Interest in the off-beat: DJ Polo's globally-inspired club music pays tribute to percussive pioneers - Music - Mixmag

Interest in the off-beat: DJ Polo's globally-inspired club music pays tribute to percussive pioneers

Bristol party-starter and producer DJ Polo talks about the people behind the music, love of syncopated percussion and why UK funky will never die

  • 30 June 2023

If it's going to go hard on a soundsystem, there's a high chance DJ Polo is familiar with it. A proverbial hometown hero, this Bristol-based DJ and producer spent years working tirelessly to bring the very best in UK funky, dubstep, Afro house, gqom, amapiano and everything adjacent through parties such as Sprung and Club Djembe; spreading the message further afield by utilising his eclectic, percussion-heavy sets, and highlighting both rising and under appreciated talent via his Rinse FM slot.

Hailing from nearby Swindon, DJ Polo, aka Xavier Redkwa, says his first experiences from the Bristol rave scene came when he was around 18-years-old, catching a train with his friends to Bristol to see "whatever was on" at venues such as "Motion, Timbuk2, Basement 45 and Thekla." Though he admits, it didn't all start with the rave: "When I was really young, my dad would listen to a lot of Motown, and my mum was quite into '80s pop like The Eurythmics and Sade - so it was quite a mixed bag from an early age. I played piano, saxophone and guitar - plus I learned to read music and did some music theory too." Moving on to a typical teenage diet of bands and hip hop, it was in 2006 when he went to college and first heard dubstep that his love for the underground was born. "It was Benga’s ‘Diary of an Afro Warrior’ album that got me into electronic music. I’ve followed the underground electronic music scene from that point, I'm heavily influenced by labels like Night Slugs, Hemlock, Deep Medi, etc. I think my first rave would’ve actually been in Swindon, there was a pretty big dubstep scene there when I turned 18, and I used to regularly frequent an event called "DubsTek".

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After moving to Bristol, Redkwa began throwing parties - with the aim of bringing something a little different to the city's usual diet of house and techno — paying homage to the sometimes sidelined pioneers of UK funky. As part of day party and collective Sprung, he brought the likes of Hard House Banton, Supa D, Apple, T Williams, and Crazy Cousinz to the city. His love for bringing cutting edge percussive sounds to the West of England has only continued with his work as part of Club Djembe — a party and label that focuses on the sounds of the diaspora, treating the crowd to the likes of NAINA, Kitty Amor, Jossy Mitsu, Jamz Supernova, Tash LC and KG.

Though DJ Polo began releasing records all the way back in 2017, with his debut 'That Time Again' on RKS Dubz - as well as early releases on More Time Records, Super Kitchen, Sun Tribe Terrace and more - it was during the COVID-19 pandemic that he really turned his attention to honing in his heavier sound. 2021 saw features on Scratchclart's 'AfroTek' EP on Hyperdub, a four-tracker alongside the Tribal Brothers on Livity Sound 'The Link Up' — as well as his 'Look Back Move Forward' EP, and Rimzee collaboration 'Nostalgia' on Club Djembe. More recent releases have seen DJ Polo link up with fellow Bristol producer NKC on 'Lab Rat', a follow up to the pair's ‘Yeyeyeye’ EP from 2020.

We caught up with DJ Polo following a string of UK and international shows, including a much-talked-about Lente Kabinet set, to talk dancing, UK funky and why Bristol is the place to be. Alongside this, he has created an hour long Impact mix full of deep percussive sounds, qqom, funk and more. Give it a whirl and read our Q&A below.

You just released 'Lab Rat' alongside fellow Bristol percussion head NKC, can you tell us about the process of creating the EP?

It was always on the cards to get back into the studio together, and we wrote these tracks over a few months. We approached this collaboration in person, so all three tracks were made in the same room. To be honest, we both tend to work on headphones - NKC might start on the beat and I would try to come up with a bass, groove or melody, or the other way round and send stems back and forth. Once we got to a stage where we were happy with the tracks, we moved them onto monitors to finish them off. We’re both quite particular with small changes, so we did a lot of sessions on these tracks. It was great to have Bok Bok on the remix of ‘Fonkeh’ as well - he had actually reached out to us to do a remix on a forthcoming Night Slugs release so it was nice to tie both together. He smashed the remix too!

What do you think it is that attracts you to deep, percussive sounds?

