A faint thewy organ, floats in from the distance, reluctantly filling the stereo field. A mere suggestion of tension accompanies the augmented volume, before the body of sound reveals itself as some distorting imitation of an organ, most likely coaxed from a FM synthesiser. The year is 2009 and the song is “Hyph Mngo” by an unknown artist called Joy Orbison and before it’s even reached the pressing plant, it’s been widely acknowledged as the track of the year, by some of London’s most significant selectors and tastemakers.
It was a debut release by an unknown artist on an independent label called Hotflush recordings, but it preceded to garner a kind of hype reserved for pop music. Indie magazine Pitchfork called it a “spectacularly well-crafted dubstep song,” singing the track’s praises well in advance of the official release date on more than one feature, while XLR8R quite rightly called Joy Orbison an “artist to watch.” It seemed that every DJ of notable repute in the UK had a copy of this record, tucked away in their arsenal and if they wanted a lethargic dance floor to go off in the summer of 2009, all they had to do was play “Hyph Mngo.”
London in 2009 was an exciting landscape for electronic music. Dubstep had been firmly inducted in the underbelly of the UK capital at places like Plastic People and had started to make waves in the mainstream through artists like Skream and Benga, but a new generation of artists had begun to redefine the parlance almost at the same time. Formed on of the foundations of the extended UK Bass music family (most often UK garage) Dubstep started to incorporate a heady mixture of influences from the extended comos of dance music culture, developing the term beyond its original parameters.
A group of aspiring artists, producers, DJs and enthusiasts, converging in online communities like Dubstepforum and at club concepts like >>FWD started to penetrate the slowly stagnant Dubstep scene. Armed with the knowledge that the internet facilitated, and hugely respectful of the origins of UK’s music subcultures, these artists, DJs and producers would change the face of music in the city and the country to eventually become international pioneers in the booth and the studio that soon leaped beyond dubstep.
Peter O’Grady, who would later take on the name Joy Orbison (in some punchline of an undefined joke) , was one of these people. Growing up in greater London, O’Grady discovered UK dance music from an early age thanks to an influential relative. His uncle is Ray Keith and had been a pivotal figure on the UK’s Drum n Bass scene from its inception, contributing a few seminal moments on the dance floor in the late nineties and early noughties. “I had started to become interested in dance music,” O’Grady told Factmag during a rare interview at the start of his career, “so he would send me his albums and records.” Only 12 years old at the time, these albums arrived to become an obsession, spurred on by an enthusiasm only youth could bring.
It expedited an entry into DJing, with a set of decks at 13 and between collecting records and honing his craft as a DJ, he was immersing himself completely in the sounds of Jungle, Drum n Bass, and most significantly Garage. “I was just a kid in awe of the culture,” he reminisced in a recent Dazed and Confused interview with Gabriel Szatan. He was eager “to go to record shops and get involved, but never holding any power,” he needed to make an impression first. “Production was always the natural progression” to that next step he told Factmag “but I actually waited quite a while – ’til I was about 18 – before I really gave it a go.”
As the darker hues of UK Garage developed into Grime on the estates of London, O’Grady took first steps into production, “trying to imitate those 8 bar grime tracks” on the predominant Fruity Loops software. Little more that an ingratiating “hobby” at first, O’Grady’s skills developed as his musical purview grew to include everything from post-rock (he was even in a band at one stage) to classic House, laying the foundation for what become the fusion of styles that would gather round Joy Orbison and his first release “Hyph Mngo.”
“Why is our enthusiasm for Joy Orbison so outsized compared to what we express for his peers?” asked Little White Earbuds a few years later via a review of “Ellipsis.” It’s an interesting question, and the answer still eludes us today. “Hyph Mngo” wasn’t necessarily breaking any molds per se at that time. The two step garage rhythm had become quite pedestrian at that point and it wasn’t the first time producers flirted with classic Garage in the scope of Dubstep either. The year before Skream had released Skreamizm 5 which contained the bubbling “One for the heads who remember” – a track that bore some striking similarities to “Hyph Mngo” in its use of a fractured vocal sample, a two step percussive loop and a lot of emphasis on the sub-bass frequencies.
