For the musically minded Leeds student, there is an epiphany to be had when coming across one of Hyde Park’s finest pieces of trivia: Hessle Audio is named after the grimy terraced street that party was on last night.
Hessle Audio, whose title is affectionally borrowed from the ‘Hessles’ in Hyde Park, is the epochal record label run by ex-University of Leeds students Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Ramadanman, who also DJ together under the outfit’s name. Having released early work from artists as varied as James Blake, Blawan and Bruce, as well as launching Pearson and Pangaea’s impressive production careers, the imprint’s influence on UK electronic music is difficult to overstate. However, oddly enough, it could be argued that the label’s release history actually pales in comparison to the career path of the three founders, and the relevance they still have for music in 2017.
Of the three, Ben UFO is probably the most well known, despite, or perhaps because, he is solely a DJ. To have made it to the stage he is without ever writing a single song is testament to Ben’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music, commitment to innovation and fearful levels of technical competence. His calling card has been his ability to weave together disparate strands of music and present them within the fresh context of their own amalgamation, all while keeping the dancefloor in constant motion. To call him solely a DJ is reductive: he is more a postmodern musical auteur.
While formidable DJs in their own right, Pearson Sound and Pangaea are both known for the music they have produced as much as their club sets. Pearson, formerly known as Ramadanman, makes tough percussive jams which draw on genres such as Chicago footwork, electro and breakbeat in his endless pursuit of rhythmic innovation. Pangaea’s current output fits more comfortably into the lineage of European techno, although his syncopation and fondness for strange and dark flourishes betray his roots in garage and dubstep.
The legacy of dubstep is firmly apparent in all of the trio’s output. Living in Leeds at the time they did, their formative musical experiences were shaped by pilgrimages to Subdub and Exodus, where dubstep was played each month on the legendary Iration Steppas soundsytem. Ben UFO was a prolific poster on the online community www.dubstepforum.com, and it is likely Pearson and Pangaea shared his enthusiasm. However, the label’s rise to prominence ran parallel to dubstep hitting its saturation point toward the end of the noughties. The genre had begun to be swamped by identikit productions of stale Loefah pastiches or tearout brostep rhythms, and many of the considerable fanbase it had attracted were turning away from the genre due to its stagnation. Resultantly, producers and DJs who had previously only really made or played dubstep were looking for new tempos and ideas to play with, and Hessle Audio were in the perfect position to be at the centre of this movement.
Hessle Audio have never really released a dubstep record. Early efforts from TRG, Ramadanman and Untold certainly derive from dubstep, but their restyling of the genre’s tropes characterised these efforts as something new and exciting. As dubstep shifted further into the rear view mirror, Hessle came in from being an odd new label on the fringes of the scene to becoming the signpost for the direction UK electronic music was going to take. The rhythmic experimentation, mixed with influences from UK funky, techno and Chicago footwork, became the template for a furious period of experimentation that rose from the ashes of dubstep’s fall around the turn of the decade. This cemented Ramadanman and Pangaea two of the most forward-thinking producers in the country. Meanwhile, Ben’s DJ sets were a lesson in how to deftly hop between the genres people were casting their ears back to learn from and the best new unreleased music from the producers doing just that, all of whom would be dying to send their demos to Hessle.
After 2011, the label’s output slowed up somewhat, as their increasing touring schedules and concentration on productions meant that they could not work at the relentless pace they had set for themselves. By this time, they had been given a Rinse FM slot, where they and a number of guests would play for a couple hours bimonthly. Still running to this day, their show has been a way to follow the zeitgeist of electronic music from the UK and further afield. While the music they make and play is now largely within the realms of house and techno, their sleek minimalism and preference for dark aesthetics still has the bearings of dubstep whichever way you choose to look at it.
When the label’s 10th anniversary tour was announced, one date was particularly enticing to anyone with an interest in Hessle’s legacy. On the 28th April as part of Subdub’s 19th Birthday, the trio will play back to back on the Iration Steppas soundsystem that has informed so much of what they have done since. For a fan of their work, it is equally exciting to imagine how the music they are currently interested in will translate on a system designed for reggae and to pray that they choose to throw it back to the music that inspired their journey to this point.
Remaining tickets for the Freedom Mills event are available here.