Underground Stalwarts Kahn & Neek Talk Dubstep’s New Dawn & ‘Lupus et Ursus’ ⚡

Words: Son Raw
Photography: Augustus Campbell

When I met up with Bristol veterans Kahn & Neek to discuss their debut album, Lupus et Ursus, climate change was on my mind, and not solely because they’d just performed at Montreal’s Igloofest during a freak cold snap that saw temperatures hit negative 40. The weather was dreadful, but the musical climate for adventurous producers at the intersection of UK garage’s various offshoots seemed to be undergoing a Spring thaw with devoted listeners suddenly keen to embrace Britain’s musical heritage. I wondered what that was like for this pair of dubstep dons who’d survived and thrived through clubland’s many shifts in styles over the past decade.

Having made their name through their vinyl-only label, Bandulu, during grime’s mid-2010s revival, and having toured the world as dubstep artists during a time where the genre was more or less hibernating in the UK, I was curious not only about how they used the pandemic’s forced break in touring to write an album, but also how clubland was reacting to their sound today. “We started the record quite a while ago,” admits Kahn. “Some of those tracks started around 2017. I think we were so caught up in touring around then it was non-stop. I can’t even remember 2018 at all, so the writing side was definitely taking a hit.”

The pandemic-forced slowdown subsequently helped crystalise Lupus et Ursus from an EP, to multiple EPs, to finally an album. Above all, the duo were keen to challenge themselves and their fans with new ideas, zeroing in the key elements of their sound but presenting them in a way that would be a substantial departure from the average Kahn & Neek release. The resulting album is equal parts familiar and foreign, keeping the bassweight, darkness and homages to classic grime and bashment, but filtering them through a smoky, hazy mix, closer to dark ambient and experimental dub than traditional dancefloor tracks.

Considering this, Kahn notes that the reason the album took so long to finish was because it needed more time to grow up, to know what it was: “The music was trying to come out but when we were on the road we didn’t have the headspace to realise what it was going to be.” The results are unmistakably Kahn & Neek, but they’re also a step to the left of what ravers might expect—which is to say, it’s a strangely murky, often bar-heavy mix of dubstep and grime that forgoes club weaponry’s optimisation principles in favour of experimental digressions and bold risks. It’s a record that’s banging but not one focused on bangers—a very intentional direction, notes Neek: “We felt we had something a bit more to offer. We were never that interested in instrumental grime and dubstep albums; it wasn’t an aspiration of ours. So we wanted it to be rooted in what we started DJing and making, having the seeds of that in it, but also have it be new, or at least new for us.”

For many producers, the album format can be a tricky proposition: go too far left, and you lose what makes your DJ sets and singles so appealing; hew too closely to the usual formula, and you end up with a compilation rather than an album statement. Luckily, both as a duo and as part of their numerous other projects within Bristol’s Young Echo collective, Kahn & Neek had plenty of experience colouring outside of clubland’s boxes, experiences that paid off while making the record. Additionally, the pandemic provided ample time to review and rework tracks, particularly the vocal collaborations of emcees such as grime veterans Flowdan, Riko Dan and Killa P.

“We want to be ourselves, and that’s the best thing about this stage in our careers: we feel a lot less limitations now.” —Kahn

Reflecting on the album’s roster of vocalists, Kahn beams when mentioning how the final results came together through organic collaboration: “We kept going back to the vocal stuff, which started early off in the birth of the project. At the time, it felt rational to put those tracks out as a single, but I think because we’d been doing it for quite a long time, artistically we wanted to not just do what had been done before. That’s the benefit of being older and of having been around the block a few times. You can concentrate on how you can put this music in a newer place. The “Rally” track, in particular, the initial idea I sent to the artists initially wasn’t used at all. We wrote an entirely new beat around it. The track with Rider Shafique as well. We’d send a track, they send back a vocal and it would spark an idea for a whole new beat around what they’ve done. It’s truly collaborative that way since we can rebuild a song around the artist.”

This collaborative approach also sees the duo come full circle, from sampling and remixing their heroes on tracks like “Percy” to fully fledged collaborations. That spotlight on roughneck dancehall vocals feels particularly important today, as Jamaican dancehall trends towards more melodic deliveries, making the UK ground zero for hardcore ragga bars. The pair are also quick to note that despite a decade-plus shutting down raves, collaborating with their teenage heroes doesn’t get old and the opportunity to contribute to the legacy of multicultural UK music was a bright spot amid a difficult few years.

“Working with Flowdan and Riko, they were like gods to us,” gushes Neek. “Going from that to adding to their discography—it’s mad! Their contributions are such an important thing to grime and to UK dance music and soundsystem music. I hope it never gets looked over. The UK is a pretty fucked place, but that’s one of the things that’s great about the country: the crossover of different communities and different genres of music, the kinds of collaborations and flavours of music that could only come out of this environment. And you can tell that newer artists listened to grime and looked up to guys like Jme and Lethal Bizzle.” As for dubstep, the other side of the duo’s principle influences, now feels like the perfect time to drop an album expanding upon its fundamental elements—crawling rhythms, murky sub-bass, pitch black dread—to renew the genre’s creative possibilities. Lupus Et Ursus nails this commitment to futurism, all while reminding listeners of acts like The Bug and Skull Disco, dubstep practitioners who never bought into the genre’s more formulaic side.

Reflecting on what dubstep means to them, Kahn notes that the genre always had more to offer than 140BPM bangers. “For us,” he says, “growing up in Bristol, there were all different types of styles of music within that genre and that was lost a bit along the way. People expected one specific strain of it. I hope what we’re attempting with this record is going back to that earlier mentality. It exists in that dubstep sound world but without needing to be played at 140 BPM. When you think of a dubstep set, people don’t stray from certain conventions, so the challenge is shifting things in terms of BPM and mood. We could all be a little more courageous, to make it a bit weirder again.”

Then there’s the album title, a reference to Kahn & Neek’s Irish roots more so than any affinity for Latin, which the duo stresses was mostly because it sounded cool. Emerging out of a conversation about their Irish heritage while on tour, the duo landed upon Lupus Et Ursus after realising that Kahn’s family name originally comes from “son of the wolf” (loosely translated) and Neek’s was “strength of bear”—the Barrett clan. “We thought it was pretty cool,” laughs Kahn. “Also, we were trying to find a name for the album; making a record over that long amount of time, we didn’t have a clear intention from the start—we didn’t leave ourselves too much time to mull it over. As for the Latin, it just sounded cool! Neither of us know Latin.”

As I leave the duo, I can’t help but feel a sense of optimism, not only for their own work, but for how the growing Bandulu sound could open even more possibilities for dubstep and grime, over 20 years after they emerged from the loins of UK garage. “We’ve done so much of the stuff we wanted to do when we were young, so now we’re not so worried about ticking boxes anymore,” says Kahn. “We want to be ourselves, and that’s the best thing about this stage in our careers: we feel a lot less limitations now. Hopefully people enjoy it and want to come with us. When you’re young, you’re seeking acceptance and now we’re a lot more comfortable with taking risks. Getting this record done was such a massive thing hanging over us, and it’s a massive relief. Now we can clear the decks and try brand new things.”

Khan & Neek’s debut album, ‘Lupus et Ursus’, is out everywhere on March 17.

Posted on March 08, 2023