Krust (aka Kirk Thompson) first tasted success in 1989 as part of Fresh 4 (along with Paul ‘Suv’ Southey, Krust’s brother Flynn and Judge), with the top 10 track Wishing On A Star.
After immersing himself in his local Bristolian music scene - growing up with the likes of The Wild Bunch before they became Massive Attack - he became one of the city’s jungle pioneers, producing break-led, furious tempo tracks like Warhead, Music Box and Soul In Motion on labels including Moving Shadow, Talkin Loud, V Recordings and Full Cycle, which he set up with Roni Size in 1994.
Krust was also in Size’s Reprazent, along with fellow Bristolians Die, Suv and MC Dynamite, who won the 1997 Mercury Music Prize for the album New Forms.
Krust’s solo albums include his critically-acclaimed debut Coded Language and 1999’s Hidden Knowledge and he has remixed everyone from Alex Reece to Moloko. In 2008 he took an extended sabbatical away from music production, setting up a successful life-coaching business, but in 2016 he returned to resurrect Full Cycle with Roni Size and embark on an album project, The Edge Of Everything, which he released late in 2020.
As he reveals here, the new album reflects his extraordinary journey, a cinematic project that has arguably been three decades in the making, updating the original jungle sound for the 21st century but throwing in three decades of huge experiences into the mix. For its recording, he spent a year collecting the sounds, the gear and the plugins, and utilised a unique DAW-production process to put it all together.
Before we discuss his latest opus, though, we should really go back to the start of his musical journey…
Can you cast your mind back to Fresh 4 and how you got into music in the first place?
“We started that when I was 14 years old. A friend of ours knew The Wild Bunch who are now Massive Attack, and we started going to all the house parties in Bristol; if they were playing we would go.
“There were lots of these and warehouse parties in the city in lots of empty buildings. You could put a sound system in and have a party and we’d go to them as these kids watching Miles [Milo Johnson, aka. DJ Milo] or Nellee [Hooper] cut up these two pieces of vinyl. We’d see Mushroom [Andrew Vowels] getting on it, Grant [Daddy G] was on the mic, and Tricky joined them.
“We eventually thought ‘we want to do that’ so we saved and got a turntable. We slowly got good at DJing and scratching and then found a squat in Bristol and had a 24-hour party hangout where we could play music any time. That’s how we got going and how we built up our name.”
How did you then make the transition to music production?
“When we got signed to the majors as the whole Fresh 4 thing, I walked into a recording studio - a proper, huge one with a big SSL desk, Tannoy speakers in the wall, everything - and I saw the light! I saw the speakers, the desk and it was just like ‘I’ve got to learn this’.”
So how did you learn it from there?
“My brother had a sampler - a Casio FZ-1 - and I bugged him until he taught me how to use it. He kept showing me and after about a year I got it and that was it.
“After we got signed to Virgin Records, my brother spent a year in the studio with [producers] Smith & Mighty making the tune Wishing On A Star and I was fascinated by the process. I knew it was something I could get into. We started off being B-Boys and scratch DJs and in order to progress in that world you had to have the edge, so learning to make your own records just seemed like the obvious thing to do.”
How did that then lead to those early jungle records?
“After we got dropped by the record company, me and Suv were sharing a flat together. Smith & Mighty were living around the corner and they would go to these raves in the country every weekend with these massive sound systems in the middle of a field.
“Every so often we’d hear these tunes with a breakbeat that we knew - we were scratch DJs so we knew the breaks. So among the house and techno ‘boom-boom’ you’d get these breaks and we’d run to the decks to try and find out what this tune was and asking the DJ, ‘what’s going on, what do you call this?’. No-one had a name for it then, but eventually it had this name ‘jungle techno’ - a combination of techno but with breakbeats in it.
“We started experimenting with breakbeats - just messing around trying to figure something out. We knew we loved hip-hop but didn’t want to make it as it was sounding American. We weren’t going to make techno or house as that wasn’t really who I was, so we were just experimenting with the breaks, but we were finding that we were speeding them up.
“Gradually it was like 130bpm, then 140, then 150. Then I remember we came back to the studio one afternoon and somehow one of the channels had been muted where the kick drum was, and when we played the track it played the beats and what we’d programmed but without the 4/4 and all of a sudden we were like ‘what the fuck is this?’ We all looked at each other, like ‘wow, that’s it’. And from then on we started to make tunes without that 4/4 beat in and that’s how jungle started for us.
