Anyone with knowledge of drum ‘n bass history has heard the name E-Sassin at least once – the curator of Sound Sphere Recordings, and a member of the legendary Phunkateck collective out of San Francisco. He houses releases on labels like Moving Shadow, Thermal, Pneuma, and Titanium; in addition to his own imprint. Best Drum and Bass digs a little deeper into Eric Hull’s past to uncover a vast treasure chest of knowledge.
So let’s talk about the more obscure and interesting things about E-Sassin that isn’t in the typical E-Sassin interview, shall we?
Sounds like a plan.
You’re definitely one of the elder leaders in our scene, but you played in a bunch of progressive rock and metal bands throughout the 70s and 80s. Give us the history. How did this transmute to getting involved in rave culture towards the end of the 80s?
Thanks for that. I’ve always been into progressive, challenging and heavier music. When I started out playing drums in the 70’s, I was influenced early on by bands like King Crimson, Genesis, Rush, Yes and more specifically, musicians like John McLaughlin, Patrick Moraz, Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola and stuff like that…a lot of jazz influenced music. This music really gave me a solid foundation in different rhythms, patterns and arrangements of music. Then, sometime in the early-mid 80’s, after playing a show at the Troubadour in Hollywood, I was approached by someone from a heavy metal band that was looking for a new drummer and was impressed with my chops. I decided to check it out and was blown away with the sound, energy level and aggressiveness of their music. I was converted to a “metal head” but still love progressive and classic rock.
So, jumping forward a bit, while I was expanding my knowledge base at a recording engineering school, I met this guy who was producing electronic music, techno, house and hip-hop. We hit it off and he took me to my first hardcore rave. Once again, I was blown away with the sound, energy level and aggressiveness. To me, it was the electronic version of metal. At this point I had kind of had it with bands over the years because it was so hard to get everyone on the same page, same direction and same goals musically. It was like I was the only one who was approaching it more as a business than a hobby, so it seemed that producing music on a computer, where one could be in complete control over every aspect of one’s music was a viable direction for me to pursue…it just so happened I started out this venture making techno on an Atari 1040st with Cubase and an 8 bit Emax sampler, both of which I still have but have left very far behind.
You released a techno album in 1992 that received high praise, before trekking into drum & bass. Tell us a bit about that album. How did it influence your sound coming into drum ’n bass around the mid 90s?
Well, looking back I am like, “What were we thinking”? Being so new to the techno/rave culture, I was just kind of going along with my partner’s ideas and actually producing as a musical record as opposed to a dance record. It should be hitting so much harder but we all learn as we go. During this time though, I did learn a lot about sampling, sample editing and DJ formats and arrangements. It was at this point I was officially dubbed “E-Sassin” by my production partner. Carrying these techniques forward into producing drum and bass made it possible for me to rearrange the breaks and reprogram them instead of just using a looped sample.
You were also inducted into groups, L.A. Rave and The Movement, which made their way around the world. What were these groups about?
As it goes, shortly after releasing that techno album, I ended up hooking up with Sunshine Records, who was having good success at the time with The Movement and was looking for musicians for their new techno/house project, L.A. Rave. We did quite a few shows together with The Movement, including a tour in Costa Rica. Sadly, that project couldn’t get a solid foothold so I ended up working with The Movement, tour managing for the next several months and spending time in the studio with them working on some ideas for follow up tracks to their smash hits “Jump!” and “B-I-N-G-O”. During this time I also started working with another Sunshine artist, Miranda. I ended up writing and producing a lot of house tracks for her, including her break-out hit, “Round and Round”, which actually started out as a techno track for L.A. Rave, along with many other tracks that were to be featured on her album. So, as busy with Sunshine as I was, L.A. Rave eventually fell by the wayside. I did manage to do some music and shows for a brief time with The Movement 2.0, but by this time, the techno/rave scene seemed to be fading out and jungle was just starting to make its way into America. I was listening to breakbeat techno and early jungle and new that this was my calling. I had to start making jungle and drum & bass. It was all about the drums, rhythms and beat programming…everything I was into but had been mostly absent from 4/4 dance music. But I digress.
What are some of your fondest memories of those times?
