Known for a minimalist approach – from the lean makeup of the music he champions, to his quasi-iconic cap, trackies and trainers look (though he does note he’s had some trouble with not being recognised since ditching the hat) – he has an outward appearance that is serious, verging on stern. But this, as with his perfectionism, is, if anything, merely a symptom of a passion for music – new music, increasingly regardless of genre or tempo – that verges on the obsessive.
He often speaks in specifics, about what ‘works’ and about what sounds ‘correct’ and when he talks about artists, labels and tunes, he talks about ‘certain artists,’ ‘certain labels’ and ‘certain tunes.’ For some, this approach might seem stifling; but for those who understand it – and there are plenty – there’s very little else that makes sense in quite the same way. This precision of focus typifies his mixing style, tune selection (producers tell tales of agonising over the most minute of hi-hat details, specifically for Youngsta) and lately, his own endeavours as a producer. Everything he does is deeply considered; and then it’s considered again, and in conversation more often than not, his answer to a given question is more revealing of the one fielded before it than it is of the one just asked.
Both industrious within the mechanics and machinations of his industry, he’s one of those people who no doubt sat with a bemused look strapped across his face when some careers advisor tried to tell him he might consider doing something other than music to pay the bills. In conversation business terms like ‘product,’ ‘market,’ ‘customer’ and ‘branding’ sit comfortably alongside some of his more abstract nomenclature as he consistently describes himself and other specialist DJs as ‘artists’ and others still as ‘creative geniuses.’ But what should more often that not trigger a stark, Cowell-ite sort of binary response here barely registers a blink. In Youngsta’s case, it’s just what works.
You’re probably best known for being a DJ but obviously you’ve been doing a lot more production-wise recently and you do a lot of A&Ring etc. Can you give us a bit of background on how you think of yourself as working within music?
Youngsta: I felt like I knew exactly what I was many years ago: I was strictly as a DJ. But moving forward to the present, I see myself more as a mixture, really… I’ve always A&Red and worked with Tempa and that’s still a big part for me, the A&R side – a massive, massive part. Because, obviously, I’m A&Ring for myself automatically anyway. As a DJ I always keep myself stocked up with good ammunition, so in that way it works hand-in-hand with the label, y’know?
But to be honest, right now, production is what’s more important to me than anything. Not saying I enjoy it more or less than DJing, but, for now, getting the time to be in the studio to create the product alongside an engineer is how I can get the best out of me. It’s how I can get the best sound for me at the moment. So, yeah, I see myself as trying to do it all. Sometimes I don’t know how I do it all and balance it out, because it is difficult. I’m not gonna lie...
How close exactly is the relationship between DJing and A&Ring? In the past, the Tempa releases have reflected fairly closely the kind of stuff you’ve been playing in your sets...
Yeah, that’s definitely the way it’s going, because right now I’m signing 80-90% of the music, along with Sarah [Lockhart] who owns the label, so the label is developing with my sets now. If what I’m playing’s changing, the label’s changing - almost like they’re reflections of each other.
I’m always naturally on the lookout for new music anyway, I’m always on the hunt. New music is what excites me the most. Getting new music and playing it… there’s something about that that is just better than playing, y’know, the same ten tunes as you’ve been playing for ten years, or five years, or always playing an old school set or a classics set or whatever. I’m not saying that I don’t like playing a classics sets – I do – but there’s a time and place for it.
And now, I’m playing mixed genres of music because I refuse to repress it any longer. I feel I should just do it if I want to, you know what I mean? I’ve been doing it for a long time, beat-wise, creeping a bit of drum & bass into the end of my sets if it’s all the same mood and it works. There’s so much good music out there across all these genres.
And within this, do you still aim to support a tight knit group, a handful of producers in the way that you did in the past with the likes of Skream, Loefah and D1? Continuing with that process but just picking from a wider variety of tempos, for instance?
As a DJ, I find that when I come across certain people, certain producers or hear a certain track, if what they’ve got is correct and it fits then I always want to try and work as closely as I can with them. I just feel that that’s the best way. It just kind of works best, from experience, and - like you say - it’s how I’ve always done it. But I don’t think I’m doing it deliberately, it just happens naturally. I’m very particular in what I like so it’s hard to find a lot of producers that I like, or that I like enough to play their music; so for me it’s tricky. It really is a tricky thing.
There are so many people that have approached me and said that they’re happy to give me music exclusively and that is always a great plus for me. It’s good to work with the artist closely so they don’t over-saturate themselves and you can really build them [into] something. Even like back in the day with people like Skream - that was exactly what happened: he built an alliance with a certain group of DJs and we maintained the quality control.
In terms of that quality control, it’s interesting how you describe it as developing artists because, well, A&R itself stands for Artists & Repertoire, right? A huge part of that is developing artists so it’s interesting that it crosses over so directly with DJing: you’re not just broadcasting the music you are instrumental in developing it too…
Yeah, I think it’s down to the person you are as well. Some people are not so bothered but I really strive for a certain sound, so if producers are up for changing things and if they understand what A&Ring is and they get the ins and outs of it, they realise it is about working really closely with them and basically taking out what you don’t like and keeping what you do, or what will work and what’s not working. But that’s one of the challenges: any creative person is always going to have a perception of what they’ve made, but, you know, the way that they perceive their own creation isn’t always the way others do, y’know…?
…and it’s your job to try and translate that, right?
“I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than playing the same mix every weekend, or the same music over and over. It would drive me mental, it really would.”
So do you still think of that that sort of DJs as shaping sounds nowadays? Shaping genres, shaping scenes?
Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Because there aren’t that many specialist DJs anymore, are there?
