Wen (Big Dada)
Owen Darby, otherwise known by his producer alias Wen, grew up in Ramsgate, a town roughly an hour away from London, and he always looked to the capital — and its bustling pirate radio scene of the late 2000s — for inspiration. Equally, he remained far away enough to never feel the need to conform to its urban, concrete narrative.
His first foray into producing came at the back end of 2008 when he was just 16, and his outsider takes on grime — his favourite pirate genre — saw him develop a sound that, for many, tapped into the spirit of early dubstep. Operating in-and-around 130bpm, then a far cry from grime’s more familiar 140bpm template, he re-imagined the genre’s iconic sounds within colder, darker, murkier settings. Classic grime vocals were condensed into seconds-long snippets that he’d loop, each acting as a primer to the incoming beat — a producer quip that quickly became his calling card.
After a debut 12” for Maribor’s Badimup label, it was Keysound who offered Wen the space he needed to flourish alongside other like-minded producers like Parris, Beneath and Logos, releasing debut EP proper, Commotion, in 2013. It proved to be the launchpad for his critically-acclaimed debut album, Signals, which would follow in 2014 under the guidance and tutelage of Keysound boss Blackdown, who remains one of his most passionate supporters to this day.
Sandwiched in between Signals — an album Resident Advisor described as, “danceable as hell, but also relentlessly dark,” — was another 12” for Keysound, this time a white label cut of his remarkable flip of Dizzee Rascal’s “Strings Hoe”, and split records for Tempa and Facta’s sought-after imprint, Wisdom Teeth.
After such a hectic run of releases, 2015 would spark a change in Wen’s outlook. Although still informed by his love of grime vocals and the instant hype generated by his club records, his focus switched to building thoughtful, more challenging bodies of work — a shift amplfied by his brooding, 11-minute long remix of Royal-T’s “Shotta” for grime label, Butterz, in April. Tectonic, the Bristol label helmed by Pinch, then released three-track EP “Finesse’” shortly after to add to an already impressive back catalog, before Wen linked up with long-time friend and mentor, Parris, on six-tracker Senary Cycles. Aside from switching up his beat patterns and introducing lighter, more delicate sounds to his arsenal, Senary Cycles also saw Wen write original music from a place of self-discovery; as much as he loved what he’d released before, tracks like “She Giv” and the anthemic “Pace Yourself” nodded firmly to the future, rather than the past.
While Wen remained an active DJ, he spent much of 2016 on new music for Big Dada. New EP CARVE + GAZE was released in July of 2017, furthering his airy, weightless, and futuristic explorations that still retain the grit of grime. Expect a new album on Big Dada in early 2018.
– Tomas Fraser