Agent Audio: Ypsilanti label AGN7 runs a stealth operation dedicated to drum 'n' bass music
Scrolling through Bandcamp’s releases tagged “Ypsilanti,” it won’t be long before you find a mysterious label called AGN7 Audio that's releasing top-notch new drum 'n' bass songs and albums—along with some techno and dub—by artists from around the world.
Founded in 2015, AGN7—pronounced “Agent"—is one of the few modern labels to focus so deeply on d 'n' b, also known as jungle, which started in the early '90s U.K. rave scene and is characterized by fast, skittering breakbeats and a dystopian-funk vibe.
Despite garnering respect among hardcore junglists, there’s not much AGN7 information or media coverage out there, and the label tends to keep a low profile. So we reached out to AGN7 co-founder and current chief, Aaren Alseri—aka Ronin Selecta in his DJ days—to learn about the label's origin, influences, and future.
Q: Tell us a bit about AGN7 Audio, how it got its start, why you created it, and where the roots are?
A: AGN7 Audio is a passion project that was conceived by a friend and I. He was a more established drum 'n' bass producer [SPKTRM], and I was just a DJ for some time (when it was not as fashionable). We really just wanted to put out music that we liked and would want to play out (or, hear our friends play out). Between the both of us, our tastes and style ranged from dark and aggressive to deeper and mysterious sounds. I've dabbled in playing live music with other musicians, so more organic sounds appeal to me, particularly when it comes to drums. We definitely always wanted the artists to try something different, that they might not be able to on other labels.
Q: I’m interested to hear more about your origins in electronic music. When did you get into DJing and become a lover of these sorts of sounds?
A: I was always into music with heavy grooves and energy to it. I really came up on sounds from Miles Davis' fusion albums, from 1969-1972 (On the Corner is a favorite), and bands like early Funkadelic (Eddie Hazel era) and Fishbone. Some of Bill Laswell's dub experiments made their way into my listening rotation.
All credit goes to my late friend Greg Brummel (RIP) for everything electronic I'm into really. I would not be into any of this music if it were not for him. Greg dragged me to my first rave in 1996. It was a techno party called Sickness and Recovery and featured Plastikman, Jeff Mills, and John Aquaviva (and others I can't remember). I'm told I'm lucky that was my first. While I'd heard some of the music before then (1995) I hadn't understood the context in which people listened and celebrated it.
At some point, my friend Bill Stacy (who is a member of the Detroit Techno Militia) noticed my tastes strayed from techno and house music, and gravitated toward jungle / drum 'n' bass. He pointed me toward Mark "8EN" Moss (who's still a local legend in the Metro Detroit area today) and Brandon Watkins, who owned a music and clothing store on Washtenaw Ave. called Hanger 18. Brandon gave me my first five records, when his store closed up, to help start my collection. Those records did not match at all; they covered different styles of drum 'n' bass and I had to find other records that would mix with them in order to practice DJing. I think that's the reason why I'm open to many different styles and subgenres.
It was clear that I needed to find more music, which was hard to find at the time. You have to consider that this music could only be found on vinyl, there was no digital aside from CDs, and CD players weren't really functional as they are today for DJing. Brandon then invited me out to a club and introduced me to Todd Osborn, who was opening a shop in Ann Arbor called Dubplate Pressure. Todd is an established producer, with his own label, Rewind!, as well as having released on Rephlex and Ghostly International. Todd played, and to this day, still plays all kinds of music that I've never heard before. If you see an opportunity to hear him DJ, you should.
I would have to credit all of my friends mentioned (and others) for making me into a lover of these sounds. If anyone's to blame, it's them.
Q: I noticed on Bandcamp that the first release was in 2016. Has there been a lot of change over the years in the sorts of sounds you are looking for? And where do you think it’s moving toward in the future?
A: "Mantra/Vignette" was released the weekend my wife and I got married. It will always be my favorite release, it was a collaboration, and it captures what I feel the label is about.
