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DJ Mag’s Best Of British awards 2021: the winners


DJ Mag’s Best Of British awards 2021: the winners

The votes have been counted and the results are in! Here are the winners in DJ Mag’s Best of British awards 2021

DJ Mag’s annual Best Of British awards celebrate all that’s great about the UK scene. Below, we’ve profiled all the winners of this year’s 24 categories, most of which are voted for by readers. This year marks the 15th edition of the awards, and sees us we welcome the return of our club and festival categories, after a year's hiatus in 2020 due to Covid-19. As ever, the staff-chosen Outstanding Contribution and Innovation & Excellence awards are back, alongside the publicly voted categories.

These awards hope to shine a spotlight on another extraordinary year for UK electronic music, and act as a counter-balance to the global Top 100 DJs poll. Congratulations to everyone nominated, and to this year’s winners, whose profiles you’ll find below.

Best DJ

After winning the Breakthrough DJ category at Best of British in 2017, Or:la’s win in the Best DJ category this year shows just how brightly her star has shone over the last five years. 

For an artist still in her twenties, Or:la has managed to do just about everything you can within dance music — from DJing to production, label management, and even breaking into abandoned office blocks to host raves —  all while garnering support from her homegrown audience in Northern Ireland, and towards a growing international audience.

After growing up in rural Co. Donegal, and the city of Derry, Or:la went to university in Liverpool, where she co-ran her first club night, Meine Nacht. “For me, it was an incredibly formative experience,” she says. “We learned everything from setting up soundsystems, to cleaning and security. There’s a lot of environmental factors that go into making a club night, and ultimately, we have a responsibility for everyone.”

The DIY style of these parties influenced her to work as independently as possible: in her productions, first released on Hotflush; in her labels, the collaborative Deep Sea Frequency and the solo Cead; and at her current party series, La Potion, which she runs in her current city, London. With each line-up curated by Or:la, La Potion is envisioned as a party for everyone, but with an emphasis on welcoming queer creatives, dancers and communities.

Alongside her labels and events, she’s been on the road, of course, as a DJ. She’s rocked the booth at UK festivals like Lost Village and Field Maneuvers, and in clubs like Ibiza’s Circoloco, Berlin’s Berghain, Tbilisi’s Bassiani and New York City’s Nowadays. Despite the pandemic, she played major sets in 2021 that saw thousands lock into her unique groove, most notably at Belfast’s AVA Festival.

And it seems like the wider dance music scene is embracing Or:la’s independent-minded vibe. In 2020, she recorded an Essential Mix for Pete Tong’s legendary show, and starting in January, she’ll be part of the R1 Dance Residency, alongside Goldie, Sama’ Abdulhadi, Scratch DVA, Folamour and LCY; spinning an eclectic mix of dance tracks during the station’s primetime Thursday night slot.

Or:la’s sound is fluid and iconoclastic, drawing liberally from a rich lineage of dance music: from UK funky to techno, from lo-fi house to ambience. In keeping with the adventurousness of her production work and DJing, she’s relentlessly carved out niches for herself, pursuing a wide range of creative expression while retaining a sense of curiosity and openness. Her next project establishes a new stage in her career, linking a series of projects and disciplines — musical, artistic, technological — together under a set of unifying themes and associations, like dream states, the URL clubbing possibilities of web3 and surrealist art.

With her debut album on the way next summer, 2022 is shaping up to be Or:la’s most far-reaching and exciting creative year yet — and with her Best DJ win at Best of British, we’re ready to celebrate with her. Katherine Rodgers

Best Producer

When Solid Grooves co-founder PAWSA — real name David Esekhile — fronted DJ Mag’s UK cover in August this year, he spoke extensively about production, and the importance of being true to your artistic self. “This is a way to show people I’m just here expressing myself,” Esekhile said about the music he’d released, “and maybe inspire some of them along the way.” 

After falling in love with the minimal and micro sounds of house and techno after his first trip to Ibiza in the early 2010s, Esekhile began producing, and made his debut on Leftwing & Kody’s Lost Recordings in 2014. He’s since been quietly acknowledged as an architect of the UK’s current tech-house sound, with releases like ‘Party’, 2017’s ‘The Groovy Cat’ and ‘Crazy’ racking up over 30,000,000 streams between them.

When we speak with Esekhile about winning his award, he’s just returned from his South America tour, stopping off in Italy on his way back to the UK to play at Cocoricò in Riccione for the first time. It’s been a year of firsts for the artist elsewhere, too, with this summer seeing the debut of Solid Grooves’ own festival: Groove Island. Alongside his business partner, friend and DJ/producer Michael Bibi in East London, the likes of Loco Dice, ANOTR, Lindsey Matthews and The Martinez Brothers played across a two-day takeover, providing a welcome return for the capital’s dedicated Groovers.

“It feels amazing to win the award for production,” he says, reflecting on his output over the last 12 months. “It also makes me more determined to work harder on my skills and keep learning and improving.” This year alone, PAWSA has released 15 EPs via Solid Grooves, its sub-label RAW, and his own PAWZ imprint. PAWZ is Esekhile’s place to release music, in his own words, away from expectations. He masterfully blends pared-back, minimal beats and wonky synths — largely with signature acapellas — delivering at least one club tool each month.

Despite scooping the award, Esekhile says the highlight of 2021 was fronting the DJ Mag cover. “It was such an honour to be approached to tell my story,” he says. It’s the first time the London-born artist had really stepped into the spotlight, and he gave candid insight into the tech-house scene and his attitude towards it, breaking down his thought processes as an artist and sharing his experience of navigating fans and labels alike. “No-one is an artist that everyone wants to hear, or paints a picture that everyone wants to hang in their gallery,” Esekhile said back in August. “But you find the formula that works, and you just keep innovating.”

After a string of sold-out all-night-long shows this year, at venues like Leeds’ Mint Warehouse and Village Underground in London’s Shoreditch, Esekhile is looking forward to spending Christmas at home with his friends and family. It’s short lived, however, with 2022 looking set to be just as hectic as the past 12 months. “There’s a lot of touring planned!” he tells DJ Mag. “I’ll continue to release new music on both PAWZ and Solid Grooves, and we’re also planning a big Ibiza season and have a packed release schedule for both labels.” 

“I’d also like to say a big thank you to DJ Mag for their support this year, my team for their hard work behind the scenes, and everyone that has supported my music over the years.” AMY FIELDING

Breakthrough DJ
Yung Singh

“Completed the DJ Mag prophecy, didn’t I?” Yung Singh cheekily says. A year after being described as ‘one to watch’ by this publication, it felt inevitable the London-based artist would deservedly win Breakthrough DJ. There have been few artists whose rise has been as stratospheric as his: whether it was his set at Fabric, Dialled In, the viral Boiler Room clips or the educational Instagram posts, Yung Singh has built himself up as more than just a DJ; he’s truly carving a path of his own. 

Earlier this year, the seeds of success were planted. During the Daytimers 24/7 live stream in support of the farmer's protest in India, Yung Singh used his set to enlighten and inform viewers: he played footage from the protest alongside inspirational speeches and music relevant to the protest. It felt like a taste of what was to come.

On August 5th, Yung Singh curated a Boiler Room night with the energy ferocious, the excitement palpable: a wall of Sikh individuals mashed behind him, forcing constant reloads while Yung Singh, again, used the opportunity to educate audiences around the world on British South Asian culture, playing tracks which spanned genres and generations. “I think Boiler Room was the right place at the right time,” he says. “It was the first time our community was able to come together after lockdown finished, so that energy was special and had been bubbling for a while,” he says. “What Boiler Room did was stick a camera in the middle of it and stream it.” The clips from that show went viral leading to his landmark set at Dialled In festival, which felt like one of those truly special 'you had to be there' moments. 

“I wasn't very happy with my Boiler Room performance,” he admits. “It was really messy and I wanted to prove, to myself, if no one else, that I was a good DJ. At Dialled In I brought to life so many ideas I had fermenting in my head for years, crossing across genres, bpms and cultures in a way you don’t really see that often.”

A month later, the DJ and producer curated another night, this time at iconic London venue Fabric, involving members like DJ Ritu of the original Daytimers crew. “No one has ever seen Fabric like that,” he says, “all because of a line-up I helped curate, which involved me bringing an Asian and UK underground legend back into the spotlight.”

