The Dancehall, The Radio & The City: An Interview With Gabriel Heatwave

A couple weeks ago I sent a signal to our old friend and longterm BNTL bredrin’ by the name of Gabriel: Top boy selector for the UK’s leading Bashment collective ‘The Heatwave’, who’ve been tearing down the raves across the UK and around the world for over 10 years now.

Being a toppa top Bashment collective, plus runnin’ the wickedest Bashment dances in the country (Hot Wuk) makes a for a busy schedule, so it took Gabriel a little while to find the free time to dedicate to producing this interview; because as Gabriel knows, we don’t par with flaccid PR – we deal in the real; and the real is what was delivered.

It took a couple weeks to solidify, but the thought and detail Gabriel put into his answers made it worth the wait.

So, without further delay, let’s swiftly swing into the detailed and diverse discussion I had with Gabriel – talking UK Bashment, UK Rap Bashment crossover tunes, living in London and more.

Gabriel Heatwave Press Shots 2015 D

Without baiting anyone up and naming any names, there’s been quite a few DJs that’ve had to leave Rinse over the last few years. You guys on the other hand have retained a regular spot on the Rinse roster: why do you think that is? And do you feel any pressure because of the fact that so many DJs have left?

We’d never really thought about it to be honest. It’s true that Rinse do like to refresh their roster regularly, but there are a lot of people who have been there for years, who were there when we joined in 2009 and are still doing shows today. I guess there’s no one else like us on Rinse, no one else plays dancehall and bashment, so we fill a unique niche on the station. Which is also true of people like Uncle Dugs, Oneman or SK Vibemaker who have been on there for years.

You uploaded the live recording of your 2005 set with Riko Dan at Rhythm Factory. It sounded like a classic set and memorable night for those in attendance. Aside from that particular rave you’ve obviously put on plenty of dances, been a part of many memorable nights and seen a lot of madnesses on the dance floor. What’s your all time most memorable set you’ve played in your career? 

That’s a difficult one, there must be well over a thousand parties to choose from by now! I’ll definitely never forget the very first one, in an upstairs room above The Reliance back in 2003. What I loved about that – and a lot of the early parties I guess – was not knowing what to expect. Playing dancehall all night long to a crowd of people who’d never heard that before was really exciting, and it was a wicked vibe.

Probably the best setting for what we do – apart from Notting Hill Carnival – is the Hot Wuk boat parties at Outlook Festival in Croatia. Playing to 300 dedicated bashment ravers in blazing sunshine in the middle of the sea is pretty incredible. 

In my opinion, Bashment as a scene seems to be built around dropping certified classics and having the relevant specials if you’re a serious selector. It’s not as progressive as other forms of dance music; experimenting just doesnt seem like it’s a primary focus or creative influence on the production side of things; it’s basically quite a conservative genre in some respects. Would you agree? And what is it about bashment that’s kept you engaged and excited at about the music?

I can see where you’re coming from but no, I wouldn’t agree with that. If you see us playing a short set in a festival or club with a multigenre line up – yeah, we’ll play a lot of classics, mostly from 2000 onwards with a sprinkling of 80s/90s dancehall and maybe 20% tunes from the last year or two. But that’s because we’re operating in a specific environment: we’re the only dancehall sound that plays regularly in the UK club circuit, bringing bashment into places that are ruled by grime, garage, jungle, funky, house and so on.

So we present the music in a way that even if you don’t consider yourself a dancehall fan, you’re gonna have a sick time: the alltime classics that you know from when they charted or were on MTV or whatever, the new tunes that have been vocalled by Jamaican artists or that we’ve remixed bashment style, the tracks from other genres that have a heavy dancehall influence and therefore fit neatly into our sound. And we always make sure there are new tunes in there, the latest hits running road in Jamaica or simply whatever we are hype about right now. As much as I’m a DJ who loves to play for the crowd, and my top priority is for them to be raving nonstop, I need to be excited by what I’m doing too, and that either means brand new tunes or dredging up some hidden gems that I haven’t heard in a while.

So yeah if you see us play an hour set at a festival or in between a couple UK club DJs, there will be a lot of classics and year to year the set doesn’t change too dramatically – but the same is true for many DJs in those settings. We played after DJ Pioneer recently and he dropped a sick set: the crowd went mental, but there was maybe one new tune in half an hour, the rest being UK funky bangers from 2009/10. Or if you see a big hip hop DJ like Westwood or Mr Thing, it’ll be wall to wall anthems and a couple of the big hits from the last 12 months.

But if you see us play at Hot Wuk, it’s another thing and that’s where you see the innovation, the experimentation and so on. Partly it’s the length of the sets: at Hot Wuk we play all night long, 5 hours straight, so there is loads of time to squeeze everything in, we’ll often warm up with a full hour or more of brand new tunes, testing them out, building a vibe, rewarding the earlybirds with stuff they’ve never heard before. 

