Hardcore to Jungle and the enduring legacy of Brain Records, Leytonstone

Hardcore to Jungle and the enduring legacy of Brain Records, Leytonstone

The word BRAIN shaved into the back of Bizzy B's head

Music To Get Exhausted To

This week I speak to, Bizzy B, one of the nice guys of the scene, one of the innovators – in my opinion – of the dark sound. He has more records than you’ve had hot dinners (slight exaggeration there for effect). He worked his way up “as you do” from DJing in pubs and parties to residencing at the Dungeons, Lea Bridge Road with DJ’s such as Ellis Dee, Chalky White, ‘Bob’ and myself (those were the good old days), then he really started concentrating on his tunes.

Adrian H, 1992, Ravescene
Interview with Bizzy B, from Ravescene magazine, 1994

Bizzy B, Brian Johnson, set up Brain Records from his home address in Windsor Road, Leyton in 1991. Growing up in the area in the eighties, key influences and friends have remained a constant throughout his career, as has a spirit of generous collaboration. He cites local sound system culture and his mum’s Trini heritage as big influences in his musical development and style:

My mother is from Trinidad (the birthplace of carnival and calypso) where I spent 8 years of my life attending carnival events and Trinidad musical traditions from a young age. My father is Jamaican and in my childhood days he was in a band so I grew up around reggae music rehearsals. Back in the 80s in Leytonstone, where I grew up, in my teenage years, I was surrounded by blues parties and dancehall clashes by local sound systems, I remember going to a few in the community centre on the estate where I lived.

In the mid-eighties his love of music led him to DJing and he immersed himself in hip hop, acid house and ragga as influences along with friends such as TDK, a long time collaborator. This trajectory led naturally to producing his own tracks but having sent numerous demos off to record labels without joy, he channelled his energy into setting up Brain Records, releasing his own tracks, and those of collaborators and peers. From the start, the label showed an entrepreneurial flair and early releases included the first tracks by artists such as DJ Equinox, Peshay and TDK.

Bizzy’s sound was highly influential at the time and in the scene. Around 1991, before the fruition of jungle, dance music was branching into various genres, with journalists (and music fans) seeking new categorisations and labels for music styles. The article by Adrian H in Ravescene magazine, sees an inconclusive discussion between Bizzy and Adrian as to what the new label ‘Dark’ or ‘dark’ music was referring to and what it meant which typifies many discussions at the time. DJ Dlux recalled that at the time, “Music was getting quicker, so, if you look at what we were doing ‘88, ‘89, ‘91 where it was ‘acid house’ and ‘techno’, it 4-4 beat. In ‘91 the beats per minute (BPM) would have been 1-120, 130 BPM and then it started getting faster and faster and we started going at this rate of like, 500 beats per minute. Bizzy B described his style as, “Music to get exhausted to.

What was clear at the time was that Bizzy’s sound was new and innovative. Adrian H says, “I interviewed him at a time when there was a real transition in music. He was making good music, it messed with the rules if there were any, and it was unpredictable. He was starting that transition from ‘happy hardcore’ to intelligent drum and bass and in comparison, it did feel darker, though articulating exactly what that was in a period of transition was illusive. I think all the talk of ‘darkness’, was how I and others, in the scene at the time, were trying to situate that change in music and the direction it was heading.

Adrian was DJing across the county at the time and was resident on Pulse 90.6 FM. “For me, he was an influence because he made nice tracks, you always knew his tracks were going to work, particularly with the Dungeons crowd. They had a uniqueness which was in sync with what I was playing at the time.

Many, including Bizzy reference the equipment and software he was using at the time as key to his and the labels unique sound. Where many producers were using Cubase, Bizzy favoured OctaMED which ran on a Commodore Amiga. Aimed squarely at musicians, OctaMED allowed for “longer patterns and more complicated compositional structure”.[Ref. Factmag]

Creative collaboration has also been a key to Bizzy’s sound and success. “TDK and I were friends from childhood and grew up in Leytonstone. We have always been very like-minded in our hobbies, past times and music. TDK is an awesome producer and a pleasure to work with at all times. To meet other producers we would have to meet up and get talking, share thoughts on production and listen to each other’s tunes and if there was enough in common, I would invite them round for a session in my recording studio and things would progress from there.

