Blending grime, hip hop, RnB, soul and trap into dazzling electronic soundscapes, producer and DJ SUEDEBROWN eludes the uniformity of lacklustre landfill electronic music that tends to dominate present-day airwaves.
His story is script-worthy: SUEDEBROWN, or Paris Harding as his pals know him, has dabbled in DJing and producing for over 10 years, following a life-long love affair with grime, but, when a stagnant period a couple of years ago left him feeling frustrated, his long-time friend and Liverpool International Music Festival curator Yaw Owusu pointed him in the direction of LIMF Academy, the festival’s multi-faceted development programme for emerging Merseyside music talent. Selected along with Eleanor Nelly and L U M E N as one of the Academy’s ‘Most Ready’ artists for 2016, SUEDEBROWN’s trajectory has shot upwards, landing him recording time with Red Bull Studios, the opening slot on their latest mixtape and an upcoming Red Bull Music Academy outing with SG Lewis and Jamie Woon, on home turf.
Rewind a few years, however, and SUEDEBROWN’s path was taking a different course, one the producer wasn’t fully comfortable with. Signed to a London-based management company, he found himself producing official remixes for familiar names like Steve Aoki, Iggy Azalea and Yolanda Be Cool, but the monotony of this work didn’t sit right with him: “The direction and the perspective of that company was to make radio-friendly hits and this wasn’t me. I’d hate to be in this just for a job, just to be finding a formula and doing the same thing over and over again – I’d hate to end up making music like that, and I felt like a couple of years ago I was nearly on the verge of that.”
After parting ways with the company, Harding put his career as a producer on hold for two years, focusing on DJing instead. Reigniting his love for producing at the tail-end of 2015, a nudge in the direction of the LIMF Academy saw his horizons swell again: “I was kind of frustrated that I was going nowhere and Yaw was like, ‘Listen, this is something that’s happening in the city, it might be something you’d be interested in.’ I looked it up and it ticked every single box.”
Through LIMF Academy’s Elite Talent Development Programme – reserved for its three ‘Most Ready’ artists – SUEDEBROWN has been able to hone his craft further, and he especially relished the opportunity to work with Grammy award-winning producer Steve Levine, whose guidance has been invaluable. “Things I’d been trying to work out how to do for years, he just taught me instantly. In terms of the way tracks flow, getting songs as good as they can be and different ways of thinking, and just the experience – obviously you can’t get that from just looking something up on YouTube.”
The live opportunities he’s been afforded with LIMF Academy have also raised Harding’s profile considerably, as well as challenging him. Performing at LIMF’s Summer Jam with members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Company, “was a massive test,” Harding confesses, before adding: “It was nerve-wracking because, at the residency I do every week, I know for a fact that if I play Drake or something like that, 99% of people are gonna like it. But to be playing instrumental music which is off the top at that moment and then combined with an orchestra – it’s risky.”
But it’s partly that improvisation that Harding delights in. “When I’m doing tracks live, I split the track down into different elements and just go with how it feels at that moment. The same way as when you’re DJing you have an idea of what would be good next, it’s like that but within the same song. So instead of being like, ‘This artist would do well next’, it’s like, ‘I’ll bring that vocal in now after this part’. It’s a lot harder but it’s fun because anything can happen.”
Citing 90s hip hop and RnB as his go-to genres for excavating, he elaborates: “If I’m listening to old albums and I hear a melody or just a nice vocal piece, I can try and source the instrumental or the a capella for the vocal, and then try and remix it from there.” Not just anything goes though: like an editor scouring through copy, Harding upholds an importance to being able to refine his work, always seeking to get the best from the different elements of a song without going overboard: “It could be one day knowing that I need to add percussion or maybe a bassline or I need to call this singer or keys player to add something to it. I think that’s the main thing I want to improve – identifying what is actually needed in a track and not throwing everything in just to show off all the tools and tricks.”
You can hear both his influences and ear for refinement on TONIGHT, SUEDEBROWN’s latest SoundCloud release, which features on Volume 3 of the Red Bull Studios Mixtape, curated by Rinse FM’s Shadow Child. Carried by the ebb and flow of layered beat upon beat and featuring vocals from Lauren Faith, the track is perfectly weighted, beautifully formed, fully fluid and lucid. Punctuated with a subtle steel drum sound, which adds a dreamy dash of dancehall, TONIGHT slows down and picks up the pace again with the ease of an artist very much assured of themselves. Its brilliance is even more remarkable given that it was only the end of last year that Harding began producing again. All roads would suggest that we are dealing with a master of his craft.
Currently sitting just shy of 13,000 listens, the track was recorded at Red Bull Studios in London, after an exchange between Red Bull Music Academy and LIMF mentor Owusu. “It was amazing to be in that studio, knowing the kind of artists and producers that have been there… it was kind of like a self-affirmation,” Harding enthuses, while acknowledging the credence working with Red Bull has granted his work: “Just having that logo on your SoundCloud, I think people take you more seriously and will press play on it, whereas before they’d think, ‘Oh, here’s another producer trying to make beats or copy someone else’.” Not one to stay quiet for long, SUEDEBROWN is working on another track at Red Bull Studios to be released in the coming weeks, which at present he envisions as being his own project, rather than part of another mixtape.
Graduating from one academy to another, his involvement with Red Bull continues beyond the studio. Billed on one of the Liverpool pit stops of their Music Academy UK Tour, SUEDEBROWN plays their Digital Soul Boys event at the Palm House with former Chibuku resident DJ and producer du jour SG Lewis and RBMA alumnus Jamie Woon. Celebrating ‘the future sound of soul’, the night will map out contemporary soul music as produced through electronic nodes rather than that backed by more traditional band structures. Electronic-fused soul might offend Wigan Casino purists but it sure makes creating soul music more accessible. “It’s an exciting time for people making electronic music. With your computer you don’t need a band, but you can still experiment with a lot of different RnB sounds… if you know the tools that you’ve got and you’re good with them, you can make a whole album just you and your headphones,” Harding offers on the matter. “They say with this whole electronic thing that we’re in the age of the bedroom producer.” But is he one? Not quite – when working from home, he produces out of a makeshift studio in a walk-in wardrobe he lacked the sartorial bulk to fill. A closet producer just doesn’t quite have the same connotation.
Like his stint with LIMF Academy and Steve Levine, Harding sees the Digital Soul Boys event as an opportunity to absorb what goes on around him as well as to showcase his own work. “It’s just a massive learning curve, being as close to these people as possible and seeing how they perform and how they do their set, even how they conduct themselves off the stage and before and after shows.” Harding is undoubtedly on a sharp upwards trajectory, possessing an ease to his talent and sound, and an eagerness to listen and learn. Perhaps it wouldn’t do SUEDEBROWN’s contemporaries harm to take a leaf out of his book too.