Toddla T may have a predilection for heavy bass lines and a big fat sound system, but these days he’s more of a family man than an all-night raver. We caught up with the producer, DJ and all round music aficionado ahead of his show at Boundary Brighton to talk culture, kids and the route to happiness. Tom Mackenzie Bell has been a firm fixture on the UK music circuit for more than a decade. The baby-faced bass-hunter from Sheffield has been DJing since he was just ten years old. The name Toddla T was given to him by older DJs in his early days as areference to his relative youth. He has, quite literally, been living and breathing music his entire adult life.
Bell first garnered significant attention after working on Roots Manuva’s Slime & Reason back in 2008 and is now one of the most popular purveyors of dancehall, reggae, grime and garage in the country. Together with his long-term partner and fellow Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac, he also makes up one half of the UK music scenes coolest power couple.
A true genre fusionist, Bell says that he’s “always been across the spectrum.” He maintains there is a common theme running through all of the genres he’s drawn to. “I’m excited by all kinds of stuff and I always have been. So people might get confused [but] in Britain we have a thread that no other country has. That thread is sound system culture.”
“When you’re at Notting Hill Carnival and you walk through the route you hear all different kinds of music, but it all fits into one bracket,” argues Bell, who not only now lives within the carnival’s area but hosts his own sound system there every year. Bell acknowledges the influence of Jamaican culture both on his own musical tastes and on UK music, with an emphasis on being played off a big bass heavy system in general. The medley of cultures is present not only in his music, however. He praises Britain’s multiculturalism as a whole. He’s also proud of the music scene he’s part of. “People are looking at us more than ever, even on a mainstream level [like] Drake and Kanye.” As life and cuisine, the British way is ever propelling towards inclusivity. He seems genuinely adamant that the UK makes the most exciting music in the world, referring to the mixing pot of genres forming our culture.
Ever a fan of analogies, Bell also talks passionately about the ways in which the Internet has created an equal platform. With the volume of available music and the ease of its consumption he suggests producers have to work harder, because the cream will still rise to the top. For Bell, success is intrinsically tied with quality. “I do think that no matter how much money you spend on it, how much you dress it up, who plays it or who features on [the track], it all comes down to the music and that’s the essence of all of this.”
He still loves nothing more than sitting in his studio with the music blasting. “That’s the passion that makes me want to make t-shirts and do the raves,” he explains. Given his years of success and the proliferation of Toddla T merchandise, you may be surprised to hear that Bell has never thought of himself as a businessman. By his own admission, if he did he’d be making records that made more money. But he’s able to rationalise his non-mainstream leanings. “I could really go for it and make a fuck load of cash, but I wouldn’t be happy.”
Other than music, the one thing making Bell incredibly happy is his three-year-old son with Annie Mac. When asked about how he balances a work life characterised by late-night dance parties with a family, he tells me, “if I don’t drink and I don’t party the next day I’m tired but I can [still] give it 100%.” For Bell, like many of us, staying sober can be “easier said than done, because there are times when you are in a rave, where your friends are bubbling and there’s alcohol flowing and the party’s great and you forget about the next day.” Ultimately however, the proud dad maintains there’s no more joy than seeing your child happy. He finds it more powerful than any night spent smashed and chatting nonsense in the back room of a club.
While he may be taking it easy these days, this new pace has no detriment on his shows. Toddla T is more in demand than ever, with a whole host of festival gigs lined up for the summer, including Brighton’s very own Boundary Festival. Bell peruses the event’s bill whilst we chat and reminisces about how “some of my earliest memories of DJing outside of where I’m from are of Brighton.”
He praises our city’s thriving music scene telling me, “there’s always something happening and there’s a lot of progressive music. This festival [Boundary] seems to me to be bringing it all together.” Bell sums this up by noting, “you’ve got a real wide range from straight-up techno to sound system reggae-based stuff, so it’s a good representation of the nightlife across the line up.”
As with everything he does, Bell is approaching the future with boundless enthusiasm. There’s a BBC documentary on Notting Hill Carnival in the works and a new album ready to go, as well as whispers of a Toddla T label.
Bell may be at a high point in his career, but he’s certainly not going let that skew his familial priorities. Giving up the partying is not seen as a sacrifice. “It’s making sure you’re disciplined with yourself and you can give attention to the person that matters most in your life. That’s way more rewarding than any gig I could ever do.” It seems that Tom Bell has perhaps figured out how to have it all.
Toddla T comes to Boundary Brighton on Sat 17 Sept.