Interview: J Beatz on the birth of Mode FM, running a label, Bloodline, and psytrance

"2019 is gonna be active. You're gonna be sick of my tag."

The last time Once Upon A Grime spoke to Enfield's J Beatz was in 2010, when he was just seventeen years old. The DJ, producer and Mode FM manager has come spectacularly far since then – heading up his own label, Crown Jules, supplying grime scene A-listers including Skepta, Merky ACE and AJ Tracey with instrumentals, and serving as both a participant and a judge of the much-loved Beat Boss producer clash tournament. We met up at Mode's back room—his natural habitat—on a firework-ridden Sunday night for a wide-ranging interview covering the advent of Mode, his production style, the story behind his Big H collaborations, and much more. Read on for the full interview.

Talk me through your musical journey. What did you grow up listening to? 

Mainly hip hop and R&B—stuff that my older brothers used to play—and garage as well. Also, whatever shit you'd hear at the barbers, or with the family... bit of dancehall, bit of reggae, but mainly hip hop. That was the first music that I really liked, and then obviously, I discovered grime and then boy! Nothing really mattered as much as grime.

So when did grime come into your life?

Basically, I went to my cousin Carl's yard for the summer holiday, and they were just beating out different instrumentals. The first grime tune I heard was N.A.S.T.Y Crew, "Take 'Em Out". Obviously, when I first heard it, I was like 'what's this?'

'Oh, it's N.A.S.T.Y Crew, "Take 'Em Out". You don't know this tune? It's old!' There was also Danny Weed's "Creeper", Kano's "Ghetto Kyote" – them early, early tunes. And then I come back to Enfield with just a CD tryna find more of the stuff. This was obviously before the internet.

Do you play any instruments?

No, I don't. I literally don't play nothing, bruv! Started out on Fruity Loops. I do actually want to learn keys. When I watch people like Sware and Treble Clef do their thing, they might do something that's just a little freestyle which might take me half an hour on the piano roll, just moving shit, tryna make it sound real. If I learned how to play keys, my knowledge and my sound would be so much wider. It would be game over!

Has 'live' DJing ever appealed to you? Creating and remixing tunes on the spot with hardware like MPCs and Launchpads?

I'm not gonna lie, I don't think I have the tek in me to do that right now, but that sounds fucking mad though! I don't know, maybe 2024? [laughs] Give me some time...

"I was one of the first to be on the station. I was here before it even had a name."

How did you first get involved with Mode FM?

When I first got onto Mode, it didn't even have a name. It was just a studio – man used to come here and just mix. Let me give you the full breakdown of how I met the mandem behind Mode. One day after work, Scope shouted me like 'come and do radio! There's this guy called Spike J'. I actually already knew where the studio was. It was downstairs. And the Bloodline studio was downstairs as well. I literally just went through, first time meeting Spike J. Did the set, went upstairs to Sean D the engineer's studio to chill. From there, that's how I got cool with everyone else that was originally involved with Mode FM like Retro, Limitless... I was one of the first to be on the station because I was here before it even had a name. I remember when they come up with the name.

As time went on, I started helping out, doing podcasts and other little things. Eventually, I started doing so much, they were like 'do you know what? You're unofficially management, but you might as well just be management. You do a lot of it anyway'. Over time, some of the original members of the management dropped out. From there, I thought 'it's time to step it up, and do more'. So that's how it got to where it is today, where I do fucking bare shit! It wasn't even intentional, like 'boom, I'm gonna make a radio station'. It just landed on my lap! I wouldn't change it for nothing, man. It's a blessing to be part of a station; bringing talent through in different capacities like giving 'em a slot, or even throwing a rave and putting 'em on. If they're a producer, we've got the label there to release their shit. It's a blessing, man.

What does your current role as Mode's manager entail?

Different things: doing the podcast, scheduling social media posts, editing the website, the timetable, whatever. Liaising with the DJs—whether it be telling 'em off for not paying subs on time, or fucking breaking a fader, or making a mess—or just cleaning the gaffe. Tryna sort out stuff like Keep Hush [club night] or a [DJ] marathon as well. There's bare shit, man. The label, the raves. Man's involved!

You've produced multiple tracks for Big H – did you meet him through the old Bloodline studio here which you mentioned earlier?

I met him here, but he didn't know who I was. In this same building we're in now, there was Axe FM North in the room right over the end there [points]. I used to go there as a yout. I knew the guy running it, Untitled – I was in his crew. He used to do sessions there, and recorded Big H and 9 Milli Major. But I was young, like 14 or something. Billing beats, but early days! So I'm just there, quiet, like 'OK, Big H, yeah?' Like I didn't fucking grow up listening to Meridian and shit!

