Dubstep don Demon is channelling his inner 90s junglist under his new alias
Raff Di Renzo has had various guises, aliases and roles over the last 15 years. A 90s jungle drum & bass kid at heart, he’s spent the last 20 years gradually finding his sound, developing his skills and working out exactly where he wants to go.
First there was Macabre Unit, a London grime crew who bashed the 2000s into submission with Raff at the helm as a producer. Then came his next alias Demon, a guise that ran in the Macabre Unit shadows and represented the London artist in the first stages of his solo career as he launched and developed his cult 140/bass label M.U.D (Macabre Unit Digital). And then finally, he became Nurve.
Originally established as a techno alias when Pinch signed some of Raff's tunes to his iconic Tectonic imprint a few years back, it’s a name Raff has had for a while now, but only ever used for a small number of releases. His full-time job working alongside Nomine at Education & Bass, plus the consistent slew of M.U.D releases, are two reasons why he’s not been as prolific as a producer. But the biggest influence has been behind the scenes: he’s been listening to his inner 90s jungle kid that inspired him to immerse himself in music so much in the first place. Fundamentally, he’s been chiseling his sound, sharpening his skills and creating the music he’s always wanted to make.
It starts this month with a brand-new label Nurve Music and a chop-melting three-track EP, fittingly entitled Decimate. So powerful it could trim a cat’s whiskers from 10 miles, it’s heavier, more complex and turbo-charged than anything Raff has ever written before. It’s also his most personal project to date. Effectively a work-in-progress since he first heard the likes of Konflict and Optical as a young teenager, Nurve Music is the sound of a man who knows exactly where he wants to go.
This is how he’s getting there…
The first time I became aware of you was when Macabre Unit Digital launched, but I know you go back further…
"Yeah the whole Macabre Unit thing started about 15 years ago. Primarily we were a grime crew. I was a producer and DJ for them, and we did the grime thing for many years. Then the whole M.U.D thing started in 2012. That was quite a pivotal moment for me. I’d spent so many years trying to work out who I wanted to be as an artist. "
You hadn’t found your sound?
"I was a jungle/drum & bass kid at heart but didn't feel I had the skill set to match my heroes, so I went off on a grime one. As time went by, I started to bring my D&B influences into the grime I was making and found myself kinda in the dubstep realm, but not exactly part of it.
"I was doing a lot of neuro-influenced basslines and a lot of synth-based stuff. That was very different from the dubstep of the time, which was a lot warmer, more dub-influenced and musical. My stuff was all quirky square waves and cuddly animated basses, as opposed to your dark Noisia cutting synth basses which I’m more accustomed to using now.
"Anyway, I kinda felt like I’d hit a brick wall for a while and I completely fell out of love with producing. I lost it and couldn’t do anything for three or four months. It was painful and the longest period since the age of 18 when I hadn’t written any music. It was bizarre. I blamed the software, I blamed everything."
Nothing worse than writer’s block!
"Totally. I’m one of these people who’ll always spin it in to a positive, though. I thought, ‘I can’t do this right now, so what can I do?’ I thought about a label and wanted to bring Macabre Unit back to life and call it Macabre Unit Digital.
"I contacted Biome, Versa and all my pals around me who were making things I loved. It wasn’t really dubstep, it was in a league of its own. I knew, like me, they were all D&B heads. They were all onboard and it went off from there. I posted the logo, put a thread up on Dubstep Forum and things went mad. It was almost like ‘at last!’
"For me, it was the dubstep I wanted to hear. I wanted to do something myself and I used the label to fill the void I was personally feeling by championing other people’s music I loved. And, in turn, they introduced me to Ableton. Bang, I was back! It was weird, really. I was making the M.U.D sound. I’d seen this label from the outside and it inspired me to make that music to be on the label."
Even though it was your label!?
"Yeah it was bizarre. I needed the label to give me a vision to write music for. I had nothing to write the music for, but once it was set up it felt like a jigsaw had come together. I had some big tracks and, before we knew it, we were touring the states. M.U.D had become a brand and had a vibe that people recognised and identified with. And that’s the vibe I’ve always pushed with it since then. I just sent release 052 to mastering."
Now you’re launching the drum & bass side to what you do, will you continue running M.U.D with so many prolific releases?
"For sure, man – it’s my duty to keep it going for the artists. And it’s interesting: I’ve never had a release on there as Nurve. Ever. I’ve only ever released on it as Demon. A part of me thinks, ‘That’s okay, the label is strong enough with the artists.’ If they’re completely into the music and doing it from the heart then I want to give them the platform.
