That heavy drive, that melodic bassline, was like the skeleton of the music and everything else fizzled around it. That was definitely the prototype for System.
Vivek Sharda’s journey from adolescent bedroom DJing to worldwide touring is one of perseverance fuelled by an unwavering passion for sound system culture. While music falling under the ‘dubstep’ umbrella term has adopted various guises since he first began releasing in the mid-00s, his sound remains as relevant as ever. From the hypnotic percussive layers of “Motherland” to the weird and wonderful bassline of “Slippin”, Sharda’s tunes explore the lowest frequencies with unpredictable, and unparalleled genius. Now undoubtedly one of the scene’s pinnacle figures, V.I.V.E.K (“I put the dots in there to confuse people”) is known as a mentor to a crop of fresh talents as well as a celebrated producer in his own right. Since 2012, he has run the System dances with friends and family; System Sound, one of the scene’s most revered labels, was born shortly after. The label’s trajectory hasn’t been a typical one. Although Versa’s 014 is the label’s most recent release, fans have been left baffled as to the whereabouts of Vivek’s own 005 and 010, which were postponed for reasons discussed in this interview. With the release of the elusive SYSTM005 (two years after it was announced) and the EP launch party just around the corner, I was fortunate enough to meet Vivek for an exclusive chat and an afternoon of crate-digging at one of the producer’s childhood haunts in Notting Hill.
I’m going to jump straight to SYSTM005 – why is it only coming out now after all this time and after so many other System releases?
When I started 005, the idea was for it to be a lot of stuff no-one had ever heard, but also new stuff. Unfortunately, I had a catastrophe with my hard drive where I lost loads of music, including a lot of my stuff I made from a long time ago, and I was left in a predicament because I wanted to do something big with it, and I was like, “what do I do now?”. Also, I’m my own worst enemy. I’m overly critical in what I do, and I went through many years of holding back, ‘cos I was making something that I didn’t like, then I’d change it, then I’d go back to it. It can really take it out of you because it’s difficult to let go. I want it to be good, I want people to feel it, but the first thing is I have to please myself. As I was releasing the music, 005 became a project whereby I wanted to give an idea of what we’re trying to do. Half of it is dub, half of it is step, which is very much what the label and parties are. The artwork by Ben Donoghue from all the nights is on every sleeve. If you come to the events, then you’ll get it; you’ll understand the music, what it is and how it starts. The concept behind System was to cross-pollinate different genres and show them in one format. I wanted to draw in a couple of artists whose music I was into, and I also wanted to make some dub music. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out – it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done.
Which of your own releases are you most proud of?
“Asteroids” – that was the first release on System, and it was a tune that I didn’t think people would really get. But people got it. For me, that was great, because it’s not a banger, it’s a deep tune. I’ve never done anything like that. It was a new track, different from everything else I’d done, so it was like a new chapter.
Is there anything on SYSTM005 that’s similar to “Asteroids”?
I don’t think so. When you look at it, “Asteroids” doesn’t really fit with the label now. It’s quite a broad track in how it sounds, and is very different from every other release that’s come out. I think there’s more of a concept between all the other stuff, there are a lot more dub influences. I don’t think there’s anything like “Asteroids”, but I’m very happy with the way the label has gone and how it’s progressed.
There’s a similar idea behind the System releases, but I find that there’s also quite a difference between two producers such as Karma and Foamplate. What kind of vibe or sound do you look for when you sign someone?
Goth-Trad introduced me to Corin (Karma) at FWD>>, then he sent me this whole bunch of tunes. Everything anyone sends me, I always listen to, but it’s only when I get that feeling… I know people say this, but it really is that feeling where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. When I heard “How Ya Feel”, I was thinking, “someone must have signed this, this is such a sick tune”. It was the same feeling with Foamplate. When he gave me a dub of “Fuzz”, and I was like, “who the hell is this guy?”. Anyone who owns a label is putting out music they like, unless it’s a real multi-national label that is out to make money. I want to put out stuff that I’m feeling. I never look at it like, “that’s dubby, that’ll work”. I’ll put out something I like, and even if it has no relevance to anything else, I’ll still put it out. Everything has kind of been dub and dubstep, there’s a coherence with all of that, but I’ll look at anything. The label is following sound system culture, so anything that falls in that bracket – and that’s quite a varied bracket to be in.
What advice do you give to the artists signed to System?
Ultimately, this is a business, so one of the first things I do whenever I meet these guys is I make sure everyone sees what the costs are and what they are to be paid. I also encourage the artists to start their own label. Like Foamplate, he’s just started his own label, so it’s great to see his progression. No-one can do more for you than yourself. If I’m putting your music out, it’s because your music is good; I’m feeling it, and it’s good for my label. But I don’t want to own you or your career. You are free to do what you want to do. If you’re good enough, you’re good enough. Your talent will shine through. Get the music out – the music is the most important, because it’s what separates you from everyone else.
What are the best and hardest parts about running a label?
