This isn’t the start of one of my, usually, terrible jokes. This is how the album from Zero T and Onj came to life last year on the acclaimed Kilburn album concept. The follow up EP, Kilburn Park, has just dropped on Lenzman’s The North Quarter label and it’s a beauty.
Zero T has cemented himself as one of the most consistent producers in the UK drum and bass scene and his collaboration with Onj, a blind musician, producer and all round musical genius, showcases both artists’ passion for diversity.
Kilburn Park takes on a slightly different format to the usual EP blueprint and is a collection of 10 downtempo edits, which happen to be the originals (more on this later), remixes and originals encompassing the sounds of drum and bass, neo-soul and electronica.
What is it like working with someone who can’t see in a music studio? Zero T says Onj’s approach in the studio reflects how the blind musician approaches life.
It’s definitely, no pun intended, opened my eyes to some of the challenges blind people face in life. Mostly I’ve been gobsmacked at how it doesn’t stop him doing anything at all. In terms of running the studio If we’re doing a session together with a vocalist I’m literally sitting on a couch listening. That’s it! I never touch anything. He does absolutely everything and he is far more technologically adept than I am with computers, or any piece of technology you care to mention.
Despite Onj’s skill in the studio another highlight of the Kilburn Park EP is the diversity and quality of voices you will hear across the EP. There’s Mercy’s Cartel, who has graced the stage for Lauryn Hill, with her distinctive R&B tones on ‘Love Thing’. Then there’s Melonyx, a duo from Nottingham, who bring a vintage soul vibe to the lounge-esque keys and chords provided by Zero T and Onj on the track ‘Blow’. You’ll also hear from Ms Nayé, who happens to live in the same building as the production duo, on the neo-soul re-edit of ‘Twenty Three’. T-Man makes and appearance on James Rudie’s remix of ‘Rain’ and Steo, Zero T’s go to vocalist, features on Kid Fonque and Jonny Miller’s remix of ‘Darkness’. Most of these vocalists are artists you would not have heard in drum and bass before and for Zero T the Kilburn Park EP was a chance to showcase voices you might not have heard in this context before.
I was determined, with the exception of Steo - who is my guy, I wanted all the voices on Kilburn and Kilburn Park to be voices you had not heard in drum and bass before. I think that bringing new voices into drum and bass is a really important thing to do and to keep doing. There is so much talent out there, literally on your doorstep, I’ve just proved it. To be that lazy and unambitious with finding new voices, when there is just this army out there, you can’t tell me you can’t find new voices to bring in because I have done it a hell of a lot in the last 18 months.
With a range of styles and tempos represented on the Kilburn Park EP Zero T and Onj have crafted something more than the sum of it’s parts with influences from jazz, ambient and soul. So where does Zero T draw his inspiration? Turns out if you want to write drum and bass you need to listen to other genres.
All of my favourite drum and bass and jungle from the past uses all the parts, vocals and music, taken from music that wasn’t played at that tempo. That is where you get the magic and the groove of jungle when it catches the half time groove with the double time beat. You get all of these interesting rhythmic interplays. Drum and bass is very peculiar music in that it sort of breaks the rules of music because there are two bars of drums for one bar of music. It’s an unnatural thing and if you’re working with singers and musicians who aren’t from the drum and bass genre, the drum and bass beat will put them in a box in their mind. The way they will sing and the way they will play will be very restrictive and very specific to that beat.
A common problem with vocalists appearing on drum and bass tracks is the tempo. Usually ranging from 170 - 175 beats per minute the speed and structure of the genre can be off-putting for some vocalists. Zero T tackled this challenge in an unusual way for Kilburn Park by doubling the amount of music he would write for the vocalists, with no guarantee all of it would see the light of day, to entice the best performance out of the vocalists he and Onj worked with on Kilburn Park.
My technique of working with singers, if it gets used or not, is to give them a half-time version of the music they are going to be signing too. So for every vocal tune I’ve done there is a little half time sketch where the singer wrote to and recorded to that. I’ll never stop doing that because of the results it gets and the bonus is you might end up with a great neo-soul, hip-hop or half time track.
Two examples of this approach have been released on the Kilburn Park EP. The neo-soul edits of ‘Rodeo Drive’ and ‘Twenty Three’ provide some insight into the lengths Zero T undertakes to help vocalists deliver great performances. The EP also releases a piece of music with a special significance for Onj with the track ‘Gone But Never Forgotten’. The track was written by Onj as a way of remembering his mother and the pensive chord progressions, subtle percussion and bright flourishes have a moody, but uplifting effect and the track sits very comfortably on the EP. Zero T spoke fondly while remembering the first time he heard ‘Gone But Never Forgotten’.
That track was one of the first songs I heard of his on the first day we met, it really knocked me sideways. It has real emotional impact. He wrote that song shortly after his mother died five years ago and it’s got a major resonance and importance for him and now for myself.
The Kilburn Park EP is a collection of music with meaning for Zero T and Onj and the EP is not meant strictly for fans of one genre. If you have been following Zero T in the drum and bass genre you will have your musical horizons expanded in a good way. If you are a fan of the modern British soul championed by the likes of artists including Mahalia, Nao and Jorja Smith you won’t be disappointed. Kilburn Park represents the best parts of soul inspired bass music, if there is such a thing, and shows modern electronic music has more than a soul, it has a story, and it is a story worth listening too.
Kilburn Park is out now on The North Quarter label.