Beatmaker’s Corner: Steel Banglez

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Hyperfrank

Like fashion, culture and other related verticals, music is a spectrum exhibiting cycles and an insatiable need for something new. Sounds and genres come and go, from lover’s rock and acid house to garage and funky, but rarely does a producer single-handedly alter the sonic landscape of the country with such gusto and ingenuity, to the point where carbon copies of their sound become commonplace. In just two years, Steel Banglez has done just that. From his early days toiling the underground of UK rap to his present status as a producer extraordinaire, the humble, cultured beatmaker from Forest Gate, East London, has left a footprint on UK black music that has transformed its direction in a big way. The feeling is so that he has drawn a figurative line in the sand between UK rap before and after him, and his producer tag has become synonymous with tracks that stick in one’s head. Think Mist’s “Karla’s Back”, Dave’s “No Words” and Nines’ “I See You Shining”, all of which contain his signature bombastic, exotic, awe-inspiring soundscapes, treading lines between UK garage, Afrobeats and UK rap for an altogether novel sound that is shooting up the charts.

Rap’s resurgence, from the doldrums of its early 2010s slump, at this point, is parallel to Banglez’s rise, as he sees it. Speaking to me at the Ace Hotel, London, he is blunt when speaking on his own impact: “I think I’m one of the truest, most loyal soldiers of the UK rap scene. Steel Banglez is the creator of a sound in the UK that led onto its expansion for other people to put their two cents in. Everyone is doing their thing, but I don’t have an ego. I see it in a happy way, because I was trying to get into the clubs for years when no one gave a fuck about UK rap. When everyone was off doing other things, I stuck through the depression period and now we’re pop. I’m up front—I’m Cristiano Ronaldo.”

For Banglez, then, his ascendance is the result of his perseverance and, though he isn’t climbing to the highest mountain screaming his own praises, he would like it known how hard he has worked. This isn’t accidentally stumbling upon a formula that works and running with it, but an exercise in fine-tuning his skills from early, to a satisfying finish that is now his reality. Growing up in an Indian household with his mother, an Indian music teacher, and father, a poet, in Forest Gate, an area he notes as extremely multicultural, the residue from the mixing was him discovering a myriad of sounds that would later gage his interest, especially reggae, dancehall and hip-hop. “I just loved the beats and the people in my social circle at the time were into it,” he recalls. “My next-door neighbours were Jamaican, and they had a fat soundsystem and decks. Another neighbour was D Double E, so I was wedged between two musical homes, so it just became natural.”

“You have to spend time with an artist, find out their favourite colour, eat and drink with them, smoke with them, to really make a great record. That’s my policy.”

The allure of hip-hop however, particularly of Timbaland—his beat for Missy Elliot’s “All N My Grill” a key catalyst for Banglez’s career—was all too strong, and Banglez embarked on a mission to educate himself on the art of beatmaking, with no help whatsoever. “In the beginning, I would try make Dr. Dre, Scott Storch-type beats when I used to play the keys and mix Asian drums into that,” he remembers. “Then I would chop up recent grime instrumentals and make remixes of them and hand them to DJs, stuff like ‘Eskimo’ and ‘Are You Really Really From The Ends’. I started producing on my Yamaha keyboard before I even had a computer, when I was seven years old. So, I started fine-tuning from a young age and it was mostly self-taught.”

Already on course of developing what would become his sound, Banglez’s journey was derailed by a three-year prison stint in 2005. His voracious hunger to produce wasn’t quelled, and he would regularly craft beats until his release, gaining a name in the DJ circuit by handing out his beats before securing his big break, producing Krept & Konan’s 2012 track “Go Down South”. “That was a big song for me,” he says, “but no one knew who I was at the time.” It would take another four years for Banglez’s name to really ring true, when he linked up with now perennial collaborator Mist for the omniscient “Karla’s Back”, containing the now famous tag. “That’s my biggest entry for people,” he says. “It was a different-sounding beat to everything else at the time in UK rap, and I think my experience was shown on that beat; the production level was so much so that you could tell it took years to reach that sound.” With its glittery synths, deep bass, sharp drums and club-ready transferability, Banglez had unknowingly ushered in the new phase for UK rap, where cinematic soundscapes would become its focal point, and it still stands as Mist’s biggest hit in his short career.

But despite this, Banglez’s creative process remains simple and inspired: “It’s just how I feel. I play piano most of the time, and I might have a happy moment and make a happier-sounding beat, or maybe I’ll have a film in the background. I have different backgrounds on Fruity Loops and I might try to describe pictures or moments in my life and name the instrumentals after them, or I might be with Mist in the studio and he’ll hum something. I don’t have one formula; I’m a true musician, in that sense, and I’ll just do what I need to do based off what I feel.” Even while working with the rappers in his increasingly bigger address book—Dave, Not3s, Nines et. al—Banglez is an old soul, preferring to work closely with them to produce the best possible outcome. The resulting track, consequently, is a true collaboration between artist and producer which, sonically, shows. “I love working in the studio,” says Steel. “I learnt that early on from Rick Rubin, who I look up to a lot. From him, I learned you have to spend time with an artist, find out their favourite colour, eat and drink with them, smoke with them, to really make a great record. That’s my policy.”

“When everyone was off doing other things, I stuck through the depression period and now we’re pop. I’m up front—I’m Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Of course, the need for other producers to gain success in the game has led to many a carbon copy of the finest Banglez production, and UK rap has come to be defined by a blueprint he created. While he is aware of the similarities, he isn’t worried or even sceptical, as it represents his own success in a sobering way. “I’m just like, ‘I did it’,” he says. “I was trying [to be successful] for years, but then I realised I had to change the drum pattern, add a deep bassline and smash in the garage vocals and it’s going to be a hit record. I think my sound has heavily influenced the new generation and the artists hitting the charts; that GRM Daily track ‘London’s Calling’ sounds like a typical Steel Banglez beat, and there were no beats with the female vocal and African drum patterns before ‘Karla’s Back’ so I think it changed the sound of the UK, and acts as a blueprint for everyone to feed their families and advance their careers.”

This attitude, though rooted in gratitude, is also telling, and as I pitch the question of where his sound is going next, Banglez begins to lay out the next phase of his journey. “It’s in the hands of the new generation! I’m about to take another sound and play my role and keep it going,” he says. “I think because UK rap, Afrobeats etc. is still quite fresh on a national scale, I can still dictate what we do because I’m one of the key players in it. My role now is to develop the sound and take it further, put out new sounds and instrumentations.” The future is most certainly bright for Banglez, which spells great news for UK rap en masse, for it now has a proverbial General, once weary from the fight of keeping the genre alive, ripe and ready to take it from national success to worldwide. The genre is in safe hands.

Posted on July 31, 2018