The best part is definitely that the label is an expression of me, because I’m releasing music that I like. One of the other things is to see young artists start when they’re unknown and then just blow up. Like with Karma, he’s a great producer and it’s great to see him now working with the Innamind guys. To see guys who have come through me to then do other things is fantastic. Ital Mick, Versa… they weren’t unknown, but they needed a bit more limelight, and I hope that the label helped them to do that. The downside is when things go pear-shaped, things get pressed wrong or there’s an issue. With 005, I had to recut so many tracks because I wasn’t happy with the test presses, which is another reason why it took so long. There aren’t a lot of downsides to running a label, but I guess I’m always taking a calculated risk because I don’t have a deal with distribution, I pay for everything myself, so I’m limited in funds in what I do. Generally, it’s all positive – vinyl sales are in a great position, and the way I do it via our website means there’s no middle man and the artists get paid more money.
Are you allowed to talk about any of the upcoming System releases?
So obviously 005 is happening. LAS… we’re working on that album. LAS has too much music, so it’s difficult. Karma, we’re gonna be doing a double pack, and we’re gonna be doing a double pack with Cessman, who we just signed. He’s amazing, he’s been around from day, and he’s a sick producer. Foamplate, we’re gonna be doing something with. Again, Versa, we’re hoping to do something else. It’s basically just finalising. At the moment, it’s gonna be 005, and then 010, I’m doing a double pack. That’s my tunes. Next year, I think Karma will be first, so we’re just in the process of getting that together.
You’re the face of System, but there seems to also be a lot of family involvement. Is it just the nights or the label? Who is part of System Roots?
That’s always the way with sound system; there’s one guy who everyone knows, but the back room guys, they’re even more important. Anyone can buy speakers, anyone can build a sound, but not everyone can run a sound. It’s a labour of love, but ultimately you need people there, you need reliability and you need people that are willing to come 5 hours before the dance, and are willing to leave 3 hours after the dance. How many people are willing to do that? Not a lot. When we do any of the dances, cousins, brothers, friends – they’re all there, but with the label it’s easy for me to deal with it. If you look at sound systems – Abi Shanti, Jah Shaka, Channel One – it’s family. You can only do it with family and very good friends, because things can heated, and if you’re not willing to take that side of it, you can’t be part of it. System Roots is my brother and my best friend Googs, who is also the main sound guy for System. Googs is the unsung hero in a lot of this; when we started the sound, it was me and him sitting in the pub, and someone phoned up and said “I’m having a kid and I’ve got these speakers for sale”. Googs said, “nah, we ain’t got the money for that”, then I asked, “oh, who was that?”, and he said “oh it was… he’s selling these scoops”. I was like, “are they any good?” and he said, “for sure man”, and I was like, “let’s do this thing!”. And that’s how this thing started; without Googs, there is no System, simple as that. Sachin’s my brother, so for him to be part of it is great, and from a music perspective, his knowledge of dub is amazing, his selection is sick. He and Googs play a fundamental role. They don’t do warm-up – I know they play first, but they’re not doing a warm-up, they’re setting the vibe. I think that they’re not given the credit that they deserve, because they set up the dances, especially when we were at the Dome, people were specifically coming to hear them first, because they play amazing music.
System dances were originally held at Tufnell Park Dome, but have since moved between various venues in London including Shapes and Koko. What’s been the reason behind all these changes?
What happened was we lost Tufnell Park due to the council, and so went to Shapes [in Hackney]. Originally, we were told we could go up to 110 dB, but a week before the event, we were told “you can only go up to 100 db”. They had to put in these licenses where you’re only allowed to have 400 or so people, which I wasn’t told. There were 800 people in there and a massive queue outside. They got worried that the council were going to see that there were too many people, so they then made the sound go down to 90dB. Koko was brilliant! It was ridiculous in there – but you know, Shapes was a learning curve. Dingwalls is a great venue, that’s not going anywhere.
Speaking of sound systems, what’s your favourite one to play on other than your own?
I think the Void is probably the best one I’ve played on. Also the Neuron [Pro Audio] that Youngsta had at Contact in Leeds – that’s a very, very good sound system. I recently played on one in France with Young Warrior called Dubatriation and that was ridiculous. That was scarily weighty, really heavy B-line. But one thing I’ve learned from all sound systems, which isn’t taken into consideration a lot, is the acoustics of the room. That plays a fundamental role in how it sounds. Sometimes it’s difficult to say what the best one you played on was, because a lot of the time it depends on how it’s set up and the acoustics of the room. I would say that at the moment the room we’ve got at Dingwalls for System is the best we’ve had acoustically. I’m not saying it’s one of the best sound systems, but the way we’ve set it up, it sounds really good.
You used to go to Aba Shanti-I’s dances a lot in your youth in Southall. What was it like going to those dances, and did they in any way influence System nights?
Absolutely, that’s the benchmark. I was 13 years old when I went to my first dance. I remember walking into the community centre and seeing these massive speakers, and looking down and everything was vibrating. It was just the most surreal experience, and once you go to a proper dance, music is not the same again. I was totally gripped by that. It just became the norm for me, and that’s how I wanted to hear music. That heavy drive, that melodic bassline, was like the skeleton of the music and everything else fizzled around it. That was definitely the prototype for System.
