Spirit Level: Mantra Is Forging New Communities In Drum 'N' Bass
Jungle music’s heydey has come around again. Veteran of the genre J Majik just announced his first album in 20 years, joining scores of artists resurrecting the textured and raw sound from early 90s dance floors. His inspiration: a night out at Rupture, the London-based label that has been promoting the breaks side of bass music for going on thirteen years.
Running out of Corsica Studios, Rupture’s nights have become part of jungle music’s core around which labels, artists, and ravers pivot. Steering at its helm with her partner is DJ Mantra, who is irrepressibly warm on the phone, equal parts shrewd commentary and belly laughter as she talks about the scene she loves.
Mantra knows how to stay busy. On top of running a label, producing a radio show for Rinse FM, and launching a new night called Spirit Level last week, she also manages the event EQ50, which she set up after releasing shocking figures about the gender balance in drum 'n' bass lineups last year. With the help of DJs like Storm, Flight, and Djinn, she is joining a wider conversation across electronic music and looking for ways to bring more women into the scene.
We catch up with her to hear how Spirit Level’s first party went, and to talk about EQ50’s upcoming reprise at Fabric.
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You’ve just launched the new drum 'n' bass night Spirit Level. How did it go?
It went so so well, I couldn't be happier. Om Unit started with early 90s hardcore and played so much old school jungle, which totally went off. And Djinn’s last 30/40 mins were devastating, so militant. To see the night packed out with this really amazing energy was so reassuring.
A small space for DJs to show what they're about and play for three hours is really needed and the crowd seemed to really appreciate it.
What kind of night can we expect Spirit Level to be?
Every time I play in London I come off after an hour, and everyone says the same thing - I was just getting into that. I was just finding my flow. I thought it would be sick to have two other DJs, and we’d get to play three long sets, which is so normal in other areas of music.
I’ve played a couple of three and five hour sets abroad, and you just lose yourself totally. It's that push and pull with the crowd, so you can experiment a little bit more.
I mean, it is a rave, it’s going to be a proper party, it’s going to be banging, but there's time within that to go a bit left and a bit right and to the outer edges more than you can normally fit in an hour. I love that because it's proper journey music.
And will you be pushing a certain sound?
Proper DJs, proper crate diggers. I've always been into that deeper, more headsy sound, so that's very much what it will be. The name Spirit Level was kind of a threefold thing, and one of the reasons is because of Duncan who died last year. He was an incredible DJ.
We were actually going to call EQ50 Spirit Level because that's all about balance, and then there's also the idea of a higher consciousness, but it was definitely a nod to Spirit, who for me was one of the greatest DJs that we had.
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It’s a year on from when you published data about the gender balance in drum 'n' bass lineups. What led you to compile the numbers in the first place?
It had been on my mind for a little while I think, the kinds of things I've seen in other areas of electronic music, like the SIREN collective or Discwoman who were talking about it in a really cool way. I thought it was wicked to see what they were doing and I suddenly thought, well hang on a minute, it reminds you of yourself a little bit and your circle and what's going on around us. When you start adding it up it’s crazy how few of us there are.
I picked Hospitality and Metalheadz and Critical - they are all record labels as well, but they put on quite a lot of events and they’re all organisations that I have a lot of respect for - and I just started tallying away. It created a bit of a conversation, which is what I hoped it would do.
What challenges do you think women face in drum 'n' bass?
I think it's that idea of representation. It’s when you see people who look like you up there doing things that you want to do, that makes you think perhaps it's open to you. And if you don't have that, it seems like that world’s a bit closed. It's still very rare that you see women headline in events, particularly in London. Storm does some, Kyrist to an extent, but not nearly on the same scale. So I think that's key.
For me growing up, I was following all the women DJs, and it wasn't even because they were women. It was a subconscious thing. Flight and Storm, we were their biggest fan girls, me and all my mates were just obsessed with them. We really studied their mixes and were going to all their gigs, standing on the sidelines and watching what they were doing and how they were doing it. It was so inspiring.