All the while, Yung Singh has had a full-time career he’s studying for, dabbling in side-projects while also executive producing a documentary showcasing the birth of the Punjabi garage movement. “What I like doing most is telling stories and platforming stuff I find interesting,” he says. “The medium/format of how that manifests knows no bounds. The fact that it has been received so positively, so widely, means that we have begun to reclaim the narratives that have been imposed on us and fight back against us being written out of history.” 

Despite the year he’s had, Yung Singh wants to share the spotlight: he wants to pass it around, especially to his boundary-breaking Daytimers crew. “Everyone else is now coming to terms with the fact that we represent a community, rather than being a collective of individuals,” he says. “I’m really proud and feel privileged we hold such an important position in our communities and within dance music too. Making sure we live up to that responsibility is tough work but all so worth it.”

On this trajectory, Yung Singh is due to take over the world. Though he’s hush about upcoming projects and plans for next year, if 2021 is anything to go by, it’s bound to be special. DHRUVA BALRAM

Breakthrough Producer
Samurai Breaks

Bombastic kick-drums, rippling breakbeats, sugar-rush rave samples and guttural wobbs — these are the ecstatic sounds of Samurai Breaks. As indebted to footwork as it is hardcore and bassline, his is a style best described by the name of his newly founded label Super Sonic Booty Bangers or, if you like, the title of his Hooversound debut, ‘Turbo Rave Artillery’. 

In the year when our long-awaited return to raving finally arrived, it’s little wonder that Samurai Breaks’ music resonated so much with the public as to earn him the Best of British Breakthrough Producer trophy. But when we dial up the Leeds-based artist, he admits he almost thought it was an April Fools joke. 

“I felt like I was slacking,” he says of how he rates his 2021. From an outside perspective, it’s quite the contrary; alongside the aforementioned release for SHERELLE and NAINA’s label and opening EP of his SSBB imprint, he also dropped a five-track collab with Origin on Trax Haven and, most recently, scored his first vinyl release with a two-tracker for Racked Records. But, he says, there should have been even more — like the follow-up to his wildly exuberant 2020 album ‘Acid Puma Racing Stripes’ for Off Me Nut, along with several other EPs.

“I’ve always given music 110% because I believed I could do something with it and have a life from it, but then lockdown hit just as I felt like I was about to break through,” he explains. “So, in my mind, 2020 was gonna be the year I was gonna break through, and then all that hit and I couldn’t keep on giving it as much as I was ‘cause I’d burnt myself out wanting to make it.”

With no gigs and no furlough pay, Samurai Breaks — real name: Sam — had to find work elsewhere and wasn’t able to focus on music as he once had. Thankfully, with the end of lockdown this year that focus has returned, as has his ability to test out tunes on proper rigs. “It’s really been a boost for me coming out of lockdown to be so busy, and then to get this award has been the icing on the cake,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Speaking about his hyperspeed, hybridised sound palette, Sam explains how years spent playing multi-genre events have helped him hone in on what makes a dancefloor tick. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out how to kind of trick people into dancing to things they wouldn’t normally dance to, like interesting bootlegs or referencing other types of music,” he says. “Like, you can reference grime sounds in a jungle tune or a footwork tune in a way that tickles people’s ears. It’s about using cliches in a lot of ways — that take you back to a place or inspire an emotion in you, but then play with them in a way that people don’t expect.”

It’s all about striking a balance between minimalism and maximalism, he continues — pairing a simple, catchy element like a recognisable vocal with cluster-bomb drum edits, or slamming a 4/4 kick down amid bonkers synth lines. 

Having fun is a top priority, while maintaining a high standard of production. “I don’t really take myself too seriously. I really care about what I do but I like having a party, I like being daft,” he says, adding that it’s a quality that he’s found in abundance among the Off Me Nut crew.

It’s also one of the reasons Sam couldn’t believe he’d won a Best of British award. “My sound is so tongue in cheek and silly; it’s not as sophisticated as what some people make,” he says. “I feel my music is more like having a laugh. I’ve just been doing my thing and it’s nice to see that's been appreciated. I guess out of the back of lockdown that’s what people want — people don’t want serious stuff, they wanna have a laugh.”

Moving forward, Super Sonic Booty Bangers is Sam’s main focus; the second release comes from label partner D’TCH and there are forthcoming drops from ERAM, Lakeway and more. Sam hopes to foster a family vibe among label artists and he and D’TCH have already begun taking the show on the road. On the production front, he’s got another vinyl release coming in 2022 (this time with occasional collaborator Arcane), along with the promised second Off Me Nut album. Though the pandemic put it on hold, it’s safe to say Samurai Breaks has well and truly broken through, and now the sky’s the limit. BEN HINDLE

Best Live Act

After the last couple of years, it feels like a triumph to even be able to vote in this category at all, and we’re sure you’ll agree that with the return of clubs and live music, we were all winners here. With that in mind it feels fitting, inevitable even, that DJ Mag readers should anoint the Russell brothers the kings of the communal music experience. 

An Overmono set is like mainlining serotonin. The duo’s brand of direct, body-moving breaks and hands-to-the-sky build-ups was tailor-made for the triumphant return, and after more than a year when the communal experience of music felt like a distant memory, the immediacy of their sets meant theirs was a name on everybody’s lips. 

Their time away from clubs wasn’t spent idly. In fact, Truss and Tessela’s collective output has reached a hitherto unmatched rate since the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, they were perfectly poised to hit the ground running.  “At first it was really overwhelming,” they tell DJ Mag, “being with so many people again. We’d get off stage literally shaking. We think it's just that rush of emotion that you don't really get from anything else, but it's the best feeling to be back playing music.”

As a punter, the feeling was mutual. DJ Mag can remember being at Gala Festival in South London, one of the first of a delayed season, and standing among the crowd at a domed stage. The feeling of being almost-indoors and surrounded by people was still unnerving, but amid tracks everyone had been desperate to hear out like the all-conquering ‘So U Kno’, the crowd’s pent up fears seemed to evaporate into a sea of outstretched arms and incredulous grins.

‘So U Kno’ wasn’t the only Overmono track that seemed to pierce through the collective mindset of clubbers this year. The recent ‘Diamond Cut / Bb’ single, a pair of sample-driven, UKG-indebted weapons, is another tour de force, while their remix of For Those I Love’s ‘I Have A Love’, with its anthemic shades of The Streets’ ‘Weak Become Heroes’ or even ‘Born Slippy’, was tailor-made for affirming tears on the dancefloor. The image of the pair playing the latter, backed with the words ‘AND IT NEVER FADES’ at London’s Village Underground will live long in the memory of anyone in attendance.

Technically, their live shows reached a new zenith this year too. Where in the past they would tweak their process after every gig, they’ve now settled into a more consistent groove. The result of which allows for a greater sense of controlled chaos.

“It's important to make sure there’s always stuff that can go wrong,” they say. “You want it to feel like the wheels could fall off at any minute, but you manage to keep them on. If one of us is wrangling a drum machine that’s trying to go out of time and we manage to keep it in and drop the kick at the right time, you can be sure we’ll be buzzing.” That energy is key to the unspoken communication between artist and audience at the heart of what makes live music so special.

Ultimately, at a time when the joy and catharsis that comes from sharing moments on a dancefloor were so keenly felt, Overmono managed to tap into the essence of what makes those moments happen. With a BBC Essential Mix under their belt and a mammoth show at York Hall Leisure Centre set to pop off once again in the new year, you can bet they will continue to send hands skyward and spread grins across dancefloors. THEO KOTTIS

Best MC/Vocalist
Little Simz

Critical acclaim isn’t something that Islington-born multi hyphenate Little Simz is unfamiliar with. An extended run of excellent, forward-thinking mixtapes and EPs between 2010-15 built her reputation as a bewildering rap technician, able to stir narrative-driven verses into a melting pot of diverse Black sounds, from dubstep to jazz and neo-soul. Her conceptual debut album ‘A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons’ boiled down those experimental sounds into something dark and defiant.

