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My own way: Why Scratcha DVA is a linchpin of UK dance music innovation

Martyn Pepperell goes deep with Scratcha DVA, exploring his career so far, being outspoken, and how South African influence 'brought the bounce back' to UK music

  • Words: Martyn Pepperell | Live photo: Pola Sieverding
  • 6 October 2021

“Am I doing a life story here? Cause I’m about to go on,” says Scratchclart, the London-based producer and DJ also known as Scratcha DVA. It's around 9:PM, and we're talking through Zoom, both sitting in the dark with hoodies pulled up. Ostensibly, the reason for our conversation is the release of his recent ‘Afrotek’ EP through Kode9’s long-standing Hyperdub record label. However, having involved in several waves of UK dance music since the garage/2-step days of the late '90s, a life story feels appropriate.

For Scratcha, ‘Afrotek’ arrives off the back of a series of collaborative EPs with Mak 10, NKC, Razzler Man, LR Groove, Karen Nyame KG, Scottie Dee and DJ Polo. A cast of collaborators also feature here, including the angelic voiced Baltimore singer/producer :3LON, the Nottingham MC Mez, the Pietermaritzburg, South Africa-based producer Mxshi Mo, and the aforementioned Scottie Dee and DJ Polo. Together, they explore the continent-crossing lines of connection between the sonic possibilities of UK funky, gqom, grime, and amapiano, serving up five hip-hugging heaters for the dancefloor. But before we talk more about 'Afrotek', back to that life story.

Read this next: The beautiful chaos of Amapiano, South Africa's emerging house movement

Scratcha’s journey with music began as a football-loving teen. “I’ve got two older brothers, and they used to go raving,” he recalls. One of them was friends with the house DJ and producer Nico da Funksta, who occasionally let him borrow his turntables. When his brother was out, he would sneak into his room for a mix. “I was fascinated,” he recalls. “I was hungry, and I still am.”

Growing up in Ilford, East London, pirate radio and the sounds of 90s jungle/drum 'n' bass were a lifeline for Scratcha. After dabbling on those borrowed turntables in his brother’s room, it was only natural he’d look to get involved. Scratcha recorded his first proper DJ mix at a friend’s house before sending it off to a local pirate with a handwritten letter. On hearing it, they offered him a slot. “Football stopped, I started doing music, and ever since then, it’s just been that,” he says.

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It wasn’t enough to just play the music, though, Scratcha wanted to produce. For his fifteenth birthday, he booked six hours at a local recording studio with a group of friends. “I remember that day,” he recalls. “This is how I knew I wasn’t the same as my mates because I knew I had to be prepared.” On arrival, he told the engineer he wanted to make a jungle remix of George Michael’s pop-soul hit ‘Careless Whisper’. “I’d hear my brothers listening to jungle versions of records my mother played, so I knew it could work,” he explains.

After a few studio sessions, one of Scratcha’s older brothers introduced him to the UK garage producer and DJ Persian, who produced the cult classic 'Dangerous' in 1995. Persian lived around the corner and was programming tunes on an Amiga 500 home computer. On invitation from Persian, Scratcha started dropping around with a friend. “It just looked like sorcery what he was doing,'' Scratcha says. “It looked like The Matrix.”

As he tells this story, Scratcha shares other recollections from a similar time. He remembers running with Reckless Crew - a jungle/drum 'n' bass collective led by the pioneering grime producer and DJ Terror Danjah - on a who’s who of classic pirate radio stations. That association led to Scratcha and Terror producing music together on a PlayStation console with Music 2000 and MTV Music Generator. “MTV Music Generator let you sample off CDs, and that was a game-changer,” Scratcha remembers. “From that moment, we were flying.”

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When the soundscape shifted from jungle/drum 'n' bass to garage/2-step and grime, Scratcha and his associates moved with it. One of his first proper releases was a UK garage track titled ‘Take Off’, which he created with fellow producer Kobie for 4Front Records in 2001. As Scratcha and Terror got more involved in grime, they started heading down to the legendary London pressing and mastering facility Music House. “Me and Terror would go there to try and get our tunes cut [to dubplate], and try to get big DJs to cut them as well,” he says. “Everyone who is everyone would be there cutting dubs for their gigs.”

Over the next 11 years, Scratch became inextricably intertwined with the rise of grime. He DJed for most of the main pirate radio stations and had a stint on 1Xtra as part of Aftershock Collective with Terror before spending six years hosting the sometimes unruly but always joyful Grimey Breakfast Show on Rinse FM. In parallel, he began releasing co-productions with Kobie under the Diverse Artz moniker through DVA Music, the label he established in 2003.

At the same time as all of this was going on, after completing a music BTEC diploma course, Scratcha worked as a recording engineer for a bhangra label Orange Productions. “That opened a massive door for me,” he reflects. “They were bringing all these different Asian and Indian instruments into the studio, and I got to learn the structures of bhangra music. At the same time, I had the keys to a studio, so all the MCs in the area knew they could come and pay me to record their stuff.”

Read this next: A potted history of the 1990s British (South) Asian Underground

One day, the grime pioneer Wiley walked through the studio doors, and everything changed: when Wiley takes notice, the whole scene follows. “Everybody will tell you that whenever he does something, people are like, what’s happening here?” Scratcha explains. That association led to Scratcha producing a track for Wiley’s 2007 album ‘Playtime is Over’, the R&G slanted ‘Come Lay With Me’ featuring the singer Rachel. “Aside from working with Terror Danjah, that was the start of me being heard,” Scratcha states. His early production work for Wiley was followed by beat placements on projects from the likes of Flowdan, Durrty Goodz, Chipmunk, Trim and Sway.

