“The Luke Skywalker of Breakbeat. He is unbelievable, he is so talented. I’ve been watching him grow up in the last two years. I’ve seen him grow from this inquisitive street kid to that age where he’s humorous and simply enjoying life. I do feel like a big brother to him.” – Goldie on J Majik, Platinum Breakz inner sleeve notes, 1996
This week is the blog’s 7th year anniversary. Traditionally, the anniversary features are retrospective accounts. To celebrate the occasion, I’ve taken a nostalgic trip back to 1997; the pinnacle of drum & bass’ golden era and a seminal year for full-length albums and various artists compilations*. Drum & bass had already attracted the media spotlight, which in turn exposed the niche genre from a limited connoisseur circle to a wider audience, providing artists with a vital and creative space for experimentation. However, what started with bona fide artistic intentions came with a price, but this is a story for another day.
As manifested in previous posts, over the years I have developed an affinity for albums. Immersing in the underlying atmosphere, I am intrigued by the influences, the samples, the lyrical motifs, the artwork, the concept, the evident or cryptic messages they convey; everything eventually culminates in a narrative with a purpose and a profound personal touch. I prefer conventional structure: an opening track foreshadowing the main theme, which is divided perhaps into multiple sections with interludes or vignettes and a closing track that concludes the musical journey. Some artists get it right effortlessly, some lose the plot midway and others end up with a collection of selected works. It doesn’t matter anyway; the merit of album writing as an art form is to evoke different emotions and interpretations, gradually unveiling beauty and truth in time.
Having said all that, I am happy to present one of my cherished albums, written and produced by one of my all-time favourite artists; the drum & bass wunderkind James Spratling, best known by his primary recording and dj alias J Majik. Released in 1997 on his own label Infrared Records, J Majik’s debut album ‘Slow Motion’ envelops every trait of a classic album and still sounds as relevant as ever. Deviating from the formulaic norm and genre confines, ‘Slow Motion’ is a broad canvas of musical inspiration that elegantly oscillates between tempos and emotional states without sounding a creative stretch. The highly anticipated follow up, titled ‘Full Circle‘, is due next month. A soundcloud teaser (The Crow Knows) and J Majik’s latest appearance at Rupture, where he headlined Room 2, have already ignited the spark of excitement. So, until pre-orders become available, I’ve taken the opportunity to re-discover ‘Slow Motion’ with a fresh outlook and perspective, re-imagining my own personal interpretation of the album’s vision. The feature is supplemented with a brief artist profile, discography highlights and the spectacular return of Infrared after a long hiatus.
Spratling met with 4Hero through his sister, who used to work with Marc Mac. Charter Road, Dollis Hill was a melting pot for UK’s most innovative underground music, with 4 Hero’s famous attic and FSOL’s Earthbeat Studio in the same building (even Suede, before reaching stardom, used to rehearse downstairs, as Goldie vaguely recalls in his memoirs). That influential environment was the perfect catalyst for James’ undisputed talent to flourish.
Mentored by the genre’s finest, who introduced to the music world the likes of Goldie, Doc Scott and Peshay, Spratling made his first foray into production at the tender age of 15 with the breakbeat hardcore classic ‘The Choice’ (Six Million Ways to Die) on Lemon D’s short-lived label Planet Earth under the alias Dexxtrous (a moniker he dropped shortly after and emerged as J Majik) and his rise to prominence has been nothing less than meteoric. That same year, Infrared Records was established and the first three EPs (Innervisions I & II, World Of Music) featured contributions from Reinforced stable-mates Keith Montague (aka Dream, Sudden Def), Goldie, Peshay and Nu Era (Marc Mac).
Around that time, Goldie amicably left the Reinforced camp to record the paradigm-shifting ‘Terminator EP’ with Mark Rutherford for Synthetic, which paved the way to realize his dream and establish one of the genre’s most revered brands. Impressed by J Majik’s productions he invited him to record for Metalheadz and Spratling reciprocated with an array of classics, establishing himself as one of the pioneers, who helped shape that venerated early Metalheadz sound. James’ unique ability to move gracefully between styles, his technical wizardry and trademark manipulation of the ‘Apache’ break, quickly elevated his reputation to the genre’s production elite. Take Irvine Welsh’s word, the acclaimed novelist of chemical romance, who name-checked J Majik in one of his obscure short stories ‘Victor Spoils’ (Welsh published in 2009 an anthology of short stories, previously issued in out-of-print magazines and defunct media in the 90s, under the collective title ‘Reheated Cabbage’).
