Sheffield — home of Arctic Monkeys, Pulp and a host of other indie-rock greats — is, on paper, not the likeliest birthplace for a superhero of Jamaican dancehall. At just 23 years of age, Tom Bell, aka Toddla T, has almost single-handedly made the Caribbean island’s exotic, clattering rhythms relevant to a young, interracial U.K. demographic.
First signed to a Sony subsidiary when barely out of his teens, Toddla’s 2009 debut, Skanky Skanky, was fresh, lively and loud, channeling dancehall’s hurtling energy via the clanking techno tradition of Sheffield’s Warp Records. The youngster duly gained the respect of clubbers and media alike, and yet, like countless developing artists, he was soon beset by recessionary compromises in the corporate zone, and quickly jumped ship to South London’s pioneering beats-’n’-pieces indie, Ninja Tune.
His second record, Watch Me Dance, finds him easing off the gas a little, cross-pollinating his familiar Jamaicana with other flavors from ’80s funk/soul, contemporary R&B and hip-hop. Guests include pack-leading U.K. rappers Roots Manuva and Ms Dynamite, Brit-soul legend Shola Ama, dubstep titan Skream, and Sheffield rave siren Roisin Murphy, as well as Toddla’s trusty MC Serocee. Also in the mix: loving vibes, social positivity, and a highly welcome splash of humor.
This may be Mr Bell’s coming-of-age record, and he may be shacked up in London now, but he remains a hilarious wild card, wise-cracking in a fresh amalgam of North/South street vernacular.
Your first outing was pretty hectic and banging, but Watch Me Dance feels more seductive, and varied. Has your listening mellowed with age?
When I made the first album, I was obviously younger. Some of them tunes I started writing the beats to probably when I was about 18, 19. At the time, I was in Sheffield, and we was playing out, and all I cared about was my direct crew, and what they thought of my music. I was maybe scared to express other sides of what I was into.
On this album, I was like, “Fuck it, I just wanna make music that references things I genuinely believe in, even if it is a bit cheesy or soft for some people.” Also, I didn’t wanna make the same album again; there was just no point. There was some tunes that sounded like the first album. I just left ‘em off.
The title track has a P-Funk/Prince-y party vibe, and then there’s some mellower, more R&B-flavored stuff aboard, like “Take It Back,” “Body Good” and “Lovely Girl.” Is that the soft, cheesy stuff you’re talking about?
Exactly! When I first came out as a DJ and a remixer, I felt like I had to do all my remixes and DJ mixes a certain way, because that’s what people expected, which was basically heavy, dancehall-influenced dance music. That was always just one part of what I was into, but that was the one that caught wind, so I went with it a little bit, and I wouldn’t dare step out of that comfort zone. On this album, I was like, “I’m gonna show people. From now on, it’s gonna be all over the gaff stylistically.”
How did you hook up with Roots Manuva for the title track?
Rodney was going out with a girl that lived up in Sheffield, so he was based up there for a good year or so. At the time, I was working in Kenwood studios as a part-time sound engineer, and also in shops selling trainers, to balance my money. This was around the time I put out my first 7-inches through 1965. Rodney booked into the studio for two weeks at a time to finish his last album, Slime & Reason, so I was engineering on that album, and ended up producing on it as well. We’ve had a working relationship and friendship since them days, which is probably about four years ago now.
So this tune here was simple, man, we just went into the studio and vibed it out. He’s such an incredible rapper. I still rate him as one of the best, even though a lot of the young guys don’t even know who he is. He could step up to them and kill them, but I just think there’s the other side to him as well, the charismatic, bouncey, sing-y side — the side that only Rodney can do, which is basically Watch Me Dance, where he’s not singing, not rapping, he’s just being Rodney. It was fun to do a full track of that vibe.
You also worked with Skream — dubstep’s but a short hop from what you do…
Yeah, exactly. I’ve always got kind of slipstreamed in with dubstep. I became mates with Ollie from seeing him at gigs. He used to speed some of my tunes up to 140 — some high-energy business! We did this tune over iChat. I made the drums and he put the bleeps on it, then I took it to Jamaica and got it voiced by, like, eight different people. Then I came back to England, and I felt like the vocals were working too hard on the beats.
I went back to Jamaica a second time to work with Major Lazer on their album. I went to Tuff Gong (Bob Marley’s studio) one day, working, and Wayne Marshall walked in. I’ve been a fan of Wayne’s ever since I’ve been buying reggae really. I was a bit like, “Woah!” I played him a bunch of stuff, he did a couple of tunes, and I just thought the vocal suited the darkness of the beat perfectly.
Rewind! You casually mention you went to Jamaica twice! That must’ve been a dream come true for a young reggae nut from Yorkshire…
Haha, yeah! I went there four times now; three times to work. It was the most amazing pilgrimage of music ever for me. With Major Lazer, they were working with big-name artists, so we linked up with Elephant Man, went to Beenie Man’s house…The third time I went, I booked out Big Yard, which is Shaggy’s studio, for three days and got everyone to come through. So Cecille came on the first day, second day it was Ward 21, and I DJ’d out there for the first time. Then I shot a music video for “Streets So Warm.” It was fucking amazing — three days of real intenseness, which I’ll never forget.
“Streets So Warm” is a plea to the government to curb gun culture. “How Beautiful It Would Be” calls for racial unity. Did you and your peeps see the riots coming?
