Sub Focus - A Life & Times
In 2003 the friend of a little-known music producer from Guilford, managed to get his buddy’s demo CD into the hands of the RAM records CEO Andy C. The executioner, as Andy is often referred to, was so impressed with the demo that he instantly signed its producer, Nicolaas Douwma to his label. Little did he know that such a chance signing, would kickstart the career of one of the UK’s most successful EDM producers – SubFocus.
This October, marked ten years since Douwma released his first ever studio album. In light of this we decided to take a look back at the career of a DJ who is arguably the biggest drum and bass act to come out of RAM records independent of Chase & Status. He’s made a huge contribution to the genre and after hitting dizzyingly high UK chart heights with Torus in 2013, he continues to produce killer records and sell out shows to this day; notably collaborating heavily with Dimension and Wilkinson in recent years.
In a similar vein to most graduates who went to uni in Bristol and hit Motion way too hard, SubFocus started life as a fan of guitar music. As a teenager, Douwma was a big Nirvana fan and played bass in a rock band. It wasn’t until he started listening to jungle that he really became interested in making and playing Drum and Bass. In an interview with Music Radar’s Danny Turner, Douwma revealed that at the age of 13 in a school break, a friend of his played the massive General Levvy hit ‘Incredible’ on a cassette player. This is where his fascination in Jungle Drum and Bass really began, as he was hooked on the track’s super-fast drums and massive sub bass.
The Guilford dance music prodigy, then started to produce EDM in a big way and in 2003 he was signed to RAM records’ sister label Frequency. The appointment came after a friend of his handed a demo to Andy C at a club as previously mentioned. His Frequency debut came with the single ‘Down the Drain’ which you should check out if you haven’t heard. It's a great Techstep track with a real old school vibe, although it isn’t on Spotify, so you’ll have to stretch to Youtube if you want to hear the sweet sweet melodies. SubFocus made his debut on RAM in 2005 with the colossal hit X-Ray, a track which made its’ way into many mixes and has sustained its popularity to this day, after receiving a rework from Metrik in 2017.
Following a string of successful releases, which included Druggy and Timewarp, Douwma started work on his first studio album. It was self-titled and released on October 13th 2009, reaching 51st place on the UK album chart. The record combined a host of genres, with tracks showcasing elements of House, Trance, Breakbeat and of course Drum and Bass. It is often seen as one of SubFocus’s greatest strengths, that he has the capability to produce across a variety of genres. However, it was this ability that proved to be the biggest source of criticism of his work and in a BBC review of his debut album, Chris Power criticised the record for not having a coherent style. He recognised Douwma’s ability to produce “dancefloor-consuming monsters” but argued that his sound needed to become more distinctive, before he could enter the halls of fame for truly great dance producers.
SubFocus responded by showcasing his true production talent, taking the reigns on Example’s chart hit Kickstarts. Douwma took the studio lead for the track which hit the no1 spot in the UK singles chart and still tops Example’s most played list on Spotify to this day (even his collab with the more Maneki friendly Darkzy hasn’t knocked it from first place). The success of Kickstarts earned SubFocus a great deal of praise and showcased his talent for bringing together elements of different dance genres to create unique production packages. On a BBC chart blog, one user reflected this view, commenting that whilst it is a pop song, Kickstarts fuses many different genres together to give the track a real edge, which owes a lot to Sub Focus’ production. In many ways the critique of Douwma’s first album lacking direction, had come good with his ghost production success, showcasing his talent for fusing different styles of dance together.
Just shy of 4 years on from the release of his first album, SubFocus blew his critics out of the water, with the huge 13 track Torus which peaked at 13th in the UK albums chart. The hit song ‘Tidal Wave’ with Alice Gold became an anthem for the Guilford based producer and with Endorphins and Turn Back Time both reaching no10 in the UK Singles Chart, it became clear that with a more signature style of production Nicholaas Dowma had become a true dance music great.
SubFocus then began touring as a live outfit and by live I mean properly live, not just “This guy can really work a crossfader” kind of live. Stood centre stage, behind several rings of sensational LED displays, he produced songs in real time, creating projects for sell out audiences, in the flesh. In a documentary created specifically for his shows, Douwma talked through his set up, showcasing a range of instruments and custom-built tech which he used for his performances. Motion sensor-controlled synthesisers, instrument responsive lighting and the all-important filthy basslines were all implemented, to create insane shows where the audience could witness dance music, performed live like never before. Click here to see the film about his shows. It makes for a great watch, but it's best to avoid if you’re an upcoming producer because it will probably make you green with envy.
In recent years, SubFocus has returned to the decks, playing shows with a more conventional DnB set up. No doubt this is much to the delight of stage technicians across the country, who just have to make sure there are no USB mishaps, as opposed to constructing a hopelessly complicated live dance workstation. In 2018 he collaborated with Dimension to produce the massive ‘Desire’ and over the past year he has regularly been playing live with Wilkinson, performing huge sets at Rampage, Radio 1s Big Weekend and Amnesia – the Crown Jewel of Ibiza’s club scene. A standout in the dance music scene, SubFocus has captivated ravers throughout his career, with the ability to produce not only hardcore DnB stompers but also tracks which strike a chord with mainstream audiences. He has pushed the boundaries of live dance with his fantastic shows and has put together the anthems of many Saturday nights across the world. Let’s hope that this genius DJ can continue to smash the scene just like he has for the past two decades.
By Alex Frampton