Rapnews tracked down the dope Nottingham beat maker to talk about where it all began, equipment, past and future projects and more.
First up, please could you introduce yourself to our readers.
I am Zero Theory, sample snatcher and beat maker. But most people call me Dan.
Have you always worked with the name Zero Theory? What made you choose it?
When I first started making music, I was using the name Pleb. Catskills Records heard the demo and were up for doing something, but no-one liked the name, so I had to change it. Which didn't matter, 'cos Pleb didn't really mean anything anyway. I can't remember how Zero Theory came up, but my mate IC Monsters thought of it. I think it was some kind of compromise 'cos I couldn't decide. It was supposed to mean something about how I produce – taking samples at random and twisting them up to make something fresh rather than endlessly searching for the perfect sample. But it's a bit shit isn't it? Sounds like it might be Belgian techno or something. I've been thinking of changing it for a while, but the tricky thing is I want people to connect my tracks with what they might have heard before so that continuity's important. I might just be Theorist from now on.
Where abouts in the UK are you from and what is your local hip-hop scene like?
I was born and raised in Nottingham, and we do hip-hop like the best of 'em.
Outside of London, Notts seems to be one of the most healthy scenes for UK hiphop. Agree?
Yeah. Hip-hop is strong in Notts, more than most other types of music here. People like Cappo, Lee Ramsey, Scorzayzee, Mr 45, Styly, the P Brothers. These are all very, very talented people who've been doing it through thick and thin, and when people weren't listening like they are now. And I think people feel proud of that, and they've been inspired to get into it themselves. There's loads of crews in Notts now. I'm not really that deep in the scene, but my view is that there's a kind of automatic respect between everyone involved, which gives us strength as a city in the national hip hop scene.
How long have you been into hip-hop music and culture, and when did you first start producing?
I've kinda been into hip hop since I first started listening to music. The first record I ever got was 'Just Buggin' by Whistle, and I got into Public Enemy and I heard the Hijack album and some of the Bomb the Bass instrumental stuff and all that. There was something about that kind of tempo and rhythm that just kinda felt right for me. And I used to check for new graffiti going up around town. I liked the ethic of hip-hop – that anyone could get into it. And when you mix in the element of rebellion, that's very enticing when you're a creative type of kid. I started making music when I was about 14 or something on this tracker program on the Archimedes. And then I got into the Yamaha home keyboards with the onboard sequencers. I got my first sampler when I was 16 – saved up nearly a year. Had a saving chart on my wall. I made my first beats when I was 17.
What were the first pieces of equipment you used to produce, and what hardware do you tend to use now?
My first sampler was an Ensoniq EPS16+ keyboard, and it was amazing. They're still amazing and you can pick them up for about £150 if you're lucky. Wicked sound, effects, sequencer, amazing. Dead easy to use, but the sequencer's not the best so I got an Atari ST with Cubase. I used that until I upgraded to the ASR10 sampler, the updated version, and eventually got an old Mac (when the Atari died) with Cubase VST. And now I've replaced the Mac with a new PC with Cubase SL and an Emulator X sampler. The X is good, but long. On the ASR I can get a groove going in a couple of minutes, but it takes ages on the computer. I've done a few tunes on it, but I think I'm going back to the ASR.
What's your take on all these super software packages which a lot of people use now, some exclusively?
I think it's good that the software is so cheap and powerful now – it's become a lot more accessible. The only problem is that it's too easy to make shit music by either letting the software do all the work for you or getting caught up in the bullshit technicalities of it all. One night I spent hours trying out loads of different compressor plug-ins on a bass drum. And then I thought 'bloody hell'. That's ridiculous. So, y'know, horses for courses. Depends if you can work with it and what you can do with it.
Could you give us a run through of the releases which you've been involved with so far?
