Kasra Interview – Critical Music Presents: Underground Sonics

Kasra, a reputable DJ and one of drum and bass’ foremost tastemakers is principally recognisable as the founder of a label both highly influential and widely respected.

Critical Music, established back in 2002, is a label primarily synonymous with progressive beats in and around the realms of 170. The back-catalogue is an eclectic body of work that features music by established names such as Calibre, Rockwell and Break. It also represents beats by reputable artists that are more closely entwined with the label – producers broadly perceived as a core part of the ‘Critical Family’: Enei, Emperor and Mefjus to name a few.

The thing that strikes me about Critical Music has been its ability to achieve prevalent popularity yet simultaneously advocate music both left field and pioneering. Kasra champions drum and bass with a diverse twist, he’s created a label that pushes music of innovative brilliance. Critical Modulations, the sister label, a part of Critical that supports acutely unconventional music, is an outlet that enables artists – perhaps not directly correlated with the main label – to pursue even greater creative heterogeneity. The Critical brand is something that’s supported outside strictly the sphere of drum and bass, it has a fan base that stretches into various corners of underground dance music and this is something I feel is an enormous feat. Largely in it being a rarity, but also in the labels achievement of this level of success whilst maintaining upmost musical integrity.

Critical is a cornerstone for quality drum and bass that concurrently contributes to redefining genre boundaries. Most recent release, the highly acclaimed ‘Critical Music Presents: Underground Sonics’ is a clear testimony to this. Here’s what happened when we caught up with Kasra:

Hello Kasra, you kicked off Critical Music back in 2002; it’s gone from strength to strength and it’s now widely regarded as a prime label for pushing innovative drum and bass. How would you describe the evolution of the label and its sound?

It’s all been quite natural in terms of progression, I’m just passionate about putting the music out that I like and I play. There’s no big agenda really, it’s been my ethos for the label since I started it. It sounds incredibly narcissistic but it’s my take on the music, I work with artists I believe in and who share similar values. I didn’t really know whether the label would survive past our first few releases; I started when there was a new label opening up every day and not many of those have survived.

‘Critical Music Presents: Underground Sonics’ is a brilliant album; we’ve really been enjoying it over here at In-Reach and I think it’s fair to say the all round response to it has been outstanding. Can you tell us a bit about why and how it came about? And were there any differences to the overall concept in regards to other compilation albums you’ve put out?

Thanks for the kind words. It had been a few years since we’d put a comp out and I’ve always really enjoy putting them together. I decided that now that the label has a real core group of artists we should showcase them alongside some of the labels friends. In the past we had always relied on guests to make up the albums, this one was mainly different in that respect.

The album really is an embodiment of work that stylistically covers a number of exciting and unconventional directions. How do you feel about the directions in which drum and bass is going? And which movements and styles are standing out to you?

I tried to encapsulate what I’m feeling in drum and bass across this album project. I’m feeling as excited about the genre as ever and I gave the artists free reign to write whatever they felt. The contrast of someone like Sam Binga up against an artist like Emperor is something I’m really into. That you can hear those two very different styles on both one album as well as in many DJ sets now, makes me feel good about where the music is.

The album is being released on vinyl; can you tell us a bit about the significance of vinyl to you? And why you think it’s an important format to release on?

I love vinyl, I love the feel of it, the way you can express so much with the artwork and that excitement when you put a record on the turntable. We have a fan base that fully supports vinyl and until the day they stop I’m going to continue to release our music on that format. I’m not saying it’s easy, year on year it gets tougher.

Something you’ve highlighted is that it’s important to you to help develop new artists – how do you go about doing this?

As a label owner there’s nothing more exciting than helping an artist grow, helping them with their music, giving them opportunities and watching them flourish. Every act is different, someone like Enei was already quite developed when we started working with him, but it was important to help support him musically through some strong A&R to make sure he got the best out of what he was doing. Helping him go from making tunes in his bedroom to being the first Russian DNB artist to play in the UK is incredibly satisfying. Or for example Mefjus, who had worked with a few other labels before Critical. I wanted to offer him a space in which he could focus on making the best music he can and really explore what he wants to achieve.

How do you feel the nature of the music industry at present benefits or obstructs running an independent label such as yours?

The one advantage that indies have is that we can be nimble, if we decide we want to change the way we do things we can do that over night. We don’t have to answer to shareholders or have miles of red tape. That said we could always do with a bit more money!

Critical Music, not only a reputable record label is responsible for putting on some pretty memorable events. On top of being behind all of this, you also DJ and produce – you must be an exceptionally busy man! Can you give us an insight to a day in the life of Kasra? And are there any areas of your various job roles that you’re particularly enjoying and perhaps wouldn’t have expected to be a part of it?

I also work in artist management so I find myself working pretty much all day everyday. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, my dream when I was a kid was to work in music and now I get to earn a living doing what I love. I’m very lucky. My day usually revolves around a mixture of: emails, phone calls, coffee, opening Logic for half hour then closing it again, meetings, travelling, playing music loud, speaking to artists, more emails, more coffee, more emails, pint.

Something you’ve mentioned before is that drum and bass is like “the bastard child of dance music” in that it’s never really seen as cool. Why do you feel it’s often perceived in this way?

I’m not sure, a lot of people seem to focus on the music in the 90s – especially a lot of the tastemakers in other genres – and discount anything that’s happening now. I agree there was some utterly fantastic music made in that period (it’s the motivation behind what I do now) but there’s amazing music being made today. That said I’m quite happy that DNB is not subject to trends as much as other genres. We’re just here doing our thing.

Your biography describes you as “someone who’s not yet really taken the production bull by the horns ”.  How do you feel about where you are production wise at present? And do you have any big production goals this year?

I really want to release a solo single on Critical. My main issue is that it’s virtually impossible to A&R yourself, I’m also surrounded by such talented people that I need anything I do to be able to stand up against their music. It’s not easy but I’m going to give it my best shot.

The Critical event schedule seems to have been incredibly busy of late (I’m heartbroken to have missed the NYE event). What have been your personal favourite Critical parties to play at?

Our 2013 NYE event was amazing, as have been many of our Critical Sound shows. The Fabric shows are always special and the reception we all get is incredible. Outside of the UK our stage at Outlook last year, Star Warz in Belgium and just this weekend we had an awesome sold out show in Toulouse.

What should we be looking out for in terms of Kasra and Critical Music in 2014?

This year is about consolidating what we have worked on over the past couple of years. Working closely with the core group I’ve mentioned – Enei, Emperor, Mefjus, Foreign Concept, Sam Binga and Ivy Lab,  to release the best music and put on the best events we can. Underground Sonics 2014 and beyond…

‘Critical Music Presents: Underground Sonics’ is available to purchase on wax or in digital format over at Surus 🙂

Check out the full album preview below:

For more info regarding all things Critical Music check out the labels website, Facebook and Soundcloud