Four years ago, Disclosure were a little-known brotherly duo making tracks in their parents’ converted attic in Surrey, U.K. Today, their debut album is responsible for launching careers, revitalizing legends and affecting a sea change in the sound of pop, soul and dance music across the globe.
I wonder what it felt like at the moment Disclosure realized they’d become a global success?
The first time I ever read about Disclosure was a piece that ran on Spin in 2012 about the song “Latch,” and in those salad days, the pair couldn’t even get a Wikipedia page. They told journalist Philip Sherburne, “The other day, we were going to put a tweet up saying, ‘Can someone please make us a Wikipedia page?’ Someone out there, please make us a Wikipedia page, because we don’t know how. Put that in.” Intriguing, then, that despite their successes, their Wikipedia page hasn’t been (as of this writing) updated much since 2013.
In a short four years, 24-year-old Guy Lawrence and his brother, 20-year-old Howard, have transitioned from young musicians learning how to craft the dance music they loved to one of the most well-known artist / production groups on the planet. More blogged about than the long-awaited release from their much-hyped forefathers Daft Punk (who ranked #4 in 2013), Disclosure’s debut album Settle was released (in May of 2013) to massive critical acclaim.
The album has yielded six well-received and popular singles. Of those, the aforementioned “Latch” featuring Sam Smith (the song which launched his career), “F For You” and “White Noise” featuring AlunaGeorge have become modern dance music anthems that successfully crossed over into both R&B and pop music. Disclosure have performed live in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, completing multiple sold-out U.S., Australian and European headlining and support tours. On top of their own chart successes, the duo’s rapid success has led them to become high-level remixers and producers for other artists. They’ve teamed up with their musical heroes like British singer Jamie Woon and super-producer Nile Rodgers. The duo has remixed songs for Usher and Jessie Ware, recorded new material with Q-Tip and Bishop Nehru, and are rumored to be working with Ellie Goulding, Madonna and Britney Spears.
But of all the career-altering coups the brothers Lawrence have publicly managed thus far, their studied, infectious beats brought them headlong into an ongoing studio relationship with legendary Queen of Hip Hop, Mary J. Blige. Disclosure produced and wrote a number of songs that appear on Mary’s just-released, deeply personal collection of ballads and groove invectives entitled The London Sessions. The songs “Right Now” and “Follow” recast Ms. Blige in the role of modern house music diva, part CeCe Penniston and part Inner Life’s Jocelyn Brown, unearthing an even greater might in her already-powerful vocal range.
Moving to London for the making of the album, word of Ms. Blige’s newfound fondness for working with Disclosure attracted production and songwriting companions that represent the cream of the U.K.’s current pop soul movement. Along with Howard and Guy, the album features work with Disclosure friends and collaborators Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith (to whom Ms. Blige contributed a vocal on “Stay With Me” earlier this year), producers Sam Romans, Naughty Boy and an appearance from Emeli Sandé. Producer/songwriter Rodney Jerkins—Ms. Blige’s long-time producer and collaborator and a legend in his own right—came along in an advisory capacity. “He has been in my life as a producer for as long as I can remember,” Ms. Blige recently told Fader. “It was beautiful to have him steer it so it doesn’t look like, ‘What is Mary doing?’ you know.”
In her most recent interview with i-D, Ms. Blige explains how she came to work with the band. “I discovered Disclosure on Vevo. Me and my husband, who’s my manager, were amazed that these two young British kids had created something that sounded like the music from the 80s that we listened to as children: Martha Wash, CeCe Peniston, Inner City. Wow. When I heard ‘Latch’, it made me feel so nostalgic. I just had to sing a song like that.”
When you recognize that The London Sessions project was borne entirely out of Disclosure’s collaboration with Ms. Blige on a reworking of “F For You” that she approached the band about herself, you can begin to sense the power behind Settle and how its success has brought Disclosure to the top of the short list of sought-after collaborators.
“We said, ‘Sure, whatever you want,’” Howard told Billboard regarding Mary’s remix to “F For You” in March 2014. “She wanted to sing a new verse, so she sent us hundreds of vocals she thought might work. We sifted through them and had a great time.”
So what exactly is it about this duo’s oeuvre that is keeping this 2013 Mercury Prize-nominated album so deeply influential and relevant—a record which, by the industry’s standards, should have already run its course? How does their music stand up to or fit in with the music that influenced it, and how has it allowed them to skip the line ahead of their contemporaries?
Hailed nearly on the very cusp of their arrival as “the saviours of U.K. dance music,” Disclosure has publicly professed no agenda in creating their songs other than to simply bring the art of songwriting back into dance music—sonically hypnotic, soul-drenched vocals over house, garage, 2-step and U.K. funky breaks. Howard describes Disclosure’s songs as “pop-structured songs in the style of house music and garage.”
As much as it’s about the music itself, a degree of their popularity stems from the band’s personal story. The mere idea of two brothers who, in 2010, barely knew anything about the technology they were using going on to become two of the world’s most sought-after producers is a championship ring story for the ages. The pair went from noodling about and playing in the odd indie rock band to discovering U.K. bass; from posting indie electro tracks on MySpace all the way to pop, R&B and EDM superstardom more quickly than most people graduate college.
With the cultural success of Settle rising parallel with its sales and chart accolades, this perhaps unlikely duo from Surrey reignited an abandoned movement. By repartitioning the sound of classic house music into pop music—classic song structures, rhythms and melodies—the pair are now receiving primary credit for sparking another wave in U.K. house music, garage and R&B.
Back To Mine
When indie imprint Moshi Moshi released Disclosure’s first single, “Offline Dexterity” / “Street Light Chronicle” in 2010, the house music, garage and 2-step scenes seemed to have disappeared into the U.K. underground. Worldwide audiences had embraced the now-maleficent dubstep and dismissed nearly everything else temporarily due to dubstep’s immense fandom. By 2012, the pair had evolved considerably and released The Face EP. In these early releases, the blueprint for what would end up on Settle can be heard.
Attribute, then, the structural integrity of their songs to the fact that Disclosure trained first as musicians rather than as DJs or producers. From a musical family and upbringing, Guy has been playing drums and guitar since he was three, while Howard plays bass and piano. Though brothers, the two weren’t socially or musically close until they discovered their mutual love of the U.K. bass scene—they credit Burial’s “Untrue” and Joy Orbison’s “Hyph Mngo” as being the catalysts in their decision to make dance tracks.
Though neither of them had ever DJ’ed prior to their music gaining popularity, they approached their musical studies the way a DJ does, listening and consuming everything that impressed them. If you’re a DJ, dance music fan or a performer yourself, then perhaps you already get this part: dance music makers and fans, including Guy and Howard, are self-proclaimed music nerds who obsessively listen to lots of different musical styles to figure out how to craft their sound. They trained themselves musically as athletes do, stripping down the essentials of what they considered to be their great influences and pulling pieces from each in very subtle, nuanced ways.
As a point of reference, here is a rough, comment-free rundown of the many influences Guy and Howard have collectively and individually named across multiple interviews:
Genesis • Rush • Kate Bush • Marvin Gaye • Stevie Wonder • Michael Jackson • Juan Atkins • Derrick May • J Dilla • Slum Village • Gang Starr • Busta Rhymes • A Tribe Called Quest • Beach Boys • Beyonce • Peter Gabriel • Seal • D’Angelo • Joy Orbison • Matt Hales/Aqualung • James Blake • Burial • Mount Kimbie • Zed Bias
Guy and Howard both seem to agree that the best album of all time is D’Angelo’s Voodoo. Arguably, it’s the pair’s encyclopedic knowledge and study of such a wide inter-generational selection of artists that they have in common with their EDM contemporaries who didn’t start as musicians. “We wanted to know where those guys who were playing modern house music got their sound from and what their influences were, and now their influences have sort of become our influences,” Guy told Pigeons & Planes in 2013.
“Old Detroit techno, old Detroit house, old Chicago house, that’s what it all leads back to. If you get into dance music, you always end up there—listening to old house music.”
Disclosure’s signature sound seems to have come about by sticking with the winners in their studious pursuits. In their quest to build unforgettable dance music, Disclosure analyzed carefully and improved upon what they heard. The way they experimented with disparate sounds—sampling Eric Thomas’ “Rope A Dope” for “When A Fire Starts to Burn” or that Slum Village/J-88/J Dilla snippet on “Grab Her”—manifested songs with an elastic, hypnotic quality. As such, the duo’s ability to absorb texture and feel from their influences without completely mimicking or outright stealing from them can be viewed as accidental.
Great pop songs can soar even without orchestration—a thread running through nearly all the material on Settle. Because Disclosure were thinking about song structure as much as tempo and rhythm, nearly every song on Settle is a singalong in its own way. Though a lot of studio work went into the development of what we hear, most of these songs would be impactful performed bereft of studio trickery. Hearing “Voices” featuring Sasha Keable, it’s not a stretch to imagine all the electronics stripped away, Stevie Wonder playing the melody line on his Fender Rhodes keyboard and harmonizing with the bridge, “I try to resist but you caught me.”
Taken in context of Disclosure’s current status, Settle is a greatest hits album, a collection of their singles that flow together perfectly or stand on their own. For their part, the band have long stated that they simply fell into a pattern of working on individual songs rather than thinking about how the songs would come together as a complete project. What resulted is a body of original work that challenges creators and listeners to revisit classic sounds they might have otherwise dismissed as parental and cliché.
In the midst of all the high-minded analysis, though, let’s not forget: Settle is dance music. It’s an album full of relentless, infectious tunes that get asses out of chairs and keep a party jumping.
Even though Disclosure enjoy wearing their influences out front instead of trying to bury them in the mix, the band have repeatedly faced inaccurate comparisons from some members of the press. Such correlations tended to lean on current popular styles rather than allowing Disclosure the freedom to be in the lane they’ve paved. Some writers got it right away, calling them “the second coming of MJ Cole and Artful Dodger” on the strength of their remixes for Artful Dodger‘s “Please Don’t Turn Me On” and “Running” for Jessie Ware. But later, after they began to enjoy greater success, their music was lazily compared to EDM artists like David Guetta and Avicii by the mainstream press. In Rolling Stone, the pair dismissed these comparisons. “We’re not part of that scene at all,” said Guy. “We like a bit of class in our music.”
Guy’s remarks may seem on the surface a tad defensive, as if they’re intentionally being snobbish by affixing their work to different standards than modern EDM. But it’s merely an affectation of youthful bravado reflective of their accomplishments. This tongue-in-cheek, “shots fired” way of managing lazy media comparisons (and threats by disgruntled former collaborators to leak their work together) certainly doesn’t appear to have hurt them or their career in any real way.
Unlike some successful contemporaries—the wobbly, barren electronic dance pop kitsch of Calvin Harris and Zedd for example—Howard and Guy are clearly making little effort as a group to intentionally appeal to EDM or pop music fans. It’s simply happening. So far, their embrace from the fans of EDM and modern pop music doesn’t appear to have changed Disclosure’s sound at all. Instead, Settle and its creators’ popularity created a paradigm shift. Culture mavens and producers started revisiting what drew Disclosure to the sounds and styles their success has helped to resuscitate. Have a listen to brand new songs from producers Breach (featuring Kelis on vocal) and Gorgon City (featuring Jennifer Hudson on vocal), two of many current and forthcoming examples that are entirely reflective both of Settle’s influence and the generation that gave house music its very name.
Avoiding the allure of becoming mere dilettantes, Disclosure’s heady risk, to remain steadfast rather than to follow the latest trends, makes the songs on Settle unendingly appealing: songwriting influenced from pop and soul greats in the tradition of classic house music; rhythms and production quality drawn from house, garage and 2-step greats. And crucially, the engineering/compression of Disclosure’s tracks give it contemporary thump and weight that some untouched masters from the golden era may be missing.
Based on the ongoing success of Settle and the critical acclaim of their work with Mary J. Blige, perhaps the U.S. is now ready to embrace the renaissance in house music and garage that will separate it from pop EDM, the same modern wave the U.K. has been embracing since 2011.
As Disclosure move into recording their next song cycle, the global music community are finally catching up with things Disclosure figured out years ago. Crossing a wide breadth of genres, there’s as much for producers to learn from how Disclosure approaches songcraft as the pair had to learn in getting themselves to this point. It is as classy of a place as one can aspire to for popular musicians, songwriters, performers and producers.
For my part, I’m not ashamed in the least that I’m listening to and singing along with Settle all the way through for the tenth time in a row while writing this article. Just like the other times I’ve done it, I’m still not bored.