The biggest difference at Hot Wuk that allows us that freedom is the crowd: when you’ve got hundreds of committed dancehall fans together, we’re in heaven. They are all there because they love dancing to bashment, they all know the tunes inside out, they’re familiar with the new upcoming artists, they know the latest Jamaican dance moves and they want to be challenged and entertained in a different way from a festival crowd. So yeah in that environment, I think you start to see the full range of creativity and innovation in dancehall and that’s what keeps me engaged and excited about the music. I can get on a little wave and mix 20 minutes of pure instrumentals, string together some super minimal bashment for a while or run a segment of old school ragga and the crowd are there with me, ready to make that journey.

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If you could have a special, for any tune, what tune would it be? I’m talking dead or alive, any genre here init. So this has got to be a serious percy.

This question is a proper wormhole: I could literally spend my whole life thinking about that! One of the reasons we don’t voice that many specials is simply that the possibilities and choices are so endless: it’s overwhelming, it’s almost impossible to make up your mind. There’s only so much room in my head for music-related thoughts and I dedicate so much to analysing and categorising the tunes I hear, mixing and matching them, building setlists, constructing narratives, thinking about how people will react to certain mixes and transitions… There’s not much left after all that for planning which artists to voice on what riddims!

Dead artists are the holy grail when it comes to specials in dancehall, so if we’re gonna say any genre, it would be sick to have Michael Jackson on dub.

I’m sure you’ve got some tunes that you’ve played out thousands of times. But are there any new bashment tracks by completely fresh underground artists that are making it in to the regular rotation?

Yeah definitely. The biggest tune for us last year was Gyal Bruk Out by Alkaline, who’s only been around a couple years and is largely unknown in the UK. That tune was massive at Hot Wuk and then got big reactions at all the festivals and carnivals last summer. This summer we’ve played it everywhere and it’s already getting that classic anthem type reaction.

Gage and Kalado are another two promising Kingston artists: so far their hits Throat and When You Wine are bigger in Hot Wuk and the core bashment scene than in festivals, but we’ve been pushing them this summer. Chronixx has been around for a minute now but he’s moved quickly and already has maybe 4/5 tunes that are gonna be mainstays of our sets for years to come.

Outside Jamaica, there’s Patoranking from Nigeria who has been making some sick dancehall tunes. Daniella Wine is the big one. One of those tunes that has an instant connection with the audience even though they don’t know it: the combination of melody and rhythm that makes people dance straight away. That’s gonna be huge over the next year.

How healthy is the bashment scene in the UK, and worldwide? Has there been any changes in recent times. Maybe parts of the country or certain countrys in particular that seem to be getting behind the sound more now, and you’re seeing more bookings as a result.

In the UK right now it feels stronger than ever – at least in terms of new dancehall parties starting up, bashment getting played in clubs, interest from the media, DJs getting bookings, producers from other genres sampling and working with dancehall vocalists and so on. Though at the same time it feels like mainstream radio and the record industry is studiously ignoring actual dancehall music coming out of Jamaica. They are much happier to pick up on the energy and excitement of the music in a kind of secondhand way, or it’s like they don’t even realise where this comes from.

Two great examples being Fester Skank and Freak Of The Week, easily two of the biggest tunes this year in terms of radio, club play and charts/sales. They are both dancehall tunes: Fester Skank is produced by Diztortion, who’s been working with the top UK dancehall artist Stylo G for the past few years, and the drum pattern and bassline is hugely indebted to Wine & Kotch and Pull Up To Mi Bumper – both produced by Rvssian out of Kingston. Freak Of The Week is a remake of Jeremy Harding’s classic Playground riddim, home to Beenie Man’s global dancehall hit Who Am I. It doesn’t matter that they have grime or hip hop artists spitting on them, these are bashment tunes and they have the energy and excitement of dancehall. 

The other big growth area for dancehall worldwide is west Africa: I mentioned Patoranking and there’s a bunch of other artists making bashment such as Burna Boy, Sarkodie, Joey B and Shatta Wale.

In Jamaica everything still feels in flux in the wake of Kartel’s imprisonment. Despite being behind bars he’s still easily the most prolific artist on the island and his new tunes are still dominating dances. It really feels like the dancehall world needs a couple new artists to come along and take the scene by storm, but Kartel is so ridiculously good at what he does that their lyrics, hooks and concepts will need to be very very strong. Right now it’s hard to see anyone who has the ability or the drive to take that on, but it will come. If there’s one thing you can learn from Jamaican music over the past 60 years it’s that nothing stands still for very long.

