Riot Squad – the name conjures up images of police brutality, violent protests and crowd control. It’s also the name that Kyle Maclean and Mike Kelly go by when they join forces to unleash their sonic assault of drum ‘n bass and dubstep on the unsuspecting masses. As DJ’s, their skills are well known with gigs at The Assembly and Mercury – performances that have cemented them as firm crowd favourites, but it is to production where their focus now shifts. Cameron Duncan spent a week in studio with the guys as they produced their very first dubstep track in order to find out how it all happens.

The purpose of this piece is thus twofold. First off the bat, it aims to profile Riot Squad, who I sincerely believe to be the ‘next big thing’ coming out of Cape Town. For such a young group of guys, their production is of an immensely high standard and it’s only a matter of time before the world catches on. Secondly, this piece aims to demystify (at least in part) the song production process from conception through to execution. We’ll deal with that a bit later on though.

Mike and Kyle’s musical backgrounds could not be more different, but as is the case with so many glorious pairings, their differences complement each other brilliantly. Mike’s musical education began at a young age thanks to his piano teacher/gran, and he’s been evolving ever since. Little Mike was just eight-years-old when his gran moved cities and told him that he had to find a new instrument, as the piano teachers in the area did not meet her stringent criteria.

Mike and Kyle share an undeniable musical chemistry

Walking into a music shop, Mike’s eyes were immediately drawn to the flute but, due to his short arms, this endeavour was not to be. Eventually settling on a trumpet, Mike began to play in a ska band in Grade 10 called Cause of Conflict. Jozi was experiencing a ska revival at the time thanks to genre mainstays Fuzigish and Hog Hoggidy Hog. Cause of Conflict was riding the wave but their promising career was cut short due to internal politics and so the group promptly disbanded. It was then Slipknot’s self-titled debut album that brought about Cause of Conflict’s next shift in musical direction; with the band instilling both a love for the harder stuff as well as inspiring an instrument change – drums and black metal beckoned with new band Saurion. But, the foray was short lived…  All band practices degenerated into drunken revelry and little practice was actually done.

Mike achieved moderate success with his next band Egregore who played a slot at metal festival, Mother Fudd.  However, regular visits to Midrand super club Truth allowed the love for electronic music to take hold and Mike’s fidget persona – Mini K – was born. Self-taught on FL Studio, his productions were picked up by as many as 15 labels around the world. Post-Mini K has seen Mike play everything from electro to tech-house before settling on his true love, drum ‘n bass.

Mike and his PC – deadly combination.

Hailing from Durban, Kyle Maclean’s musical background could not be more contrasting. With little musical experience to speak of, Kyle moved to Cape Town in 2008 and fell in love with electronic music. Inspired by watching his friend spinning vinyl in his room, Kyle taught himself how to DJ on a Numark IDJ2iPOD that he had bought on a family vacation to Hong Kong. He hasn’t looked back since.

Kyle’s first gig was at an early Brick City event at Mercury at the peak of jackin’ house and fidgets popularity, where he caught the ear of Cape Town Alive who started booking Kyle to play at all their parties. The big break came about when Kyle took up residency at Club 91’s Saturday Electro nights where he was also responsible for running the night and booking acts. After booking Mike for a gig, the pair met for the first time in what would prove to be a fortuitous twist of fate.

As a collective, Riot Squad formed (officially) when Mike and Kyle were both attending music production courses at the Soul Candi Institute of Music in Cape Town. Born out of a shared passion for producing world class music, the pair decided to join forces. Their first studio project was to remix Fedde Le Grande’s ‘Back and Forth’ for an Australian competition, and the track pricked ears up around the world. Their next effort was the Blockbeats Records electro banger ‘Making you Move,’ which made Beatport’s Top 10 ‘must hear’ list and further raised their profile internationally.

With their tracks charting well, it was clear to all in the Cape Town scene that these boys deserved respect. Considering that their first gig was held at a packed Electric City event at Cape Town’s renowned live music venue The Assembly is testament to this. Things kept rolling for the boys and they were soon approached by Frederic Mooij to remix a track on his Eternal Elect CD, alongside some massive industry names such as Calvertron and Kelevra.

Killing it at The Assembly

Thanks in part to Assembly’s regular Friday night Discotheque parties, the Cape Town  electro scene took off in a big way with new DJ’s popping up almost every week. This led to a saturation of the scene and prompted Riot Squad to change genres from electro to drum ‘n bass, as the latter continues to rapidly gain momentum in South Africa. The Illumination EP ( featuring tracks ‘Illumination‘ and ‘Northern Lights‘) was the group’s first attempt at producing a genre other than electro, and the breakbeat EP was quickly picked up by Loud Room records. When Illumination was signed, it showed that the ability to produce in a different genre was most definitely there. Their focus now shifted to their next EP, which would be the group’s first attempt at producing dubstep. And, this is where I came in.

