INTERVIEW: BBC Radio 1 Presenter Toddla T
by Marcus K. Dowling
Tom “Toddla T” Bell is an extraordinarily gifted UK based selector and producer. Many American underground fans first became aware of him because of his unwavering support of Dave Nada’s moombahton movement, including a wildly popular episode of his BBC Radio 1 programme in which he formally introduced the sound to European ears. However, he is so much more. A talented DJ, he has a constant international schedule and is always cognizant of the hottest sounds in the world at any given point. I had the opportunity to catch up with the Sheffield born music maven, and was able to, with the magic of email and a recording, get this exclusive interview. We cover his background, his development, and his thoughts on the current state of dance music, moombahton, dubstep and many key moombahton producers. Enjoy!
When did your initial obsession with bass heavy rhythms occur? Was it hip hop that provided the entry, or the more expected UK answer of dancehall and reggae? As well, what were some of the influential tracks that got you hooked?
I was listening to hip hop since 10 years old. My friend gave me a copy of Biggie’s Ready to Die, and I went to my nana’s house for the summer, and I thought it was the most amazing thing I ever heard. I also had Snoop’s Doggystyle and some mainstream compilations, and thought it was the best thing I ever heard. I listened to pirate radio, and Yo! MTV Raps all the time, which was the only way you could here American hip hop over here. I was also into soul and “ragga” (reggae) as it was called, which I dabbled in. It wasn’t until I started going to the clubs that dancehall popped onto my radar as a full on exciting type of tune. It wasn’t until they dropped the dancehall at the parties in Sheffield when I realized that yeah, this is amazing, it makes a lot of sense. From there, it was a lot of dance music I was into, that was dacehall related, whether it was jungle, house, garage, grime or whatever it was, had a reggae and dancehall root. It was always in the clubs heavyweight, all based in those vocal samples, it’s just a big ting of UK music in general.
The Sheffield scene. You’re from there, and it has a reputation for being really active and influencing a lot of producers and DJs, yourself included. What was it about Sheffield that helped mold you into the producer/DJ you are today?
When I was younger, the DJs would play everything from bleepy techno to soul, R &B, hip hop, boogie, pop stuff, dancehall, reggae, you know, the scale was really wide. This was way before you had people playing eclectic sets. The first DJs I would go and see were guys like DJ Pipes at basement parties and warehouse parties, who were putting music together in a style I had never heard before in the world, and to me it’s still the most amazing thing when they do it right. I would buy the records I was hearing, and a lot of the local producers were making records that sounded like an amalgamation of those club sets. There’d be a girly, poppy vocal over a dancehall riddim with an electro bassline. It all combined into this really unique Sheffield style that I was totally amazed by. It’s still a massive part of my music. Even though my clubbing and production experience has changed my taste somewhat I’m still a massive fan of that Sheffield sound.
You’ve worked with a number of the top tier UK artists like Tinchy Stryder and Ms. Dynamite who are making noise in the US these days. What about working with these artists did you enjoy, and why do you think they’ve had the ability to attempt a crossover in the US?
I’m from Sheffield, the only way I could hear artists like a Tinchy Stryder or Ms. Dynamite was on TV or on the radio, and they were as huge to me as a Kanye West. I looked up to them. London was down the road, but it was a big place and completely foreign to me. We’d go there for the day and buy tunes and do the touristy shit, but that was it. It was like New York, or Berlin or whatever, you know what I mean? When I had the opportunity to work with them as a producer or whatever, I was excited. When I had the opportunity to work with Tinchy, which was right before he went massive, funny enough, it was for his first official album, Catch 22, and it was a blessing. Same for Ms. Dynamite, who I work with a lot now. As far as crossover, I don’t know. If they’re talented here, they can be talented there, too. I know Tinie Tempah for instance has massive pop songs. “Pass Out” is a classic record. His diction is very clear, unlike a Dizzie Rascal or a Wiley for instance.
US underground heads these days know you for your work in promoting Dave Nada’s moombahton sound through your BBC1 radio programme. What is it exactly about the sound that first attracted you, your thoughts on the success of that particular episode, and how do you see European ears taking to it as producers like David Heartbreak and Dillon Francis take the first steps towards US moombahton DJs playing live overseas?
