Toddla T comes into a room with the movement and energy of Russell Brand, hair akimbo, limbs constantly in motion. The 26-year-old Sheffield native producer — whose real name is Thomas Bell — also talks in a similarly manic, slang-riddled accent. In town to perform at Dim Mak Studios tonight, he regrets missing Sunday's show at the Hollywood Bowl because he was “knackered” after his long flight from England, he imparts over lunch in Culver City.
Bell's just-released second album Watch Me Dance (Ninja Tune) takes an influence from both grime and Jamaican dancehall, and from his “wicked clever” pops, who got him into electronic music in the first place. A retired college computer science lecturer, he's into acts like Kraftwerk, LCD Soundsystem, and Hot Chip. Seeing as his son was raised on east coast hip hop, dad eventually helped pull him toward his own taste. “He's proper smart,” Bell reiterates.
Bell is no dumbbell himself. With his giant shades, t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and quick wit, it's tempting to peg him as a bratty, overgrown club kid. But he's actually interested in blazing an alternate path. Following the success of his 2009 debut, Skanky Skanky, he sought to make less of a club album with Watch Me Dance. “Though it's still got club sonic in it, ya know w' I mean?”
Having moved from Sheffield and set up at a studio in West London, he had access to bigger names (the title track features British rapper Roots Manuva), but he also sought to incorporate a “tinge” of reggae and dancehall into his music, for which he headed to Jamaica. Five times, actually, three of which were recording in spaces like Shaggy's Big Yard studios in Kingston, and visiting spots like Bob Marley's Tuff Gong headquarters. “Jamaica's got, like, the most studios per capita in the world,” Bell says.
His musical knowledge runs deep, and he's quite thoughtful. Over iced coffee he explains how grime changed his life — the first strictly-British incarnation of rap, he calls it — and how he's against the “rock mentality” that has pervaded club music, particularly in dubstep. He feels so strongly about this issue that he's been known to stop the music when he sees kids moshing. He doesn't want anyone to get roughed up, he says, particularly women.
He hosts a monthly show on BBC1, and recently made an appearance on Tim Westwood's program, who's known for his unflinching interviews with big celebrities. (Not long ago he got Snoop to diss Dr. Dre.)
“What does this song mean?” Westwood asked Bell at one point, referencing a Watch Me Dance cut.
“I don't know, I just made it,” Bell answered.
“More change for you kid,” Westwood fired back, setting off one of those explosion sound effects.
Truth be told, the idea that Bell is making disposable music for quick bank seems to be the opposite of his M.O., but Westwood's jokes rubbed Bell the right way. “He's always takin' the piss,” he says. “Havin' a laugh.” In person, Bell himself has a similar effect.