Her third studio album ‘Grey Area’ landed in 2019, winning Best Album at the Ivor Novello Awards and earning a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination. She’d already earned big ups from A$AP Rocky, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, and toured with icons Lauryn Hill and Nas. Rap heads this side of the Atlantic knew she was comfortably in the pound-for-pound reckoning for our best MC, but the project elevated her status amongst more casual listeners, confirming what many of us already knew. 

With the arrival of ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’, released in September, Simz put the pound-for-pound conversation to bed in glorious fashion and bloomed into a fully-fledged British icon in the process. The deeply personal 19-track project has that golden ‘this will bang forever’ feel that only the truly great albums made by great artists have. She told Nana Baah in Noisey’s August cover story that while recording ‘SIMBI’ she listened only to the classics, from Biggie to Nina Simone: “I was studying why people connected with these artists — why is their music so timeless? I want to make a staple album. I want you listening in ten years and you’re like, ‘Rah, remember when that came out and what that done?’”

Sonically, the album draws on everything from luxurious orchestral grandeur to crunching grime and swinging, vibrant afrobeats. Thematically, it’s as introspective and soul-baring as it gets. But at its core is Simz’s peerless ability as an MC. She’s like an alchemist, transmuting her delivery and the production into precious gold. She bends and shapes her flow from the blissed-out and mellow (‘Two Worlds Apart’, ‘I See You’) to charged up, scattergun (‘Rollin Stone’, ‘Speed’). And she does this without ever losing her identity. Simz’s tone, be it a whisper or a war cry, is distinctive and instantly recognisable; that’s the sign of an MC at the peak of their powers.

When asked how good she thinks she is, she told David Smyth in the Evening Standard: “I think I’m amazing. Honestly, respectfully, I think I’m very, very talented. I know I am. But I also wanted to pose the question: why is legacy important? I want to be a legend, but sometimes I don’t know why.” It’s something Simz will need to continue to interrogate, because at the age of 27 and after a standout year, she is most definitely a legend. ROB KAZANDJIAN

Breakthrough MC

Shaheeda Sinckler, known better by her astronomical alias Nova, religiously gets her nails done because they remind her of her similarly otherworldly achievements as an artist: “I’ve been looking at my nails, and they’re a symbol of me no longer having to work in a bar after winning these awards,” she says. Now, she’s not wiping glasses and carrying plates, Nova is shifting Scotland’s hip-hop scene into a whole new gear. Every win for her is a win for her city, Glasgow.

Before winning the Scottish Album of the Year in 2020 with her debut record ‘Re-Up’, the 25-year-old rapper and vocalist was one of Glasgow’s best-kept secrets, clocking in only 300 monthly Spotify listeners. Her sound taps into Glasgow’s underground scene and its nocturnal pulse, wrapping the likes of grime, jungle, garage and d&b around her little finger. Her repertoire is strong, blending chameleon-like into the raves, club-nights and parties of her city, and as a self-made artist with organic instinct, her success is both natural and entirely her own.

The successor to ‘Re-Up’ was this year’s EP ‘WWND?’, a body of work executed with a whole new level of confidence. With her piano-infused trap hit ‘Get Bands’ with heavyweight bass drops that aim straight for your gut, and the silky, Afrobeat-driven track ‘Grind’ primed to drop in the club, it’s her most accomplished work to date.

With her career escalating in momentum, does Nova feel like she is, in fact, breaking through? “I keep seeing these memes where it’s like, ‘Remember how you used to pray for what you have now?’ — it’s kind of like that,” she says. “I’ve earned a good lifestyle: I work on music pretty much every day, and I’ve got a home studio, but there’s still a long way to go.” For a start, she’d like to begin sharing her lengthy back catalogue of tracks that could easily build albums.

Nova has always had to fight for a seat at the table. “It has its challenges,” she says. “When I first started out, I was in Glasgow, trying to get beats and understand how to make music — it was really hard, but I pushed through a lot. Being a woman, if you’re successful, there are people out there who won’t like it, particularly in the rap scene.” She remembers a double-edged compliment that her music was “challenging”, and it still sticks in her throat. It shouldn’t be such a bitter pill to swallow, she feels, when her sound is so intrinsic to the inner-city experience.

Now, more than ever, Nova feels emboldened to navigate uncharted territory in her music. With a dedicated recording space in her flat and the ability to perform once again, ideas and new material are coming to life at warp speed. As we speak, she’s about to drop a music video for a freestyle remix of ‘Commitment Issues’, rounding off 2021’s victory lap by collecting her award. And as for success? She’s already got it: “I just want to gain attention organically for the work that I put out there. I want people to be interested in who I am and what I’ve got to say. Success, to me, is being comfortable, making the music I love with the artist I admire, and to always be learning and growing.” SOPHIE WALKER

Best Label
Rhythm Section International

Now more than a decade old as a party, and seven years deep as a label, it’s hard to imagine the landscape of London music without Rhythm Section International. The Peckham-based crew have been instrumental in breaking several of the London current crop of jazz-indebted luminaries like Al Dobson Jr. or Vels Trio, not to mention wigged-out house from the likes of Chaos In The CBD, Pinty or FYI Chris. The dances themselves also helped spring the careers of Jayda G and Pender Street Steppers.

Though locally focused in its infancy, that "International" has always adorned the label’s name, and these days it sits a little more easily in RS’s makeup. This year the label has released artists from Ecuador, Minneapolis, Chile-via-Milan and Australia — and a fair few more from the UK — while label manager Emily Hill has relocated to Berlin.

This year has seen Hill take on an even more active A&R role along with label founder Bradley Zero, and the fact can’t be overstressed given what a stellar year Rhythm Section International has had. Speaking to us via email, she shouts out the Nicola Cruz release, ‘Subtropique’ — a stepping, rhythmic EP drawing on deep house and EBM — as a personal highlight. The tracks were written with Rhythm Section in mind, and she explains how “the outpouring of support from our growing international community has been a blessing. It’s allowed me to go full-time and to expand the team, which ultimately offer different musical perspectives across the board as well as different creative viewpoints.”

This expanding musical palette has been a hallmark of a landmark year for the label, one in which the largely part-time team has released an impressive 11 projects. These range from the crackling, psychedelic beats of MMYYKK, who wrote ‘Science’ amid the bubbling turmoil of his home city of Minneapolis after last year’s world-changing events, to the sultry bedroom soul of Jerome Thomas’ ‘That Secret Sauce’, as well as returns to the label from Prequel, 30/70 and Vels Trio.

Another standout is Cousin Kula’s ‘Double Dinners’, an expansive take on jazz-flecked, psychedelic indie that has earned admirers in the likes of BADBADNOTGOOD. Bradley Zero first heard the group on the radio and it speaks to the label’s entrenched community spirit that Zero himself travelled to Bristol to help shoot videos for the group. 

Community is a term often thrown around in music but it’s a difficult trick to pull off. One way in which Rhythm Section stand out in this regard is their continued commitment to releasing sample packs at reasonable rates. This year both Z Lovecraft and Contours contributed a treasure trove of sounds that serves to demystify production and dish out the tools for nascent artists to try their hands with.

Hill even credits the pandemic with “actually broadening our ability to connect with people on the opposite side of the world.” With everyone so used to connecting digitally, it stands to reason that geographical boundaries start to blur.

Perhaps the most recognisable result of this has been the second iteration of Rhythm Section International’s ‘SHOUTS’ series. This year’s compilation stands as the closest thing to an encapsulation of the label’s modus operandi to date, not to mention their refreshed love of dancefloor music.

Find among its tracks meditative spoken word (James Massiah), stripped astral steppers (Lilizu, Dylan Bryne), textured rhythmic flexing (Nídia, Mafou), jazz to warm the soul (Retromigration & Cem Mo, cktrl) and weapons-grade, peak-time slammers (Yushh, Adam Pits). That’s some range.

With trips to SXSW, new dances in Berlin and a programme of workshops and courses for emerging QIPOC artists all on the horizon for 2022, not to mention new music Hill promises everyone should get excited about, it feels as though Rhythm Section is settling into a new level of maturity for the future. For now, DJ Mag readers have deservedly banged the drum for a true British institution. THEO KOTZ

Breakthrough Label
Future Retro

Tim Reaper’s star has been rising for over a decade. In junglist circles, he’s moved past being the exciting new kid on the block to establish himself as a figurehead of the modern scene — his prolific output of unforgiving breakbeat choppage unmatched by any of his peers. But over the past couple of years, he’s also broken out into the wider electronic music underground, helping to bring about the jungle takeover that’s now in full effect. 