"So yeah, it’s my duty that M.U.D goes on forever and my duty to people who’ve followed it and supported it for over seven years now. No matter where I’ll be in five years, even if I’m making ambient flute music in a forest somewhere, I’m still going to be scheduling those releases. I owe it to those people. It acts as a platform to bring people through and create opportunities."
I think some of the most exciting labels do that – they bring people through but don’t tie them down…
"Absolutely. I love seeing what everyone who’s been on the label has done. Biome is killing it. Regardless of whether he’s been on my label or not, he’d make it anyway. His talent is incredible. People still try and recreate his sound and they can’t make those basses. I still hear it now. He basically sculpted a whole sub-genre and heavily inspired me as well. He fused what I wanted to try and do. I was trying to translate the synth work and D&B energy into my dubstep, then I heard him and thought ‘gotcha’."
Biome makes it roll. Minimal elements all working together, like an Italian dish!
"That’s the nail the head. No element stands out, it all just works so smoothly. It’s like he’s varnished the track and it’s so silky. It’s so impressive. It’s a privilege to have worked with him, toured with him and what he did for the label. He gave it so much power."
So now we move on to the new chapter. Some of the earliest Nurve releases on Nurve Music…
"The first ever Nurve release was actually a techno release. I was just messing around and Pinch was really into them and signed them to Tectonic. So the name Nurve was primarily set up to do techno things. It never worked out with dubstep as Nurve: it’s like a weird psychological thing, I can’t do what Demon did, even though we’re the same person! It’s so bizarre."
Like the more you try, the harder it gets?
"Totally. So I spent two to three years tinkering about, focusing on drum & bass. That’s my first love, that’s why we’re talking now. Everything I do has drum & bass in it. I have a few producers I try to incorporate into my work, consciously, subconsciously, everything.
"I was making it and sending it to Nomine and he was giving me good feedback but I said it’s not ready. My folder is full of tracks, I’m just constantly trying to get it better and better. Even when this release was scheduled I was thinking, ‘Nah I need to change it, I know I’ve got a better one done now’. But I knew I needed to get it out there myself, rather than sending it to different labels. I don’t want to be chasing chasing chasing something that’s not guaranteed."
You mentioned influences earlier. Lemme guess… Konflict, Photek, Source Direct?
"You could stop at Konflict bruv! The Kemal and Rob Data connection was just magic. If I met Kemal I’d have to control my emotions a bit. The effect he’s had on me is hard to put into words. All those guys back then, Optical, Dillinja, Photek, Source Direct were hugely influential but Kemal and Rob just took things to mad new levels.
"Optical is right up there, too. I remember listening to One In The Jungle, 14 years old. Grooverider played Moving 808s and I was down the record shop the next day asking for it. The guy behind the counter was like, ‘You’re a bit young for that!'
"That was another moment where it all got serious for me. One of those literal ‘what the fuck?’ moments. Optical was just outstanding. He’s quite jazzy and funky in the way he did things, but it was dark as anything. Moody. I could listen to his stuff and Konflict's stuff for ever and ever. Not in a ‘good old days’ type of way but in a formative way."
You’ll always have a special relationship with the sounds from the era you got into things, right?
"Yeah man. I’ll always remember when I heard a Micky Finn tape when I was kid. My dad was a disco DJ. Just playing disco. He never mixed, but there was always vinyl and turntables around the house. I remember hearing this Micky Finn tape and I was absolutely blown away. How did the sounds come together? What was he doing? I hadto get decks, I needed to know. I can still remember my first-ever mix. Quest, Andy C & Shimon. I rang my sister I was so buzzing."
Yes! That never leaves you. So what’s next in this new chapter?
"I’m comfortable with my sound. I want the EPs to be versatile: a bit chilled, a bit gnarly, whatever I’m feeling. This is out on 23 August and I’ll aim to have something out every six weeks to two months. It all depends on where I’m at – I don’t want to chuck just anything out there."
Amen. Something tells me Nurve Music is a lot more personal than anything you’ve done before and we’ll only hear your releases on there?
"Definitely. Nurve Music will be very personal and an exploration into my own sound and influences and roots. I’ve got M.U.D doing its thing with a great community of artists onboard and fans supporting it. Now Nurve Music is to see what I can do and how far I can take it."
Words: Dave Jenkins
Decimate is out on Nurve Music on 23 August. Buy it here.