I think what’s happened in England is, like, a lot of people were stupid enough to not know what’s going on, because they’re so disengaged with the reality of certain areas of Britain. I really like them songs because they’re heartfelt, and conscious. That was something I wanted to do on this album; just be a bit more serious in places, and positive. I’ll come to the studio and watch so many rappers on YouTube, and it’s young lads who’re talking about how they shot white, and how they’ve got a gun and all this shit, and it’s very overwhelming, all that negativity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It takes balls to step out of that comfort zone, so anyone who does that, I highly respect.
As a kid, how did you come up with the idea of marrying Jamaican dancehall with the clanging industrial sound of Sheffield legends like Cabaret Voltaire and Warp Records?
I started DJing from very young — like at 10, 11 — but I was always into hip-hop. Then when I got to 15, 16, and I was old enough to get a job and see the bigger picture, I’d go out and hear reggae and dancehall in the parties, and also I’d hear dance music for the first time. When they’d play all these styles, then drop down to pure reggae and dancehall, it just sounded really exciting to me. And then they’d be playing all the Sheffield stuff next to it, and it kind of made sense, because of the sounds and the way it kicked on the sound system.
Who was doing that before you?
The main people were DJs like Pipes and Winston. The producers were Parrot and Ross Orton. Literally, what happened was: Winston, who was one of the main DJs in Sheffield in the early ’80s, was one of the only people playing black music in Sheffield. He’s got Jamaican descent, but he never really liked reggae and dancehall. He was always into boogie and soul. In about ’91 or ’92, he went to Jamaica on a family trip, and he just totally fell in love with dancehall. He was playing a lot of acid house at the time, but he came back to England, and he brought loads of 45s with him, and he was playing versions, instrumentals, next to house, because to him it sounded very similar sonically. And from there, Pipes heard it and thought, ‘Woah, this is amazing.’ Then Parrot and Ross Orton would be at them raves, and they’d take it away and put it to what they did… all the way down to me, who in ’92, ’93, was like 8!
Were you never switched on by Sheffield’s indie scene?
Well, the thing I’m talking about was basically just two DJs and two producers, and about 200 people in the crowd. It was super-niche and underground — whereas, when the Monkeys came along, it was a proper scene, and obviously not just in Sheffield, but around the whole U.K. and whole sections of the world. I still think what Winny and Pipes and them’ve done had more heritage in it. To me that’s a lot more Sheffield music. Arctic Monkeys are from Sheffield, but it’s not Sheffield music.
Were you a classic case of bedroom youth, liberated in music making by Logic or whatever?
Yeah, totally, I was one of the first generation of that. We had a PC in our house from when I was 15, which I could just churn away on. I was lucky enough as well to have friends who had studios; who showed me certain techniques on the analog-synth side of things, which nowadays gives my stuff a different vibe. From there, the technology went on and as I got older it was even easier to do it, and I had a studio for years in my bedroom, in the attic at my mum and dad’s. That’s where I did all the early Roots Manuva stuff.
In a flash you were basically working for Sony. Was that a bit insane?
Yeah, it was totally mad. I was putting little bits out, as Toddla T with that Sheffield dancehall vibe, and was sending it to labels, but no-one was having it. Then I sent it to this guy Raf [Rundell, from 1965 Records], and he was like, “This is brilliant, we wanna put it out straight away.” I was like, “Bloody hell, I’m away, somebody really understands this.” Whether it was on Sony, EMI, or a market stall, I’d still have gone with that label.
It was a complete headfuck, because we’d go to studios to voice a rhythm, then go to a little party and DJ to 10 or 15 people. Then we’d get in a taxi, paid-for, to go and see the View [1965's biggest indie rock act] in front of thousands of kids, then go to some stupidly over-the-top afterparty, and then wake up, then go back to Sheff and DJ to no one again. It was a good insight into the reality of the industry, and the higher end of stuff, but it was totally bonkers, yeah.
It’s been a terrible time to be a young artist on a major label. If you don’t go supernova within the first couple of singles, you get dumped…
The problem was, they took 1965 out of their own little office, so Raf left. By the time my album came out, there was literally no one left at the label to help. There was a lot of nightmares: We had meetings, and they simply just didn’t get it, or give a fuck. Which is cool — why would you, when Calvin Harris is about to sell a million? I wouldn’t, if I was at a major and I just cared about money. We wasn’t up on iTunes on the day of release, no one was picking up the phone in the office, and it was just because I didn’t have a relationship with anyone there. That’s the main thing I learnt: it’s all about relationships, because then shit will get done.
Was Ninja an obvious home after that?
Exactly. At the time, me and Raf was on about setting up a label together, so I said I wanted him involved in everything, because I didn’t trust anyone else A&R-wise. So we set up a label called Girls Music, and we put it through Ninja Tune. Raf A&R’d the album, he helped sort out collaborations, and mixed a lot of it with me. The thing is with Ninja, you go into the label office, and it’s full of people who like music. It sounds a bit stupid, but that’s rare. What I’m doing is so different to other stuff on the label, like Bonobo, or Eskmo, but Pete Quicke [Ninja boss] sees it all individually, and was so positive. It’s been amazing, such a good experience.
The first record was pretty hammering and mental — a white northerner with songs about rice and peas! If that confused people, do you think this one will sort them out?
Yeah, they probably were confused, but in a way it’s cool if it’s confusing. I just go with gut instincts. This is an average week for me: Last night I was on Robbo Ranx show on 1Xtra, which is the only weekly pure dancehall show on the whole BBC network. He said, “I still don’t know what to call you, what type of DJ you are.” Then I’ll go on Nick Grimshaw a couple of nights later, which is the polar opposite — basically a pop-indie show &8212; and he would say the same thing. People are either into it or they’re not.