Circadian Rhythms: Creative Bootlegging

By experimenting with format, presentation and more, London-based label Circadian Rhythms are redefining what a music release can be in the modern age. Their latest drop Communal is testament to the creative possibilities of the bootleg, as Danny Magill explains.

Over the course of a near decade, Circadian Rhythms have methodically charted an uncompromising path through the UK’s hardcore continuum. Delving into the London based label’s back catalogue reveals a wealth of music which owes as much to the ferocious experimentalism of the UK club scene as any formal sonic conventions – from [email protected]’s brooding, video game inflected post-grime to Thugwidow’s warping, submerged take on jungle. It’s a blueprint which has also resulted in some undeniable underground classics, including Sully’s ‘Verite’ from 2019’s Partisan compilation and 2015’s Mssingno remix of Plata’s Kru.

Meanwhile, the label’s long running monthly slot on NTS has become essential listening for those keeping an eye on what’s coming next from the UK underground. Hosted by a revolving cast of label friends and family, former guests include not only scene stalwarts Neffa T, Jossy Mitsu and Tim Reaper, but also early appearances from future crossover stars like AJ Tracey and Slowthai, as well as oddities such as the perma-ski masked bootleg terrorist Escha. Not content with exploring the sonic boundaries of UK club music, the label has also been at the forefront of expanding its geographical borders, working with a variety of international acts including Japanese grime crew Double Clapperz, Finnish producer Inner and Iranian-Liverpudlian MC Marwa.

Circadian Rhythms · CR x NTS Radio

Circadian Rhythm’s most important contribution to the UK underground however, may well be the way its outputs have continually sought to question what an underground label can and should be. In this respect, the label’s motto ‘Evolving the delivery of sound’ is instructive: over the years, Circadian Rhythms has developed from a small core team to a much broader collective, taking in musicians, designers and visual artists. It offers a membership model which allows fans of the label not only exclusives and discounts, but also the opportunity to input into projects. They’ve also embraced transparency to a truly admirable degree, providing breakdowns of how profits from releases are to be split and template artist contracts on their website. But perhaps most interesting is the label’s conceptual release format, wherein each release is presented within a fully fleshed out, multidisciplinary approach. To accompany Plata’s 2015 LP Last Dayz, for example, the label produced a ‘licensed Plata.Solutions extractor’, complete with its own file type, which allowed listeners to explore the producer’s archives. The extractor’s packaging meanwhile echoed the packaging of antidepressants, a reference to Plata’s use of artistic practice as a way of coping with his own struggles with mental health.

Given Circadian Rhythms’s unswerving commitment to this kind of path-beating creativity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Last Japan (Marco Giuliani), who founded Circadian Rhythms with Blackwax (Luke Dubuis) in 2013, traces his origins as an artist back to early experiences of DJing on pirate radio in the late 2000s. They would both guest on Rinse FM prior to the station receiving its community broadcast license, before moving to the 2-4am slot on NTS. These were pirate stations, of course, formed as part of a reaction to the legal and administrative warfare waged upon genres such as grime in the 2000s, forming part of an alternative, community-built infrastructure, as well as offering escape from restrictive censorship regulations. It was into this pressure cooker of late-Blairite racial and economic tension (which the label revisited in an excellent ‘Aerial Warfare’ guest mix for clothing brand Edwin in 2019) that Circadian Rhythms began to take shape. “Generally it was a fertile time for both DJs and producers,” Giuliani remembers. “There were so many clubs, and new club nights popping up. The underground community of artists, producers and DJs creating and supporting each other was thriving.”

In many ways the principles that ran through that era – a fierce independence, a focus on community, and a preoccupation with maintaining a sustainable underground scene- still define Circadian Rhythms’s philosophy. The difference, of course, is that it is no longer the 00s. In place of the legal and bureaucratic repression which the pirates faced, Circadian Rhythms encounters a musical landscape hollowed out by streaming platforms, where limitless choice has come at the expense of the kind of deep engagement with music felt by many in the pirate era, and a music industry that appears content to continue as usual in the face of ecological collapse. Circadian Rhythms, and the work it releases, can be viewed as an attempt to apply those same pirate principles to these new challenges.