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You set up the event EQ50 last December to talk about some of these issues. How do you think we can help women get more involved in drum 'n' bass?
With the EQ50 thing, we wanted to set up a network. We wanted to start small and have a space where women can come together. There's no huge agenda because you don't know what the need is, and where we could potentially support people, until you meet the women that turn up. So off the back of the first one, quite a big need was space to practice. We're doing an afternoon thing in studios in the next few weeks, which will be an open decks thing, and we’ll listen to the tracks and get feedback.
I think the one of the strongest things that has come out of EQ50 is the relationships that have been formed. We're talking about music and the struggles that we have with the music, and what we can do to work together and support each other, whether that's in a mentoring capacity or friendship.
There's two girls who are now DJing together of the back of it, and they go to Roundhouse, where you pay like a pound an hour to use their decks, and then make something wicked together. They're boosting each other and teaching each other and mixing and vibing off each other, which is so important for me. Have girlfriends who are in it. To have another woman that you can kind of share your passion with is such a lifeline.
Do you have any future plans for EQ50?
We've got an event at Fabric on 26th July, where in the evening we're doing a couple of workshops and then we're taking over Room 3 for the club night. We've got a panel discussion on women of color within drum 'n' bass as well, which Flight is going to lead on. She was saying the importance for her of seeing Kemistry play. Again, it’s representation. The impact and power that Kemistry had on her is the impact and power that she will have on other young black women. She suggested it off the back of the last one and I was like, 100%.
When you talk about all the new people coming through, there's very little in terms of diversity. I come from a community work background and looking at society as a whole, and where drum 'n' bass fits within that is all linked. I fucking love this music, and I want lineups to be wonderful and diverse, and crowds to be as well. That's when the real magic happens, when people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, are together sharing the same experience and are linked together through music.
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And Rupture’s turning thirteen this November. What are you most proud of achieving with the label so far?
I think the sustainability in itself, the fact that we've been able to keep it running consistently and it's still in a really natural way. We very much work on instinct, which has served us well. I'm also glad that we've got a space that we can give people a stage to play on where they don't get to very often. There's a lot of DJs, particularly that we get over from abroad, who you don't really see playing in other places but they play at Rupture and they're amazing.
We're lucky because we go on until 6am and we have two rooms, so we've got a little bit of wiggle room to get slightly lesser known DJs - and now people know Rupture, and know Corsica, so we don’t need loads of headliners. There’s an element of trust there, which is a really wonderful thing because it allows us to be a little bit more creative and experimental in choosing our lineup.
Do you have any good nights coming up?You’ve started releasing Rupture’s mix series The Planets too. How did you go about putting it together?
It's all people from within our family and circle. For Venus, the planet of love, we knew we wanted Theory. He’s a really versatile producer who can make such dark music but he can make such beautiful mellow tunes as well. And then Earth, we knew we wanted it to be rootsy. It’s really dubwise.
The Untouchables are a duo from Brussels, and that is basically what they make, so we approached them and they've come with a killer. They’ve used this Brazilian sample, and it's one of the tunes that I play and get asked for IDs all the time. We knew we wanted Djinn on board too and funnily enough she was working on a tune called 'Jupiter'. We kind of pieced it together that way.
And do you have any festivals lined over the summer?
There’s one TBC at the moment in Berlin, as well as Hospitality in the Park and Hospitality on the Beach. I’ve never been to Hospitality on the Beach - if it's a daytime thing then I might play an atmospheric bukem-style old school set. That's what I'd like to hear if I was sunbathing.
Rupture is taking over a stage at Outlook as well, on Sunday night in the Sub Dub arena. I can’t say much yet, but it’s a very Rupture lineup.
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EQ50 holds its next event in Fabric on 26th July, and the next Spirit Level night is on November 2nd. Catch Mantra at Hospitality In The Park (September 22nd), and Hospitality On The Beach (July 11th - 15th) - tickets.
Words: Becca Inglis
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