In 2020, Tim (real name: Ed) decided to take a more active role in propelling the jungle scene forward. In June last year, he was due to hold the first Future Retro club event — an official testing ground for artists pushing the sound to new heights. Of course, the pandemic put paid to that idea — temporarily, at least — so Tim pivoted to a plan that’s now scored him a nice shiny Breakthrough Label gong for his mantelpiece.

Future Retro London, as it’s now known, launched in July 2020 with a unique idea dubbed ‘Meeting Of The Minds’; each release was a four-track EP on which Tim collaborated with four (or more) different artists. “I had an idea during the first lockdown about a collaborative release where I work with a lot of the producers in the jungle scene that I liked, but I couldn't really think of a label that I knew or worked with closely enough that would give me as much creative control, as I needed to make it happen the way I wanted it,” he recalls. “Every tune on ‘Meeting Of The Minds’ was made with the series in mind, after the idea was conceived in lockdown. I wanted all the tunes to be as fresh as possible for their release, nothing that had been sat around unsigned for months or years.”

The results have been some of the most essential releases of the past 18 months. The eight volumes to date pack in rowdy jungle tekno stompage, hellfire Amens, gleaming cosmic rollers and more, with Reaper pulling in old skool icons like Harmony, modern day heroes such as Sully and Coco Bryce, and rising names like Eusebeia and DJ Sofa.

The label has recently branched out too, with the first non-series release ‘FR001’ and label collabs with Equinox’s Scientific Wax and the experimental Circadian Rhythms imprint. All three feature multiple artists and/or remixes, continuing the collaborative spirit that’s driven Future Retro since the start. “I like the varying processes of collaboration that take place with all the producers I work with, they all seem to differ in how they do it, in how much back and forth there is and so on. On top of that, I like the interesting end results that come from the compromises made between me and others involved, and the synergy that comes out of such a project,” explains Tim. “I also feel like Future Retro London has to be a brand that represents a wide amount of people involved in the jungle scene, because there's so much talent out there to be showcased. I'd find it impossible to represent everything I like about jungle with just a select amount of producers.”

A quick tally shows that Future Retro London now boasts a roster of 36 artists, including Tim himself — not bad for a label that’s not even reached its second birthday.

So far, each release has arrived as a double — or most recently, triple — drop too, which Reaper explains is designed to help fans save on shipping costs. He carries on to reveal there are eight main label releases lined up already for 2022, along with the next two editions of ‘Meeting Of The Minds’ and more label collabs. “A lot is in the pipeline which I'm looking forward to and can't wait to share with everyone!”

And what does he make of his Best Of British win? “It feels very surprising,” he says. “I honestly never thought that I'd have an actual chance of winning it considering the other nominees and where jungle fits in the grand scheme of the music ecosystem, but I'm very grateful to all the people that voted to make it happen!” BEN HINDLE

Best Album
Joy Orbison 'still slipping vol. 1' [XL]

Released back in August, ‘still slipping vol. 1’ was a very welcome surprise — the long-form Joy Orbison collection we never knew we needed. With a back catalogue boasting many classic tunes, from ‘Hyph Mngo’ to ‘Sicko Cell’ to ‘Ellipsis’, plus plenty of more experimental EPs, such as ‘81b’ on Hinge Finger, the one thing Joy Orbison had never given us was an album.

Coming 12 years after his debut single, ‘still slipping vol. 1’ is musically wide ranging, from the trap/halftime beats of ‘bernard?’, to the deep vocal house of ‘better’, ‘layer 6’’s aquatic drum & bass and the smoked-out ambient rap of ‘playground’. It feels like an amalgamation of all the sounds and styles he’s into and, stitched together with voicemails and recordings of family members, it has an intimate touch. As such, Joy Orbison (real name: Peter O’Grady) bills it as a mixtape rather than an album.

“I’m not a massive fan of electronic albums, I’m not sure I could name more than five that I love, so I guess the idea of an album doesn’t really excite me at the moment,” says Joy Orbison. “The concept of ‘still slipping’ existed before a lot of the music too, and I’m not sure it would have really made sense if I’d treated it like an album. In my head, a mixtape is a more personal and hopefully a less grandiose thing, too, which hopefully can put the listener in the right mindset when they’re listening.”

Joy O has used voice recordings in his work before, but during lockdown, he hit upon the idea of incorporating them into ‘still slipping’ as a way to give his music a more human element. “I’m really influenced by people, and I want my music to feel relatable,” he says. “I feel like the voice does that, it locates it and lets you into my world, something I wasn’t always that comfortable with at the start of my career. Lockdown obviously played a big part too; I was alone for pretty much all of that time, and this was more or less the only contact with my family. A mate said to me recently that the voice notes are basically the ‘hooks’ of the record — I liked that.”

Though it has a share of uptempo tracks, ‘still slipping’ caters less for the club and more for headphones, the home or car. Working across an expansive canvas, it allowed Joy O the freedom to further explore the styles he’s only touched on with previous EPs.

“I’ve always made quite a random mix of stuff, and squeezed them into EPs or crept things out under pseudonyms,” he says. “A lot of the music on the record existed in some form before lockdown, but I guess I may have been drawn to the less obviously ‘dancefloor’ bits for this tape. The initial concept was a bit less rigid than a general dance 12, so it was always going to be quite varied, style-wise. I also had this realisation a few years back that I don’t really have a body of work that can soundtrack a bus ride or car journey. Hopefully now I’ve dealt with that oversight.”

He’s thrilled to win the Best Album accolade, especially since the mixtape was such a personal expression. “It’s a real honour and quite a shock,” says Joy Orbison. “My manager said to me the other day, ‘You seemed quite emotionally drained after the album came out’, and in a (slightly pathetic) way, that was true. I really tried to put a lot of myself into this mixtape, so to see that it has connected in this way truly means a lot to me. Thank you.” BEN MURPHY

Best Track
Ewan McVicar 'Tell Me Something Good' [Trick]

In a post on social media, Ayrshire’s Ewan McVicar had previously said that ‘Tell Me Something Good’ — the Chaka Khan-sampling, feel-good anthem released via Ministry of Sound and Patrick Topping's Trick — was just meant to be an edit to fill gaps in his set, or as he puts it, “Pick things up in the perty”. “I’m so appreciative of winning this award, what the tune has done for people — I have fans now!” he laughs down the phone.

Although he’s been DJing and running parties for almost a decade, ‘TMSG’ catapulted McVicar into the spotlight in a way he couldn’t have imagined. In the first week in December it was in its fourth week in the UK’s official Top 40 — peaking at no. 15 — and McVicar is still processing the success when we speak. “Being in the charts... it’s just something that’s happened, and I’m running with it,” he says. “But there’s no pressure on me to be in the charts again, because for me, it’s just about making music that I love. Otherwise, what am I doing it for?”

Despite the overwhelming success of ‘TMSG’, you’d be hard pressed to find an artist as grounded and determined as McVicar. Although ‘TMSG’ has pulled in the most numbers, McVicar has released 19 tracks this year via Nervous Records, Trick, Shall Not Fade, Unknown To The Unknown, and KooKoo, and remixed tracks for Amen, Mura and Big Miz. His touring schedule is stacked, too, with weekends packed with back-to-back performances, but still McVicar remains upbeat, ever-smiling and positive, thriving in the chaos of clubs, parties and good times.

As a selector, McVicar is crowd-focused. He picks up on the shifts in energy, carefully structuring sets that allow him to play his own selections and tracks he’d always imagined in the club, while remaining aligned with the dancefloor’s energy. He recently played the first night for his residency at Glasgow’s Sub Club, and for McVicar, it was when everything really came full circle. In his formative years, he would work the cash-desk until midnight, before doing “research” — watching the likes of George Fitzgerald, Optimo and Jasper James work the room, all while sober. “See, just learning off those folk is more valuable than anything I’ve ever done,” he says, "and it paid off.

