In 2012, when the album R.I.P. was announced, I freaked out. I didn’t know the artist personally but his strange, sometimes unhealthy universe was so familiar to me that I feared I had lost someone close to me. I felt I understood his cryptic language just by immersing myself in his productions. Thankfully, he hadn’t gone anywhere. In life as in his work, the British producer likes to play with our nerves; his creations disseminate a sound and an aesthetic riven with anguish. This was his third album, and what he has achieved since then seems as confusing and – at the same time – as phenomenal as ever. Like any good modern artist, his work opens up new fields of possibility.
His contribution to electro music might never have existed had the gods of sport not become involved. Darren Cunningham was destined for professional football. Born in 1979 in the town of Wolverhampton, he signed a contract with West Bromwich Albion until a nasty injury forced him to give up a promising career. A fan of Detroit techno, especially masters like Derrick May, Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson, Cunningham consoled himself with DJ sets at student parties. When a friend who had some mini recording equipment in his room (which he later sold to Cunningham for the modest sum of £200) introduced him to production, his life changed and a career creating music was born.
Thanks to a scholarship from the English Professional Football Association for injured players, he moved to London, where he benefited from a study programme and courses in recording. Rather than pay his tuition fees however, he bought synthesizers and threw himself fully into producing without a metronome. Immersed in the club music of the capital, his new life started under the name Actress. He created the label Werkdiscs (named after a party he hosted with friends) and released his first album Hazyville on it in 2008. Whilst remaining at the head of this independent label, which would go on to become influential for English bass music, he would change who he released music with, releasing Splazsh and the famous R.I.P. on Damon Albarn’s label, whom he accompanied to Congo for his project Kinshasa One Two.
In 2018, through his collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra for the album LAGEOS, his approach began to embrace the world of classical music. Whilst each side remains true to what they are, the most striking result has been some reimaginings of his pieces that render them almost unrecognisable – at once softer and more melodic thanks to the presence of acoustic instruments. It was as if Cunningham had invited an orchestra to work in a Detroit cellar and they all had a ball.
Whether it’s ambient that he gets his hands on, or industrial techno, or ventures onto the dancefloor with vicious house or electrofunk, getting pop-y and arty, or returning to bass music, Cunningham never makes it easy – he gives you no ramps for the stairs that he forces you to run down. For those who are still hesitating, this playlist is an excellent way to discover his work. The numerous remixes he has made seem as much a game of deconstruction of the originals, as exercises in increasing their dark potential, turning them into objects from outer space that wander around without light in the night’s sky. Football said R.I.P. to one of its hopefuls, but his transfer to music put him straight into electro’s Champions League.