As a fan of electronic music, the process of producing a song has always fascinated me. When jamming to a banger in a club, I would often think about how that song came to be playing through those speakers there and then. What processes did it go through? How was it made? These and other deep, pondering 4am-type questions occupied my mind on the beer-stained dance floors of Cape Town. Profoundness aside, the answers I sought could only be found by getting down and dirty in the trenches (although in a music studio, there is admittedly very little dirt and/or trenches). I needed to witness the process first hand, and as luck would have it, Riot Squad was just about to shift gears and get cracking on their new dubstep EP. This provided just the opportunity I was looking for, so it was all systems go – my quest for musical knowledge began.

Filled with excited anticipation, I showed up at Mike and Kyle’s house on a gloomy autumn afternoon, with my laptop and trusty notebook at the ready. The Riot Squad engine room, as it were, is located in Mike’s bedroom where he has everything necessary to produce. First and foremost, no producing can be done without a high-speed computer. Throw in a Nocturn 49 Novation Midi Keyboard and some Yamaha HS50M monitors and we’re good to go. Program wise, Riot Squad have been producing on FL Studio (previously ‘Fruity Loops’) but are looking to make the transition to the more respected Cubase. In the production world, FL Studio is looked down upon like an ugly stepsister. To get world wide respect, it’s pretty much vital that you use Cubase. Whilst technically trickier to negotiate, it delivers a far brighter sound due to its vastly superior algorithms. It’s all very scientific.

Most tracks begin with the drum line – the essential beat keeper, which without the melodies would be lost. It’s almost like the shepherd herding the sheep (sporting names like ‘Intro’, ‘Vocal Part 1’ and ‘Chorus’) into one coherent pen. Or sty. Or wherever it is one puts the sheep (in the non-Australian context). Being a dubstep track, the tempo is set at the standard 140 beats per minute and the song builds from there. After conception comes composition, followed by arrangement and song structure. The latter determines where the verses go, how you bridge to the chorus and so on. (All of the above would constitute the production phase of the track, after which comes post production.)

When a song has been laid down in its raw form, it’s still a long way from blaring out Fiction’s speakers on a Friday night. The post production phase is a highly specialized field and requires professional sound engineers and analog equipment. This is the stage whereby the levels (or ‘volume’ to us laymen) are adjusted, the song is separated and compressed, effects are added (such as reverb or delay) and the track is panned. The EQ also needs to be adjusted to remove any unwanted frequencies. Most of this is pretty technical and is the stuff of sound engineering lectures, so I won’t delve too deeply into it. Needless to say though, it is important to get it right. Riot Squad entrust their post production to former lecturer at Soul Candi, Willie Els – himself an established DJ/Producer under the moniker Pziezzo Electric. Riot Squad decided to call the track ‘Modify’ to signal the musical metamorphosis the group is currently undergoing as they experiment in finding their style.

‘Modify’ as it appears on FL Studio

After mixing and mastering, the track is now a finished article and ready for distribution to record labels. The age of the internet has drastically altered this whole process. Gone are the days when young upstarts had to burn cds and methodically send them off to labels one by one. In the age of facebook, soundcloud and twitter, the process is much easier and doesn’t even require leaving the bedroom. Using their soundcloud link, Riot Squad deposited the link into label’s dropboxes where label bosses can access it as and when they want to.

Throughout their respective careers, Mike and Kyle have built relationships with numerous labels around the world on which they could easily sign the new EP, but that goes against everything Modify stands for. After a careful submission process whereby only the labels that matched their ambition were chosen, the track was signed to UK based label LU10 who clearly recognized quality when they heard it. With a big label comes major marketing and an existing client base of label devotees. The labels job is to promote, market and distribute the track through mediums such as iTunes and Beatport. As an original track, the artists share the proceeds on a 50-50 basis with the label. When a remixer is involved, the original artist and the remixer split 50% of the proceeds between them (so it’s all fair like). The industry definitely isn’t a money spinner (at least not initially) and the guys will only see some sort of dividends as many as six months later. Like most passions, you’ve got to be in it for the love!

Modify offers something different to the formulaic, paint by numbers dubstep that’s flooding Beatport at the moment so I feel lucky to have been a small part of it. Massive thanks to Riot Squad for allowing me into their world and giving me the opportunity to document the process.

Without further adieu, witness the melodic dubstep monster that is Modify. Big ups!

Modify (Original Mix) (LU10 Records) by Riot Squad (South Africa)

Words By: Cameron Duncan

Pictures by:  Cameron Duncan and Adriaan Louw