FABRICLIVE on 11th August, we caught up with Bell for a mix and conversation covering Foreign Light, his formative inspirations in the Sheffield music scene, and early memories of FABRICLIVE. Speaking of the mix, he told us:
“This is a Foreign Light themed FABRICLIVE mix. Across 20 minutes or so you’ll hear some of the tracks from my album, mixed up with a bag of club music that’s getting me gassed right now.”
Download: Toddla T FABRICLIVE Promo Mix
Starting with your new record, I was listening to your single Magnet – it seems like collaboration is a big part of it again.
The vocalist on that is called Andrea Martin, she’s on pretty much the whole album. I met her in New York a few years ago and I loved her vibe so much I decided I wanted to make the record with her. And the type of track I was making lent itself to a voice like hers. Initially it was going to be only her, but then the other artists fell into place at the right moment and it just worked. It’s a lot more minimal collaboratively than previous records of mine, but I do have to get some people in to help.
This is the longest break you’ve taken between two albums. How long did you spend recording it?
I’d say it’s been 2.5 years since we first went to the studio together. Some of the instrumental tracks were made before that, so in total it’s about 3 years, with 2 years to fully vocal, produce and refine. I collaborated with Benji B, you could say he was an executive producer or A&R. He’s such a knowledgeable and respectful man that he understood me musically and personally, so we just met at his studio every month to refine it all. He really helped me being a second ear. I’ve never really done that before – previously I’ve just put tunes out and listened to feedback, but with Benji I spent a long time on every aspect. I think people will be able to hear that when they listen.
What made you first decide to start producing as well as mixing?
When I was younger I was always playing records, and I used to put acapellas on the beats – so I was giving it a go in some weird way. Once I had access to a PC, I started using some of the budget software programs available. After messing around on them I realised ‘this is what I was trying to do’ – I didn’t really know I was a producer until I’d tried it.
After you broke out as a producer, was this when you found your gigs picking up? There’s often the idea that you need to be one to do the other with any success.
For me it’s almost 2 separate things: when I’m DJing it’s about having fun and entertaining the people in the room, but as a producer I’m a lot more self-indulgent. If I make something that I feel won’t work in a club, I just won’t play it. I think it would be a bit weird to throw stuff in between when I’m trying to have a good time with the crowd. I’ve never been one that makes dubs for the party – most of the time it’s about the party and creating a great atmosphere in the room at that moment.
Has your method for digging and preparing for gigs stayed the same through your career?
I’m always so excited by new music, and there’s so much of it nowadays. Going back to look for stuff is almost a whole different mission. I hear great records all the time, ones I want to hear loud and think people will be into. It’s more about the present and future. It’s great when people pull out old records to show heritage and history, but most of the time I’m interested in now and tomorrow.
Do you remember your first time playing at FABRICLIVE?
Yes, it was for Sinden at their resident night. I always used to look at their line-ups and think they were brilliant. He’d been playing some of my stuff on his radio show, and he invited me to come down to London to open up Room One. I’d heard stuff about fabric – it was so exotic to me. I remember meeting Shaun [Roberts, former FABRICLIVE booker] at Farringdon station, we went for a really nice meal beforehand, and it was all mind blowing because I’d never been to the club before. I remember playing a lot of bassline from the Niche times, as that was so popular in my hometown and I had access to it. I’ve been back many times since then, so I have a lot of memories attached to the club.
You definitely seemed to develop a proper relationship with the club and team over the years.
Shaun was a proper supporter, and was really good to me. He made me a resident, and sorted out the FABRICLIVE 47 compilation. He just really believed in me. I can speak for a lot of people in saying when he’s really into something, he really goes for it.
That mix still gets played here regularly – how did you approach compiling it?
It represented what I was doing in the club at that time. I had an Essential Mix for Radio 1 around the same time, which ended up becoming a huge deal. With that I wanted to represent the past as well as the present, and I also had my debut album out, but FABRICLIVE was the perfect chance to show what I did in the rave. I had 3 outlets at the same time, so the mix was purely club-focussed. We had a few dubs from people like Skream, some Roots Manuva stuff that was never released, and just family and friends from home. It was pure club aesthetic for that time in my life.
I guess there were a lot of artists from Sheffield that inspired you when you first got into DJing.
I started out following local DJs. Pipe was one of my biggest inspirations and idols – the way he put West Indian sound with European stuff was unbelievable. Mr. Hazel had a similar vibe – he was a staple in Sheffield’s club and party scene. He would meld together mad sounds from Jamaica with Britain, and then all the local producers. It was the whole electronic vibe in Sheffield from 2005 through to 2009 really – that was the period that led to what I now do today.
What made you leave Sheffield for London?
I moved down around 6 years ago. I had settled with my partner down here, my production was here, my DJing was here, and I was literally just going back to pick up clothes every so often. I said I’d never move to London, but I can eat my own words now. This is my home. It’s a joy, I love my community and where my studio is.
It must’ve been a big task to follow on from people like Gilles Peterson when you joined Radio 1.
I never really planned to get in on radio, I was just blessed to fall into it. My Essential Mix really endured, and it was a really good moment. One of the heads of Radio 1 said ‘you should do a demo for us’, and I didn’t think about it too much, I just did a 10 minute demo in my mum’s bedroom, and he called me up a month later to offer me a monthly slot. I was shocked for several reasons, it was like: I’ve never done radio before, this is Radio 1, and this isn’t really my mission. I think doing radio is one reason why I haven’t made so much music, but I just put everything into it – the whole thing has been such an incredible opportunity for me.