Two decades into his remarkable career in Drum and Bass, BCee epitomizes precisely how to translate a pure appreciation for culture into action.
Through his exploits as BCee, Spearhead Records, and his collaborative project with Villem, The Vanguard Project, the one factor that has continuously defined his existence in the music industry is belief in himself.
As a label boss, he’s helped pave the way for many of today’s biggest stars, with the likes of Netsky, Hybrid Minds, and many others appearing on Spearhead Records early on in their career.
Having recently released a gigantic sample pack with EST Studios, BCee has temporarily turned his attention to helping the next generation in a completely new way.
We caught up with the man himself to discuss:
His sample-heavy approach to producing music
The intricacies of his recent sample pack; and
The evolution of his music throughout the years.
Read on to find out about all things BCee…
2021 marked 20 years of BCee, with some belated celebrations in April. On reflection, what are some of the highlights?
As an artist, getting that first release together and getting the vinyl for it in hand was pretty mental.
Performance-wise, DJing on the beach at Sun & Bass with Tempza, Charlotte Haining, and Degs on the set was just magical. Getting to still be able to do that and getting the excitement from it so far into my career is great.
Another one would be getting to do the BBC 1Xtra shows for four weeks was so much fun.
If we do a 360 and delve into your earliest 170BPM days, I’d love to know what your very first Drum and Bass-related memories are?
Back in 1990, I had been listening to a lot of rock music, but I had a friend a bit older than me who went to loads of raves. She went on to be a dancer for The Prodigy, which led to her giving me a bunch of Drum and Bass tapes. It introduced me to electronic music, and from there, I started listening to a lot of Fabio, Grooverider, and LTJ Bukem.
This was around the time that the scene sort of split into House, Jungle, and Happy Hardcore. I got into House music because I liked the vocals. From there, I started DJing at friends’ house parties and my first bookings came from that.
Is this when you first started to produce?
Yeah, I was just trying to produce anything. Then I got introduced to early music from Calibre and Carlito & Addiction which I really liked as it was Jungle but with some vocals and something uplifting about it. It was what would be called early liquid.
I discovered the early Hospital Records releases due to a 4 for the price of 3 offer on Hospital vinyl at the Virgin Megastore, and I knew that this was my sound. It all grew from there really.
Your own music and your label have championed some of the most uplifting, soulful, and musical sounds in the genre. What is it about this strain of Drum and Bass that resonated with you this whole time?
It’s got to have something about it that creates an energy. High Contrast’s ‘True Colours’ album came out around the time that I was really getting into the scene and it just ticked all the boxes for elements I’d been looking for in other genres.
Everything you’d been looking for in music sort of merged together in this pocket of Drum and Bass…
Yeah. It had a vocal, some nice string, and piano elements, but it had that broken beat which was what I really resonated with.
Drum and Bass now has so much more musicality intertwined with it. Is it somewhat strange seeing how much the sound has evolved since you’ve been pushing it?
In some ways, it’s the same, but the most prominent evolution is the number of vocals, probably because it’s so much easier to work with vocalists now. It’s become a big advantage for me and Spearhead as I’ve been trying to do it for years.
The thing that I’ve been trying to do for years has almost come into fashion. The funny thing is that the stuff I’ve been producing since my last album has gone away from vocalists and has just focused on sampling and jungle basslines, and vibes.
Many people are doing what you’ve done, so it’s time to do something different…
Yeah, exactly; let’s do something different! My biggest complaint when I open up the demo box is that when you have 100 tracks, 95 of them are really well produced, they all sound good, but 85 of them could all be from the same producer.
Sounds like there’s a lack of definition in the tracks?
Yeah. It’s got a nice bassline, it’s got a nice vocal, but it’s not making me go “WOAH”.
Do you think it’s linked to music production being so accessible now? You have easy access to so many synths, samples, and vocals on Splice. It does take some originality out of making music.
Thinking back to when I was first making music, it was so exciting when you finished a track. Having something that sort of sounds like somebody else is kind of what you aim for. That is the goalpost at the start.
But I think a combination of great software, great royalty-free samples, and great access to Youtube tutorials has had an effect.
I interviewed Stranjah a while ago and he told me that when he started producing in the 90s, access to knowledge was non-existent compared to now. If you want to know how to make a snare more transient now, you can just google it and find out exactly how.
Yeah, exactly! Not just that, but you have producers themselves telling you how to make their sounds. That is fantastic and there’s nothing wrong with it at all, but as a label owner, when you’re then looking for demos, you’re no longer looking for the quality because it’s there.
Instead, you’re looking for something that makes it stand out.
I’m sure it changes from track to track, but what is that element you’re looking for?
I’ve always said that when I’m listening to a track, I want to be able to imagine myself playing it in 10 years’ time. Whether it be from a vocal line or a big string sample that’s uniquely used. I remember hearing Marcus Intalex play High Contrast’s ‘Racing Green’. The fact I can still remember that says a lot, no one had used a sample like that before, but it still fitted into that 174 BPM, big bassline sound.
Don’t get me wrong, most tracks that people finish are going to sit in the norm. Many of my tracks sit in the norm, but the excitement comes when you make one like that. I always almost know if I will sign a song on the first listen.