In recent years and the last couple in particular there’s been a new wave of UK rappers using bashment riddims and bashment style instrumentals. Krept and Konan’s single ‘Freak of the Week’ (as you mentioned) is a DJ Mustard produced bashment tune. So are you aware of, and if so, how do you feel about young UK artists such as STP, Mo Stacks, Sneakbo and J Hus who’ve also been taking similar influences for their music? And is there room in your set for this type of stuff? 

Yeah we’re definitely into a lot of this stuff, Sneakbo was an early example of that style before he went fully pop. We’ve been playing a couple J Hus tunes, really love the melody in his voice.

In a way his stuff reminds me more of the Nigerian artists than of when grime or UK rap MCs make dancehall, but he still has a very London thing going on. The problem for a lot of grime/rap crossovers with dancehall is that the vibe isn’t necessarily quite right – at least not for us and the way we play tunes for girls to dance to. Yes there will always be a sprinkling of badman tunes in a Heatwave set but what makes our thing really work is the positive, happy, dance-oriented nature of the music. So as dancing tunes, Fester Skank and Lean & Bop are perfect, while Dem Boy Paigon – though it’s a big tune – is not fully that vibe.

The hot topic for the foreseable future seems to be the cost of living in London, gentrification and all the rest of it. Being that you’re both born and bread in London, how do you feel about London outside of music? And how do you see the future of raving in London with loads iconic bars and clubs being shut down?

The big thing for me is not being able to afford to live where I grew up, or even vaguely close to it. I go back to my childhood home now (in Angel) and everything has gone: when I was a kid, the high street had a butcher, baker, greengrocer, newsagent, betting shop, post office, laundrette, dry cleaner, florist. Literally all of them are gone now, replaced by luxury barbers, a wedding shop, high end curtain/fabric shops, somewhere selling weird-looking lamps. The streets around there hold so many memories for me but now I feel like an outsider. I moved to Stoke Newington 10 years ago because I never would have been able to afford to rent in Islington. Now I feel increasingly out of place around here and buying somewhere in Hackney is a myth. 

But it’s easy to say things were better back in the day. I don’t know if I would want to live in my parents’ Islington of the 60s/70s and I remember fully not enjoying playing football on London Fields in the early 90s. I went raving in the West End when I was a kid and that was a vibe, then all the clubs in Shoreditch sprang up and that was also a vibe. A few years later, everything started happening in Dalston: areas change, people go out to different clubs, but it’s still just getting drunk, dancing and chatting people up though. Not everything changes so much.

People tend to remember their early musical experiences as the best: nothing will ever match up to the music from that time or the clubs/venues they heard that music in. But of course: everything is fresh and new, you’re doing that stuff for the first time, you’re young and anything and everything is possible. All those associations mean times that come after that will struggle to match up, but teenagers will always find somewhere to get fucked up, they will always have a sick time doing it, there will always be some big tunes they go mad for and they will always remember it fondly.

I dunno, part of me thinks London is fucked and it’s all depressingly on a downward slide. It’s easy to make that argument, but maybe too easy, maybe lazy. I know the “everything gets better” idea of history is an easy fallacy, but I’m also reluctant to subscribe to “it was better back in the day” and I guess I’d rather be optimistic or at least hopeful.

You co-hosted your own soundsystem this year at Carnival. How was your experience this year? And how do you feel about how carnival has changed over the years, if at all?

It was amazing. I felt like I was born to play at carnival, like everything I’ve done since I started DJing was leading up to the moment when we ran tunes at Different Strokes soundsystem this year. It was a trip to see so many familiar faces come check us on the sound, and so many new faces too. What we love about carnival is how we’re on this wave all year – bashment bashment dancehall dancehall – and suddenly everyone in London is there too. Any tune we might run throughout the year and get a decent reaction suddenly makes people go MAD. What an experience.

In terms of how carnival’s changed over the years – it’s hard, cos the last few years we haven’t experienced carnival as we used to. We’ve moved from being punters – getting drunk and stoned and wandering around going a bit mental and getting hazy – to being on the other side, trying (not always successfully) to remain sober, navigating the crowds carrying records and laptops and whistles and horns, thinking about what tunes to play rather than what tunes we want to hear. It feels so different that it’s hard to compare to the carnivals of our younger days.

The big difference I notice is that Sunday has grown and grown, it used to feel like a one day event and now it’s fully two days which can only be a good thing. And it feels even more multicultural than it used to which is probably what made it so special in the first place. It’s such a uniquely London experience: all the different people who make London what it is, all the different styles of music that sprang up in London thanks to the influence of Caribbean migrants. It’s musically incredible and it’s politically important. In a time when people love to chat shit about refugees and migrants, Carnival is a beautiful reminder of people from different backgrounds coming together in harmony.

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