Words Florian Obkircher
Raf Riley is one of the most exciting new artists to emerge from the UK’s bass scene. Hailing from north London, the curly-haired prodigy has already crafted a formidable body of work, whose tracks swing wildly between pumped-up pop-step anthems and playful off-kilter productions. And with Labrinth and Diplo backing him, the 22-year-old’s ascent to the major league looks a formality.
It all started when Raf was a nipper. He discovered his dad’s keyboard and figured out how to program simple beats. Soon after he joined local bands, playing drums, bass and synth – only to realise he preferred making music alone in his bedroom, where he could spend hours honing his production skills.
Recalling these early attempts, Raf says, “The mixes were very rough, there was a lot more messiness”, he says, “but I can still hear what I was trying to get across in terms of an idea or an energy.”
Energy is still the key factor for Raf. No matter if he’s working on bass-fuelled bleep bangers that have earned him comparison with Hudson Mohawke or if he’s hooking up with sharp-tongued grime MC Mz Bratt (he produced her speaker-battering smash Tear It All Down, full of rave horns and zooming video-game sounds), Raf Riley’s music always grab your attention.
Funnily enough, his tunes reflects his personality: outgoing and, where necessary, upfront. Raf is not exactly your shy studio nerd waiting meekly in the background for his chance to shine. “I met Labrinth before he blew up, through a mutual friend. I basically bugged him until he let me come down the studio”, he remembers. “I met his manager, played him some beats and that was it! We've been working alongside ever since.”
For more than a year now he’s been part of Labrinth’s Odd Child family, remixing Lab’s Last Time and collaborating with the label’s future R’n’B siren Etta Bond. “Etta is definitely the project I'm most excited about at the moment. We've just finished an EP that we're releasing in the next couple of weeks. I have a really good feeling about it”, he says. “She’s pretty much the only vocalist I've worked with that knows exactly how to tackle whatever I throw at her, no matter how crazy.”
Besides Labrinth, Diplo also fell victim to Raf’s winning combination of persistence and passion. For three months he harassed the Major Lazer guv’nor on email. “Eventually he came to London and holla'd at me”, says Raf. “I picked him up in my Vauxhall Corsa and we listened to some bone thugs. It was pretty cool.” It worked: a few weeks later the Mad Decent boss commissioned Raf to remix Usher’s recent hit Climax, which he moulded into a wobbling banger with the vibe of a Nintendo GameBoy that’s had one too many. Diplo was delighted – he’s about to release Raf’s Dog Unit EP – and the remix has over 100,000 plays on Soundcloud.
Even though Raf says he’s a Notting Hill Carnival regular, he has yet to play there. “In fact, last year I couldn't even get into the Red Bull party”, he says with a smile, “ but this time I’m playing.” What exactly he’ll play on the day remains top secret, though. “I'm keeping it a surprise! I may be new to DJing but I’m bringing my years of production into the set. I won’t disappoint.”