Oh cool! It’s a blessing that people in the US even know about me! And that it’s through moombahton is great, too. But what people need to know about me is that I’m a DJ first and foremost, before I’m a producer or a presenter. Before I started voicing things, I was a DJ, I’m a fan of music, I’m a buyer of music, and I am always looking for music. So when I was first introduced to moombahton through a DJ named Martello, I was like this is sick! Then, I went to LA to do a show with Ninja Tune, and I went to a HARD party, a big old rave. Busy P (Ed Banger Records head) was killing it with his electro stuff, and then Diplo came on with Munchi, who I didn’t know at the time. They went on with a moombahton set, and it was wild. I had never seen anything like it before as I’d never heard the music out live in its context. To see it being played out loud was really brave, which I thought was cool. That’s what I love about Diplo, is that he’s like a leader, like a pioneer. To hear he and Munchi play that music loud, when they could’ve won the crowd over with a typical electro and rap set was so amazing. The kids were live, and they were going fucking crazy.
So I took that with me from that American experience, and I started playing it live, playing it in sets, and on the radio. The thing that attracted me to it was the tempo, slow tempo, and everything. It was like, let’s go old school, let’s take out the noise, let’s go minimal, like some proper R & B. It’s wicked, and I started hitting up the producers and getting the music. From there, I had another show in LA, where me and Doorly had a Girls Music x Pigeonhole This party at The Well in LA. I figured “hmm, I’m there for 48 hours, let me just link up with them, Dillon Francis, Munchi and Nadastrom, and let me see if I can chat with them about this, and take it home, and see if I can just give a representation as best I can to the British people. So from there I did a little interview, and Dave Nada gave me a little mix, and I we had a special BBC Radio 1 half hour thing. The only reason I did it was because I was excited about it. It was like the first time I heard grime or when I heard Jamaican music.It gave me that feeling. The only reason I did it was I was excited about what they were up to. There was nothing conscious about it, I didn’t do it to up my profile or anything, I was just a fan of their shit. The feedback from all over the world has been amazing.
But what people need to understand is that I’m not a moombahton pioneer or anything, I don’t produce it, I’m a fan of it. The fact that people give me love and respect for it is lovely, but I don’t want to take any credit because it’s their ting and they’ve done it really well and it’s sick.
I think Dillon Francis is amazing, I think they’re all great. I think David Heartbreak is on his own flat, and I can see him making big tunes,.and I think it can go worldwide. It has so many elements and most importantly it’s great for the party, which is a key element of my sets and a lot of others as well, and there’s no reason it can’t do it. I mean, Munchi’s edit of Datsik is…I’m not a fan of Datsik, I’d be lying if I said I was, I’m not a fan of the noisy fast shit too much, but, I can hear someone like Busta Rhymes on there and just bookin’ that riddim, and pushing it to a next sort of market. I think that when done right, that sound is amazing.
You recently played as a part of Mad Decent’s Blow Your Head party during Miami Music Week alongside Diplo and a slew of moombahtonistas. A) Unrelated to moombahton, your thoughts on Diplo (and related, Mad Decent’s international expansion), and B) Your thoughts on some of the moombahton producers you played with, Dave Nada, Dillon Francis and David Heartbreak?
I respect Diplo’s game, his hustle. He’s a wicked producer and DJ, and I respect his label Mad Decent, for pushing new music. I respect him and what he does. I mean, he’s huge in America. When I came there, I just took a look at the lineups he was getting, and I was like man’s goin’ IN! He’s not that dissimilar to DJs over here, but for some reason he’s gone massive, playing the music of some of my friends, and I respect that highly.
Dave Nada – Salute! He’s the Grandmaster Flash of moombahton, you can’t mess with that.
Dillon Francis – That’s my boy right there, he’s sick, he’s an absolutely excellent producer. He just remixed my new single “Take it Back,” and it’s absolutely dutty.
David Heartbreak – He’s been hitting me up constantly with his music. He has a different take chopping up soul records and R & B records. I’m actually about to put out an EP of his on my Girls Music in the UK of the tune “Chavvi,” which has an Indian vibe, a track called “Blaze Up” which has a dancehall vibe,” and a tune called “Jazmine” which has an Indian and R & B vibe. He’s kind of on his own tip which I like.
I like people that make new styles and follow no type of formula. Everybody’s up on this dubstep hype right now, and it’s getting fucking boring. So anybody who’s up on a new sound like these boys, hats off to them.