Of course, creating timeless music is very hard. Two memorable ones that come to mind are High Contrast’s ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and the second drop of your track ‘Come & Join Us’.
It’s funny with that one, there was a real love it or hate it vibe about that second drop. But I guess that’s what you want to create. You want to have something there that makes people question whether they like it or not.
That’s what you’re going for, though. Music is subjective, but capturing someone’s imagination and attention makes it memorable.
I remember Quiff from Total Science said that it’s all about making the notes that people hear but aren’t actually there. There’s real magic in that.
100%. So, when it comes to DAWs, what was your first setup, and what do you use now?
I was messing around with music a long time ago, back when I was 8 or 9 years old. I started off on a ZX Spectrum, which had 48K of memory.
It probably had less memory than this screw on my desk. I went on to use Cubase on an Atari ST with a Roland synth module. Then when I was first properly producing it would’ve been on Logic.
It was okay, but then I went onto Reason 2 with Nick (Lomax/Loadstar) and it all came together.
I didn’t really know that I was EQing or compressing, I sort of knew what I was doing, but Reason was quite forgiving.
When I listen back to those old mixdowns from Reason 2, some were as good as anything I’m doing now.
It’s funny how that can happen even when you gain so much knowledge in between.
I think that sometimes that knowledge can get in the way. I’ve heard plenty of other producers say that too.
You start to worry about if it’s technically right instead of how it sounds.
Anyway, after that, I moved over to Ableton. I still use Reason for the Subtractor but it’s mainly Ableton now. It’s so easy to warp samples and drag things in that warp to tempo. As a mainly sample-based producer, I can use it so easily.
In terms of software/hardware, what are your go-to’s?
I pretty much use Ableton and sampling. I spend a lot of time going to charity shops, buying vinyl and CDs, and ripping every sound out of them. That has always been the hard work for me, and this was instilled in me by Nick back when we were producing together in Reason. CDs, DVDs, you name it – we would sample it.
It’s pretty boring and tedious, but I know that if I make 1000 samples and put them in a folder, when I sit down to make a track the work is already done.
I also use the Native Instruments Komplete package, Serum, Massive, Alicia’s Keys, and other things. I’ve also started using some Spitfire Audio stuff and the detail of the sounds are so realistic.
So when it came to you making this sample pack for EST Studios, did you use any of these techniques?
I was a little bit daunted by the task of doing such a big sample pack because I couldn’t go to a charity shop and use CDs. I bought a couple of synths for it and spent a couple of weeks delving into what they could do.
Was it strange handing over sounds that you’d crafted for other people to use?
I wasn’t too worried about that. I use sample packs all the time, particularly Loopcloud, where I’m using one sample from this pack, one sample from another pack and it’s like a jigsaw.
I can give somebody my beats and some of my piano samples, but they’re never going to do what I would do with it. I’m interested to see and hear how people will use it.
One of the best things about sample packs is that you can learn from them as well. You’re passing your knowledge down to the next generation of producers.
I’ve always said this and I hope the sample pack goes along with that. The sound is the sound. I want people to use them, reverse engineer them, and learn as much about the sonics as they can, but people have to remember that it’s all about vibe.
It’s your imagination that you need to unleash. Unless you do that, you’ll only go part of the way.
I was going to ask you for your advice to aspiring producers, but you’ve gone some way in answering that there…
There are some really sick producers out there who are machines that know every bit of software they use backwards, so it’s easy to think ‘I’m shit at this’.
My advice is – don’t worry about your process because the listener only hears what that final version sounds like. How you get there doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, the end result is all that matters.
Be creative, and the rest will catch up.
My other bit of advice would be to put in the time. I speak to many younger guys who tell me how busy they are and haven’t got time to produce.
Having a few years on those 20-year-old producers and having two kids, a label, the dogs here, and trying to move house, life does bog you down and you do have less time free.
Just pick a few nights a week and make yourself do something. Even if it’s two or three hours a week, your 30-year-old self will be so happy you decided to do that.
Consistency is huge. 20 minutes a day for 20 years is a long time.
Exactly. I tend to do an hour here, a couple of hours there, and it works for me.
On the subject of producers, I’d love to know who you’re rating right now?
The biggest one right now for me is Ellen (Lens). We just released her debut solo on Spearhead. Her debut EP is absolute fire, and it comes from a fresh, young DJ/producer with fresh ideas, but has an absolute love with that 20-year-old jungle sound.
That’s all mixed in a melting pot, and it’s created something really good.
There are two guys that have been around for a minute, but I’d love to plug them too. One is Villem. He had his debut release on Med School a while ago and has done various bits and pieces. But, the stuff he is producing right now is fire, so expect to see a lot more from him. Then there’s Emba, whose solo stuff is incredible. You’re going to hear a lot more from him as well.
We’ve spoken quite a bit about other artists, so let’s wrap up by talking about you. What can we expect from BCee over the next few months?
I’ve got an EP due to drop in about three weeks. Having written so many vocal tracks in lockdown, I’ve gone back to the basics with loads of sampling.
It’s called ‘TSC’, and it’s all sampling and bass. I wanted to go back to where it started – snippets of vocals, loads of sampling, and vibey.
I’ve also got a single coming out with Charlotte Haining and Emba on Drum & Bass Arena and as The Vanguard Project, I’ve got a double single coming out on UKF.