For the latest expedition in our 1 More Mix series, we head to the East Coast USA for this almighty D&B session from Des McMahon.
A man of many shades and styles over the years; in many ways his musical journey reflects the development of bass culture in the US from moombahton to dubstep to drum & bass. In the past he’s managed Reid Speed’s evergreen Play Me Records and taught at the renowned Icon Collective production school but more recently he’s been focusing on his own craft and specialising in drum & bass.
An early protagonist in the current wave of North American D&B – a territory where the genre is reaching exciting new peaks not witnessed in at least two decades – Des played his last multi-genre set while supporting Skrillex in the mid 2010s. Focussing fully on D&B, despite industry peers telling him he was making a mistake, he’s now a frontrunner in the new generation of headliners in America alongside the likes of Justin Hawkes, Reaper, AIRGLO and Skellytn, who he actually used to teach.
In light of his new release on his own label Des McMahon Music – Epitaph / Hard Truth – we caught up with Des to chat about his career so far, the rise of D&B in America and the importance of DIY culture. Listen to the mix, look at all the words, get acquainted:
So what would you normally be doing at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday morning then?
Usually managing social media accounts. One of them is a jazz venue where my dad books music, so that one’s a lot of fun. Most of the accounts are for local businesses in Philadelphia. So probably a mix between that and mastering. Sometimes teaching. But teaching is on pause for now so I can focus on writing what’s potentially going to be an album.
Oh, wow. Go on. You’re in album mode. Cool!
I feel like I’m a little late getting into album mode. I think everybody took 2020 as an advantage to fill their hard drives with dubs and originals, but I had moved back to my hometown of Philadelphia in September of 2020 after 4+ years in Los Angeles and it took me a long time to get settled in addition to some serious family matters I was dealing with.
When I returned, I set up a studio in the spare room and thought, ‘I’m gonna write so much music in there,’ but didn’t account for my mental health going to shit. It was only the end of last year (2022) that the momentum and drive really started to pick up again.
I don’t think you’re alone. Like a lot of people, they either got super prolific and they went crazy in the studio and were able to express all of this stuff during that time, or, like you, had life circumstances or just couldn’t for all kinds of reasons. A lot just couldn’t because the dancefloor, which is the music’s main place to exist, was just no longer there.
Losing the dancefloor really affected me. I never expected that to happen as I had been separating myself from drugs and alcohol since 2017 and part of that meant to be mindful of my relationship with clubs and raves. So now I have this strange relationship with clubs, events, etc. I go out and see my peers smelling keys and gurning in the back of the venue by the end of the night. They’re having a great time! But after so many years of doing that in my early to late-twenties, I began to hate the version of myself after I was drunk or intoxicated. Once I took real steps to stop drinking, going out felt very different. But when it got stripped from me in 2020 I thought, ‘wow, this is actually affecting me. It’s become very difficult to write music.’ I ended up missing the dancefloor a lot.
With that being said, I’ve had plenty of great nights on the dancefloor since I’ve stopped drinking. So it’s not to say that clubbing for me isn’t an enjoyable experience, it’s just different.
It definitely changes doesn’t it?
Yeah it does. And do you know what? Live music helped me find that balance, too. When I was working in LA, I made electronic music my life 24/7. I felt very burnt out. But moving back to Philly, where live music is much more dominant, it’s helped me with my sobriety and my relationship with going out.
I remember when I was 22 and clubbing. There was that saying, ‘you only live once.’ The phrase itself was a joke, but between 2012 and 2016 that’s how I lived. Every night was a party whether I had work in the morning or not. As I was approaching my late 20s I began to realize, ‘It’s Wednesday and I’m still hungover, I have to do something about this or I wont make it past 40.’
Classic. What a time to be a 22 though. Especially in America with dubstep going ballistic like it did around then.
It’s all a blur now really. I felt very gratified because of my loyalty to electronic music since I was young and by 2012 it was beyond proven that electronic music was taking over the US. From the days of when I really had to dig for it in Tower Records, Sam Goody, LimeWire, and KaZaa to years later (2012) where it was all over TV, sports arenas, nightclubs, ads and more, I got to witness electronic music go from the underground to the mainstream as I grew up with it.