The next two years turned out to be extremely prolific. After a string of exquisite singles for Metalheadz and Infrared, J Majik presented his alter ego Innervisions for his side-projects (inspired from the eponymous first Infrared EPs), with releases for Reinforced, Basement, 10” Press, Infrared and Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax. He also became an in-demand re-mixer for a wide range of musical luminaries: from the avant-garde pop of Art Of Noise and the crossover sensibility of Everything But The Girl to the d&b royalties Goldie, Photek and Jacob’s Optical Stairway (Marc Mac & Dego). A debut album seemed like a natural progression and that eventually took place in January 1997. Looking at a Metalheadz poster in my living room with photos of old DAT tapes, I recently realized that the album had somehow already been hinted:
J Majik feat. Innervisions – Slow Motion, INFRALP001, 1997
Tracklisting and liner notes:
The 3×12” vinyl edition of ‘Slow Motion’ includes 10 tracks. With the exception of ‘Mermaids‘ and ‘Organized Crime’, which were both previously released on Mo’ Wax under Spratling’s alias Innervisions, all tracks are album exclusives. The original version of ‘Silicon Valley’ was released the previous year on Infrared (INFRA006). Lyrics and vocals for the album’s lead track ‘Slow Motion’ co-written by Angelaforo.
The CD edition has 2 different versions, although the artwork is identical. The 11-track version includes ‘Pictures’ (INFRA007, 1996) as a bonus track, whereas the 12-track version has a different track-listing: ‘Stationary’ and ‘Third Eye’ have been replaced by ‘Apache’, ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘Daybreak’; the latter featuring on the 2xCD edition of ‘Platinum Breakz’ (Metalheadz/FFRR, 1996).
The track-by-track review pertains to the LP version.
J Majik has borrowed the title from cinematography, an effect that perfectly encapsulates the album’s artistic vision. The track sequence is the vehicle for a seductive story-telling with allusions to spiritual and esoteric concepts; a late night story that starts as a nightmarish sci-fi lullaby and concludes as a reverie. As the album progresses, suspense and peril are juxtaposed with aspiration and relief, and the tempo slows down to capture that romantic moment in time. Rather than a collection of tracks directly derived from the traditional drum and bass blueprint, the album is an amalgamation of sounds and ideas, with nods to a variety of musical styles suitable for the dance-floor, as well as for home-listening.
Side A: The raw, angular corners of the opening track ‘Subway’ (Photek re-imagined it for the ‘Nightvision’ compilation, INFRALP002, 1999) reflect the dark wave that was sweeping the scene at the time. I recently read a modern noir novel by Claire Mackintosh, the main plot centered around people being stalked during their commuting routine in the London Tube. If it was ever adapted to a film, ‘Subway’ would be a fitting soundtrack to the mise-en-scene.
Side B: The flipside ‘Gemini’, is a whole different affair. The masterfully programmed drum work, the eerie strings and the entrancing female vocal hook, intimate as a whisper, are as irresistibly tempting as a siren’s song. Be careful what you wish for: “Sometimes your fantasies do work out”.
Side C1: ‘Third Eye’ refers to the invisible eye which provides perception beyond ordinary sight, as the gateway to higher consciousness. The hybrid drum break, the synths stabs and the diffused electrostatic noise, open an imaginary portal between the analog and the digital world. An Anthony Hopkins quote from the TV series ‘Westworld’ beautifully encompasses the impression: ‘Every piece of information in the world has been copied and backed up, except the human mind – the last analog device in a digital world’.
Side C2: ‘Stationary’ is a deceiving title, like traveling without moving. Recorded at a frenetic speed, the abstract jazzy flair of the bass winks at Photek’s ‘Science’ period and the howling metallic effects create a choreography in fast forward motion of swirling katanas engaging into a decisive fight.
Side D1: Arcon 2 (Noel Ram’s alias for his darker and more tech-oriented productions) delivered a trademark re-interpretation of ‘Silicon Valley’. Ominous atmospheres and immaculate drum programming, signaling the rise of the machines, conclude the first part of the album. A track that could easily fit in his eponymous LP released on Reinforced that same year.
Side D2: ‘Organized Crime’ captures Mo’ Wax’s halcyon days of ’96. An eccentric melange of John Carpenter soundtracks and visceral punk beats in a hip-hop environment, drenched-in-delay drums and buzzing synths foreshadow the second part of the album.
Side E1: The LP’s lead track ‘Slow Motion’ bridges the dystopian avenues with that elusive place of hope and idyll with a beautiful downtempo orchestration and Angelaforo in a stunning lyrical performance. This is music with vision and purpose and the prelude of J Majik’s crossover success a few years later.