"Those beats were for 9 Milli Major, they weren't even for Big H!"

And then I think I must have got 9 Milli Major's MSN and I must have just added him and messaged him like 'yo, don't know if you remember, but when you was in the studio, I was there. I've got beats'. He was like 'oh yeah, send some!' And then somehow Big H heard the beats that I sent to 9 Milli Major, and he ended up taking them for Street Crime UK. Those beats were for 9 Milli Major, they weren't even for Big H! I don't know what their pattern is, but bruv, I'm not gonna be fucking upset! And obviously one of 'em had Bossman and Skepta on it! "Life and Death". From there, I think H must have shouted man on Facebook or something and told me to come down to the original Bloodline studio, which was not here. That's where I got my advance copy of Street Crime UK and met him. I think I met President T and a couple of them for the first time that day.

Which of your DJ sets have you been most proud of this year?

The Keep Hush one with Radar Stanna, Blay Vision, Capo [Lee], Nico [Lindsay] and Darkos [Strife]. That one's a percy. One I did not too long ago on the Grime Originals show at Rinse [FM] with Manga and friends, back to back with Benteki and Karnage. It was basically Roll Deep: Riko, Scratchy, Breeze, Manga. That was one to be proud of, 'cause I grew up listening to Roll Deep! My last set at Mucky – anyone that was there for my set would know I was peppering! Definitely one of my percies, if not my percy this year. 

I've heard good things about the two Mucky events, but I've heard more about what happened after the first one...

[Laughs] You wanna know what happened, innit? Alright, cool, cool. Just to put it out there, I'm not a fucking techno raver! Outside Mucky, when mandem were chilling, chatting, I had different people come up to me like 'oh, do you know where the skate park is? Where the party is?' I was like 'what? The party's here, man!' I actually gassed people to come in. Afterwards, I was just chatting to someone, and I see the mandem was just walking with a bag of people going one direction. I was like 'what's going on?' The rave's done, I'm just burse, I'm slyly thinking 'where's everyone going? Fuck it, I'm going!' Ended up in this fucking skate park, not knowing it was a psytrance/techno illegal rave. You see the Insta story, yeah? You didn't even see the half of what I saw, fam! See when I said I'm in an episode of Skins? No word of a lie, fam!

"Man's not a techno guy."

Obviously, big up Sirpixalot and Juzlo, big up Sirpixalot's Mrs as well, 'cause they actually went as well, but they ducked. They was like 'fuck this, there's no business for me here!' Me, I was like 'bruv, what is this?' This was in Tottenham, right behind Five Miles. I've never seen anything like this in my life, fam! I was like 'fuck this, I'm gonna stick about, see what's going on'. And I was just burse trolling people, bruv. I was in guys' faces, taking the piss, but everyone's so xannied off that even that mad erratic dancing you see me doing? There was people rating, fam. Making a circle around me like I'm that guy. I was doing it to see 'is anyone gonna look at me funny?' Anyone gonna say 'yo, my man's moving wild'? Any other rave, if I did that same thing, man would be looking at me, recording me like 'bruv, this guy's off his nut!' But I was the life of the party, apparently. That's what happened, and man's not a techno guy. So anyone genuinely believing I went there and was thinking 'yeah, yeah, techno, that's me' – it's not that!

Has it inspired you to start up a psytrance side project?

I need another alter ego for that one, so if anyone's got a new name for my trance ting, buss me! [laughs]

All jokes aside, the Mucky events have been giving grime producers some well-deserved time in the spotlight. Do you think the scene as a whole needs to be giving producers more credit?

Yes, definitely. Even little things like just having the producer in the title on YouTube or at least in the description – that's a minor! But I'm seeing videos and I know the DoP, the makeup guy, the runner, but I don't know the producer of the tune! Without the producer, you're not shooting a video for anything. No one's going studio for nothing. I think there needs to be more spotlight on producers becah we're the heartbeat of the scene. If you take away the beats from these grime tunes, you can take that [vocal] and put it on a 70BPM trap beat and people would say that's double time rapping. Whereas we are actually making the sound where we take from different places to make this thing called grime.

