Ten years since the release of his very first album Skanky Skanky, Yorkshire lad Toddla T looks back on a decade in the biz.
Ah, good ole’ Yorkshire. God’s Own Country! The land o’ bacon butties, milky tea and where there’s a Gregg’s on’t corner every other street. It’s responsible for producing some of the UK’s finest musicians; think Alt-J, The Human League and… well, Mel B. It’s also where Thomas Mackenzie Bell, better known as Toddla T, first realised his dedication to music. Sitting in his bedroom in sunny Sheffield, T (as we’ll call him for short) spent his adolescence soaking up the sounds of Tim Westwood and tuning in to MTV Raps. By the age of 10, he was already thinking about how to pursue a career in the industry. “It was kinda like, ‘how do I get involved because like, I’m not a rapper and I don’t have the balls to get on the microphone!’” he tells me when we link up via phone. He’s currently marching down Oxford Street on his way to a studio session. “So with MTV Raps, there was always a DJ in the background, so I’m like okay…maybe I can do that. That’s when it all came together in my mind and I was like ‘ah, shit maybe I could be a DJ!’”
After his “aha moment”, he focused on doing what he could to make his dream a reality. He spent some time saving his pocket-money, invested in a few decent records and eventually had enough money to buy some new turntables – and the rest is history. Well almost. He admits that people around him didn’t really understand or appreciate his infatuation with music – and most didn’t see it as a feasible career option for young T. While his schoolmates had an everyday interest in music, he recognised that they didn’t possess the same obsessiveness that he had when it came to digesting – and dissecting – sounds.
“Although my mum and dad are both big music fans! My dad would listen to a wide range of music from Pet Shop Boys to Craftwork, whereas my mum listened to old Motown and Soul records.” He tells me. Eventually, he met a wider circle of music obsessives who introduced him to other genres, and he started to appreciate the excellence of Reggae, Dancehall, Garage and Jungle.
His ever-growing interest in music led him to studying music production in Leeds, where he continued to expand his musical network. By the time he found himself back in Sheffield, he was ready to start working on a record, and so he set to work on his very first major release, Skanky Skanky. This year marks ten years since the release of his debut which featured everyone from Joe Goddard to Benjamin Zephaniah. It firmly placed him on the map as one of the UK’s most promising new producer/DJs, and received critical acclaim.
“It’s just wild!” He exclaims when we address that it’s been almost a decade since the release of his debut. “My head is so different now than it was ten years ago. It is crazy because I don’t have the same mindset to make that record again, I was ten years younger and had a different energy and influence around me. But I’m well proud man, I’ve seen so many different people come and go in this industry and for some reason, I’m still here!”
The album provided a stark contrast to the other music that was coming out of Sheffield at the same time. While Arctic Monkeys put Sheffield on the map for it’s Indie scene, T was responsible for ensuring that the city had a little bit of something different. “For the younger guys in Sheffield, it was an album that meant a lot to them because I was like shouting about it all over the album.” He says when I asked him about how his hometown responded to the release. “Let me tell you, there was way more to Sheffield than Alex Turner, but at that time it felt like it was the description of Sheffield, so I guess when me and my friends were doing our thing we felt different from the rest because, although I love The Arctic Monkeys and they truly are the best band of my generation, Sheffield lacked a lot of musical diversity.”
T tells me that while he was working on his album, Roots Manuva had just moved to Sheffield – and ended up being partly responsible giving Toddla T the exposure he deserved. “At that time he was the biggest British tapper, he was selling out Brixton Academy, topping the charts, and British rappers at the time just didn’t do that.” He says. “He moved to make a record, and I was working at a shoe shop at the time, and he used to come and buy shoes off me. He found out that I engineer and so I engineered some sessions for him. Then he heard my tracks and I started making tracks for his album in my mums house, recording next to my dirty washing. It was just a wild fucking time. It was like we were cut from a similar cloth but from different worlds who ended up making music together in my Mum and Dads bedroom in Sheffield. That honestly was a very important time of my life and still to this day I give thanks to him for putting his trust in me, some stinky little kid from Sheffield.”
The album was undeniably the catalyst for a massive shift in the life of Toddla T. He went from being a young kid who was selling shoes and making beats in his childhood bedroom to having a critically acclaimed album and selling out shows internationally. For young kids in Yorkshire, he was evidence to the fact that, if you’re passionate enough and work hard enough, you can definitely get where you want to be in life – and have a reach that penetrates the Yorkshire border.
His first album also opened a lot of doors that he hadn’t expected. While he’s celebrating the 10th anniversary of his debut, he’s another reason to celebrate: it’s almost been a decade spent on the airwaves for BBC 1Xtra. “It’s funny with radio, it’s something I reference a lot and I never planned on getting into.” He tells me how he first became affiliated with the station. “1Xtra basically did an Essential Mix and there was a song on there from my old album ‘Skanky Skanky’, and at the same time I was doing a Fabric Live Mix. I did a really nostalgic, proper old school mix for Fabric with music that no one would have thought I liked, and it popped off really really well. At the time 1Xtra were asking for 10-minute demo’s to scout up and coming DJs for their monthly residency and I sent one in. I remember I got a call about a month later when I was sitting in my mum’s bedroom and they said that I got it and I was starting a radio show in February on Radio 1 and I honestly almost fell over in disbelief. Now, It’s shocking to think I would have been there for about ten years!”
Looking back, the changes to his life over the past 10 years have been astronomical, to say the very least. He now has two young kids, is married to fellow DJ Annie Mac and has toured the world. He confesses that his days of four day festivals are well and truly behind him. “Musically I’ve been through a lot in terms of experimenting with different sounds, cultures and people. The game has changed a lot for me. However now, music is so much more accessible and easier to make, I mean, people make music in their rooms, put it online and can blow up overnight. Whereas at the time it wasn’t the case. So as well as me changing, everything around me has changed and this really is an industry now that can change overnight and you just have to flow with the excitement.”
As for the future, he’s intent on turning his attentions to production, and working with other artists to ensure that they have opportunity to break into the industry themselves. He admits that he’s not really fussed about making an album right now, and is content on making singles as well. “I want talented young artists to eventually come through to my studios, so I can help them with their records and boost them to succeed. I hope they have the experience and confidence to DJ or perform wherever they want the same way Manuva did for me,” he begins. “My children are now my priority and will be as I get older. Going to three-day festivals are not part of my schedule anymore,, so I just want to give the youth the knowledge that I wish I had at that age so they can have even greater musical energy than me. In ten years, I imagine myself working 9-5 at the studio with the young artists so they can project the art, coming home putting my kids to bed, having a great time and repeating day after day. That’s the dream.”