Out of the shadows, GhostTown appears, telling horror stories of manic music videos and life in the Dead Players. With releases across Dented Records and High Focus, the producer/beatmaker now celebrates 'Wave' here on Potent Funk, featuring label boss Dabbla. We learn how producing for adverts has affected his output, and the complications that come when your government name is suddenly Frankie Teardrop.
"For 15 years I was getting hammered and making beats when I wasn't"
This is a rare insight into a mind channelling Madlib. And a man, a Dad, who between gold-capped teeth and Laminated Cakes, is a little bit fed up with MCs being so slow. GhostTown shares his Ableton advice, home truths of the music publishing industry, and some unexpected projects still to come...
Uncredited, you’ve produced for the likes of Meridian Dan, Beenie Man and many others. Would you describe yourself as a ghost producer?
"I don't mind doing ghost production for people. If it's just a tune like the Meridian Dan one then that's not quite ghost production. They got me to produce it and just picked a beat because I've produced quite a lot of unreleased stuff for Dan - quite a lot of tracks on an album that he's supposedly dropping. The credit doesn't come up on Spotify but probably on PRS, but maybe not, I dunno. A lot of people just buy the beat init and then it's theirs [laughs]. But for me, I was just gassed to do a song with Beenie Man because he's my favourite dancehall MC and a legend. That was a highlight for me because I never ever thought that would be possible. It's pretty random for a dude like me to be working with someone like that, you know? And quite a few times I've worked with people and it's just not come to light."
How are you finding the commercial beats and production business?
"It's fine with me man, I like it. I just like problem solving and I like all kinds of music as well. So, if someone asks me if I can make a kind of music, I enjoy the challenge to try and do something different. Music is music to me. As a producer it's a little bit different from being a specific artist. There’s a thing that I consider to be the sound I like the most and what my sound is, but if someone wants me to make a certain style, I enjoy the challenge. I listen to all sorts of music so for me that's cool."
What is your sound then?
"It's a mishmash of all the music I've ever listened to I guess. Mainly a mishmash of electronic, dancehall, grime and hip hop really, with a bit of video game sounds, (in the way that grime artists were using video game sounds in the early/mid 2000s). I've always loved how with hip hop you can put any type of music in there as long as it's still within the style. You could sample anything you want and represent all kinds of music you listen to or all the weird stuff. I always rated Madlib and Dilla for that: for using really obscure synthy music and things like that.
"That's not even anything unusual now because so many more generations of producers have come along and it's become quite normalised. But when I started in like 2005 that was wild, hearing people flipping folk music, we had Wendy Carlos and all these weird, synth/classical music songs that were flipped into beats that people would rap on was crazy to me, so that's kinda where I got my style from the most. That and Timberland. All the crazy styles he put in there to make a mishmash of different stuff, which is I guess why I don't mind doing the commercial work. I enjoy working to film as well. I’d like to do more stuff for film and eventually make films, but my hands are full at the minute [laughs]."
Well, in the 'Wave' video, Dabbz is watching himself at the cinema. ever seen a film so bad you walked out?
"Yes I have! I've walked out of two films. When I was pretty young I walked out of Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin in House Sitter and I was only about ten years old. I walked out of that because it was shit. I remember once I went to the cinema with my dad, not being that young, maybe 20. It was just a random one where we walked past the cinema and wanted to go in, but the only thing on that was even watchable was Jerry Springer. That was a while back but Jerry Springer brought a movie out and it was fucking bad man. In the cinema it was so so bad. In general, I love movies and going to the cinema. Big Tarantino fan and a big cinema fan in general."
How did ‘Billa’ get into Sky’s Gangs of London?
"That was just through a publishing deal. So, the beat for that I'd actually recorded before Dead Players and it was one of them ones where they're like, 'Ah we want that beat, can we use it?'. It got used on the second Dead Players album, but I think I first recorded on that beat in 2010-11 with a French guy who's a friend of mine, called Tis Zombie. The instrumental had been knocking around and I'd always given it to publishers. The tune with Dabbla and Jam Baxter on it actually had previously got used in a Romesh Ranganathan series, called Just Another Immigrant. It got used in that along with a bunch of other tunes. The beat for it was always registered with Sony ATV. At the time, I was under contract and they synced it to Gangs of London. So, there was no 'the director listening to Dead Players thinking it's amazing', they were just going through bare different libraries of beats. They would have been looking for something dramatic at that point and then that would flag up with the publisher, and they go 'Ah try this one', and it just got used like that, ya know?"
You’ve previously said your production process involves drinking a bottle of vodka and punching a keyboard. Is that still how things stand?