MCs: work with producers on their producer projects, becah we make the beats for you lot's EPs, albums, singles, or whatever. Pattern us so we can flex as well! It's not just the MCs, though, it's just the game, innit? And it's not even just grime, you know. I think in the overall landscape of music, we forget about the producer role certain times. Unless they have the [primary] artist role, like Steel Banglez featuring Not3s, or Metro Boomin, or David Guetta, that's when they remember 'oh yeah, that's the producer!' Even in certain awards, there's no Best Producer. I'm just thinking rah, swear down? That's an industry thing that needs to change overall. For real.

One question that seems to divide opinion among producers is this: do you prefer to build beats with an MC present in the room, or do you usually just email them the finished article?

To be honest with you, I email beats! Because everyone's got their own lives, and not everyone's able to be at the studio at that time. I actually wanna get into that—it's funny you asked me that—because for me, making the tune in front of the MC would be more tailor-made. I've sent beats to Capo [Lee]—because obviously, we're frequent collaborators—and certain times, he'll say 'ahh, take that out! What tempo's that? Speed it up! Add this! Add a piano or whatever!' Capo's different, he's a bit more hands on. I'd rather do it in the flesh, so instead of texting man, sending edits ('nah, nah, that's not it!'), I could literally just go through it right there. I've already made a tune with an MC in front of me: not too long ago—sometime this year—me and Limit[less] made a beat for Capo. That was the first time we'd done that, and that was fucking fun, bruv! It was a different procedure, because it was like playing catch up in a sense. Capo already had bars and he just knew he wanted it at a certain tempo or whatever. There was certain points where he's got a verse and a bit and there's still no hi hat, no snare, because he just keeps on firing bars!

The only reason I haven't been able to do it is funds. You use whatever you've got, and I've built most of my beats at home or here in the Mode back room. We don't have a mic set up here, and we can't necessarily just set up a mic with the loud Mode FM in the other room and build tunes right there. But yeah, I will be definitely getting into building tunes in front of the artist, man. Blank canvas. I'll be able to transition more from the beat-maker to the producer role: where I'm there and I can have a say on 'maybe you should reword that. Take out that adlib. Reword that or rerecord that'. Or even just give a man a flow; give a man ideas. That live interaction!

I take it you've seen that Swizz Beatz video then...

Yeah. I can't fault anyone for not making beats in front of the MC, because if it weren't for MSN, or shit like MySpace where I could message a man for their email... I were just starting up! No one knew who the fuck I was, so no one was gonna wanna get in the studio with someone they'd never heard of. That's how I got in the game: just asking man 'yo, I've got beats, can I send you something?'. 'Cause man need beats, and they might not even be that known like that, so they're taking anything from anyone. Luckily, people liked them, and it's just progressed, but now I'm more in a position because of the works that I've done and my name in the game now that I can get in the studio with MCs. More of that in 2019!

Quick one for the producers reading this: what's one plugin you couldn't live without?

Do you know what? I don't have one plugin that I can't live without. There's been plugins that I've had and lost over the years; I've gone through bare PCs and lappies. I've got an answer, but I don't wanna say it. I'll give you one, it's not my most, but it's a plugin that I use: Native Instruments' Absynth, that's a good'un. But that's all I'm giving though! 'Cause I know guys will download the plugin, find the sound that I used, and then try to remix man's tune, or use it in the same way that I did, 'cause I've definitely done it as a yout man!

Are you aiming to push a particular sound with Crown Jules?

"If it's a good grime tune, I'll put it out."

I just put out whatever I'm feeling, man. Different aspects of grime. I'm tryna cover the whole 360ยบ, including more melodic stuff. If you look at the releases—bar, obviously, me—I wouldn't say that there's a particular sound. If you look at the different releases, you've got a CREEP N00M one which is a little more dark underneath. You've got the next one coming out: Redeye World—big up my cousin—Metamorphosis EP, that's a lot more playful and brighter. There's so many different sounds and textures and styles within grime. You've got the Rotpot stuff, the skippy stuff, the more half-time, more trappy-influenced type stuff. So many different styles! Even the computer game styley, like Deeco; orchestral kinda stuff; the garage-influenced stuff – and I just love it all! There isn't a specific sound from Crown Jules that I'm searching for. If it's a good grime tune, I'll put it out.

Have you deliberately only signed projects from producers so far?