Brilliant. So you were right in the middle of that kind of digital dawning and full accessibility to absolutely everything and the physical still cratedigging kind of style shopping, right?
Exactly. Too young to start on Technics, but old enough to have learned on CDJs that only took CDs and barely displayed anything on the screen. I always joke that I’m not part of the old guard of US drum & bass but I’m not necessarily the newest generation either. I’m 33, so I’m smack dab in the middle. I started committing to drum & bass around 2012/2013 when everybody was telling me, ‘Don’t do that, you’re not gonna make any money,’ but for me it was never about money.
So you’re the type of person who’s happy to be an outsider and tread your own path?
Yup. There’s a rebellious nerve in me especially with music. I’ve always been fascinated by underground niches and counter culture. In the 90s and 2000s, electronic music was one of those niches that sparked my interest. At first it was trance music. Like very early Paul van Dyk records, Armin van Buuren compilations, early Tiesto, etc. I spent a lot of time collecting MixMag issues from my local Borders and Tower Records and that’s where I stumbled on Andy C for the first time. There was this mix CD it came with called ‘Drum & Bass Babylon’ which had a plethora of classics on it. Demo & Cease – Ladies – Night VIP, Lynx – Disco Dodo, Commix – Be True, High Contrast – If We Ever.
All the classics!
Right? So as a listener, that was the first time drum & bass entered my vocabulary. But years later when I heard it on a proper sound system, that was my first “oh wow” moment. My friend Tittsworth took me to a Dieselboy show in DC and I remember watching him play this sped-up version of Funtcase’s 50 Caliber and switched it right into Dub Phizix, Strategy & Skeptical’s Marka. I was like…
WOAH! The low end. The weight on the system. The rhythm felt way more organic and mature compared to other electronic music I was listening to at that time. That month I decided I wanted to devote all my time to learn what was and still is a difficult genre. On my computer at the time was a collection of trance, horrible electro and dubstep. I scrapped nearly all of it and started writing drum & bass entirely while learning as much history as I could.
I’ve got to big up my friend Fred Freeman aka Illy Emcee. He was so instrumental in me learning the craft and knowing the foundations. Fred appreciated how much I loved drum & bass and spent a lot of time with me. We’d go through a little history lesson on the work of Bad Company, Ed Rush & Optical, and early Pendulum and that sound really hooked me. Specifically with Bad Company and Ed Rush & Optical. There’s something about the dark sounds from those records that matched my settings so well. It’s the perfect soundtrack for East Coasters living in or around Philly or Baltimore who like a bit of grit. Harder cities, you know?
I know. Real cities, real people. Not so gentrified. Like Liverpool, Manchester or Cardiff where I grew up.
Nail on the head. Real people, like you say. It’s funny you mention Liverpool. I am a massive fan of their football club and am always making comparisons between Liverpool and Philly. Especially when it comes to each city’s passion for their local sports teams.
Go Birds! I have my Eagles shirt on right now actually. There’s something about this place. If you go on a walk through Philly in February, and it’s raining out, and you’re listening to ‘Inside The Machine’? That’s perfect. Or ‘Wormhole’, you know?
It’s definitely that industrial grittiness isn’t it. So Illy was a big influence. Who else?
Mike Gigantor from Evol Intent. He was the next guy to reach out to me and tell me, ‘You’ve got something here, man. Please make sure to keep in touch with me.’ Mike and I eventually became good friends. And then of course Reid Speed, who’s helped me so much since I’ve been involved in electronic music as a whole. Her influence on where I am now can’t even be put into words.
Were you still able to compartmentalize what you were hearing and what you were working on? Play Me, is very open with its genres and I’m guessing as a DJ as well, you still had to keep things very open musically.
