“A DJ, really, they’re just someone who’s got a good taste in music, they’re not the be all and end all.” Artwork talks to Bizarre Culture about the role of the DJ, the changing face of club nights and his musical history.
A truly unsung hero of British dance, Arthur Smith has been involved in music for over two decades. His Big Apple Records – musical watering-hole for Skream and Benga to name but a few – was central to the birth of dubstep in South London in the early 2000s. It is surprisingly little-known that he was also a member of legendary garage group DND, most famous for producing Daniel Bedingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This. Having taken a break from releasing music since his Magnetic Man project, he has since moved towards playing house, techno and disco.
Like fellow Magnetic Man member Skream, Artwork’s shift has been received much attention. “The thing is, everyone says I moved into that kind of thing as though I’d never done it before. Fifteen years ago, I was making techno, so it was dubstep that I really went into in that sense. We did that project as just an experiment, and it went nuts, but I’ve been making music for twenty years now, and that was just a small section.” He is no newcomer to techno, having gained support from pioneers like Jeff Mills, Surgeon and Robert Hood while producing under the name of Grain on Fatcat Records. “I’ve done lots of music now and I’ve always been doing different stuff.” “I’m old”, he laughs.
Sat under a tree near the Sports Banger stage at FOUND’s Ceremony Festival, Artwork has just finished his main stage set and will be taking to the decks again this evening for an Art’s House set in the VIP area. He is animated but at ease throughout our conversation, keen to set the record straight on what many have perceived to be his first journey outside the realms of dubstep. Nor was his move motivated by some sort of disillusionment, as many have romanticised. “I just get bored really quickly. If you listen to the same music for so long, and you’re making it and playing it and all your friends are playing it, you eventually feel like you want to get out and go do something else.”
With three releases expected in the next few months, Artwork is ending a five year original-material hiatus, having focused on DJing and radio since around 2010. “I was trying to make music, but I just wasn’t happy with any of it. Rather than just put something out that you’re not happy with, you just shelve it. I’ve got so many records that I decided I didn’t want to release.” The first of these releases, Let Go of My Acid, is forthcoming on Glaswegian label Numbers, run by good friend and frequent B2B partner Jackmaster. “I don’t think your role changes when you don’t release, but a lot of the time it’s releases that make promoters book you. Jackmaster’s never put a record out, but he’s the best DJ around so he’s OK. The rest of us normal humans have to put out records to get noticed.”
As normal humans go, Artwork has done pretty damn well for himself. He has stayed at the top of his game thought his career, with his shifts towards new and interesting projects as enticing for his followers as for the man himself. It is also strikingly clear that he has retained a humbleness surprising for such an influential musician. This is equally clear from his weekly radio show on Rinse, for which he has a clear vision: it is not about him, it is about the music. “You know how DJs put together promotional mixes every few months, I do one a week, and I put a bit of speech over the top. I wanted it to be more like that, more about the music, so you can put it on and listen and enjoy. I don’t like radio shows where you stop and say exactly what everything is.”
Despite spending so much time finding music, this reluctance to frequently identify tracks on air does not stem from a desire to keep them to himself. “I’m not being protective, if people want to know, they tweet me asking what record was playing however many minutes into the show and I’ll tell them. I’d just rather do that if someone’s actually interested, rather than spoiling a mix by interrupting it for everyone. If I listen to radio, I don’t want to hear that shit, I just want to listen to music.”
Aside from his quality selections though, the uniqueness of Artwork’s show is also due in part to his on-air conversations with co-hosts Mehmet and DMZ MC Sgt. Pokes. From their own take on current affairs to having once held an on-air listener-to-listener amnesty, they give the show life and character. So where does that fit in to it being all about the music? “At the moment, I’ve started doing less and less of that, because it seems that if you try and do occasional funny stuff, people don’t take you very seriously. If you want to play the big gigs and all that, you can’t be seen to be have a personality too, which is fucking weird.”
Even as a radio veteran, Art says he has struggled with this throughout. “I find it really strange that people question whether you can be serious about your music and still have a laugh. I think you can, but I don’t think other people agree. As soon as they see you taking the piss sometimes, they assume you’re not taking the music seriously either, which is totally wrong.”
“I think people want their music people to be just into music.” In an age where the DJ is so idolised, this expectation for them to perform without revealing much about their own personality is somewhat paradoxical. I’m about to ask about the growing focus on showmanship and the DJ, but his interruption makes his opinion clear. “That’s absolute bullshit. I love what the Despacio guys are doing, setting up a sound system all round the edges of the venue while they’re just hiding in the corner. They’ve got great lights and great sound and play great records, but you wouldn’t even know they were there. That’s amazing, it’s how it should be. They’ve smashed it, I should have thought of that.”
Things have changed since the first FWD and DMZ nights.“You’d know who the DJs were, but you’d go to the night because it was a great night. You knew the people running the night would pick good DJs. It really wasn’t about the showmanship. A DJ, really, they’re just someone who’s got a good taste in music, they’re not the be all and end all.” You won’t find many DJs of Artwork’s calibre saying something like that. “The crowd, the club, the sound, the lights, the atmosphere, that’s what should matter. It’s been completely over-hyped that this person is the be all and end all of the night, they are a very small part of it. Yeah they’re playing great music – there’s loads of people that can play great music.”
We’re not sat far from the festival’s other stages, and thudding basslines spill out of the tents. “So if you were to organise an event like this”, I ask, “would you do it differently?”. “If I had a festival, it wouldn’t last long”, he laughs. “It’s become a formula: there’s that tent, these people are playing then, that’s their slot. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it works, but so much of it now is the same. I’m aching for something different, I’d love to see something completely off the wall.” He pauses and grins. “Maybe I’ll set up a festival and lose all my money. You couldn’t do what I wanted to do, there’s so much health and safety bullshit nowadays that you’d have to go abroad or get your own island.”
You can’t fault him for not trying. Artwork, Skream, TEED and Route 94 hosted a party in a Rinse listener’s house earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, the residential location meant it was shut down pretty quickly, but it birthed the idea for Art’s House, a series of parties at The Nest last June. Truly committed to the theme, the club too was decorated to look like a living room. “Sorting that out was horrendous. It took me like two or three days before the party to make place look the part. It was nuts, I panelled out all the walls of the club and wallpaper them and put pictures on, we had fireplaces, sofas, ridiculous.”
After all that effort though, the parties themselves were incredibly successful. “I’m actually really surprised by how well they went. I wanted it to be about the party, that was the whole premise behind it. It was really great that people actually turned up knowing that it was going to be a good time, not because there’s this guest or that guest, just because you just trusted me that it was going to be good. That’s something I wanted to bring back, less of looking at a bill, more just having a good party.
Finally back in the production game and retaining the same undying commitment to the music throughout his lengthy career, Artwork’s looks set only to rise even higher.