It wasn't a conscious thing that I'm not gonna put out MCs. My selection for the label has always been based on me being a DJ, so some of the tunes released on Crown Jules might once have just been a ZIP sent to me, where I really enjoyed the tunes. Other than for putting out my own stuff, one of the reasons I even started the label was that there was just tunes that I'd get sent, and other people would play as well, and nothing would happen. I just thought 'rah, there's bare good instrumentals that just never get released!' I don't know why—maybe they don't know how to put it out themselves, or they're not good with the business side of things—but I'll ask: 'What are you doing with that tune?' 'Oh, nothing, you know'. 'Do you wanna put it out? Crown Jules?' That's how I got LEVLZ's [War and Peace]. He sent a ZIP to quite a few DJs, and I literally just picked from that ZIP! That one, Irish Don by Sware, and BLVCK COVVBOYS' Gunslinger had just been ZIPs.

In terms of MCs... there's been some MC releases. My singles: the Radar Stanna one, "Anywhere Mi Go"; the "Immortal" vocal with Nico, Blay, Merky and Capo – but yeah, maybe in the future! To be honest with you, now that you've said it, I should, innit? Maybe in the future. We're looking for releases, and I don't even care where you're from, how old you are, if you're known or not, what you've done... if they're bangers, they're bangers. BLVCK COVVBOYS is from America. CREEP N00M is from Russia. If you've got leng grime for man, send it over, please!

Have you thought about releasing vinyl?

"It's an unmarked territory for me slyly."

Yes! Yes, I have. The only reason that I haven't done vinyl is that I just ain't had the money. You know me. It's quite pricey. To do vinyl, you've gotta have a love for it, man. 'Cause it is a big risk, and even if you do make your sales, you've gotta wait a while for the payout. So it's not an instant money-grab thing. 2019, I definitely will. There's nothing pencilled in, but I want to because it's an unmarked territory for me slyly. So even though my first two releases were vinyl—1 Dutty EP, which come out in 2010—even then, I didn't have the money to press that up. That was all distributed by Adamantium. Big up Logan Sama. He put that out for me and helped me out, but that flopped to be honest with you, because 2010 weren't really popping for vinyl.

That whole period seemed to be a bit of a grey area for grime, while all its biggest faces were charting with pop rap.

That's the time that I kinda come through! So, yeah, it was that weird 'grime is dead' thing, and vinyl wasn't shifting. There wasn't much vinyl to buy at the time, other than Spooky's "Spartan".

I'll tell you what was popping off around that time, though: dubstep. You recently released a re-imagination of Flux Pavilion's "Bass Cannon" on your 'Birthday Beats' EP – was that produced around the same era?

Yeah, that's an oldie, you know! I had a tune on my third EP—Injunction—called "RIP". I went into the "RIP" project and worked it around "Bass Cannon". I did that time ago, as a little fuck about. That was a dubplate for time!

It was good of you to put that whole project out, and especially great to hear your production for God's Gift and Hitman Hyper, "Can't Tell Me Nothing". Was that one from the vaults?

You know people record tunes, and it could be for a project or whatever, and then sometimes they stop doing music for a long time, come back, and then whatever they've done before gets scrapped? It happens, and you have the tunes as a producer 'cause they might buss you, and it's just sitting there. They might not even have a copy! Hitman didn't, and he was like 'oi, send that!' I was like 'rah, you've lost that?' So there's been certain times that I've just got a tune.

It was just a likkle rap beat that I had at the time that he heard on my SoundCloud and asked for. I flung on the little free download even though it wasn't a grime tune, because it's not the sound I'm putting out now. If it was, I probably would have put it out properly. Fuck it, just have it, innit! It's taking up space on my hard drive.

What's next for you personally?

I've got another EP, out December. That's what I'm gonna end the year with. Fuck it, I'll say the title: Champagne Campaign. It's gonna be four instrumental versions of vocal tunes that's come out this year. There will be a couple more vocals—I believe—that will come out later this year that I've produced. I'm on some projects next year, as well. You're gonna see a lot more of me producing for other people, more releases, more bookings. Everything more! Everything that I'm doing is just gonna be multiplied tenfold. I'm still tryna get some of my 2016 shit out, when I'm making new shit now! I've got fucking EPs on EPs. 2019 is gonna be active. It's gonna be one of them ones where you're gonna be sick of my tag.

Anything else you wanna let the readers know?

My new EP Chop Suey is out on Mode Digital now, with three instrumentals and a vocal from Capo Lee. Go and get the Redeye World Metamorphosis EP, out 16 December on Crown Jules. Catch me on Mode FM every other Thursday 7–9pm. Manga's London headline show for Outsiders Live Forever is this Sunday. I'll be there with Micofcourse. They've just moved it to Junction House—RIP Birthdays—but yeah, get your tickets for that now! Anything else, just follow me on the socials. @jbeatzmusic on everything, and @jbeatzuk on the Facebook.