Hmmm…For sure, getting to spend time with, and learn from people that knew more than me, or at least had different ways of producing. Also, the touring and doing live shows was a blast. Being on stage in front of huge crowds, rocking the vibes – awesome! Another big one was the show L.A. Rave did in Japan. It was for a live T.V. broadcast from the Juliana’s night club called Juliana’s Tokyo Live, the equivalent of something like our American Bandstand with literally millions of viewers. What an experience! And Costa Rica, like I mentioned earlier, was another awesome experience.
What would you say were your most impactful releases up until now?
Firstly, I would have to say “Symptom”. It was the best-selling Sound Sphere release, thanks in part to Dieselboy featuring it on his System Upgrade Mix CD. It was the culmination of everything I was doing at the time and it was one of those times that everything just came together right. Another one high on the list would be the track I did with R.A.W., “Soundstorm”. It still gets rinsed and was a milestone for American jungle productions. Also, the remixes I did for Raiden’s “Infection” (Renegade Hardware) and Dom & Optical’s “Quadrant Six” (Moving Shadow) were quite well received, in addition to being impactful on me personally. I really enjoyed working on those.
You recently released the Sound Sphere Remix LP, featuring the likes of old school batboy R.A.W., Arsenic, Indijinous, Jo-S, and more. How did you come around to selecting the artists to be featured?
It initially started with Jo-S wanting to remix something for me. I told him to just pick something off the Sound Sphere catalog and he chose “Malfunction”. It got me thinking about getting some heads together to remix a bunch of stuff off the catalog to help with the re-launch of the Sound Sphere label. I reached out to friends and other producers I had an appreciation for, as well as some new acquaintances about remixing tracks from the back catalog and the response was really well received. In trying to source some new talent as well, I set up a remix contest for anyone interested in remixing the very first release, “Full Circle”. The winner from that contest, False Flag was also featured on the Remix Album. All in all, it turned out much as I expected from the amazing pool of talent that provided remixes. There were a few more I would have liked to include like Gridlok, Zardonic, Dieselboy, Tech Itch and a couple others. Unfortunately, time constraints and scheduling conflicts made it impossible for the others to participate. (Part II maybe…?) If you haven’t yet, you should definitely check it out at soundspheremusic.com.
You were approached Phunkateck Communications in 1997, which also housed greats like UFO!, DJ Abstract, Sage, Juju and many more. What was that initial conversation like?
Well, I was distributing my records through some distributors in San Francisco and some of the Phunckateck crew, namely UFO!, would routinely go by there to check out the latest/newest releases coming out. UFO! had come across one of my records and was asking his source at the distributor about it. When he found out it was some dude in L.A. he quickly got me on the phone to find out what my story was. So here I am, talking to this guy in S.F. with some obvious ADD, asking me to get on board with his crew, Phunckateck. At first, I was like, “I don’t know man. I don’t really want to associate myself with any particular crew”. But he persisted and we eventually met up and hit it off, so I decided to get with them and we eventually got into the studio to work on some tracks together. All of the Phunckateck crew were very cool and worked well together, sharing ideas and helping each other in whatever way they could. A real “family” type of conglomerate.
Getting signed to Moving Shadow had to have been a big deal. Secular Motion was the EP. How did you feel upon that signing?
It was definitely great to have a release with one of my favorite DnB labels. It was really thanks to Dieselboy who had managed to clear Dom & Optical’s “Quadrant Six” for me to remix for his Project Human mixed CD. I had sent Rob (Playford) some of my tracks and was honored that he was interested in doing a release with me. Shadow is a great label to work with and they really work hard at getting music into the marketplace, licensing and promoting all the music they release. They even got one of the tracks from the EP licensed for the video game Midnight Club 3. How cool is that!
How did that take you forward?
Well, not as much as I had expected. I wasn’t able to really follow up with anything viable for them, or at all really. It was 2003 and the scene was still feeling the effects of 9/11. Drum & bass for me, was kind of in a lull. I wasn’t feeling anything that was coming out, having a bit of writer’s block and decided to take some time for myself. I needed the break more than I knew ‘cause I hadn’t really taken any time off from music in the over 15+ years of doing it. Things have a way of working themselves out and I believe all things happen for a reason. It was a necessary evil.
What makes your Ghosts in the Machine EP unique?
I feel it was a perfect balance of tracks for an EP. A sort of “something for everyone” kind of release yet, the tracks all work well together as a package and complement each other in different ways. As with any release, this one really sums up my headspace with DnB at the moment…heavy, dark, aggressive…but then, that is the kind of music I like to make.
What is your view on the current drum ’n bass scene?
