Richard Sen interview: subculture, criminology and the link between Acid House and Graffiti

Richard Sen’s involvement in music and art across the last four decades has been unique and colossal in equal measure, generating him a cross-discipline cult following.

Starting off as a selector at the time of the burgeoning UK Acid House scene in the late 1980s, he then moved into production, releasing numerous seminal records under the aliases Bronx Dogs, Padded Cell, and Hackney Vandal Patrol, as well as an array of work under his own name.

Creator of the infamous ‘coma’ tag, Richard was also a prominent graffiti artist in London during his youth, and in the late 1980s, at the age of 18, he became the first person in the UK to be sent to prison for it.

He has recently completed a Master’s degree in criminology with a particular interest in the interaction between culture and crime, and to this day continues to produce cutting edge sounds and play live.

Richard will be playing the Jelly Legs event at Werkhaus on the 24th of July. In build up to the party, we sat down with the versatile creator to discuss the evolution of his work, the relationship between light and darkness, the sociological links between graffiti and Acid House as subcultures, the effects of social media on creativity and more.

Richard Sen was the first person to be sent to prison for graffiti in the UK

Hi Richard, how’ve you been recently?

I’ve really enjoyed lockdown. I know some people are having a hard time but it’s given me the chance to make loads of music.

Your music often resists easy categorisation. Does this reflect your wide-ranging creative and musical influences? Is this also maybe why much of your music still sounds very cutting edge today?

Because I’ve been around for so long, I have a wide range of influences which, I guess, are reflected in my productions. I’m from the era when DJs would play many genres, unlike now when dance music is so fragmented and specialised.

I listen to a lot of different types of music too so I’m open minded when it comes to DJing and producing but still fit into the disco / house / electro framework. If my music still sounds cutting edge then that’s great! I try not to follow musical trends anymore and don’t really feel part of any scene and don’t want to be labelled. This is both good and bad.

People seem to need to fit musicians into boxes, I understand that it helps with sales and gigs etc but once you’re labelled as ‘dark disco’ or ‘chug’ or ‘deep house’ you’re stuck with it and it’s difficult to do something different unless you create a new artist persona.

I don’t like to be controlled or told what to play so I’m happy to perplex those with closed minds. I really identify with DJs like Four Tet, Trevor Jackson and Theo Parrish who all play very eclectic sets, make different styles of music and just do their own thing.

Richard Sen’s ‘Coma’ tag

How did the time you spent in New York in the 1980s influence your art in terms of both graffiti writing and latterly music production?

What was happening in New York during the 1970s and early 80s has been unmatched in any other music or youth culture. The city was a creative explosion, out of which came disco, punk and hip-hop and the train graffiti subculture (which is separate to hip hop); all within the space of 10 years.

If I could go back in time, I’d love to go there between 1974 – 1984 to experience what was happening in the clubs and on the streets. My first trip there was in 1985 and I was 17 so naturally, my teenage mind was blown. I saw graffiti on trains and came back to London and tried to imitate what I saw.

Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation tapes were a huge influence. He’d play funk, rock, synth pop, post-punk and electro breaks. The music coming from NYC in that era is part of my musical DNA and therefore, probably, subconsciously influences my work. 

There’s something about the place – the infrastructure, the multi-cultural mix of people, the energy, the attitude and the history which makes it special for me. Even though Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn have become colonised and gentrified by moneyed yuppies and hipsters there are still places like the Bronx that remain hipster-free, unique and edgy.

Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation Throwdown

Graffiti artists usually have quite a particular style through which their work can be identified. Is this something you aim to replicate in music production?

Yes, definitely. I think the aim of any artist or musician is to have their own recognisable sound or style. Making music is a form of expression and a personality. The hard part is getting to that point which I hope I have done, whether it’s my productions or my DJ sets.

I did a mix for someone recently and he said that his mate said to him that it ‘reeks of Sen’ which is a great compliment. Sometimes I’ll play my tracks to people but not tell them who it is and often they say, ‘Is this one of yours?’

I don’t consciously think of how a track or DJ set will sound, I’m naturally drawn to certain tracks or sounds that feel comfortable. I think musical influences play a part in my ‘sound’ combined probably with whatever new stuff I’m listening to at the time.

Illegal Graffiti seemed essentially quite a collectivist act. People from all different types of backgrounds engaged as a kind of community and it was not financially advantageous.

During a period of neo-liberal hegemony in politics, Graffiti as a subculture in some ways existed in opposition to an emphasis on individualism and careerist entrepreneurialism.

Are there parallels to be seen here with the Acid House scene in Britain that emerged from the late 1980s?

Yes, totally. The graffiti writing subculture in the 1980s consisted of young people from all races, religions and classes. You had George Osborne’s (former Tory chancellor of the exchequer) brother mixing with hardcore criminals from London’s most violent housing estates. Maybe because of age, we weren’t concerned with making money – we got everything we needed for free!

We bunked the trains and stole food, clothes and paint. It was all about creativity and fun. The community spirit and breaking down of class barriers was also found in the Acid House scene in the UK. Both subcultures also had a fierce ‘do-it-yourself’, independent attitude (like punk) and we didn’t need to rely on old structures to create art and music.