I can’t speak too widely or too greatly about that because I don’t know where that is in today’s market, but I know that there are still definitely top DJs out there that will sign exclusive artists and will work with them and build a relationship and shape the music. It works: if someone’s creating all this music, they need someone else who knows what they’re talking about, knows their business, knows their industry, and knows their scene – that is the best person to hear your music. It’s like paintings, you want to show the person that knows the gallery, knows the market. Like, you need someone else to pick your album: you can’t sit there and pick your album out of fifty tracks.
And, in the same way, I need them. I need fresh music because it’s like a drug, you know what I mean? It really is. I need it. I couldn't think of anything more depressing than playing the same mix every weekend, or the same music over and over. It would drive me mental, it really would. There’s nothing better than fresh music.
It’s interesting that you talk about music as paintings too, because there have been comparisons between yourself and Goldie – particularly with regards the way you produce alongside an engineer – who has often talked about writing music in the same terms as he does painting…
Yeah, he does that as well [works alongside an engineer]; and it works really well for him. He was the one that really encouraged me to not feel embarrassed about it, not that I was, but he was very positive about it because he feels that that’s the best way for him to express himself. And I’m not being funny, but not everyone can be an Icicle [Youngsta’s engineer] - someone who’s a writing and producing genius as well as an absolutely amazing engineer. I need that geek that’s used all the newest equipment. He knows what’s hot, what’s not and he knows which is the best fucking reverb I need to be using. As long as I can vibe with that engineer, then we can work.
You talk about there being nothing more frustrating than playing the same tunes or similar mixes over and over again. There was a period around probably 2011-12 when things did seem to slow down in terms of really exciting talent coming through in dubstep – a period of relative stagnation, if you will. What was it around then that made you think ‘I need to switch it up a bit, start playing half hour of d&b at the end of my Rinse show’ or whatever?
Well when I first started DJing I was a proper jungle and garage head, but as time went on I became known for the style of dubstep that I was playing and I suppose I just got labelled as that guy that does ‘that,’ when really I've always had a passion for this type of music, that type of music etc. So as time’s gone on I’m thinking ‘why am repressing playing all this other amazing music, when I like it enough that I want to play it out?’ When I’m playing a set, I've got an hour to play some amazing music on a soundsystem and enjoy it, so it was a case of ‘great, I need to start making some time in these sets to do more with that.’ It’s not easy re-branding yourself, and that’s why I refuse to say like label it as, you know, ‘he’s playing a house set tonight or he’s playing a drum & bass set.’ I just want it to be Youngsta and you kind of get whatever I happen to play that night. In that way, it’s nice to be playing longer sets – ninety minutes, three hours, or even, like this one, five hours. I've really embraced those opportunities.
So it wasn't just because it went a bit quiet - which it did around a certain period because certain people were going in different directions - it seemed the right time for me because I felt I was hearing so much d&b and other music that I liked was listening to it in my spare time, so I was like ‘let’s just play it.’
“If you want to categorise me and still associate me with the name dubstep all the time then that’s cool, but you’re going to be disappointed when you come and see me…”
So.. what kind of stuff does Youngsta listen to at home?
Erm, what was I listening to last night before I slept? [Has a think] I had Marvin Gaye on before I went to bed, don’t ask me why: that’s just what I had on my phone on YouTube and I fell asleep listening to Marvin Gaye! [Laughs] All sorts, mate, it’s really random!
So are we going to hear – I mean, you’ve got 5 hours at fabric on the 1st May – are we going to hear some Marvin Gaye on the night?
There’s a time and a place for that… [laughs] I feel like I wouldn't want to go too dynamic.
Is this the first time you’ve done a set this long?
Yeah, I've never done it but I’m feeling very positive and confident that it’s going to be amazing and a wonderful time. It makes me feel very happy when I think about it, but it’s true, I haven’t done it before and it does feel like a challenge. It’s keeping me on my toes so I've already been over-thinking it a little bit. To be honest, though, I’m more concerned about how I’m not going to be so drunk within the first two hours – that’s my main concern! [Laughs]
How much do you plan your sets? Do you have a set idea of what you’re going to play, or do you tend to just kind play it by ear?
I basically have the current batch of whatever is on my USB keys at that time and will be reading the crowd and playing mixed genres, so I do have to judge which type of tunes are working better than others. But I do not plan a set, no. I mean, I know what works with certain tunes. The second I hear a tune I’ve been given, I’m already imagining or working out what it goes with in my head, it’s all kind of like an automatic reaction.
Essentially, you’re going to get a sound with me, that’s how it is now. If you want to categorise me and still associate me with the name dubstep all the time then that’s cool, but you’re going to be disappointed when you come and see me because you’re not only going to hear dubstep. For me it’s about a sound and I’m just going with what I feel. Who knows, I might start playing happy hardcore [laughs], though I can’t see it happening anytime soon…
Thinking about DJing as your craft, how much of what you enjoy about is seeing other people play and discovering music in that way? Is there anyone that watch and find yourself thinking ‘oh, I’m still learning here?’
Yeah, there’s sometimes I think I’m really good and sometimes I think ‘Dan you’re not as good as you think you are, leave it out mate’ [laughs]. It’s a tricky one, because there are so many amazing DJs: when I listen to or watch people like DJ Marky, just because of what he does and how he does it, he entertains me massively as a DJ. One that really hits the nail on the head for me is Loxy, just because every tune he plays I either love or absolutely, completely love, y’know? And his mixing is technically brilliant. But you’re always learning, mate. Not necessarily from one particular person, but you’re always looking to learn new little things or improve your craft, so to speak.
That said though, I do find it irritating being in a club if the music ain't spot on. Maybe I’m just spoilt about it, but if I’m not finding the DJ entertaining enough, or the sets too up and down and I can’t actually get into it then I’ll just be off talking or drinking. Maybe it’s a DJ thing: if you’re out and you’re hearing music, you just want to be up there playing yourself…