By the late 2000s, the syncopation and shuffle of UK funky was surging in popularity. During that era, which he describes as “a great time in life”, South African house records often figured heavily in UK funky DJ sets, and Scratcha was enthralled. He started producing his own versions of the style for DVA Music and Hyperdub, kicking off a chain of events that led to Hyperdub releasing his debut album ‘Pretty Ugly’ in 2012. The year before, however, while preparing music for the release, he went to South Africa for the first time.

Read this next: Constant innovation: Why Hyperdub is in a realm of its own

“This is how it happened actually,” he says. At the time, Scratcha had been emailing the Cape Town-based singer Zaki Ibrahim about music, and decided to fly out and see if he could arrange some recording sessions with her. When he went out, fellow Hyperdub producer/DJ OKZharp, who grew up in Cape Town, helped him make a few connections in the Kwaito scene and linked him with the local Red Bull Studios, where Scratcha and Zaki recorded a track for ‘Pretty Ugly’.

On that trip, Scratcha also played a gig in Johannesburg. South African MC OkMalumKoolKat was at the set and noticed that Scratcha was playing a lot of UK funky, mentioning that some of the producers out in his hometown Durban were making very similar sounding music. With hindsight, Scratcha realises that he was talking about the then-nascent gqom scene, which he discovered back home two years later via the Nan Kolè-curated 'Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban' compilation. He started digging up the contacts of the producers he was vibing with, like Griffit Vigo and Citizen Boy and began making connections. Over the following years, Scratcha returned to South Africa several times and was consistently blown away watching the rise of gqom and amapiano. He would also reach out to South African artists when they came to the UK. “When the guys came over like DJ Lag, I’d chat to them,” Scratch says. “The first [gqom-inspired] music I made, I was sharing it with these guys.”

Read this next: Gqom is the explosive South African sound bursting into Europe

“For a while, after the funky scene faded out, there was no bounce in the UK,” he reflects. “But we’ve gotten it back via South Africa, which is why I big them up a lot.” For Scratcha, over the last few years, this has translated into putting his own spin on gqom and, more recently, amapiano through projects like the ‘DRMTRK’ release series and his new ‘Afrotek’ EP. While he talks about this, he also mentions the likes of DJ Supa D and Housupa Records, who originally came out of the UK funky scene, and like Scratcha, have been drawing inspiration from these South African sounds. “We’re all doing it in our own way, but we owe it to South Africa.”

Lately, Scratcha has been reaching out to the original UK funky producers to see if they’d consider trying out producing amapiano on a funky lean. He’s also been actively encouraging them to get their older, pre-streaming era work online via outlets like Bandcamp. Some of the names he mentions include Apple, iLL BLU, and Funkystepz, who, after some light teasing on Twitter from Scratcha about making tech-house, uploaded a new funky and amapiano slanted EP titled, 'This Is Not A Tech House EP'. “I feel like they’ve just given us that EP to shut me up,” he laughs. “Those guys have made so much good music, so I had to hit them up.”

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

That exchange is emblematic of another role he has long appeared to play within the UK scene: a provocateur and analyst. When asked about this, however, Scratcha rejects the notion. “I don’t think people are looking to me, as such, to lead a conversation,” he says. “I think it’s more that because I’m outspoken, people might think I have something to say, and I normally do. I don’t hold back. I’ll just say it.” In tandem with this, he notes the ideas work Elijah from Butterz has been doing online recently. “He’s constructively making points on how to move forward, and I think that is good.”

With that all said, we return to Scratcha’s new ‘Afrotek' EP. In essence, ‘Afrotek’ represents a more personal continuation of the South African influence Scatcha has discussed throughout this interview. Fittingly, one of his collaborators on it was the Pietermaritzburg-based producer Mxshi Mo, who provided him with the stems from a gqom song of his called ‘Afro’ to reimagine it as the EP’s title-track. “It’s really been about me being influenced by South African sounds and doing different things with it, just like I’ve done before,” he explains.

Read this next: No more 4x4: How sounds from the Global South stopped club culture stagnating

Another key moment on ‘Afrotek’ is the R&B meets amapiano number, ‘Flex’, his future-proofed collaboration with Baltimore singer/producer :3LON. Scratcha connected with :3LON through their mutual manager Charlee of 3feethi, an open-eared agency operating at the vanguard of global music culture. Between the tough-talking soul delivery, moonwalking melodies and unencumbered dance moves :3LON brought to the song and its accompanying music video, he was thrilled. “It’s not forced, :3LON is super charismatic, and it really really works,” Scratcha enthuses.

“I definitely can and have gotten comfortable in the past just doing my thing and being happy,” he reflects. “I could just bang out another ‘DRMTRK’ EP. People play tracks off it, and it goes off on Bandcamp, but then I’m not actually stepping onto another rung on the ladder."

When you look back through Scratcha’s catalogue and history, he’s always been at his strongest when he’s inspired and uses that inspiration to bust outside of existing boxes. Right now, he’s in another one of those moments. “If you look at my grime releases, I didn’t bang out the same template. I did R&G; I did all sorts of different things with grime,” he says. “So now, I’m playing my version of amapiano, my version of gqom, all these UK mixes of the South African stuff, and the bounce is back.”

Scratcha DVA's 'Afrotek' EP is out now via Hyperdub, get it here. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

Martyn Pepperell is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter

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