Getting prehistoric: The evolution of James Blake’s 1-800 Dinosaur

The evolution of James Blake’s 1-800 Dinosaur

Liam McNeilly discovers a label, club night and supply of in-jokes in brilliant progress.

Who’d have thought, when dubstep producer James Blake emerged amid heaps of expectancy in 2010, that four years later he’d be a songwriter acclaimed on a global scale… Mercury winning, Grammy nominated and with a voice capable of bringing grown men to tears. It’s a distinctly different future to the one initially predicted. That’s not to say that early EP’s and remixes weren’t worthy of the attention that they attracted, but the exploration of his vocal abilities that came with a debut full-length took Blake’s production talents to a different dimension and kickstarted what has become a continually upward career trajectory.

Album number three is well on its way to completion, with Kanye West set to feature and take his place alongside RZA and Chance The Rapper, as Blake continues to fuse his love for hip-hop in to his recorded material. But whilst he’s not hanging out with hip-hop royalty, it’s nice to know that James still has time for his mates back home, escapades with his 1-800 Dinosaur cohort firmly making sure that his roots in dubstep are kept alive and well.

The seamless nature with which ‘CMYK’ and ‘Air And Lack Thereof’ find their place in a James Blake live set points to a musician that never abandoned these roots at all. However, the rise in prominence of 1-800 Dinosaur has seen that side of his music reaching new heights with critics, as well as fans old and new, unable to score enough of a bass laden hit. 

Beginning its journey three years ago, 1-800 Dinosaur now moves in different forms boasting a club night, record label and late night radio show. From humble beginnings its status continues to grow, and below DIY runs through each aspect of its development…

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The club night

The idea of 1-800 Dinosaur as any sort of entity came as a result of impromptu after party DJ sets on James Blake’s 2011 tour of America. For many, after parties might conjure images of a stranger’s student digs and self-proclaimed DJs laying on a showcase of questionable mixing, but it’s difficult to imagine these parties in the same light. These gatherings were the birthplace of the 1-800 collective and have grown in to a club night that’s now able to stand very steadily on its own two feet.

Having branched out from its spiritual home of Plastic People, 1-800 parties are a what’s what of dance music working under the premise of anything goes while of course drawing heavily on the scene that sprung them. Where else could you hear the Harmonimix version of ‘Bills Bills Bills’ dropped in to a set as if the most normal thing in the world? Featuring resident DJs Blake, Dan Foat, Airhead, Mr Assister and Klaus as well as the recent addition of Roll Deep alumni Trim on MCing duties, the 1-800 club night stands alone in what it offers in a heavily saturated market.

The night has grown to command a spot on one of the biggest calendars in today’s dance music market at Manchester’s Warehouse Project, in what seems the most apt arrangement possible. Following a summer that saw Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Tokyo host 1-800 bashes, and the recent announcement of a December U.S tour, the collective are set to throw their biggest after-party to date following James Blake’s live show at the Store Street Warehouse. These nights find themselves well on the way to becoming an institution in their own right.

The label

Photo: Angela Stephenson

Earmarked at its inauguration by label head Dan Foat as the new home for Blake’s future non-album releases, the 1-800 imprint remains very much in its fledgling stages 18 months down the line. It’s not just a place for fans to immerse themselves in an alternative James Blake output either. With plenty of talk of more to come in the not so distant future the potential for this part of the project to take off is there for all to see should those involved choose to utilise it.

Its debut release, a dub version of ‘Overgrown’ track ‘Voyeur’, served as a statement, deliberate or not, that the music touted for release through 1-800 is not so far away from that which makes in on to an album. It’s not the ambient chillax that many have come to know, although Newsnight’s take on 1-800 material would surely be equally as bizarre, but the apparent dichotomy of an electronic producer that can actually sing isn’t as explicit as some would allow themselves to believe.

Nevertheless, releases to date do seem of a similar mould, one that other musicians involved have bought in to and embraced. 1-800-02 and 1-800-03 were EP’s released respectively by Airhead (Blake’s live guitarist, Rob McAndrews, pictured above) and Mr Assister (Blake’s live drummer, Ben Assiter) and the former of which particularly says a lot about the 1-800 aesthetic. Moving away from the subtle, introverted tones of his debut album, Airhead’s ‘Believe’ EP was influenced by two years of 1-800 Dinosaur parties and draws heavily on the harder hitting elements of dubstep, house, garage and grime. In the same way that ‘Voyeur’ made a statement of its own, Airhead’s release showed a different side to his artistry, one that flaunted what 1-800 Dinosaur is all about.

The Radio 1 residency

A revamping of the Residency series at the beginning of the year brought something new and exciting to the Radio 1 table. James Blake’s show on the station has played a serious part in growing the 1-800 brand.

It’s not just the discovery and rediscovery of cross genre gems that has people taking time out to tune in. The 1-800 show is home to exclusive interviews and unreleased tracks as well as a shed load of in-jokes. Nobody really knew what to expect when they were first let loose on the airwaves, but when an ‘interview’ with the enigmatic ‘Burial’ was shared on the first show (below), we soon found out.

In those early residency days, before people had come to appreciate the dry brand of 1-800 wit, there was a collective sense of “wait, are they serious?”. In hindsight, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise that they were not, given that the 1-800 website describes Airhead as “a member of the Legendary Sanninn bass squad where he plays guitar with the evil smoke demon Fujimora Shiki (samples and drums)” and Blake as living “in an allegorical cave in rural China playing 3D chess with a golden boar called Gullinbursti”. This offbeat humour not only underpins on air exchanges but has also seen the creation of Stephen Merchant’s corporation bashing, techno alter ego, DJ Badger, ex-raver turned counsellor Dr Scribbins, and undercover code name Simon Tallywhacker, used when covertly premiering Jamie xx’s single ‘Girl’.

In August, Blake used the show to premiere his own track ‘200 Press’, entitled as such ‘because there’s only going to be 200 pressed up’, a release confirmed last week along with the admittance that there’ll ‘probably be more tbh’. Each aspect of 1-800 Dinosaur, like the legs of a prehistoric musical beast, have proven their own individual merits and with the forthcoming release of ‘200 Press’ and the massive prospect of a Warehouse Project date on November 8th, it’s a journey that’s only just getting into its stride.