“When we got into music, we came from a jazz/DIY/punk attitude where anything goes. It wasn’t like ‘this is how you make this music’. It was more like ‘we’re just going to listen to all our favourite things from where we come from and we’re going to put it into this music’. Somebody else called it jungle, we didn’t call it jungle. We were just making this music; kids who didn’t have many options and we felt we weren’t being supported by society and found this thing we were really good at and we claimed it as ours.”
Then you all started Full Cycle Records. What do you recall about those days?
“The first tour we went on it was me, Roni [Size] and Dynamite [MC] and that was driving around France and Italy in a Mini. It was nuts: all of us in a Mini with records and bags. We’d started off in a squat, then we were making music, then we got a bit on the radio, then we were the first jungle DJs to get signed to this agency, then we started going to Germany every two weeks, then France then Amsterdam. It felt like we were at the beginning of something new and exciting; an adventure and I was with my mates - Roni was with me.”
And then jungle became massive, and very quickly…
“It was a movement happening on a global scale and revolutionary in a sense, like punk or jazz, like music that your parents didn’t get with a type of aggression and raw energy to it. People loved it. Everywhere we went there would be 2-300 people at the beginning but the next time we went there would be 1000 and then the next there would be 3000, all in a short space of time.
“Europe got it straight away. Germany was a stronghold for jungle for years; it was huge in Italy and then Japan embraced it; Australia and New Zealand; Hong Kong and then the whole American thing. And that’s when it changed a lot. America was big and vast and where the movies and hip-hop came from and all of a sudden it was like ‘and they want us to play our music to them!’”
How did you start getting early studio gear together and where did you get some of those early breaks from?
“In the very early 90s we were using the Casio FZ-1, an Atari computer and Cubase. Then I got to travel the world through Full Cycle and wherever we would go we would ask the promoter to take us to secondhand music shops or record shops and we’d buy old keyboards, synthesizers or drum machines and go to record shops and buy loads of vinyl.
“We used to have these portable turntables and we’d sit in the hotel rooms, smoke loads of weed and listen to loads of records. That’s where I got my music education. I would sit in the studio before I made a record and play all kinds of records: jazz, hip-hop, soul, blues, rock… it didn’t matter. I knew there would be a break in there and I’d sit there for hours just listening and sampling loads of little things but also listening to all this music, all these arrangements and I was often like ‘wow, you can actually do that in a record!’. And all of those ideas just seeped into my music and our processes; we were fascinated by it.”
You won the Mercury Music Prize in 1997 as part of Roni Size & Reprazent - how did that change things?
“It definitely took it in a different direction and that was inevitable. It’s just like grime now with Stormzy - the music can’t stay underground forever because you have got to go somewhere else with it. You can’t just carry on making the same kind of drum & bass that you were making and be happy; it’s like staying in a relationship that isn’t working.
“We had created a new sound, we progressed it, we reinvented it and then when someone says ‘we want to sign you and take your sound to a whole new level’ you think ‘well, why not, we’ve done all these other things so let’s see where this goes?’ It’s still in the spirit of being an adventurer; in fact it’s the same adventure.
“So we made a couple of albums; Roni made his and I made Coded Language and it took us out to a whole new audience. That was the spirit of jungle… it’s not the music that you make, it’s about the attitude.”
You took a lot of time out of music. Why was that?
“My feet hadn’t touched the ground for years. I’d been doing it since I was 14 and I got to about 35 and thought ‘enough’s enough’. I had all the trappings and the toys of success but it wasn’t making me happy. The experience was starting to wear thin and relationships were getting strained as we’d toured so long with Reprazent.
“Some bands are touring bands but we are essentially studio musicians, engineers and producers who had to promote the music. But we ended up so long on the road, we didn’t get into the studio and that took a toll on our relationship and making music. It was very exhausting and for me it was time to move on and figure out what I wanted to do.”
But after taking a long break while you mentored people, you re-emerged in 2016…
“I definitely go through my cycles and my seven years was up in mentoring and I needed to move on. I’d achieved what I wanted to do helping people. I was in a good place and felt like music could come out of me again so I started messing about and tinkering, pushing buttons to see what would happen.
