[Appleblim, power ballads and a brief history of the Skull Disco record label]
I’m sitting in the education suite of Bristol’s Colston Hall, watching Laurie Osborne – better known as Appleblim – run a class on sampling using 80s power ballads. It’s week 5 of an Ableton Live course I’m currently taking, and the Bristolian producer – one of the key figures in the emergence of dubstep in the mid 2000s, as well its subsequent deviation into weirder sonic worlds – has dropped by to share some tips on using the software’s effects to manipulate sounds. It’s an insight into the producer’s creative imagination, which seems to depend on serendipity, chance and experimentation as much as obsessive attention to detail. Full of humility and humour, Appleblim uses a sample from Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ as a starting point. The snippet is then transformed by a multitude of reverbs and delays until it becomes unrecognisable, mutating into a cavernous ambient drone. It’s a deliberate attempt to push spatial effects to their extremes in order to generate sounds that are as far removed from their source material as possible. Essentially, it’s the same technique beloved of early jungle and hip hop producers: mining record collections for obscure musical sources before transforming them into something else entirely. Often, he emphasises, it is the space in between the notes, the intake of breath before vocals, the initial scratch of a pick on a guitar string that provide the most interesting sounds to work with.
This idea of seeking out the spaces between the notes could equally apply to his role in the evolution of dubstep.
From an instrumental musician and bassist, Appleblim came to inhabit the tiny circle of producers and journalists who began to congregate in the the fabled FWD nights at Plastic People in Shoreditch – including Skream, Mala, Kode9 and the Bug. But it was his collaborations with Shackleton that proved to be pivotal in creating alternate spaces for the sound to evolve in.
Bringing an outsider’s perspective to the scene – Shackleton was a Lancashire native and a decade older than many of his South London peers – their formation of Skull Disco was crucial in expanding the parameters of dubstep; allowing the sound to coil away from its skulking, skunk-induced origins to more abstract, almost psychedelic levels. The Skull Disco releases were influenced by Middle Eastern and African percussion, infused with a slightly otherworldly sensibility, summoning a world of both expansion and entropy. All of which was helped along in no small part by the graphics accompanying the releases by Zeke Clough, whose apocalyptic sense of humour – drawing on sources as diverse as Egyptology and hardcore punk – made the Skull Disco releases prized for their visual art as much as for their sonic relevance. Although the label had a lifespan of only three years – from 2005 to 2008 – it was hugely influential, paving the way for some of the more experimental compositions that have emerged from the studios of Shackleton, and other musicians, in recent years.