I must admit that when I first started going to System, I used to get annoyed about the lack of line-up, because everyone’s used to seeing set lists, but now I appreciate that when you go to a dance, it doesn’t matter who’s playing as long as the music is good. Tell me more about your decision to run System like that.
What I’ve found beforehand was that the whole line-up thing is hierarchical. The main guy at the top, the new guy at the bottom, main guy’s got big text, new guy’s got little text. I’m not feeling that, because that guy at the bottom is doing just as much of a job as the guy at the top. I want people to come, firstly to hear good music, secondly so they hear it on a good sound system. Why should it matter who’s playing? Why do I have to sell it to them? I don’t want to sell an artist to the crowd; I want people to come because they know they’re going to hear great music. It’s been four or five years, so I think fans trust me to make sure that we’ve got good people. But if you want I can give you the line-up for the next one: Commodo, Egoless, Versa and myself, System Roots, Crazy D and Dego Ranking.
How did you come to work with Dego Ranking?
We met him about 3 years ago in Bristol when we were doing Tokyo Dub and he was with Mad Professor. He was smashing it up! He was spitting over drum and bass, he was doing dub. So Googs got his number, and then said, “come to System”. Dego is an old school person; he’s in his fifties and he’s just an amazing guy, he’s got such a personality. He actually had a release a long time ago, it went to number 3 in the charts. I got to know him, and said to Dego, “look man, why don’t we start building a couple tunes together”. Initially, when we started, it wasn’t really working. Then I said, “I’ve got a couple riddims, come and spit on them”, so I gave him “Road To Righteousness” and “One Heart”, and he did that all in one sitting. We spoke about how I think it would work, and what I love about Dego is that he just takes it on board. He’s easy to work with and he’s a friend, so we work really well together now. It’s been very organic professionally for both of us.
How long have you been working with him?
This year was probably our first year. Being able to go with someone on trips has changed everything for me, because sometimes it can be a bit lonely and I don’t always enjoy it. But to have someone there is is so much better.
There’s this “sound system” dubplate floating around online which isn’t on SYSTM005, but the instrumental appears three times – twice with vocalists and once on its own. Why did you choose not to release the original dubplate?
First of all, that one won’t get released because its a dubplate, it’s staying how it is. Also those vocals are from another release. The reasoning behind the three versions of that riddim was I wanted one of the vinyls to be similar to a reggae / dub vinyl. You get the main tune and different versions, so that was my nod towards the dub side of things.
What’s the original dub or track called?
It’s just called “Sound System Riddim” because that’s how everyone knows it. “Version” is always the instrumental, that’s how you label it. “Crucial Dub” is named because that’s what the vocalist is saying in it, and “Zindagi” is the hook of the other one.
How did you choose the other vocalists on SYSTM005?
I met Delhi Sultanate and Begum X in Delhi when I was doing a tour. I’ve got to say a big shout to Delhi Sultanate who’s doing massive things in India. He’s just built a sound system, and is probably the only guy that I know of properly pushing dub and reggae in India. He is also a very interesting guy because he’s an activist helping the plight of minorities in India. I met Singing Cologne a while back. He had written a whole song for “Crucial Dub”, but I preferred the dub version. I went through the list of what I’d done in the mixes and I felt those two tracks worked.
Since your first release “Natural Mystic” back in 2007, your sound has changed from being quite tech-y or drum and bass inspired to warmer analogue sounds. Has that been a conscious decision or something that naturally happened?
It’s been a mixture of both. My skills in making music have improved. I also use hardware now, when initially I didn’t, and that’s had a massive influence on my music. I think when the first tunes came out I was still into dub, but more into the tech side of things. It’s hard, because you’ve got a sound in your head, and it’s difficult to get that idea down on paper. It only happened after some time that I could start hearing something and putting it down. I also think my music’s changed because I’ve changed. Back then I was spending a lot more time with music, and now I can’t, I physically don’t have time. As I’ve got older, I’ve reverted to being younger musically. I’ve kind of gone round in a circle, back to my original love of dub. It’s a weird combo of my changing as a person, but at the same becoming more of who I was a long time ago.
Would you say it’s like forgetting about trends and going back to what you originally love?
Definitely. I’ve never followed trends anyway, but what originally drew me into dubstep originally was the openness. The fact that my music is diverse is a testament to dubstep because it’s an open music, it can be anything you want it to be. But I think now, when I listen to 005, I’m really happy with how it sounds. And generally I’m happy with what I do, but I’m always a bit like, “could’ve done this, could’ve done that”. But with this release, I’m like, “yeah, that’s cool. It all sounds good”. It takes a lot for me to say that.
by your favourite new artist: Causa – Monkey Dub
that you always rewind: Kromestar – Mere Sher
that you’d like to remix: Loefah – Mud
that you wish you had signed to System: Kahn – Way Mi Defend