Dlux, home studio with Amiga, c. 1993

Collaborator and producer DJ Dlux recalls his first meeting with Bizzy and the impact of OctaMED, I was looping tape cassettes so I’d get breaks and I’d record them on tape machine and continuously loop them. When I showed Bizzy how I was doing it, he was like, ‘That’s not producing. You need to come to my studio I’ll show you how to produce’. After our first couple of meeting he showed me how to build beats using OctaMED, so he said, ‘Come down with all your samples and all your beats and all your ideas, bring them over and I’ll load them up onto this computer then we’ll go and make a beat’, and the first beat that I did that with was a track called That’s The Mirror’.

The same release, Underground Sound Inc. (USI) also included Revolution and Bleepmania by Bizzy B and Blakeski. Celebrating the first 5,000 copies of the record sold, Brain Records and Solid Grove Productions hosted a launch party at The Dungeons, Lea Bridge Road, Leyton.

Formula 7’s Roy Balfourth also released his first track with Bizzy. TDK knew Bizzy B, so he introduced me to him. I had this idea, went in the studio, told him what I wanted to do and the first tune was born. And I absolutely loved this tune man. Absolutely… I thought it was just brilliant. Bizzy put me in the direction of where I could get it pressed and I thought, ‘Look at that, got me own bit of vinyl’.

In the early to mid nineties, with experimentation in music at it’s peak, the speed that tracks were made and music was changing often meant a backlog of releases, and, often by the time there was opportunity to release a track, the sound would change making the backlog tracks sound out-dated. Now, producers, such as DJ Dlux are releasing lost DATs from this time.  

Brain Records put on a string of regular nights in venues around Waltham Forest and further a field. Many of these were at the Dungeons on Lea Bridge Road or at Hyams Gym, on Leytonstone High Street all of which helped spread their influence and push the scene’s development forwards. These nights were often in collaboration with other local record labels or promoters, such as Lennie De Ice’s Armshouse Crew, Erol Belafonte’s Jericho and Solid Groove Productions.

In addition in 1994 Bizzy, along with Dlux and Nigel P (Saji), set up Togetherness Records at 238 Leytonstone High Street. Another collaborative enterprise which operated until 1998.

We totally rebuilt the shop, redesigned it, got in contact with all the distributers that were distributing the music that we were making so we had jungle, drum and bass, all the music that we were playing, all the DJs would come through and get music. We had our sound system; we’d do sound system hiring we just had loads of connects in the area. Diesel DPower, Nicky ‘Slimting’ who’s now a film producer, these guys worked in there, guys like Jammer used to come in all the time and buy music from us, a lot of guys that are now doing their thing. All the other shops weren’t too keen on us because we had a very loud sound system and we liked to play our music loud so Saturday afternoon, it would be typical like windows rattling.(DJ Dlux)

What is really apparent about Bizzy’s work, aside from his obvious talent, is his determination and hard work. His output is incredible and he continues to put out tracks and regular video blogs which are both entertaining and inspiring, many of which generously share tips and tricks that he’s learnt during his long jungalist production career. Not only do his tunes live on so does his influence. He also has his own clothing line, Junglist 95 and Junglist 94.

Citadel Of Chaos playing at a Ravescene party at Labrynth, c.1992 (Bizzy on the mic).
Photo by Zak Laycock, Boombastic Plastic record label. Thanks to Warlock for sending on the photo and to Zak for sharing

New film: Brain Records & Dungeons, 2020

For the Sweet Harmony project, of which this research is part, we were funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund. An important part of that grant was to provide opportunities for volunteers. We had around 25 volunteers and one of these was Lewis Brooker who had just moved to Waltham Forest and was interested to find out more about the local area that he’d moved in to. He also happened to be a big fan of Brain Records and a filmmaker. He was very keen to combine both interests and therefore, in September 2019, he arranged a visit to the now-defunct Dungeons in Lea Bridge Road and took Bizzy B, Dlux, TDK and Roy Balfourth (Mad B / Formula 7) plus volunteers Holly McGratten and Jack Savidge. The resulting film mixes rare footage of the Dungeons, an interview with Bizzy B, testimony from Dlux and TDK and archive material.