Gearing up for the release of his debut album ‘The Playlist’, multifaceted super-producer Steel Banglez talks early influences, the pirate radio era, and the enduring importance of collaboration.
I’ve heard it, you’ve heard it and pretty much most of the UK have heard it… ‘Steel. Banglez.’ – one of the most distinguishable producer tags in the UK scene, soon to be reappearing in your daily listening cycle, not that he ever really left judging by his near million monthly Spotify listeners.
The London producer is one of the most acclaimed names in the UK music industry – and arguably beyond – with the rich diversity of acts he attracts and the appeal that they bring. Hit after hit, plaque after plaque, Steel Banglez is always bang on the money with his production, and that shows with the breadth of audiences that his music brings enjoyment to. With 2022 around the corner, it was time for him to deliver fans a long-awaited body of work that is stacked with classics from start to finish, snarly beats for the day one music heads and some chart hits for those that like something that bit more ‘commercial’. The album name you ask? ‘The Playlist’ – dropping January 2022.
Concepts are key to how something lands. It adds a narrative. A level of context as to why things sound like they do and why they have an energy that gives connotations of whatever it gives connotations of. For ‘The Playlist’, Banglez, having grown up surrounded by the influence of London pirate radio, wanted to make his debut album a homage to it – whipping up a variety of sounds that exemplify the UK underground music culture across rap, grime, R&B, soul and Afrobeat. Following his latest release, “Tell Me”, featuring Clean Bandit, Stefflon Don, Wes Nelson and Unknown T, it was only right that we hopped on Zoom to discuss everything and anything.
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As ever, this is the point where I drop in a little something to set the scene. However, I wasn’t expecting to hop on a call with somebody who had, just an hour before, had a car driven right into the back of them on the M25. This didn’t stop Banglez joining the interview, and it also didn’t stop him pausing the call to go to the door to fetch a fancy dress costume he’d ordered for a party. Don’t worry, Steel Banglez was not harmed in the making of this interview, just his car.
What has always interested me with Banglez’ music is how the core of the music is clear – that being UK rap and garage – yet we hear these flamboyant and refreshing takes using people of the moment, from all walks of life, to make it accessible for those that wouldn’t necessarily tune into these genres. The work on his debut album started back in 2019, but now, because the pandemic restrictions have loosened, the rollout can proceed in the way he had originally envisioned. ‘The Playlist’ is full to the brim of hits, and before we got into the thick of it, Banglez gave me an insight to the name and strategy behind it: “I felt like I was at a place where a lot of my joint collaborations were taking off. I was having great success with the release of the songs, and I felt like it was a good time for me to get a solid body of work together. To give back to the fans, I wanted to call the album something from a fan’s perspective.”
What I wanted to get locked down firstly was how he recruited such a diverse yet star-studded roster of acts. “I called it ‘The Playlist’ because I realised we’re living in a streaming era, so I wanted to mimic Spotify’s ‘Who We Be’ or those similar – wherever the biggest artists are doing their thing,” he explains. “I wanted to be able to use my status and access [to] artists to create this piece of art. This is my own version, with my own production and my own take on it.”
Talking to the London producer, I was able to bounce so many questions I’ve wanted to know about production off him. Yes, this was for Notion, but it was also for my own personal need for knowledge. At what point does one register a certain rhythm is meant for an artist? Because usually with artists, they either receive beats or contact producers as a way to find what they like, but producers have to find somebody to layer their beat, whilst also selling it to them – it’s a completely different process that we don’t always hear about. “It varies, you know. Every time I start a song, I kind of get into a zone,” Banglez says. “I’m maybe with one of the artists that end up featuring the other three on the record. I’m always trying to meet the guys and chill, and just produce from scratch and write the song. Then I go and get the features, and go and see them, and do the same. But yeah, there’s never one way. There’s always a different way.”
Growing up in Newham in the pirate radio era seems like such a ‘No way, you didn’t?!’ moment now, with the list of legends in and around the area that have given their life to build what this industry is to date. Being around such a combination of genres growing up and working with artists that possess varying vocal skills and styles, for the next question, I went on to ask which genre came more naturally from a production standpoint. “I’d say UK rap,” Banglez decides. “It’s something that I’ve always done, no matter how the sound transcends throughout the changes of styles. I think UK rap is something that’s always there.” Does this vary from the music that Banglez listens to on the daily, in the car? “Yeah, so when I’m chilling in the car, I’m listening to a lot of lo-fi beats. And then what I always do is try not to listen to what’s out, but refer to stuff that I listened to as a kid. Because I want my subconscious mind to be trained, without being judged of what’s going on now. And I try not to do what the trend is. I’m just trying to make music and see what people would need at this stage.”
