Reid Speed

A history of US bass culture from an original pioneer

As the groundswell of US drum & bass reaches levels it’s not hit since the mid 2000s, it’s a wise time to check in with Reid Speed.

Since her earliest moves working for the first ever D&B specialist record store Breakbeat Science, Reid has been in the thick of myriad US bass scenes, digging foundations and forever elevating artists. From the country’s earliest jungle movements in the mid-to-late 90s – which saw her making regular solo pilgrimages to the UK in her teens to make connections and collect records – Reid’s navigated the American low-end hinterland, paving the way for others.

From jungle and drum & bass to garage to breaks, electrohouse, dubstep and EDM, Reid’s been neck-deep since dot and her label Play Me has been responsible for finding, nurturing and celebrating some of the biggest names in mainstream bass music from their earliest releases from Dylan Francis to Katie Koven.

In the past few years Reid’s found herself circling back to her roots. As a DJ she’s never shied from the 170+ side of bass but now her label is reflecting that too as exciting new generation US D&B hitters like Skellytn, Des McMahon, Airglo and Dr Apollo are all flexing on Play Me.

For a taste of where both Reid and the label are at, check Atonement. A collaboration with Skellytn, her latest single captures an exciting new energy that reflects the positive energy we’re feeling from the US drum & bass-wise. We caught up with Reid and enjoyed some serious insightful and very honest takes on America’s relationship with bass music and where things are at right now. Get to know:

I hear Covid recently caused some stress for you?

A little bit! I hadn’t taken a vacation for years and years. I’d saved up, I was looking forward to a D&B holiday and hearing music that I love. That’s what I’d missed the most and I had the most transformational experience ever. It was blissful. I felt I was at D&B summer camp. There were activities all day and all night. I felt so renewed and recharged. I felt seen and welcomed and part of something. But at the same time kept myself safe and out of the big crowds. I avoided bad sanitation. I wasn’t pushing myself, I ate great meals…

And then it hit you…

The day I was leaving! I took the US covid test which reports to our health board and was instantly put on a travel ban list and had to quarantine for 10 days. Thankfully I had a friend who was happy to hang out and I didn’t get that sick but I was working and it nine hours off our timezone and all this crazy stuff was happening in work.

I was trying to approve releases and I missed gigs. I was supposed to be playing with Degs and Boxplot and had a concert I’d been waiting years to see and missed. Then there was the nightmare of arranging travel back home…

But now you’re now back and firing out bangers like Atonement with Skellytn! Big up Kaley… How did she come to be part of the Play Me family?

So there’s a school in LA called Icon Collective. A lot of big people have come through there. She came to that school doing dubstep but her original mentor wasn’t that supportive of her. She asked for another mentor and ended up being paired with Des McMahon.

He’s making some amazing music right now!

Right? He was actually Play Me’s manager prior to teaching. So he listened to Kaley’s stuff and said, “Yo, have you thought of trying drum & bass? I think you have potential. Your sound palette is much more suited to it. She tried it and took to it very naturally. Des told me about her. I thought she was great and wanted to support her.

I’ve always wanted to support female artists but very few have crossed my path in this capacity or sent in demos. It really excited me to have a young woman with a bright future making drum & bass. When lockdown happened she wanted to make an album and – Jordana aside – the US has never had a woman who’s released a D&B album. It was a very ambitious project and concept but she’s great with her marketing, she has great respect for what came before her and it’s really inspiring to work with someone like her.

She seems very much part of a new chapter for Play Me. The label is a very different animal to what it was to begin with…

Absolutely. A couple of years ago, around the time I met Airglow and I started working with Doctor Apollo I made a concerted effort to release more drum & bass and start championing US drum & bass specifically. It seemed like the right time to pivot. We’d had great success with dubstep and that was the direction we stayed in for a long time because we exist to serve the artists, not to direct the label in a particular direction or sound. But as dubstep had become more and more mainstream, and drum & bass was picking up momentum, it was a very natural transition.