“I had a conversation with Roni and he said he wanted to do Full Cycle again and for want of a better expression I wanted to relive the glory days again. So we did that again but I quickly realised that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was almost like revisiting an old relationship so that’s when I started writing the new album. I was going to do an EP. but it dawned on me that I hadn’t made an album in ten years.
“At that time Doc Scott had heard one of my tunes, Portal, and said he wanted to put it out [on 31 Records] so that was a nice boost. Then it just kind of grew. I was happy with the music I was making and knew I wanted to make a record about the times we are in and for it to reflect the experiences I have had. I also knew I also wanted to make a movie so I approached the whole process like I was writing a film. Every track was a scene so how you watch a movie was how I made the album.”
Did you have an idea of the sound for the album before you started it?
“I knew that I wanted it to be the evolution of [late ‘90s releases] Soul In Motion, True Stories and Future Unknown, tracks that I felt were epic. I was asking myself ‘what would it sound like if I were to make Soul In Motion or True Stories today?’
“I also looked at all the 70s music that I really liked and played loads of records - prog rock, blues, funk, rock music - and listened to the production, the vocals, drums and bass and asked myself what equipment they were using, what desks, synths and so on.
“I reverse-engineered the sound and went out and bought a couple of synthesizers and some pedals. I couldn’t afford the SSL desk so looked at the Waves stuff and really good emulations of EQs, compressors - the best of what there was that I could afford.
“I already had some SSL outboard, an 1176 and a Neve mic pre which I used to put a lot of the synths into Pro Tools. I was really just trying to create an authentic musical sound. It was like I was using 35mm film to make a movie today so it would look and sound and feel different.
“As it is a ‘70s sound, I wanted to leave it loose, unedited and a little bit out of key. I didn’t want to get too caught up in the technology, to anally correct everything. I wanted it to sound organic and to do something to you, the antithesis of what everything else is doing. Everything else is perfect and digital and immaculate. I want mine to sound the opposite so, when you hear it, it stands out.”
Which plugins did you try to get the authentic vibe?
“I did try the obvious plugins that everyone else was using but to me they didn’t give me what I wanted. I tried to make sure everything that went into the computer went through a pedal and through a compressor to soften the edges, so when it got to the computer it had this almost downgraded, rustic sound, like it was made in a ‘70s studio.
“I used a lot of the Waves NLS plugins and also NI’s Reaktor to make a lot of synths up myself. I used a lot of Waves emulations too. Their SSL stuff is alright but I ended up using SSL’s own emulation plugins which sounded a lot better.”
It sounds like you spent a long time preparing ‘the sound’ of the album before you actually started making music?
“I spent a year getting the sound right with loads of plugins and synths and my old equipment like an ARP Odyssey, Solina, MPC and Moog Model D. I bought a Novation BassStation and Arturia Minibrute, loads of pedals and just set the room up and set about running things through different things making sounds, loops and patches and just getting a sound palette together to start making music.
“I was just making all these synths behave like me. So it was like ‘how do I make this preset sound like me?’. I’d detune it, put an effect on it, put a pedal on it, take it down an octave. I’d go through all my synths and do that. Then I’d go through my pedals and sample loads of bass sounds with like a Moog pedal on it or a fuzz box. So I’d have a sample library of basses and so on - drums, noises and effects. All of that was then ready to go so I started to write the music.”
You mentioned earlier that you treated the process a bit like creating a film. Can you expand on that?
“I was watching films trying to understand how the dialogue, lighting and scenes worked, really trying to understand why directors did what they did. I always said ‘I’m not going to be obvious, not just make a song that starts here and does that’. That era for me is done. I want to make music that is challenging and can just evolve as a piece of art or an experience that you are having. I want you to be in the music as you would be a film.
“It’s not ‘Friday night’ music that you play in a club where everyone is having a jolly time. You’re going to be soaked into this experience and, when it’s finished you’ll be staring into space for a couple of hours pondering your own existence. That’s what you get from watching a great movie.”
So how did you bring the sounds and the concept together?