A Few tunes on some Catskills EPs and CDs – Fantastic Four 1 and 2, the Straight Out The Cat Litter compilation albums, my EP (Deadly Nightshade), and the two Get Out albums. Breakin' Bread did an EP of tracks off Get Out 2. And I've been involved in various other stuff. Recording demos for Capps and that.
Is there any particular beat which you're most proud of, or enjoy the most?
Get Out 1 and 2. All of it. I don't care if it's badly mixed or sounds like it was thrown together or whatever, because it was. That was the whole point. Me and Capps were knocking out tunes at a rate of like, three a day sometimes. It's raw, and I think you can hear the energy in it.
How did you hook up with Cappo and what was the experience of working with him like?
I went to college with Cappo's cousin, IC Monsters, and met Cappo through him. I'd just done the Pleb demo tape, and Monsters told me Cappo had done some lyrics to one of the tracks. I didn't know what to expect, but I was blown away. He did his verse for me in the back of a car one time, and I couldn't believe it. That moment changed everything, and all of a sudden I wanted to make beats for rappers. Me and Cappo were both doing our own stuff, but we helped each other out quite a bit in those early days and became good friends. My experience of working with Cappo is pure enjoyment – as soon as I've got a basic beat going, he'll have written a verse, and we seem to be able to write tracks very quickly in that way. There's never any questioning – I'll do my bit, and as soon as he says 'ready' I know the track's there. I truly believe Cappo is one of the best MCs anywhere, so it's a great privilege to be able to work with him.
What's the usual process of working with rappers in general?
If I was doing a beat for an MC, I'd usually just do the beat and hand it over and wait to see what happens. But it's different with Cappo, because we know each other and I think we've got confidence in what each other are doing, so it's a lot more organic.
Are there any plans for a third volume of your 'Get Out' series with Cappo, and which of the first two do you think is the best?
No firm plans as yet, but I think it needs finishing. I'd like to do a vol 3, but I'd like to make it a bit different somehow. There doesn't seem to be much point in doing another one the like the first two, 'cos I think we did it pretty well and said what we wanted to say. I'm sure I'll collaborate with Cappo again in the future, but it'll be different I think.
What artists in the UK would you most enjoy the chance of providing beats for?
Any and all. If you want a beat, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What are some of the best produced UK tracks of recent years that come to mind?
Now there's a tricky one. I don't really listen to that much hip-hop now – partly because I can't afford it, and partly because I don't want to get too influenced by what other people are doing. So I don't really know what names I should be dropping. I like a lot of stuff. It seems like British producers are a lot more confident these days, and not afraid to deviate from the rules.
Are there any particular producers which you have a hightened interest in the works of?
DJ Krush. When I first heard Strictly Turntablised, that's when I knew what I was gonna do. Before that, I thought I'd invented instrumental hip-hop, but then I heard all this crazy Krush stuff and that was it. And every album he's ever done since has been a little bit weirder and a little less predictable. I don't care if people say 'it ain't hip hop' – it's music that I'm interested in. Other than Krush, anyone who drops it either heavy, or weird, or both – Premier, El-P, Madlib, y'know.
Do you have any projects lined up, what are they and when can we look forward to them dropping?
I'm just doing a few bits and bobs at the moment – a couple of remixes and that – but there will be a Zero Theory album in a bit. I keep making albums and then scrapping the whole thing when I get bored of it. I think I've made four whole albums so far, and they've all gone in the bin. But soon…..
Have you always just done producing, or have you dabbled in any other elements of the culture?
Nah, just producing for me. I wish I could rap, but I can't. And I can't break, and I haven't got the bollocks to hide out all night so I can get my piece up on a train or wherever.
Would you like to make a few shout out's or plugs to wrap this up on?
Of course. Shouts to all Notts fam, breds and associates – Capps, Monsters, P Bros, Styly, Midnyte, Take One, Dealmaker, Apoc, Breakin' Bread, Catskills, Silky B, G Reg, Left Lion, and you lot for showing some interest. Peace!