Justin Hawkes Reflects on the State of Stateside Drum & Bass
Justin Hawkes is what some might call an authentic, homegrown American drum and bass artist. More than just being an American who produces and plays D&B, he rides for the American D&B community while honoring his own roots. His upcoming debut album, Existential, is a reflection of that reverence.
The album is almost 15 years in the making for Justin Hawkes (whose real last name is Hellier). After first hearing the D&B sound in a basement where his friends were DJing in 2008, he grabbed hold and hasn’t let go.
“It quickly became my type of music,” says Hellier from his home in Austin, Texas.
Hellier soon found the treasure trove that is UKF D&B—the online discovery platform catering to the worldwide D&B community. It led him down the rabbit hole to niche-carving artists like Noisia, Black Sun Empire, and Pendulum, whose now lauded 2010 LP, Immersion, was on the iTunes dance charts at the time.
After rinsing Immersion endlessly, Hellier was soon knee-deep in heady D&B labels like Hospital Records and Liquicity, and by April 2011, was ready to dive into production.
With its high tempo and complex nature, D&B is not the easiest place to start a production journey, but that didn’t deter Hellier in the slightest.
“There are so many factors that can discourage a newer producer from really trucking it through,” Hellier says of producing D&B. “When you can’t get your snare right, when you can’t get your levels right, when you can’t get your breaks sounding authentic. I guess I just had the patience for it.”
As he applied his patience to his productions, Hellier was also studying the history of D&B in America.
For the last decade while dance music genres like house and dubstep have laid claim to American pop charts, D&B has remained steadily underground. Hopeful fans claim every new year will be the year the genre ascends to a celebrated position within the zeitgeist but the idea of a pure D&B artist playing a headlining slot at a major festival in the US is still nebulous at best.
Simultaneously, those same fans look to the UK as the mecca, a proverbial Garden of Eden where skanking beats are playing 24/7 in the club and on the radio. Such an inference is not misguided as the UK can always boast the invention of D&B, but Hellier knows after years of research that the US scene has nearly as much history.
“If we look really far back to the early ‘90s [The US D&B scene] grew in parallel with the UK,” says Hellier. “The same artists that got huge in the UK in the ‘90s and ‘00s, they come over here every year to this day.”
Hellier mentions names like AK1200 and members of Planet of the Drums like Dieselboy and DJ Dara, as early originators of the culture right alongside UK legends like Goldie and Doc Scott.
“Ask any internationally touring drum and bass artist that has operated for a length of time, namely Calyx & Teebee. They have so much to say about the US scene,” says Hellier. “So many artists have come consistently and know that the US scene has a knowledge—a deep knowledge of drum and bass, historically.”
LA, Seattle, Portland, Washington DC, and Atlanta are just a few cities where communities have existed for decades. Hellier is now seeing a shift as younger artists like himself emerge from the woodwork in these D&B hubs. These are the artists he adds to his “Top American Drum & Bass” Spotify playlist.
At the time of writing, the playlist includes 109 tracks with nearly as many different artists. There are some major names like Zeds Dead and Machinedrum, but also plenty of lesser known, but immensely impressive talents.
“Part of the reason I made [the playlist], and I try to stay tuned into the US scene is because a lot of these artists—nobody’s ever going to ask where they’re from. Nobody’s ever really going to know that this is an artist that’s really high caliber that lives in the states. That you could book for probably way easier on the wallet than somebody that’s far away,” says Hellier. “I just want to show that the homegrown scene has a lot to offer.”
Hellier ensures to include some of his tracks on the playlist as well. It's just another way to support the American D&B community. Something he's done tirelessly for many years, even before he was producing under the name Justin Hawkes.
He released a smoother, liquid sound consistently under his prior name Flite, between 2014 and 2020. Hellier even landed tracks on widely known labels like Viper Recordings, Monstercat, UKF D&B, and Liquicity.
It was only after industry complications he was forced to change his name in 2020, but in hindsight, he considers the shift a blessing.
“It was a blessing within a very difficult period. Having to change my name ten years into a music career is extremely hard,” says Hellier. “My name is Justin and I make music that I want to have fun with, and it’s a good, real step into what I’m going to be doing from now on.”
Not long after the name change Luke Hood, the founder of UKF contacted Hellier and offered to release his debut album on their new D&B imprint, Pilot Records, which is where Existential will come out this October.
The title, Existential, stems in part from Hellier’s experiences over the last couple years as an American, but also the existential experience of all Americans.
Changing his name in the middle of the pandemic was a heavy personal struggle. The weight of personal strife was heavy on every American through the pandemic, an insurrection at the nation’s capital, the overturning of Roe V. Wade, and constant, unending shooting massacres.
“All the insanity that we’ve been paying attention to and feeling. The stress that most people are feeling in their bodies everyday…We’ve been through so much here as a country and as people living within that,” says Hellier. “I especially have been very sensitive to that, and it’s crazy what it’s turned into musically for me.”
There are works other than Existential that relate to Hellier’s sensibilities in this regard, but the album demonstrates a comprehensive depiction of his life and times as an artist over the past more-than-a-decade.
There are 15 tracks on the LP that include various electronic genres while spanning the full range of sonic qualities associated with D&B.
The lead single, “Black Bloc” is a cinematic fire-starter that would easily fit in a battle scene in a film scored by Hans Zimmer while “Dreambend” coasts on the calm waters of liquid D&B. “Heliocycle” channels the technology-driven sound with crunchy beats and stabbing synths that retain a salient sense of melody.
“That is the beautiful mystery of [D&B].” says Hellier. “All it is is a tempo blueprint, and I really adore that it has such diversity as a blueprint. That’s what I think is really important to showcase in this album.”
Beyond the different moods of D&B, Hellier also taps into his own history as an artist to devise some truly unique pieces of music.
“Cadence” opens with a marching drumline that Hellier wrote himself using rhythmic knowledge he acquired from playing trumpet in marching band and jazz band in his schooling years.
And the most notable track on the album, without a doubt, is “Better Than Gold,” which combines two genres that could be considered the most disparate in the history of pop music: country and D&B.
As the track begins, it would be understandable to wonder if you accidentally switched playlists or went to a different artist by mistake. Honky tonk guitar melodies overlay mandolin picking before a twangy-voice begins crooning about old friends, the devil, and hard times, all classic country tropes.
But the palpable suspense turns the honky-tonk into distortion before seamlessly transitioning into one of the heaviest D&B drops on the album. Hellier once considered this track a joke, but it is now a love letter to his family.
The acoustic guitar and mandolin were perfromed by his father, Guy Hellier. And the vocals were recorded by his uncle, Andrew Hellier, a former major label touring artist.
“I’m lucky to have Andrew who has already done what I’ve done. He’s been a touring artist for a long time, and I always looked up to him. So, it was just fantastic to get to work with him,” Hellier says. “I’ve spent over 200 hours producing this song. I took it pretty seriously. Wrote the lyric. Sent it to my uncle. My uncle loved it. Andrew killed it on the vocal, and we have something very special that I’m so excited about.”
No matter where Hellier takes D&B, his American roots will be with him. Whether through his exciting musical innovations or his knowledge of American D&B culture, the entirety of D&B is better for it.