“When I got in there for the gig... my god,” he exclaims. “I was just pulling tunes out my arse, hugging everybody, playing records I’d always imagined playing in Subby. I hit the cue button with my elbow, and I’m gonna upload the mix, but fuck it we’re human. I played ‘Heather Park’, a tune of mine that’s not out yet, and just burst out crying. It was unbelievable.”

Looking to the future, keeping the balance and remaining grounded are key for McVicar. He’s well aware of the two worlds he’s currently straddled between. On one side, there’s chart success, a slew of radio plays and high-profile interviews, and on the other, there’s playing to a sweaty Sub Club, pumping out acid house and his own productions to festival crowds and dedicated dancefloors. “I’ve released two EPs and one single since ‘TMSG’,” McVicar says, “but people are still asking me when my next music is out, because the commercial crossover is there.

“I want folk to see what else I can do. I’ve got tracks that I think are better than ‘TMSG’ — it’s always the tunes you don’t expect to do well that blow up. It’s so far removed from the underground scene and where I see myself, but I think because I can, and try to, connect with people, and I’m emotional and open, that people will stick with me. My fans are so supportive.

“And see... as long as I keep making bangers... I don’t really think anyone gives a fuck.” AMY FIELDING

Best Remix/Edit
SOPHIE 'Bipp (Autechre Mx)' [Numbers]

“No remixes... unless it’s Autechre,” was the “unequivocal response” that the team at Glasgow label Numbers said they received from SOPHIE when the idea was first floated in 2015 of commissioning a collection of reworks of her 2013 masterpiece ‘BIPP’. The label, having booked Autechre for a Numbers show in 2005, duly put the request out with a faint hope that they might take up the offer. 

“We passed over all of the stems and parts, including all the Sysex data for the track from the [Elektron] Monomachine and [Elektron] Machinedrum,” Calum Morton, who co-founded Numbers and DJs as Spencer, tells DJ Mag over the phone, referencing the machines that gave SOPHIE’s music its distinctive, elasticated pop sound and which SOPHIE was partially inspired to start using upon hearing a recording from that 2005 Numbers gig. Five years passed with no word, until an email dropped into the Numbers inbox, out of the blue, one day in 2020. “Sorry this is so late, hope it's still of some use,” read Autechre’s note, with the finished remix attached.

The duo’s flip of ‘BIPP’ completely inverts the source material, pitching the helium-taut vocals down considerably and setting them against a stripped-back, funk-laden instrumental that is equal parts Latin freestyle and UK street soul. It’s certainly not what one might have expected from a duo whose music has grown increasingly cerebral and inscrutable with each new release, remixing one of the 21st century’s leading lights in pop and electronic music production.

“It’s company policy not to question Autechre,” Morton jokes. “I guess, sound-wise, it’s not far off the Lego Feet stuff from 1991 that they were involved in, as well as the Gescom material, but I can hear a different production quality to it too. I know they thought of ‘BIPP’ as a kind of freestyle pop track, but made faster, with the vocals pitched up by SOPHIE. In a sense, their take on it restores it to being this UK street soul entity, riffing on ‘80s Jam & Lewis-style pop, but rawer and not far away from early ‘80s hip-hop.”

SOPHIE tragically passed away following an accidental fall just a couple of weeks after the world got to hear Autechre’s take on ‘BIPP’, which was released at the start of 2021, backed by the previously unreleased SOPHIE cut ‘UNISIL’. SOPHIE had spoken lovingly about their music in multiple interviews, telling Crack Magazine in 2018 that they “have been my heroes for a very long time”, and describing them to METAL Magazine as “queens of technology and sound design” that same year. “There are so many cases of musicians that start off great only to tail off later in their career,” SOPHIE added. “But Autechre have been making the most radical stuff lately.”

Though the Numbers crew didn’t know SOPHIE when they brought Autechre to Glasgow in 2005, “it would later become a regular conversation that we would have, about just how good the set was,” Morton says, with SOPHIE having discovered the recording after it was shared online. The release of this remix represented something of a full circle moment, then.

“Ultimately, for me, and for all of us, it became a bit of a pet project,” Morton says of setting out to make the release happen mid-pandemic. “It was all very much led by SOPHIE, but we worked in a way that you understood the direction and you followed it. When someone’s vision is so clear, it’s fun to work with them on realising something. That’s something you’ve got to treasure while it’s there.” CHRISTIAN EEDE

Best Compilation
Special Request 'DJ-Kicks: Special Request' [!K7]

“I've wanted to contribute to ‘DJ-Kicks’ since 1996 and discussed it with Will Saul and !K7 for a good seven years before it transpired!” Long-time producer and DJ soldier Paul Woolford is clearly enthused about winning this year’s Best Compilation gong, especially with a project that means so much to him: “I LOVE Claude Young’s instalment of ‘DJ-Kicks’, plus Carl Craig and Moodymann’s mixes, they’re all belters packed full of inspiration.”

Ever since its mid-‘90s inception with Claude Young’s glorious 4/4 journey and Kruder & Dorfmeister’s classic deep wander across the genres, the ‘DJ-Kicks’ series has been the standard for other mixtapes to aspire to. And this year, Paul Woolford in his Special Request guise stepped up and delivered a superb mix that demonstrated his two-decades-plus experience behind the decks. “I wanted it to be something of a world in itself,” says Woolford, “something that could stand up almost as an artist album on its own merits.”

Woolford’s ‘DJ-Kicks’ mix showcases a DJ confident in his craft, happily melding together the contemporary and the classic and deftly springing across genre boundaries as though they’re not even there. Early Trax records like Virgo’s ‘Are You Hot Enough’ from 1986 drop with ease next to contemporary space-house jams like Krystal Klear’s ‘Turn Valve’ from thirty years later. Then before you know it, Woolford’s smoothly fading in rave classic ‘De-Orbit’ by Speedy J before coming right back up to date with the sleek futurism of his own LS1 Housing Authority track ‘Ultraviolet’. 

The Special Request ‘DJ-Kicks’ mix does what the very best DJ sets do; it makes links between older and current tunes, presenting music across a broad range of styles that somehow all have something in common: “I mostly chose really warm and occasionally psychedelic music. A lot of the music on there really makes sense in the morning: there had to be a lot of musicality to it, a few left-turns and some exclusives.” It’s also a mix that’s not afraid to take a breather, allowing for palette-cleansing ambient breaks and sometimes simply letting records build up, rather than slamming in peak-time banger after banger. 

Having said that, Woolford’s mix is packed with plenty of high-energy dancefloor action and the final half-hour in particular absolutely smashes things up. Via a couple of his own remixes, including the sublime Special Request rework of u-Ziq’s ‘Twangle Frent’ and a nifty tempo change during Galaxian’s epic ‘Glasgow To Detroit’, he finishes proceedings with some heads-down jungle and drum & bass. “I love opening sets where the focus is on mood and the whole thing being warm,” continues Woolford, “and gradually the tension rises and all options are on the table. The weight of impact of the right 160+bpm track later on is 20 times more potent if the path towards that has been paved with all of the surrounding references that relate to that.”

The selection here reflects an open approach to dance music, less restrained by the boundaries and limitations of genre, a trend that Woolford sees reflected in his audience when he DJs: “Things feel wide open in many ways. Music streaming has, whatever your views on it, opened up many people’s ears way beyond genre. Most recorded music is available in your hand 24/7/365 — you can explore everything you want without needing an ‘expert’ to guide you through it, so most people use their instincts to listen to everything that interests them. This is reflected in what we are seeing and hearing in events today — even in scenes where the focus would have been concentrated on sub-genre, the outside influences can become the most potent moments. It feels wide open.” HAROLD HEATH

Best Rap Album/Mixtape
Ghetts 'Conflict Of Interest' [Warner]

Lately, a discussion’s been sweeping the timeline. Understandably, artists and labels have been growing increasingly frustrated with the short lifespan a release has once it’s been put out into the world. The 24-hour news cycle mixed with the immediacy of streaming are largely to blame, but there are still albums that buck that trend — and Ghetts’ ‘Conflict Of Interest' is a prime example. Released back in February 2021, the album is still one of the most talked-about releases of the last 12 months and has been cleaning up at awards shows. 