Side E2: ‘Mermaids’ is my personal highlight and the track that inspired the feature. I had lined it up for the ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ series, but in the process I changed my mind. Seductive, enchanting and addictive, the mournful notes, the sounds of sea waves crushing ashore and the hypnotic tempo create saturated hues in the monochrome silence. An elegy for a love lost or unfulfilled, but defiant to popular folklore, the ending is intentionally ambiguous.
Side F1: Delving into ambient territory with the serene and harmonic strings of ‘Chakra’; a time for introspection and self-reflection inspired by the ancient meditation practices.
Side F2: ‘Kindred Spirit’ is a heart-warming closing vignette, with a catchy reverbed bass loop and humming vocals. Not just your ordinary love song, it’s a glimmer of optimism reassuring that the eternal search for a soul connection is not futile.
The digital version of the album is available from the label’s bandcamp:
Fast forward to the present
J Majik relentlessly continued on the same tip with arguably some of his best recordings for Metalheadz and Infrared (‘Repertoire’, ‘Solarize‘ etc). By the dawn of the new millennium though, major changes were taking place in the d&b scene and Spratling swiftly adapted, following a new musical direction. Collaborating with renowned singer Kathy Brown he made remarkable crossover success. Fusing drum & bass with 21st century Chicago soul, he produced club anthems (‘Love Is Not A Game’, ‘Share The Blame’, ‘Tell Me’) that entered the UK charts and re-designed the template of the new emerging sub-genre named after Fabio’s compilations for his own label Creative Source. I still remember, waiting for a night bus at Tottenham Court Road after a Swerve party, a bunch of girls half-drunkenly serenading the world with ‘Share The Blame’ …
In 2003, J Majik earned a prestigious slot to curate the 13th installment of the Fabriclive series (the 4th d&b artist to receive the honour after Hype, Grooverider and Fabio). In fact, I had the opportunity to see J Majik play Fabric a few times, but I was too timid to elbow my way and say hello.
Around that time, a long-term partnership with Andy Parsons (Wickaman) started, which culminated in countless releases for Infrared, Virus, Viper, Ganja and Breakbeat Kaos. In 2006 J Majik & Wickaman established their sub-label Black Widow (the catalogue numbering prefix effectively changed) and the next year they released their first (as a duo) acclaimed album ‘Crazy World’. In 2008 they created the Spectrum series, a short run of classic re-issues from the Infrared back catalog. In 2009 J Majik & Wickaman also launched the short-lived offshoot Mosquito Recordings for their vinyl excursions, which were the last physical products before Infrared went digital in 2012.
J Majik & Wickaman made a head-turning cameo for Metalheadz with the breathtaking ‘Ritual/Old Headz’ (METH093, 2011), a tribute to J Majik’s musical legacy for the label. Two years later the duo released their second album ‘Out Of Sight’; a title somehow ironic as it marked Infrared’s dormancy.
Fatherhood and other commitments kept Spratling away from the scene for a few years. Old friend and label-mate Brendan Collins (Futurebound) induced J Majik to record again for his label Viper, but eventually it was a Rupture club night that re-kindled J Majik’s passion and love about what he does best.
With old friend and partner Lee Bogush (DJ Harmony) re-launched Deep Jungle Records, by delving into their DAT treasure trove and release gems that were considered buried in the sands of time. Read the full story and interview here.
In 2018 J Majik decided to resurrect Infrared in grace and style, paying homage to his roots. Featuring previously unreleased music by himself and Adam F rescued from the DAT archives, re-mastered versions of Infrared classics, new music from Peshay, who returned to the label after 25 years, as well as the new album ‘Full Circle’, which is due for release on May, 1st. Premiering at the Clashmouth d&b market, this is a rare opportunity to fall again under J Majik’s spell. Pre-orders will be available soon from the Infrared site.
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*Selected classic d&b albums and various artists compilations released in 1997:
Photek – Modus Operandi
Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms
Adam F – Colours
Jonny L – Sawtooth
Boymerang – Balance Of The Force
Voyager – Future Retro
Omni Trio – Skeleton Keys
J Majik – Slow Motion
VA – Grooverider presents The Prototype Years
VA – Blame presents Logical Progression Level 2
VA – Moving Shadow presents Blueprint & Storm From The East
VA – Metalheadz present Boxset 1
VA – No U-Turn presents – Torque
VA – V Recordings present V Classic