By 2009 that scene was moving at a staggering rate however with the old guard like Skream (who is only a few years O’Grady’ senior) quickly moving over for the next movement in the UK’s dance music scene. New labels like Hessle Audio were emerging and encouraging a wave of new artists to explore every shadowy enclave of UK dance genres and further afield. It was a very innovative era for the music, and borders were completely broken down, with Dubstep’s ingrained formulas becoming almost immediately passé.
The lfo (low frequency oscillator) “wobbly” basslines and syncopated rhythms that had defined the genre were now holding it back, as artists, some of whom were active in Dubstep, looked beyond those features in developing the music at a rapid pace. An artist like Joy Orbison signalled the latest in a movement that was always looking to the next, but unlike many tracks that came and disappeared from the XLR8R downloads section, “Hyph Mngo” had the presence to back up the hype.
Its magnificence is ingrained in the fundamentals of track and its Garage foundations.“I think a lot of my sound comes from UK Garage, producers like Todd Edwards, Zed Bias and Groove Chronicles,” admitted O’Grady in Factmag, and that’s quite significant in the appeal of the record. Instead of relying on what was becoming tired tropes in the world of UK’s dance music, O’Grady proffered an interpretation of the classic UK Garage sounds from a modern perspective.
Two-step garage rhythms forged in the cold metallic percussive range of Grime, bounce through thinly splaid house chords. A disembodied vocal sample haunts the progression, only on occasion revealing the lyric “it’s you” while wave after wave of sub-bass anchor the track to its ratcheting beat.
Elements of House, Garage and Dubstep are all accounted for, but they are unfamiliar, re-contextualized in the confluence. The “wobble” bass line is there too, but completely devoid of the rasping sonorities of its Dubstep origins, it’s been relieved of its cliché. It’s set to the back, where it serves as a harmonic accompaniment rather than taking center stage. The bass line and the curious use of an FM organ synth, sets the tone for a track that floats between distant worlds of House, Grime and Dubstep.
In a recent interview with the Quietus, O’Grady told the writer: “I think people like to assume you’re quite ignorant when you’re younger, and people maybe thought we were just these kids into jungle and garage and that, but I was interested in lots of styles of music.” That eclectic approach encouraged in some part by a youthful enthusiasm might have played an integral part in how that track turned out in fact, and although unique, it was the machinations behind that track that played the most significant role in the eventual success of “Hyph Mngo.”
It wasn’t exactly anything was well defined as the Dubstep scene that enabled the hype, but with a few key figures shouting its praises in an extensive online community where blogs had surpassed the music press for a while, the popularity of that record, and many more among it, took on a life of its own. O’Grady had tentatively handed a few copies to some DJ friends at first according to the factmag interview, and he was “really unconfident about the reaction” it would get. It went “‘pretty crazy” however and exceeded O’Grady’s expectations by far.
One DJ, in particular, played a fundamental role in the track’s reception. When Martin Clarke (aka Blackdown) played it for the first time on Rinse FM in the summer of 2009, he claimed in no uncertain terms, that “this tune is massive” and proceeded to proclaim it a “dubstep anthem” in a feature for Pitchfork.
Between Clarke, the DJs playing the track, and the blogs picking up on it on an almost daily basis, it catapulted the name Joy Orbison into the public psyche for anybody interested in alternative club music. It didn’t take long for that track to live on its own terms however. On the ten-year anniversary of its release, Gabriel Szatan writing in DJ Mag called Hyhp Mngo “a touchstone, firmly fixed in contemporary electronic music’s vernacular and its bloodstream,” and if I could offer even the slightest criticism, it would only be that success of “Hyph Mngo” detracted from the equally brilliant B-side “Wet Look.”
It played some part as a catalyst beyond Dubstep, which other artists and DJs took into Techno and House, and Joy Orbison even further (81B on Hinge finger is a great example) , which continues to fuse and merge with everything from psychedelia to proto House. “I don’t resent that exposure,” he told Factmag about his sudden rise, “but I’m definitely more excited about what’s to come than what I’ve done so far.”
With what we know today from releases like “The shrew would have cushioned the blow,” “Big Room Tech House DJ Tool – TIP!”, “Ellipsis” and his recent collaboration with Overmono for “Bromley” those words come as an uncanny reminder from the past. If I could pose an answer to LWE’s initial question, and with the advantage of hindsight, our enthusiasm for Joy Orbison is the result of his unique ability to surprise around each corner. He makes effective dance music that feigns preconceptions. You never know what to expect from a Joy O track and it’s always a pleasant surprise.