What has one third of former dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man, half of short-lived speed garage hitmakers 187 Lockdown and the man behind an upstart fashion brand got in common? Speaking to the trio of Artwork, Danny Harrison and Jonny Banger backstage at London’s Ceremony Festival, it quickly becomes apparent that they all seek to subvert mainstream music culture, yet have ended up with their work being instantly-recognisable among casual dance music fans.
Take the most famous of the trio: Artwork. When he was working with Skream and Benga on Magnetic Man, their humble plan was to just play behind a screen at cult clubnight FWD in its dubstep heyday. They ended up as a global festival headliner and best-selling debut album. Then there’s Danny Harrison, one half of 187 Lockdown with Julian Jonah. The duo were producing garage tunes under various aliases in the late 1990s with no ambition for chart success, then ‘Gunman’ broke into the mainstream, an album was commissioned and follow-up single “Kung-Fu” went top five in the UK charts. Finally, there’s Jonny Banger, the brains behind fashion brand Sports Banger. He printed ‘Free Tulisa’ on a t-shirt as a bit of fun, then made headlines when Rizzle Kicks star Jordan ‘Rizzle’ Stephens wore it at the Wireless Festival at London’s Olympic Park in 2013. Yet, despite getting themselves into a position they could rest on their laurels and watch the cash roll in, they are more interested in sticking two fingers up to the industry norms and keeping themselves true to the underground.
“I started hooky t-shirts and loads of legends backed it, which I really appreciate. Artwork didn’t even know me and he said: ‘Banger, I love this’.” - Jonny Banger
We meet during Ceremony Festival in Finsbury Park on a Saturday in September. The sun is shining and Danny had just played at the Sports BangerVIP stage when we crowd around a picnic table at the backstage bar. The three are perhaps unlikely friends brought together thanks to Jonny’s Free Tulisa t-shirts. He said: “I started hooky t-shirts and loads of legends backed it, which I really appreciate. Artwork didn’t even know me and he said: ‘Banger, I love this’.” Though their initial attempt to drum up trade at Lovebox didn’t go so well, they’d eventually find a niche with ‘Free Tulisa’, ‘Team Nigella’ and upside down prints of famous sportswear logos. When asked what Jonny would like on his epitaph Artwork jumps in with “He had a lovely time”, to which Danny adds: “Written upside down!”.
The humour around the table continues as Jonny talks about how he came to book his Sports Banger VIP line-up that included Artwork, Loefah, 187 Lockdown and Plastician. He said: “There’s loads of people playing at Bestival. So, I thought about who’s not playing at Bestival, and who’s my mates who I can give a little bit of money to? What’s a good line-up? Obviously Artwork. We never do a Sports Banger party without Artwork because he’s the best. I live by that. I wanted Danny at the party and I was like, ‘Can you play Sports Banger?’ He asked: ‘What shall I play as?’ and I was like, ‘Can you play as 187 Lockdown?’. He said: ‘What, for the novelty?’.”
“In the garage days we did so many different records. We literally would make a record, sell that, and then move on and make another record under another name.” - Danny Harrison
187 Lockdown is something of a novelty for Danny. The sole, eponymous album from the speed garage duo was written in three weeks on the back of the success of “Gunman” in 1998, but they never intended to write 12 tunes and were more interested in producing one-off hits such as Nu-Birth “Anytime”. He said: “In the garage days we did so many different records. We literally would make a record, sell that, and then move on and make another record under another name. At one point we were signed to every major label under another name. It’s a terrible thing to say but the majors were just ‘We want a bit of this’ and said: ‘Can we have your garage records?’.” Danny explains that he and Julian would play the A&R men off against each other, touting tunes for the best deal. Artwork claims: “Danny mugged off every A&R man in England.”
