Spotlight: Toyboy & Robin
21 Mar 2013
They weren't wearing capes, but they're superheroes in their own way.
Photo: Josh Hall
Toyboy and Robin sound like a superhero duo - and in some senses they are. When we met them the London pair weren't wearing capes, but we wouldn't be surprised to see them masked up, leaping from club to club, saving Londoners from boredom.
Over the course of a series of free downloads, Toyin Mustapha and Rob Drake have forged a path to the very heart of the house boom. Pitting expertly chosen samples against garage-inflected synth patterns, tracks like 'No More Sunshine' have secured them a place in the vanguard of the new wave of unabashedly populist dance music. We sat down with them to find out how it all started.
RFB: When did you guys begin to make music?
T: For me, my brother taught me. I started to learn instruments when I was seven, then I actually started to make music loosely when I was twelve years old, when FL Studios released Fruity Loops 3, back in the day. But I didn’t start to get skilled at it til I reached 16 and 17 and it was always hip-hop, r'n'b, or soul music, but it was never dance music.
RFB: So that was mainly due to your brother's influence?
T: Yeah, massively. I always say, if my brother were to become a scientist, I would want to be a scientist as well. Everything was and is influenced by him on my end.
RFB: What about when you were seven - was it more a family thing?
T: It was, but then it was also the school that I went to. It was very into sports, music, and just extra-curricular stuff. So I started learning classical piano and guitar at seven and then jazz piano at about ten.
R: I don’t really have an affinity to learning any musical instruments or anything, but I feel I just know what sounds right or wrong, like black and white. I came from the DJ route. I started DJing just before university, so about when I was 18 or 19. It was mainly because my brother bought decks, then he was usually at work and I just played around with them and then self-taught myself. Then I’ve only really started producing within the last year. with Toy I’d just sit there; it’d be more me helping as Toy would come up with the ideas, then I’d say maybe this could be changed.
RFB: So it’s more like the ear.
R: Yeah but don’t get me wrong, we still send ideas to each other.
T: Coming from hip-hop and RnB, it’s always about the nicest melodies and packing as much in. I didn’t start listening to dance music till I was seventeen, and then I got really into it at university. I still loved hip-hop, r'n'b, and soul, then I realised what's the big difference between the genres in particular - dance music is electronic, repetitive, and very long. Before I usually thought what you needed was a big build up and then some fat, fat drop. Which is what David Guetta and co does, and that’s not really what you want to be doing right now. It’s more about having a real drive to a track, so that’s how it works. But [Rob is] playing himself down massively. We bounce ideas off each other and that’s how we operate.
RFB: So how did that first start coming about? Was it at university you met?
T: We lived together.
R: Basically in Manchester I lived in like a tower, and I lived in on the 13th floor, then there was a courtyard and I used to see Toy bopping around. I knew that my mates knew him, but we lived in the same campus but different halls. We met through mutual friends, but I don’t really remember much of the night…
T: He was on about some ex-girlfriend, but now I know Rob five, six years later – that’s just him. It’s a good trait. You don’t really get that in a lot of people, so it’s harder to get to know them. It was like that we got to know very quickly that we had the same tastes in music and how my brother influenced my taste, Rob’s brother had an affect likewise, so that was really it. I think the dealbreaker was when Rob got his hard drive from home once and we were going through all his old tunes and I couldn’t believe some of the r'n'b tunes he had on there. I thought he must’ve stolen the hard drive.
R: But you hear everyone sampling now. You go on Eton Messy - I went on there the other day and basically just thought, for fuck's sake why is nobody thinking outside of the box? It’s great that you’ve got nineteen or twenty year old producers, but they just won’t have that knowledge like us, for example: we’ve got so many samples and a cappellas on the computer that’ll get used one day and I just know that nobody else is going to use that.
RFB: What do you care most about?
R: Just getting our head down and working, until it’s happening full-time for us. You know Deal Or No Deal? It’s like in Toy’s head and mine, in terms of pounds you earn per year that we’re happy that to say that this is a full-time career. I’m not going to scrimp and save to make a music career work. It either will, or it won’t. It’s all well and good to earn £15,000 a year from music and say, “Yeah, I produce music” but you’re not living well - for me, we just want to be really successful.
T: For me, someone like TEED is what I want to be like. The TEEDs of this world just go into the studio and I don’t think he says to himself "I want to make this track." Of course he may have an idea but you can kind of tell with his music that he just wants to have fun and does what he wants, and that’s what we want to do.
RFB: So what is the writing process like for you?
R: It’s like a track-by-track process for us.
