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The State of Drum & Bass in the US: A Conversation with Justin Hawkes

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This interview is an excerpt from Episode 38 of the Last Week Liquid Podcast, a weekly show dedicated to the world of Drum & Bass, centred around discussions with producers, DJs, label managers and event organizers. Listen here: https://www.lastweekliquid.com/podcast

With the launch of his new monthly event Sanctuary Drum and Bass (http://sanctuarydnb.com) based in Austin, Texas with his friend OneDeep, I caught up with Justin Hawkes to take the pulse on the state of Drum & Bass in the US.

Millstreet

Tell me a bit about Texas, where you are based? Is it a hotspot for US Drum & Bass?

It is one of the hotspots for sure. A lot of acts pass through Texas in some form. You’ve got Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio, which are cities with multiple million people each. So within a three-hour distance by car, you have somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 million people. But with regards to domestic acts, that has taken a little bit longer. We don’t have as many widely available global-level domestic acts, but it is swiftly changing. That is what excites me the most. You mentioned Echo Brown coming on your show, he’s just released an EP on The North Quarter. He is one of the guys that just came out of nowhere, blindingly fast, and I’m seeing so many like him in this country. As for the actual events here, that’s been a bit of a different story and one that’s going to have to catch up a little differently. We have a lengthy history with Drum & Bass in America. We really do. Many will say that our heyday was around 2001 to 2004. Because there was a huge wave at that time, we’ve had artists become international successes out of the US. But having such a lengthy history means that often the people participating have started a long time ago, people have been so dedicated for so long and are used to a certain sound. I think it has sort of led to a ton of respect for artists from the foundational era. But it’s been a little latent on adapting to music from modern time. I’m not saying it’s hindered our progress, but it’s simply kept a crowd around a certain age, and it hasn’t quite achieved a constant cycling of new interest. And I’m not going to say it’s a problem because I love those people and it’s such an amazing feature of our scene here, that we have ravers that have been going to Drum & Bass events for literally 15-20 years. That’s amazing to me. What I will say though, is that it would be good to move new artists through, or having newer promoters throw different types of parties. Like who’s going to come up next and kick the door in? 

Echo Brown

You mentioned Echo Brown, and I absolutely loved his EP on The North Quarter. When he came on the show we talked a lot about his hip-hop influences, and how his music could be a bridge into Drum & Bass for young kids today, just like Pendulum was my generation’s bridge from rock and metal into Drum & Bass.

Totally. I really enjoy his style. It’s really interesting that you featured this guy without having any idea that he’s from the States. And that’s the case for a lot of these artists out here right now, a lot of people just don’t have any idea where they’re from. I’m not going to lie, it does limit them playing shows, which keeps them from growing as fast. When you see an artist play shows you’re instantly able to connect with them. When you’re not playing shows you’re not able to do that. You just have to rely on being found through your music, which is a much less direct way of connecting. And that’s a special feature of the scene here. The fact that Echo Brown is from North Carolina and I’m from Texas, for example, that is an 18-hour distance by car. It’s understated how much that affects this scene. 

I’m curious if over the last 10 years that you’ve been involved with Drum & Bass, is the scene truly bigger now than what it was then?

That’s easy – it blows my mind to think about what is happening with it right now. And maybe I’m seeing it from a different perspective now that I’m a bigger artist than I was ten years ago. But I am genuinely seeing a massive difference on my end. Just seeing people actually dance to it at shows you know, it is a documentable difference to me. And it’s not like a wave either, I know people seem to think that it happens once a year, and it’s become a kind of joke. They like to take the piss out of it because they think: “Oh yeah every year is the year of Drum & Bass in America”, and it’s become a bit of a running joke. But if you’re not actually there, you wouldn’t be as aware that yeah, last year was the year of Drum & Bass in America and it’s f*****g huge, excuse my French. It is actually making a huge difference. I made this Spotify playlist called top American Drum & Bass and it has so many great artists and labels represented: Winslow, Polaris, Hajimari, Boxplot, Ownglow, Bensley and a ton more. If you truly tune into the American artists and the American events that are happening, it’s another world, and that’s where I am so excited because we do have a huge amount of work every year. We’re adding more artists to this list all the time, artists that are driven and ready to go try and make things happen here for themselves. 

Justin Hawkes with Boxplot

At the same time, there’s always that sense of not wanting Drum and Bass to become too mainstream, like a sense of ownership over it (laughs).

For sure! Yeah, well that’s a very Drum & Bass thing to be honest (laughs). I feel like that too, that ego of “this is ours, it’s underground and it’s not on the radio” and all those things. I would note though that you still have guys like Wilkinson selling out 40,000 tickets in minutes, arena shows completely sold out, UK number ones etc. You still have a massive underbelly that is full of artists that are extraordinarily talented, on the cutting edge, where something new is happening every day in this genre for the last 30 years. That’s one thing that Echo Brown and I have discussed before, the idea of having commercial modifications to your music to make it more accessible, right? I respect that a lot. In America, you’re often perceived as fake when a genre gets big, like just a bunch of people hopping in on a trend. And of course, there are people like that. But for every person like that, you are going to have that genuine, authentic artist that is only doing it for the niche qualities and to be part of that community. I think it’s important to recognize that something getting big in America is not the death to it at all. If you look at artists like Skrillex, they bring millions of people into electronic music and into dubstep. Personally, I would not be here if it were not for Skrillex. I was at a stage of my life where I found Skrillex’s music to be extremely interesting. And I subsequently found out about Skream, Benga, Coki, Caspa and all that crew. And I have a lot of respect for them. And you mentioned Pendulum earlier, and I do believe those types of acts will always remain vital to bring new people into the scene.

Listen to the entire interview over at https://www.lastweekliquid.com/podcast, or simply search for Last Week Liquid Podcast on your favorite podcast app.

Check out Justin Hawkes over at http://justinhawkes.us/ , as well as his latest single, The Underground, out now on Drum and Bass Arena.

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