Yeah you could really feel a groundswell of US drum & bass bubbling away just before lockdown. Now we’re all out of it, there does seem to be a lot of exciting things happening in the US for drum & bass…

Sure. But, with a lot of these things, there’s also a bittersweet aspect to it. As someone from the older generation, we never got any respect for building this scene in the US. It came from the UK, but we were the appropriators here and wanted to push it as far as we could. A lot of the original events were black, queer, inclusively-oriented and had a more diverse representation of where the music came from.

As the scene grew here, much like the UK, it wite-washed itself and the originators got pushed out, forgotten or cast aside. Most of the real originators didn’t get to tour or really make a life of it. And now we’re into this new wave and you can already see the corporate entities adopting it. But there’s a healthy mix of the underground scenes and bigger mainstream events.

I’m interested in your history in the very early days. You worked for Breakbeat Science didn’t you?

We were the first exclusively drum & bass record store in the US. I’d just moved to go to college in Manhattan and they’d just opened. I interned with a shop called Satellite and asked if I could be a buyer for drum & bass and they said, “No you’re just a little girl, you can’t do anything important.” So I went to Breakbeat Science!

That time in the late 90s we had an insane drum & bass scene in the US. In New York we had D&B almost every night of the week. I know in LA it was like that there too. Multiple nights a week, packed out, people for mad for it, locals or headliners. Then we had the drum & bassing of the scene with the sound of labels like Virus. That kicked off this very negative thing where it got so dark people couldn’t have fun at the raves any more. Jungle was fun and had recognisable samples and positive energy. It got so dark and at the raves you’d have the drugged out sketchy dudes, frowning and trainspotting. It starved the scene of the fun that it needed to thrive.

Similar things happened here. A lot of people went to garage…

I got into garage in 97 too! I went to UK and went to Twice As Nice and every record store I could find. I would go in and say, “I’m the girl who’s going to take this sound to US!” It was my first pilgrimage. I went to the Moving Shadow office, Boogie Times, Blackmarket…

How old were you? You must have been a teenager? They’re some massive moves. How did people react to that?

Yeah I would have been 18. People were really nice. I’m pretty shy usually but when I’m focused on something I want then I have no filter and I’ll be confident and in your face. I found a DJ Mag on the plane so looked up things and went to a Playaz night the day I landed.

I went to this place and walked up to who looked like he might know the DJ and asked if they knew when Zinc or Hype were on. They were like, “He’s standing right there, why don’t you ask him?” I spoke to Zinc, he introduced me to Pascal and Danny Breaks and I was blown away. These were my heroes!

They were really friendly, they gave me their number and invited me to a rave they were playing later in the week. They were really welcoming. The record shops were very friendly too. Well, all except Blackmarket. They were all like, “You’ve come all the way here? You’ve caught a train to Romford? How do you even know we exist?” Like of course I do! I think about that trip a lot and everyone was so nice. Even Twice As Nice, which you had to be over 25 to get in. I was like, “Uh-uh! I’m a famous DJ from America!”

I love that! I think when it’s really clear you’ve made the effort and you’re on that mission then there’s instant respect. You clearly give a shit. That’s the jungle spirit

That’s why I called my first CD Resonance. That’s how I felt. This crazy thing had reached America and it was so inspiring. It was our opportunity to push it around the country. At the same time I got into garage and loved that, too. Then that took me into breaks which I played around with  a lot. It’s cool. While I’ve always predominantly been a D&B DJ I’ve had these times to jump into other genres  and explore them.

Breaks had a good moment and was popular at raves for a while but it never innovated or pushed the envelope sonically. It didn’t have its own homegrown stars either.

DJ Icey is the only US breakbeat artist I can think of off the top of my head who really made an impact over here. That whole Florida bass sound…

Yeah that was popular, Icey had a good run. But the game changed when Wolfgang Gartner came along and A-Trak started making fidget. When fidget came over and was adopted by the US that was it. We didn’t have to pander to other countries for headliners.