Yet the experience with 187 Lockdown and “Gunman” is a cautionary one. The album flopped (Artwork comments: “All filler, no killer”) and the follow-up tracks are long forgotten as Danny says: “No one really cares about ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘The Don’.” Even “Gunman”, a garage favourite even now, was released only once owing to copyright issues. Danny admits: “Gunman’s not a ‘RIP Groove’. We never expoited it. Because of the legal situation we couldn’t put it out again. The sample is from an old Dr. Alimantado record (“Gimmie Mi Gun”). The old Jamaican guy we sampled said his daughter had a speed garage album in Jamaica and was listening to it in her room. He walked past and said: ‘What is this?’. It reminded him of his friend getting shot. In the bad old days you could sample anyone, but in hindsight you get one of the security guards to do it for £30.”
“The first Magnectic Man album was 10 years of us fucking around and they wanted a second one in two months time. That’s why we never did it.” - Artwork
Artwork’s brush with mainstream success lasted a lot longer when Magnetic Man launched dubstep to a worldwide audience - and he jokes about how he, Skream and Benga are still working on a new LP. “We’re still working on the second album, obviously. It’s basically, we’ve moved. First of all it was dubstep, then the whole dubstep ‘problem’ happened. So we made a techno album, and shelved that. It was basically a techno folk album with spoken word, but the record company weren’t into that. So we moved over to a fusion jazz - it was like a world music. Oh, it’s fucked.” From the way Artwork talks it’s clear he’s long put Magnetic Man to bed, but then the intention was never to be a best-selling group, nor to bring dubstep to the masses before the genre imploded.
Magnetic Man is described as ‘like an experiment’. Artwork elaborates: “When we started it the first gig we wanted to do was FWD for 100 people behind a screen. The most we ever expected out of it was to do a gig at FWD and that was it.” Internet hype led to bigger and bigger gigs, plus a £10,000 grant from the Arts Council to help the writing process, until they found themselves being booked for international festivals. Artwork said: “There are record companies battling to sign our record and it all went ridiculous. We had an album that was selling loads of copies and headlining festivals, but didn’t realise there’s all this stuff going on in the background and all of a sudden someone says: ‘Cool, can we have a second album now?’. We were like: ‘Shit’. The first Magnectic Man album was 10 years of us fucking around and they wanted a second one in two months time. That’s why we never did it.”
“Music is so disposable now that I’m worried it’s all going to go up its own arse. No one cares. They download it, then it’s gone.” - Danny Harrison
Danny bemoans the current music industry, claiming: “Music is so disposable now that I’m worried it’s all going to go up its own arse. No one cares. They download it, then it’s gone.” Artwork points to a change in freedom for A&R scouts, highlighting Mike Smith, who signed Blur and Levitation to MCA Publishing before moving to EMI where he signed acts such as The White Stripes, PJ Harvey and Arcade Fire, as the kind of A&R scout the music industry needs. Artwork said: “Mike Smith was proper old school A&R. He was like, this is great music, we’ll invest in it. Nowadays the landscape has changed so much that people will not take that risk. That guy’s job is on the line, and they are scared that if they take the risk and it fails - it bombs - they lose their job. So they will not do it, they will only go in tiny little increments of: ‘That works, let’s get something that’s only slightly different’.”
Artwork’s going old school with his new single coming out on Numbers - by not giving it a release date. “Let Go of My Acid” is in the hands of a select group of DJs chosen by Artwork, building hype as fans of the tune can only hear it in clubs. He said: “I could have put it out a year ago, but I thought: ‘No’. Back in the day you used to have a record that would be on a dubplate for someone for two years and they’d play it, and play it, and play it and then it would get released. Now if someone makes a tune they upload it and you can buy it five minutes later. I thought fuck it, let’s just go old school. So I haven’t released it yet. People are doing their nut and saying: ‘Can I have this, can I have this?’. When it’s released it’ll probably sell like five copies or something, but it doesn’t matter because it’s going back to ‘you can’t have it now’ and that’s how it should be.”