Q&A: Girl Unit's Philip Gamble On Missy And Timbaland's Glory Days, The Suburbs, And Why Ciara Is 'Crazy Post-Human'
Philip Gamblea.k.a. Girl Unitjoined the constantly growing cast of post-dubstep producers to come out of the U.K. a little over the a year ago with the release of his EP IRL. The debutwhich came out on Night Slugs, the experimental dance imprint run by the London DJs Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990was full of expertly crafted, drumline-driven bangers. Taking cues from the clap-tracks behind Chicago juke, the chopped rhythms of hip-hop, and the wailing synths of electro-house, Girl Unit has since released a slew of remixes and original productions, including his signature piece "Wut." The track is indicative of his whole style, really: the DJ's obvious love for pairing echoing 808s and glitchy melodies with keen hip-hop sensibility makes his role in the diaspora of "post-dubstep" sound a lot like something that could be described as New Wave R&B.
We talked to Gamble about his introduction to dance music, love of hip-hop, Ciara worship, and upcoming performance at the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival.
I know that UNIT is an acronym for "U No It's True." Is that a reference to the Milli Vanilli song?
It kind of is. When I started it, I had a sense of humor about it. I would use to start a lot of sets and mixes I did with the sample from the intro from that track, the spoken intro. So yeah it kind of just started there. It was supposed to be a light-hearted thing, I never thought that I would come this far with it really. [Laughs.] When I started producing I shortened it to the acronym.
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Does growing up in a kind of slow, industrial town have any influence on your work?
To an extent, yeah. It's not like it's the most impoverished place in the world. I'm still really happy that I was born there, but at the same time it's not the most incredible, culturally interesting place. It's just like any kind of humdrum suburban town. It's home to all of these really boring, boring chemical and IT corporations. It's like stuck in the '50s as hell so the architecture is really abysmal. In a way it's kind of amazing as well. So, yeah, there's definitely something there. When I started producing, a lot of it was based on that kind of sense of escapism. I mean, the whole thing where people say my music brings out "dread," I can't really say where that comes from. I wouldn't relate that to the kind of environment I grew up in. I think I just pay attention to sounds that inspire that. I don't know why.
It seems like exposure to the dance music underground starts a lot younger in the UK than it does in the U.S. What was your youth like in that sense? I feel like people think that teenagers in the UK are like the characters on Skins.
That whole phenomenon is so current and so young. Watching shows like that, I would say that I never knew anyone like that at all. That's of a different generation than mine, I think. It's kind of amazing to watch. For the most part, though, I guess I went through all the phases that most teenagers went through. I went through phases of liking very different kinds of music. It wasn't until I was 17 that I got into dance music.
When I was 17, that was around 2002, was when all the electric-house stuff was popping up in Europe. I was just mad on a lot of the techno that was around during that era; it was really really minimal and medieval. I was really into this one track called "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" by I-F. It's kind of this really minimal, distorted, melancholy track. It was very typical of the time I suppose; the whole eighties-survival thing they were doing. So, yeah, I guess when I heard that it got me thinking about electronic music in general. And most of the stuff I was into was so sparse that I thought that I'd like to try to do it myself as well. That kind of got me on the bandwagon to start looking at software and doing stuff on my parents' computer.
Tell me about the creative dynamic within [your label] Night Slugs. Do you guys bounce ideas off each other and such?
Yeah. Between the core members of the label, the guys in LA like Kingdom, and some others, we have this small network where we trade tracks and ideas in general. It's more the case of where we all live very locally to each other. We're basically walking distance to each other. I think the main sharing comes together at actual events because everyone brings their own music and stuff they've found in the last couple of months. Obviously we're playing in different places in most of the time so we don't see each others' sets. So when we're playing together, we'll hear the new stuff people have or have been working on. That's where all the breakthrough stuff happens, when we're all playing together. Someone will either pull out something old-school that no one's ever heard before, or something new that they've been working on, or something new that they've just found. I think DJing together really helps keep ideas fresh for us.
There's this wave of producers coming out that have a sort of dubstep/house/dnb/juke take on R&B. While they all have their own style and sound, there's definitely this common, driving new-wave R&B thing going on. Do you think there are key shared influences there?