When I was making that transition into going all drum & bass, my sets had to be multi-genre for a little over a year. So we (myself and Reid) were very familiar with other genres we liked to play just by necessity and being passionate about electronic music as a bottom line. I think my very last multi-genre set was opening for Skrillex in 2015 which was actually just before I moved to LA.
In the early 2010s I would play one third dubstep then slowly move them into what would now be considered halftime and then drum & bass at the end. When I would try any other way, the crowd couldn’t really figure it out. But once I got to LA in 2016, I made it clear, ‘It’s all D&B, don’t ask me for anything else, because that’s all it’s going to be.’ Now we’re at a point in the US where the crowds are fluent with faster tempos again (170+ BPM) and I’m incredibly grateful for that!
That’s really interesting because there’s a real growing move now in the UK of multi-genre sets. There are soooo many D&B DJs, people want to stand out in the other way. We’ve done a little exchange. It a constant cultural exchange between US and UK when you look at it.
Yeah! I love watching the exchange happen when it doesn’t lose sight of its foundation. I try to remind myself constantly that it’s all a cycle.
Did you say your dad comes from jazz?
Oh yeah, our family is a big jazz household and my dad has been involved in booking jazz music for most of my life. One of his apparent inspirations for naming me was saxophonist Paul Desmond.
I think jazz set a good blueprint for me. It’s the reason I liked early dubstep so much because I could listen to something very soulful like a Mala record or I could tear it up to a Skream record. We had that emotional variation. That’s why I like punk but also like jazz. Music that I can relate to emotionally across the entire spectrum and not just a fraction of it.
I can relate to your mix! You’ve gone in!
Had to! My main flavor of D&B is dark deep drum & bass with a hint of the heavier modern neurofunk. For the 1 More Mix series, I kept it dark, but also included some of my favorite producers based in the US right now.
The vibe is the most important thing.
Correct! I like a little bit of stress and uncomfort in my music. It eventually resolves, but that level of uneaze adds a shock-value that represents my sound well.
Like an edge to the mix?
Edge is the right word. For me, that means you’ve had an actual experience. You’re not bored of what you’re listening to and you’re far more likely to remember the DJ’s name! That for me, is much more exciting than a DJ who plays the standard hits.
You’ve just dropped something on your own label. When did you start self releasing?
I started the Des McMahon Music imprint in 2021 as a way to self-release music when I want to and retain 100% creative control. I’m so over the ‘wait a year and a half for your song to come out’ situation with certain labels. Especially after the pandemic. I’ve managed a label before, I can do the PR, I can do the social media, why not DIY? It’s a very Philly thing to do!
DIY is the spice of creative life!
Exactly. I’m a huge advocate of DIY as a means to both learn the process and still keep creative control. In today’s music climate, it’s helps to fill in the gaps on a release schedule and keep the wheel turning.
It’s about finding that balance isn’t it? Not over-saturating, but always being relevant. Finding that balance is an endless quest isn’t it?
It really is. I think something that’s become essential for that balance is creating your own space or platform and building your own momentum. I’ve released with some fantastic labels in the past but self-releasing should be part of that experience too and I feel like we’re going to see that a lot more in drum & bass going forward. A focus should be put on creating art, creating a plan to release that art indepdently and supporting the community around you who are doing the same.
100%! So it’s time for you to shout out your community. Give some shouts before we go!
Okay! Let’s start with the early UK mentors. Huge shouts to Prolix, Futurebound, Nick Prototypes and Chris Circadian. Then the US gang. Huge shouts to Reid Speed, WAVHART, Quadrant, Iris, Gigantor, Klippee, Skellytn, Wraith, Richter, Dr. Apollo, Gabriel Habit, Zere, Dave Owen, Blacklab, Omen, Justin Hawkes, AIRGLO, Nik P, Shrike, Echo Brown, dela Moon, KarmasynK, CLB, Replicant, Shibumi, Logam, Lee Griffin, Winslow, Saltee, R4NSOM, Dropset, Raurdra, Shanks, Korey Riker, Droosie, Deinfamous, Quannum Logic, Mason, Art Cuebik and the ET Finger. There’s so many other names I’m missing too I’m sure.