Garage, jungle, and house music are more mainstream globally than ever before, thanks to artists like PinkPantheress, Shygirl, and Mura Masa. But it was British producer-songwriter-DJ SBTRKT who helped seed the U.K. electronic music explosion in the early 2010s as a prolific remixer and, with the release of 2011’s self-titled debut, artist. He went on to work with artists like Sampha and Little Dragon, released a popular Drake remix, and become known for this live performances. After he released his last LP, 2016’s SAVE YOURSELF, the plan was to then release music “more frequently,” he says now. Unfortunately, it took seven years for the musician, born Aaron Jerome, to return. But his new album, The Rat Road, is his best since first one.
Jerome spent the last five years expanding past dance floor escapism and catharsis. The Rat Road is lush and warm, but also tense and anxious. And while his early post-dubstep music was widely covered by the music blogs that were then plentiful, he has always kept his personal profile low, making him feel at once known and unknown—a perfect avatar for today’s uncertain times.
“The music industry itself has become something where you look at your peers around you and there’s no comparison or goals that you could share and say, ‘What works for you works for me,’” Jerome says. “I think there’s a level of unknowns and everyone is fighting for the scraps of how it could piece together.”
GQ spoke with SBTRKT about his new album, how one of his tracks ended up in Drake and 21 Savage’s “Jimmy Cooks” video, and whether an artist can be anonymous in 2023.
As someone who really fell in love with music during the blog era, you’ve always been an important artist to me.
My career is owed to the blog era, that’s for sure. One of my big things about now is that we don’t have that culture anymore of supporting the underdogs, per se. It’s all about the bigger stats. That time was so important for me, the post-vinyl club era stuff, but then pre-complete DSP social control. There was a magic point where people’s personal opinions mattered [laughs].
One of the things I always pick up when I’m working with collaborators is that people gravitate toward whatever the biggest things are happening, whether it’s something on Netflix that everyone has to watch or it’s [someone like] Kendrick dropping an album. Everyone has to have an opinion on that very much immediately, whereas back in the day, it just felt like you would go to the record shop for the point of discovering something you’d never seen or heard of. I’m one to champion that, possibly for the fact that you paid for it, so you felt you needed to put some more time into the ownership of it.
The financial investment today feels so much smaller, that you don’t feel as compelled to spend time with a specific body of work.
In a secondary way, the DSPs [digital service providers, like Spotify] are controlling almost all the stuff which does get prevalence. What stuff gets discovered, picked out, or put in playlists is generally what fits within the system, essentially. That’s where music is. If you’re gonna make a certain type of alternative dance track, you’ve got to be in a certain genre space or tempo range or a certain feeling to be getting the exposure. You change those rules and you’re basically making yourself disappear, essentially. It’s a lot harder to be found or discovered in that sense.
Could you establish the timeframe of when the album came together?
[From 2016 onward], I’ve probably written around 1500 tracks. Compared to previous time I spent on music, this was a lot more intense in terms of experimenting and teaching myself more things than I’d done in the past musically. My first album was written over a period of two years in the bedroom of a flat I had in South London. I had this grand vision from all the years before of experimenting then I found the collaborators I wanted to bring into that mix and was working with Sampha once a week for a period of two years, gelling and creating the momentum for a finished record.
My second album was born off my live touring of the first. I got really into that whole sense of spontaneity, having lots of keyboards and just messing about, nothing too pre-planned.
And then, fast forward to the SAVEYOURSELF period, which was almost reactionary to both the previous ones. I was kind of in the position of being independent, thinking, “How and what do I want to say as SBTRKT going forward? What is the element that makes a SBTRKT record a SBTRKT one?” Was that production? Was it the vocalists? Was it my ability to morph between genres?And I felt like I really needed to hone in on what I wanted to say within that mix and individually bring across, I suppose. And so like, that process was more me sitting in my studio going “I’m going to write every track myself until the point I feel comfortable to bring someone else in and at that point have a much stronger vision of what I wanted collaborators to do in that mix than be like ‘Well I’m just open to whatever happens.’
You seek out a tremendous amount of music, but I’m curious what for you takes a new artist from “I dig what they’re making” to “I want to make music with them=”?
There’s always a point when something turns into a new language for me. So, for example, the first single [off The Rat Road] is a track “Waiting,” which features Teezo Touchdown. I was aware of him because I’d seen him on the Call Me If You Get Lost tracklist with Tyler [the Creator], and heard him in that context as something very unique to that record. But then he dropped this song called “I’m Just a Fan.” I was blown away by his lyrical content, but also his ability to songwrite and the uniqueness of the way he was presenting his voice. So [he] was like, a complete outlier to most people that London artists work with. I hit him up and he was coming to London, so we hung out and created a few things.
