Mixing up house, ragga, grime, soul, and dubstep, the Fabric showcase from Sheffield DJ Toddla T reflects its creator's idiosyncratic, frenetic persona.
Listening to Toddla T's contribution to the Fabriclive series is sort of like going to one of the giant, employee-owned supermarkets in American suburbia. They have the best selection around, just about everything imaginable, including stuff you won't find anywhere else. But it's busy, crowded, dingy, and often overwhelming. You have to be up for it. Toddla T's mix of hip-hop, reggae, grime, dubstep, house, and R&B is fresh and frenetic, for sure. It can also be a bit much for the senses, especially if you're sober and you're not at a club.
Toddla T's ho-hum given name, Tom Bell, belies his eccentricity and frantic, revved-up personality. In parts of the UK at least, this passes for charisma. He hails from Sheffield, England, the industrial-leaning city that has a history of music that upends pop with heavier, synthesized textures. In the 1970s and '80s, Cabaret Voltaire, the early Human League, and Heaven 17 mixed soul-inspired tunes and industrial dissonance in equal measures. In the 1990s, Warp Records took electronic dance music beyond the dancefloor via bleeps, beeps, and glitches. Toddla T's mix may not sound a whole lot like these acts, but their influence is evident in the defiant, anything-goes attitude, as well as the use of electronics to produce pretty/ugly juxtapositions.
In a sly, not-so-subtle wink at Sheffield's musical past, Toddla kicks off Fabriclive 47 with Philly's ragga version of the Human League's classic "Love Action". Possibly one of the best "good vibe" tunes ever, it provides plenty of energy while giving you a melody to latch onto. When Toddla follows that with a mix of British would-be soul diva Duffy's "Stepping Stone", you start thinking he's going to get really subversive and go all pop on you. That's not the case, though, as the probing, dissonant dub of Monkey Steak's "Tigris Riddim" sets the stage for the wild ride to come.
At first, that ride's a thrill. Backyard Dog's "Baddest Ruffest" offers more ragga, only this time harder, faster, and uncompromising. Then, the mix hits the sweet spot with Toddla's own "Fill Up Mi Portion", a version of "Rice and Peas" that's an ode to, well, rice and peas. "Rice and peas and chicken is nice / Taste so good mi have to have it twice", goes the ultra-catchy chorus. This is Fabriclive 47's best glimpse into the closely-knit, insular world that Toddla inhabits with his sidekick MC Serocee and their Sheffield kin. Like that of Toddla T's one-time kindred spirit, the Streets' Mike Skinner, it's a world you're thrilled to visit on a Saturday night, but not one you'd like to live in full-time. Then, close Toddla T associate Roots Manuva shows up for "Amen", whose organ and jump rhythm add a true gospel feel. As if these tunes weren't interesting enough on their own, you can always amuse yourself by trying to decipher the MCs' thick patois.
Throughout the 21 tracks, Toddla T gives you plenty more punishing riddims, screeching and squealing electronics, energy and good humor. Toddla's own "Boom DJ from the Bristol City" hints at drum'n'bass, while his "Shake It" has a crunky, Latin hip-hop feel, complete with "C'mon, get naked, naked" refrain. Drums of Death's aptly-titled "Lonely Days" works some dark house before Toddla pulls back a bit with the fluttering violins and soul-diva vibe of Alex Mills' "Beyond Words". Throughout, there's plenty of toasting, wobbly, high-pitched bass tones, and a bit of Auto-Tune, which is a bit too much.
The tracks that may reveal the most about Toddla T's substance and versatility, though, are the ones he gives the most running time to. His own "Rebel" is a midtempo, reflective mood-piece. Over soulful "ooh ooh" backing vocals that recall Gnarles Barkley, a time-worn voice delivers mantra-like lyrics about living beneath mountains and capturing love that is escaping. It may sound silly, and it is a bit, but "Rebel" genuinely makes you take pause and take it in. Toddla T then closes the mix with a wobbly, dubstep version of Deadmaus's "I Remember". It sounds like an ethereal trance anthem, complete with cooing female vocals, put through a shredder and then reassembled using broken synthesizers. Actually, it's prettier than that. And it's evidence that Toddla T's wide-ranging influences and stylistic melding isn't just talk, or a gimmick. If and when you're up for it, Fabriclive 47 is worth the effort.