Honestly, it’s an uphill battle, at least from my position and what I’ve seen recently. One of the things I find most disheartening is that there appears to be a general lack of support for local DnB DJs. I notice that people will turn out when there is an out of town DJ or International DJ, but not the local DJs that play many of the same records, sometimes with better mixing and programming skills. It’s kind of interesting about peoples’ mindset and why they don’t just support good music, good DJs and drum and bass in general and just go out for the music, like it used to be some years ago. It didn’t matter who was DJing. You just knew there would be a lot of great music…that’s all that mattered. Maybe the scene is just over-saturated with so many different styles, sounds and sub-genres.
Musically speaking, there are a lot of great music out there and tons more coming out on a daily basis. The advent of the digital marketplace has allowed anyone and everyone to make their music available to the world. There are really a lot of great producers that have yet to get some recognition, but therein lies the problem of getting your tunes heard/played and having to do all the social media self-promoting. There are a lot of avenues though like Remix Comps for showcasing your talents on remixes, for instance. I think it is a great way to get yourself heard and I love that some of the big name artists and labels are holding these kinds of contests/competitions to allow for up and coming producers to have a chance to be heard. I even held one recently for the Remix Album. I feel at this point, it’s important to give back and allow people a chance to shine and follow their dreams. I wish there were opportunities like that when I was starting out.
Who are some of your favorite producers?
Dom & Roland for one. He was a major influence on my style early on, as well as Dylan. I have to acknowledge those originators from back in the day. More recently, there are a lot of really good producers out there. Some of the artists I am into at the moment are Aggressor Bunx, Current Value, Brainpain, Counterstrike, Fortitude, Switch Technique, Katharsys, Neonlight, Machine Code, DJ Hidden, Sinister Souls…I think you get the idea.
What advice would you give to the up and coming artists?
Stay true to yourself and your vision. Do what you enjoy, not what you expect others to enjoy. Seek out help and knowledge from others, they may be more willing to help that you know. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Try to collaborate with other producers. A lot can be learned from other peoples’ techniques. Also, a fun exercise is to just try remaking or remixing a track you like. It is a great way to learn and understand sound design and selection, programming, arrangements and mix balance. You might come up with a track that sounds similar and bears some resemblance to what you started on, but is more of an original track by the time you finish.
If you could remix any five tunes in musical history, what would you remix, and why?
The first one, I have already done…Dom & Optical’s “Quadrant Six”. Still one of my favorite tunes from back in the day and I had always wanted to remix it from the first time I heard it. Thanks to Dieselboy, I finally got the opportunity. I could keep on doing remixes of that track forever…love it!
Another classic track I would like to rework is “Turbulence” by Moving Fusion. This was a defining track in DnB history when it came out, and I would love to give it an update to fit in more with today’s production styles. I’m kind of surprised no one has touched it yet, though there were rumors of one out there that quickly got banned for being quite bad. Don’t mess with a classic if you can’t come correct.
Now it gets harder to decide…I think I would be happy working on any classic, era defining DnB tunes, if for no other reason than to give a nod to them for originality and pushing the envelope. Tunes like “The Nine”, “Side Effects”, “Shadow Boxing”, “Roadblock” and “Piper” just to name a few.
Other than that, it really comes down to me hearing an awesome track that I really like but wish it was produced a little bit differently. That’s when I enjoy remixing the most, when I feel I can add something or improve upon the original tune. Not just producing another version, but really elevating it or treating it with a completely different style.
Outside of drum and bass, I can’t really think of anything off the top of my head I would actually want to remix. I’m always up for a challenge though.
What else is in the pipeline?
Well, I have several remixes coming out in the near future, including Sinister Souls’ “Crystal Math” and a remix of “Flood Gate” for Jo-S’ Moralz project. I also have a new project I am working on with Recall out of Denver, Co. called Phobetor, which is the name of the Greek God of nightmares. You can expect the project to surface this summer. More info is forthcoming soon, so keep an eye out for that, as well as some audio clips. I have also been talking to several artists about doing some collaboration work. A couple of those are currently in the works and hopefully I can get some more lined up.
Anything else to add?
We really covered a lot. I do have a monthly radio show I do with junglistradio.com called The Dangerzone which airs live the last Sunday of every month. For past episodes, you can check them out on my SoundCloud page. Lastly, I’ll just thank everyone who supports me and the music I make. I appreciate it very much and look forward to continuing to feed your souls.