There's an ineffable warmth to Swing Ting's 100 Dances album. This geniality is a very big part of what makes it one of the year's best so far, and will give it a long life, well outside the cycles of hype.
In some senses, their debut artist album is a departure for the Manchester DJ/production duo, leaning quite heavily towards the laid back and soulful, where the output from their collective and label has focused on party tunes in keeping with the legendary dances they've put on since 2008.
The rowdy bounce of Jamaican dancehall has always been at the heart of what they do – with injections of techniques from Afrobeats, grime, dubstep, electronica, UK rave culture and various other sources.
All of that is present on 100 Dances, but in subtler forms. Everything still inventive and bumping along on hip-moving Caribbean syncopation, but with song structures paramount. They've not left the rave behind: in fact they've made as much clear by using a live recording of their regular MC Fox on the opening track 99 Dances.
But it's also a more mature sound, making for a perfect home listening record, one that reveals the depths that have always been present in their work. It also sounds hugely professional. Just as Jamaican music has consistently achieved incredible sonic sophistication on a shoestring, so 100 Dances often sounds like megabucks pop on a DIY budget.
A vital aspect of the maturity of the sound is their constantly collaborative nature. While Swing Ting revolves around the duo of Balraj Samrai and Ruben Platt, the parties and label have always been a sprawling affair, with many friends and associates becoming a permanent part of the operation, and in turn, bringing more people with them.
The internationalism of the music isn't just about influence. It's about working with contacts from abroad, with artistes from North and South America, the Caribbean and West Africa all forming part of the roster.
But most of all it's about Manchester: about friends and friends-of-friends – about community. All of which is rolled into the rich sound of 100 Dances, which includes among others, the various notable guests.
It's a sign of the breadth of this album that the first guest you hear is not an electronic producer or reggae vocalist, but a jazz saxophonist twice the age of Samrai or Platt. Platt grew up in West Yorkshire, and his dad was a music teacher and jazz musician himself; Mason is, he says, “a long-time collaborator of my dad’s, and a legend of the Yorkshire jazz scene.”
Mason's brass arrangement on 99 Dances, alongside dreamy Fender Rhodes electric piano lines, signal that this really is grown folks' music. And the connection to Platt Sr. shows what a genuinely family affair the record is.
Fox might not be as old as Mason, but he certainly represents intergenerational connections. He has been the main host of Swing Ting dances almost since they began, but he's been on Manchester's scene for a whole lot longer, back to the jungle raves of the 1990s – hyping up not 100, but many thousands of dances over the years.
He's also a great connector, being a key member of Manchester's Levelz collective (a hilarious, sprawling crew who describe themselves as “Happy Mondays meet Wu Tang Clan”.
The recording of Fox from a 2013 Swing Ting dance telling the crowd to “skank out, dance out, that's how we do it” on 99 Dances strikes the perfect balance, adding rave energy to the soul/jazz smoothness. He performs the same role brilliantly on the slow jam Coming Through.
“So smooth yet powerful!” says Samrai. The vocals of Mancunian HMD on the tropical house-inflected Just A Feeling have a similar combination of vulnerability and assurance as Brit superstar Sampha, but with a twist all his own.
He was introduced to Swing Ting by mutual friend Tunde Adekoya who has released HMD's 2017 mini album on his Big People Music label.
“He is really fun to work with,” says Platt; “with a really unique approach to writing. A lot of focus on melody and phrasing – he works out multiple melodies before writing any lyrics – which definitely comes through in his work, and especially on this track I feel. A lot of people have said they require multiple listens of this one!”
“He’s a very zen, cool character, too.” says Samrai. “We're looking forward to future works together.”
Thai-Chi Rose's main exposure to date has been on the brilliant UK rapper Nadia Rose's Backseat single – but on Swing Ting's Drama, she really steps to centre stage. Although, she is also a great MC in her own right – “bars for days!” in Platt's words, or “dope on the mic live!” as Samrai puts it.
Here, she's in velvety, post-Aaliyah R&B singer mode. “We were lucky enough to get her soulful side,” says Platt.
“We had a lot of jokes and common ground both in ethos and musically,” adds Samrai.
In true friends-of-friends fashion she was introduced to the duo by their fellow dancehall fanatic DJ Lil C of Reprezent Radio and Prestige Pak crew (or, as Samrai calls her, “our bigtime sound music familia!”).
Talking of friends-of-friends, “the only artist on the project we’ve not met in person” was introduced to Samrai and Platt by their Brooklyn producer compadre Epic B, who has a several tracks out on Swing Ting. They initially remixed Kiyano's Ocean, then he returned the favour by voicing Bubblgum for 100 Dances.
“I love K’s tone,” says Samrai. “There’s the Caribbean intonation but there’s something quite NYC in his delivery.”
His voice is indeed almost impossibly smooth, but the elegance conceals extremely hot sauce in the lyrics.
“Definitely the rudest thing on the album!” says Platt. “But there’s always room for a little slackness [dancehall term for sexual lyrics].”