So what makes this album unique? Ghetts has always been set apart from the crowd, but with time that’s become more and more of a priority. “I just wanted the next chapter to be very different,” he says. “I wanted to say something that people might not be saying and use soundscapes that people are not using, to give it a real identity. I also wanted to be as truthful as I possibly could. I was just at a stage in my life where I was cool with showing vulnerability.” 

Did Ghetts expect it to connect so well with audiences? “Without sounding cocky... Yeah, I did. We put a lot of time into it. So I would have been hurt if it didn't connect, because I wasn’t cutting any corners at all. Not one. From mixes to using live instruments to the subtle changes we made to ‘Mozambique’. Normally, when a single's out for that long and you get the album, you just skip it. I didn't want people to do that, so I came up with a way that they wouldn't do that. Like I said, we didn’t cut any corners.”

Ironically, Ghetts explains that he called the album ‘Conflict Of Interest’ because he considers himself a naturally conflicted person. Paradoxically, he actually sounds more at peace than ever before. “It's the first time I've actually gotten Ghetto, Ghetts and Justin to work in harmony,” he explains. What’s changed is he’s better at dealing with it, or as he puts it, “understanding and not being ashamed of the past, but to embrace it and use it to better myself. That was one of the main ingredients.”

‘Conflict Of Interest’ also feels like a passing of the torch. New-er MCs and rappers like Jaykae and Dave feature prominently, but the crux of the cross-generational meet-up comes on 'No Mercy’ with Pa Salieu and BackRoad Gee, two artists who probably come closest of the new generation to being Ghetts’ spiritual successors. Does that make him an elder statesman? “I don't feel like one,” he laughs, “but maybe I am. To be honest, I get along better with the younger generation than I did — or do — with my own generation, especially Pa and BackRoad. I really like their music, and I like them more as individuals. They deserve the world of success.”

It’s no fluke that ‘Conflict Of Interest’ has been so universally celebrated. Its continued success has stretched far beyond the usual lifespan of releases, but few could have predicted the impact of that moment. It was the apex of a crescendo that had been building for at least a year — arguably for a lot longer. Since the orchestral drama of lead single ‘Mozambique’ first rang out, he released a string of high-profile collaborations with Skepta, Stormzy, BackRoad Gee and Pa Salieu, drove a tank through central London, and clinched No.2 in the album charts. But to play ringleader at The Roundhouse, with Kano, Giggs, Stormzy, Emeli Sandé, Jaykae, Shakka and more at his invitation... it was a moment that Justin Clarke has been owed for nearly 20 years. JAMES KEITH

Best Rap Track
ENNY 'Peng Black Girls (feat. Amia Brave)' [FAMM]

Speaking to DJ Mag over a shaky Zoom connection, ENNY, born Enitan Adepitan, is in the hair salon getting ready for the MOBOs, where she would take to the stage with rising R&B star Bellah for a performance of 'Peng Back Girls'. Softly spoken, at the other end of the line the South Londoner is measured with her words, taking care to express each thought with precision. 

That’s hardly surprising, of course: her first official single (an earlier video uploaded only to Instagram has since been lost to the mists of the internet) ‘He’s Not Into You’ presented a quietly self-assured South Londoner with absolute poise. With ‘Peng Black Girls’, however, she flourished. The rhymer’s instincts, sharpened from years writing poetry as a teen, were even more pronounced, effortlessly skipping between internal rhymes and rhyming couplets, switching up her flow at a moment’s notice.

Much of her lyrical dexterity comes from an early introduction to grime and garage. “I think the first project I really listened to when I was in primary school was Dizzee Rascal's ‘Boy In Da Corner’,” she explains. “My brother had that, and this was back when you could only listen to one CD at a time and I would listen to the whole thing!” That grimey influence, she adds, is something we may hear even more of in the future. “Even now,” she adds, “the cadence of how I rap is very grime-inspired and finding those pockets in rap. That's why it's so different, because it's a kind of grime flow cadence but mixed with hip-hop and soul beats. But yeah, the grime foundation's always there.”

It’s not just the playful wit and choppy flows of Channel U-era grime that coarse through her music — it’s also the storytelling. One of the most important and defining elements of ENNY’s music is the playground folklore absorbed while growing up in South London. It’s something that also informed her essay accompanying the recently published Keisha The Sket, a legendary piece of London literature originally written on short-lived social media platform pic.zo and passed around via Bluetooth. 

In that essay she talks about the treasured school moments that can lose their significance with age if we’re not careful. She talks about catching the later bus home to maximise her post-school chill time with her friends (but not so late that her mother catches her), about the importance of hair for Black women, and how identities are forged in the few places not policed by school uniform policies. It’s the same on the EP, too, gathering oral histories, preserving them and sharing them, but with the playful charm of school friends chatting.

The first lockdown hit in March 2020, a couple of months before ‘He’s Not Into You’ dropped, and many months before ‘Peng Black Girls’, so for most of her ascent she’s only been able to reach fans virtually. But with ‘Peng Black Girls’, a much stronger connection was forged. She joked on Twitter that “If live shows have shown me anything... white men sing ‘Peng Black Girls’ from their core,” but the truth is its message of taking pride in Black features — whatever your skin tone, body shape or hair type (“Permed tings, braids, got mini Afros”) and regardless of white Western beauty standards — has had an impact for Black women that will last far beyond the usual viral lifespan.

It’s those very same Black women that ENNY hopes to inspire. “I just want to be doing the best I can and be the greatest representation of myself,” she says. “I want to be someone that the younger version of myself can look at and see that they can do that. That's the most important thing for me, because a lot of times people can't be what they can't see.” JAMES KEITH

Best Radio Show
Jaguar, BBC Introducing on Radio 1 Dance

When Jaguar’s show burst onto the airwaves in April 2020, it was a tipping point for the host, presenter and DJ’s career. Working with the BBC for over six years and pursuing radio for even longer, this year she smashed targets and moved forward with a clear goal. She tells DJ Mag, “The ambition was to showcase the best dance tracks coming out of the UK. But it’s also about playing artists who aren’t always given that opportunity to play on mainstream radio, or in the wider world.”

Her dance music-focused BBC Introducing show launched during a pandemic, helping to “keep producers motivated”. In 2021 the format continued to thrive, and uploads from electronic artists soared from the 200s to over 700 tracks a week. She also hosted a prestigious Maida Vale session with Shygirl — the first of its kind from BBC Introducing Dance. 

Jaguar’s thirst for cheerleading others has always been apparent. In 2017, she encouraged Prospa to send in their tracks which resulted in gigs at Creamfields, ADE and a career kickstart. “I knew them from Leeds, where I studied. We’d talk about our hopes and dreams and now, we’ve done it together,” she tells DJ Mag. She’s just as tenacious today, reeling off lists of names who she’s loved supporting including Amy Dabbs, Junior Simba, Elkka, Meg Ward, Kiimi, Emily Nash and Rosie. “It’s such a pleasure to do it, honestly.” 

Although championing the length and breadth of Britain, Scottish producers have stood out to the broadcaster in 2021: “They’re just killing it.” Another of Jaguar’s ‘success stories’ hails from the area, with Glasgow’s Taahliah being a regular on the show. 

Beyond location, supporting minorities is key for Jaguar, who hopes it will “open doors for people who think they can’t get there”. Throughout the year she’s produced episodes focusing on Black History Month, LGBT History Month and International Women's Month, alongside consistently diverse playlists. She’ll never programme a 100% male show, she says with a smile. “That’s just not going to happen”. 

Outside of radio, her highlight in 2021 has been the launch of Future 1000 — an initiative to help young women and non-binary people learn to DJ. In 2022, she’s excited to develop it further. “We’ve only just scratched the surface.” EILEEN PEGG

Best Large Club
Printworks, London

The 5,000 capacity former newspaper-printing factory has made a huge impact on UK clubbers, despite only just approaching its fifth birthday. With a winning formula of industrial remnants, labyrinth-like navigation and a breathtaking LED screen, the London club regularly hosts the biggest electronic brands, from Bugged Out! to Fuse and La Discothèque. In 2021 the club collaborated with United Visual Artists to push the limits of its ceiling-to-floor visual backdrop, commissioning bespoke artwork that connects the venue’s heritage to the pulsating information age of today. 