I guess this is entrepreneurial too. What has happened to dance music now though is all about individual’s careers, which is a reflection of how our culture has ended up. It’s interesting to notice how graffiti and dance music are now dominated by the white, middle-classes and what used to be illegal youth subcultures have become career options for the very same type of people we used to hate!

How do you think being sent to prison for graffiti at the age of just 18 has impacted your outlook on life and your creativity?

At the time it was a nightmare and my parents wanted to send me to see a psychiatrist. But looking back, I don’t regret having those experiences. I’ve been through and seen a side of life that most people never see so at times I do feel slightly arrogant and special!

Seriously though, it taught me that no matter what hardships you encounter, you can get through it and things will get better. The detention centre was a ‘short, sharp, shock’ which failed in rehabilitating me but made me appreciate the value of self-discipline and order which we need to balance out the wildness and freedom that comes with making art and music.

Your ‘Resistance Through Rituals’ release is an incredible merging of light and dark sounds, which I think can also be found throughout much of your other work. Is this juxtaposition or blurring of light and darkness a deliberate theme you aim to portray through your music? You have also created a label called Darkness is Your Candle.

No, it’s not deliberate. It just ends up like that! I guess my musical philosophy reflects life, you have to have darkness to appreciate the light – both must exist. The term Darkness Is Your Candle comes from a Sufi mystic poet called Rumi.

I think what he means is that suffering makes you stronger. We all have to go through the darkness at some point and will become more enlightened and better people afterwards. It’s a great concept for my music which is usually pretty dark with moments of light.

Your earlier Bronx Dogs work sounds quite eclectic and vibrant when compared to the Padded Cell stuff, which seems darker, sharper, and more ominous. Is this something you would agree with? If so, has this evolution reflected any of your views on society and the changing formations of the spaces for cultural resistance and subversion?

The Bronx Dogs stuff was a refection of what was happening in London at the time. Late 90s London was a wild, hedonistic place to be and clubland was really vibrant. There was a really exciting music scene happening with deep house, beats and breaks and drum n bass. Maybe it was my age at the time too but that was when I was partying the most so our music was very upbeat and party friendly.

If you listen to our second Bronx Dogs LP (Enviro) you can see the beginnings of Padded Cell. We started to use electro and post punk samples and the sound is noticeably darker. It wasn’t really a reflection of society, just experimenting with darker sounds. It’s very rare these days to find spaces of cultural resistance and subversion as everything is much more controlled, monitored and commodified to make money.

Enviro by Bronx Dogs

How do you think the underground music scene in Britain has changed since the late 1980s and early 1990s?

There are so many more people making music now because it’s much easier to do so. Therefore, even if you’re really talented now, it’s much more difficult to get noticed even in the underground.

Whereas in the 80s and 90s the underground music was relatively easy to find and you could still make money from left-field music. A good thing is that there are many undergrounds music clubs now and more people seem to like an alternative to the mainstream dance music.

What motivated you to create the This Ain’t Chicago (The Underground Sound of UK House & Acid 1987-1991) compilation at the time you did in 2012?

I wanted to compile a selection of my personal faves and obscurities from that era – tracks I used to play that many people may not be aware of. No one had made a compilation of early UK house before so I thought there must be a demand for it and Strut Records were keen to release it. Most of the tracks I had bought at the time and still sound great.

What is your ideal type of event to play at?

Somewhere relatively small – a couple of hundred people, not too much security, a good system and somewhere where I can play a long set or ideally, all night. An open minded crowd who aren’t controlled by their phones would be ideal too.

Do you think social media can be a hindrance to creativity and how art is received?

I think it’s a necessary evil in this day and age but it’s how you use it that’s the problem. The main way people discover music or gigs is through social media now so it’s a good promotion tool. However, when promoters are looking at how many followers an artist has before they book them then that’s a problem.

It then becomes about who is best at marketing and pimping themselves rather than the quality of the work. Marketing is important but not the most important factor of a DJ/musician. There’s a saying that the least talented shout the loudest. You only have to look at Instagram to see how true that is.

It’s a shame that there is so much talent that goes unnoticed. Most label owners and promoters are sheep and too scared to take risks with obscure artists or maybe they just don’t even know what is good and what isn’t. There’s no excuse for incompetence!

Richard Sen plays at Jelly Legs in Brick Lane on 24th July

You have completed a masters at LSE in criminology and are considering doing a Ph.D. on graffiti culture in Britain in the 1980s. How have your creative endeavours and life experiences shaped the way you approach your studies? Have your studies impacted your creative process for your music? I suppose in some ways writing a Ph.D. thesis is a creative process in itself.

I decided to go back to studying because of my life experiences. Graffiti and Rave culture are part of what is called Cultural Criminology – where cultures and crime interact. So it was a natural process to start learning about motivations and environments related to my own experiences.

It was almost therapeutic. Writing definitely has similarities to art and music in the creative process. Taking ideas from what has come before and creating something new to form your own idea and piece of work. I’ve started using some Sociological and Criminological terms in some of the titles of my tracks

What are your plans for the future musically?

I have a single coming out on US label, Public Release early next year. Three tracks ranging from leftfield, dirty house, breakbeat and Detroit style electro. I’m also working on an album so watch this space. I don’t really have much of a gameplan other than to keep creating and see what happens…

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