"[Laughs] Nah, I said that in an interview as jokes but I think it was something worse than that... I don't drink when I make music really. I have done. If I drink and make music it's usually nothing like hip hop or beats. It's just some random music, which is kinda what I'd like to be making more of. I'd like to be getting away from doing so much sequenced music because a lot of the music I listen to isn't sequenced. I don't listen to much hip hop, dance music or anything that's sequenced really. I listen to more of the stuff that I'd be sampling and that's the direction I wanna go in. But, because I'm so involved with making sequenced music, I've always got this list of stuff I need to be doing. And I've got kids, so I hardly ever get the time to just play a bunch of random stuff and see what comes out. Those are the times when I'll probably have a little bit of a drink, but moretime I don't have anything at all. I just work sober. Even when I was drinking a lot, if I was gunna make beats, I'd be doing it sober."
Where did ‘Wave’ come from?
"That one, I just sent that beat randomly to Dabbla. I'd half-finished it and sent it to him. To be honest with you, I wasn't expecting him to put that one out. It was just an instrumental that came from... why was I writing that... I think I was just tryna write some grime man. I was tryna write some 140bpm type stuff. You know what, I think that was one of them ones where I just caught it in my head. I just had it in my head and thought I'd put it down. I think it was the idea of just one big kick and little bits of percussion on top, and the rest of it flung in there. So yeah, then I sent it to him, he liked it and went straight on it. That was how that one came about really."
Speaking to Pitch 92, he mentioned how you and Madlib both EQ your productions really nicely. How do you achieve that?
"You know what man, I've always been really not-confident about the way I mix. For the longest time, up until really recently. The biggest influence for me musically probably ever was Champion Sound by Jaylib (Madlib and J Dilla). The drums were mad pokey and loud. For years I did my beats like that, then I was like, 'Ah those mixes are a bit wild for a lot of things really'. Of late, I think my mixes are probably a bit cleaner. I'd like to start doing them a bit more dirty again but I use different software now as well. I use Ableton and I just use stock plugins man. When I used Cubase, on every channel I used a thing called Quadrafuzz and that would make that shit punchy and sounding a bit like it came off a vinyl. At least half the time I don't sample; I put in my own stuff or it's clean from somewhere. Now with Ableton, the stock plugin is called Drum Buss. I stick that on then just EQ it, and that's pretty much what I do with everything.
"With everything apart from the low end I just cut all the bass, and with all the bass things I just cut all the tops, and that's it really. Really simple man. I don't do that much crazy stuff. I tend to not use that much wideners, keep the bass mono, that's it really. I've gotta be honest, I've always kinda relied on the person who's mastering it to finish it off. I always kept it with that philosophy just to keep the workflow and ideas going, rather than spending ages tryna get the sound right. I'm a bit slap-dash like that [laughs]. But recently I've had to take more care with it you know, especially with doing full arrangements for ads and stuff. I've gotta say, that has really helped me in just giving people finished beats rather than loops and shit. For a very long time I would just give people loops and maybe there'd be another section. But now, I really, really enjoy the arrangement part.
"I like the process of making those little musical moments [...] adding a bit of drama or putting drops in"
"I think I didn't have a lot of focus for many years because I was drinking a lot and smoking a lot of weed. For a long time I didn't have that much focus on music, pretty much up until I moved out of London. So for 10/15 years I was just getting hammered and making beats when I wasn't. Now I love doing it and do it all the time. I don't drink really - like once a month now. I just really enjoy the process of arranging music, as well as getting that hot little loop, you know? I like the process of making those little musical moments, those bits when it's adding a bit of drama or putting drops in, stuff like that I rate."
Any permanent repercussions from that gory faceplant in the ‘Call Us Now’ video?
"Oh hell yeah man [bares teeth]. All my front teeth are fake and they have been since I was about 14. I had a gold tooth since about 14 and all these other ones are fake. Since that happened, I bust out the cap next to the gold one and I've just had the little peg of a tooth with a bit of a cap left on it. I just haven't got round to fixing it. I did speak to a guy in South London recently called Gold Pointers. There's been a resurgence of people on Instagram. There's dentists who'll do your gold teeth for cheap and I'm gunna get it fixed [laughs].
"But yes, there was repercussions. I think I went to Guy's Hospital at some point but my life was just hella messy man. I waited six months for that, went, and they were like, 'You're a fucking wasteman. You're not having this surgery unless you come back in six months and prove to us that you're not just gunna do it again'. I was like, 'OK' and never went back. So I proved their point really. But basically yeah, I smashed it out and it's still out, and I want to get it fixed because it looks weird. A lot of people think the gold one is a push-on, like I've got terrible teeth and stuck it on. But that was done by a dentist when I was 14." [It has since been fixed with gold by OHLORD]
Any Dead Players news to share?
Was your Scissor/Baxter album Laminated Cakes in view when the cult classic ‘Pipe Smoke’ dropped five years prior?