Dance music lovers flock to the space to see huge names — the Chemical Brothers, Carl Craig, Moodymann, Green Velvet, Andy C, Four Tet and Floating Points are just some of this year’s headliners. However, new concept, ‘Redacted’, kick-started the club’s reopening in September 2021, which saw the venue ask dancers to put their trust in them, and keep the focus “firmly on the music for a pure celebration of club culture”. 

Instead of artist announcements, three events across the weekend were promoted on their sound alone. Friday’s ‘Late Night Movement’ featured adventurous producers, Saturday’s ‘To The Floor’ was dripping with house, while ‘Low End Theories’ on Sunday was a drum & bass dedication. Guests were reminded of the ‘no photos on the dancefloor’ policy throughout the reopening nights — a welcome scene, at a time when lockdown was replaced with real-life moments after so much time.

New programming strategies have been met by new spaces in the club in 2021. This year, Printworks joined forces with its long-standing partner and “gin of the music world” BULLDOG Gin, launching a dedicated courtyard outside to serve up the classic drink. It also ventured into the world of film, with eagle-eyed fans spotting the venue in a trailer for the upcoming Batman movie, set for cinemas in March 2022.

Next year’s schedule, starting in spring, welcomes Helena Hauff, Charlotte de Witte, Flying Lotus, Solomun, and GoldFish among many other electronic music linchpins. But before that, it's Defected and Glitterbox New Year’s extravaganza to see out 2021, another highlight at the venue was stalwart Noisia’s last ever London performance in December. EILEEN PEGG

Best Small Club
FOLD, London

Walking up the road to FOLD feels like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi movie. The DLR rumbles by, and huge skips heave with industrial material. A derelict pub is en route and adds to the forgotten feel that permeates this pocket of Canning Town. 

But further on, FOLD sits unassumingly in the middle of the wasteland. It could be another warehouse, either in use or defunct. Inside, however, founders Lasha Jorjoliani (aka Voicedrone) and Seb Glover have cultivated one of London’s most essential electronic music and art spaces since 2018. “We are artist-led, this space is built for artists and our community, and we are continuously evolving and growing,” co-founder Lasha tells DJ Mag. “Our aim is to build a new type of space, which supports a wide range of local emerging and international artists from electronic music to more experimental and immersive audio-visual arts, as well as champion interdisciplinary collaboration.”

It helps that the surrounding area has remained virtually unchanged since launching. “We are working with Newham Council to grow and expand and provide more opportunities for the local community to get involved in what we do and aim to partner with local schools and art/music groups within Newham,” says Lasha. “We are aiming to become a cultural hub within the community and collaborate and work with the locals to inject our inclusive ethos and artistic direction into this area.”

As well as hosting international talents and labels, like Cartulis, Ismus, Stay Up Forever, Hydraulix and Rupture, it’s the club’s queer Sunday daytime party UNFOLD, and its residents, who have perhaps most contributed to the rise of the success of the club. “UNFOLD is not just a party to us, it is political; this is not just expressed through our resident artists, but also through the placing of the decks in the middle of the room to democratise the relationship between the artists and the audience — and create a ritualistic atmosphere.” 

Reflecting on the win for Best Small Club, Lasha and Seb are grateful for the significant boost in staff morale. “After everything we have been through over this pandemic, it’s almost unbelievable that we managed to make it through,” says Lasha. “We have put our blood, sweat and tears into keeping us alive and making FOLD what it is, and so having some recognition for our hard work is definitely appreciated.” NIAMH O’CONNOR

Best Club Event
Animal Crosing

There are significant years, then there’s 2021. Over the past 12 months, UK clubs have held on tight to a rollercoaster of uncertainties, doubt and anxiety hanging in the air long after reopening in July. All of which means the achievements of Manchester-based Animal Crossing are even more impressive. 

The nomadic collective is known for throwing parties in places where parties shouldn’t be thrown, and have more than made the most of the meagre six-month window during which events have been possible. Sessions with John Dimas, The Ghost, Apollonia, You&Me, Evan Baggs and Enzo Siragusa have taken over locations from the suitably cryptic ‘Somewhere New’, to city centre rooftops and disused car showrooms, addresses shared once all tickets are sold.

But that barely scratches the surface. In a shorter-than-normal festival season, the promoters delivered Summer Of Love, a 10,000-capacity daytime throwdown featuring a who’s who of minimal-leaning talent — from Ar:piar to Truly Madly — christening an impressive warehouse site in gritty east Manchester. The after-party then moved action to The Loft, another side of their story: a brand new, 200-capacity venue and arts hub that Animal Crossing worked tirelessly to open, now a regular weekend haunt for those who want to stomp. 

“We feel humbled, motivated, and inspired to keep pioneering, dedicating ourselves, and providing an experience for people. I mean, it's quite ironic — we've won Best Club Series but have never thrown a party in a club before,” says Olli Ryder, a central figure in the Animal Crossing crew. “What makes us special is that unknown; no matter how many times you come, it will always be your first time. It’s a really poetic narrative to have... next year we’re looking to add Best Small Festival and Club to this award.” MARTIN GUTTRIDGE-HEWITT

Best Festival
We Out Here

What was there not to love about We Out Here? The weather was lush, the location a sprawling never-never land, and the ratio of live acts to DJ sets perfectly balanced: festival goers could catch Mercury nominated artists Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia on the mainstage and then get lost in a heady mix courtesy of Anz, Fabio & Grooverider, or SHERELLE. But perhaps what gave WOH the edge in 2021, with Glastonbury and Boomtown both cancelled, was the sheer range of activities on offer. Whether you wanted to lounge in the cinema tent, meditate at the yoga gazebo, have a roller disco, or swim in the lake, there was something for everyone. 

“Winning this year has been amazing,” WOH marketing manager Ellie White tells DJ Mag. “For the event, the music and the scene to be recognised among so many great previous winning festivals is a great feeling, and after two years of challenges and uncertainty, it felt amazing that we were able to go ahead with the festival at all. To have had such great feedback and support makes it all worth it.”

WOH takes its name from the 2018 Brownswood compilation, which showcased the new wave of artists in London’s jazz scene. This was reflected in the line-up, which leaned heavily on UK talent owing to COVID and visa restrictions, but organisers hope to welcome more international artists and punters in the years to come, as well as growing its relationship with the charities it’s fundraising for. “The festival featured some incredible experiences, but without the community and family feeling that the WOH crowd brings it wouldn’t be the same,” White continues. “Can't wait to see all those faces again in 2022.” And neither can we. RIA HYLTON

Best Boutique Festival
Lost Village

The Lincolnshire festival may only be a few years old, but it's quickly made its mark on the UK circuit. The words ‘immersive’ and ‘experiential’ feel almost obligatory to be included in the description of new festivals these days, but Lost Village’s exquisite attention to detail means it lives up to the hype. 

If you’re new to the event, the idea is that many years ago, a remote village in a picturesque wood was abandoned forever. No one quite knows why, but left behind were log cabins, eerie gramophones and even full airplane cabins that mysteriously crashed in the grounds of the festival. Eerie goings on ensue, creating a mystical atmosphere amongst the rumbling subwoofers. Imagine an M. Night Shyamalan film soundtracked by the finest house, techno and disco and set in an idyllic forest by a shimmering lake and you’re halfway there. 

Having won the award for Best Boutique festival back in 2017, Lost Village has claimed the crown again in 2021, after 2020’s event was cancelled due to Covid. This year’s was a roaring success with headliners Bonobo and Four Tet joined by Ben UFO, HAAi, Jayda G, Jamz Supernova, Honey Dijon and Kettama, to name a few. Highlights included plenty of surprise back-to-back sets like Theo Kottis b2b Ryan Elliot, who dropped an edit of ‘I’m Horny’ to thousands of dancers soaking in the sun, while CC:Disco’s b2b with Bradley Zero resulted in the Murder Mix of Dead Or Alive’s classic ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’, to giddy glee.