There has been a change in the sounds I look for. I've always done the A&R, and now that I've been running the label by myself for a couple years, hopefully my taste is apparent in recent releases. I'm more interested in the sounds that originally attracted me to this style of music. I've been an enthusiast and DJ for about 25 years now, and that hasn't changed. I really like to sign music that I can play with my older records and music collection. Indigo Virus' releases, for example, captures a feeling of nostalgia that I hope the listener can feel. I want to expand the catalog to include material that explores different tempos and can allow DJs to venture into different terrains and emotions when telling their stories in a set.
Q: I really like how you say that you look for electronic music that you can play with older records. It seems like you have an appreciation for blending new sounds with older sounds. Are there certain aspects of sound that you don’t think older music has and are there certain aspects that you don’t think newer music can have?
A: I'm not so sure that's the way I would want to look at it. At one point, when I was DJing quite frequently, I was playing music that was very accessible, or dancefloor friendly. I cringe when I hear those tunes now. They're only relevant, in my opinion, for the period of time in which they were released. I'm sure my opinion will change, it often does.
The music to me that's timeless doesn't follow any trends or flavor of the week. It could have been written 30 years ago, or last week. To me, that IS the sound.
Q: It’s cool that you seem to have such a wide knowledge of music and seem to constantly be discovering new sounds. Can you share a bit about your process of discovering new music?
A: I don't think I have a wide knowledge of music but I'm lucky to know some who do.
What I enjoy doing lately, is checking out music that artists I admire are listening to. Sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud make that possible. Any artist you like, you'll probably like what has influenced them. I wouldn't bother with "suggestions" on apps. It takes away from the excitement one can feel for stumbling upon something on their own.
Q: How do you go about discovering new talent? Do you stick to mostly artists in the area, or are you interested in going global?
A: There's not really any process. I played a weekly three-hour internet radio show on a station called Bassdrive for about 10 years or so. That required a lot of searching for new music, and I met some great artists through that site—Marc from Ornette Hawkins, for example, which is an amazing jazz group which I'm proud to have released on vinyl. Since then, if there's an artist whose work I really like, whose sound is something that I feel would add to AGN7's overall sound, I'll reach out and see if they'd like to work on a project for the label. Rainforest is an artist whose beats and production I was really into and reached out to, for the "Firefly Sanctuary" release. Sometimes, artists reach out to me. Each release has been different. I spend a bit of time on Soundcloud.
I've only signed one artist from the Detroit area, my friend, Beatnok—and my friend Brijawi used to stay in Grand Rapids but now resides in California. I've known Cloak & Dagger since he attended University of Michigan, early 2000s. Submorphics and I both attended Eastern [Michigan University], and used to do a small night at the Necto. The other artists on the label are from other parts of the country or from around the world: Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Croatia, Romania, France, Germany, U.K., etc. I hope I get to work with more artists from other countries!
I'm lucky to be connected to people this talented, and even luckier that they put up with me! I feel fortunate, as they have all been really cool and linked me with other artists who have helped the label in many ways other than music. For example, from DJing locally in the Detroit area, I met Josh Crilley (Kingship Creative), who had done work for the Konkrete Jungle Detroit project I did some work on. Josh designed the AGN7 logo. I played on Bassdrive with an artist (Temulent) who linked me to KHOMATECH, who has since done all of the label's graphics design and artwork with the exception of the Skeleton Dialogues release [by Cloak & Dagger]. When working on releasing music from Indidjinous, he linked me with Bob Macc, from Subvert Central, who I always go to for mastering, and he's also been an artist I've followed and guru I've looked up to for a while. SPKTRM is the one who connected AGN7 with D-Struct, Soul Intent, and Acid Lab, who have all contributed to the foundation of strong releases. Heatwave is responsible for bringing Dreadmaul and Itti on. I could go on, as all of the artists AGN7 has released make the label what it is.
Q: What’s next for AGN7?
A: Future/upcoming releases on AGN7: an EP by artist Data General, a drummer/producer from New York; a drumfunk release by Acid Lab called Ancient Tribes; and for early 2023, a remix album of Heatwave's Echoes, featuring remixes by some new artists to the label.
Katy Trame is a student, poet, public library associate for Pulp, and music writer for The Michigan Daily.