When Toddla T drops his debut album this month, there will rightly be much excitement over how a twentysomething Sheffield lad has reinvented Jamaican dancehall in his own cheeky image. Less will be mentioned about how Tom Bell served his apprenticeship in his home city's studios, though this side of the story is just as important. For, after a few years when Sheffield deskmasters have been forging beats for many worthy artists, they are set to unveil one of their own as a star.
Not that anyone with a grasp of dancefloor history should be surprised that the city has sidled its way back to the epicentre of cutting-edge music. Sheffield artists were among the first in the UK to pick up on the pioneering electronic work of Kraftwerk. While punk bands laboured with three guitar chords, Cabaret Voltaire constructed primitive synthesisers and paved the way for Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC, among the groups that defined the electronic sounds of the Eighties.
When house music emerged at the end of the decade, south Yorkshire was at the forefront. Warp Records was one of the first British labels to specialise in the new sound and rapidly became one of the most important, its trademark being cavernous bass notes and implacable bleeps. An underground interest in electronica has remained.
Our story begins when Steve Mackey, bassist in Pulp, got hold of a demo by young London-based wannabe MIA. He immediately roped in Ross Orton, a budding dance producer previously best known then for electroclash outfit Fat Truckers.
Orton missed out on the first flowering of Sheffield house music, but as a late developer found himself leaning towards Detroit's Underground Resistance techno label and dub influences. "I went to parties in the quarries, but I was never happy with the music. Then I heard Jeff Mills for the first time.I gravitated towards black-influenced dance music – drum'n'bass, the ragga scene. That helped me discover early Sheffield music."
Orton and Mackey formed the Cavemen production outfit and, when their partnership eventually drifted apart, the former was left to hone his own skills.
Along the way, Orton poached Bell to help out on his own remixes. Then in stepped Roots Manuva. From his south London base, UK's finest hip-hop artist had been edging towards a sound closer to Jamaican dancehall than your usual rap or R&B backing. Then he hooked up with a Sheffield lass, moved north briefly, and found a new well of talent to draw from.
This mercurial talent was comfortable in a place that had replaced production of stainless steel with the assembly of bottom-heavy beats, the clang of drop hammers with the thud of bass. On fourth album Slime & Reason, the rapper nailed the boisterous rumble of dancehall, the update of reggae based on studio-based electro rather than live instrumentation. Manuva met Bell at the studio, though it was only when the rapper saw him working at a shoe-shop that he asked him for some beats. They ended up at Bell's bedroom in his family home. Orton mixed Bell's three tracks for Slime & Reason, though he takes on a co-production role for Toddla's own work, Skanky Skanky.
Bell is the kind of precocious youth used to hanging out with an older crowd, which explains his stage name, he reveals. "Hip-hop was all I cared about until I was 15, then being the youngest, people older than me and more open-minded showed me dancehall, reggae and two-step garage. Then I got into house and techno."
It is only in the past two years that Bell has become comfortable in his role as a musician. "As a DJ, I might play 10 per cent dancehall. People ask me to play two hours of upfront Jamaican music, but that's not me at all."
Bell admits that his singles have shown one side of this taste, but hopes the album reveals a more varied outlook that encompasses hip-hop, electro and garage, featuring as it does dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and Siobhan Gallagher.
Bell believes that growing up in Sheffield has shaped his sound and is keen to remain there. "Music's a lot heavier here, whether it be bassline in the clubs or the old Warp stuff. It's all the parties I used to go. If I grew up somewhere else, I'd have a totally different sound and outlook."
Toddla is set to receive credits on work by London rappers Tinchy Stryder and Bashy, as well as Sheffield's own Roisin Murphy. His future certainly looks bright, but for now Orton is there to keep his ego in check. The Sheffield music scene would not have it any other way.
Toddla T's single 'Shake It' is out on May 18 on 1965 Records, with album 'Skanky Skanky' out on May 25Reuse content