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The Origins of Mellow Grime
Made With Tracklib

The Origins of Mellow Grime

The high-energy, rugged sound of grime was born from a gritty mishmash of hip-hop, UK garage, dancehall, reggae/dub, and more sounds from the underground in the early noughties. UK producer KwolleM makes opposites attract with a much more laid-back take on the UK-born genre: pioneering a style he calls Mellow Grime, following his collaborations with heavyweights such as Dizzee Rascal, Skepta & AJ Tracey.

By DannyVeekens

The first EP by KwolleM (‘Mellow K’ spelled backward) from 2017 serves somewhat of a contrast. Who would expect a high-pitched 70s soul voice opening an EP with track titles including “Hood Antics and “Hood Enough,” or a soothing piano melody on a track featuring grime heavy-hitter Skepta? “It’s the juxtaposition you never considered would work,” explains the UK producer. “It’s playing on the feelings of nostalgia, softness, mellowness, and coupling it with the grimy, cruddy vibes I’ve always been in, adjacent to, and grown to love. It’s also adding a level of maturity to the relatively new genre grime is. Artists like Kano have always been multidimensional and innovative throughout his career. Not confined to a purely electronic sound.”

KwolleM dissects the genre of Grime, and replaces the genre’s essential building blocks with new stepping stones: soul, jazz and R&B samples and influences. Single-handedly crafting a new evolution for the relatively young genre of music, which traces back to the early 2000s when artists such as Wiley, Kano, Dizzee Rascal & Lethal Bizzle brought grime from the underground (including airplay on pirate radio stations) to mainstream attention. A pivotal moment was when Dizzee Rascal won a Mercury Prize in 2003 for his debut album, Boy In Da Corner.

KwolleM (Photo: Ciesay/ Places+Faces)
KwolleM (Photo: Ciesay/ Places+Faces)

KwolleM’s mellow take on the genre is further explored on his new album C2C together with rapper Joe James, including five tracks featuring Tracklib samples. Two weeks ahead of its release, this led to a brief email exchange on how he flips the script for the now-massively popular genre. KwolleM: “I’ve never actually asked [Dizzee or Skepta]. But Dizzee Rascal birthed his style of grime and won a Mercury doing it. So I’m sure he respects the evolution I’m attempting to influence.”

You replace grime’s backbone of UK garage, dancehall, reggae, and other genres to a skeleton of soul, jazz, and R&B samples. What sparked the idea for this surprising combination of styles?

My main producer influences are Nujabes (who influenced my artist name - which is Mellow K spelled backward), next to The Alchemist & Knxwledge. Nujabes was the epiphany of mellow. He coupled it with hip-hop elements, with still a genuine ‘Far East feel’ to it. He made it clear that it’s important for me to keep my British essence. That’s why I didn’t decide to follow Knxwledge and make ‘mellow reimaginings’ of Chief Keef or somethin’.

So in their turn, how did the work of Knxwledge and The Alchemist influence you while shaping Mellow Grime?

The Alchemist is renowned for his ability to crate-dig and reintroduce lost sounds for us to all to enjoy. He gave me the confidence to use sampling as the foundation of my tracks. Knxwledge is the producer who sparked the idea in my head that Mellow Grime could work. The marriage of Mellow & Grime—in my case that also encompasses the other genres birthed in the areas I grew up in, like Drill—is something I knew made sense after listening to a Knxwledge remix of a Meek Mill rap battle on MEEK.VOL5_.

Electronic music and Grime can be very harsh. Appropriately so. I’m essentially just offering it in an easier pill to swallow.

Adding jazz, soul and R&B to the equation also seems to fit in better with sampling and crate-digging culture. To which extent is that a key influence? Do you consider yourself to be a crate-digger?

That influenced Mellow Grime totally. Sampling allows the dust and cobwebs to be removed from otherwise forgotten records and breath a new lease of life into them. It keeps the cycle of creating & influence going. In the SoundCloud-era, making a song started for me with spending hours scouring Youtube. A journey for the most obscure mellow samples—be it jazz, soul, R&B or even gospel. But I had no desire to program the drums and pianos myself, and then get a choir, and then a trumpet player to add some stems and a violinist to add some more like I’m Just Blaze. I was too DIY and just an amateur having fun.

"Tracklib allows producers in love with a crate-digging style of producing to create and monetize their content."

—KwolleM

Which potential do you see for Tracklib for producers in the (near) future?

From the first time I heard of Tracklib last year to now, there’s already been considerable growth. Monthly credits to download original masters, the ability to loop elements of songs, and a section to get inspired. Tracklib allows producers in love with a crate-digging style of producing to create and monetize their content. But also introduces a style of producing that they may have originally disregarded; because it wasn’t logistically or financially viable. So it seems inevitable that the form of producing will grow even more as Tracklib does.

C2C started as just one song and now it’s four tracks using Tracklib samples—a testament to the addictive nature of Tracklib [laughs].

'C2C' TRACK / SAMPLE BREAKDOWN

SSS (ft. Crazy Titch & Joe James)

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0:00 · 2:06

“The sample formed the foundation of the first half of the song. I gravitated towards Chords’ ‘Al Wants His Stuff Back,’ as it sounded like a day out at the seaside, perfectly setting the scene. Typically I have to deal with samples that aren’t even close to 140bpm. So the most important part was adding hi-hats to carry it. Everything else is just your typically ‘Kick & Snare.’”

West Ham (ft. Roachee & Joe James)

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"I needed something mellow and smooth to contrast to the hard-hitting grimey verses that precede and follow it. ESTA.’s 'ForYou(&HerToo)' was perfect for that. Paints a picture of a momentary lapse of emotion, that shifts right back into the status-quo."

Barking (& Dagenham) (ft. Devlin)

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Alvin Davis’ ‘Sundowner’ was the most difficult sample I had to work with. Beyond chopping it up to work at 140bpm, there’s some percussion that felt out of place. But the beauty of sampling is finding a workaround. I added some train sounds in the background, which masks it and allows Joe to flow without being thrown off.”

Woolwich Arsenal (DLR) ft. DC

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"Sonically, I wanted this song to be mellow, but a diversion of the more soulful samples used on other tracks. Fully emphasising that this song is a sonic and literal diversion from the C2C train line. The sample is 'Forget Me' by ESTA."

Fenchurch St - Last Stop (140 bpm)

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“As mentioned, I’ve known about Tracklib since last year and the sample used in this track (Band of Thieves’ ‘Love Me or Leave Me’) was one that I knew about from back then. I listened to it and impatiently breezed past it. For whatever reason I took in the sample again, and actually listened to it in its entirety to find the intro’s vibe was considerably different to the actual song. I summoned my inner-Alchemist, and used the sample and tried to make the drums as bare as possible. I just chopped up the sample, doubled-down on the kicks, and added some hi-hats midway.”

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