Prior to that we were importing artists and paying exorbitant fees for them headline and the locals were getting a few hundred bucks. But this was a point where people went, ‘No, we’re going to be the headliners, we’ll get paid the exorbitant fees and monetize this!’

Around this time you also had dubstep really taking off over here. The deeper, dubbier side of dubstep had been a thing here for a while but when Caspa and Rusko came over everyone was like ‘Oh yeah we really like that!’ And that dovetails with when Play Me was founded.

Yeah…. Within a year of that mix, I think?

Yeah it was. I could see dubstep coming from a mile away. I’d been doing fidget house and had just put out a big electrohouse CD. I could feel the winds of change. I thought, ‘maybe we can make something here where we can be the ones who win for doing all the work?’ It was always really frustrating to make these scenes then for someone else to be the beneficiary of that.

We’d seen it all the time with guys like Evol Intent, Mayhem, Hive, Mathematics. They were making this amazing drum & bass, trying to get signed to the UK labels and would just constantly get shat on. Maybe we’ll release it, maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll pay you, maybe we won’t. Maybe we won’t even send you a copy of the record. My husband and I were like, ‘There’s got to be way to put music out and pay people and keep to a schedule?’ Surely it’s not that hard?

There was another guy helping with mechanics of the label but that didn’t work out so I had to learn how to run a label overnight but we became part of that first wave of labels here making a major impact in this space along with labels like Smog and Rottun. It took off and everything was doing well. Of course within a couple of years the vultures moved in and every artist thought, ‘Hey I can do that, too!’

Certain artists got elevated, made a lot of money touring had a lot more money to invest in labels. So we focused on our strengths and focused on championing and embracing new talent. As soon as we put someone on Play Me we’d see the likes of UKF, Rottun or Dim Mak pick them up. Ultimately we became happy with that, though… I want artists to succeed, I want them to get out of their shitty job they hate and give them opportunities. If that’s my role in all this, then I’m happy with that.

You’ve made that your signature…

Sure, and we take pride in that. There’s something inside of me that’s compelled to spread the gospel of really good music. It was never about being famous and a star. It would have been nice to make more money but I never got into it to make money and, a lot of times, if you’re like that you don’t make the money because you’re not motivated by that. You’re not making shark moves to fuck people over. I’ve never made moves that caused someone harm to their career. I care about someone winning much more than making something a financial advantage.

I love that! So now it’s a new chapter and you’re potentially bringing through a lot of new-gen talent in US D&B. What safeguards are in place to prevent things from getting compromised again?

I don’t have the answer to that. But my commitment will always remain to further artists and help people can make a living off their art. We find great artists and work with them as long they want to work with us. We’ll be sad to see them go, but happy they’ve gone on to bigger things. We’ve had many people come through in the past. Must Die, Spag Heddy, Tisoki, Figure, Eliminate. For me that makes me the happiest – these people made it, they’re making a living off their art. Dylan Francis and Slushi, too. We found them when they had less than 1000 followers. Dodge & Fuski were very early on and Katie Koven was on the label before she even had an artist name. I’m so proud of our involvement with so many of these artists.

Wow that speaks volumes! What’s up next?

Well our recent single was actually a return to dubstep with Lachi and Guy Faux. Lachi is really interesting. She’s blind and she got a grant from a foundation that supports blind artists to make a video. It’s great to have this track and a story and a video and there’ll be remixes coming soon.  We’re moving in a drum & bass direction now but it’s great to have a phenomenal song like that. So that’s great.

Beyond that, we’ve just had Des on the label. We love him and we love dark rollers. We’ve got Omen, we’ve got Wavehart, Sam Fox has been killing it, there’s another guy called Kyroshie who’s doing some crazy leftfield bass stuff. We got a single from Phibes who have blown up hugely in the last few years. I’ve also got a collaboration coming up with Deekline. So yeah, lots of stuff going on!

Reid Speed & Skellytn – Atonement is out now on Play Me Records

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