Bristol founded, Roni Size Reprazent defined the drum ‘n’ bass culture when they released their debut record in 1997. This month, they return to their roots to perform live as part of the BBC 6 Music Festival. 

A believer in the value of family time, staycations and investing in youth projects, Roni Size may have found global success over the past two decades, yet it is the simple things in life which he values most. Grounded by the realities instilled in him as a young Ryan Williams growing up during the 70s and 80s in the St Andrews area of Bristol, he has created a successful career as a world renowned drum ‘n’ bass DJ. Roni Size Reprazent (Roni and his live drum ‘n’ bass group) would evolve from the sound system culture prevalent in St Pauls, Stapleton and Easton during the wave of immigration during the 1950s and 1960s from Jamaica to Bristol.

Roni Size Reprazent released their debut record New Forms in 1997 – shifting the boundaries of what was possible within the live sphere. New Forms was a record which brought drum ‘n’ bass into the mainstream – with its fluid, elongated compositions such as the wildly successful Brown Paper Bag, carving out a niche for this previously underground genre. Essentially built on the key elements of the music genres that laid the foundations for drum ‘n’ bass – including reggae and rave – the sound included strong, syncopated rhythms and heavy basslines. Roni Size Reprazent found a way of presenting this material in a live capacity – using upright bass, drums, keys, and other electronic and acoustic instruments. This genre-defying album would pocket them the Mercury Music Prize that same year.

“The inspiration around New Forms was taken from playing as a DJ and being given the time to attract vocalists and musicians from in and around Bristol to get involved in the project. London record label Talkin’ Loud allowed me to experiment with the sound and because of the reputation it had, it pushed me towards a jazz sounding record with layers of jungle, hip hop and soul,” Roni explains.

Directly influenced by the sound system culture strongly evident in Bristol’s Jamaican communities – St Pauls in particular – Roni’s immersion in the scene, and his involvement in his local youth club’s Sefton Park Basement Project, would eventually bring him to the point of pursuing his own music production. Inspired by DJ Krust, and sound system collective The Wild Bunch, Roni Size emerged as an individual producer and DJ with a sound representative of a bricolage of influences.

A turning point for drum ‘n’ bass and its acceptance into the mainstream, was the decision for BBC Radio 1 to start a regular Friday night drum ‘n’ bass slot, which illuminated the genre. Roni played on a Radio 1 show presented by Mary Anne Hobbs early in his career, and just recently, at the announcement of the BBC 6 Music Festival live from Bristol’s Watershed, Roni and Mary Anne were reunited. Something that neither of them would have predicted:

“Being reunited with Mary Anne Hobbs and Steve Lamacq is something I never thought would happen. About 15 years ago I did this programme with Mary Anne on Radio 1 – it was quite surreal. You never think you’ll have these situations again,” says Roni. “I think 6 Music wanted to come to Bristol for its festival in February because the vibe is one of the best in England.”

“St Pauls was like this stomping ground where you learned about a lot of the wrong roads you can go down in life. But at the same time, it had a great vibe and energy.”

To live through an era of massive sonic and social change, as Roni did, sparked the catalyst that would ultimately create the sounds that would form his very DNA. The 1980s in Britain saw a nation divided, and music came to speak for certain political viewpoints. In Bristol, the Centre for Employment & Enterprise Development was established (now known as Ujima Radio), becoming symbolic as a part of the social fabric of the time. Bristol’s venues got behind much of the new music being created in the city, including Bamboo Club, Docklands Settlement, the Inkerman and The Trinity Centre. The Trinity Centre, donated by Bristol Council to the African-Caribbean community, would be one of the first venues that Roni Size would play live in.

And although his life would evolve to realise a career spanning the globe, the outcome might not have been so positive, as Roni recalls:

“St Pauls was like this stomping ground where you learned about a lot of the wrong roads you can go down in life. But at the same time, it had a great vibe and energy – I was lucky enough to not go down the wrong road and instead, focus on my music.”