I think for me, it’s the rhythms that come from the drums and percussion that attracts me to a track — when it's done right it hits HARD on a system. The more offbeat and syncopated the percussion section is, the more it interests me. I think the love for the deep sound comes from early dubstep, sub heavy music where the bassline leads the melody on the track.

You helped bring the pioneers of UK Funky to Bristol as part of Sprung's Day parties — Can you tell us about when your love for UK funky started? Maybe also how Sprung connected to that for you?

Yeah, so the funky parties came from our mutual love of funky. I think we (Max, Jenny, Luke & Ferris) had all just come back from Dimensions one year and we were like ‘no one puts on funky parties anymore, we should do one?’ The idea was to book artists that we hadn’t seen on a lineup for a few years and bring them to Bristol. Our first funky party we did was with Supa D and Brackles and it went off.. We held them annually after that for the next five years bringing down names like - Apple, Crazy Cousinz, Funkystepz, D Malice, Greyman, Hardhouse Banton etc. Being part of running these parties spurred me on to start producing funky. Before the funky parties I had only really heard the top shelf classic funky tracks - but everyone we booked was bringing through all the dubs and it just made me want to deep dive into the genre. I met a lot of my peers through these events that I have since worked with and I’ve learned alot from them musically.

UK funky never really got its moment in the spotlight, neither did most of its pioneers. Is it important to you to highlight them now? And give them the credit they deserve?

It’s definitely been really important to me, yeah. There has been some spotlight thrown on funky in the last five years, but it's very sporadic - usually an article or a podcast and the narrative is usually "why is funky dead" or "bring back funky." I think that funky has just been going the whole time, it’s just rare that you will hear someone do a full set of funky, but you always hear tracks being played out. I don't think it's ever "died" though people like Roska have been producing and pushing UK funky for the whole time. I think a lot of it is seasonal, soon as the sun comes out it's what people wanna hear. I will always try to push the classic UK funky when/where I can because I love the sound - but also the directions it has taken since are really interesting too.

Read this next: The importance of getting lit: Club Djembe supplies feel-good beats for dancers who love to get down

Is that the mission on your Rinse FM show? Katy B, Roska, Funkystepz, Ramzee... an impressive list of guests!

I would say for the first couple of years it was the mission, yeah. It's my fourth year on the station this month so the format of my shows has changed a bit and I tend to do more solo shows now. But definitely in the earlier days of Rinse this was the mission! It was really humbling for me to have so many artists join the show who have heavily influenced my musical journey — Roska, Scratcha, KG, Greyman, Funkystepz, Katy, Apple, Naughty to name a few. It's been really good to link up with Ramzee in the last couple of years cause we’ve done a few bits now with a heap of funky MCs including 'Nostalgia' EP and a Keep Hush.

Likewise when playing in front of a crowd, do you feel a lot of responsibility when playing music within UK funky, Ampiano, Afro house that the crowd might have never heard before? Or just in general in playing music from the African Diaspora?

100%. I think the influence that the African Diaspora has had in UK club music is so big that people don't even realise, house, techno, UK garage, jungle, dubstep. I think what’s important is to put a spotlight on the pioneers and the originators, take influences and credit where they came from. For me, I don’t change my sound too much to suit a crowd — maybe a couple of UK funky classics to get the crowd going at festivals and day parties, but really I’m always looking to bring out tracks that people might not have before. I play tracks because they are good tracks, and I want people to hear them and think the same too. With Club Djembe, we’ve always tried to represent genres like UK funky, amapiano and Afro house as best and as authentically as possible. We’ve consistently represented these, and other genres, especially in Bristol since 2016 — and have at times been the only people in Bristol booking artists, DJs and sounds outside of the Bristol Bubble... so naturally we will have people who turn up to our parties not knowing the sound. What’s important to us, is to have those people leave our parties, go home and listen to music from the artists on the lineup, become fans of them, and looking at us as someone they can trust for booking good artists.

You just made your debut at Lente Kabinet, how was it? We're seriously clucking over all the dancefloor videos.

Wow, honestly Lente Kabinet was amazing! One of my favorite festivals I’ve been to. It was so organised, well laid out in a really nice location in North Amsterdam. The people there were amazing, everyone was really up for hearing different music. Everyone was very hospitable too. Looking forward to my next time in Amsterdam.

How do you think European festivals compare to UK festivals for you?

Personally I’ve always preferred European festivals to UK festivals. There seems to be a different air about them, and usually the music is more suited to my taste. On top of that, you can usually guarantee sun which is always a bonus.