A central part of your early identity was anonymity. Does that still matter as much to you? Do you think it’s even possible to be anonymous now?
No, I don’t think it’s possible. A lot of what I created then fit that space and time. My idea for anonymity was based on, partly, myself being an outsider to the music industry. I wasn’t born in London, I was brought up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. But also, I’m mixed race, South Asian, and there were very few people who looked like me in the scene or industry. There was a certain level of non-acceptance of anyone who was outside the boundaries of what or who you should be. As much as my press story was very much based around going “This is letting the music do the talking,” there was also a sense of me going “Well I’m very much hiding my own personal identity in this. It’s maybe helping me present a way more singular face. ‘Here’s a mask. Here’s something that isn’t me, and you’ll actually accept it now.’” At the time, there weren’t a lot of artists I’d see who were represented similarly. There was like, M.I.A. and Jai Paul. They were the only two who were in that sphere as other South Asian artists, interestingly both on XL Records as well.
I think, over time, one of the things that has happened through a lot of things going on in the world is the ownership of your cultural identity, as well. It’s very prevalent through social media, feeling that you shouldn’t hide that part of what your personality is about. I felt like maybe that anonymity I had in the past, matched with the fact I wasn’t having much of a voice out there in terms of media or press or talking much about my music [led to] the musicality or the emotion getting attributed to the lyrical side or those vocalists over the fact that those had been driven by me, too.
But it’s not a chip I have on my shoulder. I feel like there’s an element, as a South Asian person in music, of erasure from my own stuff. All the places you aren’t able to get opportunities and that’s carried on through, I think, even from people finding out who I am. It’s definitely something I’ve noticed, that certain opportunities will be given to other people than yourself. We all know this, it’s not a system built on equals, obviously. [laughs] But, very much, I feel like this is the point where I need to say more about these things, whether it’s the closed-off nature of how these things work or what I want to present in my own identity to relate to my music.
I think there’s value in an artist becoming more outspoken about their identity later in their career once their audience is invested and established.
I’m a pretty introverted person anyhow. I find a lot of interactions quite difficult in general, so the idea of doing this for exposure or the sense that everyone is now on social media and you need to be public facing is at odds with my personality. I don’t feel like that’s a level of thing that I’m super comfortable about, but also, things aren’t isolated.
I’ve created this record over a tumultuous period in global history, through the pandemic and post-Brexit and the cost of living crisis. There’s so much happening that this project started off very much as a personal thing. [Now] it feels more joined up with what’s happening generally, through this collective anxiety that everyone feels and not having autonomy over your future. It ended up being all part of the project and wanting to then go, “Well look at my identity. Look at the way the music industry has shifted beyond any recognition from what it was and how do I feel within that space?”
What does The Rat Road mean exactly?
Obviously, there’s a part [that’s] the rat race. It was like a U.K. aesthetic. A lot of what I create musically and where I write everything is in London, I’ve always felt there was an overarching sense of city and locality. I don’t feel like all my music geographically fits this space, but there is a sense of identity in my music, whether in a cultural sense or a kind of locality. So the “road” part lends itself to that. The “rat” part was a natural thing of feeling like we don’t really have control over our futures at the moment, short-term. There’s so much going on in the planet [especially] through the pandemic that everyone was like, “How do you look at anything more than the next couple months?”
How did “Forward” end up as part of Drake and 21 Savage’s “Jimmy Cooks” video and album announcement?
Initially, I sent Drake and his manager the track in a message because I was like, “Maybe he might be up for vocaling this song.” That was probably about three weeks prior to that video dropping, but it appeared without me knowing. Obviously, I was gassed that it had appeared in such a context, but, it was completely out of my control and I had no post-conversation about it after.
And you still haven’t?
I wouldn’t say it’s anything new to me, the way the music industry works. It was great to see a track resonate with—I had a relationship with Drake 10 years ago when he did a remix of “Wildfire”—but to see a new fan base interact with that song and find out about music in a different way, who [didn’t] know who I was. That it got exposure in a kind of roundabout way was interesting to me. It was a point of discovery for people to find it rather than it being overtly stuck there on the album with me as a production credit.
The way the info trickled out does feel consistent with the SBTRKT of yesteryear.
I manage myself, I A&R all my records. I do everything. If I have to book a flight for another artist, I’ll do it myself, if I have to travel to see people to make sessions happen. A lot of these are very direct relationships. With Drake, it’s a DM, it’s a chance encounter. I have to go out of my way to create those scenarios, so for me, it’s not like I’m just waiting for the calls to come in and see who’s gonna hit me up about a beat.