Tramlines: Toddla’s not on his tod

Toddla T.
Toddla T.
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It’s noisy, big - very big, in fact - actually a bit clever and takes over downtown Sheffield and some parts beyond for the next three days. Oh yeah, Tramlines is upon us, confirms Toddla T.

AND so it begins again...

For a four-year-old Tramlines – Sheffield’s three-day urban music festival - is confident. Very confident.

More bands than you can shake a set of earplugs at, dozens of venues, a myriad of musical styles, and all for the cost of your time – yes Tramlines is still a “free for all” – there’s no wonder it’s the festival other cities envy.

The event has, of course, evolved as well as grown. But right at the heart of it still is Toddla T, Sheffield-born DJ, producer and musician who has also evolved to become an international star, not least through his Radio 1 exploits.

Although now living in north London, Toddla returns to his home city with a new record up his sleeve and a key night to curate at Sheffield University on Saturday.

“I spend most of my time in the studio or on the motorway on the way to a show or on an aeroplane or… on YouTube listening to new music,” he says by way of explanation for his geographical shift.

Toddla – Tom to his mum – has recently been re-visiting his second album Watch Me Dance through two of his musical heroes. Sheffield underground legends Ross Orton and DJ Pipes have worked it over in the manner of the scene that shaped his sound. Toddla met Pipes when as a wide eyed teenager working in a skate shop. A rough-handed bass hooligan, Pipes was resident at Scuba and the infamous Kabal parties while also comprising one third of the Desperate Soundsystem with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey.

Orton was a member of Fat Truckers, drummer for Cocker, and as the Cavemen (with Mackey) wrote and produced MIA’s Galang. He’s also remixed and produced everyone from The Kills and Kelis to Tinchy Stryder and Arctic Monkeys, and his production skills remain in demand from city musicians seeking definition.

He and Pipes bonded with Toddla over a shared love of dancehall and subterranean bleeps and now they have taken Toddla’s record and “agitated” it with the essence of Sheffield bass culture – running from a dub reggae Fly through a bleep-tastic version of Take It Back. “DJ Pipes and Ross Orton are two of my biggest musical inspirations/heroes. This is a secret dream come true,” says Toddla of the August 13-released record.

“My biggest inspiration music wise was probably, after hip hop in general, the local DJs I started watching when I was old enough to go partying, sort of 16/17.

“Pipes, Winston Hazel, Chris Duckenfield; these were all local DJs that used to play music in such an individual way. It inspired me to listen to different types of music and therefore make different types of music and DJ different types of music. That little transition period of my life, about 16-19, was probably the most influential moment as far as moulding my own sound.”

The in-demand jock has a refreshed version of his Shola Ama-voiced I’m Alive out as a single and has been signed up as one of the faces of a Clarks shoes collaboration with Trojan Records to celebrate the iconic footwear brands Desert Trek boots’ 40th anniversary.

Clarks Originals have revived The Pioneers’ classic 1973 reggae hit Let Your Yea Be Yea by engaging Toddla and three other DJ producers to tender four exclusive and diverse mixes.

Needless to say, that’s right up our man’s street.

“Jamaica is the root of so much music that I’m in love with and being from England it’s hard to not be influenced by reggae culture and music.

“It was only right I go there at some point…a bit of a musical pilgrimage, but also to work with people and gather instrumentation and lyrics and vocals for my stuff.

“I’ve been there five times in the last couple of years collaborating with artists such as Wayne Marshall, Esko, War 21, Cecile, Tiffa and Massacre. I DJ’d over there, linked up with a whole heap of people, interviewed people for my radio show such as Marado, Steven McGregor etc. It’s a place that’s become part of my musical process, to go back and forth from there and get inspired and work with these artists with the root of so much of what I’m in love with. It’s only right.”

As is that Toddla still be involved with Tramlines. As one of the initial festival’s architects, he arguably embraces the cultural cross-pollination of music in Sheffield and beyond, something he’ll celebrate with his Saturday Octagon gathering.

“People ask me ‘why did you get into reggae and dancehall?’ and it wasn’t that I ‘got into it’ it was just there. It was always going to be influential. I haven’t got Jamaican heritage or Caribbean at all.

“But I grew up in Sheffield which is a nice mixed community and music was there. It might be ‘unusual’ to some but to me that was pretty normal… I just find it pretty exciting. A lot of us listen to American hip hop, European dance music and stuff like that, but that’s never really flagged up.

“For some reason, when people hear people like me listening to reggae music they find it unusual. I still don’t know why ‘cause in Britain it’s everywhere. It’s blasting out of cars; it’s in our music… its part of our life, man. We should celebrate it.”

And his new The Toddla T Sound tour, as well as a hit Radio 1 show, sees that happening.

“I suppose my direction has changed over time, but like anything you evolve. I’ve been into all different types of music since I was 16/17. All the way from like really minty R&B to really hard grime and it’s only really been the past couple of years where I’ve had the confidence to express the soft or more mature side.

“That’s just part of growing up, having the confidence and not caring compared to how I was when I was 22 and what people would think.”

And with his nice Clarks hook-up, there’ll be no excuse for shoddy clogs on Saturday.

“Before Clarks Originals approached me I was wearing them…standard,” says the Desert Boots fan. “I love the style, the heritage… it’s got such a big part in music in general.

“What they’re doing, linking up the artists and cultures is amazing. Its does genuinely join dots between cultures even though it’s a British brand. It’s known for a very typically British style, but I go Jamaica and America… I see it there. It’s got a thread between different types of people but they’ve all got the same love for it.

“People started talking about them within their lyrics and they became an iconic shoe in reggae and dancehall. We still talk about it today.”