T: We have a lot of other ideas sitting around, some good and some woeful. You know when you make a track at night and then think, "This is massive," and then you wake up and listen to it, you question what you were thinking. It’s always heartbreaking. It’s like your dreams have shattered.
RFB: How has it been since you’ve first started putting your tracks out?
T: It’s weird, if someone told us this time last year that we’d be where we’re at now, I wouldn’t have believed it. I guess we did have a slight plan. We only released three [free downloads] and that was our plan. It’s been weird, we’ve started doing a few gigs not our own, where we’ve just been chilling and people are starting to recognise us, which I find really strange.
R: Boiler Room was a weird one…we snuck our way in and two people came up to us - one guy from a blog and this random girl. Then I went out with my friends the other day and there was a guy who came up to me and said, “Are you one of the guys from Toyboy and Robin?” It’s really weird how our music now has a reach.
T: Someone called us famous the other day. We’re not famous at all though.
RFB: Was there a point when you used to DJ that you thought, "We need to start producing because it’s time" or was it more natural?
R: Toy has always been producing. He used to produce with his brother. Then when we lived together in third and fourth year of university, but I don’t know whose idea it was.
T: It was mainly because we were bored and thought it’d be nice to play our own songs in a club.
R: Then Toy mentioned that he has all these ideas knocking about, but I don’t think we actually used any of them because we started to write other stuff. I guess some other people may have put those possible tracks on a four track EP. If we ever write an album I suppose we can go back to them, but some of those riffs may make us think, "What the hell is this?"
RFB: What’s it like not being DJs now, and playing live?
T: We actually haven’t started doing that yet; we’ve been talking about it for a while. Basically you really have to back yourself to play a set of your music and we’re not at that point yet. We do get to headline some gigs, and to be fair the majority of our sets are our own songs. We still want people to have fun; we don’t think playing our own songs is the best thing to do at the moment. We’d much rather people come away from a show and think, “Those guys were fucking sick” as opposed to, “Oh yeah, I did like some of the songs.” We are working towards playing live. Long story short, when the time's right we’ll make the switch.
RFB: You seem quite business minded about it all.
T: Yeah, people say that a lot. I don’t see it. I think we’re more pragmatic about it and we’re realists. I don’t mean to sound like a dick but going to a university like Manchester where you’ve got so much going on, you get to see things at different ends. In our first and second year of university we DJ'd a bit. We weren’t doing it together by then - Rob was still DJing and I was promoting a club night. So Rob was doing it from the DJ point of view and I was doing it from the punter's point of view - so everyone should be having fun. Then I guess we morphed. Maybe it’s that we over-think it, but the time will come when we’ll do a set of our own stuff. At the moment it reflects better on us if people leave and think our set was great and had fun.
RFB: Is there any worry that house is coming to a logical pop end?
T: For me people intend to go pop. Pop music is just the majority of what people like at the end of the day. With every release that comes out from someone like Disclosure their audience is getting bigger, so before you know it, it’s not a case of selling out. At the end of the day, I don’t care what anyone says about David Guetta, okay it may sound like he really has a keyboard that only consists of three keys but having said that, all that happened is that he took a sound to America and America took to it and that became their pop music. It’s only logical if it keeps going the way it’s going, and then what’s the trend now will become pop music as well.
RFB: A year ago could you have anticipated that this scene in general was to take off?
T: Definitely not.
R: I’d say,are we where we wanted to be? Yes. Did we think we’d get here? No. All of a sudden we got a thousand likes on Facebook, should we post about it? We both thought fuck it, Disclosure have about a hundred and thirty thousand likes, and do they brag about it? No. I don’t care about the likes; I just care about the gigs and making the music.
T: We’re not in the same bracket as Disclosure or Bondax, but we’re in a similar scene. We’ve just got to put it into perspective. If we’re in that scene we’re striving to get to that level.
R: Music is so retrospective; you can’t predict where you’re going to go. Don’t get me wrong, the scene we’re in will die. Of course it’s going to go. I’m not being morbid but in two, three years time it might [not] be here. I don’t think it’s even at its peak yet; it’s barely touched it. When Disclosure got into the charts, that was the first real marking point, and when the scene dies, it’ll be about the people who evolve and change their sound. You can keep relevant, but it’s just knowing how to. But that’s why we can sit here and not think, “Oh my god we’re killing it,” because our days are numbered and nothing last forever. I guess that’s maybe why we do have a business mindset; because Toy does events and I do PR and it’s all in that bubble. Hopefully it all just works out and we can make a sustainable living from music.