Becoming directly involved in the Sefton Park Basement Project gave Roni the focus to develop his music production talents as well as becoming invaluable as a mentor to younger people. This was the catalyst which inevitably steered him on to the path towards becoming a successful DJ, and he donated much of his Mercury Music Prize money towards the project.

Roni-Size-2-Web

“There was no college that could ever have taught me the job that I do today. I feel like I’ve educated myself over the past 20 years since I’ve been doing this. If I hadn’t have followed music, I suppose I wouldn’t have been able to inspire all the people who have looked up to me. I like to say, ‘you know what? This is possible,’” he says.

It is this mindset that has remained the backbone of his career – fuelling his decisions, keeping him striving, and maintaining independence of both thought and action. Roni has gone on to release three studio albums as part of Roni Size Reprazent, as well as founding his own record label, Full Cycle, in 1993. He has also directed documentaries dedicated to Bristol’s unique musical heritage and successfully toured the world (more than several times over).

Fans will be pleased to hear that this year Roni Size Reprazent will be releasing new material, For the Masses, due out later this year, as well as re-launching the Full Cycle label to highlight how the drum ‘n’ bass sound has evolved since its original launch.

This excitement was also felt back in 2009, when Roni Size Reprazent merged their drum ‘n’ bass sound with the Bristol-based classical composer William Goodchild and the Emerald Ensemble for a concert that raised the roof of Colston Hall to mark the opening of its new foyer. You can now relive this experience thanks to the recent release of an album recorded live at the hall. It was this collaboration that would later form the foundation for Radio 1’s Ibiza at the Proms series.

“I’d like to think that we’re at the beginning of a new era of music.”

Last September, Roni also returned to his roots to play from a giant mechanical spider for the Metamorphosis Arcadia spectacular in Queen Square. Talking of the experience, he said:

“It was always going to be emotional because you’re playing in front of 12,000 people in your home crowd – my Mum came down, and my friends. As a DJ it’s something which I’ve never, ever taken for granted, and when you have the opportunity to play to an audience who are going to stand there, dance, and listen to you, bust a move, it’s something I’d never have thought of as a career. You get certain moments which stand out for you and a lot of these moments come unexpectedly.”

It would be fair to wonder where someone with such an enviably full plate would find the time to keep on creating innovative new music, what with much of his waking life spent somewhere along the M4 between Bristol and London. Despite his demeanour, which seems to rest somewhere between laid back, down to earth and humbling, he shows no signs of letting up:

“There’ll be no talk of winding down!” he emphasises. “I’m still here, in a world which is full of extraordinary surprises. I’m still breathing, still got to pay my taxes, still got to put food on the table. I’d like to think that we’re at the beginning of a new era of music. I do believe that. We’ll bring something new to the table. What I’d also really like to do is start a Bristol film company to produce short films. That would be great.”

Clearly, Bristol is high on Roni’s list of priorities and though he has lived through some profound changes as far as the fabric of the music community within Bristol is concerned, he remains ever hopeful for what the future holds:

“I used to document everything I’d ever done. Sometimes I look back, and I’ve got a familiar vision of what it used to be like. Those who have been around for a long time are still contributing today but there is a wave of vocalist and producer DJs all preparing to bust out this year. I predict that Bristol will soon have its first mainstream superstar. As for drum ‘n’ bass in general, I guess it’s now a tried and tested formula that somehow needs to reinvent itself.”

After a career solely built on tenacity, determination and talent that sets him apart, Roni Size Reprazent aren’t about to slink away into the shadows:

“We’re still in the game, people still want to hear us. It keeps me really youthful. Being a DJ is like having the fountain of youth, that’s the way I would describe it.”

This month sees Roni come full circle, as he is invited to play live for the BBC 6 Music Festival, which runs from 12 – 14 February. For full details of the festival visit: www.bbc.co.uk/6music

Roni’s top tracks to spin:

Music Box by Roni Size and DJ Die
This is the first release on Full Cycle and set the standard for the label. This record was played in all arenas by DJs such as Bryan G, JJ Frost, Trace and LTJ Bukem. I would say this was one of Full Cycle’s true crossover tracks.

