Armed with laptops, drum kits, soul samples and an ear for groove, UK duo Snakehips make their way to the Grog Shop’s intimate setting for their visit to Cleveland. With a lush, borderless soundscape of dance music, the London-based pair of Ollie Lee and James Carter are favs of internet two-steppers around the globe.
Lee and Carter met-cute in the summer of 2012; after chatting at a Hong Kong sake bar and making plans to hang out, they both bailed in a recognizably millennial “we should def get lunch together soon”-esque faux promise. But fate insisted, and they ended up sitting next to one another on a flight shortly thereafter to Los Angeles. They recognized their complementary, intertwining music tastes and promised to find studio time together back in London.
The result? Snakehips — the name inspired by an unfortunate dance move that Lee would bust out in slightly too-tight Levis. The duo splashed onto the scene in 2013 with a pair of HypeMachine-topping remix releases: a warm, buttery disco-funk mix of English songstress Banks’ “Warm Water” (sitting pretty at 10 million Soundcloud spins) and a shimmering, groovy bootleg of UK electronic act Bondax’s “Gold” (13 million).
Lee — who, on the phone, comes off as casual and easygoing as his music might suggest — can’t quite put a finger on any sort of criteria that the duo uses for choosing their songs to remix, or who they’re going to work with. It’s worth noting that remixing emerging or underground artists is certainly not necessarily the quickest or easiest way to create an audience; Snakehips took an approach guided far less by fame-seeking instincts than by a deeply intuitive, collaborative process informed by their own good taste.
Lee remembers hearing the silky vocals of Banks’ painfully mellow tune and just itching to layer some danceable drums beneath it.
“I’d hear something and just think, ‘Yo, this could work...in a different way,” he says, kind of matter-of-factly. He brings the duo to the Grog Shop on June 29. “And it might be kind of cool. We hear something, and we just have an idea to change it and do something of our own.”
Through this intuitive approach, Snakehips kept making hits, cranking out vibey, lauded flips of Wild Belle, pre-Starboy Weeknd and Raury. Just like "Warm Water" and "Gold," their remixes often outshone the original versions.
Lee grew up playing blues and jazz on the guitar and saxophone but was keenly attuned to hip-hop. He nods to early UK rap as a large influence and has cited the Wu Tang Clan as a group he listens to religiously.
But at its core, Snakehips is dance music, and their sound has an undeniable grounding in the musical underpinnings of UK Garage — which, for the record, is pronounced something like GARE-ridge. UK Garage is a style of mid-to-late-'90s, R&B-tinged dance music with English origins; the genre sprung out of soulful, sped-up house music, relying on 130 bpm, chopped vocals samples over shuffling high-hats and groovy bass. For a glorious heyday hinging around the British turn-of-the-millennium (cue montage of Craig David, Tony Blair, and a fresh-faced David Beckham), UK Garage was king. The genre has since sprouted plenty of offshoots that thrive today, from dubstep to UK Funky to UK grime.
With the early 2010s emergence of Soundcloud and the proliferation of digital music software, Lee found his way into a niche of producers with a strong influence from the soulful past but an eye towards an avant-garde future. He frequently referenced Scottish producer, eventual Kanye collaborator and G.O.O.D. Music signee Hudson Mohawke as a primary influence, along with Knxledge, Ta-Ku and Elaquent.
“There’s a cool scene of Dilla-inspired, Soundcloud stuff — it was really old school, but futuristic at the same time,” says Lee. “They really flexing with their production skills, but it still sounded classic. That really influenced my stuff.”
Snakehips quickly acquired a global fanbase through their viral, online remixes, which quickly gave way to their own production as they nabbed, once again, a hand-picked assortment of collaborators. Each counterpart brought distinctive vocal instruments, from Sinead Harnett on the soaring “Days With You” and earworm “No Other Way” to Tory Lanez on the floral poolside jam, “Dimelo.”
Just like with selecting tracks to remix, the process for finding collaborators is instinctive. “It just starts with an idea, a beat, and we’d be able to hear someone’s voice on it,” Lee details, “We’re like, ‘Imagine if Tinashe were singing this,’ or, ‘Man, we should get Anderson [.Paak] on this.’ It just kind of becomes apparent while you’re making something that it would work really well for a certain person. Whatever’s in the beat just makes you hear them in your head.”
In the summer of 2015, they cooked up a simmering, anthemic cut, one that they couldn’t help but imagine pairing with the contrasting kooky stylings of Chance the Rapper and the rich, dreamy vocals of singer Tinashe. The two American artists agreed, hopped on verses, and together dropped “All My Friends,” an ode to regret and shitty nights out. The track vaulted Snakehips into the mainstream, charting in dozens of countries and taking over clubs across Europe.
Things have been looking up since — headlining appearances at festivals around the globe (Coachella, Electric Forest, Lollapalooza), world tours and an even larger pool of marquee collaborations. In the last year, they’ve tapped southern Californian it-kids Anderson.Paak and Syd, ex-1D-er Zayn, and Danish hitmaker MØ for loosie releases. Earlier this month, they dropped “Right Now,” a testament to their versatility and ear for finding new ways to nod heads. Atlanta crooner Elhae, recent Grog guest D.R.A.M., and enigmatic vocalist H.E.R. dance over an almost Metro Boomin-esque beat in knocking, trappy shades of blue.
“We keep dropping things, and each track is a different style,” Lee says, referring to their slough of scattered releases ahead of this tour, “I just like the idea of making whatever the fuck we feel like making. And the people that get it, get it.”
There will be plenty of folks getting it at the Grog. Get there early to sidle up to the sounds of Fool’s Gold signee Promnite, the L.A.-based trap producer who opens for these utterly chill and musically deft Brits.
Snakehips, Promnite, DJ Corey Grand, 9 p.m. Thursday, June 29, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-31-5588. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, grogshop.gs.