MC RTKal is a Birmingham grime stalwart, or as Samrai says, “A Midlands badboy – still youthful but has been in the game a minute. Check his “Fire In The Booth” [a BBC showcase] from 2011!
"He actually recorded his parts for Feel It in Birmingham but was WhatsApp video calling during the session playing bits back to me… Of course there may be more of this style collaboration soon given the current Covid-19 situation!”
“Obviously Trigga’s a Manchester hero,” says Platt, “and it’s a massive honour to have him on 100 Dances.”
This is no overstatement. Whether in conscious reggae, dancehall, drum 'n' bass, hip hop or grime, Trigga has been lending his vocal skills to local music since the 1980s, making his debut on reggae sound systems at the age of seven.
He's survived a great deal, including losing an eye when he was shot in the head during the city's notorious gang wars of the 90s, but has come through to great success and renown. He's a legend in the drum 'n' bass scene in the Midlands and North of England – with his birthday party drawing over 2,000 ravers each year, and works with a huge range of producers.
The connection here came through adopted Mancunian and UK garage legend Zed Bias whose dancehall project “Madd Again” appeared on Swing Ting.
“Strangely, says Samrai, “I hadn't emailed Trigga for a while, but I had broken my elbow last year then out of the blue he emailed me saying: 'you’ve been crossing my mind - I hope you’re healthy' - It felt like an omen!”
The resulting track, Swagger & Flex is the most boisterous, good-times dance anthem on the album.
“Evabee’s ace,” says Samrai. “Really confident but laid back – a massive advocate for the city and has such an upful warm energy.”
The singer is a relative newcomer, but her few tracks to date show she's got talent to spare, and her new video for Puppet On A String, for all its jazzy, soulful sophistication, glows with inimatble Manc attitude.
Her 100 Dances appearance, Coming Through, is what Samrai calls a “sweet triple threat sweet soul link up”, her voice perfectly bouncing off those of Fox and [ K S R ].
[ K S R ]
“It feels like Coming Through is probably the most representative of everything that we love that’s happening in the Manchester hip hop/R&B scene, which is going through a definite purple patch at the moment,” says Platt.
[ K S R ] is a protege of the city's fast rising neo soul/hip-hop stars Children of Zeus, and harmonises stunningly with EVABEE.
“His tone is so smooth and emotive yet,” laughs Samrai. “In person, he’s super funny and mischievous. Some of the convos from the session may have to stay behind closed doors if you feel me...”
Irish singer-songwriter Dunleavy (pictured in the lead photo) naturally locks in with Swing Ting's sense of community. Not only was she introduced to them by long-time friend and collaborator Murlo, but back home in Dublin she is as Samrai (himself a teacher before going full-time with Swing Ting) approvingly notes, “Super community-focussed and does a lot of teaching and projects of her own so is very accomplished in her methods.”
Her own collaborations over a decade have ranged from experimental electronica to pop dance, and her unique voice on the eerie, sparse, Neptunes-like beats of Like You Know make for an album highlight.
“This all came together super last minute,” says Platt. “But even though we gave Gemma a really tight deadline, I knew she’d come through: it’s always been so easy working with her previously, and her song-writing/harmony work is always such a treat.”
With solo material coming later in 2020, she's definitely one to watch. “She's a lovely soul who’s so laid back and vibesy,” says Samrai. “Her time will come I’m sure.”
“Pops [Roberts of Manchester band Lovescene] is the only artiste on here twice,” says Platt. “Unless you count the sample of Fox on 99 Dances of course. She really helped shaped both of the tracks she’s on into proper songs.”
“Pops is a proper, proper songwriter and topliner,” agrees Samrai. “We sent two beats over before our session and they had already written and recorded to them beforehand, which is very rare. Total attention to detail as a producer, bandleader and no-shittaker so a lot of respect where due.”
Whether adding emotional intensity between RTKal's verses on feel it, or dominating the dub reggae spaces and rolling rhythm of Signs, Lovescene's presence is vital to 100 Dances and provides precisely the grown-up, expensive sounding professionalism that will make this such an enduring record.
“I always felt Signs was maybe going to be a step too poppy for a lot of people into our stuff,” reflects Platt. “But it seems to have really resonated with them!”
The Equinoxx collective in Jamaica have been long-time allies of Swing Ting in pushing an internationalist, creatively expansive version of dancehall. So finishing with Equinoxx member (and “elephant lover and quality food appreciator”) Shanique Marie's voice on Give Thanks is, as Platt says, “just a really lovely positive note to end the album on”, emphasising the friendly and communal nature of the record.
“I was definitely a little concerned that this instrumental was potentially too busy to support a strong vocal,” he adds. “But as soon as Shanique sent over her first recording, all those worries went away.”
However, as Samrai hastens to add: “There was just one verse originally but thankfully Shanique added the second verse a few days before the mastering deadline which really put the seal on the track, and so the project as a whole! Giving thanks!”
Cover Image: Gemma Dunleavy/Tarnish Vision
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs