Their work with the likes of Lily Allen, Nicole Scherzinger, Olly Murs, Professor Green and Shakira has seen them contribute to over 30 million record sales, three UK #1 hits and a further eleven international chart-toppers. Meet the production team of Future Cut – Tunde Babalola and Darren Lewis – two men whose musical journey has taken them from kings of the underground drum ‘n’ bass scene to curators of some of the pop world’s biggest hits. “The general public don’t know who we are,” says Lewis. “But they’ve definitely heard us.”
As promoters on Manchester’s drum ‘n’ bass community of the mid-nineties, it was inevitable that that the duo would meet. After Lewis distributed some flyers for one of Babalola’s nights, his new friend suggested that he could join him in the studio to work on some music together. ““That’s what he used to say to everyone to get them to do him favours,” smiles Lewis. “But he didn’t count on me turning up at the studio.”
Soon, this casual arrangement turned into something more substantial. Babalola had been working on his own production for the previous two years, but never had found a regular collaborator. “It was a really exciting time because we had all these dreams and ambitions,” he grins at the memory. “Even though I loved drum ‘n’ bass and that was my passion, I wanted to do other music too. A lot of the time, all people wanted to do was to make a tune to put on a white label and play in a club. Darren wanted to work for Metalheadz and produce Michael Jackson.”
The first two Future Cut productions, Fresh Step’ and ‘The Chase’, were signed by Clayton Hines at Renegade Records in 1998 and sold a credible 1700 copies. The follow-up didn’t come easy. Over the course of the next four months, the duo did whatever they could to fund their studio work – DJing, programming and remixing backed by a discount diet of micro noodles and Cresta lemonade – before they hit upon their first classic with ‘Whiplash’. Released on Renegade Hardware, ‘Whiplash’ became infamous when Andy C rewound the track four times at London’s Movement at Bar Rumba, despite the track contradicting the techy route that the genre was heading towards. As Babalola emphasises, “We’ve always thought that if everyone else is going left and we head right, we’ll be onto something. We’ve always had success doing that.”
Future Cut ran with that initial moment of success and embarked upon the touring life of superstar DJs. It took them to Iceland, Puerto Rico, Transylvania and beyond. They soundtracked the millennium in France and inadvertently got caught up in a terrifying FBI raid in New Orleans. “It was wild from the second you got off the plane. There was a lot of partying and a lot of getting up to no good, as you’d expect from two young DJs,” states Lewis with a mischievous expression. Babalola concurs: “I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. If I was still doing it, I’d probably look twenty years older even if I had made it to 2012. Sometimes I think I could just dust off those headphones one more time…”
Back in the relative sanity of Manchester, Future Cut’s ambitions turned towards making an album which made the discovery of the talented young vocalist Jenna G somewhat fortuitous. Together they created the cult hit ‘Midnight’. Played as the closing track at a DJ set at The End, and released on their own label, ‘Midnight’ was soon picked up by Marcus Intalex and Fabio and went on to sell 15,000 copies. No mean achievement considering that Future Cut had refused Radio 1’s request for a radio edit. “We said no, it is what it is,” says Lewis, part exasperated by his prior naivety, part satisfied with the strength of his convictions.
Nonetheless, ‘Midnight’ sparked Un-Cut, a band project uniting Future Cut on a full-time basis with Jenna G. After a triumphant, Normski-introduced gig at London’s Cargo, Un-Cut inked a recording deal with Warner Bros. Records. The freedom afforded to them was a blessing in disguise, according to Lewis: “Our delusions of grandeur were out of control. So we starting hiring orchestras and huge studios; all the stereotypical things you’d do if with all these funds and no-one saying no. The plus side was that we learned how to make records. We just sat there and absorbed everything; how to record on tape, how to relate to musicians and how to mix. That turned us from being beat makers to record producers.”
While the finished album, ‘The Un-Calculated Some’, earned positive reviews for its fearless hybrid of genres, it failed to make much of an impact commercially. “We didn’t want to be pop stars, we just wanted to make tunes,” admits Babalola in hindsight. With Un-Cut over, and drum ‘n’ bass evolving in their absence, what would be their next step? Production work for Conner Reeves aroused their interest in exploring other genres and also helped to refine their own songwriting talents, but the future was uncertain. And then they were introduced to a young singer-songwriter by the name of Lily Allen.
“It was one of those brilliant stories!” exclaims Lewis. “She was unsigned, so we got together in a basement studio in Manchester. The first song we wrote together was ‘Smile’ and the other hits we did soon after. We set Lily up with a MySpace. She took the concept and ran with it, and the rest is history.” Future Cut produced and co-wrote half of her 3-million selling debut album ‘Alright, Still’ and the album’s biggest two hits ‘Smile’ and ‘LDN’.
Eager to capitalise on their moment in the spotlight, Future Cut’s new priority was to make progress in America and they soon did exactly that, landing high profile production work for the likes of Nicole Scherzinger, Shakira and Melanie Fiona. They also established their own recording studio in London which allowed them to helm a consistent stream of hits for Wretch 32, Professor Green, Devlin and Dizzee Rascal. As Lewis says, still almost surprised, “We never thought we were part of the UK hip hop scene, but we went to Tinie Tempah’s launch party and realised that half of the artists there we’d worked with.”
Perhaps their poppiest project to date has been their work with Olly Murs. After delivering the first two singles from his debut album, ‘Please Don’t Let Me Go’ (#1) and ‘Thinking Of Me’ (#4) in less than a week, they also worked on ‘Dance With Me Tonight’, a #1 single taken from his second album ‘In Case You Didn’t Know Me’. Not that Babalola believes that such a project pushes Future Cut away from their roots: “From the poppiest to the most avant-garde things that we do, I can still see where we’ve come from – it’s about amplifying what the artist has to say, so you’re just putting on a different pair of shoes. Olly’s appeal is that people like a great pop record delivered by someone who’s personable and fun.”
2011 saw Future Cut launch their own production company by signing electronically-based neo-noir duo Paper Crows, and they’ve also embarked upon a label deal with Warner Bros. Records in which they’re responsible for the A&R (and indeed the production and much of the writing of the music) for boisterous girl group Stooshe who rocketed to #5 with their first full single ‘Love Me’. “We’ve been using all of the experience that we’ve built up,” explains Lewis. “We’ve always been very hands on with the artist’s career development. We’ve never been scared of giving marketing ideas, or having ideas for the live plan. This has been our first official capacity in which we can express all those ideas and see them through.”
Adept at adapting to all manner of genres, Future Cut agree that the key to their success is to be able to maximise an artist’s potential while allowing them to maintain their individuality. “I think the reason people come back to us is that they know we can take glimmers of hope and make stars of people,” concludes Lewis. “We’ve been really consistent with that.”