It’s an approach which finds full expression in the label’s latest project Communal, a hybrid, multidisciplinary project that brings together 10 independent labels and artists, from UK stalwarts Sector 7 and T.T. to Uganda’s Nyege Nyege, China’s Svbkvlt and Italy’s Never Sleep. Led by Circadian Rhythms team member and former Stone Island designer William Francis-Green, the project’s core is a 100+ piece capsule collection of reworked t-shirts, bikinis, ponchos and more made up of unsold merch from the participating labels. “It’s something I have been thinking about for years now, considering the right way to go about it,” Francis-Green explains. “I joked about some ultra label collab with Luke (Blackwax) like five years ago and just never got the idea out of my head.” Listening to Francis-Green talk about the process of bringing Communal together, it’s clear that the project has been a labour of love. He explains: “The sewing of the clothes was the most wild aspect of it all. Working with Ausschuss (Linus Nicholson) we rented 2 industrial sewing machines and camped out in my Dad’s old house in Merseyside, blitzing the collection together fuelled by Orange Lucozade, DJ Assault mixtapes and Parkgate fish and chips. We had over 100 t-shirts to sift through and decide on how to deconstruct, wanting to ensure each piece was unique and looked sick in its own way, yet holistically linked into the collection at large.”

The pieces in the collection, apart from being beautiful and functional pieces of clothing in and of themselves, also act as a kind metaphor for the creative dynamism of the underground. Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Tapes, who spearheaded the rise of East African club music through artists such as Slikback and De Schurrman, sit side by side with Never Sleep, the multimedia offshoot of hardcore archivist Gabber Eleganza. LuckyMe, who’s roster of artists include heavy hitters such as Hudson Mohawke and Jacques Greene alongside experimental percussionist Eli Keszler, are melded with China’s Svbkvlt, whose hyper-rhythmic, brash and bass-heavy approach to club music has been instrumental in introducing Shanghai’s underground scene to the rest of the world.

It’s a compelling vision of the power of community, one that foregrounds the idea of seeing independent labels as part of a cohesive whole instead of independent entities engaged in competition with one another. It also attests to the productive power that can come from the collision of two apparently unrelated strands of this club music that we all love, as well as a comment on the realities of running a label in an age when the dominance of streaming platforms mean that merchandise sales are often key to keeping these independent labels viable. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s also a lot of fun: after all, why can’t you wear a bikini or a ski mask emblazoned with the logos of three or four of your favourite record labels?

Circadian Rhythms · CR006: COMMUNAL

The musical element of Communal mirrors these themes, with the participating labels and artists offering up tracks to be reworked for the project accompanying compilation. A particular highlight is Spanish producer Plata’s take, of Clouds’ four-four techno slammer ‘Another Day’, a beatless, shimmering soundscape reminiscent of Basic Channel or Maurizio in their more ambient modes. Elsewhere, Philadelphia-based producer estoc transforms Bristol MC Grove’s dancehall-inflected ‘Bloodsucka’, sharpening its edges and adding a driving jungle break, while Hyph11e’s broken, lurching ‘Black Pepper’ is given a rhythmic overhaul by T.T. boss DJ Pitch. It’s a free-wheeling, genre-spanning ride that speaks to both Circadian Rhythm’s evident love for the darker end of the UK underground as well as an admirable lack of self-seriousness. Like so many Circadian Rhythms projects, Communal is both a comment on the realities of underground music in the 2020s and an attempt to imagine beyond them. It’s a call to preserve those things we hold dear when we go to clubs, a reminder of the responsibility we have to uplift one another, and to be mindful in what we produce. As Francis-Green puts it, “just really think about what you’re doing… Are your tunes actually good enough to be pressed on vinyl that people are actually going to listen to, and not just sit on a shelf as part of a stagnant collection. If you are doing merch, are the materials used as consciously sourced as possible.” It’s a project we can all learn from, and I hope we all do.