“When I started a session I’d get one instance of Pro Tools up, write loads and loads of loops, spending a day just writing drum loops; maybe 100 drum loops all in 16-bar loops. Then I would go over them with basses, then strings, then effects. The whole page is set up from track 1 to 25 - the drums, the basses and synths are all the same tracks so there are 40 or 50 tunes on one page in 16-bar loops and from that I’d start putting them together in any order to create something.
“I hear the colour of the sound and feel it as well. So I’m going through everything trying to feel emotionally what goes together and it might go ‘click’ and it’s right in the pocket, and that’s how I built the whole thing, the emotional landscape. Once I have a minute of a track, I’ll then export it out to its own song and work on it from there.”
The album is extraordinary and really does evoke the older jungle vibe while doing something totally new. Was that the real point of it?
“You have to really know who you are and what story you are going to tell. Are you going to regurgitate a story that is already out there, maybe making it sound louder or more shiny? Most people just want it ‘cheaper, louder, faster or stronger’; they don’t want innovation, just micro adjustments. But I think the responsibility of a creator is to bring people into fascinating new worlds, so the advice I would give anyone who is a creator is to try and take someone somewhere new because ultimately we all like something new… eventually.”
From jungle to drum & bass
What is your view on how D&B has evolved?
“It’s evolved and it’s done its thing. The spirit of what it is has changed a lot. What it is now hasn’t got the same ethos as it did when it started and I think that has got lost in translation. I get kids coming up to me and saying ‘you’re old school’ but to me ‘old school’ is James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. When people listen to the source of the sound, they only go back 20 years. But jungle and the attitude of jungle is coming back.
“It’s evolved through what drum & bass has become which I think was an offshoot of jungle; we’ve now come full cycle… without making a pun! There’s more to it than what we’ve explored.
“The commercialisation of music and the monetisation of music always drives it to a certain place that isn’t the best for the music. Commercialisation of art has ravaged the creativity of it and that needs to be readdressed in whatever way.
“People are seduced by the opportunity to be famous for the weekend. It’s got its appeal and I understand that. Lots of young people who are looking to make their mark and looking for some self respect can get it in this music. It’s not as difficult as it used to be. It was very hard back in the day to be accepted by someone who had a recording studio and they let you in. You had to really know your shit, know someone who had a studio, you had to prove your chops and have a lot of respect. You couldn’t just call yourself a DJ back then, you had to earn the title. Can you hold a set down at peak time at these raves? It was the same in production - you earned your chops.”
On life coaching and mentoring
In 2008 Krust took a long break from music to study life coaching. Here he explains what happened over the following seven years…
“I left Full Cycle and tried to discover myself again. I’d been Krust for so long that I’d forgotten who Kirk Thompson was. I had what most people would say was a breakdown but in retrospect it was actually a ‘breakthrough’.
“I got to the end of a cycle and just didn’t know how to go to the next level. Coming to the end of one experience I learned to recognise there was another one and it wasn’t the end. Most people call it a ‘breakdown’ because they think it’s the end and they hold on to what they became without understanding that once you let go there is actually more. I took some time, started to read books, started to meditate, changed my diet, stopped partying and eventually Kirk Thompson started to come back. And he wasn’t that bad!
“I went on courses, started studying and really developed myself. I started looking back on why I had become a DJ and started all these labels and started to understand the psychology of why I believed I could do it - why one person believes that it’s going to work for them with no evidence whereas another person is in the same position won’t go into the unknown. I started to explain this to people and saw a change in them and could see the seeds of something happening.
“It was the same kind of excitement and energy that was creeping in as when I helped start Full Cycle and Fresh 4. So I formed Disruptive Patterns and created a workshop and a friend of mine Lady MC invited me to come and talk to some of her students and I really enjoyed it and it was having some benefit so I did that for six or seven years, coaching and mentoring. And it showed me that if I can learn something else like this, I can learn anything.
“One of the most powerful lessons that I teach people is: ‘listen, if you can DJ in front of a crowd of people, or sit in a studio and transfer your ideas into audio that other people can listen to, dance to or buy, then you are in the one percent’. Most people who do this don’t get that. It is a high IQ skill which not many people can do. Once people understand that, it changes their psychology. Until then they say ‘well I’m just a DJ or I’m just a producer’. But no, you are so much more than that. You are somebody who is able to learn how to DJ or become a producer and if you have those skills you can learn anything, so just turn your mind to the next thing you want to do and start learning that.”