What impact do you think being from bristol/throwing parties in Bristol has had on you as an artist? How do you think the scene in the city is changing right now? and is there anything exciting that you see developing that we might not know about?

I moved to Bristol around 10 years ago because I loved the music and club culture here. At the time, there were some amazing line-ups and the scene was bubbling - mainly with dubstep and grime, but it was also hosting nights like Crazylegs who we’re putting on some mad line-ups! Think I first saw Scratcha at a Crazylegs in a 80-cap pub. There was quite a heavy promoter-led scene here, where every week there were events on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and you were spoilt for choice. If I'm being honest, since COVID i've seen a shift here... a lot of the smaller clubs have closed down over the years, making it harder to throw events and I think there’s more focus on larger scale events here now. Festivals, Motion and Lakota. Livity Sound, PTS, Can You Dance and the events we run with Club Djembe are the ones I tend to frequent the most in Bristol. I still love the smaller venues here, especially Love Inn and Strange Brew - both good sized intimate venues.

You're one of the founders of Bristol's Club Djembe, a party pretty much built on The Dance. What do you think of the talk of crowds "not dancing" this festival season? Have you seen it? Is it disheartening?

Na really?! I haven’t seen that! I find that wild.. the whole reason to go to events is to enjoy the music and have a dance right? If it is happening, I would say yeah that's very disheartening! To be honest I haven't seen it first hand. We definitely haven’t had that at Club Djembe anyway, the parties are always lively. The last events I’ve been to have been vibey too — maybe it’s happening within other scenes or genres, but you just have to look at our last party with Hagan, or KG’s Rhythm In The City. No short supply of dancing.

What is in the pipeline for you next/what should Mixmag readers be keeping an eye out for?

Next up is a remix me and NKC have done on the Night Slugs 15 years compilation, I was really happy to be asked to be a part of this, as they have been such a big part in influencing my production across the years. I’ve had my head down for the first part of this year, working on two solo projects that will hopefully be out towards the end of this year. I can’t say too much more right now, other than I’ve been working really hard in the studio to refine and develop my sound and I'm super excited to get this new music out there! Other than that, ‘The Link Up 2’ (with Tribal Brothers) is definitely on the cards and another collaboration EP before the year is out! So yeah, there’s a lot of music pending. I'm also playing at Bomboclat Festival in August over in Belgium which I'm really looking forward to.

Read this next: Why didn't UK funky break the mainstream?

Where do you want to go? What is your aim in the next few years with DJ Polo?

This is a hard question cause I usually take one year at a time. I tend to take a step back at the beginning of the year and make a list of things I wanna do — goals for labels I wanna work with, people to collaborate with and places I’d like to play. It helps having a good team around me, Jake (who helps with management) and Toby (my agent) that can see the vision and help expand on it. One of my main goals would be to write an album — that's been something I've wanted to do for a while now and I feel that I'm happy with my sound now that needs to happen. We were planning a US Tour before COVID happened, so we are looking to sort that out finally too.

Can you tell us about this mix?

The mix is a good representation of what I've been playing out in my sets recently — a mix of deeper percussive sounds, funky, gqom and hard drum. There’s some brand new music from myself inside and a healthy mix of new music and classics.

Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter


DJ Polo 'Doldrums' (Deeper Dub)
Ultra Nate 'Love's The Only Drug' (Adam Rios Shelter Mix - Bok's Dub)
LR Groove 'Stack'
Bok Bok 'Melba’s Call' (DJ Polo & NKC Rmx)
NKC 'Kill Time'
DJ Lag & Novelist 'Bulldozer'
DJ Polo & JLSXND7RS 'Untitled'
NKC 'A to Zdz'
Zebulun 'Coco Bread'
Kaval '01 Impreza'
Drumheller 'Stigmata'
Karizma 'Darqness' (Bok's Dub)
Omagoqa '4th Wave'
Surreal Sessions 'Zangief'
Bok Bok 'Silo Pass' (JLSXND7RS Remix)
DJ Polo 'Bloodhound'
Beneath 'Dilemma'
DJ Polo & NKC 'Fonkeh'
Nic As Well 'Morcego'
NKC 'Put You On The Floor'
DJ Polo & NKC 'Hammerhead vs Emz - One Hundi'
AccuThabiso 'IGqom La Belungu'
Scratchclart ft. Calista Kazuko 'Drmsix' (Extended Mix)
NOIRE 'Influenzer Funk' (James Bangura Remix)
R1 Ryders 'UK Sound'
E-Unity 'Zimba Frog'

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