I really can't tell you, to be honest. I feel like with that kind of music everyone has a personal connection to it. Which is why if you asked or started analyze the trends within it, people will have their own opinion and be quite defensive about their influences. I guess I just impart that kind of sound into my music because it's very melodic. I've never been a huge fan of too much heavy mid-range bass in my music. I always wanted to keep things kind of bright and on the high-end of the music spectrum, I suppose. It's always been that I've used quite bright sounding synths and that sort of thing. I think in terms of melody, as well, I've always found R&B to be so superior to any sort of popular music. The thing that they attempt is amazing, and the ideas that get huge radio play. Sometimes I think about how some of these R&B tracks are such obscure records and get Top 40 play. Especially with the older stuff, from when like Missy was working with Timbaland. They were just crazy sounds.
My own personal interest in it is more that I'm amazed by the music, really. The ideas they try and the way they experiment is really interesting. I mean I'm sure that's not the same examples or reasons that they others have for liking the music. It's just my own take.
I guess I just wonder if it's a generational thing.
Yeah, it could possibly be. At the same time, I think there's quite a large age-gap between various producers. I'm 26, and some newer ones are 18, and that's almost a decade of difference. I kind of wonder how it fits in for them. I mean, yeah, there was definitely the time when I was twelve years-old that I remember musically. That was the heyday of the Hype Williams/Missy Elliott/Timbaland trinity. That was when all their crazy videos were playing on MTV and whatever. I was about 12 or 13 so, yeah, there's definitely some sense of nostalgia there, yeah.
You've said before that you often produce with specific artists or MCs in mind. Any ideal collaborations?
It always gets me because I have a hitlist of about ten names. You knowand I think you could talk to Kingdom about this toothere are a few artists who are amazing and were really screwed over by their record labels. Like Tierra Marie and even, to some extent, Ciara at the moment. She's kind of had tough times with her label. It's kind of like one of those things where we all see amazing music coming from them and, as producers, hear these amazing vocals which have a really beautiful tone to it. I think to myself, that I could definitely work with that. But then of course commercially it never works out for them. I probably would work with Ciara because she's like crazy post-human. I don't know. I just think her whole taste in general is amazing. I'm honestly surprised how she always keeps it really ATL and keeps with her roots. And I love Southern hip-hop.
Do you keep up with current hip-hop? Do you feel the need to as far as DJing goes?
A lot of my favorite tracks are like ten-years old now. They're from like 2002. I like a lot of the Memphis stuff like Three Six and Gangsta Boo. I try to keep up but, to be honest, if it doesn't grab me then it doesn't grab me and I won't force it. I do really like the new trunk stuff but, at the same time, I wouldn't play loads of them because it's quite a similar sound from track to track. Like Waka Flocka and Rick Ross and that kind of thing. At the same time there are one or two tracks from all of those artists that really get me and I'll always play them. I mean, I'm always on the lookout but generally I'm quick to know whether it would work with my sound.
You've made a name for yourself based largely off of your remix work. Your most recent Korallreven remix is pretty different from what most people would have expected from you. How did you get involved with them?
Yeah, yeah. Artists usually reach out to me and I usually evaluate it. Like, can I give them enough time, can I really make it into something good. The great thing about Korallreven is that they gave me two to three gigs worth of sample files of the track. Since they're a band they have so many outfitted stems from their track that I had so much to work with. It was kind of amazing actually. And obviously a lot of what they do is acoustic and I wanted to make it really electronic. I got to work with all the effects of the vocal stems they had sent. That's why it has these kind of crazy, rave-y vocals. And, yeah, they just have a lot of good tracks to work with.
Is your production work indicative of what we can expect from your DJ sets? What can we expect to hear you play at the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival this weekend?
What I try to do in equal portions is represent what I think is great about modern electronic music, house music, bass music, and whatever else that's around at the moment. But also I work in a lot of my influences; more hip-hop, old-school ghettotech, and Miami bass stuff as well. It's kind of a mixed bag, I guess. I'll probably be playing some of my new stuff.
What are your go-to, must-have tracks at the moment? The ones you play at every gig.
One is "The Ha Dub Rewerk'd" by Mike Q. The original has been around for ages. It's basically amazing rework of "The Ha Dance" by Masters at Work. Mike Q has these amazing edits of the track and it just sounds so current and still a medieval, war club track. The next one is probably "Drum Track" by Helix. And the Claude von Stroke remix of "Wut." It never really fails, ever. What I play always changes, but right now those are the ones I love to play.
Girl Unit performs in Public Assembly's front room on Sunday night as part of the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival.
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