Making a sound authentic is a skill. Some producers like to stick to their sound and remain quite safe – it’s those willing to take a risk that prevail, through the development and progression. This is then how you work with the unique artists and appeal to a wider audience, consequently expanding the demographic in which you appeal to. With this notion in mind, how important is it to create something natural to the artists performing on a record? Banglez replies: “I feel I’ve got two roles. There’s me producing and being the producer making a record for what the artist wants. Then there’s me making the album and creating tracks and bringing different personalities and people together. I always try to do it in a way which is natural and preferred for the artist, and then I’ve finished the record in my own preferred way, but in a way where everyone’s still comfortable.”
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Before we delve deeper into pirate radio influences, stories and memories, I wanted to garner more of an understanding of the role traditional radio plays. “Radio is the most important thing for us to be heard [on] because we’re literally not speaking. There are other people on our records, it’s just the music we’re providing and the name, so I think radio is just like playlists for supporting songs,” Banglez says. “Getting that sound heard initially grows the artist and then you get to do your thing. Radio is the most important thing today.”
Here we are. The point we both spoke about before the interview started, the importance of pirate radio and the influence that it has on ‘The Playlist’. For those looking to know a little bit more about the thrill of pirate radio, it’s time to polish your specs and grab a coffee to fully absorb what’s about to come. What were the nights, shows, crews that Banglez was into? Or was it an amalgamation of all of it? “I just think it was the whole grime and UK garage era. It’s within what I was growing up,” he tells me. “I started DJing UK garage, listening to Rossi B & Luca, then it started transitioning into grime. I felt like I was being conditioned by this movement. I was fortunate to grow up with D Double E, who was literally my neighbour. I was always around Double, and I was watching the scene from a perspective of such a legend who was respected. He was on every radio station, every rave, he was everywhere. Dizzee and Rossko were blowing up and I got to go to the shows, and I started getting conditioned just by being around him as a younger. I think that one of the key roles on the pirate radio side is being like a student, watching D Double E and Nasty Crew.”
Whilst I was in the presence of somebody that could give me authentic, probably never heard before stories, or iterations of similar legends, I soon got on to asking Banglez about his anecdotes and memories – his involvement. Looking back, he remembers: “I used to be in a crew called Boundary Crew, which Fumin used to be on. He’s on that song “Pow” that Lethal B released first. I used to be on Mystic FM, this live call-in show, where people would call in and I’d talk to them and it’d just be hilarious. We’d play music, and I remember one time I had to run out with my record box to the top of the roof because the police were coming. I had the aerial, the record box, the decks, everything – we were literally hiding on the roof.”
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With the process of writing ‘The Playlist’ halted due to the pandemic, I was interested to unveil how, when things became less strict and we were able to socialise in small numbers for work, who decided to record remotely. As mentioned earlier by Banglez, this is an element of the process that he likes to do in person, to get that organic sound and natural energy. “I think the only verse that was sent to me was from Stefflon Don, because she was in Jamaica,” he says. “This is the song on the album which features Wes Nelson, Clean Bandit and Unknown T.”
Lastly, I wanted this interview to not only do the business for Steel Banglez, but for readers to learn something and feel inspired through the words of wisdom that the London producer provided me with. What were the fundamental elements and lessons for up-and-coming producers that he could pass on? “I think one of the benefits I had was that I built studios early on in my career. I would record people for free, if they had a name or not, be in the studio with people that were coming up in a scene. It’s not the same today,” Banglez considers. “I’d kind of attach myself to an artist. It was Krept and Konan and Cashtastic first, who used to be around me a lot, and I started crafting sounds for them. But I’d say one of the key fundamentals of finding your sound, or sounds, is finding artists that are at the start of their career and then developing with them. You can see that throughout history with Timbaland and Ginuwine, Aaliyah and Missy Elliott, or you can see it with Scott Storch, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg; you can see it today with Drake and 40. They like their relationships. You can see it with me and Mist, for example, with the vocals and the garage slowed down.”
But one of my favourite words of wisdom from my time with Steel Banglez is: “Listen to a variety of music.” Banglez explains: “Fortunately for me, I grew up listening to Indian music, to the Great British pop era in the 90s on Top of the Pops. I was very fortunate to have a wide ear. I think what’s important is to always open your ears to new sounds and continue studying. Embrace music.”
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