Sbtrkt‘s sound is difficult to pin down. The broad spectrum of genres that he draws his magic from is endless. Generally, you’ll find a simple yet thoughtful bassline, syncopated drums loops, melodic synths, and contemplative vocals with expert delivery. These methods are enough to get the attention of M.I.A and Radiohead among others. Sbtrkt’s deep remix bag includes Basement Jaxx, Modeselektor and Mark Ronson. If you had to put the London based, Kenyan-born DJ in a box it would be have to be big enough to hold the massive mingling of chill dubstep, minimal house, Chicago house, two-step, UK funky and US RnB. He is also no stranger to jungle and jazz. Jump about his Essentials Mix to get an idea:
What causes him to remain a curious stranger is the mask. Designed by Hidden Place, the tribal masks seem to work for and against Sbtrkt. The subtraction to the essence is not limited to production but also to his presentation to the media. There is a plague damning tracks to never-listened-to-hell because the producer is unknown; judging a song by its DJ, if you will. It seems Sbtrkt wants to bring the music industry back to music. His masks are a symbol of the anonymity between the artist an his music.
Today, one major component of a successful career is exposure. This requires an artist to establish his/her imagine. It is a sort of branding and this means consistency. However, constraint is a part of the method too. Take the response to the sophomore album by Justice: Audio, Video, Disco. The “Justice sound” was established in the aftermath of † and the fan expectation of another album was deflated when the duo tried something different and outside of their trademark. Critics should be taken lightly but for what it is worth Spin Mag gave the album a less than spectacular 6/10. An artist’s image may end up becoming an obstacle to re-inventiveness. However, it all depends on the type of fan that an artist attracts and whether or not fan approval is going to limit an artist’s risk taking in production. What Sbtrkt maybe attempting to do here is a refusal of being constrained; a defiant “f*ck you” to expectations.
Yet against him, his masks draw more curiosity to the real identity. Perhaps it could even be an ego driven form of marketing to bring more welcome attention to himself while maintaining the appearance of humility. The masks have become a sort of a Sbtrkt brand themselves. Take the current wash of DJs. Sure, there are a few skin tones and a few girls that stand out, but the ones with a cover over their mug (Daft Punk, Deadmau5) attract more investigation. To an extent they are more marketable because they appear to be unique. Just having a human face and musical talent may not be enough. To be honest, Sbtrkt isn’t trying very hard to remain anonymous. There are loads of written and video interviews in which he openly answers personal questions about himself and his production process. Check out 3RRR for a radio discussion about his thoughts on the modern electronic music scene. There is an excellent interview by Ruth Saxelby on Dummymag.
It doesn’t take much to get a sense of Sbtrkt as a person. You’d be wrong to think of him as a deceitful self-centered attention seeker. In early video interviews he comes across a little shy and nervous. His impatient sentences jump out of his mouth only punctuated by laughter. Sbtrkt has a warm personality and seems to be a true self-taught artist. He doesn’t mind the inquisitive, but at the same time is quick to push the focus back on his sound rather than the image.
Before the mask in 2007 an album Time to Rearrange was released with his real name on the cover. Right away the jazz vibe dominates. Not much is shed in his transition to a new image – or lack there of – other than a slight shift away from organic instruments. Jump a few fruitful years with Sampha to 2011 and the Sbtrkt most know launched under the label Young Turks. The self-titled album includes “Hold On” and “Wildfire” with the contribution of Swedish / Japanese Yukimi Nagano from Little Dragon.
We can thank Tricky, A Tribe Called Quest, and even The Police and Led Zeppelin for shaping Sbtrkt’s musical world. There goes out a huge thank you to the London club “Plastic People” for allowing the young DJ a place to start his career. Soon he’ll be in Detroit and later scattered over the globe including stops in Croatia, Tokyo and Amsterdam. If you can, get tickets to the massive festival Sasquatch in May where he is sure to spawn a following of mask wearing minions.