Soul in Motion by DJ Krust
This track is one of a kind. It’s almost like time stood still with this long player. Breaking all the rules, this became a Full Cycle trademark sound.

Clear Skies by DJ Die
Full Cycle is known for its rollers and this track does exactly what it says on the tin. Again this became a instant classic Full Cycle jam.

26 Bass by Roni Size Boom Pah Boom Pah
The heavy stomping breaks with bass that shakes your trousers. This track marked a new era in the Full Cycle world as it introduced the more heavier style of the label and attacked a whole new audience.

Bounce the Bass by D Product and Surge 
The beauty of Full Cycle is the art of coming together and these two artists became good friends and made this bouncing style bass that to this day has no challengers and still drops every time I play it.

Jungle Love by Flynn and Flora
Still recovering from the hangover of the early rave parties, this track was an invitation into the roots of Bristol’s sound. Four to the floor with 808 bass and sweet strings… this brings back some memories.

Coco by Clipz
Full Cycle was all about bringing through young and hungry artists and with that comes a brand new sound. This is a very unique sounding record, they don’t make ‘em like this no more.

High Hopes by MC Tali
This party anthem closed the summer of 2009. This was one of those unexpected records which came at a time when Full Cycle was introducing a voice into the mix and Tali came with a one take wonder that still gives me goose bumps.

Output by DJ Suv
Simple drums and one note of bass that shook the concrete walls of the end night club. You had to literally hold on to your fillings with this one. I guess you had to be there… Shouts if you were.

Pick Me Up by Agent Alvin
This one slipped under the radar, and some of you Full Cyclists wouldn’t even know this. The production on this record is second to none and has that Full Cycle funk engraved into its heart.

6 Music Festival: What’s On

The exciting news that BBC 6 Music will be bringing their annual festival to Bristol this February 12 – 14 has got us wondering, what can we expect?

The fantastic live music line-up includes Underworld, Foals, Suede, Laura Marling, Roots Manuva, Savages, Roisin Murphy, Misty In Roots, John Grant, Ezra Furman, White Denim, Field Music, Kurt Vile, Julia Holter, Daughter, Buzzcocks, Everything Everything, Guy Garvey plus many more. These acts will join some of Bristol’s most loved, eponymous musical artists including Tricky, Primal Scream, The Blue Aeroplanes, DJ Pinch and of course, the aforementioned Roni Size – master of drum ‘n’ bass.

The third year of the Festival will see over 50 acts across three days delivering live music, conversation, comedy and more taking place at venues across the city – Motion, Colston Hall, O2 Academy Bristol and Basement 45, plus Festival by Day at Trinity.

BBC 6 Music will descend upon our city, searching out all that Bristol has to offer in a musical, creative and artistic sense – all of the things which make Bristol so unique. As part of this, there will also be fringe events including the following highlights:

Women in Music: Inspire – music discussion to take place at St George’s.

● BBC Introducing in the West – touring workshops across Bristol’s schools.

● A creative, musically themed ‘Hackathon’ presented by UWE and The University of Bristol.

● St Nick’s Night Market and Love Food Festival present a showcase of some of Bristol’s musical and culinary talents.

● The Watershed will present live music, music documentaries and a New Musicians night, curated by BBC Introducing West.

● Aled Chiverin presents a series of local acts at The Thekla on 13 February.

● Documentaries on Bristol’s street art scene to feature Cheo and Loch Ness.

And while the events will be attended by thousands of people, those at home won’t miss out. BBC Radio 6 Music will be broadcasting from the festival across the weekend from Friday 12 February with the network’s presenters coming live from all the venues, day and night. Ticket information and a full programme of events is available at: www.bbc.co.uk/6music

This interview also appears in the print version of The Bristol Magazine:  February 2016 out now.