But the real star of the show is Lost Village’s immaculate production — from the actors wandering the forest to the ‘abandoned’ vintage cars, chapels and cabins, to the fireworks over the lake on the final night, Lost Village is truly immersive. Once you’re in, it feels like another world, something many other festivals promise but very few can pull off. DECLAN McGLYNN

Underground Hero
Ben Sims

UK club veteran Ben Sims is as humble as you'd expect upong winning the Underground Hero award. “It’s a genuine surprise,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting to win at all, and just being nominated was a welcome boost after the past two difficult years, so I’m happy about it. Surprised but appreciative.”

The Essex-born DJ, producer and label boss is synonymous with a groovy vein of UK techno and stays true to his sound without adapting to trends. During Ben’s two-decade career, his imprints Hardgroove and Symbolism — the latter of which will release a two-part compilation later this month — both played a part in his upward trajectory, as well as Theory Recordings which ceased in 2014. Those in the techno world will know of the club-night and label Machine that he co-runs with Kirk Degiorgio, geared towards supporting emerging artists. Ben’s Run It Red show on NTS Radio follows the same ethos, with each broadcast dedicated to new music supplied by producers from all over the world.

Before Ben found his calling in techno, he played house and hip-hop records on a London-based pirate radio station during the late ‘80s. He went to hip-hop parties too and made a mental note of the DJ’s skill on show. “They were my heroes,” Ben recalls. “Still a lot of hype, ego and bravado, but they had to have the skills and selection to back it up. You couldn’t be up there jumping about like a prick and not deliver the goods; you’d be booed off. So that’s what I learned really early, and that’s what’s important to me — the musical knowledge, the skills, the art of mixing, rocking a crowd. I do my best to avoid the rest of it.”

During his imitable career, Ben faced certain challenges. Navigating the grey area between work and play was one of them, and as someone who likes to party, clubs being the place of work proved a tricky environment. “The line between work and fun is often blurred, and I tend to be a bit all or nothing in general, so I had to learn how to police myself,” he says. “It’s not easy sometimes, and I don’t always get it right, but being more conscious of it has improved a lot of things professionally and personally.”

Looking towards the next generation of artists, Ben shares noteworthy advice to those finding their feet, as the landscape for producing and promoting music has evolved since his first gig at a school disco, aged 10. “Be patient and take your time to master what you do. It’s hard to stand out these days, even if you’ve been in the scene a while, so having your own identity counts for a lot. Don’t follow fashion or trends for the sake of it, things go around in circles anyway,” he says. 

“Most importantly, do it because you love it — because you love the music or mixing records or making beats, treat it like a hobby and enjoy it. I’ve previously said this on Twitter, but it’s totally possible to make a living from underground music. You probably won’t become a millionaire or a ‘commercial success’, but then again, you won’t have to sell your soul or deep throat Satan either.” NIAMH O’CONNOR

Innovation & Excellence
Young Urban Arts Foundation

Young Urban Arts Foundation started in a box room in Deptford with Kerry O’Brien, aka Lady MC, and her mum doing DJ and MC workshops in youth centres. Almost 13 years later, the foundation has helped educate, empower and celebrate 19,000 disadvantaged young people and is Gold Accredited by London Youth, making it a recognised centre of excellence. All of this has happened in the wake of the global financial crash of 2008, Covid-19 pandemic and an 80% cut of funding for youth services over the last six years. If that doesn't make it worthy of DJ Mag's Innovation & Excellence gong in this year's Best of British awards, nothing does. 

“It really means so much to us all," says Kerry. "We work so hard and usually get our awards seeing the development of our young people and artists, but to be recognised by the industry really means a lot.”

The need for YUAF to innovate with its offerings has never been more important than during the last two years of the pandemic. “We decided to go harder,” says Kerry, defiantly. “We adapted our programmes and used the creativity in the team to reach young people powerfully and get them in a better space mentally and emotionally.”

Kerry had no professional experience when she started out, “just a lot of passion and drive to help young people.” What she did have, though, was experience of childhood trauma which she escaped by getting into drum & bass and becoming an MC. “The craft of it helped me to release the challenges I faced growing up, instead of suppressing emotions,” she says. “My colleagues were like my social workers, I had a community and felt more confident than what I was programmed as a child to believe about myself.”

YUAF exists to now offer those opportunities to others. It engages young people in ways that traditional and formal educational settings do not because of the passionate people involved and by allowing young people to lead as much as possible. “Most of us have lived experience or a lot of experience working with young people, so we know how to communicate with them,” says Kerry. “Importantly, if we say we are going to do something, it gets done. This builds trust, and trust is the bridge to progress.”

Recently the foundation has created the YUAF Futures project to specifically help 16 to 19-year-olds from Black, Asian and minority ethnic and LGBTQIA communities, disabled teenagers, and those living in poverty. “These groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to entry into the creative industries so we wanted to make a difference,” says Kerry. “We provide spaces for them to explore their passions, upskill in those areas, gain work experience placements and meet aspiring role models in their chosen fields.”

Londoners may have seen YUAF's famous bus, which is a mobile multimedia studio that heads into estates and areas where there is little or nothing for young people to engage in. It offers a safe and exciting space that can inspire and build confidence through hands-on DJing and production experiences. “But it's 20 years old now,” says Kerry. “We desperately need some help getting a new one on the road so TfL, give us a bus please!”

YUAF's YouTube channel is packed with music crafted by students, motivational tips from established artists and films documenting the foundation's work. It is hugely inspiring. “Noticing the difference in how a young person speaks about themselves, seeing smiles we haven’t seen before or listening to a recorded track that a girl said she could never do is a privilege and a blessing,” says Kerry. “This has never been a job for us, this is a mission I will be forever grateful for.” KRISTAN J CARYL

Outstanding Contribution
Mary Anne Hobbs

“I’m overjoyed and overwhelmed in equal parts,” says radio stalwart Mary Anne Hobbs when we call her up about her Outstanding Contribution award. “I’m not the sort of individual who is ordinarily decorated, so I am truly humbled that you would think about me in this context. I was jumping up and down and screaming in a corner on my own when I first received your email — truly thrilled, and absolutely honoured.”

This award is truly deserved. While others are content to sit on their laurels and retread the same old paths, Mary Anne is constantly striving to bring new music to the masses. Her daily show on BBC 6Music, running from 10.30am to 1pm every weekday, is an artfully curated wonderland of eclecticism, where an old LFO hardcore track will be followed by indie-rockers Arcade Fire, slamming straight into SHERELLE’s ‘Jungle Teknah’ before continuing with an Iggy Pop classic — to take just a random segment from one of her recent shows. She champions artists like Loraine James, Anz, Nils Frahm, Shygirl, Avalon Emerson, aya, Ezra Collective, and a wealth of other relative newcomers who also circulate DJ Mag’s orbit, shrewdly positioned between the finest alternative rock classics or hip-hop and grime missives. On a Friday she’ll host a DJ set by Paula Temple, LTJ Bukem or Thom Yorke; she’ll shake speakers across the land by dropping a slamming 4/4 cut on Techno Tuesday; and continually blend the new and the vintage with celestial dexterity, turning thousands on to discerning new music every day.

“I want to completely reimagine what a daytime radio show can do and draw in music that is thrilling and highly significant culturally,” Mary Anne tells DJ Mag in her lilting, captivating radio voice. “I’ve always felt that there should be a place for music from every genre, from every conceivable cultural enclave, on daytime radio. I know it feels very different, but that thrills me.”

Every single one of her shows feels like a work of art, DJ Mag suggests. How long does it take to prepare each show? “I don’t see it as a job, I see it as what I do with my life,” she outlines. “It’s hard to give an exact timeframe because there are so many balls in the air all the time. Some projects take an enormous amount of development; even just a single piece of music you can sometimes be in conversation with an artist for months about it. And some things fall together very quickly.”

She explains how — apart from eating, sleeping and showering — she’s working on her show constantly. “It’s living this life, and I love it,” she says. “I feel so fortunate and privileged to be in this position. I can’t imagine another life — it’s the life I always imagined. When I was 18 and ran away to London and lived on a bus in a car park for a year, if I could have had a glimpse at the life of the 57-year-old me, I’d have been elated.” CARL LOBEN

Read our list on the best albums, tracks and compilations of 2021