"I can tell you that man. That album and the first Dead Players album were both made at the same time and at the same place, which was in a squat in Holloway Road that had one of the old studios of Jazzie B and Soul II Soul. It had a dance studio, it had a pretty nice control room with the glass but it was a squat so it had no equipment. We put our own in. We recorded pretty much the whole album there. A lot of it got left half-finished but the vocals were recorded. This is 2012. They put 'Pipe Smoke' out then because they liked it a lot and it was a strong track. The rest just sat on the hard drive for a really long time and then I got kicked out of that place and ended up bouncing around a load of places.
"I got a more permanent place and we recorded a couple more tracks using one or two beats that I'd made since then, (I think it was 'Sink' and another), then put it all together. When I lived in Hackney in another squat, I made a bunch of little skits and random instrumentals to tie it all together. The body of the album got made in 2012 and 'Pipe Smoke' just happened to be a strong track that they wanted to drop at the time and not bother to finish the rest because they were doing other stuff. When the time came I think it was Scissor who really pushed it."
The skits and beats in general really make it such a great project.
"Yeah, that's another one where I was tryna channel Madlib from those beat tapes he did. He had a bunch of beat tapes where there was a lot of skits, a bit like Jaylib. There were a few of these bootleggy ones that had loads of remixes on, which are still my favourite hip hop albums and they're just him getting random a capellas and old Styles P vocals and making crazy beats under them. For me, still now, my favourite thing is getting a cappellas and working to them. You can make whatever beat you want and you don't have to worry if an MC can spit on it or if they're gunna pick it, so musically you can go wherever you want with it.
"A lot of the time, if you do something particularly strange people just won't want to use it because they can't imagine themselves on it. So that's why I've always loved that style of remixes, but particularly the way he gets all these random movie clips in. That's fairly normal now but people do do it less. They did it for ages and it was definitely a thing with artists like Mr. Scruff and the scratch DJs, but Madlib did it in a very cool way I thought, a bit better than most of them. Now, music has got to the point where it's really hard to even clear a sample for a song, so a lot of people don't try and do it anymore. You're gunna have to give it away for free if you do, or sell it on Bandcamp if you can get away with even that."
I hear you're legally Frankie Teardrop these days... Do you have any connection to the song by Suicide?
"I first went to Frankie Teardrop in 2010 I think. At the time I didn't know, but I guess it does have the connection, yeah, it's their thing init [laughs]. I met a girl in a park... I went to sleep in a park after a night out with my friend. When I woke up, my friend had disappeared and all these people were there partying. One of them took me back to their house and she ended up being my girlfriend. It was one of them quite wild, messy relationships with a lot of drinking and whatnot. Then, one time I was like, 'I'm sick of my real name'. She said I should just change it and when I asked her 'To what?', she said ‘Frankie Teardrop’ and I just did it [laughs].
"A year later, I needed a passport to go to Norway for one of the first paid things I did in music. I was possibly doing something for Universal over there and had to go to sign a contract. I ended up getting the Frankie Teardrop passport, then from there it kept going and I ended up with the bank account etc. I'm kinda tryna change it back now actually but it's slow. I've always been quite a disorganised dude and for me, even doing a small amount of organisation is quite a lot of work. For me to do all the admin, the easiest thing was to keep using the name. But now I want to change it back because I've got kids and stuff, and it's still there [laughs]. Sometimes I have to introduce myself as that and it's just a joke that's got really old [laughs]. I still kinda rate it and am gassed by it. It's funny having it on my bank card but I couldn't call my kids that."
What’s next for GhostTown?
"Got a beat tape on High Focus. I've got a project with Tom Caruana that I'm well excited about, where I've been doing some remixes for songs that have come out on his label. They're some of my favourite ones I've done of recent times. Hopefully a solo thing on High Focus as well with MCs, but for now the next release on there is gunna be a beat tape. Some new Badbonez stuff, who else is there? I've got some reggaeton tracks coming out in Mexico, some bits and bobs over there. I'm working with a dude from Cali, which is quite sick. He's good - called Simply Juice. I have been working on a project with Nah Eeto and that's looking to be quite sick if that happens. We were gunna link up before the winter struck, but winter came and the kids were full on with the colds and shit so it didn't happen, but hopefully this year it will. And more sync work man. More TV, more adverts."
Where do you see that Nah Eeto project coming out on?
"I never think about the labels and stuff that much because I just wanna make the music and get on making the next. Now, as soon as my kid gets the 25 hours a week free childcare, (or whatever it is), then I'm gunna be able to step it up even more. At the moment I've got a lot more focus than I had for the last couple of years and that energy to be able to work in the evenings. Last year man, I was tryna do it in the evenings and it wasn't happening. At the moment I'm on a bit of a roll so hopefully this year I can smash it. I'd just like to make a lot of beats and put out a lot of beats without MCs because I get sick of waiting for MCs. That's what the last two or three years has been. I've made a lot of beats and a lot of them aren't coming out because there's no one rapping on them, but I feel like just putting them out now. I might even start my own label and drop things. I just want to put out a lot of beats."
Mikela Payne: Instagram